This wonderful 1958 video, in addition making me wish there was a game that used that art style, reminded me of the idea of “futures lost” within gaming. A few years ago I wrote an article for The Escapist that grazed that issue, without ever capturing it. Consequently I was inspired to update and modify the piece for RPS. Read on, and then perhaps share some of your own thoughts on the subjects of both the games that educated you, and the games that gave you hopes for the future.
Ever since my dreamy childhood spent being raised by the family 8-bit in pixel-land, I’ve been consuming electronic entertainment. Once I did it just for the thrill, but now I have other motivations too. These days, I figure an educated games journalist is a better games journalist, and what better education than playing anything and everything, all day, every day for decades at a stretch?
Yet not all games carry equal weight. Some, like that influential lecturer or inspiring teacher, have had a disproportionate effect on the whole. There are a few games that stand out as bright psychic landmarks in my personal history, the high-water marks of my education. While there are too many to mention in an article as brief as this, there are three in particular which I want to talk about, because they have direct relevance to the opinions I have about games today, usually because they seemed to point a way forward, or map out the possibilities for our experience of games in the future. They’re not even the three games are necessarily the most important to me (because those would likely be Quake III, Eve Online and Speedball 2) but they’re an interesting three examples in terms of thinking about why I end up writing the things I write today. If you’re a developer whose game I am reviewing, then it likely that it will be these rudiments, these embryonic versions of our modern gaming archetypes, that I will, however unconsciously, end up comparing your game against.
Anyway, each of these games taught me something. Significantly, they usually taught me that looking forward is more important the looking back. Sure, I’m going to talk about how great and important these old games were, but what I want you to take from it is that old games have something to teach us about where the future may lie. I am not one of those navel-gazing retro-heads who pines for lost pleasures of yore. I do not think the golden age of gaming lies in the past. In fact, I pine for the future I was promised by that past. And here’s why.
First: Midwinter II on the Atari ST, as released in 1991. (I played the original after the sequel.) The 16-bit spy game blew apart my sense of what games could be and, at the same time, imbued me with a startling sense of where they might be going. Midwinter seemed to contain a fragment of future games, something that I recognized for the first time as a youth. Sure, Elite had been a stunning vision of open-ended play in previous years, but suddenly, right here, was a palpable world I could explore. I got hold of vehicles, interacted with people. I was inside something recognizable. It was my first taste of a kind of game in which the act of moving, through travel and exploration, was central to the experience. It pointed to magical possibilities of creating worlds I might escape to. Before then games had been flattened, conceptual, abstract: Defender, Smash TV, Gauntlet, Tempest. Now they were something else entirely.
Midwinter had taught me that one of the futures for games would be about freedom. That future wouldn’t just make toys for us to play with, instead it would deliver something more akin to places for us to visit, as well as challenges in those places for us to overcome. My personal love of games would grow because of the way these places captured my imagination. I went on to identify in my own mind the descendants of Midwinter – not the direct genealogies of what inspired who, but the games from which I personally can extrude this special kind of experience. Hardwar and Operation Flashpoint, Outcast and System Shock, Stalker and Thief 3, they all act as imperfect examples of what I’ve been looking for since Midwinter. None of these games have quite managed to create the future that they all promised. But perhaps we’re getting there. Perhaps not. I had sort of expected a mega-Midwinter generation of games to have delivered us dozens of wonderful open ended worlds, and instead I find myself with just a handful: a San Andreas here, a Boiling Point there.
Having gone back and played Midwinter, I realize that it’s tough, if not impossible, to take these significant games out of time. This is especially true of my second game. In the annals of gaming history Hired Guns is little more than a moderately pretentious footnote, but to me it represents the moment in which the future of multiplayer gaming became a cooperative, shared experience, rather than a head-on competitive exercise. It was the game that taught me that playing with somebody didn’t mean having to batter them into unconsciousness on the Speedball court, but could instead mean working with them to complete a grand quest and explore an intricate challenge.
Hired Guns, in case you missed it back in 1993, was a four-players-on-one-screen Dungeon Master clone with pseudo-3D single-frame-per-click movement. That alone marks it out as a developmental oddity that now seems impossibly crude, and it has little or no importance in any grand history of gaming that might one day be written.
Yet at the time few games approached its level of achievement. Hired Guns created a unique world that never felt the need to explain itself and kicked genre conventions in the face with a throbbing robo-boot and energy-clad killer squirrels. It had teeth-jarring machine gun blasts, magic killer monks, serpents, sharks, deployable automated sentry cannons, personal teleports, ED-209 clones and apropos of nothing, thirty-foot bone monsters. All this weird was wrapped up in a gloom-clad future world that was both spooky and intriguing. It embraced peculiarity in a way that games few to do today. But its greatest achievement was to place me and my best friend together in a game world. We played our way across the epic campaign map over the course of a several weeks. We overcame puzzles through joint thinking, and fought pitched battles together. Sure, we did the same in Alien Breed a couple of years earlier, but Hired Guns felt like an genuine accomplishment. It felt like /exploration/.
How many first-person perspective games now combine RPG elements, while dodging genre cliché, creating a memorable world, and allowing you to gun down the fleeing characters from other games? (In this case, Lemmings.) I’ll tell you how many: not many.
And how many did all this while offering co-op? Well, until 2007, almost none. The RPGFPS co-op future I detected in Hired Guns is still little more than a glimmer on the horizon. It might never come our way.
Let’s move on to my third game. That was 2000’s Ground Control. It’s only been in the last year, with Ground Control creators Massive return triumphantly returning to the scene with World In Conflict, in which we have come close to what Ground Control promised: a future of strategy games in which the action, the script, and your own ability to use a limited number of units. There have been flickers of this kind of thing with, as someone pointed out earlier this week, games like Sudden Strike. But Ground Control was so beautiful, so minimalistic and effortless in what it delivered that I have found myself routinely disappointed not to have seen its like again in eight years.
Because this, for a time at least, was the side of the 3D real-time strategy wars that seemed to lose. The future it described – one where the lie of the landscape and the scripting of events would, as in action games, define the scope of the tactics – has only been echoed ever so distantly by the real-time battle sections of the Total War series. For the most part, RTS games have taken on a pallid and over-familiar hue. While there are obvious highlights (Warcraft 3, Dawn of War, Homeworld) none of them took up the gauntlet thrown down by Ground Control. Nothing tried to improve upon the idea and reject resource management and based building. No one had thought to take it further. No one had taken the future that I, and presumably its developers, had seen in Ground Control, and tried to make something from it. Even its sequel, years on, lacked the stripped-down simplicity of the original and its quietly brilliant expansion pack.
When I came to review that sequel, there were some grumblings from my editor that I couldn’t leave the past alone and just “review the sequel on its own merits.” But how could I? The sequel had created what looked like a dead end. It brought resources back in, and overdid everything with layer upon layer of overwrought design. The elegance was gone. Even worse, the future I had been promised was being smeared out of the possibility space.
Games have to go forward. They have to believe in the future, and they cannot do so as a groundless generation X, divorced and alienated from the achievements of their parents. The past is littered with suggested futures, some still possible, others abandoned. Some really were dead ends and others still inspire us today. But whatever clues that past may hold, I don’t believe that we can go forward without them.
So readers: what future did past videogames teach you?