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Let's Not Lose Sight Of The Future

Retro-Futurism

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Last week I found myself in two conversations about resurrecting dead games. One was about Homeworld: I’d made a flippant comment about pressuring Relic to do a Kickstarter to make a sequel, and other people agreed. If Double Fine can raise millions for a point ‘n click, then why not millions for our lost and beloved space RTS? The other was about Syndicate. Wouldn’t it be great if we got a Syndicate sequel, finally, in the way we got a “proper” X-Com remake? No right-minded gamer would disagree. Hell, Paradox even seem to be planning to do so.

But I got to thinking about how this turn to “how games used to be” shouldn’t be about nostalgia, or the past at all, really. It should be about the future. The point of looking back must be to identify, rescue and save the futures we were promised.

Syndicate and Homeworld are both great games. You can go and play them now and still have a fantastic time. That won’t change. Superficially, at least, asking for remakes of those games means capturing that experience: playing a great game as it was then, only better, because it’s now.

And that’s second part is the key bit. When we’re talking about “old school” and “like they used to make” we mustn’t miss either what made them great, or what needs to be done to make them great now. We can see some clear failures in that regard, like this one, or this one. But we also need to recognise the spirit in which they were made. It’s not about making the same games, but capturing the same feelings, principles, and attitudes. Furthermore, games do not stand alone. They are part of a continuum: the games that went before, and the games that will follow. Games are tied to the march of technology, and their narrative as a medium implies evolution and continuation. The most important lesson to be learned from games history is what the future might look like.


That’s the thing which has gnawing at me in the past few months: the knowledge that what really drove my interest in games at the time I was so thrilled by the likes of Syndicate, was the sense of The New. Syndicate was amazing because it was a brilliantly designed game, yes, but it was also so thrilling because it was the future opening up right in front of me. It wasn’t a remake of something I’d seen before, it was a completely new experience: that fact commanded my attention, and fired my imagination. It was better than a hundred well-engineered, highly-entertaining iterations of familiar systems and gameplay concepts, because it provided a new experience. It was a new outpost on a frontier that game developers and gamers were exploring together, a sort of neoteric fragment – the future being distributed, via the mail-order pages in the back of an Amiga magazine – directly to my front door. Amazing.

But it wasn’t something that happened in a vacuum. All the games that fed into it – all the things that Bullfrog had already achieved – fed into it.

The reason I feel angry when I see genres being closed off and big publisher execs saying that “X or Y genre is dead” isn’t so much that I care about how it used to be, but that I care about how it might have been, or might yet be. They’re shutting off the futures that these old games were becoming.

When Firaxis’ X-Com hit I read multiple people say: “Why weren’t they making these games all along?” The reason was because publishers and developers had lost sight out of how to make turn-based games exciting, and how to make them sell. It wasn’t that the idea of turn-based games was obsolete, or a commercial implausibility, or just a dead end, it was that the people who made those games had lost sight of the future of that idea.


Let’s be clear: I don’t want the future of gaming to be remakes of old games in the latest version of the Unreal engine. If there is a direct sequel of Homeworld or Syndicate, and it faithfully recreates the mechanics of those games in a new, pretty engine, then that’ll probably be fine. But what I really want is the next step: the living future cities and cyberpunk sub-realities of crowd-control and complex emergent assassination that Syndicate promised. I want the soulful galactic epics of concept-art-beautiful spaceships that Homeworld was simply the first iteration of. I want all the strange futures that “dead ends” like Sacrifice or Outcast were the seeds of.

I want games like they used to make, and I want future games like those games used to promise.

When Dishonored was complete I found myself saying something like “hooray, we got another game like that Ion Storm past seemed to suggest we’d get,” and I’d said the same when DXHR arrived, only without as much conviction. I wasn’t alone in that.

X-Com probably outlines this most clearly – and both the Double Fine and Obsidian Kickstarters have the potential to deliver on it too – they are all projects which will continue developing ideas that were put on hold. Evolution has been allowed to continue. What’s important is that the full potential of gaming, as explored in so many lost ideas across the years, gets realised. There are so many lost threads, like these ones, and so many failed ambitions, like this one, that should not be seen as warnings to turn back.

It doesn’t have to come from crowd-funding, as we’ve seen. Perhaps big publishers, too, can find it in their giant, glass hearts to extricate themselves from the tentacles of the risk-aversion monster, and to commission not a remake of Syndicate or Homeworld, but instead the games that will, in a decade or two’s time, be the subject of that same serious nostalgia for another generation.

We live in hope. We live in the future.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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Jim Rossignol

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