Isometric-turn-based-point-and-click-platformer is a string of words taken for dead. Sent to the abattoir. They’re all huddled for warmth, waiting for the reaper, when along comes the sausage man and snip-snip-snip he sets them free. “Go on,” he says as he pats their bottoms. “Go back home.”
Recent years have seen remastered versions of Baldur’s Gate, Monkey Island and MDK, Steam and GOG have provided new platforms for old titles, and the most successful Kickstarter projects have been new games in old styles. ‘Classic’ games are seeing a surge in popularity and it’s a trend that’s so far been largely attributed to nostalgia - to people wanting to play the games they remember from their childhood. Is that all this is?
Following the announcement of a remastered version of Grim Fandango, Keith Stuart from The Guardian criticised the display of nostalgia on show at this year’s E3, highlighting “a lack of self-confidence about the way games are going”. The man has a point. There’s a definite argument to be made about repackaged games and how they detract from innovation; how the industry is hedging its bets on titles which already have a fan-base instead to taking risks on new work. Stuart is right to kick against the pricks of cynical publishing but there’s more at play here than just nostalgia for classic games.
“I think the term ‘classic’ games no longer applies to Pac-man and its ilk and I am thankful for that every day,” says Trent Oster, creative director of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition and former Bioware game director. “I think 'classic' now applies to broader concepts than the earlier generations made possible.”
As Oster points out, the idea of classic gaming is undergoing something of a development. A decade ago ‘classic’ tended to be shorthand for cartoon characters people remembered on the sides of arcade machines and enthusiasts blowing lustily into SNES cartridges. Recent years have seen the term expand to include more than mascots and technological fetishism, now the word refers to games which have value beyond personal nostalgia and historical-technological relevance; games which are being held up as important creative works.
“In some ways I think it represents a rising connoisseur movement within gaming,” says Oster. “I think of it like drinking a bottle of wine. Your first wine is probably quite cheap, quite easy to get and crafted to appeal to a broad market. As you drink more wine, you begin to appreciate what makes a good wine, so you seek out good wines, trying the recognized 'classics'. I think the same happens with video games, you start mass market, find your interests, and then search the breadth and depth of that interest, paying attention to the major milestone games and 'classics' along the way.
“I think the effect can be partly attributed to nostalgia but I think there is an equal measure of new gamers discovering those classic titles they have only previously heard about, whispered in reverent tones on message boards…Thanks to digital distribution, you now have access to a library of countless great games, which you may have previously missed when they shipped in retail.”
PC gaming has been at the forefront of the resurgence in old games, first through emulation and more recently through online distribution platforms like Steam and GOG. Being able to download classic games without having to worry about physical storage or incompatible operating systems has simplified the way players archive and access old games. Guillaume Rambourg, managing director of GOG agrees that digital distribution has done more than feed nostalgia, he claims that it has allowed a new generation of gamers to engage with classics they didn’t necessarily grow up playing.
“Retrogaming, whether we like it or not, exceeded the boundaries of the core gaming community and has become something of a fashionable trend,” says Rambourg. “As gaming becomes more and more a prominent part of the popular culture, lots of people are being exposed to gaming-related tropes and games themselves. A big part of what gaming culture consists of is the classics. They're at the root of the whole phenomenon, as common grounds to many gamers.”
Rambourg points to the fact that a lot of games tend to exist in series. This naturally leads players to look up earlier incarnations of the game – if you finish Fallout 3 you’re most likely going to see if 1 and 2 exist, etc. “A younger audience is quite often presented with a blockbuster game with a title that's followed by a number revealing that the title is actually the fourth, fifth, or maybe even sixteenth game in the series,” says Rambourg. “Now, wouldn't you--out of plain curiosity--like to see what the previous games were about? What were they like? How the series' have evolved?”
While digging into past entries of a series like Fallout or The Elder Scrolls seems like a clear reason for new gamers to delve into older games, the obvious problem with tracing series in this way is that the experience players have come to expect isn’t always present. Unlike reading classic books, graphics have improved over time. Games are perhaps closer to cinema in this regard, where technological shifts are more common. In the same way that classic films are given a spit and polish for modern audiences, old games are now seeing remastered re-releases.
Matt Glanville, designer of the remake of 1997's Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, suggests that looking back at old games provides developers with an opportunity to “re-evaluate” the classics: “Developers revisiting old ideas can view them with a fresh set of eyes, and bring to the table a lot of the paradigm shifts that have occurred since these games first saw popularity,” says Glanville. “The older games are revamped and in some cases they’ve had their kinks ironed out. In designing Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, we were careful not to simply redo the original Abe’s Oddysee with better graphics, but to fully re-evaluate every aspect of it.”
Although Glanville emphasises the facelifts which can be given to old games to make them more accessible to a modern audience, he also draws attention to the fact that it is the lack of hefty graphical requirements which often attract players to these games in the first place: “The big games from 10-20 years ago are now available on a piece of hardware that is always in your pocket. Those experiences are right there and they’re cheap or free. Crucially, they’re now back in front of the people who stopped trying to keep up with buying expensive hardware dedicated solely to gaming.”
This is an important point. While gaming up until now has been largely preoccupied with great graphical jumps, in recent years this emphasis has lessened. It’s not enough for a game to look realistic. People are not as excited about how amazing a game looks compared to a similar game last year. Instead, people are paying more attention to the quality of the gameplay and narrative.
“Ten years ago, if you showed a cutting edge game to many people vs a game from a few years before the difference was huge in terms of detail, polygon count, etc,” says Oster. “Today, if you take the average person and show them a recently shipped game vs a game from a few years earlier they may not perceive the difference. The perceptual improvement gap has shrunk to a point where each new game no longer feels like a generational leap from the previous title. I think this lack of perceived progress is driving gamers to seek out new experiences with less emphasis on graphic fidelity and more focus on gameplay and variety.”
Does this shift in focus away from graphical progress signal a change in how games are perceived? Early cinema was hugely focused on technological leaps; within a few decades it jumped from silent to sound, but it reached a point around the mid-twentieth century where that attention plateaued. The result was a Golden Age of Hollywood. Are games reaching a similar point? If so, should we still solely attribute an attention to past games as nostalgia?
While there is a fair share of cynicism which can be justifiably aimed at how the industry is drawing on nostalgia to excuse itself from innovation, there is a clear positive perspective to this interest in playing old games. This is an outcome of an industry emerging technically and culturally to the extent that it’s developing a greater sense of self. Crucially, it’s the outcome of a medium which is placing growing importance on meaningful content over formal improvements.