As an English and Theatre double major (perhaps the most liberal of liberal arts degree combinations), I spend a lot of time thinking about artistic movements. Most people, I'd venture, would recognize a few of these: Victorianism, Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism, and so forth. Each of these movements serves to group the zeitgeist of the art by the time period and their common sensibilities. It's attractive and intriguing to look at art this way, tracking innovations and changing sensibilities on a causally-related time line.
As someone who ruminates on games, I began to wonder what movements in gaming might look like, what would define them, and what defined the sensibilities of each. Most of all, I want to be the one who gets to pick the “isms” of each movement. Nothing pads a resume like having coined an “ism”.
Defining movements is a tenuous task, however, due mainly to the diversity of artistic pursuit in our time and that collective conception of a movement only coalesces long after it has passed. We still don’t really know what postmodernism really was or is, and we know less about our post-postmodern world.
Even if it's all speculation at this point, I'd like to wax academic and coin a term: Neo-Retroism. It's got an “ism” and a hyphen: this is big news. What is Neo-Retroism, I hear you ask? It's a relatively recent movement in gaming, originating largely form small, independent game studios who produce mainly two dimensional games. Many of these games are throwbacks to the Classical age of games in the late 80's and 90's merely by virtue of being 2D (although many are 3D as well), but the similarities don't stop there. Many of these games are sprite-based side-scrolling platformers (like Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario Brothers), shoot-em-ups (like Contra), isometric role-playing games (like Diablo), and other genres popular in days long passed. Some popular examples of Neo-Retroist games include Torchlight, Minecraft, Limbo, Braid, and many others.
With blockbuster games like Call of Duty and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception captivating audiences, it can be puzzling to discern why the Neo-Retroist school is booming—but there are many reasons for this. There is a certain nostalgia factor inherent for those who play these games, often harkening back to their childhoods, but this is perhaps the lazy way to look at it. Games from the Classical period were much more about achievement game play, while I would consider our current generation of games to have much more focus on the experiential. Many of these Classical games had no means for the player to save their progress and were often much more difficult than modern games—if you were going to beat a game, it was going to be a challenge. I think this resonates with our achievement-based society and sense of socio-economic mobility, and is perhaps more raw and immediate than the slow drip of narrative progression. In those days, one beat games; today, I think we play them.
There is of course the “neo” in Neo-Retroism, however, and that comes in the form of attaching modern gaming sensibilities to classical forms, such as a much more intricate story in the case of Braid, which plays a lot like a Mario title.
In addition, the technological and economic components of Neo-Retroism cannot be ignored; Xbox Live Arcade, the Playstation Network, and PC Gaming, makes it easy to proliferate small, independent titles that often sell for less than a full-fledged release. This low barrier of entry has a lot to do with Neo-Retroist success, I think.
Budget and technological limitations also apply in some cases; often these independent studios comprise only a few people and lack the means to create a game that coudl be called mainstream. This makes the retro approach look rather attractive fiscally and pragmatically, and perhaps even artistically. Limits tend to spark more creativity than they mute, in good cases.
Furthermore, I think the Neo-Retroists owe a great deal of thanks to the organic food business and the recent push to keep things local. People fetishize the homegrown, the local, the personal, and the authentic these days, and it's much easier to put a face on an independent title than a massive triple-A title made by a giant gaming corporation. Notch, the face of Minecraft, is a perfect example. People trust what they perceive to be authentic, and few games manage to riff on this quite like the Neo-Retros.
All of these ingredients come together to make the delightful cocktail I like to call Neo-Retroism—and I hope somebody quotes me in an essay some day for this. I know it's a little rough, but I'm trying to tread new ground here. As with all movements, their definition is rarely concrete, and only through discourse and time do any of them get better.