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Timeless Games in Space Ex Machina

An absurd but true look at what makes videogames timeless

During the Steam Thanksgiving Sale, I bought myself the Legacy of Kain series bundle. I had fond memories of playing Soul Reaver back in the Dreamcast days, and figured it would be fun to revisit Nosgoth after all these years. So far, it's been a mixed experience, and it's got me thinking about something that's always on my mind: timelessness.


(Soul Reaver vs time: time wins)

The Years Have Not Been Kind

I knew the graphics would be “bad;” I actually have quite a soft spot for old, simple polygon environments, (duh, I made ULTRAWORLD), and didn't mind that part much. Sure, the textures aren't far off of those from Minecraft, but to me that adds to the charm of this particular era's aesthetic. Naturally, not everyone feels this way; for some, a game that looks this, “dated,” is a complete non-starter.

We have a lot of love for old 2D, but not so much old 3D. After all, 3D has always been directly tied to advances in technology. The better the tech, the better the 3D. Old games are instantly outdated both graphically and artistically when new tech shows up. We are always pushed to praise the latest greatest tech, and as a result anything that isn't cutting edge is quickly derided. How can you stand looking at a five-hundred poly character model when you can have one made of a thousand!?


(What chance does Soul Reaver have when something like this is pointed out as a flaw?)

Of course, 2D games followed this same trend; slowly becoming higher fidelity as our tech improved. The look of most of our old games, 2D and 3D, is the result of technical limitations. When Nintendo first made the now-iconic sprites for Mario and Link, they were simply aiming for character legibility. They had a tremendous handicap working within such rigid limitations, where literally every pixel mattered. The minimalist qualities that resulted were part of this limitation, not an intentional choice in art direction. They didn't set out to create a video game that mimicked Donald Judd, they were just working with what they had. And it makes you wonder: if they had access to the tools we have today, would they have skipped 2D altogether?

This, “every pixel matters,” approach led to the now timeless look of many old 2D games. Whether the art direction was intentional or not, the finished images on screen are still simple, bold, and easy to read. Contrast this with old 3D games like Legacy of Kain that, despite being the result of similar technical limitations, often result is dark, muddy environments. I still find beauty in the minimalist architecture, but its hard to ignore that the overall image is often obscured by flimsy lighting and barely discernible textures. For those with no nostalgia of this era in games, this is unforgivable.


(Feel free to bust out the red correction marker on ULTRAWORLD)

Press A to Disable the A Button

What ultimately killed my return trip to Nosgoth wasn't the graphics, it was the controls. The gamepad didn't function, leaving the keyboard as my only option, (that's keyboard, not mouse and keyboard). Trying to play a fully 3D action-platform game while manipulating the camera with arrow keys was instantly tiresome. I don't mind suffering some awkward controls from time to time, but this was proving too much. I can only imagine kids of today - who've only ever played modern, responsive games - trying to come back and grapple with these wonky controls.  This scene comes to mind:


(You have to use your hands? That's like a baby's toy!)

This is a unique problem to video games. The reading of books, listening of music, and watching of films doesn't change. When we talk about books that are difficult to read, we're referring to their content, not the physical act of reading them, (unless their words are invisible or something). Games, however, have constantly changed and evolved in terms of how you interact with them. A simple control optimization or refinement that gets adopted by everyone is great...except for all the games that came beforehand. When we go back to those games and can't control the camera with our mouse, for instance, it greatly kills a game's timeless appeal. It might still be appreciable in terms of historical context, but not in terms of, “man, I gotta go back and play THAT game again.”

E.T. Phones It In, Then Goes Home

A similar situation occurs with game design/mechanics, which also get refined over time. Unlike other art forms, sequels in games can easily improve upon their predecessors. Think of the monumental jump between Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed 2. Nearly everything was an upgrade. While the first game was certainly more innovative overall, (it created the entire framework for the monster series), few want to go back and play it knowing that it's sequel is mechanically and structurally superior.

The story doesn't end there, however, as someone who's never played an Assassin's Creed before is likely best served by starting the series at Black Flag, which many say is the most refined and in-depth version of the gameplay thus far. And what of those in the future? As UbiSoft goes on to make 100 more sequels, perhaps there will be a definitive entry that makes all previous efforts pale in comparison, just purely in terms of design and gameplay fidelity. So which version is the timeless one? All of them, one of them? Probably this one:

 

Tell Me the Story About That Hero Person

One reason I wanted to go back to Legacy of Kain was for the story; my vague recollection was that it was, "interesting."  Of course, I probably won't find out now, but that drive definitely helped draw me back to this world.  This touches on an aspect of timelessness that is universal to all mediums: narrative. Certain stories have a never-ending appeal, no matter what format they're presented in. Some games have the right mix of themes/story/characters that continue to work as the years go on. To me, a strong theme or narrative give games purpose and meaning beyond simple escapism, and help distinguish the timeless from the timely.  That's why I'm one of those people that always re-installs Deus Ex whenever it's mentioned: the story continues to interest me.


(Actually, I just leave it installed, it doesn't take much room)

The Interstellar Cargo-Hold

Once all these variables have been parsed, there's still the question of preservation. Whatever timeless games we wish to nominate, we still have to make sure they can be played 10, 100, and 1000 years from now. Several of the projects I've worked are are already endangered. Last time I checked, my old Half-Life 2 mod, Weekday Warrior, doesn't work anymore. And DC Universe Online, a game I put five years into, will eventually shut down its servers. That's two artworks gone to the people of 3014. As technology advances, who's to say that Half-Life, Windwaker, Shadow of the Colossus, etc don't all meet the same fate. Our great-great-grand ancestors might read about video games as a historical relic, not as something they can sit down with and enjoy.  That's a scary thought.

Ideally, we'll figure out a way to make everything last, and hey, when human society has to eventually ditch Earth on a giant Generation Ship, all of our games will probably fit on a flash drive. That's right: our work will survive the end of the Earth! I know that's not on anybody else's mind, but it is on mine.  After all, do you really think that every painting at every museum will similarly make the cut? There won't be enough room for everything; some masterpieces will have to stay behind, (I'm looking at you, Sistine Chapel), but Soul Reaver will definitely be around as we float into the depths of space. And Flappy Bird too; I can't wait!

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