Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 23, 2010
‘ … the vast majority was utterly flummoxed by the game. As one of them put it, “I’d say for gamers of our generation, an RPG like Ultima IV is boring and pretty much unplayable.” After removing the arrow from my chest, I asked them to explain why.‘
I’ve been chewing on this and many similar articles / discussions / thoughts for the last few weeks. Rock Paper Shotgun published a piece several weeks ago asking similarly hard questions about the disappearance of the once uber-popular genre, the combat flight sim. Time was that Flight Sims shared thrones with RPGs and Adventure Games over the land of PC gaming.Things have changed a lot since then. It’s bothersome. I feel the same arrow in the chest, as not only do I remember loving the game when it first came out (playing a friend’s copy), but I actually didn’t finish it until many years later … when it was my first major “retrogaming” experience. And I loved it then, too.
He tries to get to the heart of the matter. There’s a lot to be said about it. There’s a lot I could say about it. Ashamed as I am to admit it, going back and playing some of these older titles has been a little rough for me sometimes. I wrote “The Seven Stages of Retro-Gaming” based on personal experience, and I think I’ve been reprogrammed by modern gameplay quite a bit. Once upon a time, pulling out a pad of graph paper to map a dungeon by hand seemed Part of the Fun. Digging into the manual – ditto.
To modern audiences, this all feels like work. And actually, yeah, it was. Ditto for many other kinds of games back then – flight sims, strategy / war games, etc. All the best-known and best-loved for the PC platform after the consoles became king of the hill for action / arcade-style games.
So what gives? Were we all stupid back then? We didn’t mind being abused? Maybe. But there was definitely something else. And there’s a reason why these games are still so beloved by us old-schoolers.
While it was largely an accident borne of technological limitations, I think that these games demanded a level of investment on the part of the players. You couldn’t just “jump into” the Wizardry dungeon for a quick 15-minute session. You would get lost. You would die. While an experienced player could maybe make a quick foray without adequate preparation, to actually have a prayer of medium-term success you needed to commit to the game. You needed to invest a chunk of yourself into it. You needed to take action outside the pressing of buttons on the keyboard. You needed to grok the manual. You needed to map. You needed to take notes. You needed to plan.
But here’s the thing – I keep calling it an “investment” for a reason. As players, we got out of it what we put into it. Our investment into these games made them “real” in some small ways. We willed them into an existence beyond the monitor and floppy drive when we committed to studying up on flight maneuvers and what all those switches, dials, and gauges in the cockpit meant and how to use them. We gave them life when we drew out our maps on graph paper, and wrote up notes and connections of clues by hand like a real-life mystery. And we didn’t have an Internet full of spoilers to do all the work for us, either.
And that made the games all more satisfying for us. Shooting down an enemy MiG using systems that were extremely close to and just as complex as their real-world analogs was infinitely more satisfying that chomping them down like Doritos in an arcade game. And recovering the Codex felt like it had been dearly earned.
It’s not just that today’s games lead you by the nose, or are too easy. And you don’t finish an 80-hour RPG without a major feeling of satisfaction at having invested some serious time into its conclusion. But they don’t require that up-front commitment. They are about the immediate gratification, not the delayed, gradual payoff.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Either way. But I think that this perspective might help explain the phenomenon that The Brainy Gamer and Rock Paper Shotgun and many others are reporting.
So the question is, I guess, is can we somehow get the best of both worlds?
I think we have, sometimes, in MMOs. The “shared hallucination” of fellow gamers and implicit social aspects encourage a great deal of side-band participation and effort into the game that goes beyond the basic game mechanics. We’re seeing it now in games like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, but that may go back to the games “demanding” that level of investment just to be able to play them competently.
I guess the key point here is “encourage” rather than “demand.” The old-school games demanded that level of investment, commitment, participation, whatever you want to call it. In many newer games, everything is so straightforward there’s not much more you could do with them if you wanted to. Where’s the happy medium?
And since this post is long enough already, I’m going to leave it at that, and maybe revisit it later. Maybe leave it as an exercise to the reader (if you don’t think I’m barking up the wrong tree entirely). How could modern games, emphasizing ease-of-use and streamlined play, also offer and encourage a great deal more commitment?
Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 13 Comments to Read