Friday, 28 August 2009

Some Thoughts on Video Games...

What follows is a rambling tangent that was originally part of the next review proper. But in the interests of length and relevance, it got cut. So instead I’m presenting it here as a separate piece – think of it as a DVD extra to the coming review!

Now I grew up with video games, being born only slightly before them. I remember vividly the excitement of the Space Invaders craze, with breathless reports trickling in from class mates returning from visits to the seaside, that traditional cornucopia of slot machines and arcades, of this new type of game where you could shoot alien spaceships. Then there were the first home consoles, which offered twenty plus different games and a distinct lack of pocket straining amounts of ten pence coins. Admittedly the games were just Pong tricked out with slightly different graphics to create other sports like football and hockey but these ‘television games’ as they were first called, were still incredibly exciting.

And even better was to come. With the Atari and various hand-held one game gizmos, at last you could play the likes of Space Invaders, Pac Man and Asteroids in the comfort of your own home. But perhaps the most magnificent and influential era came with the birth of the microcomputer. For a start, have a computer in your own house was a sci-fi dream come true – surely the age of hover cars, domestic robots and jet packs was surely not far away now…

Of course, we vastly over estimated the potential of those early machines, but you have to remember that we’d all grown up with the idea that that a computer was a super machine brain that could do anything thanks to decades of science fiction. Computers were unusual and exotic devices back then, and the general attitude to computers is perhaps best encapsulated by a piece of graffiti inscribed into a desk at my school that read “God’s only clever because he’s got a ZX81” – a claim that gets more hilarious with every passing year.

But despite the disappointment that your Spectrum or Commodore 64 wasn’t going to give Hal 9000 or Orac a run for their money any time soon, it did deliver something far better. With a humble micro, not only could you copy games easily from your mates (thus beginning modern piracy) but you could actually create a video game yourself. And naturally many of us had a crack at it, and also many of us found that programming involved a lot of tedious typing out lines of gibberish and included more mathematics than we were comfortable with. But others succeeded and several school boys not only made small fortunes but began a long and noble tradition of independent game development.

With the decline of the microcomputer and the rise of the next generation of consoles, the Sega Megadrive and Nintendo’s SNES for a while video game creation drifted back into the hands of the professionals. However with the advent of Windows and the birth of the modern home computer in the nineties, once again programmers in bedrooms and garages started creating again on a large scale.

Often in the field of computing, breakthroughs come out of the left field and gaming is no exception with some of the most innovative games been created by small teams rather than vast corporations. Little companies like id, Westwood and Cyan Worlds not only gave us such landmark titles as Doom, Command & Conquer and Myst but also spawned whole genres of video games. Roughly speaking, it would seem that every time the home computer becomes the favourite platform for video gaming, there is a blossoming of creativity within the industry and the parameters of the games themselves change.

The magic of the home computer as a gaming platform is that it allows gamers to enter the world of game creation. For example, Doom was a defining moment for the first person shooter but where it was truly ground breaking was that it allowed ordinary gamers to create skins, write levels and modify the engine to create new games. The influence of this ‘mod-ability’ of PC titles is not to be underestimated. Many people currently working in the gaming industry got started by designing such add-0ns for their favourite titles. And more broadly, this type of bedroom tinkering has got many people into coding and graphics work.

Indeed I myself, was inspired to get to grips with the Photoshop from a desire to create a skin of my much loathed driving instructor for Quake 2. And my first steps in the world of coding came from creating skins for Quake 3 Arena which required the creation of text files to instruct the game engine on which part of the models to apply my custom graphics.

However, currently the focus of the industry is on the hardware rather than the game content. The main evolution in recent years has been the Wii, which is changing the way we play games. With the Xbox and the Playstation hurriedly developing similar motion controls, at the moment it would seem that game content is taking a backseat. And with sports sims flourishing again thanks to these new controllers, it looks like console gaming has come full circle.

Of course all of this has happened before; indeed video gaming as a medium has advanced through periodic cycles in which either the gameplay or the technology dominates industry trends. It’s a pattern in which either the hardware or the software becomes the arena for innovation. Advances in the capabilities of the components open new vistas of possibility for game designers and the dreams of said designers push forward the creation of new platforms.

However with ever up grading consoles as the dominant platforms, I do worry a little for the future. Partly this is down the fact that console titles lack ‘mod-ability’ and thus a generation of gamers aren’t getting to dip their toes in the sea of game creation. But more generally, with game production so dependent on the hardware arms race and becoming so technically complex, it would be a shame if the days of independent amateurs knocking out storming titles from the comfort of their bedrooms are over.

But thankfully that sad day has not yet dawned. There are still small dedicated teams out there coding, unencumbered by the ‘horse-designed-by committee” shenanigans of the big corporations. And in the next review, I’ll be looking at a title that was produced by a single set of hands; a title produced in an often overlooked genre of video gaming but fully deserving of the epithet ‘undiscovered classic’…

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