With each consecutive hardware generation it takes time to achieve what was possible at the end of the previous generation. New hardware requires new software techniques and often a return to first principles. The initial move from sprite based to polygon based games saw a marked increase in the spatial complexity of environments but was accompanied by a dramatic decrease in the size and number of objects that could exist within those environments. This clearest example of this can be seen when comparing Doom and Quake, two games separated by three years and an entire dimension. It wouldn’t be until five years later that the release of Serious Sam saw a return to the sprawling environments and hundreds of enemies that Doom boasted.
Twenty years ago I was playing a game that allowed me to explore thousands of square miles of virtual terrain. I was driving snowmobiles down mountains in order to meet one of over thirty non-player characters each with their own personality and skills which I would hopefully convince them to use in the fight against the invading forces of General Masters. This was Midwinter, prequel to the game I still consider my favourite game of all time, Midwinter II: Flames Of Freedom.
Since then, with each hardware generation, the scale of the environments in which I’ve been able to play has decreased. Only recently has the trend started to reverse and I have been able to have a similar experience to that I had twenty years ago. Far Cry 2 is the nearest I’ve come to recapturing that experience of first playing Midwinter, yet even though Far Cry 2 shows a significant increase in graphical fidelity over Midwinter the range of options available to me, the possibility space of the game, feels reduced.
It would be extremely narrow minded of me to ignore the impact the increase in technology has had on my reaction to the game, or to underestimate how the subtle changes in available mechanics have altered the dynamics. Despite these advancements in both technology and design it’s still difficult to ignore the feeling that somehow I’m playing a version of the same game I played twenty years ago and that the core experience has changed little in that time.
Twenty years of technological advancement, several hardware generations all so I can have essentially the same experience available on my Atari ST. I can’t help but wonder if that time has really been put to the best use.
This is not the only example I can think of where a recent titles has felt like it could have been created years previously. Last year saw the release of Left 4 Dead, a major factor in its appeal is the ability to face off against hordes of zombies alongside three companions. Four players together fighting off dozens of mindless enemies, it’s a fantasy that holds a lot of appeal. Yet that sense of four players against overwhelming odds, is an experience I can distinctly remember having eight years ago. Alongside three friends I faced down hundreds of enemies in the twisted ancient Egyptian setting of Serious Sam. The sheer number of enemies that game is able to thrown at the player is absurd, the final level is subtitled “Infinite Bodycount” and I honestly wonder how much of that is hyperbole.
The mechanics of Left 4 Dead could have been implemented seven years earlier in Serious Sam or even fifteen years earlier in Doom. The graphical fidelity of such an implementation would be much lower, but would the experience itself be that much different?
Of course it’s not only technology that has changed in that time. Those seven years have allowed artists, sound designers and level designers to hone their craft to the extent that even if Left 4 Dead or something similar had appeared earlier it would not possess the same level of craft. It takes time to learn and apply the techniques of filmic art direction and indirect training that make Left 4 Dead the holistic experience that it is.
This still doesn’t completely lessen the sensation that twenty years of technological advancement have done little for the actual design of games, and that is a wasted opportunity. Commercial video games are approaching their fortieth anniversary and with the first few years of each hardware generation spent trying to recreate the experiences that were possible before it’s little wonder that it can feel like video games have had trouble growing up in that period.