Some time ago a friend of mine borrowed Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. He hadn’t played it When it was released and since that time it’s constructed a very respected legacy. It’s one of those games that you just “should” play. To be high-minded about it, Prince of Persia is a “classic.” My friend returned it a week later. “I’m sorry,” he bowed his head in shame, “but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get over the graphics.” His isn’t an isolated case, we’ve been spoiled by increasing production values and better looking and sounding games. It’s creates a sort of graphical chauvinism that makes it difficult to appreciate games more than a few years old.
Games occupy a space equidistant from existing technology and the desire to further the limits of technology and this can sometimes conflict with the desire to make a memorable classic. Developers and players too often get tunnel vision when evaluating the production value of a title. In many ways, greatness comes from compensating for limitations, not overcoming them. The prototypical example of turning a limitation into an asset is the first Silent Hill. The Playstation wasn’t capable of rendering the whole town at once, at least not at the standard the developers wanted. So the town was covered in an omnipresent fog to simultaneously reduce the demand on the hardware and set the eerie atmosphere that became the series’s trademark.
Going back even earlier, when sprites were just blobs of colour on a bed of pixels, developers were able to show joy, rage, fear, love all with pantomime jumping up and down, arm swinging or shaking. Emotion could be conveyed with a brevity in the 8 and 16-bit eras that now take ten minute unskippable cutscenes. Location and context was established by music composed to specifically define a town or a character that has disappeared in favour of voiced exposition by actors that often never personally interact with one another. Music in games doesn’t mean what it used to because there are more direct ways to say what those old soundtracks said: there’s a reason characters don’t have their own themes anymore. Music now stays in the background, it doesn’t speak. Even voicing characters has not been without consequence.
Before games could handle long, elaborate scenes (in game or our of the player’s control) they relied on text boxes that needed to be extremely efficient. Plots had to be conveyed with as few words as possible, that would be easy to translate—as was often necessary—but still told the story they were meant to tell. As plots became more complicated using language efficiently became an art that some of the more verbose creators have lost (I’m looking at you, Hideo Kojima).
This isn’t to say that all games over five years old are better than games now, or that they were all good because they were made in a lost golden era, or even that modern games should start designing based on older principles. Modern, casual and indie game are attracting a larger audience than ever and they’re being taken more seriously than ever, which are very good things. If anything, games in first, and middle generations can’t be repeated, they’re from a bygone time that should remain gone by. If anything, I would argue we too often stew in the past.1 But games have a rich history, filled with masterpieces that deserve to be played and replayed in all their blocky, pixellated, anachronistic glory.
Games are a medium that is married to technology, and while it’s often a functional one, the rising technical standard often has a habit of overshadowing the other value games have. Focusing too much on how games look and play, how complex they control, how realistic their worlds feel, and so on should not retroactively dismiss everything that has come before it.