Saturday, February 16, 2013


A few years ago, I reconnected with an old friend I hadn't seen since we both graduated from high school in 1992. A few meetings in, he revealed that he'd recently gotten an XBox360, which was his first game console since the Sega Master System. Almost apologetically, he talked about loving the console, on which he played Gears of War and Grand Theft Auto IV.

He expressed amazement about how immersive videogames had become. To a third non-gamer friend who was there, he described the realistic virtual worlds, the complicated shooting and movement mechanics, the detailed cutscenes and the captivating environments. It was all incredible, he said, an amazingly advanced guilty pleasure.

He was definitely game-aware when we were younger. When we were in high school, we almost always visited arcades as part of any weekend outing. Used record shops, comic stores, bookstores, arcades. Beat-em-ups were the genre of choice because you could play cooperatively, and these were social occasions. We both had home consoles we'd stopped playing. Neither of us were PC gamers.

I suspect that there were videogame phenomena that crept into the periphery of his awareness between then and now. As he described it, though, in his experience videogames leapt from the state of the art in 1992 to the state of the art in 2009.

And from his standpoint, we'd developed some incredibly addictive, incredibly immersive, incredibly fun summer-blockbuster-grade trash.

There's nothing wrong with that exactly. There's certainly nothing wrong with consuming summer blockbusters. But I felt compelled to come to videogames' defense. I'd invested more of my thinking and free time in the things than I wanted to admit, so I talked about indie games and art games and serious games and even big budget stuff like Ico and Rez and Portal. 'The possibilities of the medium' and so forth.

After I left high school, I abandoned videogames for a few years. There were a few minor gaming diversions in my senior year of college, but what brought me back into the fold was playing SNES jrpgs the following summer on my now-brother-in-law's console. I'm a little embarrassed to say that they struck me so profoundly I abandoned my plan of teaching and I ended up making software for a living.

The expressive possibilities for the medium seemed endless. Emboldened by the utopianism of Next Generation magazine, I naively envisioned a gaming future in which new experiences weren't primarily escapist, which didn't follow the tropes of blockbuster film and genre fiction. I imagined a vanguard of eager, forward-thinking artists (probably based in New York) invading the mainstream and blowing the doors off the place. And I played everything new I could get my hands on, taking note of unusual features and novel storytelling and fitting them neatly into a narrative about how games were evolving.

Somewhere between then and now I recognized the dissonance in that narrative and stopped assuming games were progressing toward anything in particular. Genres I thought were leading the way have dropped in and out of favor. Ideas I like have appeared once and never again.

I'd like to start revisiting the ideas I noticed in some of those dead-end games and have been thinking about for years. The jrpgs, the adventure games, the not-hardcore-enough strategy games. This is far from a novel pursuit; I read plenty of articles in which people dissect mechanics I never noticed from games I barely remember. But I'm going to do it. Hopefully it will teach me something about design.

And hopefully it will allow me to begin to articulate exactly how and why the popular videogame future my friend has discovered has diverged so radically from the much weirder futures I once envisioned.