Remember the ‘90s? When you could swallow people whole and steal their powers. Or control your own dungeon and kill off marauding heroes. Didn’t we all love to run structurally unsafe theme parks and blow up opposing armies of worms? Ah, simpler times.
One thing that I look back most fondly on when it comes to ‘90s games is how original so many of them were. It was the industry at its most innovative, most willing to try weird crap because the rules weren’t really defined to begin with.
Then the era of 3D graphics dawned and everyone fell in love with immersive gaming. The oddball titles faded away in favour of first-person shooters and third-person RPG titles, each more beautiful and streamlined than the last.
Is 3D really to blame for the lack of variety in modern gaming? Have we become so obsessed with cutting edge graphics that we’ve left sacrificed creativity to the gods of realistic gameplay?
A glance at the most popular games of the last 15 years doesn’t exactly yield much in the way of truly innovative gameplay: franchises like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Halo and FIFA dominate. Excluding GTA, which offered something truly ground-breaking all the way back in 1997, they’re the kinds of games that have perfected existing styles rather than invented new ones.
This isn’t to say that games like these aren’t amazing games in their own right. But they are, more often than not, derivatives on tried and true formulas rather than something wholly new. They offer cool twists on existing mechanics or interesting takes on their respective genre.
It’s hard not to look at the stuff that get all the press and feel as if modern gaming is nothing but an arms race for the most immersive graphics.
So which popular titles from the age of 3D did take a chance and invent new whole new forms of gaming? The biggest is probably the soap opera sauciness of The Sims. Then there’s stuff like Guitar Hero and the Wii, which really played with the idea of how we control our games.
Weirdly, many hardcore gamers still give the above examples flack despite the fact that they were actually willing to do something new, likely because of the dreaded casual gamer cooties. And maybe that’s the root of the problem – when a large portion of your audience looks down on anything that deviates too much from the traditional definition of a game, why risk trying anything new?
Of course, defining the whole of modern gaming by a few best-selling titles is as stupid as dismissing The Sims or Wii Sports because they’re not real games. There are numerous gamer-favourites that demonstrate exactly the kind of originality that defined the ‘90s gaming scene: Portal, Minecraft, Katamari Damacy, Journey…the list goes on. This isn’t even getting into the cult gems like Okami and Braid.
It’s notable that these games aren’t the flagship titles that gets everyone talking months before release. These are games that came from indie and smaller developers and grew massive followings through the strength of their gameplay. Even Portal wasn’t exactly intended to be one Valve’s major releases – remember the Orange Box?
Turns out the experimental titles never really went away.
So what’s the big takeaway from all of this? That smaller studios have more room to experiment? That budgetary restraints force developers to focus on bringing something new to the table rather than the biggest and shiniest gameplay engine? That I’m an out-of-touch old-timer who overvalues originality and worships at the altar of the ‘90s?
Maybe, it’s that creativity in gaming is alive and well outside of EA and Ubisoft. And platforms like Steam, Humble Bundles and Kickstarter mean there’s never been more opportunity to find cool titles that dare to be different.