I recently created a retro gaming console using a Raspberry Pi. The first game I got working was the old classic, Spy Hunter, which I used to play on the Commodore 64. I remember being about 7 years old and being completely obsessed with the game. Now, I look at it and I’m perplexed by my youthful obsession. Two things really struck me – firstly, the game itself is incredible simple, with its ugly pixel graphics, repetitive scenery and digitised music, and it’s also really hard – although that might be my reflexes slowing down as I get older – happens to everybody, right? I remember being deeply fascinated with the game – spending hours on Saturday mornings trying to get to the next level. Strange.
There’s no story whatsoever in Spy Hunter. No narrative involvement. No motivation beyond the desire to beat the game. And that’s not unusual for those kinds of games – even the real classics from that era – Donkey Kong or the Mario franchise have only the most basic storylines. You know, rescue the princess by getting past increasingly difficult levels in a far off, made up world.
That’s not true of games today. If anything, it seems that while games might have got easier – when was the last time you played a game where you had lives, for example? But they’ve also got much more complex. Now, it is not enough to have a simple story, and then 20-odd levels of repeating elements arranged in slightly different forms. With the exception of the rapidly developing mobile game world, and the advent of casual gaming, now games are increasingly story driven and narrative based. The gap between games and cinema – especially animated cinema – is becoming a narrow one, and traffic flows both ways across the divide. Don’t believe me? Look at the number of games that have no inspired their own feature film – The World of Warcraft movie is the most recent example, but it is hardly an isolated case.
And the games themselves are becoming… experimental. Not in terms of performance or graphics or even the online-gaming approach, but rather in terms of the narratives that are explored. There are no simple ‘heroes’ in games anymore. I’ve written about the wandering moral compass of computer games before, but I think that I didn’t go far enough. Now, there are games where there are no heroes or villains – or everyone is a villain. This War of Mine, a game that places you in the position of a defenceless refugee is one example, but there are plenty of others. Or there is That Dragon, Cancer, a game that places the player in the shoes of a man facing a struggle with cancer.
What does this profusion mean? Personally, I think it’s a good sign. The gaming sector is maturing. That might seem odd – I mean, we’ve been playing with and on computer games for a long time now, but I feel this is a seminal change – a change more important than a new graphics card or a new console. It is perhaps the second – or even third – wave of computer game development.