Are video games evolving backwards? Believe it or not, this opening question isn’t just a cheap journalistic ploy designed to hook you in. Polymorphously perverse as it may seem, there is a case for the idea that games are actually becomming less complex.
But what, you might well say, about the potential for unprecedented graphical realism supplied by the contemporary building block of the polygon? What about today’s increasingly sophisticated sound technology, or ultra-fast processors? Surely the video game as a form would seem to reflect and project the technological zeitgeist like no other medium. With their vibrant colours and cacophonous noises, video games constantly seek to insist on their primacy as agents of the Digital Moment. They get better all the time. Don’t they?
Let me explain. Forget the complex, visceral but weirdly beautiful cinematics of the Resident Evil survival horror games, which task you with ridding their minutely realised environments of terrifyingly corporeal zombies. Forget the utterly convincing physics of the racing game Project Gotham which enables you to tear around photo-realistic versions of world cities in vehicles seemingly genuinely wrought from real-world metal. Forget the nail-biting tension involved in penetrating the oil rig at the centre of Hideo Kojima’s stealth-based Metal Gear Solid 2, forget its sweeping tracking shots and other manifold tropes borrowed from the sometimes similar, sometimes very different medium of film.
Instead, remember when it was just you and the pixels. Sometimes you got to control the bunch of pixels in fights against other bunches of pixels, perhaps pretending the enemy pixels were alien space ships bent on conquering the Earth. Sometimes bunches of pixels would masquerade as multicolored ghosts that would hunt your strange little bunch of yellow pixels around a neon maze while chomping on other little bunches of pixels pretending to be pills. And these were good games, these were games that indelibly etched themselves into the global psyche as classics that resonated still resonate throughout the wider culture. “Listen,” as Dylan Thomas might’ve said, “you can hear them bleeping, on your ‘phone and on the web.”
These early games were often abstract works or, in the terms of Finnish games researcher Aki Järvinen, “caricuraturist”. That is to say, they approximated real things like human beings or animals but didn’t quite pull off veracity, if indeed they were even pursuing veracity. The limitations of the technology forced designers and programmers of the period (often one and the same) to be imaginative within the limitations of the form. The inventor of Pacman, Japanese genius Tori Iwatani, famously got the idea for the munching yellow disc from the pizza he was about to eat he removed a slice and there it was, the template for one of the most influential cultural icons of the twentieth century. The simplicity of its form made it an ideal avatar within the context of the period’s technology. In a strange way the Zen simplicity of the even earlier classic Pong, a crude yet addictive rendering of a tennis match may, by virtue of its simplicity, actually constitute a more sophisticated work of art than the hyper-realism of contemporary games that are really in fact wannabe movies.
Where, these days, should we look for the different, the difficult, the “experimental”? The problem is that the term “experimental” is, of course, a fuzzy one. A game that achieves a particular visual effect or that offers a new approach to a specific issue such as interface design might be considered in some sense experimental. On the whole, though, such advancements are obtained in otherwise very familiar, mainstream genres of game: the tried and trusted instances of first-person shooter, racing, strategy, etc. In other words, experimentation takes place in forms that otherwise remain resolutely formulaic.
Occasionally, though, much more overtly experimental work appears in the mainstream, like the kinetic Rez, or the frenetic Frequency. Both games situate music as an integral factor in the play experience, the former much more successfully than the latter. The importance of music is similarly apparent in the Japanese game Vib Ribbon, released a couple of years back for Sony’s original Playstation. You control a quipping bunny rabbit formed from a single white line set against a black background. Your task is to manoeuvre the rascally rabbit through a sound wave generated either by the software or by music of your choice.
It is this latter element that really renders what’s already a fairly bizarre concept totally, wonderfully deranged. Watching a cute but ever so faintly sinister Japanese rabbit perform comical loops and tiny bunny hops to fave sounds courtesy of Elvis Costello or The Jam is, to say the least, an unusual experience. Indeed, Japanese innovation and imagination accounts not only for what passes for originality in a marketplace otherwise dominated by lacklustre clones of a few frontrunner products, but also for much of what we might today recognise as purer forms of game design.
Not that the Japanese possess exclusive rights to wacky ideas. In an age in which video games increasingly ape films, Sega’s Super Monkey Ball feels like another bizarre but brilliant throwback down the evolutionary ladder. Expect no heavy narrative in this scenario of simian spheres. As a result of its combination of retro charm and sublimely slick game play, this reimagining of the mighty Marble Madness has already established itself as an idiosyncratic classic for Nintendo’s quirky GameCube. It’s emblematic of a console, which eschews the plot heavy approaches characteristic of Sony and Microsoft’s competitor systems in favour of big dumb, colourful fun. Forget the ornate and involving plots of Halo and Vice City, this is a game that harks back to a purer, more innocent age of game play, just the way Sega likes it.
Like many great ideas the concept is beautifully simple, if breathtakingly silly. You get to choose from four monkeys who are placed within transparent spheres, much like those globes that spiteful hamster owners inflict on the unsuspecting rodents in their care. Suffice it to say, the monkeys are unbearably cute. Animal rights activists need not be alarmed since the aforesaid primates seem on the whole reasonably happy, and occasionally, if things go their way, patently ecstatic.
The monkeys need to be super as they have to negotiate these globes in a variety of vertigo-inspiring contexts. The main game involves having to manoeuvre your choice of monkey through a series of increasingly tricky courses that float in gravity-defying fashion above disconcerting abysses. All the while your ape must collect bananas and avoid plunging to its presumable demise on the terrain below. This is rendered increasingly difficult by virtue of the fact that the various courses consist of terrifyingly steep slopes or fiendishly moving platforms.
By and large, though, games like Rez, Vib Ribbon and Super Monkey Ball remain exceptions, mainstream aberrations. On the whole the industry, much like Hollywood, doesn’t care to take a punt on material that doesn’t adhere to established codes and conventions. At least the mainstream film industry has a thriving independent sector standing in relation to Hollywood much in the same way some grit stands in relation to the oyster’s pearl. The independent game sector is tiny by comparison and its influence on the mainstream debatable.
Perhaps academia might provide a way for innovative game designers and producers to produce truly experimental material free of mainstream production limitations. Tiffany Holmes of School of the Art Institute of Chicago works with students at the intersection of art and games and provides a useful example of someone operating within the field academia to explore the potentialities of the game medium. At the risk of simplistically expressing Holmes’ argument, she has suggested that the kind of video game that prevails in the marketplace today represents a thoroughly conservative use of the medium. She instead harks back to the days when the exigencies of the technology made abstract-looking games the only form of games.
My own view is that the notion that the Cartesian perspective necessarily guarantees an absence of artistic imagination is not axiomatic; and the concept that the abstract or caricuraturist approach necessarily ensures radical new vaunts of creativity is similarly problematic. But Holmes’ point is taken: imagine if visual art got stuck in its figurative groove forever. There’d be no Mondrian, no Pollack. In fact, one suspects, no video games.
So the Real Thing is where it is at, or at least versions of it. A recent edition of the British game industry bible Develop featured an article by editor Owain Bennallack who claimed that, “Style, not realism is the aim for game graphics . . .” Bennallack convincingly argued that, “Games are on the brink of a critical transition the transition from visuals-for-gameplay’s sake to art-for-the-game’s sake.” The idea of games becomming more arty is an appealing one to somebody who believes that games and play are serious business. But it would be nice to think that we don’t always need the realist or figurative, that just because the technology allows us to do it, we don’t actually have to do it. Evolution, as always, will find a way.