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How will we remember classic video games?

What is your favourite film? And how many times have you seen it? One of mine is Heat, Michael Mann’s crime epic from 1995. The film is a perfect marriage of style and substance with two lead actors at the top of their game.

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Halo

Heat has been a personal classic from the day I first saw it. Since 1995 I expect I’ve watched it 10 or 12 times. Certainly enough to know the dialogue intimately and to have memorised particular shots and sequences. For me it’s a film that is never diminished by repeat viewings.

Another favourite is Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A comedy that I could probably recite from start to finish. Again, my familiarity with the film is part of the fun and each viewing adds to my appreciation.

There is a pleasure in being slightly obsessive over a piece of art. A joy in learning what makes something successful and a thrill in understanding its artistic choices. And appreciating movies is really easy to do. Just put a few hours aside, sit back and you’re done.

With games, it’s not so simple. They don’t always give you the opportunity. And for a number of reasons.

For a start, you can’t fail a movie. Even a simple old retro game can be something of an unknown quantity. Difficulty spikes, old-school save mechanics, a paucity of lives – these are all things can make older video games difficult to revisit, no matter how good they are. A complete run of Super Mario Bros may only take a few hours, but if you are not at the top of your game, it can be a bit of a test.

There is also the small matter of hardware. How can an old game be universally regarded as a classic when it’s so hard for the wider population to play it? Films, books and music transcend platform in a way that games are currently unable. A book is a book is a book. A game needs a platform.

For acknowledged classics this is less of an issue. Nintendo’s eShop will always carry their hits and Sony is also making old titles available through services like PlayStation Now. But for other lower profile games regarded as cult classics it’s is increasingly hard to know if their reputation is earned.

Remakes offer a way to keep older games alive. Bringing back old classics with a new lick of paint is now par for the course, even for titles only a year old. (See you next week, GTAV). The likes of Nintendo’s Zelda remakes and the recent Halo: The Master Chief Collection are all welcome. These are valid ways of giving players the chance to relive older classics, but they are not a true representation of the original experience. The Halo collection gives you the option to use the old graphic models, but it‘s not the same as playing it on an CRT screen at its original resolution with an old Xbox controller. And the likelihood is that when the next generation arrives these games will probably need to be remade all over again.

Perhaps the biggest problem is one of scope. Many recent classics are sprawling epics containing infinite paths and unlimited possibilities. Hardware isn’t the issue here, it’s size. How can you become intimately familiar with a game when it takes 50-100 hours to experience?

The strength of games is in their capacity to tell stories that are unique to the player. It is impossible to fully comprehend a game like Skyrim, for example. Yes, you can detail every mission, log every side-quest and note every object. But you can’t document every individual’s choices and decisions. My Skyrim is not your Skyrim and vice versa. However, two viewers can watch Heat and whether they like it or not, respond to the exact same stimuli of story, direction, visuals and sound. Each Skyrim player will have a unique experience. The core elements may be similar, but little else. With games, the player is as much the author as its creators.

Great games justifiably earn their plaudits, but as time rumbles on these accolades are increasingly based on memories and devoid of context. There will be few players who tackle Skyrim more than once and in twenty years from now even fewer who can speak with authority about its merits in detail. But it will still be easy to watch Heat, or reread The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The progression of technology also has an impact in the assessment and recollection of classic games. When I watch Heat or Casablanca on my 40” TV, the experience is broadly similar to the one I would have experienced at the cinema. The same does not always apply to games.

I recently played a few GoldenEye 007 death matches, once held as the pinnacle of console multiplayer. It was borderline unplayable. 15 years of software and hardware advances have moved the needle so far that going back is a painful experience. In fact it tarnished some my memories. Yet, should those advances negate the fact that in 1998 GoldenEye 007 WAS the best game on Earth? Should those achievements and memories be diminished? Of course not. Context matters.

Another example is Crackdown. A game that seems so recent, yet feels so old when you play it. Nevertheless, I maintain that it’s one of the most important games of the last decade and a stone-cold classic.

Scope, technology, hardware and personal experience make games difficult artifacts to quantify and understand. That’s their beauty. That is the reason we love them. But it does pose a problem for the future. The merits of many classic games will have to be taken on trust. There will be no way to experience them in a way that recaptures their original context. And will there even be a future desire to set aside 100 hours to revisit a game in full?

This doesn’t mean that games are worse than other artistic forms. Far from it. But it does mean that enduring classics will have a harder time proving their worth than their equivalents in other media.


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Thumbsticks editor and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Dragon Quest XI, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Transistor.