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Are video games too focused on the past?

Is gaming’s obsession with the past getting in the way of genuine forward progression?

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Final Fantasy VII - videogames stuck in the past

E3 2015 will stay in the minds of some gamers for years to come. It was the year where the long-demanded Final Fantasy VII remake was finally revealed, but that wasn’t all: The Last Guardian’s existence was also reaffirmed, along with the news that it would be coming to the PS4. This was bolstered by the announcement that Shenmue would finally receive the third act that its fans had been hoping for, having waited for over a decade, and they could crowdfund it right there and then.

For those who had been waiting for these games to exist the news could not have been better; the excitement was clear from the numerous posts and videos from those reacting live to the announcements, and continuing to do so following. Ultimately though, it just became noise, drowning out the other announcements. For there were other new announcements – such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Recore, and Sea of Thieves – but the interest they generated was nowhere near the scale of pre-existing IP. Given the surprising amount of new games announced during Microsoft’s conference it is a shame that the stand out moment from it still remains the Xbox One’s ability to play Xbox 360 games.

Shenmue - looking into the past

E3 2015 was not the introduction of this trend towards an increased focus on pre-existing titles, merely a continuation that has branched out from an incessant fixation on sequels, a preoccupation that still exists today. But with development of AAA titles continuing to expand in both time and money, re-releases provide a comparatively easy means of generating income that can support development of new titles, although these ‘new titles’ are often from the same series. However with full backwards compatibility (despite the Xbox One’s recent reversal) being absent from current consoles, there is a desire to be able to play video games that individuals might have missed, or were not able to play when they were released.

Even though the trend of rereleasing older titles is pleasing to elements of the game-playing audience, there is a concern that this focus on fan service could be detrimental the advancement of the medium. Video games have traditionally been very forward thinking, latching onto advancements in technology available and pushing the boundaries that existed, but the games themselves have often been somewhat exclusionary due to the complicated controls and the necessary ‘video game logic’ that is often required in order to navigate through the virtual worlds. This was instrumental in why the Wii was so revolutionary, as Nintendo sought to remove one of the barriers that prevented more people from playing video games by creating a controller that was more accessible, whilst still creating video games that contained the logic familiar to gamers. Mobile games have taken this further and have concentrated video games by often focusing on a simple element that is extrapolated for the entire game.

With this in mind, the move to bring back past titles is potentially damaging, as it risks making the medium even more insular. There is a form of language and shared understanding that exists within video games, to an extent that is not present with other mediums. That is not to say that other mediums are not holding strongly onto their past; cinema is seeing a renewed interest in film with the current Star Wars Sequel Trilogy moving the series away from the very digital technology that it had helped develop. There are of course aesthetic reasons to using ‘outdated’ tools and methods, and these can be combined with the modern to create something that is best of both worlds. This is something that The Force Awakens succeeds in achieving with its – mostly – convincing combination of practical and digital effects.

Shovel Knight - past and future togetherThat said, the benefits that can arise from combining past elements with the modern is why the attention by gamers and developers/publishers should not be ignored or derided, as interesting experiences can come out of it – take Fez’s merger of pixel art with a unique means of interaction within its digital world, or Shovel Knight providing a throwback to games from the NES – by taking advantage of some modern elements to enhance the experience, with the latter in particular demonstrating the power that an eponymous character with a strong identity can still have.

Video games have not reached their apex, despite an assumption by some that the medium has reached this point, in part due to the acceptance into the mainstream consciousness of left-field titles such as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and Her Story (among many others). Each of the video games mentioned are excellent in their own way, but it is wrong to consider them to be the best the medium can achieve. What they succeed in doing however is demonstrative of how the medium has broadened, and that such titles can be accepted among the other more traditional fayre. Whilst it is important that such titles are praised for what they do well, they should not be immune to criticism, for criticism can provide productive feedback not just to the relevant developer but also serve as advice to other developers to consider for their games. It is crucial for developers (and also those who write about video games) to not become complacent and allow for a status quo to emerge. This is linked to the argument that Ed Smith has recently made about the impact of the consensus that video games are “better now” and the potentially negative implications this can have.

This consensus could in part explain the resurgence of older nostalgic titles – when the assumption that video games cannot get much better undercuts looking towards the future – and for some all that remains is to look towards the past, for it contains memories waiting to be re-explored or stories that have been heard yet not experienced, becoming like a legend waiting to be discovered. That is the allure that older video games can provide, and it is why titles like the Final Fantasy VII remake encapsulate excitement from both those young and old. By participating in these revived titles the stories transition from primarily being memories shared to experiences shared.

These older titles have the added benefit of already having an enthusiastic fan base behind them that can help generate anticipation from those who are viewing these with fresh eyes. It is therefore comparatively easier to hype up an audience for a re-release, especially given that often it is for a highly requested title anyway. This aspect of fan requests feeds into the role that crowdfunding is having on the medium, giving a greater voice to the future audience of a game. Yet some the most popular crowdfunded projects are for spiritual sequels to previous series’ where the developers no longer have access to their IP, such as Playtonic Games’ Yooka-Laylee and Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity. Despite being ostensibly new titles, they are in essence remasters in a different shell, and they can therefore benefit from the nostalgic desires of certain aspects of its audience whilst simultaneously using the façade of newness to attract newcomers to the type of experience they are providing.

Yooka Laylee - a new future for gaming's past

Mark Twain famously stated, “There is no such thing as a new idea,” but less well-known is his explanation of this statement:

“We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use through the ages.”

This is very apt in describing the current state of the video games medium. There might not be any new ideas, but there are plenty of existing ideas that can be utilised in new ways, and it is through this experimentation process, that new video games can come about, particularly in the realm of the game jam.

This process is not just productive within the indie scene, but is also proving its worth within AAA development. Most notable is the existence of Nintendo’s Splatoon, a new IP from a company that had been criticised for not having created one in over a decade. Splatoon manages to take the conventions of a multiplayer team based shooter and subvert it: killing members of an opposing team is not the pathway to victory and bloody violence is replaced with bright colourful ink that is spread across the stage to score points, all wrapped up in contemporary Japanese urban style. This has helped Splatoon standout amongst its contemporaries, which are starting to appear stale, even winning best shooter and best multiplayer at The Game Awards 2015, and selling more than 4 million copies. What Splatoon demonstrates is that it is possible to utilise new combinations to make something feel (to quote Splatoon) fresh despite using pre-existing ideas.

Therefore it might not be so bad that there are those who get excited about rereleases of old video games, as hopefully they can appreciate the elements that make these titles standout and can be more informed of what can make this medium so unique, and this can help it continue to evolve by utilising past ideas via new combinations.


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Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

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Despite studying Politics at Undergrad and then War Studies at Master's level, James managed to write multiple essays relating to technology and more importantly video games.