I thought a lot about the tone of this first post. Pretentious, self-deprecating, insufferably witty. Then it occurred to me how important it is to someday have something to look back on and cringe over as my awkward starting point before I’d really found my voice. As if that’s just a thing you do someday. Suddenly, a voice! Grab it before it goes gabbing away!
So I’m just going to go with it and fuck the haters. That’s a thing people say, I think. It means they don’t care what other people think except I definitely care what other people think because I spent time out of my life researching what the accepted spelling of video games is so that nobody hates me on the internet. Turns out it’s two words, usually.
Anyway. The Overvulture: Watching Video Games Die. There are a lot of implications behind a slogan like that and only about half of them are that I’m a pretentious dickhead. There is something inherently wrong with the current state of the video game industry as a whole that threatens something I’ve always loved with total extinction, leaving me feeling like I’m picking through the bones of a once mighty beast looking for the juicy squishy bits. There’s no worry that video games as a concept are just going to vanish at any moment and we’ll just have to play our backlogs forever, despite what some alarmists may say. It’s just that video games are creeping away from what they used to mean, from who they used to entertain, and finding a new, terrifying audience the likes of which nocturnal, pasty creatures like me shun as filthy heretics.
I have enjoyed hours upon hours of video games since I was a tiny idiot who didn’t know how to draw his sword on the first level of the original Prince of Persia but loved playing that one level again and again. From the bleeping bloops that were the hand-me-down late 80’s to the token-guzzling arcades of the early 90’s and through a handful of home consoles and then computers, it is a pastime which I’ve always been just a little weirdly passionate about compared to my peers and have probably invested more time in than anything else in my life aside from sleeping. And even then that’s a probably.
Something I’ve done that much is probably important to me, something which at least partially defines me as a person. Which is a reality that makes me want to cry a little or at least look in a mirror and whisper “fuck you” for a while. Like most technology, video games have advanced exponentially by the year and are nearly unrecognizable compared to those that I and other 20-somethings grew up with. While they certainly existed before the 90’s, this generation is the first that grew up alongside them, and caught them in their prime making leaps and bounds forward instead of meandering around for a decade. It’s a special part of our lives and we love to cling to the idea that we somehow understand them better than the kids today who don’t know what SNES stands for, like the one asshole friend who can’t stop talking about how watered-down the movie was compared to the book.
Video games are a relatively young industry that has changed tremendously over the years, and as more body parts get sloppily Frankensteined onto the bloated, staggering monster it has become, the less recognizable it is to those who have had it all their lives. Said monster is still pretty fun at parties and tells a better story than he did when he was human, but has a tendency to rifle through your sock drawer for change and tell the same joke that was funny the first three times just to see if he can still get a chuckle and I should be dragged outside and kicked mercilessly for dragging this metaphor out. Point is, where once there was a shining, central beacon of ignorance-filtered gaming joy shot straight into our underdeveloped little brains, now there are a lot more pieces to pick through, with potentially more discoveries and even more potential for disappointment. Something has changed, something fundamental in the philosophy of what really defines a game.
Maybe it’s just us, getting old. This thought and all the existential horror that comes with it never quite leaves me. Maybe my brain just isn’t wired the same way it used to be, no longer getting those sweet, sweet zaps of Pavlovian pleasure from the moment I press start. Maybe I’ll never again really know the higher state of being that was trying a shiny new game for the first time. The greatest games ever released could come out tomorrow and I’d just have to sit back and criticize the uneven storytelling or the slightly imbalanced mechanics instead of screaming with joy until blood shot out of my ears.
Maybe that’s part of it, but it can’t just be that. I still feel that childlike glee when something really tickles my fancy and I still gush like a stomped blueberry over my favourite games and gaming moments and so on. When I like a game enough, the smallest stupidest details on it dwell in my thoughts even while I’m away from home and I start planning out my next playing session hours or even days before I actually get back to it. It’s the kind of creepy, obsessive behaviour I’d hesitate to tell a therapist but here I am professing it for all the internet to see. There’s still that part of me which just shits when a game is just really, really good, but that feeling comes less often than it used to.
It’s not that old games are simply better. Sure, some of those old games we regard as masterpieces of their time still hold up to day for being just really well designed within the limitations of the technology. But now we have more games, bigger games that do fancier things we’d never even dream of as kids. Games can do more than they ever could and they sometimes even do. If I could send a few choice games back in time to my childhood self I would instantlly vanish from existence because my head would have fucking exploded in the past. I remember when being able to go left or right was a goddamn adventure and now I can just drop into a massive, relatively living world and explore anywhere I want without running out of time and dying for some reason.
There are still some new, fantastic games that get released every year, but the industry as a whole has simply moved on from us as a consumer base and moved onto younger, newer gamers. As technology advances, new things can be done with games, but not necessarily things we like. Whereas old RPG’s demanded a lot of imagination to make that big fight seem epic and really bring the world to life, now things are action-packed and beautifully rendered and you needn’t imagine a thing. I sound old when I decry the short attention span of modern gamers, when I remember it taking hours just to figure out how to progress through the first section of a game because I was kind of awful at games when I was a kid and games were kind of awful at letting you know you were doing the right thing.
I still play games a whole lot, but only half at most of what I play could be considered a major release. The indie game boom has been a wonderful thing for gamers of all ages, even if the huge increase in volume of games also means huge increase in crap and bandwagon jumping just like the big releases. A lot of them are a whole lot simpler than anything that cost millions to make, and definitely don’t make the most use of your fancy console or gaming computer, but I usually end up more often hooked on something simple and creative than something that promises hours of epic action.
Let’s not get pretentious and start adjusting our thick-rimmed glasses too quickly here though. I’m not saying indie is the way to go in all cases – there’s a lot you can’t accomplish on a small budget and you need to be creative to milk fun out of less. It’s silly to say that you never play ‘AAA’ games anymore because they all suck. There are some fantastic big releases, but almost every single one of them is somehow smeared by the sweaty taint of compromise, of company expectations, of deadlines and bottom lines to meet. If I named off a list of ten of my favourite big titles of the past few years, almost every single one of them has been surrounded by some controversy or other, and has a group that passionately hates it for whatever reason. Most of them can be enjoyed despite their flaws, but there’s always that -something-, that always comes up in every conversation about it. “Great game, but….”
The end result is there are plenty of good games still around that probably deserve more praise for what they got right, but fewer GREAT games, those that will last for years and that we’ll still be talking about far beyond the time anyone still cares. Games have made massive strides forward in gameplay, in visual design, in storytelling and atmosphere, but it’s a very rare game that gets them all right, all in one go. Wonderful story and world but meh gameplay, or great action and combat but fucktarded story set in Genericland, or so on. One or the other ends up grinding on us long enough that quite often these games we paid so much for don’t even end up getting finished, because for all its positive aspects, something about it just sucked enough to make us stop caring.
I don’t think this is the doom of gaming as a whole, but I do think that games have changed, and that we just need to accept that some things won’t happen anymore while being excited by those things that do. Maybe we won’t have games that are as tightly designed and perfectly planned out as the old ones we love, but we can marvel at the freedom games give us now, even if that means they’re a little rougher around the edges. Maybe we don’t have big companies working on old-school platformers or rpgs and such anymore, but we do have smaller, more creatively free companies making things we’d never even dream of 20 years ago. It’s a time to be excited as a passionate and/or obsessive gamer and it’s a time to bid farewell to old things and accept that they’ve died. Maybe a phoenix will rise from their ashes, or maybe they’re just a bunch of fucking ashes and stop staring at them like that, weirdo, nothing’s going to happen.