It’s an often-repeated truism about modern society that we no longer build things to last, that we’ve devoted ourselves and our culture to producing brief, impermanent artifacts. Consider the Pyramids of Egypt, still standing after 4,000 years, or even the surviving medieval castles dotted around the landscape of Europe like intruders from a parallel dimension. What will our glass-and-concrete towers leave behind after a millennium of disuse, or even a century?
This impermanence extends to almost every facet of culture now: the way we communicate over social networks, the newspapers, books or more likely web articles we read, the television and movies we watch and the games we play.
In a strange reaction to this very fact of modern living, many and more of us have become secret hoarders. We all know people who collect, I’ll even admit to being an inveterate book fanatic myself. But what about the mounds and masses of digital video and audio that the majority of us are piling up? I couldn’t name a single person I know who doesn’t collate and store music in a way that would seem both magical and tremendously wasteful to people only fifty years ago.
It used to be the case that while important institutions and modes of life stayed stable and seemingly unchanging, the actual products of living changed constantly. Before the development of mass communication networks, villages in one part of a country rarely shared something so basic as a language with another region. Songs, stories, history and mythology played a role in differentiating groups from one another, and without a central authority determining how a text should be interpreted, revisions and re-interpretations were rife.
For example, we can now read Homer’s The Iliad in paperback, and most texts bought anywhere in the world will be substantially the same. But Homer (if indeed he was ever a real person, and not simply a name given to appeal to a heroic past) lived in a time before writing, before libraries and when communicating over long distances meant telling your message to someone who happened to be travelling in approximately the direction you wanted it to go. The Iliad changed with every telling, and the bones of the original story were quickly covered with the accretions of popular myths and legends.
Now, we’ve become used to the idea that there is a settled, single version of a cultural artifact that can be referred to. Indeed, a large amount of time and money goes into preserving the putative uniqueness of ideas. Just try and make a derivative work using footage from a recent Hollywood film and see how far you get before the lawyers swing into action.
In a way, while the way we live our lives is in a process of continual revolution, while the jobs we do and the relationships we make continue to change, while technology continues to accelerate and show us new and exciting possibilities, our attitude to the products of this overwhelming power for change seems to be more regressive than ever before. Nostalgia is the characteristic cultural position of the early 21st century, just as faith in progress was the characteristic of the end of the 19th.
How does this apply to games, I hear you ask?
Well, as a young cultural form, it might be expected to exhibit all the brash urgency of older industries such as the movie business during the silent film era. Just like the black and white comedies of Mack Sennett, big game studios often throw out unoriginal, disposable experiences designed to be consumed and forgotten. The proliferation of big-budget sequels is an indication of the immaturity of games in dealing with complex issues, and the fact that as a capital-intensive process AAA development is structurally biased against rolling the dice on innovative and disruptive projects.
But despite this relative lack of age, which is reflected in a great deal of the discourse around gaming (Games as art anyone? Gaming’s Citizen Kane?), the creeping re-appropriation of early experiences and the appeals to gaming history as a linear progression that is fixed and comprehensible is a significant undercurrent. In fact, it’s remarkable that in a medium so young, so much of the totemic power of games in society is based on a connection to the past.
Consider the position of arcades. Outside of Japan, arcade games have withered away to a rump, become a fringe activity only available to well-heeled enthusiasts in isolated places. It could hardly be described as a mass market activity, is what I’m getting at. To most gamers of my generation and younger, our formative experiences were built from cartridges and television sets, poorly ergonomically designed controllers and Mario. But the industry seems intent on ramming arcade-style gaming down our throats, endlessly re-releasing the classics of the late 70′s and 80′s and building the mechanics that applied to an earlier age into games that will never touch a purpose-built cabinet.
Look at the Microsoft’s Game Room program for the Xbox 360 — it’s a literal museum for arcade machines that were old before many of the people reading this post were born. Can you really capture the essence of what it meant to someone playing for the first time on a Galaga cabinet back in 1981, after so much has changed?
What does it all mean?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not assigning undue value to novelty. My argument isn’t that we should simply throw away the past, forget that it ever existed and go on making the same crass mistakes over and over again. Believe me, as someone who has suffered through decades of seeing the problems of one gaming generation overcome only to see the same idiotic design decisions crop up again and again, I am wholly in favour of learning from our history.
But that’s just the point. History is there to be learned from, not to be slavishly aped. To me, the appeal of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus is not lessened by the years between then and now, and a point-for-point remake seems like a tremendous waste of time for everyone involved. The very fact that we are forced to look backwards for the titles making the giant leaps forward should worry us more than it seems to.
Where are the innovators, the maverick developers? Iterative design and graphics polishing seem to have taken the place of experimentation and real advances in the way we do things. Motion controls, which were often touted as the eruptive force coming to shift the ground on which we stand, have barely made an impact from a critical standpoint. It’s nice that you can play tennis with a Wii remote, or wave your hands to smash legions of bad guys with Kinect, but I am left waiting for the experiences that are really impossible to achieve without the new technology.
What I’m suggesting is that we stop looking to re-experience the things that delighted us as children, and start exploring the possibilities that the world we live in now offers us. The pace of change is only accelerating, and I for one am excited to find out where our inventive powers will lead us. Let go of the past, and join me.