Almost three generations removed from the birth of video games it’s not lost on me that I enjoy a medium forged through years of refinement and innovation. I live in a world where Call of Duty only exists because Doom and Wolfenstein invented the first person shooter in the 90s. A world where TellTale can pump out adventure game after adventure game because creative geniuses such as Tim Schafer crafted the genre with classic titles like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle. A world where all new video games are essentially bits and pieces of other games put together to create something new while still retaining the senescence of its influencers. Understanding where video games came from is the only way to really know what we are doing moving forward. Anyone who truly wants to get into games as a critic or especially as a designer needs to develop an appreciation for game history and old games.
“Computers had their origin in military cryptography—in a sense, every computer game represents the commandeering of a military code-breaking apparatus for purposes of human expression.” ― Austin Grossman,
Let’s make one thing clear right away. Developing an appreciation for game history does not mean you have to love old games. It’s okay if you go back to an old game and do not immediately enjoy the experience. If you pick up and try to play Grim Fandango after playing modern point and click adventure games like The Wolf Among Us or Myst you might have a hard time. That’s because those new games have had the opportunity to learn from and refine those older experiences. In retrospect designers and developers can clearly see what worked and what didn’t work so when making a new game they can distill the existing formula for a more intuitive experience.
So if modern games are more refined, more intuitive experiences than the ones that pioneered the genre and were a little bit rough around the edges why bother to even play the old ones? Do you play them because they’re “classics”? Do you play Super Mario Bros. 3 or Half Life 2 because if you haven’t you’re not a real gamer? Of course not, that’s dumb. “Gamer” is a self-prescribed term. The reason to play old games is to better understand the medium and the progression of mechanisms.
“Many early games introduced fundamental new technologies, inventions and themes and did crucial pioneering work that laid the foundation [for today’s hits]. Older titles will be remembered for their craftsmanship and timeless elegance.” – Trip Hawkins, founder of Digital Chocolate
Before games had the luxury of powerful hardware that could deliver gorgeous worlds and craft immersive environments, gameplay was king. If a game wasn’t engaging mechanically and didn’t offer tight, focused controls then there wasn’t much else to save it. If Super Mario Bros. played like crap and Mario wasn’t actually enjoyable to control then people wouldn’t have played it. No one really cared about the Mushroom Kingdom or the distraught Toadstools. They cared about landing that perfect jump and the satisfaction of safely manoeuvring to the flag pole. They cared about finding secrets and discovering new ways to beat a level. The experience was distilled compared to modern games. Being able to understand these basics, like the jump in Mario, enables you to better understand new games and identify their influences and inspirations. It also enables you as a designer to take these basic, focused mechanics and add them to your toolbox so that you can use them in your own games.
So I implore you, as a designer, a critic or just somebody who loves games and wants to understand them to go back and play old games. Understand the basic mechanisms that made the game successful and look for ways that newer games took those mechanisms and tweaked them or made them better. This will give you a lens through which to examine video games and as a designer it will give you a toolbox from which to draw inspiration and ideas for your own games, both of which are invaluable.