The Challenge Of Taking Old Games Seriously

By Dennis Scimeca
Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm
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Can someone tell me what the hell an -Ikari- warrior is, anyway?
I recently received a PlayStation Network code for a downloadable copy of Ikari Warriors. It was part of a batch of titles from the publisher SNK that we reviewed on Joystick Division. The game looked precisely as I remembered it from the golden age of arcades, and after playing a few rounds of the PlayStation 3 version, I realized that I was having a lot of trouble taking it seriously, because it was so old.

I've never had quite the same reaction to an old book, piece of music, or movie, that I often have to an old video game. I suspect this may not only be an issue unique to video games among other art forms, but may also bode poorly on the potential for video games to truly ever "grow up."
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Citizen Kane is an "oldie but goodie." In video games, we might only ever have "oldies."

Frankenstein was written 166 years before I first cracked the pages of my copy in a science fiction literature course my senior year of high school, but it fit right alongside books in the same curriculum written only 20 years previous. The big band music I played as a jazz trombonist had been written 60 years before my first performance, but it only felt different, not outdated, compared to what I heard on the radio.

Citizen Kane was shot 50 years before I entered Boston University's film program as a sophomore, yet when I saw the movie, it felt as fresh as any other film I saw that year, and I can still watch the SyFy Channel's New Year's Twilight Zone marathon and feel like I'm watching regular television versus an old TV show.

Yet if I try to play Adventure on the Atari 2600 it's nothing more than a quaint experience that I'm only interested in for about a minute. I have an original NES but when I play The Legend of Zelda it's clearly "just a blast from the past," and I don't even own a PlayStation 1 anymore. These old systems and their libraries do not feel important or relevant on anything other than an intellectual perspective as a critic, or a nostalgic one as someone who lived through the ages when these systems were contemporary and new.

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Tennis for Two is arguably the earliest video game ever made...but would it even feel like a video game? Could we possibly truly think of it that way?

The difference between video games and all these other forms of art is interactivity. Unlike any other art form, personal experience of the primary document is the greater, or perhaps solitary, part of comprehension. And this is the challenge of taking an old game seriously, because our experience playing video games has changed so radically in only a 40-year period, at a breakneck speed that mirrors the development of the technology which spawned the games themselves. The feeling of playing a video game keeps changing.

We could look back at the very earliest films, produced by Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, and say that no one but the most serious film buff or historian would take them seriously anymore because watching them doesn't feel like "watching movies." They're tech demos, not narrative expressions.

The analogs for video games would be Dr. William Higinbotham's Tennis for Two and Ralph Baer's Let's Play! games system. We can see where the technology was going, but they're so rudimentary that it may take a modern-day gamer some effort to imagine what it was like to use those devices and feel like one was actually playing a video game.

This suggests that any art form which is dependent upon technological breakthroughs might have to spawn early works which aren't recognizable as the modern forms in any but the most rudimentary, matter-of-fact fashions.

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These cave paintings in Lascaux, France are arguably some of the earliest paintings, but they still feel like paintings

Art which doesn't depend on technology for its core definition skips this step. We can look, for instance, at the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. They are considered paintings in and of themselves, not merely experiments or precursors to paintings, not even to casual observers. The first story written down in words would still have been a story, not a "proto-story," the first song was still actually a song, etc.. Everything going forward was a matter of increasing the complexity and variety of the forms, not actually becoming the forms themselves.

The reason this question of how we look at the earliest video games matters vexes me is because if video games are art, then they've always been art, so once we get past this theoretical, necessary stage of technological infancy, pretty much every video game from the release of the Atari 2600 forward should have some level of interest for a devotee of video games, the same way that an audiophile can get something from old records, or how bookworms love old literature, or how film buffs appreciate Welles and Eisenstein.

But here I sit, the very definition of whatever we'd label a student of video games, and I'm looking at Ikari Warriors, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. In any other form of art, that's not very much time at all, but in the video game world, Ikari Warriors feels somewhere between mere historical curiosity and irrelevance. It doesn't speak to me of the current language of video games at all. It's just a stepping stone.

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Half-Life 2 is an argument for why we don't need better tech. It is constructed with what is nowadays fairly underpowered software, and is still better than FPS games running on more advanced engines.

This feels uncomfortable in and of itself, but also raises the specter of an even darker question: at what point will video games ever reach a place of permanent relevance? If this is merely a matter of technological advancements rendering generations of platforms so clearly inferior to one another over short passages of time, those advancements show no sign of stopping. When we're playing in virtual reality rooms with full-body tactile input, will Gears of War 3 look like a dinosaur? Will we laugh at the graphics in L.A. Noire?

If the experience of playing a video game, which is to say the language of video games, keeps changing, we may never develop stable points of reference the way we do with other forms of art, and our video game past may always turn into a disposable commodity. In such a world, our ability to compose meaningful messages in that language will only become more difficult as the technology changes exponentially more quickly.

All games will become "old games" faster and faster, at which point it will not only become difficult to take past games seriously, but even present ones, if we know they're going to quickly become obsolete. This is why I react with boredom to id and Epic telling us how much more we can do with the PC, and when I hear rumors about the Xbox 720 or PlayStation 4. What we have is good enough, probably for a very long time. We don't need better tools. We need more creative use of the ones we already have.

First Person is a weekly column by Dennis Scimeca, a freelancer from Boston, MA. You can catch up with his recent work through his blog at punchingsnakes.com, or abuse him on Twitter for denying you your new console: @DennisScimeca.

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