When I was a kid I wondered where games would be, twenty years into tomorrow. I never would have guessed they’d be older than they were then. Advancement, as we understood it, seems to have peaked somewhere around the mid-2000s. Water and lighting effects, AI control, cut-scene animations, all have gotten steadily more over-real, more uncannily like a high-def camera’s idea of reality. But in the essential conceptualization of games, anything a director could reasonably conceive could be done as long ago as the PlayStation 2.
I know there are differences between Sunset Overdrive (2014) and Jet Set Radio (2000), or between Bloodborne (2015) and King’s Field (1994), but my point is that the differences are aesthetic. How they appear has changed but their basic notions, the sparks that set the idea of them into development, are very much the same.
I thought about this, mulling over the state of the industry after the release of the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy. It’s been a mini-crisis for me, because Crash was a game my friends and I played at sleepovers. I remember the commercials done with a guy in a costume that looked like a bad sports mascot. I remember it being touted down my face holes that if you didn’t play Crash, you just weren’t cool enough. Now Sony has this love letter remake project, and I have to wonder if games just haven’t gone anywhere since I was a kid.
But the Indie game scene has been acknowledging this for years, and going along with it. Now games look creative and unique when they look like they were developed in the 80s. Think about that. If the industry was the same in 1997 as it is now, the equivalent of Stardew Valley or Undertale or Axiom Verge would be a game on PS1 done in vector graphics. An N64 release that looked like Space Invaders. I grew up in the time when the entire industry was rejecting anything that had fewer than three dimensions. We were so caught up in advancing that we forgot how to design games, and a lot of the industry is still like this, though in a different way.
It’s more cynical now because so much of the industry approaches AAA projects like gambling. They don’t want to give a million to a guy with a weird new idea, when they could gamble more optimistically on the guy who can get the next yearly NBA game out with slightly better sweat animations. The majority of the industry has reclined into the habit of what I grew up thinking was an innovation. And I’m not saying I’m nostalgic.
I remember whole properties sucked up into the black hole of 3D conversion. I remember Castlevania 64, Earthworm Jim 3D, C: The Contra Adventure. Everyone knows how some IPs couldn’t handle the graphics transplant, rejected it, died on the table. But this was happening even in good games, and now that we look back the phenomenon of three dimensions seems even more foolish. Chrono Cross was not as beautiful as Chrono Trigger. Final Fantasy VII was advanced, but it doesn’t hold up like Final Fantasy VI does. Are we yet at the point when we can admit that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a huge step backwards from A Link to the Past?
The one-man project-based niche of the industry is at that point. Bastion, Transistor, and Hyper Light Drifter have reminded us of the old isometric days. I could go on, citing Stardew Valley as a perfect fit for MS-DOS, or laud Shovel Knight as a modern NES gem. Death’s Gambit is coming up and I can’t wait to play the latest Rygar/ Ninja Gaiden/ Zelda II.
These games helped me get this all straight in my head. 3D effects reached a point where they had no room for creativity, or at least, the industry had no mental space to put it in. The gambling analogy still applies – you wouldn’t play Black Jack if you knew for certain that Roulette would land on red. But then again, I had to ask myself: where’s Crash coming from? And the Shadow of the Colossus remaster? And the Final Fantasy VII remake?
It’s so curious to me that it verges on the anthropological. I think the AAA industry is trying to grasp what’s happening on the Indie scene. I think this rush of throwback projects is their approach to the unknowable nostalgia that they see but can’t quite grasp, like a native culture seeing a man on horseback and drawing one, two-mouthed dragon monster.
Nostalgia to them is like that perfectly rendered NBA player sweat: the latest selling point. The N. Sane Trilogy is a ploy to get old games re-bought. They think they’ve struck gold, recycling assets at the expense of your childhood memories.
But there are singular creatives right now – people like Tom Happ and Eric Barone – who are realizing their mental image of the games they used to play, while the rest of the industry is making literal copies. A lot of these games are better than the good ol’ days, because they’re a product of decades of sleepovers and fantasies, of children now in adult bodies trying to recreate what they saw, when the real thing just isn’t good enough anymore.
AAA keeps dealing in real things. If it doesn’t figure out why that’s not enough, it may find itself becoming one of the memories.