If you think about it, the concept of a video game console in your home should have been a contentious one. At the time of the Atari home systems, a video game was an upright mechanical monster of bleeping lights and coin slots: it was, in essence, a gambling machine. Who wants a slot machine in their living room? No one.
But with the creation of the “roguelike” genre powered by the Steam community, arcade designs have re-emerged. Games are difficult, done in pixel-art graphics, and reduced to two-button inputs. Perma-death has run rampant once again. Why have arcade designs come back?
Nintendo was the reason they disappeared in the first place. The reason they filled the void left by Atari and took over the industry and raised a generation of Americans, the reason the NES was a success, is that it was the first console to design games beyond the arcade. Even though the Atari 2600 and 5200 were in your living room, their games were still score-based. They were designed with rigid levels (“boards,” we called them) that barely changed between “rounds.” They were difficult, as they were in the arcade, to the point of impossibility. The design reflected the purpose. But the purpose wasn’t to be fun: it was to be addicting. The purpose was to take your money, even though by Atari’s time, you were playing in your living room for free. It was a slot machine with unlimited tries and no prizes. We wanted something more.
Nintendo made gaming an adventure. Scores and levels started disappearing. When procedural generation was invented, it became conceivable to play a game forever and never repeat yourself. Gaming could become the adventure of your life, in Pandora or Skyrim or Hyrule. The ceiling was blown off the industry’s limitations.
But here’s a curious development: the creation of new limitations in the form of graphical expectations, production schedules, and convention. By convention I mean not just what people expect from their games but what the industry expects people to expect from their games. There are quite a few stories of designers being “too creative” for an industry that wants to gamble on a sure thing. Publishers figured out that not all games are risks, and I think this is where things started to change.
Lorne Lanning is the example I always think of. He tried to continue making his Oddworld games, which in their daring darkness and broody comedy stand out from an industry of yearly releases and first-person shooters. But he had trouble from the beginning, had to compromise his projects, and never finished his series. Why? He thought the industry was still playing slot machines, that the publishers would pull the lever and roll with the results of his designs. But he was wrong. The industry had moved on. Now it was playing roulette, and when NFL and Call of Duty games are always on red and red always makes a profit, why should they bet on black?
I saw a lot of games from 2001 – 2010 that tried to be old-school or hardcore or creative, and I saw them undersell and disappear. This is so true that practically all of my favorite games from this era are what you might call “hidden gems,” games like P.N.03 and SkyGunners. There were some successes if a game could get a cult behind it: Odin Sphere and Katamari Damacy come to mind. But did these outsell Modern Warfare? No they did not.
So it’s interesting to me that PC gaming has gone back to the arcade. It makes me think that those ten years of intense restructuring were a temporary high fueled by graphics and by all the publishers diluting the market by putting too much money on red, red, red.
Now the great games on release are being conceived in two dimensions, with permanent death reworked into the equation but now without scores or lives. We haven’t simply gone back to the arcade: we’ve evolved. We’ve conflated what we know into something new. The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky and Downwell and Rogue Legacy and FTL represent the hardcore, the first gamer, re-emerging from the general gaming audience that didn’t exist when Mario squashed his first Goomba. Playing these games trifles with your emotions, though not with your wallets. Each play-through costs something in time and intensity. You give of yourself a little bit when you decide to try again from the beginning against the odds of an ending likely not even in your sight.
But we’re ready to be intense again. We’re ready to let go of the Navis and the Professor Oaks, ready to be let out into unknown wilds or into the labyrinth with only our wits about us. We’re willing to place all our bets on player skill instead of on cinematic design.
The whole industry has heard this cry: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is nothing short of a rebuttal to the neo-arcades on PC using what AAA can do best, with graphics and size. It’s a practical demand that we continue looking to AAA for our adventures, to insist that Skyward Sword and over-tutorialization are back in the 2000s where they belong. Will AAA catch up, or will the bubble burst on all their conventions to shift console attention completely to the PC? I don’t know.
And I’m not sure it matters. Teams of one person have made better in the last few years than the entire previous decade in the AAA. The reason is that they’ve returned the centricity of their designs back to where it belongs: to the ideal player. To the one willing to test limitations and improve skills, rather than the one who hasn’t got time for any of that. The focus is no longer on casual gamers who happen to own a console (I’m sure you know one of those), but on those who beat Ghosts n’ Goblins in the arcade, who know the master quest Legend of Zelda by hearts, who took the ambiguity of Metroid as an ambition rather than a complaint.
It may seem at times that game have changed very little since the arcade, but the spirit of that design crossed decades to get to today. They’re not trying to take your money anymore. They’re trying to give you your adventures back.