Made To Be Broken

A few months back, I wrote a piece about how both my feelings of nostalgia and general malaise towards more recent generations have cropped into how I view the medium of video games as they move forward: that is, negatively. Needless to say, there are just certain trends that are making me feel burnt out and I somehow long for what I remember as gaming’s “Wild West” era. While I was conceiving the piece, I was persuaded to split it in half and the previous article dealt with the more loose and open nature of the console market in general, focusing on just how many companies tried to break into the video game market in an effort to revolutionize it, but ended up as “also-ran” footnotes in the ever-lengthening history of video games.

This time around, I’ll be focusing more on oddities within the games of this time period themselves – games that would clearly be indies if they were made today. Though for the most part, I’ll be focusing on various cultural shifts that happened during this time period, many of which have had reverberations that affect the medium to this day. Perhaps if some of these events hadn’t happened, video games as a whole would look completely different. Shifts that may very well have only happened due to the sheer fluidity of the format at the time they occurred, things that may have even been impossible if they happened today.

One of the reasons I decided to write these articles in the first place was due to a story I had read online that just amazed me. It involved the cult classic D, an avant-garde full-motion video adventure game released in 1995 on the 3DO, Sega Saturn, PlayStation and PC – the latter has recently been re-released on Good Old Games. The game’s creator, the late Kenji Eno related a story to 1UP about the game’s development. He actually added the game’s story late in the game’s development and it involved cannibalism, a taboo subject in many parts of the world. In order to assure that the game was released uncensored, Eno submitted the game for approval late, sending a copy without the story segments. He then switched that copy with the full game, sending it to be printed out. I am just awed by this story: if anything like this were to happen today, the game would have likely have been recalled and every original copy would have likely have been destroyed.

Indeed, the entire landscape of the video game market changed back in 1993. Due to the controversial video game releases of Night Trap and Mortal Kombat, both in their full unaltered state on various Sega platforms, there was a congressional hearing over whether or not video games with “controversial content” should have been completely banned. That’s right, the United States Congress threatened to ban video games with violent or sexual content, not unlike Germany or Australia’s wide array of video game regulation. In the end, a compromise was made: the video game industry decided to self-regulate content and educate parents on the type of content the products they were selling contained, in order to allow them to make informed purchases of material they deemed appropriate for their children. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was founded the following year in 1994. It was later joined by Japan’s Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO) in 2002 and Pan European Game Information (PEGI) in 2003. In the end, this was probably a net positive overall, but what I find ironic about this was that Sega was putting ratings on their games before the ESRB was even established.

Night Trap and D were both what were referred to as “full-motion video” (commonly abbreviated as “FMV”) games, utilizing the then-cutting edge ability of CD-based consoles to create an entire video game experience using video clips. Typically, these games utilized live-action footage, thus creating “graphics” that trump even modern video games in terms of realism. Of course, this would generally come at the cost of complex gameplay experiences: gameplay was rarely more complex than the quick-time events we’ve seen in video games for generations. Of course, we’ve recently seen a resurgence in the genre, via indie developers. Though this time around, it would seem that the games made in the revival are less about providing graphical fidelity and more about creating “art” – scare quotes intended.

Of course, the existence of FMV games as a genre brings up another point. This may just be a matter of my own perception, but it seemed like there was a time when popular titles would lead into entirely new genres. I remember watching the “first-person shooter” genre blossom from the more derogatory “Doom clones”. Street Fighter II, while not the first fighting game, cemented various aspects of the 2D fighting game genre. These days, it seems like we never surpass the “clone” phase of this evolution: the closest we’ve gotten is the deluge of “crafting” games in the wake of Minecraft, but this generally just leads to games in existing genres adopting its unique elements.

Likewise, another thing I’d consider to be better in “the good ol’ days” would be the limitations put upon developers. In generations past, developers were generally only limited by whatever hardware they were developing for. This would generally lead to clever solutions to problems: arcade games would be entirely overhauled if they weren’t suitable for consoles, various perspective cheats would be used to create amazing graphical tricks and sometimes even entirely new hardware could be added to offset whatever limitations the systems in question had. Meanwhile, in the modern era, developers seem to have the exact opposite problem – an amazing amount of power to work with, but generally held back by the far more mundane problem of a lack of resources. Strict deadlines, a lack of manpower or finances: these are the major bottlenecks that plague today’s developers. In an era where it seems like we’re getting less and less for the same amount, it’s just sad to consider that we’re effectively being cheated out of the best possible games of this generation for such bland reasons.

In the end, perhaps the reason that video games as a medium feels far less elastic and much more deeply rooted in various traditions is due to the simple fact that they have a history now. Much like how early motion pictures were far more inventive than modern films, video games have gone through their own set of growing pains and settled on various frameworks. While adhesion to whatever institutions that have taken root in the industry are obviously not mandatory, they’ve effectively become a groove that the industry as a whole have settled into, effectively creating the landscape we know today.

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