An interesting debate popped up recently between the Extra Credits crew, about the merits or necessity of playing older games.
So, we thought we'd bring that discussion here to talk about the importance of understanding our heritage, how we got here, and the difficulty of not losing our past.
Anybody who wants to be part of the video game industry should play classic games.
Now maybe this isn't a big deal to the average player, although you may be missing out on some great older gems.
But anybody who wants to be a game designer or really any discipline in the industry should have some understanding of our medium's history.
Now you don't have to necessarily LIKE all those older games, but they are important to understanding the evolution of our field.
But why is this important? Well, because games are a hit-driven industry, which means a lot of games get made in response to the success of other games.
Right now for instance, we're seeing a bunch of battle royale titles.
A decade ago it was modern military shooters, and before that, it was MMOs.
You get the idea.
But for every PUBG, CoD, WoW or LoL, there was some initial starting point, some inceptive game that caused each of these trends.
So it's definitely worth checking out said game and seeing what it did that captured the game-buying public's attention.
And when you do that, it usually goes even deeper, because there wouldn't be a WoW without EverQuest, or a PUBG without DayZ.
So if these newer games are so heavily influenced by the older games, why not just study the new ones? I mean, close enough, right? Well those progenitors are usually simpler and more focused on their core concept, making it easier to examine what makes them tick.
For example, newer games in the Pokémon series have gotten more and more complex, necessitating more tutorials, cutscenes, and mechanics, and sometimes it can take quite a while before the game actually lets you battle and catch Pokémon.
If you look back to Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue, you'll find you fight your first battle within five minutes.
And in about 15 minutes, you can start catching new Pokémon, so it's much easier to examine what makes that core experience compelling.
Also, examining older titles can shed light on what didn't work, especially if you look for things they cut later in the series, which in turn will help you avoid those mistakes yourself.
Now admittedly, sometimes it can be difficult to go back to those older games.
Aging graphics, poor accessibility, and bad translations can sometimes make it hard to see what made those foundational games so influential.
But it's important to examine these games, in the context of their time, to understand how they laid the groundwork for later games to expand on.
And of course, accusations of nostalgia do get thrown around a lot.
And let's be honest, the industry does love to exploit nostalgic imagery.
But as often as not, older games are beloved because they were good back then and often still hold up today.
I mean, that's what a classic is, isn't it? A work that stands the test of time.
For example, one game that popped up in our initial discussion about this topic was The Binding of Isaac because there's no question that that game was heavily influenced by the original Legend of Zelda.
And if the Legend of Zelda was completely obsolete and had no appreciable influence on the medium, then we wouldn't see titles drawing from it a quarter century later.
And of course, The Binding of Isaac added roguelike systems and shooter mechanics, but it all works because it's based on the solid gameplay of that first Zelda game.
Also, looking back is a way to inspire long-term innovation, because I think our hit-driven industry often comes across major roadblocks when new games simply copy the template of successful games, rather than really examining what it is people liked about them.
For instance, PUBG became really popular, so tons of games popped up, taking its surface level elements– the single large maps, the scattered resources, the enclosing energy wall– but what those games should be doing, rather than the copy-paste, is examining the experiences those mechanics deliver.
The feeling of being alone, in a large hostile area.
Where the only places for cover and supplies are also the places that other people converge.
The shrinking playable area heightens the tension, by forcing players into conflict and limiting avenues of escape.
Many of the PUBG clones that failed, failed because they cloned the surface mechanics, but missed all those small elements that created the psychological, emotional, and gameplay impact that players were looking for.
And studying the original, rather than the derivatives, let us easier find these elements.
And of course, this isn't just unique to games.
How many thousands of books or movies follow the Tolkien trope that elves live in trees and Dwarfs live in mines? Where is it written, you know, other than in those books, that those are the universal rules of fantasy races? Why not dwarves that live in trees? Well, Tolkien based Middle-Earth off of real-world mythologies.
So what inspired creators should do, is go to the mythological sources that he looked at in order to understand why he came up with these distinctions in the first place.
Dwarves did a lot of forging in Norse mythology, so Tolkien's Dwarves were miners.
But perhaps going through those stories yourself will lead to all sorts of new ideas to branch off from rather than just always going with the convenient codified Tolkien presets.
Another example is that everyone knows that dragons breathe fire, right? But did you know that the dragon in Beowulf, which inspired Smaug, also had venomous fangs? We see fire-breathing dragons everywhere, but venomous dragons? Well let's just say, they're rarer.
Evolution is a slow process, where gradual changes happen over a long period of time.
The further back you go, the divergences get more drastic and we can understand this process only by purposely starting as far back as possible and watching a particular game idea branch off in entirely new ways.
There's nothing wrong with taking modern games and adding your own spin to them, but simply working at the end of a chain of ideas like this, usually means tiny refinements rather than new ideas that really stand out.
So, if we examine games from a more primordial time, it's possible we'll more easily find opportunities to experiment and see drastic divergences in mechanics and themes.
We have classic studies in literature, film, music, and every other art.
And nobody would think to question what Beethoven did to change music, or what Mary Shelley did for sci-fi.
So following that train of thought to its natural conclusion, clearly there are also classic games that have helped our medium evolve as well.
And we should acknowledge and study those classics, because examining the past, teaches us how we got to our present.
After all, without that knowledge, it's much harder to know where to go in the future.