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Redefining Interactivity pt 6 – Why Can’t We Be Friends – Platformers and Shooters

January 25, 2012

2D animated sprite obstacle course
Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Pac Man, Frogger
dated graphics/sound/gameplay/stories

tl;dr Version: OMGWTFPIXELS!!!!!

‘Splain, Lucy Version: You see, back when the world was new and there was no such thing as a PS3, we had to look at little two-dimensional animated ‘sprites’ and use our imaginations to see them all cool and 3D like Assassin’s Creed. We had games that went, up, down and sideways, and that was it! We couldn’t even walk toward or away from the screen, and sometimes we couldn’t even jump or duck… and if we could, you’d better believe it wasn’t easy, and you would have to do it over and over and over again.

Boring Version: Okay so this series of games, which are now considered old school and very dated, consisted of such hits as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Pac Man and Frogger, as well as many, many (MANY) more. I know a number of people who get soppy and sentimental about these games, in part because they were the precursor to everything else, and in part because we were young and they were new and it was all we had, so of course we developed attachments.

Well, most of us old geezers, anyway. Not me. I can still remember how cool I thought they were at the time, but I suffer from a stellar lack of backward vision. I look at those old games now and shake my head in disbelief. I know they were great when I was a kid playing Journey’s Escape, Joust and Black Tiger, but when I look at them now, I see misshapen blobs that I would have objected to back then if they hadn’t been animated. The future was kind of cheesy in the 80s, is what I’m saying. If we had accidentally been given a glimpse of Mass Effect or Skyrim, video games would have been killed in their tracks because we wouldn’t have settled for what we had.

Now that’s just me. Understand that, as of this writing, there is still a pretty solid grassroots movement of artists and game developers who are madly in love with the 8-, 16- and 32-bit gaming aesthetic. Even modern RPGs like Minecraft get their look and functionality from this throwback aesthetic, so it’s safe to say that not everybody suffers from the lack of imagination I do.

The appeal, then as now, is simply that the gameplay (on the more successful games) was and is oddly addictive and highly rewarding, and much more accessible to most of us than a lot of modern combat-oriented games that involve combination button sequences or menus for selecting weapons and moves. The immersion is still there, for those that can suspend their disbelief, and there is even a bit of a coolness cache to being an old school gamer that wasn’t really there when we were kids. Even girls like them now!

But it’s really down to whether you can immerse yourself in the charm of 8-bit sound and video genius, or whether, like me, you can’t go any further back in time than Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis without getting nosebleeds. The memories I have remain pretty good,but I know my own shallow end pretty well, and for me, there’s no going back. If you’re one of those lucky souls who doesn’t suffer my affliction, I offer you my most sincere blessings, because you have managed to cultivate or maintain a sense of wonder that I envy.

Right, let’s just move on to the next bit, shall we?


Arcade/3D shooting gallery
Duck Hunt, Doom, Halo, Resident Evil
repetitive, twitchy, senseless violence

tl;dr Version: When I hold you in my arms, and I feel my finger on your trigger, I know no one can do me no harm, because happiness is a warm gun, bang bang, shoot shoot.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Yeah, I know, Beatles references don’t say a damned thing about what we love or hate about shooter games. I just thought I’d give you something entertaining to make up for the length of time it’s taken me to get to this article.

Boring Version: I mean, really, we all know what bothers most people about these games; we’ve been listening to complaints about them for decades. Too violent, too fast, too little plot, too little sense. And yet, with the advent of games like Bioshock and Half Life 1 & 2, plus runaway hybrids like Portal 1 & 2, guy-with-a-gun scenarios aren’t nearly as simplistic as they once were.

At their base is the core value of survival, which will always have an appeal to certain segments of the population. As well, it isn’t true that these games are strictly for teenaged boys, because I’ve dated at least two girls who loved nothing more than grabbing hold of the controller and shooting the hell out of everything in sight. There is a very real sense of control these games impart that is highly seductive and rewarding. We can see our progress clearly illustrated by the size and power of our weapons as we move along and trade up. Hard not to know where you stand with a great big bloody gun in your hands mowing down aliens and zombies and anything else that twitches at you funny.

Me? I’m a Doctor Who fan. We like to solve problems with our heads. Guns are tools for changing the game, not for eliminating opposition. That’s what our wits are for. I’m not taking the moral high ground here, though I know that’s what it sounds like. I apologize for that. It’s a personal preference and nothing more, really. I’ve played my share of shooter games, and have had to admit that they don’t really work for me. I kind of liked the shooting sequences in the Tomb Raider games, but there was enough story and exploration to make those games feel a little more like an adventure with combat to me. I’ve played Doom and Quake, and I’ve just never gotten the bug. Courses for horses, as they say.

That said, I still want to play Mass Effect, which is the kind of hybrid shooter RPG that is practically made to order for the likes of me, so it’s not inconceivable that shooter games can be engaging for story nerds like me. It’s just not as easy for me to get immersed in an adventure if I’m relying mainly on reflexes to solve my way through a game.

But what does that say for most folks that don’t play these games? Is it just that they haven’t given them a chance, and would love them if they tried them? Well, maybe some. There are folks out there who have access to real weapons, and those who go out playing paintball on the weekend, and for them, the likes of Dr. Gordon Freeman just don’t hold that much appeal, but then there are doubtless those who have access to both real world options who still love a good video game now and then. Real weapons play and war games require money and equipment and business hours to get their game on; whereas, consoles are a somewhat cheaper and certainly more convenient method of getting your adrenaline fix for the day (or night).

I think the main buzz kill for most people who don’t go in for shooters is simply the rinse/repeat nature of the genre. Sure, the stakes have been upped significantly with the graphics and immersion, with games like Far Cry and Call of Duty: Black Ops, you certainly see state of the art graphics and gameplay making the shooting gallery game much more immersive than they’ve ever been before. But there is only so much of this sort of challenge that can remain interesting for the vast majority of us before that over-saturation effect kicks in and we just stop feeling the endorphin rush. Making new and more complex AI has been the main solution for most of these ills, but again, our AI algorithms, though they have come a long way, aren’t exactly at Isaac Asimov levels yet.

Social gaming has been the solution to that problem, with opposing teams facing off in a semi-closed environment and communicating to each other via chat windows or voice chat technologies. However, this requires a pretty serious need for reliable bandwidth connections, which is not always a guarantee, even in these days of ultra-fast ethernet and satellite dishes.

Well, I think that pretty much wraps up this segment, and with it, this chapter of the Redefining Interactivity series. The next chapter is going to be about storytelling in video games, which should get me closer to where I’ve been going with all of these insipid lectures to begin with. I’ll try to get to work on that soon.


© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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