[In the fast-paced, relatively impermanent culture of gaming, what qualities help a title last forever in our hearts -- and on our hardware? Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander takes a look at the realism fallacy.]
One of the difficult things about being into video games, whether as a fan or as a developer, is that the space moves so fast from a cultural perspective. Publishers want to win this holiday season, journalists want to agree on a "game of the year," and there's a lot of pressure to keep up. If you're still excited about summer's blockbuster when the fall's marquee hits shelves, no one's really going to listen to you.
The current business trend sees games' increasing migration away from the "ship and forget" model of yore and toward sustainable products that are valuable enough to users that they'll keep on buying DLC rather than sell the disc back to GameStop. You'd think this means individual games stay more popular longer, but even franchises that never seem to lose their players' interest in online experiences -- Call of Duty, for example -- still release bigger-badder-better annual installments.
Who knows whether the culture has become so obsessed with immediate popularity because the games industry marches forward so quickly and so persistently, or whether the industry's just trying to keep up. But an unfortunate consequence of this environment is that new games can present major technological advances over ones just a year older. In hardly any time at all, a game that isn't very old can look and feel as if it is.
The rapid evolution has shallowed somewhat in the current console generation, the duration of which has managed to constrain the past decade's often-stunning leaps and bounds. But the fact remains that a decade-old game may now look so rough and dated, may feel so clunky, that it's impossible to enjoy it now, even if it was an achievement in its time.
Surely not all of gaming's past should be left in its past; some of the most memorable and resonant entries in our history are over ten years old now, and are part of franchises fans still love today. The upcoming release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution has reminded countless gamers of formative experiences playing the original title ten years ago, and has inspired many more to try the original for the first time.
But the initial presentation of the game, from its premise to its graphics and sound and controls, are prohibitively dated, to where it's likely to deter all but the most seasoned gamers. And there are many more about which we can say the same: fellow stealth title Metal Gear Solid 4 was designed to show off the incredible fidelity and horsepower of the PlayStation 3, but original Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation feels coarse and confusing to newcomers.
In both cases, there's a barrier to gamers understanding the enduring craft of a franchise, and it's a shame -- franchises with spiritual and emotional permanence in the gaming world seem to lose some of the possibility that people will return to them in actuality.
Perhaps in recognition of these barriers, there's been a massive surge in high-definition and/or 3D upgrades and re-releases of classic titles; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the 3DS, for example, is a loving re-rendering of a game that was beautiful for its time but is much less so now. Fans eagerly anticipate games like MGS 3, God of War, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus in HD.
These efforts on the industry's part are a heartening show of respect for some of history's most beloved and important games, and although of course HD re-releases don't exactly place old-school titles on the cutting edge, they go a long way toward narrowing the gap that prohibits younger generations and nostalgic longtime gamers from enjoying some of the classics.
It's not, however, as hard for some games to hold up. Somehow, a title like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, with its fascinatingly-detailed pixel art, is still just as playable as it once was -- if not moreso, in this era obsessed with film tropes and low friction. The watertight Mario formula -- bright, simple visuals and reliable mechanics -- is as fun in Super Mario 3 as it is in Galaxy 2 and even moreso when you've mastered all the levels and secrets. The joy of Katamari Damacy is so basic that its visuals and tech never had a thing to do with it in the first place.
In the case of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, the symbolism of their visuals was always more important than the sophistication thereof; in that regard, a little HD spruce-up just allows the games' well-loved artistic spine to show better on new televisions. But what all the games that hold up well have in common versus the ones that look ever rustier in the rearview is one key thing: They aren't realistic.
I've written before about how abstraction serves immersion, and that "realism" isn't really what players want from video games. By being less literal, games give players the room to engage their imaginations and to personalize their experience.
But the pursuit of creative interpretation of characters and worlds, versus highly-detailed direct rendering, has the added benefit of lending games more permanence. Games that rely less on highly detailed graphics translate better as time passes, and are easier to return to, making them relevant longer.
Developers that want to invest in creating long-term franchises might do well to keep in mind whether the images, objects and symbolism they're crafting will suffer with the passage of time, and would benefit from focusing on visual structures alongside which technology can march appropriately and gracefully.
Because ten years from now when we want to remember the foundations you've laid, it would be amazing to experience them close to your original intention, rather than with the air of revisiting an anachronism.