Will Today’s Videogames Someday Be Tomorrow’s Silent Films?

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  • Atari 2600There is something to be said for the simplicity of classic videogames. Bound by the limits of processors and technology, those original few efforts were like the first fish that dared to wiggle from the water and breathe air.

    They crawled out of the muck, unsure of what they would find, into a world that had never known anything like it before.

    Two-dimensional adventures such as Donkey Kong and Space Invaders go hand in hand with the first motion pictures. Pong is easily the videogame industry’s The Horse in Motion, one of the first movies ever made in 1878.

    Their concepts were simple, their mechanics generic and the fun never seemed to end.

    Computer games, in some form or another, existed before the videogame industry rose in the late 1970s and early 1980s, just as photography did with film.

    The potential of the medium did not become fully realized until the “console” found a place in people’s homes. Atari, ColecoVision, these things popularized videogames in a way that arcades of the 70s never could. They did to gaming what the VCR did for movies.

    In both cases, popular culture was never the same.

    Those early videogames didn’t ask much of players beyond the time it sucked from you as you wiled away hours staring at the screen. Take Pitfall for example. That simplistic adventure game starring the blocky hero, Harry, sent players running across the screen, leaping over random holes and deadly scorpions. You had to swing across bottomless pits (which somehow existed over tunnels yet never emptied into them) and leap from one crocodile to another (just remember, stand on their eyes or you’re DEAD!).

    That’s it.

    There was no deeper meaning, no subplots, no side missions, no tokens to earn or treasures to unlock. There were no codes that would score all the weapons. Heck, there weren’t even any weapons.

    PitfallThere’s just plain old Harry, leaping and swinging, leaping and swinging, leaping and swinging. Occasionally you had to hop over a rolling barrel (rolling from where? I mean, really, who the fuck was offscreen just rolling barrels your way? Was Donkey Kong chucking them at you while at the same time sending others along girders and down ladders to crush that pesky Mario so he could engage in some wicked bestiality with Princess Peach?). Of course, sometimes you’d jump too soon or too late, and the barrel would hit you. And what would happen?

    Harry farts. Yep, farts. I mean, what the hell else could that noise signify?

    After running from left to right several times, avoiding the sphincter-like pits and the crocodile triplets, Harry was rewarded with a few bars of gold or a diamond ring – a meaningless bit of treasure that did little but have you continue on your way, to do it all over again.

    And like any other game of its ilk, once you completed one “mission” you weren’t treated to a different gameplay experience. You didn’t suddenly start running up and down or get to jump from one hippo to another.

    Nope. You just did the same stuff over again, only perhaps it was a little more difficult. Maybe there was one more barrel, or the crocs chomped down a little quicker. Maybe the rope swung faster.

    Videogames progressed the way George Lucas directs: “Faster, more intense!”

    What about Missile Command? There’s a game that didn’t throw you a curve ball. Once you blasted that first volley of pixel-trails out of the blackness, the colors changed and you did it again. And again. And again. And again. And…

    Well, you get the idea.

    But the next time, the missiles came faster, and there were more of them. And more, and more, and more still.

    “FASTER! MORE INTENSE!”

    Space Invaders, Centipede, Mario Bros., they all followed the same logic: establish the premise, make it harder the next round, repeat.

    Missile Command

    And we bought them. Boy did we buy them. And they were fun. These games had us spending endless hours yanking our joysticks as we sat in front of the TV then blowing out cartridges before jamming them into the slot (in most cases long before we realized how filthy that actually sounded).

    Looking back on these games now, I’m left wondering how the generations that followed us will appreciate these baby steps of videogame development. Could kids today, who have known nothing but the DS or PSP or Xbox or PlayStation, find joy in Combat! or River Raid? Heck, you can play more complicated games on your cellphone than anything offered up on the Atari 5200.

    That leaves us looking to the future. As motion controls become more advanced, and 3D gaming is within sight, what will future generations think of games such as Grand Theft Auto, Heavy Rain and the Halo series? Will they look fondly back on those once-revered offerings and see them as antiquated? Signs of the times that are good only for nostalgia to those who remember when, as many of us now do when we think about Dragon’s Lair or Pac-Man?

    How many of us have actually watched Nanook of the North, The General or The Big Parade? Heck, I have no doubt there are many who have skipped out on Casablanca or Citizen Kane, Ben Hur or Bonnie and Clyde, motion picture classics that represent significant steps forward in the art of filmmaking but are seen as old fashioned or outdated by a more modern audience.

    My appreciation for something as basic as Breakout is likely driven more by my memory of having played the game in my youth. But the way I see it, that’s my advantage over those who never got a chance to have that experience: to have been a part, from a user perspective, of the evolution of a medium that has become so vast and diverse.

    What comes next will likely be superior to those old low-tech action games, but for me, they’ll never replicate the thrill they created. Those days when you sat, eyes glued to the simple color palettes and cheesy music, fist wrapped around that rubber-covered stick as you thumbed that button until your digit was ready to burst.

    Wow, that really does sound bad, doesn’t it?

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    3 thoughts on “Will Today’s Videogames Someday Be Tomorrow’s Silent Films?

    1. Don Becker says:

      In some ways, I think the reason games from that era hold up as well as they do is that developers knew that there had to be replay value in the games. The systems of the day weren't powerful enough for photo-realistic graphics, and the cartridges didn't have enough RAM for a long, involved experience. One of my favorite games from that era is the first Intellivision AD&D game, and I can finish the game in about 10 minutes – maybe 15 if the initial map requires me to get the axe, boat and key to get to the final mountain rather than only two of the three. Sure, the dragons bore more resemblance to Grimace than Tiamat, but the whole experience of going through an unmapped tunnel and hearing the distant growling of the dragon still makes me think "Oh, crap. He's around the corner…"

      There's also the issue of controls getting a bit too involved, which is a big part of the reason I prefer to play NHL 94 rather than NHL 11. As great as the immersive experience of NHL 11 is with its Be A Pro/Be A GM modes, sometimes I just want to pick up a controller and only have to push one button to shoot instead of using the right analog stick.

    2. Chuck says:

      Old games can be fun. Some more fun than others. For example playing Kaboom! against Lenny Longo, is not exactly fun. It is fun of Lenny and those watching, but not always me.

      Honestly for me the charm of old machines is really just getting them to work. People appreciate old things differently, some people like old books because they have a certain smell, or the typeface is pleasing.

      I couldn't sit and play hours and hours of Combat, however Pitfall 2, now that was an adventure game that dwarfed the game play of the first Pitfall adventure.

      I don't think those are barrels being rolled at Harry, I always thought they were logs.

    3. Bee Tee Dee says:

      Yeah you know in the same way that early films were really just kind of filmed stage plays, a lot of early games just looked like animated mazes/board games. You need something familiar as a jumping-off point for a new medium, and there was a precedent for 2D games, although that approach was very limiting and it took a while before single-screen games gave way to scrolling and other innovations that really play to the strengths of the technology.

      And much as games often seem mired in gimmickry, movies went through the same paces.

      Around the world in 80 days was basically just a tech demo for Cinemascope or whatever, Wizard of Oz was very much about spreading the gospel of 3-strip Technicolor. Every other major innovation was shown off in similar ways I'm sure… I'm not a film buff really but I'm sure a lot of the first talkies were just people going around saying "HOLY SHIT WE'RE TALKING!"

      There were those major leaps like close-ups, sound, and color, then eventually things kind of settled into a basic vocabulary of filmmaking and you got to focus more on experimenting with story and dialogue, with occasional special-effects wankfests, mostly from James Cameron.

      But even 3D is becoming a little more refined, I guess. I mean, we're past the yo-yo's going towards the camera stage now.

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