April 28th, 2011 in Entertainment, Fun Stuff, Social, Technology
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The constant upgrades and evolutions in video game technology make each new game or console feel cutting-edge, so it's easy to forget just how far they've come since home consoles started making waves in the late 1970s. (The Atari 2600 hit shelves in October 1977.) Games tend to be highly generational, as well: the nature of technology means that new consoles replace old ones, not augment them, so each new class of gamers comes to the recreation with the mindset that their games aren't just the latest and greatest, but the only ones available to play. As a result, the giant strides the field has made tend to be forgotten or ignored. If you're a younger gamer looking for perspective, or an older one who remembers too well the rough early days, these should jog your memory:
- Online gaming: Of the many, many ways video games have changed since their inception and market penetration, the most dazzling is easily the ability to play games online with friends across the country or strangers around the world. Collaborative gaming used to be a matter of watching your friend play a game and then taking turns with the controller, though things got easier with the rise of two-player games that split the work load. But doing anything beyond that took some serious wiring know-how; you could hook up computers and have a LAN party, and you could enjoy some multiplayer heads-up competitions in games like the Nintendo 64's GoldenEye 007, but that was about it. The ability to go online, which is now easier than ever thanks to Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, fundamentally altered the size of a gamer's community.
- Saving your progress: Sad but true: There were days when video games, still following their arcade-based forerunner's example, were all-or-nothing affairs. You played until you beat the game, quit, or got tired. (It helped that a lot of early games were really, really repetitive.) But the arrival in the late 1980s of The Legend of Zelda brought battery packs that let you save your game progress and complete missions on your own time. This didn't just alleviate headaches for gamers; it changed the way games were designed, paving the way for the epic, sprawling games of today. Such titles would be impossible to conquer without the ability to save your game.
- Wireless controllers: Game consoles used wired controllers well into the 2000s. Although wireless options were available, their occasionally poor battery performance and weak signals made them risky for most gamers, and the cost of such specialty accessories could also be prohibitive. Some console makers tried to get around the limits of wired controllers by selling extension cords that allowed players to sit farther back from their TV screens, though these just added to the mass of tangled cables that accumulated on the game console's shelf. But the generation of consoles that included the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 finally made wireless controllers the default, allowing for a (literally) less tethered feeling for gamers who had grown tired of tripping over one more wire. It makes using a control pad feel even more like using a remote control, and the wireless set up makes for easy sharing and storage. A huge upgrade.
- Sandbox set-ups: It's almost a given now that most major games are, to a degree, "sandbox" titles that let players explore the game's world at will and often complete tasks in whatever order they see fit. It's not just classic role-playing games, either. Titles like the Grand Theft Auto series, Fallout 3, and Red Dead Redemption bring with them the promise of open-ended worlds that let the player roam around instead of going from quest to quest with no say in the matter. Sandbox games were born of a number of other perks on this list, from better graphics to save files, but they've taken root in the industry like no one could have predicted. It's amazing to see that so many games released today are committed to pushing this particular envelope, but it's worth noting how lucky we are to have them.
- Expansion packs: For years, a video game's experience started and ended with the cartridge you brought home from the store. You could replay it as many times as you could stand, but the game itself never changed. If you wanted more action or adventure with the characters, you had to wait for a sequel or just suck it up and accept disappointment. Kids today, though, are accustomed to a feature that's still mind-blowing to players of a certain age: expansion packs. By syncing your console online, you can download software updates and patches that improve the game's performance, but you can also download entire new levels that broaden the game's universe. Some of these expansion packs even change the meaning of the game: Fallout 3, for instance, lets you download an expansion pack that changes the original game's ending and adds missions that take place after the main action. Other games, like the Call of Duty titles, have new maps for multiplayer battles. Games are more fluid now. They've moved away from pure entertainment and become more immersive experiences.
- Adult content: "Adult content" in this context doesn't just mean sex, though there's plenty of that, too, from RPGs to morality-breaking sandboxers like the Grand Theft Auto games (which allows a player to visit a prostitute, engage in sex for a health boost, then kill and rob her). And it doesn't really mean violence, either, or not totally, despite the fact that more and more games feature hyper-realistic combat scenarios that simulate murder in degrees that would have terrified kids in 1984. More than both those, the adult-ness of today's games deals with ethical ambiguity. Legions of role-playing games and even a few first-person shooters give the player the option to choose a moral wrong in a situation, whether it's betraying a friendly character or killing teammates to get ahead. Friendly fire isn't just programmed in, it's given serious repercussions. That kind of nuance might seem rote to younger players just coming to the field, but it's an amazing leap forward from the simplistic games of yesterday that only asked a player to collect coins, explore maps, and jump on enemies like cartoons. Today's games let you make real choices. Sometimes there isn't even a clear right or wrong; players are presented with options that each have pros and cons, and they have to decide how to shape the game.
- Revolutionary physics: The graphics in video games have obviously gotten worlds better since the 8-bit days, but it's worth thinking about the fact that these developments in imaging software have come with similar advances in the physics engines of games. Shooters and RPGs let players roam over differing terrains and climb just about any surface they can see, and a growing number of games are able to use 3-D rendering to play with gravity and flight. The Assassin's Creed series, for instance, lets players scale walls and towers before diving off again, while sporting titles like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater give players the ability to feel like they're sliding down ramps and through the air in real life. At the extreme end of the spectrum, you've got games like Valve's Portal and Portal 2, which push players to think three-dimensionally about every aspect of the space around them. These games offer multiple solutions for puzzles and problems, as well, forcing players to dig in and rethink the physical world in new ways.
- Downloadable games: It's not just patches and expansions available online, but entire games, whether you want a title designed to take advantge of the latest console's ability or a throwback title you play for nostalgia's sake. Once again, the amazing convenience of this cannot be overstated. Even a few years ago, it was impossible to think about being able to download entire games. If you wanted a new title, you bought it or rented it from a store (an actual, physical store!) and that was that. The notion of constant connectivity was a vague one, and the idea of being able to get new games just by pushing a few buttons was just a nice dream. Now, though, it's industry standard to make full games downloadable.
- Identifiable objectives: As games have grown more complex, they've also grown simpler. Case in point: most major titles now in any genre include clear, identifiable objectives that the player has to reach in order to finish a mission or advance to the next level. (Sports games are the obvious exception, since the goals have always been, well, goals.) Gone are the rage-inducing commands from a role-playing game to merely explore an area until you meet the right character; you now have markers and guides to get you to that person quicker. It's not that games hold your hand these days; rather, their makers realized that there's a difference between an open world and a frustrating one, and today's titles have enough signposts to keep you from getting lost but are also loose enough to let you find your own approach. It's an indication that game makers are more interested in telling a good story than in loading the player up with meaningless tasks.
- Quality portable devices: These basically didn't exist until a couple of years ago. Sure, there have been handheld units that inspired love, like the original incarnation of the Game Boy, but that gadget's yellow-green screen is coloring the collective memory of gamers. Old-school portable game units were awful. Sega's Game Gear was full-color but drained batteries at a laughable rate, and Atari's Lynx had the same problems. Nintendo's Virtual Boy wasn't even portable, just a desk-mounted face-mask that induced headaches in everyone dumb enough to try it. It wasn't until a few years ago and the releases of the PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo DS that portable gaming made real gains. Each system took a different approach — the PSP opted for a bigger screen, while the DS used a dual-screen layout — but they both made smart use of the advances in small-format graphics and rechargeable batteries that have helped boost the popularity of smartphones as gaming devices. They're also a whole lot lighter, and the visuals are mighty impressive for handhelds. Most importantly, they're so powerful and light that they become easy to take for granted. Older gamers should take heart, though: in 30 years, today's kids will be griping about all the things their children take for granted. There's no telling yet what those things will be, but they're bound to be amazing.