You ever notice there’s something off about today’s AAA titles? There’s a certain monotony, a certain repetition, a certain potential gnawing at your brain as the answer “why” remains forever just out of reach. The most recent E3 didn’t help matters. We're all looking for "freedom" and yet there is so little to be found. These ponderances have troubled my waking game-related thoughts for some time now, and to resolve them I’ve gone back and had a look at the classic titles of yesteryear.
What did I pick? Isn’t it obvious? Star Control 2 is one of the masterpieces of our beloved medium.
It's a lovely game in every facet, equal parts thought provoking and hilarious, influential in ways few today still remember or recognize. (Console) generations before we explored the galaxy in the SSV Normandy, mining planetary resources to acquire the upgrades we need to give humanity a fighting chance, wooed a blue alien named Liara, assuaged the wrath of the Krogan warriors, and saved the galaxy from ancient beings intent on domination we... well, we did all that and then some in Toys For Bob's 1992 DOS classic. The debt of gratitude Bioware owes to this little gem is both massive and acknowledged.
Set in the aftermath of the bloody interstellar war which served as the setting for the original Star Control, popular in its day for its wildly fun SpaceWar inspired starship combat 'melee' system, Star Control 2 places the player in command of perhaps the last operational human starship in the galaxy following our defeat and enslavement at the hands (tentacles?) of the nefarious Ur'Quan.
The Ur'Quan seek to enslave every species in the galaxy, but is their intention evil or do they harbor a deeper motivation?
And yet all isn't well for the newly established Ur'Quan Empire. Vague reports are arriving of heavy fighting and major battles underway between the Ur'Quan and an unknown race of vast power. You and your fellow humans decide to capitalize on the distraction to break yourselves free from thralldom and find some way to bring down your tormenters once and for all.
The first time you leave Sol System is a shock for anyone familiar with modern titles. The game world is perhaps the best ever created, practically the entire galaxy at your fingertips. Some ridiculously huge number of star systems, most teeming with planetary systems for you to explore, and best of all there's no such thing as an in-game map marker telling you where to go. Or journal, or quest log of any kind.
Have fun visiting all those bright shiny dots!
Myriads of alien races populate the stars but you have no idea where they are until you go out and find them yourself. Each race has it's own culture, allegiance, and ambitions. There's the delightful trio Zoq-Fot-Pik who regale you of the latest updates in their favorite sport, Frungy. In 1998 one of the developers was asked how Frungy was played and famously replied "With gusto!".
May offer the Captain advice if they can ever drag themselves away from watching the Frungy championships
There’s the cowardly Spathi, so cowardly in fact their ships are designed to shoot at you backwards as they're running away and who's preferred prayer is "God please don't let me die today, tomorrow would be so much better!". For brevity’s sake I must skip a dozen more, but feel compelled to mention as well the menacing Kohr-Ah, with whom there's a key scene that may well have inspired the first confrontation with Sovereign in 2007's Mass Effect.
The Kohr Ah are a fearsome enemy, and battle the Ur'Quan in a war of ideology.
Throughout your operatic odyssey in the Star Control universe a curious thing happens. As you explore the galaxy, communicate with friendly and hostile aliens, you are forced to piece together the grand puzzle yourself, without the aid of... well, anything. I highly advise you take your own notes while playing this game. You BECOME the Captain because you are forced to think as he would, in the manner he would do it in, and in the correct order. There are psychological theories that believe personality is dynamic, molding and adapting to suit our environment. Well, this game turns you into a starship captain seeking to save humanity, and you have nobody to rely on but yourself.
A Chmmr warship and an Ur'Quan dreadnaught fight to the death
I am by no means of the sort to bash modern gaming out of some faux loyalty to the 90s. I own all three consoles of this generation and enjoy all the fruits of HD gaming that anyone else does. But we have lost something haven't we?
Games have progressed technologically to unbelievable levels but I think it's obvious we're not "there" yet. Graphics may only get marginally better from here on out but we just don't have the memory or manpower to have amazing HD graphics, voice acting, physics engines authored by MIT's finest, AND an abundance of content like in the games of yore.
All that high technology, for the time being, limits us and essentially forces our games to be on rails. Of late, particularly in the aftermath of this year’s E3, I have felt a certain sameness pervading today’s titles—and no it’s not because they’re mostly all first person shooters (though that doesn’t help). We bash Final Fantasy XIII’s linearity but could the PS3 have even been capable of rendering a non-linear world of size, scale, and depth surpassing its predecessors? Or did the incredible White Engine just take up so much memory that they physically couldn't do that?
Even modern WRPGs like Fallout put you on rails, although admittedly they hide it better. There's always an A to B progression regardless of what we play. This I imagine will be the state of gaming until perhaps the next generation rolls out in a few years.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this limitation, in the future I suspect it will be seen as just another characteristic of our generation, the way we look back on immature character modeling or blocky graphics as characteristics of the previous two generations respectively. but I would encourage anyone with an urge to experience true gaming freedom to go back and try a game like Star Control 2, where perhaps primitive graphics by modern standards (I for one think they rock as hard as they ever did) give way to masterful artistic design, and deliver an experience of player immersion unmatched by anything else I've played in recent years.