Whenever humanity encounters something really big that it can’t explain, it has a fascinating tendency to not only create its own explanations, but to grant them life. The sky, the sea, the past, the future, love, war, all of them have had countless stories written about them - or, more to the point, the something or someone
said to embody them. As civilizations and cultures have died whilst others advance, and various phenomena are shifted, one by one, into the realm of the rational and mundane, these grand figures have lost much of the raw authority they once wielded, but their enduring presence within our collective imagination has proved as undying as they themselves were once supposed to be.
Like their mortal subjects, they were painfully flawed: they could be distant, uncontrollable, fearsome, inscrutable, gullible, rash. Strangely enough, this was itself part of what endeared them to their worshippers: even the most powerful forces in existence, in their worst moments, were merely struggling with the same weaknesses and troubles that we ourselves face, and in some small way were aware of, and could act upon, the unbreakable bonds they shared with the tiny, insignificant people dwelling far below. Yeah, it’s still true that, even after the handfuls of rituals and sacrifices, humanity was pretty much always left on its own in the end, but finding one’s way in the world somehow became more fulfilling when you knew that someone, somewhere, was always watching, even if only out of morbid curiosity.
Recently, after finally setting up a long-overdue (and shamefully bloated) Backloggery
for myself, I crunched a few numbers and stumbled across a not-quite-cosmic riddle of my own: amidst an age of gaming that has already been all but totally ceded
to the West, and my immersion within the medium only expanding in the meantime, somewhere between 75 and 85 percent
of my collection, consistently across all console generations, is currently comprised of “Eastern” games. Despite harboring an admitted distaste for the “gray, gritty, and gory” aesthetic of so much contemporary Western design, I certainly don’t consider myself a “chirpy, cliché and chauvinistic” Japanophile either, at least not enough to justify how skewed my gaming tastes have wound up. After giving the matter some thought, it turns out that something bigger
is at work here.
I am, you might say, the child of an elder gaming god…and the resplendent palace where he and his countless brethren dwell can be glimpsed within the shimmering outline of the rising sun.
Video gaming as we know it was, like so many of the old gods, born from chaos, a product of the meandering minds of (Western) programmers and hobbyists tinkering with the cathode ray tubes and oscilloscopes originally intended for science experiments and missile defense systems. In the beginning, games were granted existence for the sole purpose of finding out what could be done with this state-of-the-art equipment: as Nolan Bushnell
said of the first cabinet-based (and coolly-received) video game, Computer Space
, “All my friends loved it. But all my friends were engineers.”
This tendency to construct one’s house upon a foundation of technological advancement above all else, I would argue, still exerts tremendous influence over “Western” game development down to this day: as more powerful and affordable hardware has ascended to prominence, many of the innate limitations that once dictated and defined what a video game could (or, possibly, should) be have lost their ability to smelt certain properties from the end product: only being the first to define the next “leap forward” matters any longer. It’s not inaccurate, I think, to state with conviction that many developers have moved away from creating “games” in the truest sense: a game, by definition, cannot exist without rules and limits, which themselves only exist to further the cause of their owner, and mean nothing in any other context. Thanks to this unceremonious rejection of traditional boundaries, gamers are being given fewer and fewer games
in favor of more and more experiences
– that is to say, Things That Happen (or as the front page might put it, Things That Are Things).
Think for a moment about the terms that, with increasing regularity, pepper gaming pitches, reviews and analyses in this day and age: Set Pieces
(quick-time and non). Moments
. Very, very strictly meted-out bits of production-line “ooh” and “ahh”, painstakingly engineered for a single, one-time burst of admiration and devotion from the audience; the coding equivalent of an extravagantly-staged Mystery Play
. Even within games whose reputations are built upon promises of “non-linearity” and “open-endedness”, there is almost always a decidedly methodical and self-assured design mentality at work – it’s never difficult to tell exactly which bits and pieces are the ones custom-tailored for critics to reference in their back-of-the-box quips, the ones you’re supposed to rave about to your pals, online and off, as soon as you finish. Every time your jaw drops open, you can almost feel the spoon being slid silently down your throat.
Then, of course, there are Achievements, a uniquely Western construct that imparts an additional “on-rails” element to just about any game: though end users can choose to mostly disregard them, developers are no longer granted that luxury, and this fact grows more obvious with each successive, increasingly-scripted release. And in the end, with precious few exceptions, once you’ve completed the often-arbitrary list of tasks compiled by the marketing department, the game is as “finished” as finished can get: there’s simply nothing else built in for you to do, unless you count deleting your data and starting all over. It’s like a step-by-step gospel of Why This Game Is Worth Playing, Period, with no space left for amendments: go here, do this, find these, kill those. Thou shalt, thou shalt not – *ker-PLUNK!*
- and then you’re all done, ready to be roughly shoved towards the next sixty-dollar book in the canon (and to type up a new listing on eBay).
This isn’t to say, of course, that contemporary Western developers don’t create anything worth playing: far from it. I WOULD, however, charge them with getting too caught up in the “Enlightenment” movement that raw, heedless technical achievement has become: to put it another way, they’ve lost a lot of respect for what you might call the “primeval forces” of their profession.
Once upon a time, after all, video gaming was not subject only to the cryptic proclamations of cold, distant science, the One True Lord of the modern industry. No – in ancient days (y’know, the 80’s and 90’s) it was subject to the dizzying whims of a diverse pantheon, born of raw, crackling, exuberant energy and pure, unfocused, and sometimes downright intimidating willpower.
This is the way of the Old Gods. And this, above all else, is what critics of Eastern game design, sometimes unconsciously, are bad-mouthing when they accuse Japanese developers of reticence, stagnation, a stubborn unwillingness to “get with the program” and “give modern gamers what they (are supposed to) crave”. To them, the off-the-cuff, fireburst, whirlwind school of game design has been rendered irrelevant by means-tested commercial logic: to them I’d reply that, in gaming, as in life, the construct of reality is nothing without the pillars of myth.
These increasingly shrill voices have likely forgotten that, while video games are native to the West, they rose to power in the East: though Bushnell and his contemporaries had managed to find success earlier with the likes of Pong
, the first title to truly spawn a bona fide “cult” was Taito’s Space Invaders
, which proved so popular that Japan experienced a shortage of the 100-yen coins required to play it. At the time, the basic philosophy behind the two games was pretty much the same - keep things simple and self-evident enough to instantly appeal to average folks – and this design model endured on both continents throughout the arcade era. As crude as this mindset may sound in the age of multimillion-dollar, decade-long, headline-making gaming projects, even now it’s difficult to look back at that time and fail to marvel at the hundreds upon hundreds of minor (and not-so-minor) miracles that were wrought in those less-civilized days.
This, after all, was when all anyone ever expected or needed to judge one of your products was five free minutes and twenty-five cents: if they didn’t like what they saw, heard, and felt during those five minutes, that was the last quarter they’d ever spend on your big, expensive video machine until you came up with a better one, and arcade owners were not inclined to wait that long when dozens of other hopefuls were already clamoring for your cabinet space. In retrospect, such circumstances might sound downright impossible to succeed under: how in the world, after all, could the creators of these games ever adequately explain
to their fans, as they do now, just how awesome they truly were?
How could gamers ever really understand
what they were playing? Without exclusive interviews, how could the developers impart a rough idea of the playtime required for customers to overcome the initial learning curve, or which triggers one needed to trip to unlock the secret ending, or hint at the intriguing back story that made their seemingly-dull main character so much more appealing once you’d unlocked that one crucial cutscene? Without fan-fueled beta testing and real-time polling, how might they lay out the strategies and upgrades you’d need to excel during multiplayer sessions, to “properly” set off that fierce race to the top? Without regular trophy awards and stat tracking, how on earth did they set clear watermarks for what a “good” score might be, let alone a “great” one? When oh when
did the creators ever get the chance to reveal exactly
what made their precious baby tick, and how players should (nay, must!
) approach it to squeeze the absolute maximum
amount of pure entertainment
out of every single second
spent in front of that screen?
didn’t. That was YOUR
job. Their work could speak for itself.
This is the way of the Old Gods.
Are the controls adequate to accomplish the task I’ve been assigned? Do the rules make sense? Is the challenge level engaging but fair? Is the pacing brisk enough to keep me interested without over-stimulating me? Does the graphical and aural atmosphere pull me in? Is there enough depth to the experience that I feel free to experiment and delve further? A successful arcade game had to elicit positive responses to all those questions and more from the user within mere moments…and, believe it or not, that is exactly what they did
Sure, the diehards could pick up those glossy magazines near the Toys R’ Us checkout counter and devour every last SUPER HOT PRO TIP they could get their mitts on, but this wasn’t necessary to enjoy the game, or to appraise its value
. Those first five minutes might not be enough to give you total insight into every single facet of the game, but they WERE enough to determine, beyond the shadow of a doubt, whether or not you wanted to slip another quarter into that (hopefully-functioning) coin slot: seriously, did you pick your first character in Street Fighter II
because of the high priority and low startup lag of his crouching medium kick?
Oh, and riddle me this: when are you officially
“finished” with, say, Marvel vs. Capcom
? When you’ve seen the end credits once? When you’ve done so with all the characters? When you’re at the top of the “Versus” board? When you’ve won EVO?
When are you “finished” with DoDonPachi
? When you conquer the first loop? One-credit it? Find the true final boss? Score 100 million? 200 million? When you see bullet patterns dancing on the back of your eyelids as you fall asleep?
When is Puyo-Puyo Sun
“finished”? Do you have to complete Normal mode? Hard mode? Put together a 7-chain? 8-chain? 10-chain? Once you’ve seen all the story interludes? Or once your friends stop playing and move on to Puyo Puyo~n
before the online servers are shut down?
The Old Gods’ deafening silence on the matter speaks volumes – games that have received their blessing are NOT designed with “the end” (and/or the sequel) in mind. The gamers themselves must ford their own path, without
the aid of infinite respawn checkpoints, and decide for themselves when, if ever
, to stop.
This is the way of the Old Gods.
Though by turns cruel and covetous (i.e. stupidly hard and hungry for more of your tokens), these digital giants, diminished though they may be, have weathered the ages largely untouched by mass-marketable revisionism and reformation; even as everything around them changes, they remain what they are, no more and no less, for both better and worse. Even the “unconverted”, as a result, may find it difficult not to find something to admire in their earthy purity, their rough-hewn pixelated visages, their effortless radiation of the timeless magic
that links brain to eye to hand to joystick to screen. In the end, yes, that’s all there ever really was to these regal figures, just imagination and dissonant energy and suspension of disbelief…but try to tell me that those very things aren’t exactly
what video gaming, in its most essential form, is all about.
Make no mistake, both East and West alike have been plagued for years by worthless unlockable tchotchkes, parasitic DLC, and other cynical means of “enhancing replay value” (is there a more soullessly corporate piece of gaming lingo in existence?), and the once-mighty gaming temples known as arcades have toppled from grace in spectacular fashion across all continents, retaining only a handful of devotees across the globe. In the meantime, the spirit of these “Old Gods” burns decidedly stronger in the East, just as it always has. Not only does the proud arcade scene yet retain a notable foothold here, but Japanese developers keep the most tightly-controlled game design elements where they belong: within the game itself
, not in how the player takes it in
. They continue to make (Japanese) games
, not (Hollywood) experiences
To some, this is a frustrating farce of childish longing for a golden age that never really was; to me, right or wrong, it’s a due display of reverence for the powers, both real and imagined, which granted that original, vital spark, not of existence
, but of life
to video games, a display for which I will continue to express my own appreciation.
The East, after all, is where those majestic Old Gods still dwell, and where I, as a gamer, dwell also.