‘Growing Up With Games’ is going to be a series of posts about the big moments (good and bad) in my nearly lifelong gaming career. Although I played quite a lot of NES beforehand, I got my first console (a Sega Megadrive) when I was 7 and never looked back. Obviously what I looked for in games changed as I got older, and this post is about my reflections on the different rates of thematic and technological evolution in key games when I got a Sony Playstation. These are my own opinions based only on what I’ve played, so I’m hoping to hear about other gamers’ big moments too.
The new possibilities offered by the generation leap from 16 to 32/64bit will likely never be matched, and this was when I defected from Sega and got a Playstation. New game styles were launching in every genre, expanding the range of games that I played more so than any other console generation. But when I think back, I was waiting for the next gen promise to pay off not only in gameplay and graphics, but also in a wider thematic context. I was waiting for a game that could be considered truly important, and could engage and be measured in the same way as a novel or film.
I thought this happened the first time I played Tomb Raider (1996). You were put in the shoes of an incredibly well realised protagonist (for the time) and the game played brilliantly as it unveiled new landmark after new landmark – delivered as part of a new IP for a new and older generation of gamer.
Locations like this were unlike anything I had seen before
When the game was over though, the realisation hit that TR’s gameplay innovations were largely down to just two factors – subject matter and level design. We hadn’t moved beyond the level-by-level structure that defined many platformers of the previous generation, and the story was lacking to say the least. Lara Croft was a pioneering character who broke into mainstream consciousness - but she wasn’t challenged on an intellectual level (all her tasks are physical or problem solving) or placed in a fully realised narrative. TR is still one of my all-time favourites because it was one of the first fully 3D games I ever played and the locations truly provoked a sense of wonder, but its contrived and now clichéd use of character and narrative held it back.
Of course, Final Fantasy VII (1997) was another fantastic release that became a figurehead for the Playstation brand during this period, and like many gamers I played it extensively. It was a production on an unprecedented scale featuring a dystopian future where the player is put into a fully realised and fantastical world.
This story was landmark for me in its scale, not in its subject matter
I don’t think that the story transcended the medium however, and for me this fantastical nature of the narrative meant that the story didn’t carry as much weight as I hoped. While hugely entertaining and heavy hitting in equal measure, FFVII featured an un-relatable story happening to a group of characters from a make believe world that which held me at arm’s length for the entire game. In retrospect, fans of the whole series often don’t consider FFVII to have a stronger story than some of the previous entries - so again, the main legacy is that of a technological evolution to an established genre.
I really thought games had grown up when a friend showed me the start of Resident Evil 2 (1998). I had played through the first game but it hadn’t left a huge impression – however, the production values of RE2 were through the roof and the game makes a far stronger impact for it. The intro movie was awesome, and the dire circumstances of being surrounded by zombies in the first few streets create a heightened tension that stays with the player for a long way into the game.
Starting RE2 is like jumping on a moving bus - full of zombies!
RE2 took a step beyond TR as an immersive gameplay experience in that all elements of the production design came together to create an atmosphere of proactive survival, rather than reactive action. Lara is alone and often in danger - but without the menacing sense of threat that drives Claire or Leon forward. However, RE2 had similar downfalls to TR in that the characters and scripting still aren’t developed enough or portrayed with much conviction. Much like RE1, the nuances of the story are more effectively told through the in-game files and notes that you find - but the cut scenes undermined the icy-tone of these for me. The shocks and horrors in the gameplay are interacting with the player on a primal level, not an intellectual one, and ultimately the game didn’t give me much to think about (apart from never to trust a mirror in a game again – I should have seen it coming but that nearly killed me!).
And so onto the time that games grew up for me – properly. From the first screenshots and features in magazines, I was captivated by Metal Gear Solid (1999). Articles featured the extensive cast of characters, post-cold war setting and a terrorist coup worthy of a big budget spy film - this was serious, real-world subject matter that I hadn’t experienced in a game before. MGS was a joy to play and personally, I think the best in the series to strike the balance between cut scenes, codec and gameplay.
MGS presented a different set of challenges to me, I had to think my way out of a situation for the first time
Snake was the most well realised and believable video-game character I had played as. His personal beliefs and perceptions were challenged throughout the game by the other characters, friend and foe alike, so that the challenges to the player, through Snake, operate on a number of different intellectual levels as well as the physical and problem solving challenges.
The real magic was how the gameplay was woven around a brilliantly told story. Peppered throughout the game are cut scenes where Snake meets new characters who update him on how Liquid’s plans are unfolding, and express their remorse at their involvement in weapons development. Often, these scenes include real archive footage that contextualises the situation and explains how nuclear weaponry has developed throughout recent history up until the development of Snake’s main target, Metal Gear Rex.
Although they look crude now, these cutscenes told a story more effectively than any other game I played before
These cut scenes are there to enlighten the player as well as Snake, and are indicative of Hideo Kojima’s signature style of manipulating the fourth wall and addressing the player personally within his games narrative. This technique breaks down the distance between player and game by constantly reminding the player of the thematic links between the narrative and the real world. MGS is the most immersive game I have ever played because of this style – and for me, the moment with the most impact came right at the end, just before the credits roll. Snake has completed his mission by successfully disabling Metal Gear Rex and putting a stop to Liquid’s plans. But the legend before the credits role hints at just how futile Snake’s efforts might be.
In the 1980s, there were more than 60,000 nuclear warheads in the world at all times. The total destructive power amounted to 1 million times that of the Hiroshima A-bomb.
In January 1993, START2 was signed and the United States and Russia agreed to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 3,000 and 3,500 in each nation by December 31, 2000.
However, as of 1998, there still exists 26,000 nuclear warheads in the world.
Throughout the game we have been exposed to the dark history of nuclear proliferation and the on-going difficulties involved with ending nuclear weapons development and the safe disposal of nuclear waste. The legend is one final address from Hideo Kojima directly to the player, expressing his own well-documented fears on just how big the problem is, and how far Snake (and we) are from solving it. This certainly tempered my feeling of success and achievement by placing my accomplishments in the context of the real world, and completely subverted my expectations of the end of a videogame. After all his hardships, Snake’s victory can be seen as but a drop in the ocean in dealing with the threat of nuclear weaponry – the fear left at the games end is that one day Snake may have to deal with this threat again, and we might too.