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Looking Back To Look Forward



As is proven by a quick scan of the multitude of ideas and topics raised on a single page of our Destructoid web community alone, we live in a time when videogames are reaching beyond the screen and into our minds and hearts. There are fan factions, long essays on where games have gone wrong in the past, where they have the potential to go in the future (guilty as charged) and debates about every facet making up our hobby, from the storytelling to control methods or art. Gaming in all its complexity has become a part of everyday life for many of us, at times binding us together socially or an excuse to escape into another world for a few hours.

I first started thinking about this when I was sifting through my library of games last night for one which would be suitable to satisfy my whims for the evening's entertainment. Was I going to be a commando fighting Russian ultranationalists, a cowboy swordsman, a football manager, a red dungarees-sporting anarchist-turned-bank-manager plumber, one of the last survivors in a zombie apocalypse, a split-personality demi-god assassin, a little king leading his troops onto the battle stage... each choice potentially opening up a new universe (or Galaxy) of sights and sounds and challenges to overcome, different skills to master. Each packed with so much depth and detail, crafted with so much care. An article on Eurogamer about the development of Assassin's Creed 2 was given the tagline: '230 new features, 200 design documents, 300 staff, no time for revisions. How did Ubisoft Montreal deliver?' Just sit back and imagine that for a moment. The scale of the operation that went into planning out and building every inch of that experience so many of us jumped into without a second thought for all the dedication it took to put us there, for our thirty-odd hours of play.

That's true of life as well. I'm lying in bed (yes, it's almost 3pm in England as I write this but sue me: I'm a university student, my future career will almost certainly revolve around writing, it's a weekend and there is a half-full packet of chocolate Digestives by my bedside. My only dilemma is whether I should get up for Doctor Who or watch it on BBC iPlayer) and typing out an article that in about an hour's time will be broadcast across the globe to be read by any number of people connected via the internet.

Outside my window, there are cars, houses, bank managers, politics (a looming general election), fast food, lighthouses, nuns, spanners, rockets, Lady Gaga and Man Utd beating Tottenham 3-1 at White Hart Lane, keeping speed in a bowel-clenchingly tight race between them and Chelsea (hurrah!) for the Premier League title. All this grown out of an evolutionary quirk (or perhaps Divine intervention, if you lean that way) that blessed a small number of former apes with a spark of imagination. Human existence in all its peaks and pits, its comedy and its tragedy, its clumsiness and its ambition, is staggeringly big and brilliant and wonderful. And all born from that one little detail that set us apart from other animals.

The reason I bring this us isn't out of Saturday afternoon pretentiousness (I'm not French, thankoo very much), but just as it's sometimes gratifying and helpful to remember the simple seed that bore the insane convolutions of modern life, the same can be true of videogames. As a young medium, gaming culture has grown so fast and piled so many new ideas on top of one another that it's hard to know where to look, to remember where we originally got those first twinges of excitement from that set us down this hobbyist path to begin with. Complexity is a big issue in the games industry nowadays, with the advent of a new breed of gamer peeking through the door. What is it that stopped these people gaming until Wii Sports came along? Should we compromise the experiences we love to bring them into the fold? Do we even have to?

Often the best way to understand the mysteries of the future is by looking back at our history. Videogaming has been around in some form for longer than many of us would imagine. Before researching this, I'm ashamed to say I was under the naïve belief it had all popped up sometime around the mid-70s.

The earliest known form of interactive electronic entertainment is the catchily-named Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device, which is in fact a missile simulator game patented on December 14th 1948. I quote from the patent (which you can read here): "This invention relates to a device with which a game can be played. The game is of such a character that it requires care and skill in playing it or operating the device with which the game is played. Skill can be increased with practice and the exercise of care contributes to success."

It turns out that what was true sixty-two years ago is just as true now. Learn the rules, practice makes perfect. If that seems perfectly obvious, consider how many or how few games seem to have considered this during development. When we complain about difficulty curves, certain gameplay mechanics being too obscure or too complex, too many new rules brought in as the game progresses. The last game that springs to mind that gave me the rules of its world and let me practice them until I was skilled enough to take on more challenging environments was probably Super Mario 64. That's not to suggest that all games ought to conform to this singular shape of course. But it's worth thinking about how that rule has been reinterpreted or overwritten and whether modern trends, such as dishing out upgrades as the game goes on, actually takes away part of that most fundamental gaming pleasure of mastering a new form of play.

The first videogame per se, aka the first one to use a computer screen (the CRT Amusement Device used analog circuitry and screen overlays) was probably Tennis For Two in 1958. William Higginbotham designed the game on an oscilloscope (a display intended by the US Department of Energy to promote atomic power) to amuse bored visitors to Brookhaven National Laboratory – so next time your boss shouts at you for doodling at work, remind him that your boredom may one day lay the foundations for a multi-billion dollar industry. That'll shut him up. Or get you fired. The game uses the oscilloscope to display the path of a 'ball' (supposed to show missile trajectories, but there you go – that's progress) over a crudely drawn tennis court. The game had sounds (when the ball was hit) and even physics, with the ball changing direction if it hit the 'net'. It was all controlled with a single button to hit the ball and a little lever to change the angle of your shot. Here's a video of the game being played:

Tennis has cropped up quite a few times over gaming's short history, often at quite pivotal points. In addition to Tennis For Two, there's the ever-excellent Pong, Tennis for both NES and Game Boy (which not only increased the quality of the simulation and the physics, but also had the added bonus of Mario as umpire) and of course Wii Sports tennis which, whether one likes it or not, fundamentally changed not only the way we perceived control inputs but also the face of the videogames market.

I think the reasons that tennis has been such a staple of gaming culture for so long, whether in its earliest Tennis For Two inception or modern Virtua Tennis-type form, is that it brings together two of the most vital elements of gaming, visual design and play, in an unbelievably refined package. On a visual level, picture a tennis court in your mind. Little more than a large rectangle comprising ten smaller ones. Not only is it insanely simple to render, but it is absolutely iconic. Show a black-and-white tennis court outline to anyone in the developed world and you'd bet your house on them recognising it. You might even ask what each small rectangle means within the rules of the game and a fair few would be able to tell you.

Even as modern graphics grow ever more complex, detailed and layered, the tennis court still has a role to play. How often do we get lost in environments that are too packed or require an obvious system of signposting to navigate (worse still, as was the case for Perfect Dark Zero, having to lay down arrows on the ground)? Even when there are the possibilities of creating more, does that actually make it necessary? All those immersion breaking invisible walls, roadblocks to force the player down a certain path. In Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean directed viewers' attention to the arrival of Sherif Omar from a speck on the horizon by drawing a subtle dark line in the desert sand, guiding the eye to the right place. Simple and ergonomic. Perhaps rather than worrying about ploughing on the shaders and accurately rendering however many square miles of New York City, perhaps it's worth thinking about what purpose each element of visual design serves, how it can help to guide the player and define the rules of the game to them without screaming in their face.

Gameplay-wise, the reasons for tennis' continuing gaming popularity are also based on the same simple-but-deep mantra. Anyone can explain how tennis works: two people hit a ball over a net with rackets and the first to put the ball past their opponent, out of bounds or into the net loses the point. Within that framework, there are the complexities of the scoring system, how a ball is judged to be out, the differences of a doubles game (co-op mode?)... but all you need to know to play tennis a basic level is contained within that one-line explanation.

Many of the best games, in my experience, can also be understood in this fashion. The Mario series may have moved into 3D, added new suits and gravity tricks, but Nintendo have always stood by the one rule that gives everyone access to the game. Mario jumps. He might jump on enemies or over holes, sometimes off walls or hover or backflip, but if you know where the jump button is, you can start interacting with Mario's world in a meaningful fashion. Sonic's move into 3D is a classic example of how developers can fail to understand this idea of a fundamental rule and where it can all go wrong. Sonic, of course, runs. His rule is forward momentum. Within that rule there are endless variations and complexities (think of all the different shots and physics that go into a tennis game if you give the basic act of hitting a ball over a net some thought), but that's the series' guiding light. Or it should have been. Sega have persistently tried to 'update' the series by bringing in new concepts that make Sonic's momentum a less vital part of gameplay, yet every one has only made each game feel more alienating and aimless. No matter what genre a game fits into, being able to understand all its complexities via the dictionary of a small number of fundamental rules can not only provide the clarity that can turn a good game into a great one, but also attract audiences who might otherwise be put off by the fact the perception that most games are too sprawling in their rules set. Know the court, know the rules.

Gaming is still in its infancy as a medium and as the possibilities of the wide world open up before the eyes of its developers and its players, new perspectives can be gained on the challenges and possibilities of the future by looking back at the past. With a new idea, an ape turned a tree into a skyscraper. In the sixty-two years since Thomas Goldsmith Jr and Estle Ray Mann turned a cathode ray tube into a missile simulator, those single-screen games have blossomed into a whole new medium for expression with its own culture, debates and tribes. But in the same way that we humans are still guided by the same basic rules that have defined us throughout our existence, no matter how fast technology advances, the same will always be true of gaming. With all that said and done: anyone for tennis?


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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!