On a Videogame Canon (Part 1)

All-round interesting critical type Jonathan McCalmont has been writing a regular column about videogames at the Futurismic blog for several years now, and it’s always been fascinating to see his take on various trends within the videogame industry. One of his most interesting pieces from 2010 was The Videogame Canon and the Age of Forgetfulness. Since this post is intended partially as a response to McCalmont’s column, why not go have a read of it? It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Okay, we all good?

For the benefit of those who didn’t want to click away and read another article, McCalmont’s piece is split into three parts – the case for, the case against, and a conclusion. I’ll tackle each in turn.

McCalmont’s opening argument is that, in the absence of an agreed videogame canon, “classic” tends to be defined as “provided a formative experience for me”. He uses the example of CRPGs, drawing a generational divide between those whose first encounters with RPGs came via Fallout 3, Final Fantasy IV, 16-bit Squenix titles, pen & paper titles and so on. It’s inarguable that every gamer will have their own opinions on which games constitute classics and also that very often, those opinions will correspond with that gamer’s initial experiences back when everything was new, fresh and exciting. He notes that this is both wrong and right. Genres, whether you are talking about games, books, film, television or music, are “conversations”. New games, new books, new songs, new shows – all come in some way as a reaction to what came before.

This is not controversial. However, two assertions which Jonathan draws from this are.

Serious SamThe first is that too many games react only to what came directly before them – and it’s true that many games can be seen as quick-fix cash-ins. I’m doubtful that this claim can be extrapolated into some sort of industry-wide amnesia and ignorance of games history. It seems to me easier to argue that publisher-owned major studies are more guilty of producing these sort of games, in an effort to perpetuate successful trends and surf a cash cow right into the bank. There are plenty of contrary examples, too: BioShock, for example, a game very heavily informed by its predecessor System Shock 2 – though to be fair these two share a common designer. Or Serious Sam and Painkiller – both self-conscious efforts to revert to the days when FPS games were about shooting a lot of bullets at a lot of enemies and not much else. Or Fallout 3: New Vegas, a game which in many ways demonstrates a thorough understanding of its isometric ancestors. Or the forthcoming X-COM, which if it delivers on its potential and promises may be a game that fuses the “enemy unknown” fear, investigation, research and uneven combat of the Gollop brothers’ classics with the intensity and immediacy of the ever-popular FPS genre. Or Minecraft, darling of the indie scene, a title which is almost a fusionofUltima Underworld, roguelike CRPGs and Lego – in terms of design, at least. It does not appear, on the strength of these and many other titles, that there is widespread ignorance of historical games – at least, not the popular ones. And there may rest a point.

The second assertion, however, is even more problematic. Jonathan argues that the “short term memory span” that leads to the short-term reactive approach we just covered is the result of the effect upon games of technological obsolescence, and the subsequent loss of access to back catalogues. Because of this lack of long-term memory, in other words, new games react only to what came shortly before them – and when they look further back they do so with a lack of understanding of the context in which older titles were made.

It is a curious time to be making this argument, for it has never been a better, richer time for retro gamers.

On the PC, the days of Windows 7 and Vista compatibility issues are fading. Between distributors who republish older games, including the superb Good Old Games, Steam’s extensive catalogue and other services like GameTap, increasingly effective and easy to use tools like DosBox, the continuing popularity of Abandonware websites, and of course high-speed internet allowing easy access to full game ISOs via torrents, it is relatively simple for a PC owner to locate, acquire, install and play a retro title. The main difficulty is in acquiring titles that are today mostly forgotten, such as StarSiege.

Starsiege

I bought a copy of this for a friend recently, but the mouse drivers wouldn't load. Help us, GOG.com!

This is the age of digital distribution, and it is an age in which publishers would be foolish not to monetise their back catalogues by making them available to customers. The kids and teens that played these old games have grown up, and nostalgia is a powerful thing. When you can buy an old game for $3 and see if it matches up to your memories, well, it’s only $3, right?

Even console publishers and manufacturers have long cottoned on to this trend: witness the rise of Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and Wii Ware. Although the initial rush of republishing retro titles has worn off in favour of publishing new games from smaller developers, the back catalogue isn’t going anywhere and retro titles do still appear from time to time.

Again, there is the issue of less popular titles being harder to legitimately acquire, and this problem is significantly greater with consoles.

Toejam & Earl

Suuure you are.

The solution is even simpler, however: a few minutes of searching the web will locate an emulator for just about any obsolete console, and there are hundreds of thousands of ROMs out there. If you want to play Toejam & Earl or Super Strike Gunner, you just have to put a little time in.

Having taken issue with two key points upon which McCalmont’s argument for a gaming canon rests, I feel I should state that I do not stand against a canon – just against faulty arguments for one. And there are rich seams of truth in his argument: if one wishes to design games, or indeed write about them, there should be some means by which one can compare first-hand experience against what is considered ‘essential’.

This is where Part 2 of McCalmont’s column kicks in: the case against.

[Read Part 2 of my response here!]