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Monday, 15 April 2013

Engage the Imagination - The Rest is Elementary


The reason I continued to play games after being given a SNES for my 9th birthday (cheers Dad, look what you did to me!), was because I could immediately, at the touch of a button (more, the clunk of a power switch back then really) be taken into a multitude of other worlds. Literally hundreds upon of hundreds of different environments, different cultures, different laws of physics and different perspectives on life, at my fingertips. 

Receiving a new game was like Christmas, regardless of the time of year, and having to wait entire days at school just to get back and play it was torturous. I remember many times dreaming in different game worlds, and finding myself wondering what living in them would be like. A child's imagination is, of course, an incredibly active thing at the best of times, and games were not by any means the only thing that enabled that imagination to run riot - a good book was just as effective.

I often find myself engaged in some sort of discussion revolving around the topic of "games were better in the old days" (bearing in mind, I myself am only 25, and the old days to me simply mean when a can of Coke was 40p). Usually, people say that they only seem better now, because of the nostalgia factor - looking back on your first gaming experiences is always going to be an emotional process. However, I think there is something quite tangible, and hugely important that is missing from nearly all games in the modern day. It is something that, ironically, is only likely to get worse as technology improves. The ability of games to engage the imagination.

Defender on the Atari 2600. Mmmm. Blocky.
Defender pictured above on the Atari 2600 portrays a highly advanced fighter jet patrolling the skies of a sprawling metropolis, gallantly risking all to send invaders to a fiery, explosive death on the ground below. Honestly, it does. We don't need to be shown it does, our imagination is able to take the very basic visual information available and mentally convert it into an action-packed scenario that James Cameron himself would be proud of. The same goes for just about any game from the earliest years of the industry. The very lack of graphical power possessed by hardware at the time meant imaginations were needed to piece together the world into something thrilling, something engaging, and importantly, something personal, to each individual player.

This individual nature of the play experience is what some may mistake for 'nostalgia'. It is something that is far, far harder to come across in today's games. You're told exactly who you are. You're told what you're doing. You're told why you're doing it. You're told when to move, when to stop, when to jump, shoot, duck, run... there is little room left for the imagination to be unleashed. Even games like Spec Ops: The Line which inserts some very challenging and powerful plot twists, still ultimately tells you what you should think, even if you have some choices in the matter.

This is why games that are purposely abstracted from reality (games that some label as 'Art Games' nowadays), such as Limbo, in my opinion are so much more memorable. They're still more explicit in their visual representation of their worlds than the likes of Defender, but they leave a lot more up to the imagination, which allows a much greater individuality to shine through and impact the play experience.

The 'indie' games sector has seen a massive rise in popularity over this previous generation, and the games produced in the sector often hark back to the 'good ol' days of gaming' (40p Coke era again). Admittedly, part of the reason here is budget - 16/32bit style graphics are substantially cheaper after all. But, many indie developers are in the privileged position of being able to make the type of games that they grew up on, and want to continue to play. It's a gap that isn't really filled through any other part of the industry.

Now, this isn't to say that the likes of Blizzard, Activision and EA should suddenly drop everything, and start making the likes of Super Metroid or Super Punch Out! again. Photorealism in games has its place for sure. But take a step back from your accurately modelled carbon-fibre weave, the lovingly crafted physics of Dead or Alive (>_>) or the slightly more accurate 'wet clothing shader' on Lara, and think. Do players need to see this level of realism? Or, would they rather engage their imaginations a little bit more, and delve into a more engaging, if less high-resolution, world of wonder and intrigue?

With imagination working away, realism and accuracy becomes secondary, the graphics that represent the world become simply a means to an end. Alone in the Dark looks thoroughly comical by today's standards, but is regarded as one of the high points of horror gaming for its dark, tense atmosphere and engaging world. This is a world fully represented with fewer polygons than Master Chief's head. 

Re-engage the mind, and re-engage that childish imagination. This is a world we could certainly use a little cognitive break from from time to time.

Have you seen the price of a can of Coke?