I’ll unpack that, but first I’m going to apologize up front for a couple of things.
For starters, I’m going to sound like a crotchety jaded gamer. I may only be 27 years old, but as a gamer that practically makes me ancient, someone that grew up with gaming’s hallowed yesteryear, raised on the classics and growing up right alongside my favorite hobby. Such a thing can be said about few other mediums.
Secondly, I’m not going to say anything wholly original. This has all been said before, and probably in much better, prettier, or funnier ways. I’ll probably come across as some kind of gaming elitist, or the equivalent to the guy that sits on his porch with a bum leg and says “back in my day,” but I’m OK with that.
Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll say it again. I feel sorry for the crop of youngsters (how’s that for a crotchety word) that’s growing up in this generation of games.
This feeling has crept up on me in the last few days. You see, I’ve spent a lot of time digging into the Final Fantasy VII Letters, a series of essays between writers Leigh Alexander and Kirk Hamilton, two video game journalists who undertook the idea of replaying FFVII (in Alexander’s case) and playing it for the first time (in Hamilton’s case). Throughout this playthrough, they each traded a set of letters that really dug into the meat of FFVII, what makes it a great game, what makes it overrated, and what makes it a classic. It’s some of the most thought-provoking writing I’ve ever read about video games as a whole, and I’ve been utterly absorbed by their penmanship on the matter.
Final Fantasy VII scratches an itch that no other game has for me, and while I’m sure that elicits a chorus of eye rolls from a few out there, it’s just a truth I can’t get away from. That game did something to me when I was a kid, and no criticism anyone levels against it (true and untrue) is going to sway me from that anchor of experience. And the fact of the matter is, this isn’t just about FFVII, but any of those games that sunk their hooks into us when we were younger, from that generation and before it.
While in the midst of all this nostalgia, all this reading, all this pondering about how that game (and others) affected my life, I realized something: nobody is ever going to write a series of letters about this generation’s games.
It’s a bit of a crazy thing to say, I guess, and also a bit presumptuous, but I imagine that it’s true.
As good as this generation’s games are, and as many great hurdles that modern developers have overcome, nobody is going to give them the FFVII Letters treatment in 15 years’ time. Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect 2 are probably 2 of the best games ever created. In terms of games, they are better than Final Fantasy VII, better than Metal Gear Solid, better than Grim Fandango, better than Half-Life, better than Ocarina of Time, or Chrono Trigger… but they will still be irrelevant in just a few years in ways that those other games are not.
What is it about today’s games that make them fall out of relevancy so quickly? Games like FFVII and FFVI (which I’m playing right now) are far outmatched in terms of all the storytelling potential, the graphical prowess, the interface… yet even as I look upon them, hear their music, watch the characters on screen… it’s still magical.
I think it’s time to face the facts. Games are better now than they have ever been. But they still don’t matter as much as they used to. It’s not that they’re not making crazy leaps and bounds in terms of storytelling, in terms of character development, in terms of how a game plays and what it makes you think about. It’s just that they don’t capture our imagination anymore.
When I was a kid, the barest hint of unfathomable technology or a world bigger than I knew was enough to catapult me into another stratosphere in terms of the experience – now, every pixel is hand-crafted to show me every bit of every single block of wood, every codex entry tells me ninety things I don’t necessarily need to know about the game’s world. And the magic is gone, because my imagination is told to lay low. Sit back and enjoy the ride. My imagination is doused like a flickering candle wick.
Occasionally, games will still fan this slightly smoldering flame. They ask us to think with Portals. Or they remind us what it’s like to be a kid again (Little Big Planet). Or they put us in another man’s shoes and allow us to feel out the world without putting us on a big leash (Half-Life 2). But they don’t capture our imaginations. They do a lot of the thinking for us. They strip our brains out of the equation and in doing so, leave to the wayside something that used to make games sing.
Maybe part of it is that we really did grow up alongside video games. It was an angsty teen when we were, awkwardly finding its place in the entertainment circle, struggling to figure out who it was and what its aspirations were. It made for a good companion. But as much as I love games, and as wonderful, fun and thought provoking as they are, something happened. They started wearing suits. They started eating right and going to bed early. They became adults, right when I did.
This is why I feel sorry for this generation’s kid gamers. I don’t think they’re going to know what it’s like to have an experience like I did. I’m not saying that it makes them less of gamers. I’m just saying I do wish they could have it.
Like I keep saying: games have gotten incredible. They’re breathtaking, huge and more exciting than ever before. But they quickly become irrelevant because they’re more focused on the same things other adults are focused on – success, procreation, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. They’re trying to wow me more than make me wonder. They want my money more than my engagement.
I do hold on to the hope that at some point, things will come full circle again. That game makers will give some of the reins back to us. But a bigger part of me worries that those days are long gone, and that the best part of games has already left us behind. Hopefully that’s just me being a gaming geezer, though.
So what do you guys think? Do you think games have grown up too much? Do they still fill you with the same sense of wonder they did when you were a kid? Is this more about us or more about the games themselves? Both? Also, read the FFVII letters. They rock.