Some of our readers may still have some Superbowl adrenaline left in their system, but today I want to talk about another kind of game… video games. Like contact sports, these games sometimes get a bad rap, but having grown up in the 80’s with my trusty Atari, Nintendo, and Sega Genesis, the games I played served as creative inspiration. In fact, without those games, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do now. Inspired by Noelle’s post last week, I thought I would explore the various ways that creativity can be expressed in a video game. I’ll take the framework that has been used by game reviewers in the past and break it down into the facets of graphics, audio, gameplay, and story. I’m also going to focus mostly on console games.
Starting off with perhaps the most obvious, graphics in video games have evolved considerably since the 80’s. Pong, one of the earliest arcade games (from the 70’s actually), graphically consisted solely of linear elements; two rectangular paddles, a square ball, a dashed line for the “net”, and numerals for keeping score. Progressing from there, Asteroids (another 70’s game) made use of 2D polygonal shapes. The games that I played on the Atari, Nintendo, and Genesis made heavy use of sprites, which Matt covered earlier in his great post on Pixel Art. That pixel art is what inspired me to sketch my own sprites and those of my favorite games on graph paper, in order to use in my own attempts at making games on the family’s 286 generation PC. I then had my first taste of computer science. The next big shift that I experienced was with Star Fox, which made use of 3D polygonal objects for the first time. The beefier graphics processing power of the Playstation made these games more commonplace. Because the storage medium for the Playstation was a CD, it also had the capacity to play pre-rendered full motion video. From there on out, graphics hardware improvements in consoles and PCs have been providing more and more options for performing advanced texturing and shading techniques, to the point where it can now be difficult to determine which video clips from a game preview are pre-rendered and which are in-game, and almost any special effect imaginable can be achieved.
The ability to express creativity via audio has progressed in much the same way. The earliest games only made use of sound effects, while most games from the Nintendo generation had background music. Although these systems were not capable of playing truly natural-sounding tones, background tracks from games such as Megaman and Castlevania had their own distinctive timber. When the Playstation came along, CD-quality music could be played as a background track, and since then the biggest improvement has been the addition of Dolby Digital quality output on the PS2 generation of systems. Now, the Video Games Live concert celebrates the rich diversity of video game music.
While video and audio quality have steadily progressed, gameplay is a tricky beast. Some might argue that the early generations of games thrived in the golden era of gameplay. If the controls were not well thought out or the tactics uninteresting, a game didn’t have much else to rely on. Pac Man, Frogger, Dig Dug, Tetris, and Breakout are a few great examples. These days, it seems that gameplay can get lost in the dazzle of sound effects and eye candy. On the flip side, I also gained great respect for game designers and developers when I realized how difficult it is to combine an idea for a game with graphic design, sound effects, and background music. Gameplay has seen advances recently as new peripherals have come out. Key examples are the Dance Dance Revolution pad (allowing players to “dance” to music), microphones, Taiko drums, guitar controllers, and the Wii Remote and Balance Board. In the most modern games, online multiplayer interaction is becoming a must-have feature. As a result of these new modes of interaction, Rock Band has actually improved my appreciation of rock music, and the Wii has opened up a new realm of creative flexibility. I have to admit that the thought of all of those plastic peripherals is a little unsettling, from an ecological perspective. When they become obsolete, will they be recycled? Can manufacturers take a cradle-to-cradle approach to design in the future?
The last aspect I’ll mention here is story. It doesn’t apply to all game genres, but I couldn’t leave it out because just about every game from my favorite series, Final Fantasy, excels in all of the categories I mentioned previously in addition to weaving some of the most interesting and moving tales in game history. While my impression is that most fans go nuts for Final Fantasy VII, I can’t get over the way in which Final Fantasy VI wove together the paths of fourteen distinctive characters. Another series known for fine storytelling is The Legend of Zelda, although the character development is not quite as deep. I’m wary of losing myself in another Final Fantasy story (they tend to suck you in for hours at a time), but I’m very tempted to pick up the next installment.
I hope this has been enlightening to some of our readers. As I mentioned earlier, video games inspired my interest in computer science, as well as my interest in Japan, which led to my interest in Japanese art, language, and culture. So who knows what I’d be doing if not for their influence? If there are any other video game fans out there amongst our readers… what are your favorites?