The Great­est Gen­er­a­tion



VIDEOGAMES STOPPED BE­ING JUST FOR KIDS ON SEPTEM­BER 24, 2001. That was the day Fu­mito Ueda’s Ico came out for Sony’s PlayS­ta­tion 2. Iron­i­cally, it starred two kids, but what was dif­fer­ent about this four-yearsin-the-mak­ing ef­fort — ground zero for the games-as-art ar­gu­ment — was its fo­cus on elic­it­ing emo­tion from the player.

The tit­u­lar horned boy is brought by boat to an M.C. Escher-es­que cas­tle as a sac­ri­fice. In­side, he meets caged girl Yorda and they join forces to es­cape their con­fine­ment and the hor­ri­fy­ing shad­ows that are their jailors.

The art di­rec­tion, sound de­sign and en­vi­ron­men­tal puz­zles still im­press 15 years later, but it was the vi­sion­ary bold­ness of Fu­mito’s tragic mas­ter­piece — epic yet bare, rev­el­ling in quiet mo­ments be­tween erup­tions of dan­ger, and able to cre­ate an emo­tional, word­less bond with a non-player char­ac­ter — that made Ico so im­por­tant.

In case it wasn’t clear that gam­ing had ma­tured, a month later, Grand Theft Auto III rolled up to usher in the sand­box era.

Ueda re­turned later with Shadow of the Colos­sus, a sim­i­larly min­i­mal­ist tragedy re­duced to boss bat­tles that made you feel bad for win­ning, while Rock­star headed to ’80s-era Mi­ami for GTA: Vice City be­fore go­ing back to Cali for the ’90s gangsta-rap in­spired San An­dreas.

Thus PS2 be­gan an un­par­al­leled run that also in­cluded bloody Gre­cian God of War games and mega-sell­ing JRPG Fi­nal Fan­tasy X, mak­ing it the best — and best-sell­ing — con­sole ever, shift­ing over 155 mil­lion units be­fore it was fi­nally dis­con­tin­ued in 2013, six years af­ter the PS3.

But dur­ing that same piv­otal fall of 2001, the Xbox and GameCube ar­rived, com­plet­ing gam­ing’s sixth — and great­est — gen­er­a­tion. While sell­ing a frac­tion of what Sony’s black box did (25 and 22 mil­lion, re­spec­tively) they of­fered their own in­flu­en­tial skillsets.

The orig­i­nal Xbox brought on­line gam­ing from PC to con­sole with the one-two punch of Halo and Xbox Live, along­side the great­est Star Wars game, Knights of the Old Re­pub­lic, and quirky ex­clu­sives like Stubbs the Zom­bie in Rebel With­out a Pulse, a hi­lar­i­ous retro­fu­tur­is­tic zom­bie game with the coolest sound­track ever.

The GameCube is re­mem­bered as a com­mer­cial fail­ure but saw suc­cess on the cre­ative front, from the gar­den­ing-in­spired Pik­min to Suda51’s ul­tra­vi­o­lent Killer 7. Then there was Chibi-Robo! You played a three-inch-tall helper ro­bot who did chores while try­ing to make your new fam­ily happy, de­spite the mom weep­ing up­stairs, the dad sleep­ing on the couch and the daugh­ter think­ing she’s a frog.

That sort of glee­ful weird­ness was all over this gen­er­a­tion. Take Tim Schafer’s Psy­cho­nauts, a charm­ing plat­former about a sum­mer camp for psy­chic kids, with each sur­real level tak­ing place in a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter’s sub­con­scious. Or Be­yond Good & Evil, an al­le­gory about how the govern­ment uses me­dia, fear, and per­pet­ual warfare as a con­trol mech­a­nism while also be­ing a fun, adorable sci-fi ac­tion-ad­ven­ture.

Both were au­teurist in a way that non-in­die games are rarely al­lowed to be th­ese days. Back in the early 2000s, when games cost be­tween $5 and $10 mil­lion, de­vel­op­ers could af­ford to ex­per­i­ment, whether it was Clover Stu­dio’s playable Ja­panese paint­ing Ōkami or Rock­star’s bold pri­vate school-set Bully.

Mod­ern bud­gets have bal­looned into the tens or hun­dreds of mil­lions, and share­hold­ers won’t abide much risk. That’s why, de­spite Psy­cho­nauts be­com­ing a beloved cult clas­sic, Schafer’s Dou­ble Fine stu­dio is crowd­fund­ing the se­quel.

I’m not the only one miss­ing this era of gam­ing. Some had al­ready been sold on dig­i­tal stores for last-gen con­soles and Steam, but this win­ter Sony fi­nally started bring­ing PS2 games like Dark Cloud and the GTAs to PS4 in full 1080p.

An­other rea­son why sixth-gen games were so good was that the tech­nol­ogy en­abled de­sign am­bi­tions but not an over­re­liance on pho­to­re­al­ism or size. That led to stronger nar­ra­tives, styl­ized art and in­tri­cate level de­sign as well more fo­cused ex­pe­ri­ences.

Hope­fully, to­day’s de­vel­op­ers will start merg­ing those old at­tributes with the new tech to take us back to the fu­ture. And Fu­mito Ueda’s long-awaited The Last Guardian is ar­riv­ing later this year to show the way.


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