The Greatest Generation
GAMING’S 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.
SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS