Our columnist muses about a time where game characters were simpler
Something I miss from that golden era of gaming we grew up with is the absence of character. No, not characters, plural, but character. Or, at least, the absence of the current desire to give game characters depth.
It has been driven home to me twice this year through the latest instalments in two long-running series – God Of War and Tomb Raider. Prior to the recent reboots, which served as an attempt to flesh-out Kratos and Lara Croft, respectively, we weren’t given much more to go on than the gameplay itself, the characters’ appearance, and a bit of scene-setting context. Both franchises were ones that I loved, but the latest interpretations of them have weakened both series for me.
I’ve long believed that storytelling should make the most of the medium it’s in, but all too often modern games think they’re movies or TV shows, often striving to be profound. I mean, we can lay the blame firmly at the door of the games we grew up on (yes, I am giving you side-eye, Cinemaware), but games back then were limited by the technology.
Consequently, our time spent with, say, Miner Willy or Wally Week would be about the game itself. There were no cutscenes deepening the story or going into the characters’ tortured backgrounds. We’ve never needed to know about the emotional baggage the bloke in Chuckie Egg brought with him. The adventures were our own to have. We were Miner Willy.
Likewise, I’m a firm believer that Lara Croft – as she was originally in those early Tomb Raider games – became such an icon because we knew so little about her. There was something remote and unobtainable about the character, and consequently it allowed the player to become immersed in her adventures. We never needed to understand her origins; she existed as a cool-looking avatar, a character designed around the mechanics of some groundbreaking gameplay. Indeed, shouldn’t that always be the way with games?
Surely, the concept game must come first, and if you get lucky and create a Mario or a Sonic, then that’s a bonus? But who and what those characters are should always, as far as games are concerned, be the secondary consideration.
Don’t get me wrong; I think it is possible to tell stories in games (some of my favourite stories of all time happened in point-and-click adventures). Plus, I’m all for giving games a bit of emotional clout. At the same time, the modern approach of stealing from the language of cinema feels like the wrong way to go about.
I believe that devs need to stop looking across the aisle at movies, and look into gaming’s history. The world fell in love with games because they were games; we played them, not watched them.
We’ve enough passive entertainment experiences already; games are the one medium where we get to become a part of the action, where we’re transported to, an interact with, fantastical places.
Devs need to stop looking across the aisle at movies, and look into gaming’s history