The recent announcement of the XBox Series X got me thinking about the state of video games in general. It also got me thinking about just how far video games have come since I was born. It also got me thinking about how fucking stupid and corporate “XBox Series X” sounds.
I was born in 1981. The neat thing about that is, by and large, I got to see the video game industry born. I watched it grow, falter, surge and change with each passing decade. Video games have been ever-present in my life, and boy, what an experience.
The first console we had was a Colecovision with the legally-dubious Atari add-on. My father used to tell the story of me sitting next to him on the floor with my own controller, convinced I was playing along. It wasn’t long before I actually was playing. My earliest memories of gaming include classics like Pitfall, Qbert, Carnival, and SMURF.
We got the Nintendo Entertainment System when it first came out. It was the cheaper version that came with Super Mario Bros. only. The bottom even said “Model 1a” or some such. We got the light gun eventually, the rare gray one. I still have it somewhere.
Obviously, the Super Mario Bros. series was a big favorite. Contra, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!, Legend of Zelda, Mega Man 2, Life Force, Castlevania… There are too many favorites to count. Nintendo was the cornerstone of my childhood, and my acceptance that I will rarely ever successfully beat any given video game.
We even eventually had the Sega Master System, then the Super Nintendo(including Super Scope 6,) Sega Genesis, and then the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation.
Oh shit you guys. I mean oh shit. Polygons!
I spent a good chunk of my childhood dreaming of the day that we would finally have video games with graphics on the level of TRON. I mean, imagine it: a game world in three dimensions! The jump to 16 bit had been amazing, and Star Fox was ground-shaking, but this was full-on earthquake territory.
Now, I wasn’t stuck at home this entire time. I was a frequent visitor to the FUN Arcade at Berlin Mall back in Vermont. Yes, it was really called FUN Arcade. I don’t judge.
That was another fun thing: dreaming of the day that home systems would FINALLY catch up to the Arcade machines in terms of graphics. How awesome would it be to finally play a home port of Mortal Kombat or Double Dragon that looked just like the original! Systems like Nintendo 64 and PS1 made that a possibility.
Which was like, SO BAD for arcades, you guys.
That was the first major change in the world of video games, from my perspective. It’s not so different from what’s happening with movie theaters today. You could get a fairly decent representation of your favorite titles at home, but had to go downtown if you wanted the full experience.
Suddenly you could squeeze the arcade into your living room! Which was great! If you weren’t arcades! As much as I enjoyed watching home systems bloom, it was crushing to watch arcades shrivel away.
It’s been fun to see arcade games make a bit of a comeback via collectors. There are plenty of games out there that never got a clean console version. An emulator will never capture that certain smell, the booming base, the glowing of the monitor that the actual machines provided.
Time marches on though, as it has a tendency to do. I moved out after that generation. I was like, super-poor, so I missed out on the Game Cube, PS2, Sega Whatever-oh-shit-here-comes-the-apocalypse, etc. My next “new” system didn’t come until I picked up an XBox 360.
I was late to the game by, like, a lot. We somehow got on the subject at the place I was working at the time and Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas got name-dropped. They sounded like a fun cross between old-timey RPGs and Doom, so I picked up New Vegas. I’ve only recently put it back down.
It was INCREDIBLE! Here was this seemingly infinite world that I was dropped into, free to go wherever I want. I could do whatever quests I felt like doing(or not.) I could shoot people dead just because they annoyed me with minimal consequences, mold my character to my tastes… The world was mine!
I was so happy swimming around(sometimes literally)in the worlds of Fallout 3 and New Vegas that I just kind of shrugged when the XBox One came out. I was still pretty poor, didn’t have a lot of time, and these games are massive. Then Fallout 4 was announced.
So of course I got an Xbox One S, and of course I pre-ordered the special edition of Fallout 4, and of course I was kind of like meh? Yeah, me and Fallout 4 have kind of a weird relationship. I’ll try to explain.
What I loved so very much about New Vegas is that I could play up to any faction, and the other factions wouldn’t necessarily hate me right away. I could be an asshole or a saint when I interacted with people. I could play through the game however I chose, including the main storyline.
In Fallout 4, you, well, can’t do those things.
Factions are quick to demonize you if you sleep around, so to speak. You can’t be evil so much as just sarcastic and kind of mean. The storyline? The game all-but forces you down the linear path the game-makers prefer you to take.
It was off-putting enough that I actually went back to playing New Vegas for like, months. I eventually picked it back up, but am starting to get burned out again. What made the earlier games fun just isn’t there, and the problem isn’t limited to Fallout 4.
This current generation of games are blockbusters in more than one sense. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours are poured into these behemoths. Because of the level of work that goes into them, they’re slowly becoming one-note adventures again.
Press X to win, follow this path for the “good” ending, miles of featureless nothing to explore… Everyone who plays games is familiar with these now well-worn tropes. What goes into games is now dictated by corporate number-crunchers, trying to discern the features and conditions most favorable to sales and the bottom line.
It all leaves me torn. Here finally is the near photo-realistic gaming experience I always dreamed of as a child, but somehow it’s all wrong. TRON’s CGI could be rendered in real-time on today’s consoles, but many of the games make the movie’s script look like Shakespeare, and offers you all the flexibility of a Choose your own adventure paperback.
It’s now an old cliche, but it’s an apt one: You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. That’s starting to sound a whole lot like the video game industry. That really stinks, you guys.