Friday, June 17, 2011

Old School and New School

It seems to me that video games are being divided into two major camps, the Old School and the New School.  As I'm sure you can guess, I'm a defender of Old School video games, and I was thinking about this while window shopping local stores, as well as listening to some Terence McKenna lectures on James Joyce and Marshall MacLuhan.  I'd like to take a look at a couple of Youtube videos that demonstrate, for me, at least, the distinction between these two different theories and why I prefer one paradigm over the other.

This first game is Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's HAWX 2 for the Nintendo Wii.  It's an air combat game that was released late last year to a cool reception, and pretty much died at retail.  I see that it's now a $20 title, which grabbed my interest, since I'm such a big fan of airplane combat games.  Unfortunately, the game is wholly a product of the New School, with all the unfortunate baggage that entails.

The problem with New School games is that they are trying to be something they're not.  They're trying to be movies instead of video games.  This has been a particular obsession ever since the rise of CD-ROM, but really took off with the rise of Playstation and became dominant around the time the Dreamcast died.  Now, games are designed entirely around the "cinematic experiene," with cut-scenes, voice acting, dramatic camerawork, and so on.  The problem is that we are trying to graft the "hot" media of film onto the "cold" media of video games.  It cannot work.  Print is not radio.  Radio is not television.  Video games are not film.

Observe the HAWX 2 video.  Note how long this video plays before we even see any actual gameplay.  We have to watch the introduction, with military quotes and credits for the voice actors.  We have to watch the movie scenes, which strangely play out like Hot Shots taken seriously.  Everything is coated in Hollywood "military" music.  After a small eternity, we finally get to the game, like a candy buried under a dozen wrappers...and it's a forced tutorial sequence.  Why do all these modern games have forced tutorials, and such pointless ones, at that?  Whatever happened to the instruction manual?

The key is that we are observers, not participants.  We are passive, not active.  I may be watching cut scenes on a game console, but I'm not playing a game.  I'm just watching another movie clip.  And once I do get my turn to play, the rules of the game are structured completely around the movie scenes.  Everything is done in service to character and plot, not the immediacy of emergent gameplay.  Perhaps this is why New School games rely so heavily on puzzles.  Puzzles can be scripted, their outcome is predetermined.  There is no room for surprise, no room for improvisation, no room for free will.  It makes for a pretty lousy video game.

To me, that's very unfortunate, because I really want to like a game like HAWX 2.  It's clear that a great amount of work was put into its creation, the development team is extremely talented - the graphics are astonishing for any kid who grew up on Atari - and Heaven only knows how difficult it is to eke out a living in the video game industry.  I want these programmers, designers and artists to succeed.  I want the medium itself to succeed and expand.  But I don't believe success lies within the New School paradigm of cinematic-oriented games.

Now let's move on to the Old School.  This second video needs no introduction - Sega's Afterburner II.  Yeeh!  This is one of the greatest Old School video games ever created.  This is a perfect illustration of what arcade games do best - fast thrills, exciting action, narrow escapes from sudden death.  There is no dawdling around, no claims of artistic greatness.  Game designers and programmers didn't have that luxury in the past, because their arcade game has to compete against 30 other arcade machines for the players' attention (and money).  This is not a realm of pontificating and philosophizing.  This is the realm of the iconic now.

I remember this video arcade in downtown Duluth back in the 1980s that would hand out free game tokens for every A and B you scored on your report card.  It was a terrific motivation.  They had an upright Afterburner II, and it really was the coolest thing ever for a 14-year-old.  Graphics were packed with color and detail, large airplanes exploded in bursts of flame, and we were barely dodging enemy missiles and spinning barrel rolls while firing back.  This is exciting.  This is fun.  I like to imagine that I'm a daredevil pilot, cheating death and saving the world.

Is Afterburner shallow?  Yes, most definitely, and that's a very good question.  But all Old School games don't have to be that way; there is tremendous room for variety and depth.  The freedom of improvisation that is given to the player is given to the programmer and designer as well.  We must be careful not to follow the wrong path in the pursuit of "depth."  Depth and complexity are found in the content of the gameplay, not the storyteller's vision.  "Shallow" and "deep" are more complex than they seem.

For me, a New School video game like HAWX 2 is more shallow than Afterburner II.  I feel like I'm being led by the hand down a straight line.  I feel like I have no freedom, no room for surprise.  Whenever I get hit by the Creepers in Minecraft, it's always sudden and unexpected, and I jump out of my seat with my heart in my throat.  And it's a fantastic rush.  Creepers can put the zap on you anywhere, anytime.  Planes and missiles can strike from any angle in Afterburner.  Pirates can steal my crystite in MULE.  My quarterback can get injured in John Madden '92, and then the ambulance runs over all the players.  For me, this is the stuff of life.  This is fun.

Simply put, I don't want to be a passive observer.  I want to be an active participant.  I want to be a player.

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