Electron Dance
24Aug/11Off

Nothing To Lose

This is the fourteenth article in the Where We Came From series.

During a trip to the coast, the Harbour Master clan spent a couple of days roaming Camber Sands beach near Rye. While we were down there, I spotted an amusement arcade perched on the edge of one of the beach car parks.

[picture of amusement arcade, doors are padlocked]

The last arcade I'd wandered through was probably on Brighton Pier about five years ago but whilst the arcade roar kindled feelings of nostalgia, the coin-ops of old had largely been replaced with gambling machines and dancing games. I still hoped to come across some arcade which retained working 80s favourites like Phoenix, Defender or Battlezone.

The beach arcade was closed but I kept an eye on it, waiting for the chance to nose around whatever machines were on offer. I have such strong arcade memories from my single digit years: blazing batteries of screens in dark, enclosed places where ten pence pieces went to die.

Then I saw the sign.

[sign of "dangerous structure keep out"]

After the 70s, powerful computing technology moved into the home then invaded the space in our hands. The draw of the arcade waned. Pubs now make do with dreary quiz machines and one-arm bandits. No one wants to see the old coin-op any more. It is done.

Culture and technology move forward with each successive generation and, as a necessary part of the process, the young turf out the cultural icons of the previous generational incumbent. Arcades, the Atari 2600 and the Sony Walkman are now historical artefacts.

Today, a whole web site industry dedicated to retro fetishism exists, as well as a battalion of grown-up 80s gamers that aggressively protect their gaming past. At the other extreme, there are those that ridicule the primitive beeps and blocks, considering the 80s an episode of gaming history better off buried in a giant unmarked landfill site, like the place where all those Atari 2600 E.T. cartridges were buried.

Did we lose something when we left the 80s behind? Or are we just prone to losing ourselves in nostalgia?

Consider The Individual

I first heard about Bill Williams' death, as covered in Stanley Kubrick Is Gone, around a decade ago. I'd entertained the idea that all these brilliant programmers that fleshed out my childhood had become even better developers, still out there fighting the good video game fight. While it was sad to hear that there would be no more games from Williams, it was even more tragic to discover his last projects were "Monopoly" and "Bart's Nightmare". From Necromancer to Monopoly? What was wrong with the world?

Williams’ plight was emblematic of the bedroom programmer generation's problem. They were unable to reconcile their love of digital artistry with the demands of the new corporate paymasters. Paymasters that typically eschewed experimentation in favour of genres and mechanics already established through the previous decade's efforts. This new industry did not seem to foster the same sense of creativity yet thrived on death march projects. Many just changed career rather than graft themselves onto these meat factories; those that stayed were chewed up by the emerging “EA Spouse” culture [1].

[APX catalog page featuring Salmon Run by Bill Williams]

But I can no longer mourn over this rout of individualism - Steve Hunt made it clear in his interview, The Magic Is Back, that anyone who wants to be an independent developer can go out and do it. If we go back to Brian Moriarty's interview Radio With Pictures, Moriarty also spoke positively about "talented people finding a voice they might not have been able to realize before" despite his disappointment at the evolution of computer games as an artistic medium. Things are different today.

So I characterise each computer gaming decade in the following way:

  • 1970s, Genesis - The first computer game businesses appear with Atari dominating
  • 1980s, Democratisation - Home computers enable ordinary computer users to make their own games
  • 1990s, Corporatisation - Profitable games require the polish and resources that only big business can afford
  • 2000s, Revolution - Game development becomes cheaper and games break out of narrow genres in a big way

Digital distribution, better hardware and the ubiquity of tools have put power back into the hands of the individual. It is interesting to recall David Fox's suggestion, from his interview Changing Lives, that the mobile app ecosystem appears to be repeating the violent lurch from a community of pioneers to big business seen in gaming during the late 1980s. [2]

Consider The Technology

But the decade that bridged the democracy and the revolution was not without virtue. Games became far more refined as "products" with a greater focus on design and technological finesse [3]. Software and hardware have both become better at play.

What about the original hardware? In a world where decent emulators exist, is it important to have access to the source technology? Professor Steve Furnell of Plymouth University told me: "I think it's relevant to know where we have come from. Some of this stuff is just 20-25 years old and that's clearly, looking forward, within the career lifetime of the students we are now teaching." Still, emulators will serve in a pinch; everything I revisited for this series was via emulator.

There's also an ongoing fascination with developing under the antiquated constraints the original technology imposed. Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort made a great argument in Racing The Beam that art arises from constraint and the minimalist environment of the Atari 2600 gave rise to incredible innovation. So now you can find Ed Fries developing Halo 2600 and he's not the only one throwing himself into the lost 8-bit dimension. [4]

[Atari VCS game catalog featuring Air-Sea Battle, Sky Diver, Surround

Consider The Mechanics

A desire for emotional resonance and an aspiration to art has always been with us, but games have had a difficult history with shoot-in-the-head sims obscuring more subtle and introspective titles. But the "art game" movement has gained significant momentum in recent years and there are real efforts to build games that can mean more than just the satisfaction of the kill, of the level up.

But did we lose certain modes of play? Did genres vanish over the years?

No. A great counterexample is that most dead of genres, interactive fiction (IF). It didn't die, it merely transformed from business to community, as Brian Moriarty implied in his interview. Also consider the example of Andrew Plotkin, now working on commerical IF mobile apps, proving that IF is not dead and a market - no matter how niche - still exists.

What of X-Com? The new reboot XCOM shares little with its ancestor: you can always count on big business to capitalise on nostalgia but only a fool would rely on big business to respect it. But while there are still those who love X-Com, someone, somewhere will make the real successor to it – look at the upcoming remake Xenonauts. Successful modes of play will not just disappear.

At the start of this series, I put up a video of Shiina Ringo's wonderful Tsumi to Batsu released in 2000. In 2008, she performed a number of her songs with orchestral support; it’s ostensibly the same music, but the feel is completely different. With Tsumi to Batsu, she transformed her original raw, wailing lamentation into something fragile and desperate:

I see similar patterns in game development. The past continues to be felt in contemporary titles in ways both subtle and obvious. At the start of the year I wrote that Shatter overhauls Breakout and removes what was frustrating about the original game design.

Shatter is not Breakout. But somehow, it is.

Consider The Losses

So has anything truly been lost?

Maybe the innocence? It is some irony that Activision, created out of disgruntled Atari programmers not getting credit for their work, has grown into an industry leviathan resembling its estranged parent, Atari of the 1980s. Electronic Arts made its name with forward-thinking titles such as M.U.L.E., Seven Cities of Gold and Archon; it, too, now suffers from being a juggernaut desperate to make mega-sales with each new release. Even the shell that is the modern “Atari” is now harassing Atari fansites that existed for years, a move that seems breathtakingly grotesque in its disrespect.

Maybe the old computers themselves? As there is little evidence that the legion of archiving projects are collaborating, there remains problems regarding the preservation of bygone computing technology. Where are the skills when the machines begin to die? When the memory chips fade and the processors stop? Magnetic media does not last forever and I recently transferred my entire Atari floppy disk collection to PC to preserve them. But it was already too late for many of the disks.

[a collection of floppy disks]

Maybe the mystery? Drew Davidson, writing for Tap-Repeatedly, explored the idea of our modern post-secret world where spoilers are part of the cultural machine. David Fox also touched on this, convinced that it would not be possible today to keep the notorious Rescue on Fractalus! alien a secret for any significant length of time. We're lodged in an electronic grid full of voices – active 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Maybe patience? I was struck by how long some old games took to play. Personally important titles such as Mercenary and Alternate Reality provided expansive worlds which were slow to navigate not just due to design but also performance issues. Frequent disk swaps in the latter proved to be the most serious complaint. Fed on broadband, today we're all “click-and-gimme”.

Maybe the pioneering atmosphere? There was certainly something different about the frontier of the 80s, when computers in homes were almost a fashion accessory. If you belonged to the future, you needed one of these machines. But technology continues to reinvent itself, consoles warp and shift from boxes into Wii controllers, games leap into social networking and mobile devices. There's always a new challenging frontier. Today's young generation exploring art and thought through games are not the mod makers of old aping the big budget titles; they are producing bright, new concepts. This is an exciting time to be a game artist.

So I say this as the conclusion to Where We Came From: we live in great times.

Consider The Cliffhanger

I hope you enjoyed all that, because it was a pack of lies.

Something is gone. Something so powerful and fundamental, it destroys every positive point I've made in this essay. It gives life to every web page dedicated to retro gaming, regardless of the decade in question. It informed every word I committed to the series.

Look again.

Next week the series conclusion: A recurring dream, the failure of the pioneers and what was lost.

Footnotes

[1] EA: The Human Story by ea_spouse - on the destructive nature of game development culture as fostered by big business.

[2] For a television parable on the theft of individual achievement by corporations, see the violent, foul-mouthed and captivating HBO series Deadwood.

[3] Sadly, this also included the blighted period where every game had to feature 3D graphics otherwise it was considered antiquated.

[4] Historical note here. As I alluded to in Peter Liepa’s interview The Creative Urge with my comment "it could be argued game design was elitist in the 80s", a form of programmer eugenics did erupt at that time. "Real" programmers who had invested much of their time studying the black arts of machine language optimisation decried anything that appeared to hand the power of game development to the unwashed masses. So I’m not particularly in the mood to celebrate a new race of super-cool retro machine coders.

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Comments (17) Trackbacks (0)
  1. An excellent read. Be back for the resolution in 10 days. Did I mention that I mostly agree too? No, well, I do. Cheers!

  2. Thanks gnome, have fun on your travels. And thanks for the link yesterday!

  3. Best of times, worst of times, isn’t it? I feel like newer generations lose touch with original works when they can experience modernized takes on them. I was listening to Paris Angels (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRhMXx7euwE) while reading this and it reminds me of the musical equivalent- fans of modern indie dance music would likely find their songs amusing at best, even though they’re obviously the root of something they love.

    I tend to avoid old games where you map things by hand. I didn’t play any games that necessitated it as a child, so I never learned to tolerate doing it. Nevertheless, I read up on opinions as to what mapping does for the experience and can understand why someone would like it. I feel that too many people are worried that they’ll come across as having bad taste if they admit that they dislike something which, in their opinion, isn’t actually bad. So they try to make facts of it.

    That sign on the arcade is disheartening. Recent reading on Rock, Paper, Shotgun (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/08/26/of-games-and-public-houses-barcraft/) and Hardcore Gaming 101 (http://blog.hardcoregaming101.net/2011/08/space-station-osaka-retro-video-game.html) suggests that the public gaming experience is growing with the generation that has already experienced it. Sorry, kids.

    Brilliant article. This comment is long.

    P.S. Your “Where We Came From” link at the top goes to your Cryostasis article.

  4. Gah! I wondered why I was getting quite a few Cryostasis hits! Anyway, fixed now.

    On your point on mapping specifically, it raises something I really didn’t consider to explore for this series – the idea that a new generation of gamers are lacking in l33t skillz because the games don’t tax them enough. It’s a real thorny one which Amanda Lange chewed over on Tap but it plugs into a livewire of larger society issues: is there simply too much handholding in the Western world of 2011? No, not even with a barge pole… interesting though when I worked on Planetfall for “Always Floyd” I just started mapping how I normally would. It didn’t even occur to me that some people would consider it a chore, that mapping is part of the charm for me and has never got old. (Except for mazes.)

    You raise an interesting point that there isn’t a real successor to the arcade – a physical social space that is based around video games. I’d never thought I needed one until you mentioned that. But you’ve got me thinking now. But so many parts of our physical culture have been falling away into the sea of virtuality in the last decade. Just look at the simple example of shopping which has changed a great deal.

    Thanks for calling the article “brilliant” but I was really reaching for something like “beautiful” or “fantastic”. Please consider those words next time, Sid. (This week’s article was all rationality and analysis but next week’s is the total antithesis of it.)

  5. I suppose I was going for “brilliant used to describe something shiny.” I really should be using my full range of vocabulary, though.

    I think “haunting” describes it best, considering how it starts and ends. Haunting article. Yes.

  6. Thanks Armand for taking time out of your busy DXHR schedule for stopping by =) I can’t believe any one reads anything in the week that DXHR was released!

  7. I read it, and with this great piece I can think of the industrial ruin presented in DXHR compared with the collapsing arcades of our youth… but also the import of what you call “click and gimme,” something that even we core, lifetime gamers have become used to. If you consider DXHR as an example, well, let’s put it this way – there was a time not too long ago when games didn’t break out every objective and sub-objective and pin them to your HUD so you couldn’t possibly miss them or even get sidetracked. Can you turn it off? Sure, but most of us don’t, even we grizzled veterans of the Old Days.

    Beautiful article, HM. I hope your readers appreciate the amount of effort and work that has gone into this Where We Came From project. It’s immense almost beyond imagining.

  8. Really enjoying this series, HM. Looking forward to the conclusion!

  9. @Steerpike: Yeah, you know the whole “no time to think” is one of my Big Things. As I put in that comment against Amanda Lange’s article, it’s not a problem with gaming but the way we live now. I wish I could turn it all off. It’s so difficult to accomplish anything of value when your mental focus is haemorrhaging away. The workplace led the way of course. I get something like 1000 e-mails a day as well as around the same number in focus-grabbing instant message alerts.

    On readers – hah, I know the comments have really dried up recently but there were nice plugs from Jonas Kyratzes, Gnome’s Lair and Critical Distance in the last week and that was without begging for a link (recently, begging has not been going well). Plus the readership has been rising every week. The Fukushima article was even linked via Hacker News which is not somewhere I expected to turn up.

    @ShaunCG – Glad to hear you’re still around, dude!

  10. I am still around, just short on time – but I’m always reading, thanks to the old RSS feeds. :)

    (1,000 emails a day? Geez! I should gripe less about the 000s I get a day…)

  11. Looking forward to the final piece of this series, HM. It’s just been one inspired read after another.

    If you’re not already a published author (physical works, I mean) I believe you should strongly consider it. I think your blog here is a shining example of quality over quantity; and even still, I would hardly say the quantity is lacking.

  12. Hey, I am still lurking, just that work is really busy at the moment and in the evening I am churning out content so I get the time to read but not to post generally.

    I had been meaning to remark on this post, it is sad to see the sad decline of the Arcade. the truth is that we are already starting to see the decline of almost every form of game play, game package and game marketing we have grown accustomed to in an even shorter time.

    What is interesting is stuff like the giantbombcast recently talking about how one of the bought an arcade machine from the arcade expo in California. The guy’s tale (I think it was klepek) of wheeling it into his house and how all the local kids some 20 years younger than him looking at him with wide eyes, like he was the coolest shit ever. That and the gamers with jobs crew taking their kids to pinball halls, and their kids enjoying it. This decline, in my opinion, will plateau eventually and will be kept alive by the enthusiast that need that ‘authentic’ feel of the metal balls on flippers, the microswitch click of the sticks, or even the cloth map and cardboard smell in the special edition box set. This enthusiasm will continue in generations like how Vinyl is still sold and has survived the cassette tape (and possibly) the CD.

    Good things will be kept alive by those that care.

  13. @Max: Hey thanks! My last piece of fiction got rejected from a few places. So if you know someone who’ll take a story about a gay man recovering from an unknown subway disaster with a dodgy memory, let me know. I have also a story about a guy having a tryst with the memory of a schoolgirl too, any takers?

    @BadgerCommander: The thing is why have all these things declined? They’re just don’t fit the present any more. Arcades have a certain coolness about them, and I wouldn’t rule out a sort of retro-comeback either, but the gaming mainstream has moved on. I don’t think capitalism can bring them back, especially as everything is skewing more heavily towards ridiculous economies of scale now (you gotta be Angry Birds, kid, or ya nothin’ in dis game).

    And I don’t see us breaking out of the vampire-like hypnotic gaze of a digital only world. I don’t think I want game boxes and shit filling up my house. Yet I miss all of that…

  14. I wasn’t an arcade kid myself but one thought that occurs is that arcade machines rose to fill a short gap produced by the intersection of various social and technological factors. The first, the rise of computer gaming technology. The second, the initially prohibitive costs of said machines for individual consumers (ugh, sorry, I hate that word, but…). The third, the increasing drop in said costs. The fourth, the general trend in the West away from communal ownership and towards individual ownership.

    Essentially, now that everything is available cheaply – in individual monetary terms – and now that we are all so much more socially atomised and selfish as a culture, there is little place for the traditional arcade outside of nostalgic memory and the few places were an arcade might thrive (a Butlins holiday camp, for example, or a few machines at large service stations, in both cases to take advantage of sizeable populations of bored children).

  15. Yes, I think arcades were really just the first wave of computer gaming which were pretty much doomed once the computing hit home. You could also view the arcade as a litmus test for whether the public liked computer gaming. But that’s a sharp point you’ve got there – the push towards a consumerist society during the 80s, and we must own everything. People seem to have more shit right now than I ever remember during my youth. (Disclaimer: I’m referring to everybody including myself, not a youth-to-youth comparison, m’kay, plus this is pretty much one of those “in my day…” comments, eeeeek.)

    At the risk of letting my cynicism run riot, even in BC’s story above, the guy is cool because he owns an arcade machine.

  16. I am depressingly acquisitory and something of a hoarder; this is one reason why I’m a big fan of digital distribution. It keeps clutter off my shelves…

    Not really surprising though given the nature of late capitalism and the sharp drops in cost of raw materials and manufacturing over the last few decades (driven partly through the outsourcing of risk and cost to the developing world, and partly through advancing technological methods of extraction and manufacture). As those very British satirical signs go, “Keep Calm and Buy Shit”. I admire people who live and travel light, though I try to moderate rather than defy my own psychological impulses. ;)


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