Thursday, July 10, 2008

Retro reassessed: games and nostalgia

Writing a book about videogames from their earliest incarnation to the latest blockbuster is an exercise in restraint. Tempted as we were to write with gushing abandon about all the games we played and loved from the 70s, 80s and 90s, we had to take a step back and consider the Rough Guide to Videogames as a whole. Of course, looking back is the only way to achieve the long view I talked about in my first post, but it’s easy to take it too far and in doing so lose sight of the bigger picture we were aiming for.

Choosing which games made up our top 75 canon and which were to be covered in brief accounts dotted through the text was sometimes obvious, other times less so. Three of the games I struggled with were Tetris, Myst and Wolfenstein 3D. None of them should be left out of the book. But how well did these games stand up to the present? Would we be writing about games that made us feel warm and fuzzy, but which we didn’t really recommend anyone play today? Would Wolfenstein 3D sit comfortably alongside, say, Half-Life?

The first question we asked was: is it fun to play here and now, without the rosy-tinted spectacles of yesteryear? In other words, has it been superseded or is it somehow timeless? The second, even more subjective question was: what do we want to say about it? Is it the kind of game that can be dealt with in a hundred words or so, or does it need substantially more space? Every game in the book underwent this evaluation; of course, more recent games had to match other criteria, too, but that’s another story. This is how we dealt with the three games in question.

Tetris is an unmatched classic, proliferating in literally dozens of forms over the years. It’s also been documented thoroughly, the subject of TV programmes and books; you could either say a whole lot, or very little, and the latter was the choice I made.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Tetris helped determine the nature of videogames. The hypnotic falling of seven differently shaped tetragonal blocks down a screen – accompanied often as not by the unmistakable bleeps of a Russian folk song – was originally designed by Alexei Pajitnov in 1985, while working at the Academy of Science in Moscow, and was therefore owned by the Soviet government. Ported to the PC by Vadim Gerasimov, it wasn’t long before Tetris (a combination of Tetramino and tennis) had spread beyond Moscow to rapidly become the most popular game of all time. In one form or another it’s appeared on pretty much every platform, most significantly on Nintendo’s Game Boy in 1989; in this format it sold 33 million copies and came to represent gaming to the world at large, with people reporting seeing falling blocks in front of their eyes and mentally rotating real-life objects to get them to fit together. It’s not just the game itself that has distinguished Tetris, though, but a history of legal tangles over rights, trademarks and copyrights, one that’s been covered by books, TV documentaries and websites.

What about Myst, one of the bestselling games of all time? It held a special place in my heart, being the first game I played on my first Apple Mac computer in 1996. My boyfriend and I had spent hours poring over the maps, experimenting with the puzzles, enraptured by its chillingly empty beauty. But as can be seen by its recent port to the Nintendo DS, it’s simply not as awe-inspiring today as it was then. It gets a brief writeup, too.

Wolfenstein 3D, the progenitor of Doom, was a classic of a different cloth: atmospheric, exciting and tongue-in-cheek, not to mention inventive. But was there any more to say about it than that? Was it, in fact, worth mentioning at all? Well, yes, it’s a landmark game. I still have it on my Mac today; the thing is, there have been so many fantastic games over the past fifteen or so years since that I haven’t felt the urge to play it.

Next: some of the worst games ever made.

No comments: