Pining for Pixels: What We’ve Lost, What We’ve Gained, and What’s Been There All Along

Times change, people change, games change. The best games get better, and the worst games hopefully fade away.
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At some point in every person’s life, they become nostalgic for the things they grew up with. The new and improved begins to feel like a distorted vision of simpler times, and we look back with a forgetful eye. It’s helpful to consider what we truly had back then and to look at what we’ve gained since.

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What We’ve Lost

A sense of complete newness

Most games in the early days were original simply because there was nothing like them before. Developers had to come up with new stories and new mechanics, and weave them into a cohesive whole. Today’s games build upon those foundations in clever and unique ways, but they very rarely have to start from scratch as the early developers did. (Many new games are built on engines that are a decade or more old.)

A sense of discovery

Ahh, the Internet. I was teethed on the Atari and NES, and came of age in the SNES era. Back then, I had to discover most of the secrets and tricks for my favorite games on my own, after hours of exploring and trying random things. If I was lucky, a friend shared a juicy tip, or I found one paging through Nintendo Power or EGM. Nowadays, it’s much easier to simply Google how to do something in the game I’m playing than to bash my head on it for hours. And oftentimes, games themselves provide visual cues or tips for what to do next or how to surpass the latest obstacle.

The pride of un-aided achievement

Because I was forced to rely more on my own ingenuity to beat early games (see above), when I succeeded, I was rewarded with a much deeper sense of achievement. I could ride that high for hours (or even days), gloating to my friends that I’d beaten this boss or that hard level.

Nowadays, “achievements” are a dime a dozen; cheap trinkets collected along the way and displayed on your profile more as proof that you played the game than truly accomplishing something meaningful to you (that said, the best achievements aren’t cheap, and the best games still offer the same feeling of accomplishment – provided you can refrain from looking up the strategies online.).

Reliance on our own imagination

Ah, pixels–the building blocks of even the most basic video games. Early games, in their pixellated simplicity, left much to our imagination. Like a good book, we played through these games and filled in the gaps with details from the depths of our own creativity. That two-dimensional, 8-bit character was every bit as fleshed out as the three-dimensional, textured character of today’s games in our minds.

A sense of belonging

Let’s face it: early gamers had a stigma that was almost palpable. Often pale and pasty from too many hours in front of a screen, perhaps wearing video game themed attire (un-ironically), and carrying a stack of Nintendo Power magazines, these were my people. I knew them at a glance, and we gravitated toward each other naturally. Over the years, as games have moved into the mainstream, and even my grandparents can profess to having played a game or two, gamer is a badge that has grown less obvious and less exclusive. Gamers are no longer a secret sect, a closet minority. We are everywhere and everyone.

What We’ve Gained

A richer experience

Games these days can be completely immersive: high-resolution graphics that seem almost real, sweeping scores that rival some of the best movie soundtracks, and stories and characters with intricate details. Big budget games often have larger teams (and wallets) than major motion pictures. All of these people working together (when they do it right) can create something wonderfully complex and rich.

Awe-inspiring moments

These rich experiences in newer games can create breathtaking moments that leave every sense tingling with excitement, dread, or even sadness. Story elements that were once the realm of pixellated cut scenes can now be almost completely reproduced within the context of the game itself, leaving us as players completely engaged and in awe of the story unfolding around us.

Your own identity

While creating your own character has been a large part of games since the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, truly owning your identity within video games (outside of a very narrow framework) has only come about in the last decade or so. In most early games, you played as the hero with a set goal and skills. Nowadays, you can define your own character from the appearance and personality down to morals and skills.

A more powerful emotional connection

We connect emotionally with games (new or old) at a more visceral level than other stories (like books and movies) because we take an active part in them. We are the hero making the choices that affect the story’s outcome, and in newer games especially our decisions truly have weight. When the decisions that shape the story are our own, then we care more about the characters and story.

Open worlds

The depth and breadth of open worlds in newer games is astounding. You can explore for months and still not know the world completely. Open sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim, and World of Warcraft have something for almost every type of player. You can play and explore without completing any of the major storylines and still get a great sense of accomplishment from these types of games.

The power to create

While some older games allowed players to create within a specific context, many newer games actively engage the player in creating (or destroying) the world around them. Being able to directly affect the world gives a greater feeling of ownership and again a deeper emotional connection. Games like Minecraft let you build your own games and worlds within them, giving you the power to become the game maker.

What’s Been There All Along

Tools to foster camaraderie

Whether through cooperation or competition, games have always inspired camaraderie. Nowadays you can play with friends online without gathering at a specific location or even knowing your friends in real life. What started as a very simple social mechanic (extra controllers hooked into the same system) has become for many a way to meet new people, make new friends, and share their lives with others.

The drive of competition and the motivation to win

Every game is built upon rules and has an ultimate goal: to win, complete the story, or triumph over opponents within the context of those rules. Games existed before video and will continue to exist well past the television/computer era.

Unique mechanics

Early games had unique mechanics simply because they were new, and while newer games continue to expand upon those, they are also constantly creating their own new mechanics and refining them. The best unique and new mechanics rise to the top, and the worst hopefully fade away as players reject them and the games built upon them.

Engaging stories

Early games may have had simpler stories, but they were still engaging by the active nature of playing within them. Quality and depth of stories have improved alongside the graphic and mechanic improvements, but story has always been an intrinsic part of video games.

In conclusion

It’s easy to look back with nostalgia at those games of yesteryear, when everything felt new and unbridled, when the entire medium was still an open expanse waiting to be explored. But don’t do so and dismiss newer games out of hand. There’s still a lot of great work being done: new worlds to explore, new mechanics to test even the most veteran players, and new people to engage with in combat or coop. It’s still the wild west out there, and there’s plenty of territory to explore and claim.

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