June 4, 2008

Fire Rockets!

First thing was control. A metal joystick hooked up to a three-inch television determined the trajectory of two white dots, and this was fascinating. Men staggered in bars along with a cheap beer in one hand and a light gun in the other, and they were saving the world. Game boxes began to overflow with floppy disks, and this was thrilling. One afternoon twenty math majors hung out in a San Jose living room, and that was the Game Developers Conference. Readers savoured every word in 500-page magazines, and these were monthly industry bibles that constructed a global community of video game fans.

In schools, one kid was the first to own a Mega Drive, and everyone decided they wanted to be better friends with that kid. In dorm rooms, students passed out at dawn after 24-hour GoldenEye deathmatches. In bedrooms, brothers mocked their sisters for crying at Titanic for the twelfth time, then went back to Disc One of Final Fantasy VII and couldn't stop the floodgates.

In San Francisco, team of programmers and artists assembled under the banner of a film producer's side project, and these people were soon revealed to be the best comedic minds in the industry. In Dallas, rock star developers got coked up in a towering glass monument to hubris. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a de facto fraternity of MIT alumni quietly changed how games were played.

These are the moments that echo, which call out to be favoured by nostalgia, and immortalised as a golden age. These moments are historical signposts that set daunting standards for the future. They are satellites; explosions in the sky, sending signals that write the story of what we choose to remember. In a contemporary context we cannot predict with any reasonable accuracy the new moments that we will forever care about. We can be certain, however, that there will be plenty of these moments to come.

This medium is going places. The last hundred years charted entertainment transcendence. Cinema established itself as more than the novelty of moving trains and factory workers. Comics grew beyond newspaper pages and television proved it wasn't just the poor man's picture show. The funny pages worked its way to a place that could support Maus and Watchmen, and television got Twin Peaks and the Wire. All accomplished by good people working hard to redefine and subvert every available preconception and stereotype of the medium. These things take time, and now we've got time. We're gonna have our moments. The 21st century will belong to video games. We're transcending.

Look around you. It's not hard to get excited. Games are written up in international magazines as entertainment and not as a mysterious teenage fad akin to MTV and skateboarding. Developers enjoy greater name recognition and creative control. A historically obsequious press is becoming increasingly resistant to the impositions of publishers. There's never been a better support network for independent developers, and for that matter, the independent scene's current field of talent is astounding.

And games are getting better. They can advance the medium and comment on the human condition, but even when they're not, the games are getting better.

It means it's not such a bad thing to be on the sidelines anymore. There's value in being a witness -- not a developer, not an advocate -- but just someone who believed in the medium when it counted, who embraced it although its legitimacy wasn't universally recognised. In the face of misinformation and flimsy attacks, when video games were painted as cop-killing sexboxes, we were smart and cool enough to know who and what was right. That's something to admire.

Still, I have far more respect for those who have no interest in video games and never play them than I do for the forum poster who hunts for objective proof that the PS3 version of Grand Theft Auto IV has less tearing; or the teenagers setting back their generation on Xbox Live; or the staff reviewer jumping at the chance to trade advertising space for an exclusive review. It's not hard to get excited about this industry. But it takes an extra special something to care about it.

It's fun to be an observer, to have brushed up against history and be able to impress others with tales of just how close you were. You saw Casablanca in theaters, you saw the Clash in 1977, and you've been playing Metal Gear Solid since it was on the NES. It's satisfying to know all about the cool medium before it breaks fully into the mainstream. It's better to do all that while also being a good guy.

Fifty years from now gaming will resemble something so much greater than what we can presently imagine. You can tell your kids that you remember what it used to be like, and tell them that you were on the right side. That you cared about this industry: supported it where you could and encouraged every effort towards its improvement, helped it evolve until it stood at its zenith, shoulder-to-shoulder, with every other medium in existence. These things take time, but they don't happen without you. And it's worth it. Look around you. Tell me you don't think this is going to be something good.

Welcome back to the show that never ends.


Steve gaynor said...

I'll be the obnoxious forum poster who points out that Metal Gear Solid first appeared on the Playstation; Metal Gear was on the NES.

Glad to see you back in the saddle :-)

Duncan said...

I know but for a Metal Gear Solid fan it's a more impressive claim that you were there at the franchise's very beginning in 1987 on the NES. Or even July 12, 1987 on the MSX2 home computer! I know how to use Wikipedia.