Those Days Were Better Than These Days, Part One: Calendars & World Maps
on Tuesday 22 June 2010
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Conservatives talk about the fifties, liberals talk about the sixties, Muslims talk about the late seventh century, and gamers talk about Quake, and the SNES.

So why is it so many people are convinced that "those days were better than these days?" What was so compelling about "those days?" Were those days really so great?

Is the sixteen-bit Link of the SNES better than the pseudo-three dimensional Link of Ocarina of Time? Are either of those better than the Wii's current attempts at reiterating the story?

First, let's go back in time, and look at the games of that ancient epoch. The few that spring to mind are neither very old, nor were they particularly popular. The oldest example I can think of a game that is, for the most part, "better" than those we have now is Star Control II (1993). The player took control of the Captain, who flew about the galaxy in an over-glorified freighter, armed to the teeth, establishing alliances with cartoonish aliens in a quest to free humanity from the dreaded Ur-Quan Masters. While the back story has all the intellectual qualities of a 1950s Saucer-men movie, the game had two things, I think, that make me come back to again and again. The galaxy map was huge. Littered with stars, and each star had its own solar system. Each solar system had planets, and for the most part you could land on those planets, explore and steal natural resources. The playground they gave you wasn't so much a sandbox as a desert.

The other thing about Star Control II was that it didn't wait for our hero to do everything. The plot doesn't offer much choice between "do nothing" or "do these things" (although you don't have to do them in any particular order). The date on the sidebar served as a grim reminder that you needed to keep moving, keep... doing things. Events proceeded if you were there or not, and eventually all life would be extinguished without your intervention. The game never informs you that dragging your feet can result in the end of the human race either. This is a stark comparison to many modern games, such as Oblivion, in which they will continually tell you you need to hurry - but you could just as easily spend the next six weeks picking flowers and nothing bad would happen.

Is it better than modern games? In some ways yes. In other ways, no.

The next examples I'm often given comes much later. Fallout (1997). This game had very good writing, an interesting an engaging world - and once again a similar over-world dotting around combined with a strict timeline. The first goal was illustrated very clearly, along with the associated time limit. The second time limit to the game, however, was never clearly given. Instead they assure you that the supermutants will engulf the wasteland if nothing is done but they give no particulars on how long that will take. In Star Control you could push back the inevitable series of events by sending allies to war to "buy time," in Fallout you could make one bad decision that would lead the mutants straight back to your Vault (fallout shelter) and bring a much closer deadline.

These two games had two things in common that most modern games seem to lack. First, large, simplistic world maps which create a sense of "bigness" to the world without the drudgery of walking five-hours in real time. The second is a timeline with two (or more, in Fallout's case) possible outcomes. One of those outcomes being determined if the player takes no active part in the central plot. I think it's nice to see how "things would turn out" if I weren't there. It makes the whole world seem all that much more well-thought out. While both games fall short when faced with logic and science they both suspend disbelief very well.

Part Two will discuss narrative, and immersion.



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