Only a few days ago Ralph Baer, the man widely acknowledged as the ‘Father of video games’, passed away. Most famous for development of the world’s first video game console (though the term could be applied loosely here), the “Brown Box” in the late 1960s, his pioneering ideas set the blueprint for early games such as Computer Space (1971) and the more popular Pong (1972). There’s something undeniably timeless about watching the video of him and one of his co-workers trying out the Brown Box for the first time; it’s a literal time capsule providing a vital glimpse at humble beginnings for a much-maligned industry.
For the thirty years following this breakthrough, the industry would skyrocket into one of the most profitable that has ever existed. It has long since surpassed films and books in terms of the money it makes and even, in some instances, the stories it has shown the ability to tell. Yet artistically one could argue video games seem to be caught up in a very real and current struggle to avoid periodically stalling.
Consumers have become addicted to the desire for always improving visuals; developers have been pushed to putting all of their resources into extracting more processing power out of the hardware they’re using and sacrificing other design elements in the process – like, for example, actual gameplay.
There also appears to be a worrying trend of developers selling games we already own back to us. Not that this is anything new – films and books have been doing it for many years. As new formats have emerged over time, such as audiobooks, DVD, Blu-ray and Kindle, publishers and distributors have always identified the marketable opportunity to release something old in a newer skin. The ‘special edition’ DVD or ‘limited edition’ nicely designed re-release of a classic novel are just a couple of the tempting offers you’ll see on any given day in any number of high street retailers.
Having said that, the effect this will have on the video games industry will, I think, prove more detrimental in the long run, both for consumers and the developers currently basking in the safe profit margins that these releases provide. It is not hard to see how and why, although having a PlayStation as my main console of choice for over fifteen years now means I can only really comment on the situation relating to Sony’s main console.
As you will likely know even if you don’t so much care, the PlayStation 4 was released last year in Europe and North America to somewhat subdued acclaim. To my knowledge only hardcore gamers and those who must have the latest technology to keep up with emerging trends, were the ones who took the initial investment. For everyone else, myself (as someone who previously purchased a PS3 on release day – and it’s still going strong, by the way) included, the consensus was that our current consoles were still adequate for our needs.
Besides from trying to win over their consumers with more beautiful visuals than ever before, there were some suspicious sacrifices Sony’s new console made that should have given us a hint about where we’d be a year on. The main one, for me, was a lack of any sort of backwards compatibility, including the catalogue of PS1 and PS2 classics available on PS3 through the PlayStation Store. If you were the kind of gamer to recycle your previous console when a new one was released, you could say goodbye to that old sense of nostalgia… for now.
A year on, there are still no essential titles that make me want to buy the new console, and the ones that could eventually entice me (Kingdom Hearts III and Silent Hills most of all) will not be coming out until at least mid-2016. In fact, the two most essential titles for the console so far seem to have one main thing in common: they’re both higher definition versions of the previous generations best titles. I’m talking, of course, about The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V. The former I haven’t played more than 20 minutes of, because I didn’t buy it at the time and I’m thinking now the best version to play will probably be the one on PS4.
Grand Theft Auto V, on the other hand, I have bought and played. And you know what? I don’t regret one second of it. It can be a controversial thing to say in the current climate (unjustifiably so, in my opinion), but this game is as close to a technical and creative masterpiece that AAA titles can get. It comes not only with an expansive, living, densely populated world, but also intelligent writing that parodies modern society and the stereotypical caricatures created by a postmodern culture.
Those are the areas in which the game gains its plaudits. Not for the act of being able to murder civilians or have sex with prostitutes. These things are admittedly cheap forms of entertainment (which I don’t personally find entertaining) and if the game relied on them without providing appropriate context to its world, it would be no more revered than the average gratuitous ‘slasher’ movie.
It is a shame, then, that many people don’t consider this context, instead judging the game on one or two of its isolated offerings and increasingly using it, as they have done with this series since its first release, for generalizing evidence that everything wrong with society is in some way related to video games, which don’t deserve to be anything more than Candy Crush.
But if there is one game that shows how maturely and seriously the industry should be taken, GTA V is surely that. This is a game that is certainly not for kids, even more so than previous titles in the series, and the big red ‘18’ rating on the front of the game case emphatically reinforces this point.
Though I don’t hold it against some parents for still being confused about this, because it seems some retailers aren’t helping the matter: Target AU, an Australian company recently subject to a petition urging them to stop selling the game, foolishly went ahead and placed GTA V alongside Peppa Pig and Spider-man dolls in their toy section. If I was a parent I’d be quite mystified and concerned to see it there too; the difference in this case being that I would have actually played the game and could make a more informed decision than the majority of others who would be judging only by what they have seen on the news or the internet.
The issue of whether or not I should praise the GTA V developers, Rockstar North, for re-releasing their already immensely successful game on PS4, taking advantage both of the aforementioned non-compatibility and the increased power of the new console, is of course an entirely different issue. Essentially they are selling their game twice, the second time only one year after the first, making enough changes that will entice those who invested before to perhaps do so again. It sounds cheeky, it feels cheeky, and we all know it is quite cheeky, but that won’t stop the majority of people from buying it anyway. And this, at the end of the day, is the deciding factor for a development team who have a job for which they must be paid and therefore desire the best financial results for their work. If most of us didn’t want it, they wouldn’t make it, because it is our wanting it that means they can make it.
You may think that a worrying sign. Surely there must be other, more artistic factors that decide what they put their energy into? To an extent there is, but in the end it will always come down to one thing: whatever the customer wants you must give, if you want the cycle to continue.
This cycle will continue; I need only look at my own recent gaming purchases for evidence of it. Aside from GTA V, recent games I’ve played include the Metal Gear Solid and Jak & Daxter HD collections, as well as the HD remaster of Final Fantasy X/ X-2. For all the complaining I might try to do about developers not making new games and instead just recycling old ones, I’m forced to admit that I’m part of the guilty party here.
Yet still I worry. I worry because this nostalgia factor can only last for so long, and if we get too caught up in it, the risk remains that there won’t be new classics for future generations to be nostalgic about. Frankly, I think it would be just a little selfish of us to rob them of that.
Nostalgia is indeed a big business for postmodern humanity. I would hope Grand Theft Auto V, both in its self-deprecating content and the wider trends it is part of, represents one of the warning signs that people will take heed of, not only for the benefit of the video game industry, but for the direction of society in general. For this transcendent nature, GTA V could be one of the great gaming classics. It is our generation’s responsibility to recognize that and treasure it.