You may not be aware of it, but video games change a lot and quite often. The industry is pretty much unrecognizable from what it was just a few years ago. Going even further back, businesses and products are now an apples-and-oranges comparison. As you wind back the clock while ours incessantly ticks forward, the Venn diagram of now and then drifts further and further apart to the point where they are almost two distinct, separate rings. That sliver of similarity hinges on the fact that we still call them games.
We just don’t notice it because we see it every day (or at least I assume you do since you’re here on a rather niche website reading about a nice topic). Like how you don’t notice that your little German Shepard has grown to Fenrir-sized proportions, but when your friends come over, they’re taken aback by the fact that you now house a small horse in your apartment instead of the tiny little puppy they saw four months ago. Your relative increments in difference are minute, easily crossed in a commensurately tiny step; theirs is a god damn canyon that only David Copperfield could manage.
If you want proof, I’ve got it. Two years ago, Dan Ryckert over at Game Informer started a little video series called Dan and His Dad. It was established on the simple premise that his dad, while knowing of video games doesn’t necessarily know anything about them (the announcing post was entitled “Watch Me Make My Dad Play Games He’ll Hate” if that paints a better picture for you). I watched them at the time and they’re pretty good stuff since they’re both pretty entertaining fellas, but I’d largely forgotten about them since then.
That is until people, for some reason or another, started tweeting about it. Or rather, one video in particular: the one where they play Heavy Rain, the 2010, uh…actiony adventure game from Quantic Dream. Watching the video, it’s easy to understand why people still like to talk about it; both Dan and his dad are pretty funny people. It’s very different from Two Best Friends Play! in that Dan never gets frustrated with his dad (I mean, I’m sure he does, but that’s not the crux of the humor) and most of the joy isn’t derived from half of those involved yelling at the other half. It’s more that his dad is a very odd mix of open to all comers but still highly critical in an absurdist sort of way. I mean, they spend most of the video talking about or thinking about grapes, so absurdism is definitely at play here.
What sticks out about this particular video, however, is that somewhere along the way from waking up in bed as Ethan Mars and getting dressed, Dan’s dad gets stuck. He doesn’t get stuck in the sense that he doesn’t possess the skill to progress but rather he gets hung up on the notion that he can lean against the balcony railing and look over his backyard. “I’m doing what it’s telling me to do,” to which Dan replies with, “it’s not something you need to do that progresses—it’s just something you can do.”
That is something that seems to be epitomizes the generational gap in understanding how video games work. For all the crap we give games nowadays about being linear, we forget where the industry came from a scant three to four decades ago. Call of Duty, sure, has you mostly funneling down hallways and conveniently closed streets, but games of the arcade generation had its own way of linearly guiding you through its digital wares.
Through limitations in mechanics, games of yore would force your hand in the matter. Pac-Man, for instance, really only has one mechanic, and that is to move in one of four directions or not. Your experience is shoehorned into what you can accomplish in these four actions and one inaction. In Donkey Kong, you have cardinal movement and you can jump, but you must always be aiming to move up. With Frogger, you are once again relegated to only movement, but at least you have a directional goal now.
Of those three examples, only Pac-Man gave you the freedom to choose how you went about attaining your goal of collecting all the dots, but you are literally put in a gridded maze that limits your movement. Donkey Kong and Frogger both have only one way through and that is forward (or upward, but really it’s the same thing). These are distinctly linear games.
That isn’t a knock against any of them as they rely on being linear; the joy in playing those games is the moment-to-moment decision you have to actuate or not actuate an available mechanic in rapid succession. It is, in many ways, why people find the aforementioned Call of Duty games so fun. The difference, though, is that whereas every mechanic is a necessity in the starved palette of input options with older games, modern games have a bevy of controls. They are a veritable deluge of possible inputs that you have to mentally network up between your eyes, brain, and fingers.
Most of them, though, aren’t necessary. You can play all of Medal of Honor: Warfighter without ever meleeing or crouching or throwing a grenade or any other number of things you can do in that game. Warfighter still operates under the “you start here, now go here” goal as Donkey Kong and Frogger (with some enemy elimination from Asteroids and Pac-Man) but with a myriad of ways to accomplish it in terms of mechanics. With those arcade titles that Dan’s dad still primarily and nigh wholly—and presumably—associates with video games, you had an analogous freedom of movement but a bare-bones scope of interactivity (which was a serious problem with some of those more scripted sequences in Warfighter, but that’s a discussion for another time).
That seems to be the greatest portion of the gap in generational understanding of how video games work. It’s not that those of yesteryear aren’t accustomed to utilizing physical input and receiving digital output (though I’m sure that’s part of that massive expanse) but rather the plethora of possible input/output combinations is not what they associate with how video games work. In arcades when the industry was first burgeoning—before it could even be called an industry—you had a stick. Then you had a button, maybe two. Or maybe they took the form of a steering wheel with some pedals or a light gun, but the point is that from screen to eyes to fingers back to the screen, the total permutations were limited and almost all were essential.
Today, we deal with arguably an overflow of those combinatorial options. One of an infinite number of outputs comes into our brains, we process it, and then a similarly overflowing number of responses are at our hands for dealing with things we’ve often never seen before. Now whether or not this is good or bad is up for debate (and largely based on context of both the game and the action), but it is a drastic change from what used to constitute a video game’s interactivity. And boy howdy do I sometimes miss that simplicity.