Monday, July 02, 2007

Stories in Video Games

What younger gamers might not realize is how gaming has changed in the past three decades. One merely needs to look at a Pinball machine as an example. As a kid in the 80's, I never understood nor enjoyed Pinball machines. What was the point of throwing the ball around? What was the goal?

Of course I was a product of my generation. Preceding my birth were games devoid of story. The gamers of an earlier generation played video games not to reach the game's ending but to obtain a high score. That was video game replayability in that era, to get the highest score possible (as opposed to finding every secret item/monster/boss/card in the game or discovering all the multiple endings). It wasn't until later on that games developed a plot and an ending to hook players. When viewed from this perspective, it becomes clear why games like Pac Man utilized the same map over and over again.

Video game designers aren't at fault for this "lacking" however. Hardware technology similarly played a role as well. I mean back in the day, memory was at a premium. For example, this was already in the early 90's, but one of the games I really wanted to play for the PC (as opposed to console games) as a kid was SimCity 2000. Unfortunately, my PC lacked the 4 MB (yes, 4 MB of RAM) it needed to run the game at minimum settings (my friend solved this problem by creating a boot disk). Of course when talking about 80's games, it's not even fair to use MB. KB was the more appropriate unit for measurement of memory.

I don't think a story-centric game (i.e. RPGs) could have been possible on console systems in the early 80's. There was movement, however, towards goal-oriented games such as Contra and Ninja Gaiden. For me, the golden age of gaming was easily during the NES era because game designers not only had to design games that were compelling and addictive, but had to do it with memory constraints in mind. While games like Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda were great games in their own right, what made them innovative for its time was how they got over the memory constraints of their game system that makes the memory-saving techniques of Adobe Flash look inefficient. The Legend of Zelda was similarly one of the earliest games to feature a "save game" to keep track of your progress instead of relying on passwords.

Ever since The Legend of Zelda, console RPGs started to pop up more frequently (at least in Japan if not in the US). This is where gaming history for me personally becomes interesting. Many popular console RPGs such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy has their roots in both pen-and-paper RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons and in PC RPGs like Ultima. Of course it bears mentioning at how divergent console RPGs were from PC RPGs at the time. Whereas the former was more story oriented, the latter was more character oriented and dealt more with what you could do with your character rather than focusing on a cohesive, linear plot (this fact would later evolve however).

I think it also bears mentioning at how RPGs became such a hit in Japan, and in several ways even overshadowing its popularity in the US despite the genre originating in the latter (the best analogy I can think of is how Starcraft is so popular in Korea). Whereas game publishers in the US were publishing RPG books and modules, the Japanese took it to another level with video games, magazines, manga, and anime.

When the SNES finally came out, memory was still a problem but it wasn't a hurdle in telling a good story. Most of the memory problems the SNES faced only came into play with regards to graphics (a hurdle that was overcame in games like Star Fox and Donkey Kong Country). While "Saved Games" weren't the norm for that console, they were almost always present in most (if not all) RPG games. This was easily the golden era of console RPGs as it was at this time that games like Final Fantasy IV (many modern elements of Final Fantasy such as different jobs and character development) and Chrono Trigger (multiple endings) got released. It wasn't until Final Fantasy VI however that console RPGs hit it mainstream in the US market (in Japan, RPGs were always popular and were labeled as "interactive novels" thanks to their compelling albeit linear storyline).

At this point, next generation CD-based consoles hit the market such as the Sega Saturn and the Sony Playstation. It was at this point that in my opinion, video games slowed down in terms of game play innovation (that's not to say there weren't any) and a lot of focus shifted to graphics (more specifically 3D models).

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