Many kids grew up playing video-games alongside other kids. Everyone you knew loved them. For everyone, they enraptured and expanded the imagination and allowed a foothold for the playful. If you grew up playing Mario, Sonic or The Legend of Zelda, you can appreciate how acutely games were fixed into the social lives young people. If you happened to pick up the newest issue of Nintendo Power, while your mom waited in line for the register, and you read the rumor that Sonic Adventure will be ported to the Nintendo 64, you knew instantly that you possessed the full command of your friend’s attention and affections. It mattered like sports mattered. It mattered like movies mattered. It mattered like music mattered.
As you and your friends grow however, it’s funny how the currencies shift. Although sports, movies and music still hold great import in the lives of some of your friends, video games do so no longer. They may think back on those years fondly, yet it no longer commands their attentions.
All I cared about was video-games, games of every stripe, games I didn’t even play or even care to. Becoming knowledgeable in this respect was perhaps one of the few scholarly activities I engaged in at that age. Yet, as I grew older I reexamined why and how I played games. My conclusion was that, although other artistic mediums tended to invite enrichment, games didn’t seem to offer anything more than an escape or a flight into the fancy. A flight that upon returning you have nothing more than a collection of lovely artifacts which gain no appeal in the real world. Or at least, that’s how I tended to see it.
I hold dear affection for the video games of my youth, Sonic The Hedgehog 3, Paper Mario, Kirby Super Star, Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: (Any of them.), Final Fantasy VI, Kingdom Hearts (even Sega’s Billy Hatcher, an awful game that I played almost solely because Sonic was a summoned AI character), and many more. For some reason though, I can’t totally loose myself in other modern video games like I lost myself in those games as a kid. They now seem to be more like beautiful portraits, rather than beautiful rooms that I can walk into. The reason for my disenchantment, I believe, has been embedded into the way games have been created and then perceived since their inception.
From its earliest of forms, the video game was exactly that, a game, a violent one. In 1947, Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann filed for a patent for their invention, “The Cathode Ray Amusement Devise”. A Cathode Ray Tube was a basically a bunch of electron guns, faceted together, which could be fired at a screen placed before them. These inventions allowed the user to project and manipulate glowing, geometric shapes. Goldsmith and Mann took this invention and designed a game onto it, which resembled a World War II radar display, but with airplanes or some other targets painted onto a transparent overlay. The player controlled glowing dot, a “missile”. Your objective was to collide with the painted, stagnant targets, thus self-destructing.
Why would the first game take on this form specifically? A simple mechanism which crudely simulated sophisticated, modern warfare?
From the Cathode Ray Tube, a small number of similar systems begin to see their realization. OXO was a Tic-Tac-Toe game is essentially the first recognizable game to receive a digital treatment, Tennis for Two perhaps being the second. In the early 60’s, a team of MIT students began their work on the first widely adapted and distributed game, Spacewar!, a two-player dog-fight to the death. Various other efforts eventually culminated in what many see as the first true video game, (probably due to its commercial availability) Pong.
Thus, the video-game industry reached germination. The mania began.
Alexander Payne once said in an interview with Terry Gross that he believed that the earliest films are the industries’ greatest achievements because mankind had been waiting for so long for the perfect story-telling medium. Once it was invented, the best of what mankind had to offer was immediately brought into fruition. Of course, some films had to wait until the technology could catch up with the vision, but nonetheless the point remains. When looking back at the earliest days of video games, we do see well-crafted, elegance in the way these creatures were contrived. Once, the medium came into existence it did attract genius. Many artists found their calling, as should seem clear when playing classics such as Donkey Kong or Pac-Man. Some of most identifiable symbols and icons in our culture were constituted in these efforts. One of the most profitable new industries was carried on the shoulders of the artists who invented it.
And yet, when we think about our favorite video-games of all time, we do not tend to refer to the earlier days, the Cathode Ray Tube to the arcade machine to the Atari 2600 to the Nintendo Entertainment System, say. Why not? Really, it’s because very little of what is compelling about video-games existed back then. The technology was incredibly sophisticated and still it could only render the most elementary of shapes and sounds. Those computers, by today’s capabilities, seem incredibly primitive and almost useless. It took real visionaries to see the potential the computing had for its entertainment value. But, even though they wanted to use computers to hearken in a new age of amusement, they could only demonstrate this by simulating only the most rudimentary interaction, ideas or fantasies. They could do no more.
When the commercial potential was seen by investors, business men, programmers and artists, they had only a few raw ingredients with which to work. Every quick asked and answered the same question, whether designing games for profit or for experimentation. What on earth could be entertaining about moving a bunch of glowing shapes around a nearly lifeless world? The only thing that could make it compelling would be to add some competitive element. What else are you going to do? When the profiteers came along they all saw the same thing. Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari, worked in amusement parks before working on Computer Space and knew well that this would be his route to success. Men and women casually standing up to some innocuous challenge and then slowly growing more and more invested and thus offering more and more money to participate in said challenge, was already embodied in a profitable business. These games were in amusement halls and carnivals. They included pinball machines, slot machines or dunk tanks. The arcade machine was the perfect simulacrum of what had already been established successfully. The game seems cheep, you pay a little to impress your friends or to amuse yourself on your lonely walk, and before you know it your out of coins.
It was a simple enterprise. It had to be simple both because the games needed to be quickly accessible by the public if anyone was going to try it out and because the technology couldn’t offer anything more engaging than that. Or at least, that may be how they saw it.
Another important reckoning was imparted onto the world of video-games, the idea that games are for kids. Of course they would be. Usually, only the young truly appreciate cultural revolutions. But, everyone from the artists to the programmers must have realized that with the set of tools they were dealing with, they could only successfully market to children and teenagers. In this conjecture, there were, no doubt, a lot of seemingly obvious factors at play. Certainly one being that playing an arcade game is a frivolous expense, one that will not find the easement of an adult spender. Also, it didn’t seem likely that video-games could find themselves useful in exclusively adult venues, such as bars and casinos. But kids, kids needed their own venue. In the 50’s and 60’s, kids rode around on their bikes and visited stores and amusement parks. Nolan Bushnell perceived a vacancy and proceeded to occupy it in the 70’s and 80’s. Lastly, and again we see it, the technology held a limited graphical capacity. The sounds and shapes they could produce, would only be made appealing by drawing them through the lens of child-like whimsy. It was settled before they could even get to it. Video-games were for kids. Although the lines have changed, their path remains significant.
The arcade had massive effects on how people thought about nearly everything electronic. Pioneering engineers and geniuses, such as Doug Engelbart, never gained intellectual providence in the realm of professional computing. There was money to be made. People now saw electronics through the prism of their past experiences with them and that was a system of controls that was readily understood and digested, simplistic and amusing. Even when home computing entered the market, it was primarily thought of as an elaborate toy. It’s telling that when Dan Bricklin invented the electronic spreadsheet for the Apple 2, the only apparatus that he had at his disposal to select the cells on screen was a set of paddles that were used to play Pong.
We could only make sense of a home computer by seeing it as an extension of the video arcade.
With the advent of the home console, developers had to offer something greater than what had preceded. An arcade game worked only as something you did in public, with your friends, as a hang-out spot. The arcade was somewhere to go, somewhere to be. Now with that element removed, the game itself had to be somewhere to go and be. Many players, mostly boys from the ages of 7 – 15, would sit stolidly, staring at their televisions for hours on end. Game companies weren’t necessarily interested in justifying this expense of time to parents, but they were in need of experiences that would capture the devoted attention and allegiances of young people. They needed an experience that was commensurate to the human minds craving for personal narrative. Simultaneously, they couldn’t forget what had gotten them this far, competition, simplicity and the addictive sensation of willful impact on a fantastical universe.
Computational power was soon much more availing. Now home computers had the generative abilities of expensive arcade machines. Video-games no longer needed to be fashioned as a singular entity in room of other physical options. Rather, they could become nearly anything the consumer was willing to procure.
Now we can ask ourselves a totally new question, computational capabilities aside. What does the consumer want? The answer: the same thing. After all, that’s all they’ve known, right? What does the developer want to bring to the audience? Something they’ll enjoy, incorporating some new ideas, but still recognizable and easily playable. What does the corporation want from the business? Predictability. The same business strategy is now employed in the popular, CGI-infested cinema. Easy returns come when you employ easy returns.
What followed was not uninspired, impotent or trite by any measure. Video-games are one of the greatest canvases mankind has ever known and therefore it was easy to fill empty space. Games that we now see as being innovative and foundational were, in many senses, obvious steps toward capitol progress. Placing Mario in three-dimensional world is an obvious step, developing first-person shooters is an unavoidable evil, building deep and interesting worlds with fascinating puzzles and characters is a humongous, yet certain task of modern gaming. We needed these spaces to exist and for the objects that inhabit them to be interesting. Once again, business and art needed to correspond. Luckily, there has been massive amount of talent available to make the various franchises of Nintendo and other companies creatively buoyant. I point out Nintendo, because only Nintendo has successfully undertaken so many iterations of their franchises, while never sacrificing their own creative freedom. Many Mario games could serve a prime example of both form and function.
Nonetheless, canalisation, as I see it, is expressed in the legacy of video games as an art form, a primary example being Sonic. The series began lurid reaction to Nintendo’s success with Mario. Sega needed a platformer and eventually settled with Yuji Naka’s character and game design. It was a runaway hit. It practically saved Sega’s threshold in the home console market.
The game is composed of simple mechanics, running and jumping. Moving faster than any other video-game mascot before him, he pounced on his enemies only to scale a loop-de-loop moments later. It is a formula that worked for all of Sonic’s 2D incarnations and it still holds up today.
When the Sega Dreamcast came along in 1999, they now had new set of obligatory obstacles to meet. Sonic had to transform from a simple 2D-dwelling animal into a dynamic 3D-loving beast. The problem is that audiences, now primed for an accessible platforming experience, now needed to use a simple set of controls to maneuver the fastest creature that anyone can possibly imagine in an environment that represents something similar to the real world. Would Sega simply supplant their valuable and recognizable mascot with another one that could more easily and practically scale the three-dimensional world? Business before pleasure, my friends. Sonic Adventure was born and so was a decade of misery for me. My beloved childhood friend started to change and behave in ways I had never seen before. It wasn’t long before I could hardly recognize him.
The point is this. It’s that video games were, from the beginning, a part of a business that disseminated simple, carnival-like challenges to consumers. They sold to children a scale of points and explosions that would immediately register with the feeling of accomplishment. When Goldsmith and Mann designed their Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Thingy, they needed the object to have some purpose. What would be the point of moving a stupid light around? What if you had to movie it into something? Whammo! Now that’s what I call entertainment! It offered an objective in a skill based challenge, just like a carnival game, or pinball, or a dunk tank. Games have not evolved far past this arena. When video games can be anything and everything else, they are still Spacewar! and Pong. Visuals are beside the point, so long as they are sufficiently more glossy and photo-realistic. The idea is that even when you are playing Assassin’s Creed, a historical drama, you still need something to do besides being in history. You need to be a blinking missile, launching toward prefabricated and overlaid targets. Why is that? It’s because games have always been exactly that. That is what we perceive them to be. They have often failed to evolve into anything more than that, even when they could be more, even when the technology suggests it.
Sonic the Hedgehog should have never entered the 3D world. He is not built for the job. Yet, Sega still needed him to be there because they think that the audience needs to have him there, when really the audience could totally do without him. Sonic is just ad hoc and superfluous in a computer generated 3D world. The idea that we constantly need to be accruing points, destroying enemies and taking lives, gaining experience points, collecting items and clearing levels is just ad hoc and superfluous in the real world. It doesn’t give me anything other than an excuse to live in the video-game.
As a kid, you don’t need complex meaning like you do as an adult. (By “meaning”, I mean the use of symbols or images to provide a way of expressing or grasping something in the real world, may it be people or ideas.) You only need the visceral sense of excitement and adventure. Video-games tend to imitate a sort of idealist way you see many things as kid. You see life as a series of objectives and destinations with no other intention other than to inspire awe and wow you with spectacle. That is what video-games do to you as a kid, that is what the world does to you as a kid. “Wow! Look at the Lion! It’s so big and ferocious!” you might hear a child exclaim at the zoo.
As adults we tend grow fond and then familiar with our surroundings. What we crave is beyond aesthetic. We crave meaning behind the aesthetic or meaning woven into it. Oxford professor of chemistry and super-atheist Peter Atkins once said about our universe: “I regard the existence of this extraordinary universe as having a wonderful, awesome grandeur. It hangs there in all its glory, wholly and completely useless.” Atkins finds the universe useless, by my way of thinking, largely because he doesn’t think there is a person behind it. Here I share a companionship with Mr. Atkins I wouldn’t dream of sharing otherwise. I find many modern video game universes wholly and completely useless because I don’t seem to perceive any real human feeling and character, in other words a person, behind what I am seeing played out on screen. Perhaps, design choices that provide an excuse for jest, but no sincere expression worth noting.
Perhaps, this is why many abandon video-games when they become adults. They listen to music, watch movies and sports because they see real human drama behind it all. That is why they watch, almost entirely. It’s not for the spectacle. Otherwise, we would all be fine watching A.I. Madden NFL teams duke it out as opposed to watching a real football game. If video games are to appeal to audiences, they cannot merely provide spectacle or excuses for spectacle, they must appeal to meaningful statements about human feelings and tendencies in the same way that literature appeals to such statements.
Many video-games, the most successful ones really, use these tools to imbue purpose and meaning into their worlds. Naughty Dog, for example, has done this with The Last of Us. Nintendo still delivers sweetness, charm, mischief and personality into their worlds. These games still rely, however, on the principals of arcade-gaming in order to appease our need to have some sort of objective. You are still in the business of clearing levels and completing challenges. How would you tour the world otherwise? Could you create a game that was built solely to impart meaning? How would you go about doing that?
Kentucky Route Zero is a step in that direction. It is a game that could have existed a long time ago. Its graphics are minimalist, yet well-crafted. But, what is ground breaking about KRZ is that it has no objective other than to offer meaning and allusion. The only thing that you control is what kind of meaning you impart onto the narrative and what kind of meaning you take from the narrative. It is simple and incredibly engaging, not due to the map design or objectives. It is beautiful because it instills empathy in its players. It illustrates real problems that plague the people and communities in Kentucky and almost everywhere else in the world. It uses a Stephen King-esque magical realism style to add color to the real social, economic and psychological frailties that plague so many in American and beyond. It teaches us about the game’s world and the people who inhabit it, without needing to use those elements as a tool for the player to progress through a “lock and key” puzzle or action system. It is a whimsical world of allegory, metaphor and allusion and unlike many of the mysteries in the ABC show Lost, everything in the world holds some purpose or intent. The pieces don’t need to exist for any other reason. No lame excuses.
As a kid, the worlds of Mario and Sonic offered escape and solace because they were so darn simple and easy to interact with; the real world isn’t. Even when I had to perform some undesirable chore around the house, video games informed my imagination and thereby made the real world seem majestic, even when the real world wasn’t going my way or I didn’t want to be engaged with it. Why did I want escape? The real world is complicated. Any element of the real world is extremely difficult to understand and master. You aren’t automatically ready for it as a kid. What can you master easily? I can control a blinking missile colliding with an aircraft. It’s all the fun of mastering something, but without the strenuous or hurtful parts. Thus, the game let’s you see the world as both extraordinary and simple. As children this is incredibly delightful. These sort of games delight us as adults too. They offer the same playful joys and thrills we received as kids. This is a reason to cherish them.
As we grow up however, we also need games that help us to understand or engage with what may seem to be overwhelming and complicated, offering us lenses through which we can perceive and thus interact with parts of our reality. Sports does this, as well as film and music and even television. These mediums have the ability to teach us things about human nature. It can help us understand why someone would behave in certain fashion or reason a certain way. Thus, it may help us understand why some small part of the world might be as it is. Kentucky Route Zero is a game that does just that. You explore the sublime and unreal and then return with something that you can use in the real world, empathy.