Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Wrong Age

There are certain ideas that come into the world and change it. They redefine how we think, what we do, who we are. If they are worthy, these ideas then form the foundations for further revolutions. They are all around us, these powerful memes of the past and present. We see them in music, and movies. We see them in medicine, and psychology. We see them in literature, and philosophy. They are in our lives, and in our art. You could name a dozen without thinking: Penicillin, Post-modernism, Deconstructionism, Rock & Roll, Internal Combustion. And they are ours, all who came after, to see and appreciate, but yet they are not ours. They belong most closely to those that where there when they started, who saw them first, and fed them in their infancy, and made them grow.

You see, I fear that I was the wrong age; I fear that my revolution has passed me by.

Two Decades Late

By North American reckoning, 1978 to about 1985 was the golden age of video games. The first kings of the industry were crowned. Hardware was innovative and rapidly changing (more-so than today, because the scales were smaller). Software was a challenge that could be taken on by a single person. In the heyday of Atari, it would not be uncommon to see a developer design an entire game himself on practically no budget. He’d outline the game, program it, create the art, make the sounds and music, then he’d have to make it fun. In fact, there were some designers who would work on one game and while the code was off being entered and complied (they would write it long-hand and send it down to a typing-pool to have it entered, getting back an EPROM chip with the compiled instructions) they would tinker around with a second game.

I pine for these lost days. My imagination is set on fire by what these people did, some of them just because they were in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, I was born about 20 years too late to be among them. There are, of course, enthusiasts who choose to re-live those days. There is software to emulate those original systems. There are even paths available should I choose to write something new the way they once did (though it will never be the same). But that was their time, and it is past. I'd rather shape something new.

One Decade Late

The next major evolution in games began in the early 90s. Computer games like Doom heralded new forms of gameplay. Nintendo brought a new level of graphics to the console market. Video games began their long ascent into the mainstream. Developers increased, team size increased, production values increased. There was innovation and proliferation. And for a time, it was good. And again, I was too young. Born no more than a decade late, I was there to watch (what I could, mostly at other people's houses, on other people's computers).

I can claim that some part of it was mine. I got to play some of the games that changed the way that the industry and the world in general thought about video games. I got to see new consoles come out, grow up, grow old. Those years have shaped a part of me. I cut my teeth on those games, so to speak, and many of them will hold a special place in my heart. But I did not get to shape those games; I had no control over how they were made or how they were played. I received from them, and the industry changed before I was able to give back.

Fashionably Late

So I grew up. Maybe I was born two decades late. An era of games and design gone because the technology grew up too fast; the quick rode the wave while the slow and careful were washed under. It was over before I had the chance to know it. Maybe I was born just a single decade late. The early days of the 3D game, and the take over of the home game console; companies that innovated and grew as the market blossomed before them. I witnessed it through the eyes of a child, but was unable to leave a mark on it as it left its marks on me.

But maybe there is yet hope, and I'm not too late at all. You see, there is another revolution in gaming beginning to take shape now. After years of making games, the industry is stagnating. Producers are scared to make games where there is no precedent. Development teams are huge, and games take years to produce. New ways of playing games are fewer and harder to find. And even after all this time, there is no language to define gameplay. There is no rhyme or reason to making a game, or telling a story. Much of the industry feels a little lost, and a little over burdened with the expectations that it has imposed on itself.

The revolution is starting with veteran designers who are fed up with making the Next Big Sequel. Its starting with young designers who can't make the games they want to make (and play). Its starting with people who are struggling to see new forms of play and story-telling emerge. Its starting with academics (or those with the flair) trying to define what has been happening since the first game, trying to put words to concepts we barely understand.

And it might just be starting with me, right now. Because I want to see this happen. I want to live it, and breathe it. I want to understand it at the root. I want to give back, because I think that it matters.

This is my revolution.

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