The New Generation – Part One: Design

  • Reading time:15 mins read

by Eric-Jon RΓΆssel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

An idea is healthy only so long as people question it. All too often, what an idea seems to communicate – especially years and iterations down the line – was not its original intention. Context shifts; nuance is lost. To hear adherents espouse an idea, measureless years and Spackle later, is to understand less about the idea itself than about the people who profess it, and the cultural context in which they do so.

In 1985, an obscure Japanese illustrator slotted together a bunch of ideas that made sense to him that morning, and inadvertently steered the whole videogame industry out of the darkest pit in its history. Since that man’s ideas also seemed to solve everyone else’s problems, they became lasting, universal truths that it was eventually ridiculous – even heresy – to question.

So for twenty years, skilled artisans kept building on this foundation, not really curious what it meant; that it worked was enough. They were simply exercising their proven craft, in a successful industry. Result: even as technology allowed those designers to express more and more complex ideas, those ideas became no more eloquent. The resulting videogames became more and more entrenched in their gestures, and eventually spoke to few aside from the faithful – and not even them so well. Nobody new was playing, and the existing audience was finding better uses for its time. A term was coined: “gamer drift”.

The Epiphany

Then something happened – a generational shift. Around 2004, piece by piece, the industry began to ask itself some fundamental questions, the biggest one being, simply, “Why?”. Why do videogames even exist? What’s the point of them? If we assume that videogames are at least meant to entertain an audience, then why are they so broadly failing to do so? How might they better succeed?

With reassessment comes revision. Revise enough and you’ve got a revolution. So, enter the new generation of videogames; the first real change in perspective since players pressed their D-pads to the right, the screen scrolled, and Mario ate his first mushroom. This revolution is defined by three aspects: the design concepts themselves, the masterminds behind the change, and the cultural and technical infrastructure that supports them both.

Over this three-part series, Next Generation will investigate each of these branches by celebrating and examining some of the brightest or most influential works, figureheads, and related trends pointing the way to the future. If there is one caution before we get moving, it should be to not stop and admire the finger for too long, but rather to take note of its aim. The future is just getting started, and there is still so much to do before it arrives.

Part One: Design

People have been deconstructing game design since Pong. Space Invaders, rather famously, is a reconceptualization of Breakout to include a story and a threat. Tetris takes another step forward and a leap back by giving players control not over a protagonist but over the dropping bricks-cum-aliens, simplifying the basics of world interaction and consequence about as far as they can go. One twisted some affectations to make them more involving; the other removed them altogether. Both changed the fabric of videogames forever.

Those are the two targets of a deconstructionist approach to design: refinement and repurposing. Both are results of the same process: disassembly and analysis. What is the thematic goal of the subject game? How do each of its parts contribute to (or distract from) that goal? When the wonky parts are chopped out or replaced with sleeker alternatives – so as to better express the original game’s ideas – that’s refinement. When a framework is designed to find new meaning within the wonky parts, thereby giving them an expressive function, that’s repurposing.

So the principles behind this movement have been around forever, yet only recently have all the circumstances aligned to bring development into the mainstream, and to achieve the present level of finesse. Many of the following examples are simple; technically, they could have been made twenty, twenty-five years ago – yet they couldn’t have; it took that long for ideas to bang against each other enough to reach a certain mass. The rest are deliberately simplistic. Why? Because starting over means starting simple, and we’ve still got one foot in the doorway.

5) Gradius V (2004)

With a few exceptions, Gradius has never been an especially fun series. Revered, yes; charming, sure. Yet it has always had so much baggage, so many unforgiving conceits – and over the last twenty years they have just piled higher and higher. How could you release a Gradius game without its iconic Moai, or its bosses or weapons and systems? How could that still be Gradius?

Well, from the player’s perspective, what’s the most fun, functionally important, and distinctive element of Gradius? The Options, of course – the weird, pulsating orange ellipsoids that follow the player’s lead, copying whatever he does. Thus, Treasure built an entire game around Option management. As usual, the game offers a startup choice of power-up scheme – yet unusually, rather than the schemes offering different flashy weapons for the player’s ship, each offers a different style of control for the Options, while keeping the weapon set relatively static. The levels are each designed to offer a different experience depending on which Option style the player picks. When the player fails, rather than start over from a checkpoint – as per Gradius tradition – the player’s ship respawns, to reclaim the orphaned Options and maintain flow.

At first, the fans were divided. The loudest contingent was appalled at how many iconic features were missing, and annoyed at the changes to the game system, feeling they watered down the game to make it more salable. Others, particularly those less invested in the series, were enchanted by the game’s elegance and uncommon playability – both for Gradius and for the genre in general. As of 2005, the game has risen to the #2 most favored game on enthusiast site shmups.com.

4) OutRun2 (2004)

OutRun is not so much a racing game as a fantasy driving game. The theme is freedom: driving toward the horizon and seeing the world in a cool car, with your girl by your side and some smooth bossa on the radio. Every so often, you choose your path; each magically leads you to a different picturesque landscape. It’s a tranquil, brief dream: the race never lasts more than five minutes – exactly as long as the tune you select. There’s no stress and little technique; just liberty. The idea is to tear ahead as fast as you can, drift sideways around every corner, not crash into anything, and enjoy yourself.

For the first real sequel, AM2 approached OutRun much as Treasure did Gradius; they studied what the original felt like to play – what made it fun and distinctive, and forged a new game around those elements. The result is an even simpler control scheme (no gear shifting unless you ask for it), an extra smidge of technique to the (now more dramatic) drifting, and, to keep the game moving, getting rid of the huge delay after crashes.

The game builds on that new touch of technique, and associated skill requirement, by giving the player a bit more liberty. On top of the radio station and the choice of path (left or right; easier or harder), there’s the option of a more complex manual transmission (for those who like the control), the option of prettier yet finickier cars (for those who like the challenge), and a whole optional mode in which the player tries to impress the driver’s girl by tackling her random demands, on top of the basic task of driving. Whatever the player chooses, that’s okay; they’re all just options. No pressure. The game is only five minutes long anyway. The depth the choices offer, though, gives the game a longevity and breadth of appeal that far outclasses the (already darned classy) 1986 original.

3) Ikaruga (2003)

And lo, an original game. And lo, an overhead shooter; one of the most basic templates ever. And lo, it is once again by Treasure – immediately before Gradius V, by essentially the same team.

Ikaruga serves to prove an artistic point by breaking down a genre to its simplest form and reframing it. Ikaruga‘s message is complex and multi-layered; its design is streamlined down to two buttons and two colors. One button shoots; the other flips between black and white modes. Whatever the color of the player’s ship, so are its shots. Enemies and their shots are also black or white, and there are a bunch of logistics as to how the ship, enemies, and bullets interact – simple to grasp yet complex to explain.

The minimalism is taken to an extreme. There are no power-ups; there is nothing to the game aside from the ship, enemies, projectiles, and level geometry. All of the game’s challenge, interest, and meaning lies in the interplay between black and white – and the game really goes to town in hitting the player over the head with the message. One of the early bosses consists of a giant yin-yang with gun arms. The storyline, as detailed in wisps of poetry, is nihilistic, fatalistic, and constantly throws out lines like “In this world, there is no black and white”.

There are three “levels” to playing and understanding Ikaruga. Beginning players will just be concerned with survival; they will shoot anything that comes near, irrespective of color or consequence. When players are more confident, the game encourages them to cancel out the extremes; to shoot only enemies of the opposite color. Discrimination brings higher scores and fewer consequences. The highest level comes when the player realizes that, with black and white being interchangeable, there is no point to fighting at all; no point to either extreme. The entire game can be beaten without firing a single shot – and the ending will be just as bleak, either way.

Ikaruga is essentially a subversion of typical videogame morality: one heroic fighter becoming all-powerful and wiping out a whole evil armada. Instead, Treasure has presented a shooter in which there is no particular point to shooting; a depressing game about either fighting a losing battle or accepting fate and biding one’s time. Alternatively, it can be read as a zen exercise in standing aside from worldly squabbles and putting faith in the natural order of things. The real point of Ikaruga: if this much meaning can be packed into this little space, imagine the representative potential of a triple-A blockbuster.

2) Rez (2002)

Rez and Ikaruga do pretty much the same thing; just from different perspectives, and with different levels of clarity. Their messages are also quite different. When asked why he decided to make a rail shooter, Mizuguchi once replied that it was the simplest genre he could think of that would still appeal to a modern audience. He wanted a simple framework so as not to distract from his message more than necessary.

The concept that Mizuguchi wanted to explore was synesthesia, a phenomenon in which senses cross wires. A person might smell colors, hear flavors, or feel odors. The twentieth century artist Wassily Kandinsky heard musical tones as he painted; this is the experience that Mizuguchi wanted to replicate. He developed a simple wireframe visual style, resembling what videogames of the future might have looked like in 1982, and set the game to an endless, evolving trance soundtrack. With every thump of the music, a special “trance vibrator”, placed in the player’s shirt pocket, would let out a jolt, synchronizing the player’s heartbeat to the music and action.

In rail shooter style, the player locks on to targets and lets fire a volley of projectiles. Every lock-on, every shot, and every explosion results in a musical accent. Play well enough – which pretty much requires staying synchronized – and the music grows more sophisticated. The level geometry evolves, eventually to show a journey through all of human culture and development. The player’s avatar evolves, until it reaches enlightenment.

Amidst the music, visuals, and touch – all of which are interconnected feedback to the player’s actions – the game does indeed feel pretty transcendental. Playing to the very end is one of the more moving experiences to be had with a videogame – yet all the game really consists of is moving a cursor around and firing. Again, if so much can be done with so little…

1) Pac-Man Championship Edition (2007)

This game is already starting to go down as a modern masterpiece. Suddenly, Pac-Man is fun! And hip again! And until now it was never clear how boring the original game was, or why. The difference is so clear, the original game is so familiar, and the new game is so well-executed (and cheap, therefore widely accessible), that people just can’t shut up about it, and what it’s doing. This may be the game that makes the whole revolution mainstream.

What’s fun about Pac-Man? Eating ghosts; successfully avoiding ghosts; clearing a line of dots. What’s not fun about Pac-Man? Unsuccessfully avoiding ghosts; being forced to cover every square inch of the maze; repeating the same maze over and over forever until you die; that there are only four power pellets per level, and never where or when you need them. Also, the vertical screen ratio is weird for any home ports. Also, it’s kind of annoying that there is no way to win – unlike, say, OutRun, which has a specific time limit.

So all right; let’s dump the boring, and focus on the fun. Pac-Man is basically a game of tag anyway; let’s emphasize the back-and-forth dynamics between Pac and the ghosts. Let’s not force the player to keep stopping and starting, repeating the same maze like a bad dream; instead, let’s have the maze renew itself dynamically – even change its geometry. And why bother filling the whole maze? Just give the player a trail of dots to eat in amongst ghost antics. When he’s done, renew the screen – and the dots, and power pellets. Must keep things moving. In fact, if we split the maze into two independent wings, then the stage can change all the more dynamically. Then if we stick in a time limit to give the game focus and a goal, and measure player score over a timeline… and if we put in skill rewards for, say, eating a chain of dots or ghosts… then playing for score might actually be rewarding.

As far as refinement goes, Pac-Man CE takes the cake. This is the most well-considered reconception out there right now. It’s so elegant, so nuanced, it plays so well, and it feels so obvious that this is how Pac-Man should have been from the start, that it’s hard to understand why it took twenty-seven years to appear. The only reason is that it simply could not have been made until now – in the current climate, using a modern understanding of game design. If you want evidence of how the language has evolved over the last three decades, look no further. And remember that Pac-Man was a revolution itself, at the time – setting up a chain that resulted in everything from Donkey Kong to Half-Life.

Pac-Man Championship Edition is probably the most significant game released in 2007 to date, a significance that will become all the more clear when indie heavy hitters like Braid and Everyday Shooter are unleashed in the coming months, and cement the trend with their mix of high art and low technology. This is the game that has opened the door, whet the appetite, and warmed up the imagination.

While We’re Here

It would be silly not to mention Geometry Wars, one of the more popular deconstructionist games and something of a precedent for Pac-Man CE. The only reason it didn’t make the list is that, for as entertaining as it is, it never really does much with its ideas. There are more complex versions coming, though. New Super Mario Bros. very nearly falls into this camp, in its return to the mechanics of the 1985 original and its study of the crucial big/small dynamic that has always defined the series (yet has rarely been explored, outside of Super Mario Land for the Game Boy). Unfortunately, the game is unfocused. Like Geometry Wars, the game never does a lot with its ideas; ultimately it comes off as a bit of a missed opportunity.

Nearly every game Treasure has made has hints of this mentality, going all the way back to Gunstar Heroes. Kenta Cho is, of course, a rock star of this movement – yet none of his games are individually developed enough to mention. Hideo Kojima has a perpetually deconstructionist approach, and Metal Gear Solid 2 in particular is a masterpiece of subversion. Elegant, however, it is not. What the Metal Gear series has done is inspire complex revisions like Resident Evil 4 (which, as with New Super Mario Bros., is great yet just slightly misses the mark).

Dead Rising is probably the strongest example of a “big”, expensive game built on fundamentally deconstructionist principles. Like Pac-Man CE, it attempts to answer a number of perceived problems with modern game design by creating a short, timed structure and discouraging players from reloading upon failure. Some compromises and shortcuts obscure the point, and the whole production is obviously a work in progress; still, Inafune sure has the right idea. The parts that work are a big hint at where videogames will be going in the next ten years. Maybe even sooner.

In the next installment of The New Generation, Next-Gen will take a closer look at some of the masterminds behind the movement; the biggest icons and voices for change, and the influence they have had in changing the course of the game industry.

Next Time: Masterminds