The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds

  • Reading time:23 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Something is happening to game design. It’s been creeping up for a decade, yet only now is it striding into the mainstream, riding on the coattails of new infrastructure, emboldened by the rhetoric of the trendy. A new generation of design has begun to emerge – a generation raised on the language of videogames, eager to use that fluency to describe what previously could not be described.

First, though, it must build up its vocabulary. To build it, this generation looks to the past – to the fundamental ideas that make up the current architecture of videogames – and deconstructs it for its raw theoretical materials, such that it may be recontextualized: rebuilt better, stronger, more elegantly, more deliberately.

In the earlier part of this series, we discussed several games that exemplify this approach; we then tossed around a few more that give it a healthy nod. Some boil down and refocus a well-known design (Pac-Man CE, New Super Mario Bros.); some put a new perspective on genre (Ikaruga, Braid); some just want to break down game design itself (Rez, Dead Rising). In this chapter, we will highlight a few of the key voices guiding the change. Some are more persuasive than others. Some have been been making their point for longer. All are on the cusp of redefining what a videogame can be.

The New Generation – Part One: Design

  • Reading time:15 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel 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”.

Touch Generations

  • Reading time:13 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation, under the title “FEATURE: A Short History of Touch”.

A few years ago, Nintendo launched the DS with a vaguely unsettling catch phrase: “Touching is Good”. Their PR team sent disembodied plastic hands to everyone on their mailing list, in the process creeping out Penny Arcade. As creepy and forward as the campaign was, it had a point. Touching historically has been good, for the game industry.

On a whole, videogames are an awfully lonely set of affairs. They paint an alluring well, then give the player rocks to throw, to see what ripples. From Spacewar! to Pong, you’re always shooting or batting or throwing some kind of projectile, to prod the environment. Even in some of the most exploration-heavy games, like Metroid, the only way to progress is to shoot every surface in sight, with multiple weapons. Little wonder art games like Rez are based on the shooter template: it’s about as basic a videogame as you can get. See things, shoot things, you win. If things touch you, you lose. Except for food or possessions, generally you can only touch by proxy; toss coins into the well; ping things, to see how they respond. To see if they break.

NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History

  • Reading time:30 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in some form by Next Generation. I was asked not to include 1999 or 2000, because the Dreamcast was perceived as a low mark in the industry rather than a high one. I was also asked to include the previous year, to suggest that we were in the middle of an upswing. So… that explains some of the selections.

In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There’s one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories. With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you’ve got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we’re about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint.

Detailing Simply

  • Reading time:1 mins read
  • Meteos: Columns channeled through Rez and Super Smash Bros. Melee. Good self-image. Lots of heart. Lots of modes. Lots of fun. A very giving game, and doesn’t ever treat you like an idiot. Great store.
  • Touch Kirby: Decent idea, conceived and executed as well as it might be. Spread too thin. Cloying. Beginning to bore me, after two worlds. Too Nintendoey. Don’t like the store.
  • Trace Memory: Some interface and design issues; linear; very, very short. Beautiful game, refreshing character design. Often clever. Greatly underestimates its welcome. My favorite of the batch.
  • Lost in Blue: Doesn’t even pretend to hold your hand. You will die. Terrifying. Also seems good so far. Scared to go back to it.
  • Trauma Center: Under the Knife: Basically a dating sim where you cut people up. Tense and exhilirating, even though there’s not much to do in it. Scary too, kind of.
  • Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow: Very pretty. Best main theme since Circle of the Moon. The rest of the music’s well-done, too. Kind of hard. Level design only interesting in the first part. IGA’s random use of monsters is starting to annoy me.

I want Goonies III for this system.

The Shooting

  • Reading time:4 mins read

In a sense, the interaction in a shooter is about the most basic interaction available in the medium. You reach out and touch your environment by sending out a “ping”; a probe. As you mention, the shooter is the original videogame — starting with SpaceWar. Even Pong operates on a similar principle, really. It’s just… backwards, kind of, in that the “bullet” is coming toward you, and you’re trying to catch it. (I don’t quite like this model as much.)

All through the medium, shooting more or less equates to exploration. In Metroid, you test the walls, and get a feeling for your environment, by shooting at them and it. In Asteroids and Centipede, your shooting shapes the very gameworld.

It was something of a revolutionary leap to switch away from this mechanic in Pac-Man and Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. — that whole thread that I was mumbling about before. In that model, you’re no longer pecking at the environment from afar but personally running around and punching and gobbling and jumping through it. Sort of interesting to tie this into what I was saying earlier. Not sure how it all goes together.

Mizuguchi went back to a rail shooter for Rez for a reason: he wanted a clean slate; to strip away all of the junk we have piled on top of the medium for the last few decades, and make the most basic videogame he could, that would still be palatable to a contemporary audience. There’s nothing more basic than a shooter. This is ground one, for videogames. Everything else is built on, or exists in rebellion against, this mechanic. Mizuguchi then tried to find just how much he could express with this mechanism — to show, in part, that it’s not the game system which necessarily drives a game, on an artisic, on an emotional level. Also, just to show how much can be said with how little — and thereby to ask why we have come to tend to express so little with so much.

This is why I like Rez — just the whole way it disassembles our whole notion of the videogame, and shows how it might be used more well than it has been.

I’m really curious what his next step might be.

Parts of the above, combined with parts of what I said about Gradius V