The New Generation – Part Three: Infrastructure

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Videogames are finally finding their way. They’re moving in small steps, yet whether by need or inspiration change is in the air – a whole generational shift, an inevitable one. It’s the kind of shift that happened to film when the studio system broke down, or painting broke out of academia and… well, the studio again. In short, people are starting to get over videogames for their own sake and starting to look at them constructively – which first means breaking them down, apart from and within their cultural, historical, and personal context. When you strip out all the clutter and find a conceptual focus, you can put the pieces back together around that focus, to magnify it and take advantage of its expressive potential.

Over the previous two installments we discussed some of the voices heralding the change, and some of the works that exemplify it. In this third and final chapter, we will cast our net wider, and examine some of the cultural or circumstantial elements that either led to this shift, reflect it, help to sustain and promulgate it, or promise to, should all go well. This is, in short, the state of the world in which a generational shift can occur. Continue reading “The New Generation – Part Three: Infrastructure”

The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds

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. Continue reading “The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds”

The New Generation – Part One: Design

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”. Continue reading “The New Generation – Part One: Design”

The Wii that Wasn’t

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Market analysts call the Wii a return to form after the relative flop of the GameCube. Design analysts call it a potential return to form after the relative rut of the previous fifteen years. Whatever the spin, when people look at Nintendo’s recent misadventures, generally the Gamecube sits right on top, doe-eyed and chirping. Its failure to do more than turn a profit has made its dissection an industry-wide pastime. Everything comes under the microscope, from its dainty size and handle to its purpleness to the storage capacity of its mini-DVDs. The controller, though, has perplexed all from the start. Continue reading “The Wii that Wasn’t”

Touch Generations

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. Continue reading “Touch Generations”