First, some music! It’s a lovely evening, so I wrote some lovely evening music.
SO. I’ve been thinking about landmark games recently. That is: games which have introduced new ideas, made a huge impact, and gone on to inform dozens of later games. And you know what? These games I feel comfortable pointing to as influential have shifted over the years.
The 1990s were the birth of 3D gaming. From the late 90s through to the early years of last decade, countless blockbuster, top-of-the-chart titles broke fresh ground just by virtue of exploring the possibilities of 3D game worlds. Doom. Mario 64. Quake. Half-Life. Descent. Thief. Tomb Raider. Tekken. Zelda 64. Metal Gear Solid. System Shock. Gran Turismo.
But early last decade, the lines were drawn and safe formulae for 3D games were devised. The chart-topping games of the past five years or so have largely been evolutionary improvements on their prequels and predecessors. We no longer live in an age where the most successful games are by necessity the most creative and progressive, and the change was extremely rapid.
Here’s my list of influential games from the last decade.
- The Sims (2000, PC) for defining gameplay based on emergent narrative and being bold enough to do so on a human scale
- Deus Ex (2000, PC) for unparalleled breadth of gameplay and a complex, responsive moral universe
- GTA III (2001, multi) for creating the open world sandbox template
- Halo (2001, XBox) for countless enduring console FPS innovations (two weapons, vehicles, recharging shields, emphasis on melee attacks…)
- Rez (2001, PS2/Dreamcast) for interweaving music and gameplay without rhythm-action elements
- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003, multi), for the time-rewind mechanic that’d later serve as the basis of Braid and then show up to great effect in Race Driver: GRID and then Forza 3
- Half-Life 2 (2004, PC) for the comprehensive and successful integration of physics with FPS gameplay
- World of Warcraft (2004, PC) for setting the template for countless MMOs
- Guitar Hero (2005, PS2) for popularising rhythm-action gaming, though Guitar Freaks did it first; and most importantly for showing that games can sell bulky plastic peripherals, leading directly to Rock Band, DJ Hero and Tony Hawk RIDE and perhaps helping retailers accept Wii Fit
- God of War (2005, PS2) for popularising QTEs for cinematic sequences in action games (now even reaching the racing genre with Need for Speed: The Run!)
- Fahrenheit (2005, multi) for exploring QTEs to construct a game without conventional core gameplay, freeing it to tell a contemporary and realistic narrative (well, up to a point! – and, yes, this is me admitting I never played Shenmue)
- Shadow of the Colossus (2005, PS2) for what it dared to omit; also the physicality and desperation of its combat
- Portal (2007, PC) for introducing and fully exploring a new method of interacting with space (and like SOTC, refusing to compromise with safe design)
- Left 4 Dead (2008, PC) for revolutionising the co-op FPS with forced interdependence and dynamic pacing
- Need for Speed: SHIFT (2009, multi) for introducing drama and a kind of experiential fidelity to the generally quite dry sim racing genre
- Minecraft (2009, PC) for introducing a mode of play entirely unserviced by all other major contemporary games (exploration, construction), though it didn’t really come into its own until 2010
What games can you add to that? And how many of those before 2005 or so were blockbusters, and how many after were a little niche and weird?
Fresh game experiences nowadays are found in minor titles. Portal and Left for Dead are both low-price games assisted and published by an independent development studio. SHIFT, though aimed at the throat of GT and Forza, was never expected to outsell them. Minecraft, of course, cost at most five figures to get off the ground.
By contrast, Modern Warfare 3 will come out this year, will be hugely successful, and will be very much like Modern Warfare 1. Ten or fifteen years ago, in most genres, that simply wasn’t an option.
I think this is the essence of why the indie games market is flourishing now. Experienced gamers – the hardcore – have not ‘outgrown’ mainstream games. Ten years ago, those blockbusters provided innovation and interest. They’ve stopped. Hardcore gamers of all ages now need to find their new experiences elsewhere, in Demon’s Souls and Disgaea and Earth Defence Force and Frozen Synapse and other weird, ropey, low budget games of unknown provenance.
Over the past ten years, the mainstream games industry has steadily given up on innovation as a risky, unnecessary burden. Digital distribution has given us access to indie games, bypassing the gatekeeper of retail, but the dearth of innovation in mainstream gaming is just as much a part of why indie games are becoming an increasingly essential part of the gaming landscape.