Ten years ago, I was a hardcore, GameStop-prowling video game junkie. Today, I don't even bother with the PS4 and Wii U kiosks at Target. So what turned me from an IGN-scouring, EGM-reading neckbeard into someone who doesn't give half a shit about any kind of contemporary gaming?
By: Jimbo X
Years and years ago, E3 – the year’s biggest video game expo – was a huge deal to me. For an entire week, I found myself glued to IGN and Gamespot, waiting anxiously for my dial-up internet connection to reload the latest news and notes on all of the hot, upcoming Xbox and PS2 games. I pretty much had the TV locked on G4, as the former Tech TV (and before that, ZDTV) displayed all of the glorious video previews my laggy-ass computer was to slow too load.
How could I forget the whimsy and wonder of the 2003 show, where we got our first substantive looks at Halo 2, Half-Life 2 and Doom 3? Or what about the big reveal of the DS and PSP in 2004, or the tripartite next-next-gen console revelation free-for-all in 2005? Indeed, such were the most magical times of all for George W.-era, pre-social-media-takeover teenage slobs the world over.
Alas, something happened to damper my interest in E3, and really, contemporary gaming altogether: I grew up. By the time I was in college, my free time had been all but gobbled up by studying, dating and working my tailbone off to afford rent and food. An avid video game junkie easily spending $200 a month on games just a few years earlier, I had become a non-console owner out of economic necessity.
Still, E3 remained that one time of the year I would emerge from the shadows of adult responsibilities to revel in the hyped-up, mega-consumerist nerdiness of modern day gaming. I remember watching in awe at how incredibly awful Nintendo's 2008 conference was, and fantasizing about getting my hands on the ultimately ultra-disappointing Resident Evil 5, Spore and Mirror's Edge. I recall the big 2009 reveal of Kinect and thinking – in hindsight, both humorously and hopelessly – that it really was going to revolutionize interactive media. And, of course, there was the one-two combo of the XboxOne and PS4 debuting side-by-side at the 2013 show - where the biggest “killer app” of the event was the exclusion of DRM software.
While the show still has its fair share of legitimate mark out moments – I vividly recall almost having a coronary when Shenmue III was announced last year – the general ennui of the conference more or less reflects my holistic disinterest in the medium these days. While there was some cool stuff announced at the 2016 show last week – that new Spider-Man game looks awesome, and dude, a new River City Ransom! – by and large, I was completely apathetic about the bulk of the “big name” titles. Another by-the-numbers Zelda, touting itself as revolutionary for including game mechanics that are a holdover from The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion 10 years ago? Rehashes of rehashes of rehashes of God of War, Gears of War and Call of Duty? A whole bunch of virtual reality claptrap from Sony, and “new” I.P.s. with such ridiculous monikers as Death Stranding and Detroit: Become Human? No, folks, I reckon I will be passing on all of these. I very much reckon I will.
Of course, there are going to be a lot of great games coming out this year. All of the tried-and-true EA sports games, the new Forza, Dead Rising 4, that fucking amazing Friday the 13th murder simulator – all of that stuff looks awesome and is practically guaranteed to be awesome. But just looking at big-rig PC, home console and dedicated handheld gaming arenas as a whole, I can’t help but feel woefully underwhelmed. Even if I did have the free time to enmesh myself in modern gaming, looking at the landscape that’s out there now, I don’t really feel as if there is anything on the market worthy of my financial investments.
For me, it’s not just that the industry of gaming has changed, it’s that its intent has changed, too. From the heyday of the Atari 2600 all the way up to the dying days of the Dreamcast, gaming had been a largely solitary hobby. Sure, the multiplayer dynamic had always been there, but it was relegated to local area play – as in, if you wanted to compete or co-op with somebody, they had to be right there pumping quarters in the coin slot or nuzzled up next to the console box beside you. Thanks to the proliferation of both online gaming and I.P.-centric gaming subcultures, however, even one-player games today maintain an inescapable “collective” element. It’s no longer the old-school, man against machine, eye-hand-coordination challenge that fuels gaming as a pastime. Instead, it’s all about celebrating this cultural in-group, of finding one’s particular rank-and-file status in an artificially created cyber-system. Whereas in the past we enjoyed games like Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Super Street Fighter II and Ghosts 'N Goblins because they provided a gripping, skills-based challenge – with the “reward” being the empirical improvement of our individual skills – modern games like Smite, League of Legends and DOTA 2 force you to sink an absurd amount time into them for “skills” that aren’t earned through practice and experience, but through synthetic, programmer-enforced-checkpoints. You don’t get “good” at these kind of games by playing them and honing your reflexes, you get “good” at them by doing the same repetitive tasks over and over again until the server “rewards” you with a meager upgrade, or better yet, you break out a credit card and spend real money to enhance your avatar. Such a concept isn’t just unthinkable when mulling the classics of yore, it’s downright counterproductive: not only would hardcore Mega Man 3 fans and Tecmo Super Bowlers scoff at the idea of purchasing power-ups to make the games easier, they probably would have told you to go fuck yourself for even asking them if they wanted to.
The simple challenge of old-school gaming is a thing of the past. Whereas titles like Arch Rivals and Mad Planets gave you a fairly straightforward gameplay system with which to acquaint yourself, today’s offerings are glutted with pointless “leveling-up” systems and fetch-quests out the yin-yang. While this has been a hallmark of gaming for decades – indeed, the most beloved titles of all time, your Zeldas, your Final Fantasies and your Metroids have long incorporated such as key gameplay component – today’s games (with the aberrant exception of series like Dark Souls and Lost Planet) offer only the slightest mechanical difficulty. Instead of giving us a single-minded goal, we’re given ample opportunities to do practically nothing in expansive game spaces and grind, grind and grind some more. In the old days, mastering a game was like learning how to play a song; today, it’s more like checking things off on a grocery list.
And where’s the creativity and the will to experiment? Sega went down swinging with new I.P.s about simulating the life of a karate-fighting high school student in 1986, an Orwellian cartoon about freedom fighting, J-pop loving vandals and a role-playing opus where the point was to raise a human-fish chimera by way of existential chats. No big-money developer or publisher is going anywhere near stuff that adventurous or outside-the-(X)box anymore; as a result, modern gamers are left with a deluge of hyper-predictable sequels and interchangeable genre-offerings sans any real identity of their own. Oh look, another GWOT-inspired FPS with lots of brown and grey and another manga-styled JRPG with huge-eyed, depressed kids trying to save the universe from some demonic menace – how riveting.
Then, there are the unbearable “politics” of contemporary gaming, which have managed to successfully squeeze out whatever fun remained in the industry like a boa constrictor determined to wrench that last gasp of carbon dioxide from a long dead corpse.
While the “indie revolution” seems like it would have liberated gaming from its monolithic, mega-corporate stranglehold, all it has done has made the industry – formerly, a no-frills celebration of instant-gratification, low-culture fun – a pretentious, needlessly contentious hell-scape of grating identity politics. Unthinking, reflex-essential masterpieces of yesteryear like Soldier Blade and Super C have been replaced by a new wave of more socially cognizant interactive media, which, by and large, are little more than extended PowerPoint presentations with some controllable elements. I’m all for games like Spec Ops: The Line and the criminally underappreciated Xbox masterpiece Men of Valor, which tie serious sociocultural commentary around well-built game engines, but barely interactive opuses about raising a terminally ill child, doing refugee paperwork and choose your own adventure-paeans to first-world depression? To quote arguably the most important person of the 1990s to wear flannel, “I don’t think so, Tim.”
There is some good stuff out there from small-labels – Hotline Miami and Shovel Knight immediately spring to mind - but what do you know, both of those games are nostalgic throwbacks to the more simplistic games of yore that don’t require huge honking hardware to enjoy. With so many instantly playable apps available – many of which are 100 percent free – and in-browser emulation allowing players the world over to try their hands at thousands upon thousands of antiquated titles, I really don’t see any logical reason why I would need to spend any amount of money on contemporary gaming hardware or software. With a virtually infinite amount of games already out there anybody anywhere can play for zero dollars, what’s the point in paying anything at all for less challenging, and considerably less fun “modern” games?