Ah, the Golden Age of Gaming – that’s an era every gamer can get behind. But what about silver, and bronze? Hell, if comic books can have multiple ages, so can gaming. Like comic books, gaming has distinctly different eras. In the same way comic books grew as they became recognised art styles, games did too – the initial glory years of both, the golden age, define a time when the mediums were still new, and could afford to try new things, in new ways.
In short, creativity was at its peak.
The Golden Age of Gaming
When gamespulp thinks of the golden era of games, we think of solid but simple arcade gameplay, colourful but woefully misleading box art, and legions of the damn beautiful games. Thousands of covers adorning the inside pages of magazines, and store shelves, and under Christmas trees, and sticking out your cat’s ass. You know what we mean – Hell, we made so many we buried thousands of them in a New Mexico desert and no-one even noticed.
So the Golden Age was everything from the mid-70s to mid-80s (H/T: Wikipedia, natch). That doesn’t mean that the games themselves were any good, just that the industry was booming. And it boomed again shortly after, with the Silver Age.
Super Mario 3, Tomb Raider, GoldenEye. These are the hallmarks of the Silver Age, which emphasised new mechanics, new ways for gamers to play. But what age are we in now? Comic books’ Silver Age was, pretty naturally, followed by the Bronze Age, which was then succeeded by the Modern or ‘Dark’ Age – think Watchmen Dark, not Medieval Dark.
All right, so here’s how that truth-laden well of factual information describes the Bronze Age of Comic Books:
[D]arker plot elements and more socially relevant storylines… featuring real-world issues, such as racism, drug use, alcoholism, urban poverty, and environmental pollution, began to flourish during the period.
Sound familiar? Sure, you could apply tons of games that are being made now. So that’s where we’re at now. Sort of. And then you read our beloved Wikipedia’s crowd-sourced definition of the Modern Age of Comic Books, and if you apply it to gaming, it throws one of those hateful spanners in the works…
During this period, comic book characters generally became darker and more psychologically complex, creators became better-known and active in changing the industry, independent comics flourished, and larger publishing houses became more commercialized.
…Because that sounds an awful lot like the sort of games that are being produced now too. Think Spec Ops: The Line, Max Payne 3 and Bioshock, right off the bat. A game like The Last of Us is a great example of a game that sits on the line, still part of the old era, but guiding us towards the new.
Indie Games Equal Emotion?
It’s not that there weren’t Golden and Silver Age games that could be described as ‘psychologically complex’. It’s that they were few and far between; they’re much more prevalent in today’s gaming. Now we’re in a confusing grey area, a crossover period that beautifully marries the two ages as the games industry matures, and more and more looks to broaden its appeal.
The reason for this ‘Gaming Ages’ over-lap is for two specific, connected reasons: indie games and emotions.
There’s a near-parallel between today’s indie games and gaming’s Golden Age. The creativity, the absolute wealth of titles, the pushing of technical boundaries as hardware and software once the preserve of the big gaming guns becomes available to one- and two-man teams.
Indie devs are spear-heading a revolution in gaming, fuelled not only by what they can do (technically, at least), but what they feel they should do. Take a game like Beyond Eyes – have you ever played as a blind girl before now? But why the hell not? The story of Rae and Nani is one that video games need, if they’re to grow as an art form.
Love them or hate them, Ubisoft really pulled it out the bag with the pseudo-indie production, Valiant Hearts. It was a story a triple-A title could never do (Though they’ve tried, bless ‘em, it just devolves into a ‘go here, shoot that’ – which is about as simplistic a rendition of war as you could get). Even a brilliant game like Spec Ops: The Line, which tries to emphasise the traumatic nature of war, still requires over-the-top action in order to appeal to the mainstream.
We played indie games like these, and Contrast, Never Alone and Lifeless Planet, for instance, and we were thinking about those games for days and weeks afterwards. We felt something. The loneliness, the reflections on our own society, the human condition. All those apparently pretentious ideas and themes that were once limited to the pages of ‘real’ books by ‘real’ authors, with notes scrawled in the margins by caffeine-fuelled English lit students.
Obviously AAA games aren’t incapable of eliciting these emotions, or exploring these themes. Red Dead made us weep and we still don’t like to talk about it; that wonderfully rendered kiss between Arno and Elise in Assassin’s Creed Unity made our cold hearts flush and swell. It’s just that they’re so much rarer.
What Defines the Gaming Age
So while we’ve seen some incredibly emotional moments (Red Dead Redemption) and some pretty intelligent moments (Like the satire in GTA) before, what’s actually new? Sure, the graphics of today are a world away from the arcade days – but unlike comic books, that’s not what defines the age.
What’s really changing is how we’re asked to engage with games, and how the stories are being told; the stories are packaged in a new way that makes for ‘Modern Age’ engagement.
This will sound high-falutin’, but you could as easily draw parallels between the age of gaming today as you could the modernist literary movement at the turn of the century. The new exploration, or choice-based gaming mechanics, while not strictly mirroring the stream of consciousness techniques of the modernist writer, certainly offer the same immersive-in-a-way-never-before-seen effects.
Consider a game like Braid. While the game’s art-style isn’t particularly ground-breaking, with its Mega Drive-like watercolour graphics, its mechanics are incredible. The same can be said about any of Tellltale’s offerings, which attempt to give us control (Or the illusion of it) through its mechanics, rather than trying to stun us with its visuals. We see, then, that the importance of mechanics in games today matches the importance of pictorial representations in comics. The point of both is how the message is communicated in the right way, for the right audience.
We want more from games today than ever before, and indie developers are leading that charge. Welcome to the modern age of gaming.