I recently had the pleasure of watching the 2001 BBC adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. One thing struck me about the characters in the series. The heroes of the story, Hetta Carbury and Paul Montague, were beautiful and represented all that was right in the world. Montague and his self-sacrificing willingness to uphold his honor — to throw away his fortunes in exchange for Truth. Miss Carbury and her infallible virtue and faith. My feelings for these characters were tepid at best. I enjoyed them because they were a representation of the righteous, of the good, and in the end they walked into the sunset to bask in their triumph. However it was the less savory characters that ultimately wormed their way into my heart; I found my emotions torn and my mind racing as Augustus Melmotte cheated, stole, and bought his way into parliament. With our playthrough of Wild Arms well into its first week, I could not help but notice the similiarities between the characters in The Way We Live Now and the gaming world.
Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury represent modern games. They are visually stunning, a showcase of virtue, and a triumph of progression. We are charmed by luscious settings and characters where every pixel is candy to the eyes. We are sucked into a world where our protaganists are outfitted in intricate costumes and brought to life through cutting edge cinematics and voice acting. I watch as Lightning expresses, in the clearest terms, exactly what she thinks of Snow. I feel for her. I love her because in the end she is powerful, beautiful, and deadly. Still, this does not stop the apprehension I feel whenever I pick up a new game. It does not stop the sinking dread when I realize that I am going to spend the next handful of hours reading tutorials and having my hand held as I meander my way through the ‘introduction’. As the modern game progresses and the proverbial hand-holding slowly fades into the background I reach a stage where once again I can appreciate the beauty, the gameplay, and the story. In the same way, I was able to appreciate the fact that Montague and Miss Carbury were rewarded for their virtue.
There is nothing inherently wrong with modern games in the same way that there is nothing inherently wrong with stereotypically ‘good’ characters. Some of my most precious gaming memories are from the last few years. Some of the most endearing characters I have met are in what we might consider ‘modern’ games. Still, when a new title hits the shelf I find that I am reluctant to dive head-first in the game. I have to resolve myself to being ‘taught’ how to play an RPG, step-by-step, before I am actually given the opportunity to enjoy the game itself. The problem with modern games then becomes the lack of a presupposed understanding that a gamer is an intelligent, intuitive being. I have been playing games all my life. I know what an ‘attack’ command does. The modern game presupposes that I have no idea what the word ‘attack’ means or what a controller looks like.
Yes, the old-school games of our sunny youths are represented by the smarmy Augustus Melmotte. I hated him because he was a vile man who manipulated the world around him for his own gains. He made my head ache because I could not begin to comprehend the scope of his evil and I wondered what heinous act he would commit next. And in the end, victory was all the sweeter. Early games are much the same, it takes a little intelligence to digest the content and at the end of it all the hard-earned emotions, the pain of one ‘Game Over’ screen after another, is all the more rewarded.
With the Lusipurr.com playthrough of Wild Arms, I felt the familiar dread of “Oh God, not another RPG.” It struck me at once that I was thrown into the world of Filgaia and forced to sink or swim. The beginning of Wild Arms comprised of Opening Cinematic, Title Screen, GAME and not Opening Cinematic, Title Screen, TUTORIAL. And then I remembered, I was no longer playing the latest installment of Final Fantasy: I was playing a classic RPG. Once again, I was expected to be intuitive and to have some experience with the genre. “If you want a tutorial, go and find one,” the game seemed to say to me. I had to hand-pick commands from a menu of tiny pictures. I had to assume that the ‘thing vaguely shaped like a bag’ was my item pouch. I will be the first to admit that I spent the first few hours of the game dying a lot, learning not to stand on spikes the hard way, and lamenting the lack of save points in every room.
After all is said and done, can we forsake the realm of our virtuous modern games in favor of the callous villainy of the past? Should we? Modern games are filled with hand-holding, fair enough, but they are also filled with attractive storylines and ever-evolving mechanics. The games of the past are at times more difficult through the sheer expectation that ‘gamers are intelligent’ and a lot of time is spent staring, heartsick, at the words GAME OVER. But in the end, the diligent player is rewarded for his patience. Each possesses its charms and draws, and each offers the player the opportunity to immerse himself in a world that is not his own. For the modern game, these charms are often immediately apparent: Like Hetta and Paul they are attractive and the perfect picture of modernity. For the games of the past, like Wild Arms, we often have to look beyond the surface, take time to digest the content, and get the satisfaction we deserve in the end.