Twenty years ago this summer, I was dressing up as a saxophone-playing Nazi every evening in a student production of Joshua Sobol’s play, Ghetto. (Obviously, I stopped dressing up as a Nazi when Prince Harry jumped on the bandwagon and made it kind of passé.)
Little did I suspect that one day we wouldn’t have to work so hard to make our own entertainment, but could instead sit in front of a painting-sized screen any night of the week and shoot realistic-looking Nazis in the sneering fizzog for hours. (Although I have yet to find a videogame Nazi who plays a mean tenor.) A certain kind of progress has evidently been made.
Of course, by 1993, it had already been possible for a year to roam around a kind-of-3D space and shoot Nazis, in Wolfenstein 3D. That game – and the subsequently released Doom – set us on the path to the modern face-shooter, so the two decades that Edge has been publishing neatly bracket the evolution of today’s noisiest and most bloodthirsty videogame genre.
Also in 1993, Nintendo announced its partnership with Silicon Graphics as Project Reality. Twenty years on, with hi-def consoles boasting about 20 times as much RAM as 1993 laptops had hard drive space, that project’s name is still a fine description of one long-running evolutionary strategy for videogames as a whole. (The Wii, which brought the game outside the screen, is as important a stage in this wider Project Reality as the Oculus Rift will be.)
But just as important a change as the achievement of near-photorealistic naturalism has been the wider change in how we play videogames, which was brought home to me on a recent visit to a seafront arcade. The only real reason for coin-op games to exist now is to allow you to play with increasingly absurd plastic prostheses. I did enjoy slapping the bottom of the magazine to reload on a Terminator-licensed robot-shooting game, although I was inconsolable when it turned out the arcade didn’t also contain a game that let me smash plastic moles with a large bouncy mallet.
Revealingly, though, the most popular cabinet in the place, round which teenagers were crowding excitedly, was Temple Run – a game you can play just about anywhere, on your phone. Presumably it is also fun to play in the arcade because the large screen enables a more social, performative kind of play. But it is really popular because people already know it from the small screen. Perhaps the most unexpected yet socially important change in videogames over the past 20 years, then, is that their consumption is no longer tied to place or dedicated portables. We have entered what I have previously called an age of ‘ambient play’.
Morally, you can also look at these past 20 years as a period of increasing concern for the rights of virtual animals. Some beasts have long enjoyed high status in videogames – foxes (Star Fox was released in 1993), bandicoots, llamas – but consider the more problematic situation of the humble dog. In the progressive world of Nintendo, a dog is something to be nurtured, and in the great Okami the starring role is played by the dog’s feral cousin, the wolf.
But in the modern successors to 1993’s Doom – the Modern Warfares, the Far Crys – the dog has been a snarling, ferocious pest that’s almost impossible to shoot before it leaps at your throat. Then, for some reason best known to dog-hating videogame developers‚ you have to play a horrible dog-based minigame in which you try to punch the dog in the face by following QTE prompts until you have smashed the poor canine’s jaw to bits or broken its neck.
I fondly remember how, when my friend and I were playing Modern Warfare 2’s special ops level O Cristo Redentor (aka O Cristiano Ronaldo), it wasn’t the human enemies that bothered us; it was the bloody dogs. Every time we shot ten people we would hear distant barking, race in panic to a small hut we had identified that had only one entrance, and stand guard. There the dogs would blithely enter to be met by a hail of crossfire and bloodthirsty shouting. And thankfully they would usually succumb to about 200 bullets, before getting the chance to be badly punched in the face by one of us as it writhed on the floor.
You can imagine, then, how excited I am by the announcement of a new remote-controlled dog simulator in which the hound is the glorious military hero of the piece. Paying lip service to genre expectations, Call Of Duty: Ghosts does apparently also feature some pretend human beings, who probably express emotions and stuff in cutscenes while they’re not acting like superhuman mass murderers in the game proper.
But I’m sure we can all agree that the reversal of Call of Duty’s historic cynophobia (that’s the fear of dogs, lexophiles) is the real story here. Over the next 20 years, I can only hope that videogames will also learn to take a more ecologically friendly and caring approach to giant sandworms, gloop-dripping aliens with 15 sets of jaws, and spiders.
Illustration: Marsh Davies