Saturday, May 05, 2012

I remember when all this was pixels...


I love old films.  Well, good old films at any rate.  Between the ages of 25 and 35, the average age of my favourite films seems to have increased by far more than those ten years, which isn't really surprising; we all get recommendations to see classic films or finally get round to seeing films you've pretended to have seen.  I've seen Apocalypse Now twice.  Well, the first half of it twice.  Two halves make a whole, so technically I've seen Apocalypse Now.  Rubbish ending I thought.

With this in mind it was good to see in my copy of Edge a few months back that they were revisiting an old game I'd played years ago - Final Fantasy VIII.  I was really excited when I saw this but my enthusiasm would turn out to be misplaced.  This was one of the rare articles in Edge which didn't really work.  It seemed to set up that the journalist would play the game through and comment on how it played.  I was hoping for comparisons to modern games, and perhaps a deeper look at whether old games can still be great to play like classic films are still great to watch.

What actually happened was that the journalist played the game for about an hour (which is clear from their comments) and then explained the game mechanics from the instruction manual.  This is a Final Fantasy game with 40+ hours' of content for fuck's sake, you can't play it for an hour and comment on its content any more than you can watch the first ten minutes of Psycho and declare it to be about Janet Leigh engaging in a bit of peculation (I learnt that word in a Guardian crossword about eighteen months ago, I'm damned if I'll die before using it at least once!).  A large part of the enjoyment of the game is the character levelling and the story unfolding.

This left me a bit cross that Edge had let me down and also frustrated that I still didn't know if FFVIII was still a game worth playing.   I was a huge fan of its predecessor, FFVII aka 'That Game Which Almost Cost Me My Degree', and therefore had never devoted as much time to it.  One playthrough is all it got.  I had to give it another go.

Thanks to a very patient fiancĂ©e and spare evenings, it's now a few weeks later and I've played it through.  The ending screen wouldn't look out of place on David's post from the other day.

Clockwise from top middle-left:  The evil/good one, the other evil/
good one,the soldier one, the stern teacher, the love interest, the
surly hero, the annoying one, the other annoying one, the ladies' man.
I don't see the point of reviewing it in detail since there are plenty of other reviews on the internet.  Maybe I'll do a retro review at a later date.  The storyline isn't massively cerebral but it's interesting enough to keep you going.  Even though the ending is predictable it's still beautiful, especially for a game of its age.  The main point I'd make about the game is that it's still good fun to play.  You feel as though you're being constructive as the characters in the story level up.  The combat is satisfying and well paced.  The characters range between punchingly annoying and yawningly stereotypical, however are somehow charming - and the annoying ones become less so as they mature through the game.

Playing this through from beginning to end raised some thoughts on games as a medium and how they'll be remembered historically.  It's easy to see how this is uncharted territory.

May 2012: "Have you ever read Great Expectations?"
Space year 2412AD, 12th of Beckham: "I was up until three playing Pac-Man, I nearly fell asleep and crashed my hoverbike on the way to double Martian this morning"

Is a good book like a good game?  It's diffcult to speculate whether it'll still be good in a couple of hundred years' time.  Never mind a couple of hundred years, would it still be playable in two months' time (see Draw Something!)?  I reckon something which is pretty reliant on its narrative like a Final Fantasy game or something which relies on an innovative game mechanic should be as good now as they were when released.  Whether you'd choose to play it when there are more modern offerings with better visuals and sound with the same gameplay is another matter.

At one point while playing FFVIII our housemate James walked in.  After a short conversation I explained how I was still enjoying playing despite the (by today's standards) poor graphics.  James sniggered and replied "well I don't think I'd be able to play it", before disappearing off to play WoW.  You also get this reaction towards visuals with other media, such as film.  Special effects and set design from the 50s doesn't always look as realistic as those in newer films and it puts people off.  Can a film's age really make it unwatchable?  I watched the 1931 version of Frankenstein this year, it was brilliant despite (by today's standards) the odd acting from some of the male actors and the strange camerawork.  Perhaps I'm in a minority of people who can see past dated visuals.

Thirteen years of progress in graphics and sound technology.  Thirteen years of gameplay improvement?  
You get it a lot with horror films and their special effects.  People sneering at dated effects of blood, prosthetics, false limbs being cut off and so on.  It really shouldn't be about that, it should be about the feeling - the acting, the storyline, the situation being portrayed.  It might be difficult to see past things like that in some cases but it's not impossible.  The only time I've ever completely lost belief in an old gory film was while watching Blood Feast, and that was because of the horrifying acting rather than props and make-up.

Midfommer?  Night(')s ? Dreame? Shakespeare was
shit at writing compared to modern authors.
Looking at some videogames released in the last couple of years which have been popular, you do seem to get the same old things coming out again and again - much like you get in anything we read, play or watch.  Whether it's the next 'paranormal romance' bollocks or another action thriller or another M. Night Shyamalan film with a twist at the end.  We seem to get hungry for this stuff.  Like food, we seek it out, buy it from the local supermarket, consume it, shit it out and (where the analogy ends for most) put it on a shelf in the front room with our last hundred meals to consider eating again but somehow never being in the mood to.   Maybe it's just we'd rather watch or play a new version of the same thing despite it perhaps being worse than an earlier, similar title.

I wonder why people can't look at older snippets of culture and take the piss in the way they do with things like computer game graphics and special effects in films?  You can't imagine someone saying "Look at Shakespeare, he can't even spell!  It looks rubbish.  I've heard this story a hundred times, and they had more explosions and shit".

Perhaps it's just because with film and videogames we were still learning and it's more like looking at a cave painting than looking at a piece of more modern art or a classic book.  Perhaps in a million years an archaeology team will dig up an old Operation Wolf arcade cabinet, clean it up and display it in a museum.  You can hear it now as a small boy stares into the display, points and laughs saying "Haha, look!  You can see that man's pixels!"

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