Why Do We Play Retro Games? Aka What Went Wrong With Modern Games?

I thought it might be nice to do something a little deeper than just reviews and the historical context pieces around each magazine’s release, as fun as they are. So today I’m writing an article. I wanted to ask the big question – why do we play retro games? May as well start with the biggest question and then dive into smaller things afterwards. The answer takes in multiple strands so please forgive me for a long piece with many branching narratives which will take a fair bit of work to tie together at the end.

Now I’ll start by stating the obvious. Nostalgia is a factor. I can’t deny the warm fuzzy feeling I get when I fire up Nebulus and watch that little green frog walking around that rotating tower. Nor can I disguise my delight at seeing an Atari ST or Amiga in the wild, the childhood memories triggered by sights and sounds that take me to a simpler time. We all enjoy that feeling, and most of us who enjoy retro are of a certain age. And yet, that isn’t entirely it. In the course of working through ST Format issues I’ve enjoyed playing some wonderful games I never got to play as a kid, some I’d never even heard of. This mirrors my enjoyment of older films – I’ve been watching movies from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s and I can assure you that I’m not that old, even if I do sometimes feel it. These are movies I’ve never seen before and yet I’ve been watching them over the last couple of years and found tremendous pleasure in them. The 80s movies give me the nostalgia, no doubt, but where is this love for older films coming from? To me there are periods of cinematic greatness, the 70s for instance were full of amazing directors and actors in their absolute prime, while the 30s-50s see the likes of Alfred Hitchcock working absolute miracles. Shorn of the ability to create spectacular visuals through the use of CGI, without modern camera technology, these directors created wonderful character-driven stories that focused on universal human fears and desires. I have to wonder then, could the same be said of games, with the older creations coming from masters at the peak of their powers having their creativity boosted by the limitations of their tools?

To truly understand why people play retro games, we need to figure out what retro games give us that their modern counterparts don’t, outside of the warm fuzzy nostalgic feeling. We need to focus on the things they get right, and one of the biggest is readability and accessibility. This may sound odd when one considers that we talk of retro games as being brutally difficult, and some definitely were, but those mostly 2D spaces were far easier to navigate than modern games with their cluttered 3D spaces. Every object exists to be interacted with and its shape and appearance is usually simple enough to make its purpose clear, and further it is not surrounded by irrelevant clutter. This makes it a far more rapid process for the brain to scan what it sees and know what to do, with less cognitive overload. In many ways this is one of the things that Nintendo gets right with its modern designs – it has kept that readability of the classic games while still being incredibly pretty, though to do that it has had to choose a path which leads some to criticise their designs as being for children, not being gritty and realistic enough. That, at heart, comes down to two diametrically-opposed ideals of what a game is meant to be.

Those of us who play retro games are more often focused on the core gameplay loop, the mechanics of the game, with the atmosphere evoked by the game’s graphics and sound a secondary (though still valid) consideration. Don’t get me wrong, there’s much a game can do with sound and vision to give it charm, to lend it atmosphere, to reinforce your actions. Speedball 2 on the Amiga is fantastic because of the crowd sounds during the match, the Ice Cream, the bone-crunching tackles, and the visuals convey that clean metalic world beautifully. Mega Lo Mania’s wonderful speech samples lend it enormous charm, just as those of Stronghold do, and both have wonderfully identifiable buildings and units (which isn’t often true of modern RTS games). Damocles desolate vistas create a wonderful sense of loneliness. Llamatron’s psychadelic visuals and old-school-arcade sound effects create a frenetic flow, a kinetic energy that drives you on. All of these are valid. But all of these are readable, and all of these are mechanically sound. The movement, crunchy impacts, lag-free controls and carefully-crafted AI that’s just the right level of smart-stupid makes Speedball 2 perfect. The simplicity of the rules underpinning Mega Lo Mania, a turn-based game disguised as real-time, make it easy to process what’s going on and to assess your resources to plan for battle. Damocles is beautifully crafted feeding you the bread crumb trail to take you through a story packed with charming British wit. Llamatron throws huge waves of enemies at you but equips you with unlimited ammo and amazing power-ups.

Considering modern games for a moment, Witcher 3 is a wonderful experience with some gorgeous visuals and incredible writing, but most would agree the combat is weak, and as beautiful as it was, its reliance on witcher senses left you often simply following a red trail rather than actually following clues in the environment because it simply isn’t that easy to parse. Consider the Tomb Raider games which suffer from many of the same problems, relying on some walls being magically climbable and some not, with a magic sense telling you which is which. Then consider games like Life Is Strange, the first was undoubtedly a fun extension of the Telltale formula but in truth the gameplay mechanics were somewhat lacking, and while improving on Telltale is itself noble, the path of Telltale from actual adventures to interactive movies highlights some of what went wrong with games.

As graphical fidelity improved, so game developers started to make movies instead of games, with gameplay beginning to be seen as an obstacle to getting to the story. The importance of what were ultimately fairly sophomoric stories became vastly inflated in the eyes of developers but also with a journalist class who had begun to have ambitions away from gaming, but that’s something we’ll come back to later. Among even more gameplay-focused titles, there were unhealthy shifts in trends towards gacha gameplay. For those unfamiliar, gacha games are specifically built around monetising players by making them spend in-game currency to overcome deliberately poor game design elements like difficulty spikes. This trend started in mobile largely due to users being unwilling to buy games for a price that reflects the effort being put into creation, necessitating microtransactions as a means to generate the revenue to stay in business, but then extended with greed. Companies got better and better at parting gamers with their cash and slowly ported those practices over into PC and console gaming, though initially there was pushback on this (we all remember Horse Armour right?).

And this is where we must bring journalists into this discussion. Their job is ultimately to inform the consumer, and to advocate on their behalf. While there has always been the odd bit of shadiness, a high review score to stop a publisher pulling adverts, a game made by an ex staff member getting a higher score (looking at you ST Format and Magic Fly), and I’m sure we can all think of plenty of others. Then there’s the tendency of ‘official’ magazines for particular platforms giving inflated scores back in the day – indeed Nintendo Life still get accused of that kind of thing with first party Nintendo contend despite not being official. Games journalism was certainly never perfect, and yet it was a lot better than it is. In the 80s and 90s, gaming was not seen as a particularly cool nor anything worth pursuing as a career path. The typical image of gamers was perhaps best reflected in Bad Influence’s character Nam Rood who would answer viewers questions about games they were stuck on, a bit like Patrick Moore did on Gamesmaster.

Because it wasn’t cool, and because you weren’t going to get rich doing it, and because it wasn’t going to open any doors to ‘serious’ journalism, the gaming press mostly consisted of people who were passionate about games. They could play games all day, write about them, and get paid. What’s not to like? And for a long time it remained that way, perhaps best exemplified by the likes of Zero, Amiga Power and PC Zone, where it was clearly a bunch of mates having a lot of fun playing games. Much of why those old magazines are enjoyable to go back to is that sense of community, that bond formed among people who were never mainstream. Eventually magazines started to struggle, with one of the last holdouts dying in 2010, as the world moved to online blogs like Rock Paper Shotgun. And in the early days RPS did a brilliant job, with clever writing and consumer advocacy, tackling big business (and it was starting to become that with EA being a behemoth that chews up studios and spits them out) and bad practices. And then somewhere in the last 10 years it started to go wrong (and I’m going to ask for a bit of patience as I lay this out as it might not be immediately obvious why it matters – trust me I’ll get there but the background is important).

I’d struggle to pick out an exact moment when it started, but I slowly became aware that reviews were no longer being written for me, the gamer. I noticed they stopped pushing back on corporations fleecing the consumer, and this created space for games to become microtransaction-infested hellscapes. EA were particularly egregious in that regard. I noticed they stopped championing amazing new indie games with incredible gameplay and instead on games about being at a urinal and trying to look at someone else’s dick but it’s not a dick, it’s a gun. I saw more listicles. I noticed the things the writers were pushing back on were no longer consumer matters or concerns for the whole gaming community but instead matters of interest to small sub-groups, indeed the sub-groups seemed to get more and more niche over time. I started noticing that writers were actively hostile to anyone who didn’t agree with their takes on these issues. I started to notice some of these writers start writing in the Guardian – in truth that was the dream they were all chasing. Games journalism had ceased to be a medium for writing about games and had instead become a medium to audition for The Guardian or the New Statesman.

Now it’s fine to write as an audition for elsewhere, up to a point, after all people have ambitions and need to make a living, but there must be a balance. That auditioning can push for excellence, but given the narrow focus on a small subset of newspapers and TV with a very similar set of opinions, it instead started to become increasingly a push for a particular agenda. Games would be praised for having a gay main character, even if that had no effect on the game or the story. Games would be more likely to get attention if they had a ‘capitalism is bad’ message. If your character was trans you had a guaranteed puff piece. On the negative side, so many articles were now about focusing on how a game is ‘problematic’ in some way. Be it Kingdom Come Deliverance not having enough black people in Europe in the middle ages, or Cyberpunk not having enough pronoun options (one Eurogamer article spent the first third of the interview badgering a developer about pronouns), it became increasingly clear that these people were not writing about games for the love of games, but instead to ensure conformity of opinion. Indeed the focus is now on seeking out ever smaller and more ridiculous things to be offended by as the Twittersphere will love it and the right will rage-click it, leaving the sane in the middle wondering what the hell is going on and what happened to their games.

So how did this come about? Many have argued that the internet was the death of journalism, with readers becoming accustomed to free content funded by advertising killing off magazines and declining ad revenues driving sites towards a clickbait-led model. There is truth in this, and much of what is written now extends that clickbait concept by being deliberate rage-bait. However, it’s not the internet specifically. It’s Twitter. The thing with Twitter is that while you have your trolls spewing racist bile and all the usual online toxicity common to any barely-moderated anonymous environment, they don’t tend to get much traction as a group. It’s just individuals picking at people, often in very nasty ways, but still not any kind of movement. They don’t get traction, they don’t generally get followers, they just spew bile into the ether and are mostly ignored. On the other hand, the people who do have influence on Twitter (and this has become even more true since the purge of late 2020/early 2021) are mostly of a singular political stripe, one equally capable of bile and racism, just against more ‘acceptable’ targets. This creates an economy of influence where to build an audience you have to mirror those views, and if you want to get a lot of hits for your article you’ll need a Twitter following (and this becomes especially important as many ‘writers’ are now freelancing in many different publications on precarious pay). What this leads to is writers writing not for you, but for the influencers of Twitter, hoping to get noticed. Just as comedians have shifted from trying to get laughs to looking for applause, so writers have shifted from writing for the gamer community to writing for a political activist community. This is why instead of asking EA why they persist with exploitative lootboxes they write articles about Cyberpunk getting trans representation wrong (remember this is a tiny group, less than 1% of the population – it makes no commercial sense to focus on them but it is hugely important to the Twitter community). This leaves gamers without a voice, no big player fighting for them, which is a problem in itself but it also impacts on how games are made.

Let’s start with a big studio releasing a new hero shooter (the ones with wacky characters with special powers). You know you can cram it with microtransactions and the only complaints will be a few gamers on Twitter but they’ll be ignored if you throw a label of toxicity at them (people tend to get a little grouchy when nobody’s listening – a riot is the voice of the unheard – makes it easier to then define them as toxic). It won’t affect your all-important Metacritic score, which means your bonus will be safe (and bonuses are dependent upon Metacritic scores at far too many publishers). Next up you want to appease the journalists, so you announce that one of the characters is bi, and you might make one a bit chubby for fat acceptance, maybe have one of them be trans just to be sure. That’ll bump your metacritic score up at least 5 percent for far less work than would be required to create unique gameplay or to perfect the controls and balance, things these writers just don’t care about.

Moving on to indie – remember how many wonderful games came from the indie scene in the early 2010s? Some had a narrative focus but even if they did they also came with sharp gameplay. Think World Of Goo, Braid, Super Meat Boy, Osmos, VVVVVV, And Yet It Moves, Crayon Physics Deluxe, Revenge Of The Titans, Legends Of Grimrock, Binding Of Isaac, Gunpoint, Thomas Was Alone, Hotline Miami, Prison Architect. All of these were beautiful games with fantastic gameplay loops, and then we switched to drudgery like Papers Please where you stamp immigration papers and Not Tonight set in a dystopian post-Brexit Britain. There’s a clear shift in tone around the indie scene, and part of it is that, just as journalists must keep the influencers happy, so indie game developers living on meagre incomes simply won’t get anywhere unless they tow the party line.

The problem with this is that it makes the games absolutely insufferable for anyone who doesn’t live in the Twittersphere. If you voted leave (and us oldies are more likely to have done so) it’s a bit of a turn off to have games and the gaming press bash you over the head telling you that you’re a nazi. I just want to play good games and want the best for all people, rather than focusing on small subgroups. And I’m not alone. Making games overtly political isn’t necessarily a problem if done well, but as discussed earlier, storytelling in gaming is pretty sophomoric, especially when there’s such a limited range of permissible opinion as to render everything a trope – certain groups can’t be portrayed negatively, certain groups must always be portrayed negatively, and honestly it’s all so bloody exhausting. The majority of writers in gaming simply cannot offer deep political insight, and one of the few that could, Chris Avellone of the magnificent KOTOR 2 has been driven out of the industry by cancel culture (because anyone with any talent is).

So to tie it together, the Twitter-driven journalists who don’t really want to write about games but would rather write for the Guardian have created an incentive structure which penalises any game sitting outside of their narrow skewed overton window (see the mass-silence on Kingdom Come Deliverance) and has led to gameplay coming second to half-formed narrative while corporate malfeasance is handwaved away provided they pay the identity tax. It’s no wonder modern games are so dull.

So why do we play old games? Because we want games made by people who love games, from a time when journalists held their feet to the fire to make great gameplay, and when corporations were kept in line and discouraged from engaging in anti-consumer practices. Because those simpler games focused better on gameplay. Because when there was a story it would engage you on deeper and more universal matters of human interest (see Westwood’s Bladerunner) instead of the concerns of a tiny group who are being used for political pointscoring. It was a simpler and better time, not without its faults, but better than where we are today.

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