Old-school games and action figures
What is it about the old fashioned, 8-bit or Gameboy style pixel art that appeals to some people? Could it be that there’s more to it than just being nostalgic, and more than just challenging restrictions to work with? I submit that really low-resolution art like that is the equivalent to playing with action figures because of the imagination it requires both from the artist and the viewer. The artist has to do the most with the least, and then to trust the viewers to fill in the finer details themselves. This I think is really what made early video games so fun, even though today they seem so plain and basic.
You remember what I’m talking about, you guys who got your NES back in first grade. Back then, you and your friends had imagination by the bucketload. You were playing with your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the back yard for hours at a time with adventures that sometimes topped the cartoons. Shredder was commandeering the yard’s corner oak tree for a super base that would let him drop bombs anywhere in the world. The Turtles found out about this plan and covered the tree with protective Rectomutagen ooze and acorn mines which created a radioactive forcefield, but also ripped a hole through space and time sucking the Transformers into the fight, who then helped defeat the Technodrome which could suddenly fly because Krang filled it all with helium…. and so on. It all made zero sense, but that was hardly a problem for you. You had the important elements – the physical characters to control – and you filled in those minor story details. It was imagination sugar.
Nothing kills imagination and adventure like constant handholding
So when you’re first introduced to a man who fights mushrooms with angry eyes and walking feet, who throws fireballs when he touches flowers and who has to avoid egg-hurling turtles flying in tiny little clouds, you don’t even bat an eye. Heck, these people are talking your language. Nintendo games appealed to the kids who wanted to exercise their insane little kid imaginations with setups that seem more and more crazy as time goes by.
But here’s the tiny detail that gave all that an added dimension for your imagination to eat up: for a lot of these games, there was no story. They didn’t tell you why you were doing any of your death-defying missions. Mario started out on his very long journey without any backstory, without any cut scenes, without any character development. You’re in “world 1-1”, you have 3 lives left, go. Your only hint about motivation was a mushroom-baby thing occassionally telling you a princess is in another castle. You had the important elements – Mario, who could walk and jump – and you filled in those minor story details. Digital imagination sugar.
Other games built up from this idea. The fond memories I have of the NES Metroid was how much story and atmosphere I filled in myself while the game provided the bare minimum. Back then, with my then still healthy imagination racing at full gear, I was going through the caverns listening to the music, then suddenly I entered a room with one enemy that was slightly bigger than the others. I didn’t know who it was or what was so special about it, but the chipper blips of midi tunes suddenly turned into a low, ominous drone. That tiny little change instantly told me something serious was going down. I was fighting Kraid, who by post-SuperMetroid standards, appeared decidedly unimpressive. There wasn’t even a giant warning screen or special gate to break, I just unexpectedly walked in on him like it was another room. It made things almost realistic that way, at least compared to the giant punch-in-the-face warnings you get today that A BOSS IS APPROACHING AND YOU BETTER GET READY NOW. And yet for as plain as that nondescript boss battle seems today, at the time, it got the kids talking.
The effect was amplified when the music turned into just a mechanical hum near the end of the final level with the appearance of the metroids. The minor and almost subtle shifts in environment, music and sounds told my brain that this was the most serious event of my life and I was going to need every drop of adrenaline that I could produce, immediately. After reaching Mother Brain, with those eerie sound effects, you could tell just from how the level was set up that this was what everything was leading up to. And your teeth wouldn’t stop chattering for an hour afterward.
Eventually, games would start spelling things out more. Ninja Gaiden’s cutscenes were like you took your Nintendo to the movie theater. Cutscenes? In a video game?? Wow! Games started getting more complicated with open world exploration like Zelda and other RPGs, which required more guidance for the player. They still left a lot for you to explore on your own, but the hand-holding was beginning — either through characters giving you hints about what to do a la Castlevania 2, or through Final Fantasy style narratives. While this helped the less creative players get more out of the game, something was being lost for those (probably few) gamers who could give life to inanimate GI Joe figures and enjoy coming up with their own adventures for them. Less and less was being left to your imagination.
In the first Megaman game for instance, there was nothing to tell you what you were doing or why, you just knew you had a gun and everything else was trying to kill you. But you could pick up hints about what was happening by certain unspoken clues. The background in one of the Dr. Wily stages showed that you were invading the bad guy’s base through some type of sewer pipe like a commando, for instance, and that once you beat this white-haired scientist guy, he begged for mercy, so you didn’t kill him.
Fast forward to Megaman X4 and beyond, and you get told exactly why you do every single mission, plus you’re given a backstory for every single boss. This, to flesh out the story, character development, and other theatrical checkboxes that people say they like because they’re supposed to. No need to bring your imagination for this megaman: that story is being given to you with tweezers and a scalpel.
The point of all of this is that while big-budget games have to offer immersive experiences that guide you through where you should go and why you should do specific things at specific places, with detailed maps and UI overlays giving you dozens of mission details, goal requirements and trivia about the type of bullets you’re selecting, it’s the low-budget games that barely touch on story elements that keep your imagination young and healthy.
I came across a similar comparison between radio and television that explained this idea in a similar way: “Television has a far greater hold on the person who wants to sit and have things come to him pre-digested, and which do not require anything more than staying awake, whereas radio made demands.” Sometimes I miss videogames that make those kinds of demands.
If I ever need to create an ideal learning environment for my kids, I’ll raise them to believe that the NES is all there is in the realm of videogames. And since one upside to games that aren’t immersive experiences is the ease with which you can put it down, they’ll soon go off to the back yard and enjoy their last summer before first grade defending a tree from the Shredder.