2D will never die

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.

On one side, you have games that do the most with least. You have to concentrate a little more, deciphering what this clump of pixels are, what that clump is, and so on. You take cues from the music about what’s happening, and in a sense, you play along with the game like you’re both playing with digital action figures. It’s the same principle that made ‘Space Ghost Coast to Coast’ so fun to watch despite having like 8 frames of animation for the entire series…

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.

The effects that these simple presentations had on you could be very real. I remember playing the original Double Dragon in the arcades every few weekends, always starting out with Marian getting comically punched in the stomach and kidnapped, and me going out to get her back. I got pretty good at the routine. Then Double Dragon 2 came out and I was all ready to see her get captured in a burlap sack or something. I put in the quarter and saw the boss from the last game appear in front of her and “OMG HE SHOT HER DEAD!!” The scene only took about five seconds and was presented so matter-of-factly that as Billy Lee was coming out of the door to start the level, I was still stunned. Added to the fact that I was getting slaughtered by the first few enemies because of the game’s insane difficulty and that the hand for the “Go!” icon looked suspiciously like it was supposed to be Marian’s, and it made for the kind of traumatizing experience that you can now only get after playing through 50 hours of Final Fantasy character development.

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.

...And then you have the opposite side, where you get everything spelled out to you for an hour, characters are developed for you by people who might not share your tastes, your imagination has nothing to work with, and your brain gets less engaged overall. It's the same principle that makes Quick Time Events so boring.

…And then you have the opposite side, where you get everything spelled out to you for an hour, characters are developed for you by people who might not share your tastes, your imagination has nothing to work with, and your brain gets less engaged overall.

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.

» Old-school games and action figures

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  3. 1

    I agree completely with you. Nowadays every single detail is thrown to the players leaving the imagination limited to the plot itself.
    Most recent games I’ve enjoyed a lot, have been Shadow of the Colossus and The Binding of Isaac. Leaving gameplay behind for a moment, these share the characteristics, leaving huge portions of the plot to be completed by the players imagination.

    Just look at how many interpretations of what’s going on with Isaac exist, the imagination is working.

    Excellent article.Greetings

  4. 1

    I definitely think you’re on to something here. I think this is actually a good reason why games like Yume Nikki have developed a cult following. (That and stupid Lets Plays).

    I think the higher-res, better graphic fidelity we have, the more explicit we have to be. That doesn’t mean modern games can’t do this, just that it’s made more difficult by the level of detail we now have available. I’ll jump on the Dark Souls train and suggest it as a very good example of a modern game doing player-explorable narrative right.

  5. 1
    mike bee

    i think marian getting killed effected a lot of other people too. theres a youtube of how to save marian using a mame cheat or something: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4n0Kd2B0Qkk

    • Kiwi

      I guess that can work for people who have the kind of wild imagination it took for such a simple scene to have such a big effect in the first place.

      Still, solutions like that and the Final Fantasy 7 “save Aeris” hacks have me imagining a game, let’s say a Double Dragon 2 remake, where that sort of thing is intentionally built in.

      So say if you beat the game under certain conditions, you get a shot to restart the game (“go back in time”) with the chance to save the normally killed character if you act quickly enough, and get a slightly different branch of the story. Maybe just consisting of a few altered bits of dialogue and a replaced end scene. All it’d take is a few minor additions to the game’s code, as fanmade hacks have shown.