And now for a bit of armchair medium theorizing: with a control of some sort in my hand.
I ran into something a little while ago now that I found really interesting. When I finally caved into the powers of darkness and bought myself a very discounted copy of La-Mulana, for a rainy day where I really want to be more of a masochist than the workaholic that I usually am these days, I came across something that its company NIGORO actually said with regards to the development of video games.
NIGORO states that it creates its games with one question in mind: “What if games had continued to evolve – but stayed in 2D?”
This is a really interesting question to me on more than a few levels. I looked at the issue, to some extent, in my old post How to Turn a Medium into a Genre: 8 to 16-Bit Video Games but I never quite heard it phrased this way before because, in the end, NIGORO looks at this change from a different perspective. While my original article briefly looked at and defined a medium as something with direct limitations that, when overcome became a genre, this one thematic question on NIGORO’s part not only made me realize that 2D and 3D games can still be considered different mediums based on what they can or can’t do within their own guidelines, there was also a turning point where the emphasis of video games moved away from two-dimensions into the three-dimensional. And this changed things.
I know: that last sentence was very profound in all of its simplicity. 😛 Certainly there were many popular 3D games and attempts at 3D in the past, Doom and Castle Wolfenstein coming to mind, but they were on computers as opposed to consoles. The console systems themselves were becoming dominated by 3D graphics. I’ll admit that my personal exposure to many games was relatively limited growing up and when you add to the fact that I lost interest in many of the new ones after a time–and in video games themselves at a certain point in my life–it certainly showcases some gaps in my own knowledge.
But it’s fascinating to consider that once we used to interact with two-dimensional realities with elemental sprites, always from a distance, and after a while three-dimensional games–successfully or no–attempted to expose us to a more immediate reality. Think about it: 3D games and their approximations allowed us first-person shooter games such as my previous examples and exploration scenarios such as those found in the Myst games. The discovery and approximation of 3D changed many of our gaming experiences and perspectives in various ways. Can you imagine any of these games in two dimensions? As side-scrollers? As platformers?
Yet other things changed in the meantime. I do remember playing Mario 64 for the very first time and, while revelling in the advanced polygon graphics of the time, finding the controls extremely difficult to use. Perhaps that early period of adjustment, combined with the reliance of more detailed graphics to wow players, changed some gameplay mechanics. In many ways, these mechanics became more simplistic and remained that way. I do remember the time that Nintendo embraced three dimensions there was also a lot less emphasis on games with storyline, player reflexes and, again, gaming mechanics.
This is of course a generalization and one based on my own limited experiences, but NIGORO’s comment that there was a point where 2D games became very advanced and then all but stopped being created really resonated with me. For a while the 2D game, as a medium of game-play, became associated with “retro” games and recreations of said classic games. NIGORO, however, argues precisely what I just mentioned: that 2D games are not vintage classics, retro-games, or 8-bit dreams of lost nostalgia, but are rather representative of its own art form.
And I agree with this. It still makes me wonder though. It fact, it makes me look at parallels. It is no secret that one day I want to do a creative Comics Vs. Games project with a collaborator. The idea of comics and video games, comparing and contrasting them, has always intrigued me and all the more so ever since I found out about those exhibits. And NIGORO’s question makes me wonder: what would have happened if comics had remained solely in the comic strip form? Or, better yet, what if comics had never moved on from that experimental period very few people ever talk about.
Allow me to elaborate. While the developing comics industry focused on political caricatures, followed by compilations of strips into books and then superheroes and other stories, there were artists that experimented with what the form could actually do. There is a misconception that comics as a medium was inspired by film when, in fact, not only has it sometimes been the other way around but comics itself as a medium has its own unique characteristics. Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969 compiled by Dan Nadel is an example of the above and it makes you wonder what would have happened if many of these artists, some of whom didn’t even create traditional or linear panels and plots had been encouraged to continue their work: if, in most cases, their experiments had not been interrupted by financial concerns, industry-trends, and time. Certainly, newspapers used to afford a lot more space for the comic strip (which makes me wonder if 2D games might not, in themselves have space to do other things that 3D ones can’t). And while Underground Comix alternative movements grew to contain some of these ideas and different modes of graphic storytelling, it still makes me wonder “What if?”
Perhaps that isn’t even the best parallel. Of course, we know at least Alan Moore and his Watchmen’s idea of what might have happened if the Comics Code had never been enforced or created in the mid-1950s: specifically with regards to how comics could have evolved at that point. However, in the case of 2D games giving way to 3D it seems to be more a factor of marketing than changing social and political climes. Both mediums remained after these changes, but they were sometimes watered down compared to what they used to be: with some exceptions.
Of course, 2D games never really died out. They remained on computers and now they exist as phone games. And these are not remakes of classics, though they might be based on their designs, but entirely new games in themselves. Even as the Oculus Rift is being developed to take 3D further into virtual reality, perhaps the resurgence of 2D games is motivated by a sense of nostalgia in the 21st century: much in the same way that NIGORO’s decision to create games like La-Mulana was. It is also interesting to note that Stephanie Carmichael in her article Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime takes Chris Ware to outer space, whether he wants to go or not determined that the creators of the Spacetime game had actually been influenced by Chris Ware’s experimental comics art aesthetic with its basic elemental shapes, and a sense of space and loneliness. In fact, if you look at the game itself, it almost subverts the trappings of a 3D aesthetic in a 2D world.
But still, I do wonder what kind of world we would have had if only comic strips existed, or there had been no Comics Code, or if comics that told alternative stories and presented its art-forms in non-linear ways had become mainstream far sooner in our history. Oh, and if all we had ever played or known were 2D games: 2D games that didn’t necessarily remain 8 or 16-bit (NIGORO’s decision to remake La-Mulana‘s aesthetics in a manner reminiscent of Super NES graphics in no way takes away from its old-school feel in my opinion) but just kept changing mechanics wise, and story wise alongside of us. It’s really amazing how things turn out when you think of it in that way. It really is all about perspective.