Adventurers and Spacewarriors All
Let’s try out a brief but ostentatious claim followed by a bit of ad hoc argument: Spacewar! and Adventure (or ADVENT or Colossal Cave), the two earliest games of their respective kinds, explain pretty much everything about everything that’s happened in video games since then.
Spacewar! is from 1962. Pretty old. You can play an emulation of the original PDP-1 version. It’s a game about two spaceships (or, later, more spaceships) flying around and shooting missiles at each other while navigating around a central star which is sucking them in. It’s a game of reflexes, strategies, and counter-strategies in a simulated space. As such, it’s the direct ancestor of what feels like 90% of games out there. AI aside for single-player, what is Modern Warfare 2 but Spacewar! with totally amazing graphics, sounds, and maybe a handful of extra actions which get used in just the same ways as thrust, rotate, and fire missile anyway?
Adventure is from 1976. Also pretty old. You can download a playable version of the original for Mac OS X here and Windows here. It’s a game about exploration where everything is made out of words: the world is described textually and you interact by typing in what you want to do (two word commands only, please). In the world you’re exploring a cave system that’s a bit funny and includes a mean little dwarf who throws axes at you and evocative descriptions of chasms, mists, and much more. You wander around, figure out puzzles, and generally marvel at the environment constructed via the cooperation of the game’s text and your imagination. Is this so very different from the admirable games of today which create beautiful worlds to investigate like Fallout 3 and GTA IV? The magic of virtual worlds you can exist in is oldschool.
Basically, it feels to me as though Spacewar! and Adventure in combination capture the essence of most of what makes up today’s blockbuster games. Obviously they don’t explain much about Tetris or Bejewelled or even Nintendogs, but they’re at the heart of what I find to be the most important experiences games currently give us on their own (omitting social elements here). Ruminative worlds and intense action. And of course the two are now frequently combined, again as in the GTA series, say.
If anything’s been lost, perhaps it’s that games today have leant very far toward the concept of action inherent in Spacewar! and away from the ideas in Adventure. When we take action in games today, it’s generally very much “ACTION!” rather than, in Adventure, “action?” Everything is definitely, and although we experiment in larger contexts (most notably with physics engines and the like), the actions themselves have stopped being experimental or any kind of guesswork. We know, and we do.
This makes me think of the sadness and nostalgia surrounding the movement in Sierra’s games from text based input, as in my beloved Police Quest and Police Quest 2, to the point-and-click style of Police Quest 3. From the idea that you might have to puzzle out your very actions in a game, we moved to a brutish-feeling whacking at the environment, like hitting a TV with a wrench to fix it rather than opening it up and trying to work it out.
Anyway, there’s my speedy take on how games haven’t changed much since 1961/1976.