In Defense of Retro Gaming: A Discussion of Abstraction

Bill Loguidice's picture

Author: Buck Feris
Editing: Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
Artwork: Buck Feris (All screenshots taken from the DOSBox and WinUAE emulators)
Online Layout: Buck Feris

Leo Laporte of The Screen Savers fame did a small segment on a game called Achaea on their show that aired June 10, 2004. Achaea is one of few MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) that can still boast a strong following. It is not uncommon for as many as five hundred users to be logged in at any one time. (For more information on MUDs, also see last month’s article on the Discworld MUD.) Laporte, possibly the victim of ageism, did not fair well during the G4/TechTV merger. Having been demoted from his role as host on the show, his appearances are now limited to the odd tip segment. He talked favorably about the game, noting that it was text based, but still offered a level of interaction not possible in most if not all of the available graphical MMORPG's (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games). After his segment, he segued, handing control over to one of the new, younger people who often do small segments and tips. The young man who took control of the camera all but rolled his eyes at Laporte, stating he would rather play games such as *insert innocuous game here--long on graphics, short on gameplay*. Shortly after this there was a collective chuckle throughout the whole studio.

Upon seeing the attack on Laporte, I became incensed. The recent merger of the two cable channels has resulted in the cancellation or inexplicable crippling of many of the shows I enjoyed. When a former host of my favorite show was flippantly dismissed for mentioning retro gaming, I decided to take action by writing this editorial, which I hope will turn into a series designed to defend our beloved pastime.

This is not the first time that retro gaming has been attacked, nor will it be the last. Click here to see another example of naked aggression.

Most of the arguments against retro gaming are not really arguments at all, but really just knee jerk reactions to something misunderstood by younger people. I would imagine that the same people who trash retro gaming are the same sorts of folks who are unable to tolerate watching a black and white movie, or listening to pop music written more than two years ago. Such behavior only limits the enjoyment of a rich art form, and shows a sophomoric and limited understanding of our culture.

The material available for use to defend retro gaming is so vast, that attempting to comprehensively cover the subject in one article is futile. So, today I will attempt to defend our pastime from just one perspective: abstraction.

For those who may not be familiar with abstraction, it refers to the graphical representation of the games we play. In years past, hardware limitations kept graphics at a minimum, forcing us to play with avatars resembling stick figures. This is an example of high abstraction, with the player having to engage in an unspoken contract with the game similar to a suspension of disbelief. Of course, the ultimate example of this is a text adventure, interactive fiction (IF), or even a MUD like Achaea. Having no graphics, the avatars in these games will only be viewed in the player's head, never on the screen. In contrast, modern console and PC games employ graphics that sometimes border on photo realism. Today, gamers do not have to exert their imaginations nearly as much as in days of old. This is known as low abstraction.

At first glance, the ever increasing polygon count of today's games may seem like progress, but is it?

What is the purpose of computer graphics in games? They are supposed to represent the object or idea being simulated in the context of the game. This representation aspect provides an avenue of artistic expression that is exploited less and less as technology reduces the abstraction level. A good example of this would be the graphical representation of a shotgun. In an older game such as a side scrolling platform game with a high abstraction level, the shotgun may only be represented by a straight line of gray pixels. In a modern first person shooter (FPS) the shotgun may be a fully rendered replica of a firearm produced in the real world, complete with reflective chrome. To the untrained observer, a quick assessment would be that the newer graphics are superior.

Screenshot of Day of the Tentacle
Day of the Tentacle (PC)

However, the artist's touch has been all but eliminated. In the early days of the industry when hardware imposed high abstraction, it was the artist's or programmer’s job to creatively make use of what was available. Creativity was what was needed, and creativity was what gamers got. The result was gorgeous hand painted scenes such as those found in Lucas Arts’ adventure games such as Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle. Just as some older movies were gorgeously shot exploiting the limitations of black and white, many older games just oozed with cleverness as to how objects were represented.

What is maddening about this is that there is absolutely no reason why modern game makers should not employ artists to create fantastic worlds dripping with clever uses of high abstraction. High abstraction doesn't necessarily mean lower polygon counts either. Anyone owning a computer and a copy of Photoshop has the most powerful artistic tool ever created right at her fingertips. Are good painters only recognized by their ability to photographically reproduce a scene? Of course not! If that were the case, we wouldn't need artists. Simply taking photographs would be sufficient. We want artists to put their spin on things. That's where the art comes in. If you placed a tripod on the floor in front of a fruit bowl and took 10 digital pictures with different cameras, you would have 10 pictures of a fruit bowl. The only difference between them would be the resolution and lighting differences brought about by flaws in the image sensor of each camera. If you put 10 artists in front of a fruit bowl, you would get 10 vastly different pictures...10 works of art. The hardware of today makes it possible for us to graphically represent just about anything, and yet we squander this new found ability on photo realism. Artists should be graphically reproducing the wild thoughts in their heads, not volumetric fog. It has been said that the invention of the camera finally freed artists to express themselves abstractly. At what point will this freedom be awarded to game designers?

It is also important to note that all the hardware advancements in this area of game development, and all the time and money spent on photo realism has done absolutely nothing for gameplay. Look at RPGs as an example. Ten years ago, we had titles such as Elder Scrolls: Arena, and the later installments of the Ultima series. These were mostly open ended games with large environments to be explored. Players had to manipulate their control screens to make use of weapons and spells to better engage in combat and improve their abilities. Today we have such games as Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and the Neverwinter Nights series of expansions. These are mostly open ended games with large environments to be explored. Players had to manipulate their control screens...someone remind me again what has changed.

Isometric and 3D RPGs have changed little over the years, save for their polygon counts. However, production time has lengthened, production budgets have skyrocketed, and the amount of staff needed to produce one of these games has multiplied exponentially. Why has this happened? In the final analysis, the flames look better on that Fire Elemental and the finish looks better on that sword, but how has the gamer really benefited? He is still clicking a button to hit a fiery demon with a sword. Why don't we take that big budget and that extra manpower and do something new?

To those who roll their eyes at retro gamers, I say, "What is really so great about the games you are playing?" Is there really that much difference between Soul Calibur II and International Karate? We are still mashing buttons and kicking people in the groin. Why did your game take years to produce?

Screenshot of Sam & Max Hit the Road
Sam & Max Hit the Road (PC)
Screenshot of It Came from the Desert
It Came from the Desert (Amiga)
Screenshot of The Secret of Monkey Island
The Secret of Monkey Island (PC)
Screenshot of Out of this World
Out of this World (PC)

I can tell you what we have lost. We have lost the slapstick animation of Sam & Max Hit the Road. We have lost the hand painted sunsets of It Came from the Desert. We have lost the lush greenery in the King’s Quest series. We have lost the clever cartoon architecture in the Monkey Island series. We have lost the eerie landscapes in Out of this World.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then high abstraction was a call to all artists to do what they do best. Big budgets and big teams don't make a good game. They don't produce good art either. I won't even go into the benefits of playing text based games and leaving everything to the imagination. I don't think the young people this editorial is aimed at could comprehend that. I have to fight this war one battle at a time.

The usual argument against retro gaming from today’s young people is that today’s graphics are better—hands down. To that I say, “Go back and play some old games, kid.” When I look at a John Ford Western, I am stunned at how gorgeous the cinematography is. The fact that the movie may be in black and white in no way diminishes the achievement. A gorgeous game is a gorgeous game, no matter what time period it was made in. I would much rather see a clever use of color to represent a lush forest in a low 640X480 resolution than see my GeForce 4 video card render every single blade of grass in a field because some foliage generation engine allowed the designers to do it. In the final analysis, it has done nothing for game play.

Go ahead and keep talking, Leo. Some of us are still listening.