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I’ve long been interested in the problem of trying to look back on older media properties. There are a lot of interesting questions that pop up about old ideas – particularly ideas of race and gender that are rejected today but were commonplace in earlier times – and how we judge those works within a contemporary context. These subjects have been explored over and over again by a lot of people. And interesting and important as those questions are, I’m not even focused on those.
I’m focused here on the much narrower problem of judgment in regards to quality. A sizable component of video game discussion revolves around older games and how to judge them. This question can come up in the context of whether older or newer games are better, in the context of critiquing older games for their gameplay or their graphics, in the context of trying to remake older games and how much of the older game should be preserved, and so on. The question hangs over our heads so much because older games are important to many of us, especially as we ourselves become older.
This essay was sparked by my decision to try to play through the Resident Evil series. I had never experienced the series growing up: it existed (the first game came out when I was about 8 years old), but I’d never been a big fan of horror as a kid. I ended up playing through RE7 and RE8 – the latest additions to the franchise, and quite enjoyed them, but still never went back to the older games. At most, I’d only heard pieces of information here and there (“RE2/4 is great/the best one”; “RE6 is terrible”). So I decided to try the games for myself. My playthrough of RE1 was good, and I generally enjoyed the experience, though there was quite a bit that I found frustrating in playing the game. And it was that frustration that made me step back to think about this question.
Because the fundamental problem we are dealing with is what kind of criticism is “fair.” There are a lot of critiques that we can level against games, both old and new. But not all critiques are necessarily fair or valid. “I don’t like the way this game looks” is a valid critique, for instance, even if it is purely subjective. “This game doesn’t include dragons,” though, is probably in many cases an invalid critique, insofar as many games might not include dragons because they would be out of place and otherwise ruin the game. I give the dragon example as a sort of comedic proposition, but it’s important to grasp the intuition that while a critique might be true, it is not necessarily fair.
So this essay is going to be dedicated to taking a deeper dive into the question of how we examine older games. What kinds of criticism are fair, and what problems do we run into trying to engage in criticism in the first place? Is criticism of older properties even possible at this point? I don’t know to what extent clear answers will be able to provided to these questions. Instead, it may be worth using these ideas as a starting point for examining how we ourselves relate to these problems.
“It Was Good for Its Time”
So the problem we are dealing with in judging older games is trying to figure out how to put the game’s successes and flaws in a proper context. Which is easier said than done. How much emphasis should we put on how a game looks? A lot of older games – especially early 3D games – just look plain bad. Some look good in comparison to other games at the time. The very first 3D games often seemed amazing simply for being the first 3D games. But we live in an era where graphics can be stunningly realistic – to the point where our major concern is that things can look just a little off and be creepy rather than appealing. So what do we do with older graphics?
Or older systems. A lot of game design is experimental, which means trial and error. Often older games are amazing for creating standards, but further iterations on concepts created 30 years ago have helped us figure out ways to improve the experience for the player. Things like granting players better control of their camera, making clearer indications of where the player is supposed to go, and giving players more options in how they approach the game are all the kinds of changes that can make players feel more comfortable with the game and reduce frustration.
I will note here that not every change is necessarily for the better. Whether a given development in design is bad may be up for debate, but some design changes can be effectively neutral, being merely different. I think first-person shooters are a good indicator here. For a very long time, players had a single shooting mechanic, and merely relied on the game’s crosshairs to figure out where to point their character’s weapon. At a certain point games began incorporating a mechanic where players could aim down the weapon’s sights, usually sacrificing part of their vision and perhaps other things in return for better accuracy. Players can then still fire without aiming – they still have the game’s crosshairs – but shots become less precise. This new system has become fairly standard for shooters, and it would be worthwhile to examine the change and what it means for how players play these games. But I don’t think that this is an inherently good change. There are values to both systems that will boil down to differences in belief about what a good shooting game should feel like. The shift toward this sight-aiming system is thus simply a reflection of this philosophy (or perhaps more appropriately, a reflection of the attempt to copy successful properties which operated under this philosophy, and therefore perpetuating the trend).
But even if not all changes are for the better, some are, and that is the problem we’re stuck with. How do we judge older games in light of these improvements? Can we really look at the graphics on a game that came out in the mid-1990’s and compare them to a game that came out in the 2020’s? We can’t just drop our knowledge of the games that have come out recently when we try to judge these older games. So what are we supposed to do?
If we’re going to approach this seriously, then probably the best we can do is separate the flaws of older games into three types: flaws of limitation, flaws of design, and flaws of age.
A flaw of limitation is one that stems from the literal limitations of designing a game itself. When dealing especially with older games – many of which were played on consoles – there are questions of what a console could feasibly accomplish. How good could a game played on X console look? What was possible given the constraints placed by the hardware? Even things as simple as controller design become important: how well could a game work given that it had so many buttons to work with, or no control sticks?
A flaw of design is one of intent. It is where a game’s systems are set up in such a way that the player is frustrated, but did not need to be frustrated. Are the controls communicated to the player in a confusing way, or do the controls themselves not make a lot of sense? Is the player not given a map, even if it was entirely possible to give the player a map and there is no reason not to provide one? Does the player have to randomly guess at how to solve a problem because the game does not provide information? While all of these problems could be the result of a mere oversight rather than intentional attempts to frustrate the player, the fact that such an oversight occurred is itself important to the flaw.
Finally, a flaw of age is the most complex. It is a reflection generally of being “first,” of trying things out that haven’t been tried before. How do you give the player control of a camera in a 3D space? What should each button do? Sometimes flaws exist because we are simply still trying to figure out what works best for players, and so we would expect mistakes to be made in that sense.
Why distinguish between these three types? Because the three types help us better understand what kinds of criticisms are and aren’t “fair.”
To criticize a game over flaws brought about by literal limitations, for instance, would not be fair. Let’s say a game provides imprecise camera controls, but those imprecise controls are established because the controller itself could not give the player precise control: there is no way to have a dedicated camera control stick, for example. To then demand precision which is impossible from a developmental perspective then becomes unfair.
Meanwhile, flaws of design are definitely fair game. Because design is something conscious that a developer is meant to take time to figure out. So if a game gives you weapons that are ineffective, but also expects you to defeat enemies with those weapons, then there is a massive problem: the player cannot accomplish the task set forth by the game. The solution would be in such a case to either provide better weapons, or make it easier for the player to escape combat. If a game then ignored these solutions – whether out of a disregard for better design or ignorance that there was a problem – would signify an oversight which is worthy of criticism.
Flaws of age, though, are more complex. Usually one of the ways we learn about good and bad design is though experience. It is by trying things, figuring out what works, and setting aside bad ideas that we start to move towards better ideas. And so in the early stages, we should expect more mistakes. And yet, those mistakes are not necessarily the result of poor intent, but of not really being able to know better. And here is why it is so complex: if flaws of age are ultimately born from ignorance, to what extent are developers accountable for those flaws? If flaws of age are essentially a case of “hindsight is 20/20,” then to demand better results after the fact for something that would be difficult to have fixed beforehand becomes somewhat unfair.
Now I’ve distinguished between three types of flaws, but we should not imagine that therefore the three types are mutually exclusive. Sometimes a flaw in an older game can be both a product of age but also bad planning. Or a hardware limitation may point to various possible workarounds, but some work better than others. We are not engaged in these distinctions in order to cleanly place every possible criticism into its appropriate box and therefore designate which problems can be criticized and which cannot. Instead, it’s about thinking about what causes these flaws, so that we can better understand whether something should be criticized.
The reason we engage in this process – why we care about this fairness when it comes to older games – is that we want to engage in discussions about these games from a standpoint that others can not merely understand us, but can respond and participate in a dialogue. To not like the graphics of older games is fine. It is something we can understand on a surface level. But it doesn’t open up room for any further discussion. Should you like these older graphics? That is a question that has no real meaning: we can ask it, but the answer is very clearly “no.”
But when we then engage in discussions about flaws which are “fair,” we can then talk about these older games in a productive method. We can share thoughts that do encourage further discussion. This game had a map that was confusing to read – what kind of flaw is that, and how much should we fault the game for having this confusing map? How do we compare this game to later games which might have less confusing maps? These questions may not have definitive answers, but they at least allow us to talk to one another, rather than past one another.
The Nostalgia Problem
In talking about older games and criticism, there is a necessary issue that we also need to deal with: nostalgia. Nostalgia is the phenomenon of looking back fondly on something in the past, usually by reconstructing our memories in a way that highlights positive elements and ignores negative elements.
If you played a game as a kid that you really enjoyed, what you primarily are going to remember years later is that joy you felt. As a child you likely would not have been concerned with whether a game’s story had a plot hole, or if the mechanics could have been improved. If you were frustrated by the game, you might well have believed that frustration was fine because you didn’t know better at the time. In looking back on your experience you remember that frustration as an achievement, or maybe you just don’t remember that frustration at all.
The reason nostalgia poses a problem with these discussions is that it gets in the way of criticism. It causes us to ignore flaws because we associate our positive memories of the game with quality: I enjoyed the game, which must mean the game was good, because surely I would not have been so stupid as to enjoy a bad game. I’ve mentioned before that this basic logic is incorrect, and we should be less tied up in seeing our subjective like or dislike of a game as a reflection on the quality of that game and a reflection on ourselves. But while we should be more careful, these are still psychological hurdles which are difficult to overcome.
In terms of critiquing older games – especially beloved games – nostalgia causes us to reject or excuse criticisms. If flaws are to be pointed out, those flaws must be necessary, products of experimentation or limitations on the developers. Or the flaws are just imagined because we have changed what we want out of games over time. Players these days want their hands held, when back in my day we had to figure these things out, so people saying this old game doesn’t communicate itself clearly enough to players are just entitled babies. Such a sentiment, though, assumes that the “old way” of doing things was the correct way, which is usually the wrong assumption for us to make.
So in discussing older games, it is necessary for us to think about nostalgia and how it can impact our feelings about a game. How nostalgia can cause us to overlook problems. Nostalgia is not a switch that we just turn on and off. It is a bias that we need to take into account. We must step back and ask ourselves when we hear criticism of a game we used to love whether our reaction – usually the impulse to reject that criticism – is the product of the criticism actually being bad or unfair, or if it is simply a desire to hold on to our old positive feelings.
The simple fact of the matter is that we do not have to give up those old feelings. I can look back fondly on the memories of older games I played, and be able to play those games today and acknowledging that the games aren’t very good. Nostalgia is not an issue of having positive feelings about old experiences. It is about mistaking those positive feelings for some kind of objective truth – that those feelings have worth outside of the happiness they give to us personally.
Reflecting on older games is fascinating because it involves so many intellectual hurdles. It is easy to see problems after the fact, more difficult to see them ahead of time. And so critiquing older games in particular is about getting into a mindset that reflects the mindset of the game’s creators. Which becomes uniquely difficult compared to criticizing modern games, because we lose so much information and knowledge, often information and knowledge obtained from the very game we are critiquing.
And yet, it’s also worthwhile to look back on these older games and try to put them into context. It can be valuable for seeing how game design has developed over time, as we’ve slowly built up principles of good and bad design. It can be valuable in allowing us to re-examine our past and reflect upon our own memories of a game. It can be valuable in helping us to rethink current trends in game design in comparison to older methods, to see what can be revived versus what was left behind for good reason. And so while criticizing older games – or more appropriately, criticizing them well – is tough, it is something we should not shy away from.