Let’s sprinkle a bit of Phoenix Down on an old series of opinion articles, shall we? Remember when I used to write those “Why I Love [insert synonym for Classic] Gaming” posts? Probably not. They occupied a space and time for The Well-Red Mage blog predating our recent exposure, networking, and readership regularity. That’s ok if you’ve never read them. You didn’t hurt my feelings.
Clearly, they’ve been about what makes classic gaming so special. I explained how “classic” is my term of choice, though of course we bibliophile Mages will accept “Vintage”, “Antiquated”, “Archetypal”, “Traditional”, “Timeless”, even “Old-Fashioned” and in a particular pinch: “Retro”. To be clear, I don’t understand when people apply those terms to gaming as recent as PlayStation or Nintendo 64. I personally place the Classic era as ending with the close of the 4th generation, the SNES and Sega Genesis, and lasting all the way back through the Commodore 64, Atari, and of course the NES.
The difference in judgment on what is truly “Retro” and what isn’t most likely has to do with the age of the person using the term, but there are clearly much more “retro” examples of gaming out there than with consoles like the PS2 or Xbox 360. Nostalgia plays a factor in determining what is and what isn’t retro and it’s possible to feel nostalgic about something as recent as a game released last year, but can we call it classic if it hasn’t yet stood the test of time? I recently read an article where the author called the PlayStation 3 “retro”. Three shots of elephant tranquilizer later, my heart rate and blood pressure returned to normal.
So, to bring the series back from the dead, here’s yet another reason why I love (truly) Antique gaming.
This most recent reason resounded with me upon the occasion of watching the wonderful 2016 E3 PlayStation Conference. Treated to the audial-aroma of a masterful live orchestra (minus that blonde doing those weird guttural noises into the mic) and several mind-blowing trailers for much anticipated games, the conference was the first and best one I had ever seen. *wink*
How can I, an avowed 8-bit aficionado, possibly dislike the appearance of Hideo Kojima, the long-awaited Last Guardian, the dive into PS VR, the sights, the sounds, etc., etc.? I didn’t and I can’t. But watching two of the live gameplay sessions for the jaw-dropping Horizon Zero Dawn and the energetic Days Gone, I had an epiphany. I became aware of a trend: “Talking Protagonists”.
The main characters in both gameplay previews cut the jib during the most intense moments, or idly explained what they were doing as they were doing it, even for the most menial task. “I’m not fast enough to get there in time”. “If I can only just…”. “That won’t work, I’ve got to…”. “Whew! That was a close one!”
I noticed something fairly similar, though to a lesser extent, when I played Alien: Isolation and again when playing Arkham Knight. These are both newish games that are amazing, and they’re more modern than I usually expose myself to. I find myself wondering if this is now a trend.
Now lest some internet warrior should say “False. There are plenty of talking protagonists in classic games! They’re just characters that talk. What’s wrong with that?”
My answer is “of course they are” and “nothing is wrong with it”. That’s because in classic games, like older RPGs, there were indeed talking protagonists. There were also several others who didn’t talk at all in other games. Think Crono from Chrono Trigger or Ryu from Breath of Fire II, even Link from the Zelda franchise, whose muteness did nothing to derail or damage their incredible stories. Hilariously, even Mario himself said not a word in Super Mario RPG, as fit the classic RPG cliché even though we know he can talk and say things like “Hey there pie-zannos”.
The difference is between talking protagonists who act like characters (just like the ones in books and movies) and talking protagonists in the direction some games are taking them that essentially function as protagonistic-tutorials for the player. If I’ve griped about the massive amount of unwarranted tutorialism (that is now a word), then I’ve griped about it a thousand times. But I don’t want a video game to hold my hand. I want a video game to let me experience it and use my wits and cunning and well-red savvy to figure out what’s going on and what to do next, to let my fingers feel and touch the world, to let my voice express what I’m seeing, to look through the eyes of the main character and come to my own conclusions on what is a “close-call” and what isn’t.
Obviously, this is an opinion piece, so you can feel free to disagree with me.
But to me, I feel like playing a game should be a vicarious experience where I fill the shoes of the protagonist. Now this isn’t always the case depending on how the developers want to tell their story, yet haven’t we been saying since the dawn of falling accidentally into 8-bit pits “Oops, I died”? This talking protagonist thing takes me out of the experience, out of that projection of my conscious self into the character when the character indirectly recognizes me sitting there on the couch by telling me “Oh, I need to be careful to get this item or I won’t be able to complete this puzzle”. It’s lazy, irrational, and unrealistic. Nobody talks like that. It distances video games from the art of storytelling and reminds me it’s just a video game. It feels like I’m watching somebody else play the game. And ironically it destroys the richness of the character and the narrative that developers try so hard to achieve by turning the protagonist into a verbal instruction manual.
How can I see things from a character’s point of view if they’re constantly breaking the fourth wall to spell out their point of view?
This one little thing doesn’t ruin modern games for me, and I expect to enjoy something like Horizon Zero Dawn. I’m no purist and of course they can make games however they like but a trend like this is the sort of thing that reminds me that the far-superior golden age of gaming has been over for a long, long time…
“Whew! That was a great article. Now I just have to make sure to put my red signature at the bottom of it with my icon so people know that I wrote it. And then I just have to hit ‘Update’…”
-The Well-Red Mage