Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Star Wars: Dark Forces - 5/20 hours

Playing Dark Forces has gotten me thinking about the value of playing older games. Because on a purely immediate level, Dark Forces is not what I'd call "fun."

I'm actually not sure what to call it. The interest I have in this game is almost purely archaeological, and that makes it difficult for me to express an opinion of its "let's drop the player in a homogeneously-colored maze and let them figure it out" gameplay.

If Dark Forces were a new game, I'd know exactly what to say - the levels are confusing as fuck, the gunplay is not diverse or exciting enough to justify its existence, and the game as a whole simply isn't very player-friendly. But that's because the standard by which I judge a new game is "am I enjoying myself and does the game manage to avoid doing anything blatantly offensive and/or annoying?" If the answers to those two questions are both "yes," I tend consider it a "good" game and if either of the answers is "no" I tend to consider it a "bad" game.

However, with older games, I feel like I need to consider its historical context . . . when my visceral reaction is to dislike the game. I have no compunction about not qualifying my praise of Super Mario World, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, or Chrono Trigger with "for its time period." Perhaps this is a mental flaw on my part. Maybe I should be considering context for both "good" games and "bad," old games and new. The only reason I can give special treatment to the timeless classics that are still massively entertaining even decades after their release is because I have the benefit of perspective. I am certain that if, in 1995 I had said "In 20 years, Super Mario World 2 is going to knock people out with its incredible art direction and finely-tuned gameplay whereas Star Wars: Dark Forces is going to be painful to look at and almost unplayably primitive in its controls and user interface" I would have been unlikey to have been believed. And it's likely that I would have been mocked for defending a "baby's game on a kiddie system," regardless of the particular merits of my argument.

But why bother? The only reason to be consistent in the application of perspective is to establish a credible critical voice. Since I have no particular need or desire to be a "real" critic, it shouldn't matter. I can react to a game however I want to react to a game.

But then that raises the question - why not be consistent in my lack of perspective? Why not just judge every game based on how it makes me feel today? I guess it's because I don't want to be a total philistine. Video games are a cultural artifact and I don't want to discard an old game simply because it does not follow contemporary fashions or styles.  I need to remind myself that technological advancement has transformed the medium over the course of its history, so older games labor under substantial limitations that newer games have overcome.

I'd liken it to movies, where you can divide the history of film into pre-cgi, pre-color, pre-sound (and others, I'm sure) and watching the old stuff can be awkward and off-putting. The acting in silent movies is usually over-exaggerated and stylized. Black and white films can lose a lot of the texture and detail of the real world. And before cgi, a lot of the more fantastical elements of various genre films looked cheesy and fake. Yet the very best movies made their limitations into advantages, and would be diminished if they had to use more modern technology (see, for example, the controversy over colorization).

And I think that's the way you have to look at old games. You can't go in expecting something modern to exist in a more primitive technological context. The trick is to find the ways the medium shaped the work. If you're lucky, you'll see connections that give you greater insight into and appreciation for games as whole.

And if you're really lucky, you'll discover one of those gems that is elevated by its medium, and which makes its flaws into a virtue.

Unfortunately, I don't think Dark Forces is one of those games. It was the first FPS that allowed you to crouch or look up and down, but I simply cannot connect emotionally with the idea that this is a big deal (especially since the looking is mapped to such inconvenient keys that it plays no real part in the gameplay). And I don't think early 3D ever found art direction that made up for its inherent blockiness and muddiness (and I can say as an old fogy that this was an attitude that was around even back then - as amazing as, say Ocarina of Time or Super Mario 64 might have been, at least some of us knew that nothing on the N64 was ever going to look as good as Donkey Kong Country).

So as much as I have to give props to Dark Forces for adding a vertical element to its levels and thus avoiding the stultifying claustrophobia of its contemporary, Elder Scrolls Arena, it doesn't really offer much else in the way of clever construction or historical significance. I'll play it for the blog, but I think that in terms of both naive enjoyment and critical analysis, I've already seen everything I need to see.

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