NYT: Making video game history

January 03, 2022

German Lopez, The New York Times:

Hades is the first video game in history to win a Hugo Award, the prize for science fiction and fantasy that has historically honored books, graphic novels and other written works.

The game, from the developer Supergiant Games, follows the story of Zagreus — son of the game’s eponymous god — as he tries to escape the Underworld. Along the way, he fights all sorts of hellish creatures and meets a wide array of characters, including the gods up on Olympus. He also uncovers family secrets and gains perspective on why his dad has made seemingly unsavory decisions.

The Hugo Awards’ inclusion of video games, which organizers are considering making permanent, speaks to how far the medium has come. In the early days of Pong in the 1970s or the original Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda in the 1980s, technology limited how much text a game could include. Today, a game’s storytelling can be its primary selling point, whether it’s a high-budget science-fiction epic like the Mass Effect trilogy or an indie game made by a small team like Celeste.

This news broke last December, but I was tickled to see it included in today’s NYT morning newsletter. Not only is winning a Hugo award a tremendous achievement for Supergiant Games and the medium as a whole, mentions of specific titles large and small — from Mass Effect to Celeste — by a publication as massive as the New York Times is particularly noteworthy.

One of the reasons I started Zero Counts in 2013 was to gather and (hopefully) elevate video game industry coverage from major publications. I felt the medium had every right to be taken as seriously as art, big business, and cultural touchstones and should be covered as such by the largest publications in the world. At the time, it was only happening in fits and starts, typically prompted by the latest console craze or ”Nintendo’s white Playstation 4“.

Coverage has changed a great deal since then, putting a spotlight on scandal, working conditions, earnings, and acquisitions. What’s more is that most major outlets have now hired staff focused on the video game industry — NYT’s Kellen Browning, Washington Post’s Gene Park and Teddy Amenabar, Axios’ Stephen Totilo and Megan Farokhmanesh, and The Guardian’s Keza MacDonald to name a few. Coverage of specific games still feels spotty, but short of a consumer warning, reviews may be becoming less critical. So when specific games are highlighted — namely indies — it magnifies the growing recognition of the industry and the importance and impact of the medium.

On that note, I think I need to give the Underworld one more run.

Anybody's Game

January 01, 2022

End of the year lists are pervasive as ever. We know they’re coming, but the wave seems so relentless that they’re both easy to ignore and easily read with indifference. The voices and outlets sprawl from big media to niche publications, from massive awards shows to independent podcasts. The beauty (and horror) of the landscape is that everyone can find a personality or outlet to align with — something that won’t challenge their opinions or taste. Validation!

And I’m a sucker for these lists! I used to pour over best of music lists, but the sheer amount of artists, releases, and my dwindling time to incorporate new music into my comfort zone removed my familiarity with most music lists. Books are much the same. There’s just so many.

Video games are approaching the same level of proliferation, but following the output still feel manageable to follow. I’m able to have some familiarity with the titles released throughout the year regardless if I’ve played them or not. To be fair, the majority of my media consumption is spent reading games industry news and listening to gaming podcasts. But even without a devout following of the world of video games, reading a review, watching a video preview, or listening to podcasters discuss a game in detail offers enough description of mechanics and/or fidelity that a general understanding of the experience can be perceived. Most games are judged on the merit of “fun” which is an extremely easy thing to feel, but an extremely difficult thing to create. I’d argue music and books require a deeper level of personal interpretation of the sonics, prose, and style that many video games do not. But even that is becoming less and less true.

Beyond fun, video games are so complex that breaking best of lists into categories similar to movies (and more) feels more appropriate — music, mechanics, narrative, art direction, systems, acting, etc. But even film falls victim to the singular “BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR” generalization, and video games follow suit. And after reading a few of these lists, one typically finds that the same game is selected by a majority of outlets as “THE BEST”; hence, the inclination to ignore the list entirely or feel indifferent.

All of this is to say that this year felt… unique. “Game of the Year” lists came from individuals, were compiled by an outlet’s staff, voted on by jury, or debated through via a brackets. And the games that topped these lists varied wildly. Here are examples from major media outlets:

This observation may not be novel. This very well may have been a trend in years past. But briefly skimming the Wikipedia article for ”List of Game of the Year awards”, you’ll find a much more refined alignment of “Game of the Year” winners:

  • 2020: Hades, The Last of Us II, Ghost of Tsushima
  • 2019: Control, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Outer Wilds, Resident Evil 2
  • 2018: God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2
  • 2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Perhaps 2021 is an anomaly. Many AAA games were delayed due to the ongoing challenges of the continuing pandemic. Maybe this gave a little room for smaller or unique titles to spread their wings. Or perhaps this is a a natural evolution of where “games” are headed.

At the end of 2020, I wrote about the idea that video game masterpieces are becoming so wildly varied in experience that to compare two incredible video games is to compare “apples to fabric textures”. Video games are comprised of the same elements but now yield profoundly different experiences. Much like music. Much like books.

This year’s “Game of the Year” lists exemplify the changing landscape in not only vast array of great games, but how each one hits players/reviewers/outlets in different ways. Instead of a definitive Game of the Year, players now have a vast spread of opinions to consider that will not only validate or challenge their own justifiable contender, but a litany of incredible choices to fit their preferred experience.

Nintendo's Wonder Bar

April 24, 2021

The Top 100 Games Podcast invited Polygon’s Editor-in-chief Chris Plante to the show to discuss the importance of game #55, Wii Sports.

Not only is the discussion a trip down memory lane that many people will remember, but it is an argument for the historical significance of the Wii Remote in terms of controller accessibility and the wonder in simplicity.

Chris Plante: In the history of video games, there is no better party game than Wii Sports Bowling. It is the only game you can hand over to people and everybody can play. And not only can everybody play, they’ll feel like they’re participating in magic. Equally. No matter how much they care about video games. I don’t know if I can think of anything that can compare to it.

Jered Petty: Wow. Ok. Expound. How and why does that work? What is it about the magic bowling game that makes that take place?

CP: This is going to get into one of my long term issues in video games that ironically I think is just aging out. For a very long time, I have had a beef with how complex video game controllers are. You’re expected to learn the D-pad, two thumbs-sticks, four face-buttons, two start-and-pause-buttons, a home button, triggers, and who knows whatever else. That is a ridiculous amount for any newcomer to ever learn. It’s a completely prohibitive barrier to entry.

Around the time the Wii came out, that’s what companies were grappling with. I also think it’s what touchscreen controls were grappling with. How do we make computer entertainment more accessible? Both the keyboard and video game controllers are too complex. So we got [the Wii Remote] and we got Kinect.

I’m not sure I still believe this any more; video games being so ubiquitous that they are as common as someone having to learn a keyboard. It’s just a thing you have to learn as a kid. So fretting over what happens if someone doesn’t know how to use a video game controller? The answer is like, “who is this person?” Especially with Xbox making so much more headway into accessibility devices, I think my argument has sort of slipped away.

That said, there is still an older generation — there especially was when [Wii Sports] came out — who could not and would not learn a video game controller. Today, if we took every game out from it and put them out for offer for anyone to play, [bowling] is the one I don’t think a single person couldn’t pick up — minding that they have the capability to use a Wii controller — and that is what I think is inherently special about it. [Bowling] more than any of the games has that “it’s literally just like bowling” feel. To make it even better, you can put spin on [the ball]. Not only is it like bowling, but it has that extra Aha! moment of, “they did it. This isn’t faking it. I am actually controlling this bowling ball.” I think that’s special.

Later in the episode…

JP: In 1986 or so, I first saw Super Mario Bros. I’d been playing video games for years before then, even as a kid. But it was like something had come down from outer space. Compared to what I’d played before, it was as if the skies had opened and aliens had dropped a new technology on earth that allowed me to travel to 32 different worlds, fighting bosses, jumping, finding secrets. No game had captured that feeling of wonder since. Until I played Wii Sports. That reignited that same feeling from my childhood. That I had never had this much fun doing something like this.

CP: It’s that total novelty. I think it’s hard for people to… I hope we get that again. I’m sure we will with different things and different technology and stuff.

But I think about that a lot. We grew up in a really unusual time where people were figuring out how to visualize the world through technology. As we were growing up. It’s hard to explain just what it felt like in Mario [3] that you could go forward and it scrolled, and you could go backward and it scrolled. There’s a whole world here! That single feeling was incredible.

I think the same thing about when Pixar movies first came out. The first few of them it was like I am literally seeing something I should not. This should not be possible. Wii Sports is right there in that space of “I’m doing this and I know intellectually how the technology works, yet it still feels like I’m casting a spell.” It’s the best! Same thing with Mario. I’m controlling another person in a fictional world; how is this happening?

I’ve griped about the number of buttons on modern video game controllers myself and praised innovations in accessibility. Plante’s retrospective of the Wii Remote clearly illustrates the benefits of simplicity. Removing complexity removes the friction between the player/viewer/user and make-believe. Simplicity in and of itself creates wonder.

For video game controllers, the metaphor I’ve come up with is puppeteering. Modern video game controllers are marionette control bars — complex by design for the sake of precision and realism. But the Wii Remote, and NES controller before it, is a hand in shadowgraphy — more a bridge between worlds than a tool to recreate them.

Wonder bars.

Video "Games" in 2020

December 27, 2020

In October of 2019, I wrote a piece for From the Aether titled Video Games Do Not Exist. In the piece, I ponder the idea of “video games” coming into existence today — that developers and artists were never constrained by the limitations of those in ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The interactive experiences spawned in this alternate reality would not be classified as video “games” as different types of “video” experiences would originate alongside one another.

This premise is of course absurd as video games have been one of the catalysts for technological advancement. Consumer technology would likely look very different without early desires to bring richer gaming experiences into the home. Likewise, limited technical prowess forced early games to be developed with limitations we would find comical today. This is better summed up by computer graphics researcher Thomas A. Defanti in his 1984 paper The Mass Impact of Videogame Technology:

However, videogames have seriously and irreversibly affected the computer industry. Game players (mostly adolescents and people in their twenties) are unlikely to react favorably to a half-million-dollar office automation system that does not have joysticks, is not user friendly, and does not offer the simple high-level programmability offered by the simplest home game with BASIC. Color animation, which allows a much closer matching of human and computer bandwidths, is now expected from computing devices. Availability of intense, nonverbal, two-way communication is now taken for granted, spelling an early end to complete reliance on the unpleasant exercise of reading all day from a video display terminal. To a certain extent, we are very fortunate that computer graphics, unlike television, is incapable of transmitting “talking heads” very well, because that would be too-easy a misuse of the power of the medium, one to which educational television has defaulted.

In not having a previous medium to emulate, videogames have had to create a new way of communicating. They are truly a new medium. Maturity, still a long way off, will spawn some new form of what may be called interactive literature. Now, however, we can observe an industry in early infancy, struggling and toying to be part of our lives. It is a special time to watch, play, and enjoy.

But hypothetically speaking, if video games just happened upon us today, with all of the current technology at our disposal, they wouldn’t just encompass simple exercises of shooting asteroids, shooting centipedes, shooting invaders, shooting ducks, running left to right, or saving a princesses. These experiences would be so varied we wouldn’t classify every interactive video experience under the umbrella term “video game”. Don’t get me wrong, video “games” would absolutely exist — extending from digital recreations of their analog forebearers to high-fidelity large scale MMORPGs. But birthed along side those would be narrative experiences, simulations, and sandboxes, where the word “game” would not feel appropriate. Being developed alongside one another, these experiences likely wouldn’t draw comparisons. At least not like they do in our current reality.

So what is the point of theorizing what we might call video games in the alternate reality? Today, a “video game” is a video “game”, right? Well, my friend, in 2020, we may have made contact with the alternate reality.

Publications have published their Game of the Year lists for 2020, and more often than not you’ll find some of the following games on their lists:

  • Hades — An endless rogue-like game that doubles as a relationship simulator, triples as a home decorating sandbox, and is chock-full of a vast tapestry voice-acting and narrative. (It also probably won the GOTY from your choice publication.)
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons — A seasonally updated, endless sandbox experience that allows players all over the world to interact with one another while collecting, building, throwing birthday parties, and hosting talkshows.
  • Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition — A visual novel with ten years of development, zero plot, a historical account of the travesties of the past decade, and a vibe unlike any you’ve ever experienced.
  • If Found… — A visual novel featuring black holes and punk rock.
  • 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim — A visual novel of time travel and commentary on media; video games included. Also, real-time strategy.
  • Blaseball — Fantasy fantasy baseball that constantly changes, including lore of biblical proportions wholly developed by the community of observers.
  • Among Us — An online social deduction game played by friends, families, and politicians.
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator — A flight simulator by Microsoft. Also a digital replica of Earth that includes your house.

Of course these types of “games” are not new or even novel experiences. Idle games, visual novels, and simulators have existed for decades. But to be so prevalent in game of the year lists across so many publications is simply fascinating. Our definition of what qualifies as a video game is not changing and probably never will. But what qualifies as a masterpiece of the medium is now broader than ever. Sure, on the surface Hades is a video-game-ass-video-game — maybe the video-game-ass-video-game. But to compare that to an experience like Kentucky Route Zero, or KRZ to Animal Crossing even, is not apples and oranges; it’s apples and fabric textures.

The entries on lists of best video games can no longer be quantitatively compared (and probably couldn’t have been for the past 5–10 years). More than ever before they must be evaluated based on personal enjoyment with the experience, which… duh. And we all know lists are bullshit. I’m not trying to cement that argument here. (Plus, I like a list as much as the next person.) But the spread of experiences now ranked against one another is so wild that it’s worth noting.

Whenever I’m holding my Switch, my wife asks me what I’m playing. This year, more often than not, the answer was, “it’s… uh… like… hmmm… kinda like … it’s not really a game, but like…” so on and so forth. And I’m certain that’s the answer being heard more than ever.

If we’re to stick to the nomenclature of “video games” for these experiences, that’s fine. But it’s high-time we understand that they are no longer games. They are outright replacing, updating, or inventing new art forms, which seems fitting of Defanti’s conclusion:

Coin-operated videogames, from their pinball heritage to their extreme hedonistic desirability, have emerged as the black sheep, so to speak, of the interactive graphics movement. Yet, they are causing significant technological breakthroughs, especially in the area of cost/performance. We are seeing interactive fantasy emerge as a medium, and, with it, considerable development in the art of nonverbal communication. Coin-op technology quickly (within 2-3 years) passes down to personal computer systems, such that any home computer now has significantly better graphics and interactive devices than all but a few computer systems available in the lab or the office.

Knowledge of how to write games and present information through interactive animation will eventually encode itself into higher level programming structures available to subject-matter experts, teachers, intellectuals, children, and parents. A sizable portion of the computer graphics community already exchanges information on videotape. Floppy disk is now the home computer user’s way to send greetings. Animation will surely become a major form of communication once the delivery systems are ubiquitous.

Reading is, after all, a terrible waste of our human perceptual bandwidth, even if it is enjoyable. Fortunately, the richness of interaction claimed in the preceding pages can be experienced first-hand for considerably less than this book costs, even playing every game discussed here. You might want to hurry, though, before the classics disappear.

No other year exemplifies the change in the concept of “video games” than 2020.

'Well, Nintendo Is Doing Great'

November 06, 2020

Brian Ashcroft, reporting for Kotaku:

In its six-month earning statement ending on September 30 of this year, Nintendo reported that year-on-year net sales are up 73.3 percent, while net profit reached 213 billion yen ($2 billion), an increase of 243.6 percent.

Moreover, hardware sales reached 12.53 million units worldwide during this period, which is an 80.9 percent increase year on year. Out of that number, 8.36 million were standard Switch consoles and 5.17 million were Switch Lites.

Here’s an updated look at lifetime Nintendo Switch sales vs PS4 and Xbox One:

Console units sold, Switch vs PS4 vs Xbox One as of September, 30 2020

And compared against it’s older cousin the Nintendo 3DS:

Console units sold, Switch vs 3DS as of September, 30 2020

Ashcroft, continued:

Nintendo has modified its forecast for the current financial year, expecting a 50 percent increase in net profit. Previously, Nintendo had forecasted selling 19 million Switch units, but that number has been changed to 24 million, which is higher than the 21 million sold last year. Software sales are forecasted to reach 170 million units, which is up from the previously forecasted number of 140 million units. In comparison, last year’s software sales reached 168 million units.

Here’s a look if Nintendo’s forecast holds true:

Console units sold, Switch vs PS4 vs Xbox One as of September, 30 2020

And a look against the goat — PS2 is the greatest selling console of all time at 158 million units; g(sc)oat:

Console units sold, Switch vs PS4 vs PS2 as of September, 30 2020