The Bridges This Generation Will Cross
So after all this talk, just how much has technology changed videogames in general? Well, for a very visible indicator, just look at the controllers we've used in the past to play them. The "controllers" on the Atari 2600 featured only one button. This overly simplistic design would never be sufficient in this day and age, but in Atari's heyday the technology was so limited that one button was all that was necessary to control the action. As the industry moved forward, however, the controllers grew more and more complex. The Sony PlayStation controller (original, not the DualShock) boasted 11 buttons; counting the D-Pad as a single button. As developers eventually harvested the PlayStation's top-end visuals, the DualShock controller was introduced, which gave the gamer even more extensive control of the increasingly in-depth videogames. And now, continuing to examine this indicator, we arrive at the generation of 128. The PlayStation 2 controller boasts no visible differences when compared to its 32-bit counterpart, but we must look deeper. The DualShock 2 is incredibly complex, featuring different levels of impact detection. This device of onscreen manipulation features a level of detail so extreme that its existence was merely a dream in the mind of a dreamer years ago, but now, the immense power of PlayStation 2 and its games have forced the DualShock 2 into reality. As technology progresses, our videogames become more complicated; as shown by the more complex means which are needed to control them. For better or for worse, the staggering power of the PlayStation 2 and its counterparts from Sega, Nintendo and Microsoft will leave a mark on this industry so consequential, that gaming will either be irrevocably uplifted by incredible technical power, or scarred forever by its misuse.
In addition to the highly consequential changes that console technology brings to the videogame industry itself, hardware power also has far more visible effects. The technology of systems can also mutate the recognizable qualities of a given genre. A prime example of this effect can be found in the RPG category, as this area of gaming has changed so dramatically that the first RPGs are almost unrecognizable when compared to the epics of the modern day. The RPG genre is a very noble one, and is a genre very much rich in history. They take patience, skill, and intelligence to complete, and it truly does require a special breed of gamer to get the most out of a role-playing game. RPGs challenge the gamer's arcade skills with field action, tax the mind with unique puzzles, and test the wit and patience of the player in the chess-like battles. But more importantly, the classics in this genre test the gamer's ability to understand, as the great ones offer lessons to be learned and well-developed characters to relate to. Such classics include games that are no doubt seared into the minds of gamers everywhere -- Final Fantasies IV, V, and VI, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Shining Force, Phantasy Star III, Lunar: The Silver Star, and so many more. However, as the technology of videogame consoles grew more sophisticated, the genre was changed dramatically. For example, in the thirty-two-bit age, three-dimensional romps through futuristic worlds replaced the fantastic environs of yesteryear. Whether you prefer the resplendent, medieval surroundings of the classic RPGs or the grim, futuristic realities of modern role-playing games, the fact remains that the genre has changed in negative ways as well. These alterations include the use of meaningless plots, uninteresting characters, and insipid battles and puzzles. Perhaps these changes are largely due to this genre's emergence from the shadows of gaming into the mainstream. The RPG genre was previously considered an obscurity, but this area of gaming has experienced one of the most linear growths in the history of console videogaming. As technology grew more powerful, the genre expanded in acceptance accordingly. This is because the visuals and aesthetics have historically generated interest in this genre. This has certainly been the case in the previous generation, as mega-hits like Final Fantasies VII and VIII have catapulted this category into the mass market. Because of all of these reconstructions, the concept of the RPG has changed drastically over the years because of technology, and hardcore gamers no-doubt have several quarrels with this idea. However, it doesn't look like the paradigmatic RPG of the 128-bit generation will revert to the style of the golden years. Online RPGs are questing to change the very definition of the RPG, as titles like Phantasy Star Online will become the norm in the not-so-distant-future. These online 'RPGs' are products of progressing tastes, as quality in the traditional sense seems to be clashing with the desires of the prototypical gamer. Seven years ago, gamers would have indubitably been content with the transcendent quality of games like Final Fantasy VI. However, in this day and age, visuals dominate the market. Interactivity with fellow gamers is paramount, as the online market continues to grow. If an RPG arrived on the market today that stood on the same plateau of quality as Final Fantasy VI but didn't feature exemplary visuals, I'd be willing to wager that it wouldn't sell even respectably. This is just another reflection of the changing wants of gamers today, and RPGs are transforming to meet that demand.
Now that our RPGs are changing in the 128-bit generation, I must pose the question, are the classics of the RPG genre still possible in this increasingly competitive industry? There are those who argue that titles featuring the classic style cannot exist in this era. They would argue that these games are merely relics from a forgotten epoch. Has classic RPG gaming truly evaporated like morning mist in the face of technology? I don't think so. I think there are still those souls in this industry who hold quality sacred. There are still those committed developers who answer to quality and their own personal expectations rather than the almighty dollar, and these rare individuals are in, possibly, the most powerful position in the entire industry, because if their endeavors are successful, then developers will begin to realize that quality can indeed sell. These committed developers, writers and scenarists are the ones who hold the promise of welding the classic RPG experience with the power of current technology. If this happens, I truly believe that this genre will experience an expansion not seen since the 16-bit days. So where is the great RPG genre to go in this new age? The new technology has the ability to form something of a symbiotic relationship with this fine genre of gaming. If the hardware is utilized and not abused, then RPG gaming will experience a period of tremendous growth and quality. However, if this technology is used to further develop visuals in lieu of gameplay experiences, then the genre will lose further credibility with die-hard fans. The genre must not slip any further, and first and third parties alike must realize that the time has come to revolutionize the RPG by once again using the available technology for quality rather than pleasing the gamer aesthetically. These precious few are those who hold the future of RPG gaming in their capable hands.
11/24/2000 Bryan Keers