Over the past couple of months, I’ve been dabbling in the very, very low end of PC gaming again, preparing for the coming Console Apocalypse when every AAA game requires constant connection to your credit card, demands that you make friends, and somehow “services” you in exchange for forbidding you to buy a used game. I’m stockpiling classic games and notable indies for the End Times, which are scheduled to hit sometime around Holiday 2013. Maybe it’s a kind of doomsday prepping, but in my estimation it’s more a prepping to tell the corporate carpetbaggers and their blessed shareholders that have shanghaied the video games business where they can shove their DRM, DLC, and every FU with which they’ve assaulted their customers over the past several years.
It all began when my mother decided to leave the Land of Laptops behind and go all iPad, so I inherited a hideously burgundy 2011-ish HP. Between the occasional decent console game- which are becoming fewer and further between- I’ve caught up on most of the good indie titles by this point. Hotline Miami, FTL, Amnesia, Legend of Grimrock, Din’s Curse and so forth have seen some good, old fashioned keyboard-and-mouse time so I feel at least kind of hip and with it, even if the appeal of Minecraft still escapes me. I tried Starcraft II, but I don’t regard an average of 12 FPS to be quite in the playable range. Hard Reset may as well have been a slideshow of sequential photographs.
After finishing Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance- a masterpiece in totality- I dabbled with the new Star Wars pinball tables but other than that, I realized that the consoles had absolutely nothing I was interested in playing right now. Over the past couple of years, I’ve pretty much played everything out there, and the well seems to have run dry. Tomb Raider was sitting in the Gamefly queue, and I’m still undecided whether I want to bother with Bioshock Infinite, a game that is now being touted in ads as winning “80 awards” even though there’s not even likely 80 people that have played the game enough to give it an award of any kind.
Rather than chase whatever redundant, shiny new bullshit is out (looking at you, God of War: Ascension), I thought I’d hit the backcatalog and play something old for a chance. So I hit up GOG- Crom bless ‘em- and downloaded Heroes of Might & Magic III. One of the greatest video games ever made.
Playing just a couple of turns of HOMMIII reminded me of how much we as gamers have lost over the past decade and some change. There is so much heart, craft, and humility in the game. It feels, especially today, handmade and almost wholesome. Like your mom’s banana bread or a favorite blanket. It’s 100% industry bullshit free, about as far away removed from the ongoing national nightmare of the soon-to-be-forgotten SimCity launch as a game could possibly be. It doesn’t try to be a movie- it tries to be a board game. And by jingo, it succeeds. The brilliant combination of depth, complexity, and approachability brought me in and that whole “one more turn” brand of Stendahl Syndrome kept me playing through quite a few scenarios.
Sure, there are plenty of modern games that are made with heart, craft and humility. I certainly do not intend to suggest that there aren’t people working in this industry to make games like that against the constant, repeated battering of it in the name of those almighty shareholders. But to get back to a game I haven’t played in ten years and to feel the gulf of negative, downward trends between then and now was really quite shocking.
HOMMIII made me remember how much I used to unconditionally love video games. It didn’t have a multimillion dollar budget with allotments for viral advertising and a giant, loud E3 booth. We didn’t worry about what horrid business practice EA was up to that week. It never felt like there was a man in a suit in a board room somewhere throwing out words like “monetization” and trying to sort out what could be pulled out from a design to be sold later, piecemeal. There were YEARS between sequels, and you’d play one game all summer and never even really want another because there was so much content in the best games that you’d miss it all if you moved on to the next hot thing shoved in your face. We weren’t treated like criminasl for buying- buying- a game, and if there was copy protection you had to look in an actual printed manual that was presented as part of the entire product design complete with illustrations and artwork to type in a word or a code. And you didn’t have to preorder to get it.
Games like HOMMIII were made by people that actually cared about the product and the people that bought them. They were closer to us. They wanted to share, not take. And when they shared something great with us, they were rewarded with profit. They weren’t these fucking hustlers that are, as we speak, trying to figure out how to make us pay more for less and to do so more often.
Even the journalism was different. It wasn’t a bunch of 20 year olds trying to make a name for themselves, accepting payola like free trips to studio offices to watch a preview. It was people that wanted to write about games because they loved them. Not because it was a career path.
I’m thankful that now, more than ever, old games are more accessible and easy to buy thanks to digital distribution. I picked up Rome: Total war for two dollars the other day. Two dollars. And there’s more game there in terms of content, depth, and overall value in the last $300 worth of AAA blockbusters I’ve bought. So what if it’s old. I saw today that over a million people bought SimCity and also bought into the lies that both EA and Maxis have told about the game and its online functions. But why the hell would you spend $60- not including some $30 worth of DLC, from what I understand- when SimCity 4, SimCity 2000, or even something like Caesar III are 100% stable, endlessly replayable games?
The good news, as we stand at the brink of the end of the Console Era, is that we can get back to the things that made video games so great in the 1980s and 1990s. It starts with saying “no” and not giving your money to those companies that want to foster what is essentially an abusive relationship with their customers. Don’t buy the new $60 blockbuster that comes out Tuesday. Play an old favorite, dig up that old Mechcommander 2 disc or download System Shock 2 from GOG. Buy the blockbuster when it’s used and $20, a month from now.
We’re in danger of losing all of the things that made games great right now because kids today are being indoctrinated into microtransactions, “freemium” marketing schemes, and day one DLC. They think this is normal. A kid that never played HOMMIII would probably be shocked to find that you got ALL of the races and maps in the box and there were hefty expansions that added a lot to the game. You were never nickel and dimed, either on a PC or a console.
Let’s not lose sight of how things used to be, how games like HOMMIII were once the bomb drops and the industry acknowledges that it’s crashing. Let’s welcome the end as a reset button. Come Armageddon, come.