It’s 2016. We have cheese that comes out of spraynozzles. We have the selfie-stick. America is about to elect Donald Trump as their president and 33% is considered adequate knowledge of a subject. As humanity walks slowly into the pits of intellectual doom and the cult-classic 2006 film Idiocracy becomes disturbingly prophetic, I become more and more sure of one thing:
Humanity is getting dumber, and that includes gamers.
This struck me this week when I was thinking about the games I play today, and the games I used to play. Perhaps more specifically, why more games appealed to me in the past than appeal to me now.
Now I won’t claim to be the smartest person in any room (although Dane and I did recently put in a Top 4 pub quiz performance, which places us collectively somewhere between Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking), but I have noticed that there’s been a trend over the last 20 years of video games catering to the lowest common denominator.
Not you, dear reader, no, never you. This article is to make fun of stupid people that aren’t me or you, obviously. In order to legitimise this hypothesis, I’ve painstakingly analysed the game releases of the last 30 years to get to the bottom of this. If you have a very liberal definition of the word “painstakingly”.
These are the games I grew up on. I remember them fondly, the same way one fondly remembers their creepy uncle that dressed up as Father Christmas in July and made all the kids sit on “Santa’s lap”.
These were the games that felt more like Saw-esque torture chambers, and most of them ended in “Quest”. Nostalgia got the better of me a few years ago and I actually went and played a bunch of these games, only to find them so mind-bendingly difficult I began to gnaw off my own arms like a deranged octopus.
The worst is that feeling of inferiority when you finally cave and load up a walk through, followed by crushing despair when you realise you’ve dug yourself into a hole without escape and you thought one save file as going to be okay.
Point is they were hard as hell, and if you were a dum-dum you wouldn’t even be interested in trying since you were really busy outside eating sand. When I was 6 years old computers were for smart kids, the rest threw rocks at each other.
I looked up the most popular games from the early 90s, and the trend of intellectual gaming continues. We have puzzle RPGs like Zelda, challenging platformers like Megaman, and more head-scratching adventure titles like Monkey Island.
Of course, we can already see a foray into easier gaming. Police Quest even got a re-release in 1992, this time without unwinnable situations. For those too lazy to read the Wikipedia link, unwinnable games used to not notify you that you missed a key objective, so you could play for hours with no way of progressing because several stages back you didn’t pick up a piece of glass or whatever. The worst part is, you’d have no way of knowing what you missed, or even if you missed something at all. Yeah, tell me again about how difficult Dark Souls is.
The early 90s also gave us Sid Meier’s Civilization, as well as puzzle classic Lemmings. All these games required you to actually use your brain, not put it on ice and go catatonic in front of a thrilling playthrough of Hatoful Boyfriend.
Late 90s – Early 00s
Even here, things were looking good. Adventure titles were out at this point, and as technology improved games started to be less about solving puzzles and examining the environment and more about planning and strategy.
This was the era when simulators became all the rage, and this particular span of years gave us gems like SimCity 3000 and Roller Coaster Tycoon. These were the types of games that would reward smart play, but were still fun and forgiving if you just wanted to casually mess around with them.
This was also the glorious hey-day of RTS games. Some gems that came out in this era include Starcraft, Age of Empires 2 and Command & Conquer 2. These were more of an exercise in stress management than anything else, but they did have some pretty badass cheat codes.
We finish really strong here with Diablo 2 and Deus Ex, arguably two of the greatest games ever made. Seriously, how badass was this period in gaming? I didn’t even bring up Half-Life yet (1998), as the mere mention of that game requires me to sit with a pillow in my lap for 30 minutes thinking about baseball.
There’s a clear progression here. While the Quest era was all about breaking you down psychologically until you were reduced to a puddle of tears and urine, these games scaled back the difficulty while still including cognitive aspects.
Here’s where things started to fall apart. The most popular games around this time actually belong to the Wii, the paragon of casual gaming. Our brains were so far removed from a session of Wii Bowling that I’m surprised we didn’t immediately drop dead.
On the FPS side, we move away from more cerebral games like Half-Life and Deus Ex and find ourselves staring down the barrel of the juggernaut Call of Duty franchise – 2007 brings us the original Modern Warfare, arguably the best game in the series and the entry that funded Bobby Kotick’s first private island.
Just kidding, he already had that thanks to Guitar Hero, which also became popular in this time. Between that and Wii Sports, gaming was all about party games and escapist FPSes that looked like they were directed by Michael Bay.
This, my friends, was the beginning of the end.
Here we find ourselves, sitting in 2016 waiting for the end. I can only imagine things are going to get worse with VR, where we’ll just sit on the couch drooling out the sides of our mouths while games happen around us.
The Top 10 selling games in the US in 2015 include two Call of Duty games, three sports simulators, zero RTS or strategy titles and a prostitute murder simulator. On the RPG side we have Fallout 4 and Star Wars: Battlefront, games that are admittedly fun but not all that complex.
This isn’t to say games today aren’t good – they are. And it’s not that games have to have puzzles in them, or be maddeningly difficult. It’s more a testament to the evolution of our tastes as a gaming collective.
We used to enjoy being intellectually challenged, to consider more aspects than whether we wanted to use the bazooka or the grenade launcher. Now we prefer more escapist, laid-back gaming. Perhaps it’s because most gamers are millennials and we’re all broke and live in a world where everything sucks, so we’re so burnt out every day from trying to pay back crippling student debt and try not think about how much it sucks being an adult that we can only muster enough energy to drive over pedestrians in GTA V, secretly wishing we could find such swift, sweet relief for the nightmares of our lives.
Damn, that got dark quickly.