I’m not a huge gamer, but I’ve dipped in and out of video games since childhood. Clearly, games have advanced enormously since the days of pong (which was a little before my time), but most of these advances have been incremental, mainly driven by improvements in computing power. However, occasionally games have made a leap forward, with some specific innovation that has affected every game from that point onwards. Here are five of the innovations that I most appreciate.
Non-failable puzzle games:
I was brought up in the hey day of point and click adventure games; as a kid I played Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Simon the Sorceror, etc… However, my parents enjoyed old-school text adventures, so I did also play a bit of Zork and that sort of thing. There is nothing more annoying in a game, than discovering that you have no chance of completing it because of something you did (or didn’t do) several hours previously. Not only are you likely to have overwritten the save since then, but even if you haven’t, you’ll still have to re-do every step again from that point. One of the great innovations in puzzle games was the moment when someone said, “Let’s make it so that you can never screw yourself over.” This doesn’t necessarily make the games easier (the Discworld games had some notoriously obscure puzzle solutions), but it does make them a lot less frustrating and therefore a lot more enjoyable.
Mouse and keyboard controls in first person shooters:
There’s not a lot to say about this. I’ve always been primarily a PC gamer, rather than a console gamer, and the switch from pure keyboard controls to the keyboard/mouse combination was a key moment in PC gaming.
Multiple routes to the same goal:
I’m not really referring to sandboxes here, though they certainly take elements from this style of gameplay. I’m referring to the sort of game that has a fairly linear story, maybe with a few branches, but numerous playstyles within that story. The first game to really push this style of gameplay was probably Deus Ex. When it came out, I recall that a lot of reviews made a big deal out of the multiple approach aspects of it. Trying to get through a locked door? Find a key, blow it open, look for another route, pick the lock, lure someone through it… it’s entirely up to you. Until that point, most games enforced one style or another (Doom was run-and-gun, Thief was almost pure stealth); the different styles within one game gave it a lot more depth and replayability, which is why the formula has been repeated so often.
Non-trivial character interactions:
By this, I mean interactions with consequences that extend beyond the immediate moment. Since the first video game RPG, conversations with NPCs have been a part of the genre, but in the early days, the worst that could generally happen from a conversation was getting prematurely booted out of it or missing a potential item or something. Often you could strike up a conversation with the same NPC immediately and start again from a particular point, your previous rudeness immediately forgotten. I appreciate games where being rude or kind to an NPC has a knock on effect to the next time you speak to them or even better, when you speak to someone associated with them. As a slight follow on from this, I also like it when a game has multiple endings that are available based on actions in game, rather than a single point of divergence near the end; I want to feel like an ending is the sum of my choices, rather than the result of a single choice.
Not so much an innovation within the games themselves, but an innovation regarding the delivery method. The internet has been a wonderful boon to all sorts of industries and the entertainment industry is no exception. The ability to download stuff (whether music, films or games) is a great convenience, compared to acquiring physical copies, but also allows for smaller independent companies to get involved, who would never have been able to shoulder the costs of physical distribution. Without things like Steam and the X-Box marketplace, there is no way that we would have gems like Limbo or Mark of the Ninja; great little games that are too short for mainstream distribution, but that are brilliantly executed nonetheless.
I’m sure that I’ve missed some, either inadvertently or because they’re not something I bother with (e.g. online multiplayer is a huge thing for some people, but I’ve never gotten into it). Any comments are entirely welcome as always.