Over my Thanksgiving break (which was two short-lived days), I played, and beat, BioShock Infinite. For those of you new to this site and to me as a writer, you should know that I am still getting to the games I missed in 2013 – primarily because last year I graduated college. If you do not know anything about college in the US., here is a crash course: it depletes you of all your money. This year, I have been desperately trying to catch up on the games I missed, as well as new games, and one that has been on my list for some time is BioShock Infinite. Sure enough, it is now one of my favorite games. The narrative is superb, the action sequences are balanced, and there are enough literary references, deeply embedded yet perfectly apparent thematic elements, and seriously important social commentary that could easily fill a dissertation. However, what I learned from my love for the game was not that I am a flaming imbecile for waiting this long to play it (although, I absolutely am); it was that for the duration of my playthrough, I frankly did not realize that I was not playing a current-gen game. Everything developers promised in past PAX’s and E3’s for our future games, BioShock Infinite has in spades. It was ahead of its time, released on the cusp of new technology and more powerful hardware; had it been released months, perhaps a year later, it would have stayed in our minds longer. Instead, it grabbed the attention of many for shorter than it should have, but was placed in the shadow of new consoles arriving in the fall. As artists are appreciated after their death, the same mentality plagues video games.
After the final cutscene resolved and the credits began to roll down the screen, I uttered to myself, probably three to four times, “that game was incredible”. I have said these words hundreds, maybe thousands of times. When I complete each game, I gush to a friend, force him or her to play it, while I sit nervously next to them waiting for their approval, subsequently becoming disappointed when they do not feel the same way, and then it is on to the next one. This time was different. It was two in the morning, I was completely wired, but I had work the following day, so I had to try to fall asleep. As I closed my eyes, the single thought that filled my brain was how much I wanted to play it again immediately. My body was filled with an inexplicable feeling that would not go away, and my stomach had butterflies. Butterflies! It was almost as though I had morphed back into seventeen-year-old Ethan, contemplating whether or not I should ask my parents if I could hang out with a girl, before ultimately deciding not to, thus prolonging my lack of female interaction by returning to a room overwrought with self-loathing and emotional longing. But I digress. The game was good. It was such a memorable experience that I began thinking about the other video games I, as well as others, would consider “ahead of their time”. While I searched through my mental catalogue of video games that are important to me, I started digging into the “why”. Why does it matter if these games were ahead of their time? Yes, they pushed boundaries at the time, I enjoyed playing them, but why should I put the energy into giving a shit when there will always be games that transcend generations and I have all of these new pretty looking games? Well, they are the reason you have your next-gen, ultra realistic, 1080p, 60 frames per whatever the hell games you care so much about now.
It is always difficult to appreciate games that are ahead of their time because, usually, you do not know they’re unique while you’re playing them. You’re just stuck in your half-brain dead surfer aesthetic, constantly muttering to yourself, “bro, this game is nuts” as drool dribbles down your chin. Just like art, great video games are not appreciated until much later. Again, why does it matter? Developers are playing video games every day (yes, others than their own), take note of what has never been done, and then attempt to push the boundaries further. Specifically, they pay attention to those that really tear the envelope apart. All great things are influenced by those that preceded them, as Emerson taught us so well. So, if nothing else, it is noteworthy when games happen to be progressive, because they lead to better games.
Let’s cycle back to the first BioShock (I promise I have more examples than the BioShock series). In 2007 when the game was released, as most of you may know, it was highly praised and well received by just about everyone. Critics applauded the gameplay, the difficulty, and how it broke down thematic elements without being overly apparent or preachy. Given the technological landscape at the time, BioShock gave the player so much more, considering the hardware it had to work with, and implemented mechanics that other games are just now introducing. Rapture, the sunken city where the game takes place, is its own living organism. Enemies walk around seemingly without set paths, never appear in the same place twice, and when you are killed, the culprit does not simply reappear where you died. The A.I. has brains, and more specifically, they have lives. They set traps, loot bodies, get in fights with each other; if damaged, they will find a healing station. It is some of the most interactive, smart, and unpredictable A.I. I have experienced. This is the same for the combat and environments. Plasmids rewire your DNA so that you can harness different abilities such as shock, incinerate, freeze, and each play a significant role in every battle, as well as how the environment may be used. If you set an enemy ablaze, they will find the nearest body of water to extinguish themselves and alleviate the pain. All of these features were successfully delivered, using hardware from ’07, no less.
Rewinding time even more, we now find ourselves in the mythical land of May, 2002. That time in your life may mean nothing to you, so allow me to provide context: May, 2002 saw the release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Players were given one of the biggest worlds, where they could do whatever they wanted. For the first time in the Elder Scrolls series, you could move through Tamriel in stunning 3D glory. It was an open-world game before the term began to lose its meaning. As soon as you are put into the world, you can decide whether you want to complete the main quest, or go off and make your own story. Join a guild and avoid the main goal completely? Sure. Get swept up in an elaborate side quest en route to another objective for a main quest? That happens. Stumble into a cave and run into extremely high level skeletons? Embrace it. Morrowind set the bar for open world games, and RPGs in general. Only while it was popular it was not credited as such, which is no fault of our own. Unfortunately, it is difficult to cherish something while it is actually happening without an immense out-of-body, Charlie Kaufmann existential moment. I am just trying to spread some appreciation and tell us why we would be nothing without these games. Stick with me.
Now, as much as we all love the BioShock’s and Morrowind’s of the world, there are obviously plenty of other games that were advanced beyond their years. Before BioShock there was Deus Ex, and before Morrowind there was Baldurs Gate. There is always something before the other that provides influence. So, let us turn the clock back one more time to 1985, where gamers everywhere played as an Italian plumber with a decent vertical and an absolutely horrendous relationship with his princess girlfriend. Super Mario Bros broke the rules, along with the barriers. Mario is much more than a goofy plumber who is always searching for that one last flag pole; he is a national icon. If you think about Super Mario Bros‘ mechanics (I mean really think about them), it is bewildering to fathom that the game was made in that era of tech. This is a game that had secret levels, tubes that did not just serve as scenery props, vines to new locations, invisible blocks that revealed more coins or items? Forget about it. Not to mention that video games before then had often consisted of single screens, with no multi-screen levels, secrets, or alternate paths. Nintendo designed next level platforming design and mechanics during the infancy of gaming technology. It is the influence for other iconic franchises, such as Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, Sly Cooper, Banjo and Kazooie, Rayman, Crash Bandicoot and more. Without Mario, there would not be as many franchises as there are now, or the resurgence of platformers in the indie game world.
After delving into the grittier parts of my soul (a place I do not like to frequent), I discovered why these ground breaking games are important to the gaming landscape. Without games like Mario or Morrowind, you would never have your Child of Light‘s, Dragon Age: Inquisition’s or Destiny’s. These polished, current-gen games, though impressive and deserving of praise, would not have come to fruition if it was not for the games that showed them the ropes. And while these games age, they do so gracefully, without showing signs of the technical limitations. Influence is crucial, but in the end it all comes down to how well the game performs years later. If an older game stills feels fresh to you, if you still marvel at its accomplishments for when it was made, and if you still have fun playing it without becoming aware that it is an older game and that there is Far Cry 4 to be played then that in itself explains why they are meaningful. This is what happened to me when I played BioShock Infinite. I was suspended in disbelief that I was not playing a current-gen title. It all felt new, it played exactly like E3 devs said PS4, XBox One and Wii U games would play; and yet, it was not of that generation. And this is how I feel when I play any of the games I mentioned. They’re ahead of their time, and the gaming world is better for it.
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