Reply To: Of Mice and Mold………….

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‘I remember that whenever a major Sierra sequel came out, an upgrade was needed for your computer starting with soundcards, video cards (CGA>EGA>VGA>SVGA), and then memory.  In those days, Sierra drove the industry and now it seems the industry has sort of plateaud.  I’ve had the same computer since 2001 and I’m still able to play today’s games.  It was an age of innovation, everything was new and uncharted.’

That’s exactly right. When video games started out in the 80s they were completely uncharted territory; the rulebook hadn’t been writen yet, in fact it was being written by pioneers like Ken and Roberta. I suppose you could compare it to the period when cinema first started out and people were making all kinds of crazy experiments with this new art form (and when you look at it from that angle it’s no surprise that the 1920s were probably the most adventurous period cinema ever went through, ranging from the Russian montage experiments to German expressionist films like Caligari). The same thing more or less happened with video games, where the most innovative and daring titles came out in the 80s. Sierra were at the forefront of course, but I also remember many other games of note which pushed the envelope – Elite, Starglider II, Alter Ego, Little Computer People (preceding the Sims by a whole two decades), you name it.

I don’t think I’m exagerating when I say this, but years from now, when people will look at the history of gaming, Ken and Roberta will rightly be seen as pioneers of this art form, just the same way Eisenstein or Murnau are seen as pioneers of cinema. What especially commendable about Sierra’s output is the vastly educational value of many of these games. Take Goldrush, which was a wonderful lesson in a specific part of American history. Or King’s Quest, with all its references to folklore and fairytales. Police Quest, a rudimentary but informative lesson in policing. Leisuresuit Larry, a lesson in how NOT to pick up women. 😉 That aside, to me, personally, Sierra had another personal education value, as I was a wee young ‘un growing up in Germany with a VERY limited knowledge of the English language. Seeing as games weren’t localised in those days (we’re talking 1987 to 1990 here), I really needed to learn English and learn it quick in order to beat those games. I now live in Britain and can speak English fluently without problems, and it’s debatable whether I ever would have had the motivation to learn this language at a young age had it not been for Sierra.

I remember sending Ken an e-mail of thanks a few years ago, and I thought it was telling that he responded in kind. There was always a human element to the Sierra games, because, ultimately, they were being created by people who are kind and thoughtful individuals first and foremost, and that’s why these games still matter to so many people. That’s, ultimately, where the crux lies, and why Sierra meant so much for so many people, and still does. You can be as innovative as they come, but if there’s a lack of humanity to what you create then it will not touch people in the same way that Ken- and Roberta’s games did.

I think that’s also why I think it’s no joke to describe video games as an art form, since art is basically an individual expressing the way they experience the world alongside their own innermost thoughts and feelings through a medium; whether that medium is theatre, literature, cinema, or indeed video games, is beside the point, and it would be wrong to belittle video games (or, to use its more contemporary but rather dubious title of ‘home entertainment’).

There are still great games being made, of course. The Final Fantasy series or Silent Hill have immersive storylines, exceedingly great gameplay, and dare i say if Ken and Roberta were starting out today, these would probably be the sorts of games they’d be making. But the difference to Now and Then is that the rulebook has been established. the possibilities are not as wide open as they were in the 80s, and that games have now fallen prey to the market forces with budgets spiralling out of control. While that does not necessarily have to be a Bad Thing in and of itself (games like the Metal Gear Solid series have clearly benefitted from their galactic budgets, and I would actually describe Hideo Kojima as one of the few people working in the industry who still befits the title of ‘pioneer’), the playing field has definitely decreased in size, and the days when someone can create an immersive and brilliant game solely from home, the way Ken and Roberta did with Mystery House, are well and truly gone.

But blimey. What intended to be a brief commentary on what Aaron had said has turned into a full-on essay. In any case, Many thanks to Ken and Roberta and all the best for the future. Thank you for all the work you have done.