A bit of a followup on this month’s GOTM for Aggrochat. At Thalen’s suggestion, we played through Tron 2.0, a game that regularly makes “top shooter” and “greatest games you never played” lists. You can listen to the show here — we had a lot to say about the “golden age of experimental video games”.
It’s something that I mull over a lot. For a little while in there, just as video games were starting to poke their heads into the mainstream, there were a whole ton of experiments going on as people searched for The Next Big Thing. Mostly what this meant were a lot of buggy, unpolished games with really interesting (if not entirely implemented) ideas were coming out, and a lot of big promises were being made. I remember it as the era of vaporware; games that promised big things but never really materialized, but I was playing MMOs at the time and for a while there in the early-to-mid 2000s, there were a slew of interesting MMOs, most of which either never made it to release or released and floundered.
There were a lot of experimental games in that time frame. Spurred by the first really off-the-wall experimental shooters (my favorites being two of the first: System Shock and Thief) and bolstered by top-tier productions like Half-Life, there were a ton of games that tried to deliver on the promises of great games that weren’t just “shoot all the guys in this room”. It’s the point where I really got into shooters; I never cared for Doom/Quake/Hexen and that era of games, though Dark Forces is an exception (and I adored Dark Forces 2 and the Jedi Outcast/Academy series). A lot of the groundwork for what are pretty standard features was laid in the years of experimental games.
A few things mark these games for me. A lot of them haven’t aged well. Some of the things that were really experimental were in the realm of graphics, which were amazing for the time but look brutally dated now. I remember just looking around the environments of Deus Ex in awe when I first got the game– there were REFLECTIONS and LIGHTS — now the game shows its age. A lot of these games have new, really interesting ideas– shooters started to pick up RPG elements and an open-world feel, something that you don’t see a whole lot of anymore as that kind of friction has given way to a more streamlined, action-heavy experience. A lot of these games can be very well described as “really great, there’s nothing like it, but it’s got some bugs and issues you’ve gotta work through”. The ideas were fantastic, but a lot of them reached past what their budget and time constraints let them actually make.
Tron 2.0 is interesting to me because I feel like it’s a game that came out about five years too early. It’s got a bunch of mechanics that aren’t quite fully thought out, and it tries to do a whole lot of things that eventually turned out to be good ideas but needed iteration to really shine. It’s also got a story that (I think) isn’t quite bold enough– it tells an interesting, very TRON-like story but it has/had the potential to be a seminal work in post/transhuman sci-fi, in something of the same way that Mass Effect revolutionized the space opera.
There’s a good reason Tron 2.0 makes the list of “greatest games you never played”; you can see the edges of the future, like stumbling in the dark watching the sun rise. Nearly every single mechanic in the game has survived in one form or another, which is not something you can say about a lot of the ideas that came out of that era of games. Even the other fondly-remembered games of that era– Deus Ex, Vampire: Bloodlines, Arcanum, KOTOR, Hitman 2 — all contained ideas and mechanics that were pretty rapidly shed.
At the same time, the mechanics that didn’t survive are very noticable. The ability to run completely out of ammo in places, reliance on quicksaving, non-regenerative health, all of these exist in Tron 2.0 and make the game feel a lot more dated than it otherwise might. As I commented in the podcast, it’s amazing to me how much the game shows how far we’ve come. We have better mechanics than we used to, and for as much as people complain about regenerating health or frequent autosaving making things “too easy”, it’s rather hard to go back to games that lack these things. Not because it’s too difficult, but because it’s easily recognized as unnecessarily frustrating by now.
I wonder, sometimes, if we’ll see another era of high-budget experimentation in games. Indies have filled the experimental games gap in a lot of ways, but there are things that indies just can’t achieve with their generally limited production values. I think that might be why I like Mirror’s Edge and Dishonored so much (and why I’m so excited about the sequels)– they represent new entries in the experimental, high-budget game sphere, which I see precious little of.