Gaming Through the Looking Glass

Gaming in the 21st century through the eyes of a 1990's gamer

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to show my teenage self a modern smartphone to see his reaction; this experience comes close. Join me as I take a nostalgic trip into gaming’s past, and compare it to the current reality.

Destiny got my curiosity, but Bloodborne captured my attention; so a couple of weeks ago I bought a PS4 and picked up a game controller for the first meaningful time in about 15 years.

Gaming was a pretty big part of my life throughout the 90’s. I was a PC gamer, and invested thousands of dollars into my gaming rig, and thousands of hours into Might & Magic, Doom, Dune 2, X-COM, Alone in the Dark, System Shock, Half Life and dozens of other half-remembered titles.

After I moved into my own place, got a full time job, and a live-in girlfriend my time spent mashing keys steadily dropped to zero.

Buying (and Updating) Games is Really Easy

Back in my day, you had to go to trudge through 6' of snow — in a blizzard — to buy a game. The game you wanted was never available, and if it was, it came on a fat stack of floppy disks, or if you were lucky maybe a CD-ROM. You said “thank you” and trudged home to find out if your new purchase would require new hardware run.

Updates and bug fixes came in the form of buying a new game with different bugs. The best DLC available was a copy of the user manual.

In 2015 I’d downloaded and patched Destiny, Bloodborne, and The Last of Us before the controller had a chance to fully charge, and I could buy them all at the click of a button on Amazon like the rest of my increasingly digital-only content library.

Playing Games is Like Controlling a Movie

When I stopped paying attention to game graphics, the state-of-the-art was water ripple effects, some basic rag-doll character movement, and you could interact with some scene elements (typically boxes you could smash).

Things have… progressed.

I’m playing on a 52" HDTV compared to the 17" monitor I last gamed on. When I got dumped into the Cosmodrome in Destiny, it took several minutes to overcome a feeling of dizziness. There was too much to look at, in every direction. There was no obvious path, no clear horizon. I could look in every direction, turn, jump, crouch, run, slide — it was hard to know where to start and what to do. It took a while before my inner ear got with the program.

Bloodborne was different. It didn’t look real — it was like wandering through a waking dream of gothic horror.

That fire is generating dynamic lighting effects that color the stones and my character’s clothes, it’s also reflected dynamically by the shallow puddle of water I’m standing in front of. Ahead to my left is a light mist that’s drifting and changing, while a light snow fall drops in particles across the scene. Up ahead those enemies are carrying torches that they swing to set me on fire. As they move, those torches flicker and illuminate the scene and the characters. Back when I last played, a scene like this would have taken several hours to render in 3ds Max. Today it renders in real-time about 30 times a second. Holy sh*t.

In every game I’ve tried, characters cast dynamic shadows based on multiple light sources within each scene, and reflective surfaces throw realtime reflections of characters and lighting. Water splashes from puddles that reflect the flickering fire light of nearby torches. Fog roles in — and parts — as I walk through it. A flock of birds takes flight as I disturb them. I carry a ladder and position it to climb up a wall. Characters stumble, flail, slide, jump, and are thrown across the room by nearby explosions. In each case the bodies move in dynamic and realistic ways.

Everything is dynamic and interactive. It’s visceral and it’s amazing.

Everything Just Works

Spending 4 hours getting the god-damn coax network working. Downloading the latest graphics card drivers. Reconfiguring autoexec.bat and config.sys to get the right amount of extended and expanded memory. Figuring out how to make this joystick work with that game. Updating DirectX.

I never owned a console, so I was constantly tinkering with my PC. Each game required time and effort to set up, let alone the constant upgrades to memory, graphics cards, sound cards, monitors, CPUs, ad infinitum.

Maybe PC gaming is still a giant pain in the ass, but setting up my PS4 to support team play required plugging it in, supplying my WiFi password, and signing in to PSN. The controller paired at the press of a button, my TV required an HDMI connection, joining someone’s Destiny Fireteam took two button presses and I was good to go.

Gaming Has Become an Increasingly Social Experience

My first experience of social gaming was visiting a friend’s house, and taking turns playing Prince of Persia on their Mac.

By the end of high school we’d cart our PCs to each others houses for LAN parties. I was pretty damn good at Doom 2 — wielding a double barreled shotgun and chainsaw to chilling effect.

Space Marines, Dead at the hands of my double-barreled shot gun. Looks about right.

We spent endless Friday nights and Saturday mornings drinking carbonated caffeinated beverages chasing friends through these familiar maps.

There was no real Internet, so playing together meant being in the same room.

Now, a couple of times a week I play Destiny with one of those high school friends without either of us leaving our living rooms. Which is handy, because he lives in Perth, Australia and I’m in the Silicon Valley.

Social gaming circa 1995

We never video chat (or talk on the phone), but we can shoot the shit while we’re shooting shit and that’s pretty damn cool.

When he’s not online I can play cooperatively, or death-match with a seemingly infinite list of random gamers. Even Bloodborne, a game that seemingly discourages team play, shows me notes and death-ghosts from players who have gone before.

They’ve Successfully Gamified Games

Game progression used to be, “the longer you play, the harder it gets. Keep going until you run out of lives. Repeat and try to break that record.” Back when I last played, most games could be “beaten”, so the goal was to play a game all the way through, then beat it at harder difficulty, or faster, or for more points.

Then there were “secret” levels, easter eggs, shortcuts, and other secrets to help engage players for longer. Only RPGs like Might & Magic really embraced the goal-within-a-goal of collecting all the rarest weapons and armor, managing your inventory, and outfitting your character.

Better guns, more effective armor, different styles of cloaks, shaders —are all provided in staggering quantity and variety.

Doom II had a pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher, a BFG, and a chainsaw. You could upgrade the shotgun to double-barrelled. Those same basic categories seem to have persisted: Destiny has a slot for a basic weapon (pistol), a special weapon (shotgun), a heavy weapon (machine gun / rocket launcher), and a melee attack (blade).

There are about 35 different shotguns in Destiny. Each with a different set of stats, and modified by a huge number of perks. There are literally thousands of weapon varients and armor combinations. You can finish the game in a few hours, and spend hundreds more trying to collect all the loot.

The World’s Have Gotten Smaller

The playing environments have become rich, textured, detailed, and beautiful. But not bigger. It took literally weeks to explore every “squre” in the Might & Magic VI map. Test Drive 3 let you go “off-road” into a seemingly boundless 3D environment.

You could walk and explore literally every “pixel” on this map of Enroth in MM6. About every ten squares you would have to wait while the next 10x10 grid loaded.

I think there’s an obvious trade-off here. Grinding through each grid square in MM6 wasn’t particularly interesting . Going off-road in TD3 was cool for about a minute and then you were just driving over empty green “hills”. Why waste precious resources designing and rendering scenes in which there’s nothing to do?

That said, when the virtual worlds are so rich and beautiful, it’s a shame when you run up against the edges.

Saving Isn’t a Thing Anymore

Gone are the days of hitting save, waiting a minute, going through the door, dying, hitting reload, rinsing & repeating.

You play, you die, and you respawn (particularly if you’re playing Bloodborne). You exit the game and come back in where you left it. It even works when playing from someone else’s console. It’s subtle, but it’s still amazing.

Load Times Still Suck

A friend of mine had California Games on tape for their Commodore 64. It took so long to load that you could squeeze in a few sets of real waves before coming back to virtually surf.

At the end of each attempt you’d be prompted to “restart or exit”. Hitting exit by mistake kicked you out and required reloading the game, during which time you’d try and avoid your friends who tried to beat the crap out of you to pass the time.

That hasn’t been the case in a long time, but sitting with controller in hand waiting to re-spawn in Bloodborne, or to load a new planet in Destiny is still a painful experience. Maybe in another 15 years it’ll be instant?

Things I’ve Learned

The experience of re-familiarizing myself with something I used to know so well is strange and delightful. Everything still does pretty much what I expected, but in a very different way. And it’s wonderful.

  1. Moore’s Law is an inexorable beast. Graphics, sound, cinematography, game physics, particle / fog / fire effects: Everything has advanced so far as to be like magic.
  2. Digital delivery is of the gods. I’ve moved country twice and have grown weary of packing and shipping DVDs. Having an entirely digital games library to which I can add new purchases at the click of a button is so obvious it’s surprising that you can still by physical copies.
  3. Gaming has become very social . Multiplayer gaming was always fun, but now that it is frictionless it’s become a core part of the gaming experience. The first thing my friends said when I told them I was buying a PS4 was, “we’ve got to play Destiny together”.
  4. Storylines are still hit or miss. In terms of story arc Destiny is a half billion dollar hot mess. Bloodborne’s is seemingly intentionally obtuse. The Last of Us, on the other hand, is heart wrenching story made more visceral by playing through it. Much like movies I suppose — you pays your money and takes your chances.
  5. Am I the sort of person who will grind through hours and hours or repetitive game play for the chance to find or purchase a pair of gauntlets that give invisibility, x4 poison damage from behind, and look like freaking scarab beetles? Yes. Yes I am.

So what comes next? Virtual Reality? AI driven computer opponents that make PVP the easier mode? Fully dynamic procedural maps and missions? Bigger worlds? What happens when the next billion come online and join these MMOs?

Have you had a similar experience? Leaving something and coming back to it years later after significant technical advancement?

Developer Advocate @ Google, software engineer, and author of “Professional Android” series from Wrox. All opinions are my own.

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