We like games for some pretty dumb reasons sometimes. For all the worthy praise we give to meaningful narratives, innovative interaction, and the subversion of expectations, we toss around hollow terms like ‘visceral’, ‘evocative’, and ‘cinematic’. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and I’ve been focusing on cutting such terms from my writing.
That said, it can be pretty fun to look back at the various buzz terms the industry has relied upon over the years. They may seem ridiculous now, but at the time they were effective tools for hyping up new releases. I’ve listed my favourite of these below. There are countless more, though, so make sure to chime in with your own selections in the comments!
The ol’ polygon count. A staple of the industry since the early days of 3D, ‘more polys’ has long been treated as an objective measure of quality, shorthand for attention to detail. The Gran Turismo games tout the wealth of polygons crammed into their cars, while reviews of games like Dead or Alive 2 applauded the technical achievement of high poly counts separate from how the game actually looked.
The kicker, of course, is David Cage’s speech at the 2013 announcement of the PS4. The figurehead behind Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls claimed technology was what made the conveyance of emotion possible, making the controversial more polygons = more emotion assertion that earned him ample criticism.
At least we’ve moved past all this now, right?
The Bit Wars. What a time to be a gamer. From the NES to the Sega Genesis to the Atari Jaguar, it was all about the bits bursting from the box beneath the TV. Nobody actually knew what they did, but they were damn sure they wanted more of them.
A Link to the Past used “16-bit power to create a quest so colourful and detailed you don’t just play it, you live it!”, while Killer Instinct swore black and blue that 16-bits was all that mattered. Fast forward a few years and Multi-Racing Championship featured “True 64-bit visual detail”, while Blast Corps was fuelled by “64-bit power”.
Later generations saw parity in processor address widths, and The Bit Wars came to a close. It was probably for the best. A bucketload of bits didn’t save the Jaguar from flopping hard.
Why stick with bits when Megs are 8,000,000 times as good? That seemed to be the prevailing attitude of the SNES generation. At least gamers had a vague understanding of what Megs meant: more data meant more game meant more fun - or so the rhetoric went.
Ads for Super Metroid boasted “24 Megs’ worth of weapons, worlds, and weirdos.” Chrono Trigger stepped things up as the place where “The 32-Meg quest begins.”. Donkey Kong Country promised “The biggest Nintendo adventure yet at an incredible 32 megs!”, but that wasn’t enough to compete with Super Street Fighter II - The New Challengers, which hit 40 megs to be the “The largest Genesis game ever!”.
Now, in the digital era, we tend to complain about games that take up too much space, especially if we download them and their slew of inevitable patches. I wonder how a gamer in the early ‘90s would have reacted to the notion of a Street Fighter game 310 times the size of the Genesis version?
How many times have you been promised a game so “amazingly real” that you couldn’t tell it apart from real life? When you look at something like Uncharted 4 or Forza 6, such claims don’t seem entirely without merit, but the truth is games have been boasting of their authenticity since back when a handful of pixels proxied as a person.
In the Atari days, Activision proudly claimed to “put you in the game”with visual powerhouses like Pitfall and Skiing. Enter the 8-bit generation, and Gargoyle’s Quest offered “graphics so real you’ll forget it’s only a game”. The Genesis touted “lifelike 16-bit graphics”, while Silent Hill sported “true-to-life CG movies”.
True ‘realism’ is a long ways off, but that won’t stop games from throwing the term around with feckless abandon. Worse, the assumption that greater realism makes for a better experience is gravely flawed. Realism is not inherently fun; it is merely a design direction that can affect a game both positively and negatively. Gears of War’s brown and grey environments might be realistic, but they’re also incredibly drab - it’s why later entries adopted more varied and vibrant locales. A single bullet might mean death in real life, but the frustration of such a punishment in the virtual space is why it’s only implemented in mods and niche games like ArmA.
Realism isn’t the reason we play games. It shouldn’t be the reason we buy them, either.
Matt Sayer is 50% gamer, 50% writer, 50% programmer, and 100% terrible at maths. You can read more of his articles over at Unwinnable as well as right here, friend him on Steam here or tweet him cat photos at @sezonguitar