Games of Future Past - or - We’re Skating on Thin Ice Here, Why Would Anyone Want to Play a 'New Classic Point & Click Adventure Game'?


There’s a very real danger involved in mulling over our own yesteryears. Care about a particular era too much and you become the type for whom, for example, constantly talking about the ‘good times we had at school’ is completely acceptable. They were indeed enjoyable, those days when we worked weekends up the shopping village for four quid an hour, spending all our pay on nights out in the ex-mill towns of West Yorkshire. But they were also full of horrible stuff like puberty, a lack of personal autonomy and terrible, gel-based hairstyles. Dismiss the merits of your past too forcefully, however, and you end up in a perpetual cycle of snorting ketamine and hunting out craft brewery taprooms, attempting in vain to prove to yourself that ‘I am undeniably an adult: butterscotch shots and dancing to Pantera are for the kids.’

Time marches on and things change. The places we used to go -- if they still exist, many do not -- don’t even play Walk anymore, because those young people, for reasons I cannot comprehend, don’t seem to see the merit in 90s metal songs about arseholes. No, magic moments pop up to be enjoyed for what they are there and then. It’s okay to recall them fondly from time to time -- and you should, if only to empower your present self through acknowledging that some sort of change has occurred -- but you mustn’t let them wholly define who you are now. There is a reason you don’t find sixteen year olds attractive anymore: you grew up. Painful as that is to admit, it’s probably for the best all round, especially for the adolescents you’re not drunkenly bothering with your bad drugs and even worse ‘stories’.     

I remember playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 back when I was all innocent, and thinking games couldn't possibly ever get any better. I did the skateboarding a bit in real life then (who didn't?), going down hills in my village and carrying the board over my shoulders at the park (to avoid the embarrassment of “skating” in front of others), but Pro Skater 2 was different: I could actually do it well. I particularly enjoyed the vert based levels, and would play for hours with my sister and cousin. We’d just chill, whiling away entire afternoons and evenings busting tricks and grinding rails while listening to the extremely well curated soundtrack. It was perfect.

It wasn't, obviously, and there were things even then that I recognised as being a little skewy. There were these “secret areas”, like one rooftop in the Philadelphia level, that were cripplingly difficult to get to. Not the kind of they’re hard to reach -- but it’s achievable -- for a reason sort of places, it was more a case that the controls couldn’t afford you the level of precision required to get there, so you ended up having to chain together complex and lengthy combinations of tricks to reach these desolate and wholly unrewarding spaces. (This is why I don’t like hard things in games. For me the experience of playing is reward enough; I don’t need a convoluted and taxing time to enjoy myself.)

Another big thing was how the levels changed when you played multiplayer, as the game had to make adjustments to accommodate you and your partner. Some areas were cut out entirely, or the cars and busses populating streets disappeared. Another very noticeable alteration, and something which struck me as strange at the time, was that all the skies looked different. One level, a giant half-pipe floating in the sea off Hawaii, came with a warm orange sky in singleplayer, but it was all dark when I skated it with my bros. In my naivete I thought the level had been converted into a nighttime one for the sake of aesthetic variation, but looking back now it’s clear that the sky had just been ripped out and replaced with a plain black nothingness to get the game to run.

None of these things impeded my enjoyment though, because they were but tiny blemishes on an otherwise pristine canvas. The great thing about the early Tony Hawk’s games was that they were so enjoyable to control -- when not trying to reach silly rooftops, obviously. The fluidity inherent in linking together grinds, manuals, flip, grab and lip tricks was beyond belief, and so it was just plain fun to simply move about, regardless of whether you cared to studiously unlock and max out everything or just have a casual sojourn. This focus on the joy of movement also meant that the objectives you had to complete to progress were relatively simple. Grind a specific trio of rails, skate over this flying dollar bill (y’all), collect the letters S-K-A-T-E as if you were a gnarly Donkey Kong: everything was very simple, very manageable, and could always be tackled while just going about the business of skating. They acted as a way of funnelling your attention to a certain part of a level, but were never onerous enough to drag you out of the game’s moment-to-moment fluidity.

As the series progressed -- and particularly after the first four, numbered, titles -- things began to go a little awry. As technology improved, the scope of the levels increased pretty considerably, which made everything a little messier. The strength of the early games’ best stages lay in them being spatially concise. There mightn’t have been much in them, but just like a well designed skate park in real life, they were laid out to maximise what was there, encouraging you to link together tricks off and around the various ramps and rails in increasingly imaginative combinations. But this only worked so well because the travelling distance between bits of furniture was so small. This helped both with the split second timing necessary to successfully keep a line of tricks going, and the ‘just one more go’ urge to get back on the board when things went wrong. As the levels got bigger both of these strengths were lost, and they became more like large, meandering collections of stuff: ramps, and rails, and canons, and jetskis, and big wheels, and giant, gurning explosions.

Probably the biggest reason the Tony Hawk’s series went to toss is because it lost faith in the ability of the skateboarding itself to be compelling. As the levels got bigger, so too did the list of tricks you could pull off and the absurdity quota of the goals being set for you. Everything got a bit silly. By the fifth game you could jump off your board and incorporate jogging into your skateboarding lines. By the sixth, Bam Margera had shown up to make it all c-razy, getting you to light fireworks out of your bum for the funnies -- whilst you maybe pulled a benihana. Seven, eight and nine were all open world, and at some stage introduced a feature which allowed you to build your own parks right on top of the games’, which I believe says a lot about their perceived quality by that point. The beautiful motion of the earlier entries became buried under layers and layers of extra fluff, much of which had very little to do with riding on a bit of wood with wheels.

Good news though: we can pretend none of that happened! After being driven into the ground through annualisation, old Tony Hawk’s is regaining control of its legacy. Let it be heard from the rooftops and echoing through the dirty and cramped streets of wherever you call home: 2015 is the year Tony comes back -- in Pro Skater 5. Like a thousand discarded iterations of Spider-Man, video game skateboarding is starting (almost) over. The game's intent is right there in the 5: we're going back to basics. There'll be no open world. No stories of youthful rebellion and ‘getting out of this dead end town’. No dead-eyed digital representations of MTV personalities spouting off nonsense. No twatting about in general, or so I gather.

All this raises a big question. Is Pro Skater 5 simply an exercise in nostalgia-mining, a wholesale recreation of years past because, let’s be honest, no one really knows what to do with skateboarding? Or is it an acknowledgement that making a game a year for a decade over familiarises us with even the best video games can offer, leading to an unhappy fatigue we wouldn't wish on our worst enemies? Honestly, it’s probably a mix of the two. But raising this question raises another question: one about the nature of nostalgia itself when it comes to games.

It’s ironic, that in such a fast-moving industry as video games, where we’re constantly chomping at the bit for the next technological leap, that we’re now increasingly looking to the past -- to before things changed -- to find our fun. Like the ill-fated protagonists of so much speculative fiction, the video game industry seems compelled to forge ever forwards without asking whether it’s even a good idea. By Pro Skater 4 the Tony Hawk’s games were mechanically perfect. In four short years the skateboarding game went from being a burgeoning concern to its very zenith. In continuing the series thereafter, things took an understandable tumble off a cliff: you can’t make the best better, just dick about with it. Nostalgia in video games breeds off fatigue, off the sense that things are moving too quickly -- and for no reason beyond making money. Games are made, then they receive a sequel, then another, and another, and another, until, all of a sudden, two and a half years have passed and nobody wants anything to do with the original concept. Then you wait. People forget. And finally you reboot. It’s nonsense.

Just like the video game industry, nostalgia itself is very shortsighted. We don’t commonly long for the Middle Ages, or the Industrial Revolution, or Feudal Japan; when dreaming about the past we rarely want to place our fantasy selves in difficult or dangerous situations. We like the idea of the late sixties, with its sex, music and getting high. We like the idea of the pre-depression twenties, where we’d be nattily dressed, drinking martinis and dancing with beautiful people in Art Deco ballrooms. We like the idea of the eighties, when Western culture was at a low point, but you could at least make a lot of money from screwing over those less fortunate than yourself. In nostalgia we long for a time when “things was [sic] simpler”, but also for one that is eminently recognisable and comfortable.

There’d be little room for nostalgia in a world that paced itself in a way that made sense. The only reason most of us long for the past is because we all work in offices with people we don’t like. Drystone wallers don’t fantasise about living with Andy Warhol, so I'm told, because they spend their lives making things in the fresh air. Nostalgia is a sign that we’ve come too far, too fast, and ended up in a worse-off position. We slip into thinking about our childhoods or a bygone age because what we do with large chunks of our lives, and by extension the world in which we do it all, is so devoid of proper, genuine, nurturing meaning. It's comforting to think back to somewhere we'd be perceptibly freer, however misinformed such fantasy is. I have no real qualms that Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 is going to exist. What worries me more is that to accept it we have to pretend that five other games never did. I think that says a lot, not just about the landscape of video games, but the shoddy and wasteful way the world works today. Nostalgia is an escape from the things we don't like, a means of resetting the world in our favour. It's also really bad for us. It’s very difficult to make things better while you’re gazing over your shoulder, or, as I fear is the case for many veteran developers resurrecting past glories, square at your navel.   


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