I’ve had a couple of discussions with my brother lately about games these days and how they don’t demand as much imagination to fill in the details. It’s all presented on screen in glorious detail. It came up because those of younger years have never really understand a time when your imagination had to fill in a lot of the gaps. Take my nephew, he’s nineteen. He probably doesn’t remember a time before the PS3, the PS2 at a stretch.
Back in the day you had a lot for your imagination to fill. You can figure out how true this is by looking back at games you used to love and it’s universally true you remember the graphics being way better than they actually were.
Flight Sim by Instruments
I don’t really remember the Vic 20 having better graphics than it had, it seems that machines of a certain ‘age’ get remembered accurately while those after a certain point get glossed over by memory. I use this as an example of a game I played a lot that pretty much existed entirely in the imagination.
That video is a flight simulator (1983) on the venerable Vic 20. The sound is absolutely terrible and that is the only graphics you get. You never get to see outside of the cockpit. You never even get to see any sense of the cockpit itself. All you get to look at and fly by is a few basic instruments. I’m not sure if I actually played this game, I’m having trouble remembering and finding the one I actually played. It seemed to involve an overhead view of the planes flight, it was a large dot, with the instruments around that overhead view. The above is pretty representative though.
This meant my position as the pilot and what I was actually doing was completely in my head. The sense of 3D space and travel was not presented in the game itself. This goes beyond adding any sense of narrative or purpose to the game, which I surely did.
Command of a Carrier
One of the games I player a lot on the Atari ST was Carrier Command (1988). This is one of those unique types of game that you don’t really get any more, until they re-make them, in which the power of modern computers should be brought to bare to make them awesome, but they somehow fall flat.
Two carriers. One must destroy the other. They are sailing around a large area filled with islands and they must control the islands, but up their networks and finally face each other. This was the first game that alerted me to the fact my memory was imagining them better as they attempted to make a modern version of it and that cause me to look up the original.
When I looked this up on hearing of the new version I was totally shocked. I’m not exactly sure what I was imagining, but it was better than the reality. I understood they were formed from coloured shapes, the game didn’t exist as a piece of textured brilliance in my head. It just looked more visually stunning, more solid and just better. I remember raving about the graphics for this game when I was playing. You look back now and it’s hard to see how they could have been gushed over. Time and place, etc.
The Sub Pens of Murmansk
Like the Atari ST, it’s early PC games which tend to engender a big ‘imagination gloss over’. One game I played a lot was the Stealth Fighter games. I may well have played that game on the Atari ST and the PC (I remember the cover art on the boxes so this is almost certainly true). The video player is actually F117A – Stealth Fighter 2.0 (1992), one of the later iterations of the game.
I used to love the long, deep penetration strike missions. It was a full on cold war game, with theatres of war in Libya, the Persian Gulf, the North Cape and Central Europe. The missions I liked the best seemed to be in the North Cape and involved long flights to destroy the sub pens at Murmansk.
When you look at the graphics now it’s hard to understand how I enjoyed those missions so much. Long flight times in both directions with little really to look at to inspire the imagination. Yet something obviously was. I loved being that lone pilot, avoiding radar zones and random aircraft patrols, weaving my way through the air defences and far into enemy lines.
There was a bunch of games around this time which undoutedly have similar graphical fidelity: M1 Tank Platoon (1989), F-15 Strike Eagle (1989), Gunship 2000 (1991), Silent Service II (1992), F-15 Strike Eagle III (1992). The days of the big military simulator.
In fact, I think it’s around this period your brain starts to not remember the games as they are but as improved versions in which your memory has been merged with your imagination. I think this is because if you go backwards the graphics are so obviously bad you remember them factual, such as with the VIC-20, but once you get into 16-bit games and around the 90’s onwards on the PC they are starting to have embryonic elements of modern graphics, such as 3D worlds, and your imagination makes the leap.
Polyhedral Shapes to Atmospheric Space
Elite is interesting as it serves as a great example of a game of yesteryear that, if I’d played it, I’d undoubtedly be imagining the graphics as better, and it’s had a successful modern release.
I never played Elite in any of its earlier incarnations, so I can’t really comment on how much imagination might have filled in the cracks in the visuals of the earlier games. I do remember seeing it on screens though and I specifically remember wire-frame structures, none of them filled in and solid. There was certainly very little in the game graphically to make you stop and pause.
If you look at the image above, for one of the earlier incarnations, it’s easy to be left wondering what really caused people to want to continue investing time in the game? You can earn higher ratings and more money in order to buy something that is essentially a slightly different polyhedral shape than the last one you had? People did though, just like I spent days on end on military simulators of various types.
You play the game now and space has an epic emptiness and grandeur, it throws up visuals that are both stark, mysterious and beautiful all at the same time. The graphics are so phenomenal they drag you off to explore space just to see it. We’ve been doing that, doing tours of different nebula just to see them. The whole of the galaxy is present in the game with some 100 billion star systems on the galaxy map. It’s mind-boggling.
The vessels are masterpieces of design, with each person having their favourites but they are undoubtedly works of art. Elite: Dangerous acts as a perfect contract between the new world and the old.
Imagination is Better
I find I’m very happy I got to experience the games of the lates 80’s and the 90’s. In many ways they represented an extension of how we grew up. I belong to the generation who would play with Play People (Play Mobil in the US) Space sets and turn the staires into the mountainous surface of a mysterious planet. Filling in the graphics on computer games was natural!
It’s a pity many of these great games and the genres they belonged to faded away as graphical fidelity improved and the first person shooter took over the whole of gaming. It’s almost like once the graphics and processing power came into existence to make some of these great genres of game actually ‘more possible’ it was exactly when they became extinct in the face of the FPS onslaught.
As well belonging to the generation of pretty good or amazing graphics, my nephew exclusively plays FPS titles. If he’s not playing Destiny he’s looking forward to the latest Battlefield title. If he’s not doing that he’s on the beta of Rainbox Six: Siege. The most he’ll branch out is playing GTA IV, which now has a First Person mode and I think he plays in that a lot.
I love games with gorgeous graphics, I’m certainly not saying I can go back to the few games I’ve listed here, play them as they are, and find them better than modern games because my imagination has to compensate for the dodgy graphics. I can’t do that. Some people can, and they play old games and love them. I realise I’m become a slave to the great graphics we have today.
What I am saying is it’s worthwhile having gone through these periods in gaming and I think something is lost if you’ve grown up in the modern age of good to fantastic graphics and the dominance of the FPS genre. It’s also a pity, after playing these great games twenty five years ago, when they struggled to make them as great as possible with limited power, that they don’t really exist anymore in modern form with power in almost abundance.
After all, Elite: Dangerous shows what can happen when an old title is brought into the world of modern computing power with care and attention.