In July 2004, Neil McIntosh, then head of blogging at the Guardian, posted a story on the newspaper’s growing website. “Welcome to Gamesblog, the videogames weblog from the Guardian,” he wrote. “Our aim here is to talk about games in an entertaining, adult way, and help you enjoy playing games on whatever gadget you own – PC, games console, handheld device or mobile phone. We hope you find things are a little different around here.”
Alongside Aleks Krotoski and Greg Howson, I was one of the writers brought on to contribute daily stories, news and personal opinions to this formative gaming blog – and while my compatriots eventually moved on, I hung around like a particularly tricky end-of-level boss, obsessively documenting the changing face of the industry. Back then, we thought the medium was about to enter a period of extraordinary change. We were right.
Today is my last day as the Guardian’s games editor. To mark this sad (for me) occasion, I have collected together what I think are the eight most wonderful things to have happened in video games over the years since I started. Of course, there have been countless technical innovations and improvements, from 4K visuals to AI and emergent storytelling, but it’s the changes in culture that have most affected me. Feel free to add your own memories.
1. The rise of open-world game design
Yes, there were open-world games before 2004, but the era of Grand Theft Auto IVand V, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Saint’s Row, Skyrim and Witcher has seen the whole philosophy of level design evolve from highly prescriptive linear experiences to the provision of playful experimental spaces.
To this end, it’s worth reading Kate Gray’s feature on the genius of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as well as this piece by Robert Yang on spatial composition. But essentially, open-world games have encouraged players to be more curious, creative, adventurous and collaborative and that’s been amazing to watch.
2. The rise of the independent games community
Before the broadband era, it was difficult for small teams working on idiosyncratic projects to get their games seen by a large number of players. But gradually we had Xbox Live, the App Store, Steam and Itch.io, and a global audience for independent productions was created. At the same time, we started to see really interesting academic study of games, new courses like the NYU Game Center and the NFTS masters in game design, and the arrival of cheap and free tools like Unity, Game Maker and Twine. All of this combined to give small studios and lone designers the skills, tools and support to make subjective, strange and brilliant games, from the deeply personal to the deeply political.
The likes of The Passage, Papers Please, Gone Home, Spelunky, Dear Esther, Fez and Braid have changed the way we think about games, broadening the culture, vocabulary and spectrum of “interactive entertainment”. Vitally, none of this has happened at the expense of the mainstream games industry. We still get to play Wolfenstein, Call of Duty and Hitman. Nobody took those toys away.
3. The rise of the social experience
With broadband internet, we also got the irresistible growth of online multiplayer gaming, overtaking both the sofa-based experience of traditional two-player console games and the local area network complexity of early 1990s PC titles.
First-person shooters flourished in the new era of seamless matchmaking, but we also saw cool extensions of the social experience into asynchronous competition (wonderfully realised in Criterion’s Need For Speed titles) and anonymous collaboration via Journey. The arrival of friends lists, seamless matchmaking and mass online get-togethers, allowed us to meet up on virtual battlefields and in simulated sports arenas to compete, but also just to chat. Games became shared social spaces and benefited enormously.
4. The growing influence of games on wider culture
It used to be that games existed in a cultural ghetto kept away from other art forms, cropping up only when some crazed Hollywood executive felt that they could make some quick money from a movie tie-in.
Now there are video games at Moma, at the Tate and in the Victoria and Albert Museum. There are immersive theatre companies and art collectives such PunchDrunk and Blast Theory, name-checking games as their inspiration, there are television shows and movies drawing heavily from the aesthetics and structure of games. Arguably the best TV series of the last year, Westworld, is a treatise on the ethics of virtual violence, embodiment and player culpability.
The world is looking at us and unquestionably that attention comes with new responsibilities and challenges.
5. Greater diversity and representation
It is inarguably a good thing that videogames are being made and played by a larger and wider spectrum of people than ever before. From the millions of commuters engrossed by Threes and Candy Crush Saga to the small communities exploring gender, identity and sexuality issues through visual novels, there are more voices, more points of view and more opportunities to see heroes like you being available and controllable on screen.
As I wrote in July, a vital element of entertainment is representation. Sometimes we just want escapism, but sometimes we need to see characters who look like us, who love the people we do, who do things we could imagine ourselves doing. This has been the case from Greek tragedy to modern cinema – the screen, like the stage, is a mirror as well as a window. It is beautiful that this is happening in games. We still get to play Wolfenstein, Call of Duty and Hitman.
6. Player creativity and collaboration
In the past, if you wanted to make your own Doom levels, you had to be technically literate and highly committed. Then along came games such as LittleBigPlanet, Super Mario Maker, Minecraft and The Sims and user creativity rose to the forefront as vast communities grew up around building and sharing content.
Games are no longer to be consumed and discarded, many have become universal creative workshops. At the same time, emergent broadcast platforms YouTube and Twitch have allowed a new form of entertainment – the “let’s play” video – to flourish, providing fresh ways for fans to share their experiences and to entertain. OK, that’s been problematic at times (see the ongoing PewDiePie controversy), but it’s made the idea of spectating games – further boosted by the eSports phenomenon – seem … not weird.
7. The exploration of new themes
A lot of the people who make games are getting older, wiser and more thoughtful, and their projects are reflecting that. At the same time, new people are entering the medium who intrinsically understand games as a form of self-expression, rather than just as entertainment products. In the past decade this has led to shifts in the meta-narratives of games, away from the sexist trope of saving the princess, and towards more complex ideas of redemption, guilt and self-discovery. Titles such as Bioshock, The Last of Us, Life is Strange, Spec Ops: The Line, Heavy Rain and Valiant Hearts have all explored dark, difficult themes while also making us feel part of the action. You can go to Steam and download a sci-fi blast-’em-up or an autobiographical game about a teenage girl’s first online relationship. One of this week’s most tweeted about games involves an annoying goose. That’s pretty amazing.
8. Some really astonishing games
Where to begin? Grand Theft Auto V, Shadow of the Colossus, Mass Effect, Stardew Valley, Dark Souls, Uncharted, Undertale, Breath of the Wild, Minecraft… this has been a decade of extraordinary creativity and change; the rules, structure and mechanics of games have been continually pulverised and re-written. What we do within games has become largely a question of personal choice. If you want to spend hours in GTA V just cycling, or playing golf, or working out how to blow up planes, you totally can.
It’s been exhilarating to watch and report on the chaos of this still-young medium. It hasn’t always been good, it has sometimes even been traumatic and damaging. Nevertheless, video games have shaped my life, my friendships, and my way of seeing the world, and I’m not alone. As GK Chesterton once wrote, “It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play.” It has been a privilege to play for a living and to share that with you.
But what do I really think about the last 14 years of this industry? As the departing Guardian games editor, I’ll borrow the final words – or more accurately, song lyrics – from my favourite game series of the decade, and perhaps of all time, Portal. “This was a triumph. I’m making a note here: huge success. It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.”