Games are like people; they tell stories. Sometimes they tell them themselves, other times they merely act as things stories occur around – and sometimes, they tell the same story twice.
That's exactly what's happening now. We're being told a story we've heard before and I don't mean that just the sense of annual franchises and evergreen brands. This is the story of the 1990s, just told with better illustrations along the way. It's something which is characterising even the bravest and most original games we've seen.
Take Dishonored, for example. That's a great game. It's fun, it's interesting, it was the product of enormous talent and passion…but it also wouldn't be a huge leap to suggest that it's also analogous to the original Thief: The Dark Project. I'll grant you that there are some differences, yes, but a gruff and morally blank protagonist sneaking around a technological-but-medieval fantasy version of London? Saving the sprawling, curiously empty city he lives in with the help of trinkets from a previous civilization? Designed by folks graduated from Looking Glass Studios?
That sounds a lot like Thief to me.
And Dishonored is just one of the weaker examples. What other big game has everyone been talking about? XCOM: Enemy Unknown. What were we talking about before that? Diablo. Before that? Deus Ex – which went so far back to it's roots that it told fundamentally the same story and set it in the same places. Detroit was the new Hell's Kitchen, Hengsha the new Hong Kong.
This isn't just a retroactive trend either. It ripples into the future; Impire is the new Dungeon Keeper, BioShock the new System Shock. SimCity is the new, um, Simcity. These are games and ideas being revived, not merely franchises; Syndicate doesn't count.
If we've travelled back in time then, the question is: is that a bad thing?
Normally in a case like this, I'd say yes. I'd say this is nostalgia on an almost reckless level and that we need to make sure we move forward, not back. But this time? This time I'm hopeful. This time I think going over old ground might be really helpful, provided we know we're doing it and we're ready for what comes next.
Because here's the thing: Those old ideas we're reviving right now? They were really bloody good. That's why we remember them fondly – the big games of the 1990s were better than the big games of the 2000s, by and large.
For years now, I've felt the games industry was stuck in a cynical and boring rut. It seemed like there was an endless cycle of games which were moving us in the wrong direction, that were getting bigger instead of better. Modern Warfares rolled by like they were coming off a production line and, it turns out, they kind of were. Publishers were getting us excited over all the wrong things – release platforms and the amount of playtime and polygons and 3D. The sort of stuff that's good to know, but which isn't why games actually matter.
Do you want to know the reason that Call of Duty hasn't had a new idea in five years? It's because it hasn't needed one.
But let's not get distracted.
The point is that, for a while, the games industry has been like a train slipped off the track; the wheels were spinning but we've not really gone anywhere. A few people have tried to push it forward, but even with heavyweights such as Braid behind the engine, progress has been painfully slow.
Now, somehow, we're back on track! It's only natural that we have to pick up where we left off and that's no bad thing so long as we're able to move forward from here.
Moving forward isn't going to be easy though. The technology and audiences have changed dramatically while we were delayed and there are ideas about the future which are potentially destructive – but these are barriers we can overcome if we all pitch in. If we can discard the humdrum opinions and yawning justifications of the last few years; if we stop sleepwalking through games and actually start to question them; if we can damn the ideas that hold us back without become entitled brats?
If we have an idea of what we want games to be and start devoting ourselves to getting them there?
Then maybe we can see what's supposed to come next.