Wednesday was a tough day for tech companies with new products to hawk. Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 7 was met with yawns and angry bewilderment over its decision to remove the headphone jack. Yet who would have thought that for gamers – with the news that Super Mario Run is coming to iOS this year – Apple’s faceplant would be far more exciting than Sony’s reveal of the console formerly known as PlayStation Neo?
Sony deemed the PlayStation 4 Pro important enough for a standalone event in Times Square called the “PlayStation Meeting,” rather than a mere footnote to its E3 briefing, which was the approach Microsoft took for its Xbox One S. Journalists, primed for the announcement of something radical like the end of discrete console generations, were instead told that the Pro was a “refresh” of the PlayStation 4, not a “blurring” of the concept of distinct hardware cycles.
If you have a 4K or an HDR TV, the Pro will give you video games with appreciably prettier pictures. The difference, however, is not night and day. It’s more like the difference between a photograph of midnight and one of 5 a.m. – visible, obvious, but hard to describe even if you know what you’re looking at.
PlayStation VR will see similar, and perhaps even more important, visual improvements on the PS4 Pro. But putting virtual reality aside, it’s unlikely that gamers will ever again see the kinds of radical changes that we saw time and again over the past 40 years. The leaps from Pong to the Atari VCS to the Nintendo Entertainment System to the PlayStation and beyond were Kryptonian in scale, seemingly superhuman wonders that promised not only better graphics but also entirely new kinds of games that wouldn’t be possible on the old technology.
Those days are, I suspect, over. Even the shift from the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 to the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One was a modest and incremental one, more like watching a top-flight college athlete jump a little bit farther than his competitors at a track meet than witnessing a comic-book hero perform an unimaginable feat.
And that’s probably a good thing. This is what a mature medium looks like. Who knows the precise moment when it happened, but at some point over the past few years, playing the back catalogue of video games – especially all the games that have been released over the past decade – became as exciting (if not more exciting!) than playing the New New Thing.
This was always true for movies and books and music and every other art form. We knew that one day it would be true for games, too. It’s just shocking to realize that day is already here.
Ten years ago Bully, Okami, Oblivion and Dead Rising were all released. So was Hitman: Blood Money. I suspect each of those games could come out with modest changes this fall and people would still love them. The games of 20 years ago, by comparison, are closer to cave paintings: beloved and important works, sure, but they don’t resemble the new stuff. (Here are some of the games of 1996: Duke Nukem 3D, Crash Bandicoot, Diablo, Quake. Granted, Super Mario 64 might be the exception.)
That’s not to say that we won’t be playing Ms. Pac-Man and Tetris for the rest of our days – we will! – only that the rate of technological change in video games has slowed, dramatically and unmistakably. Not all that long ago, a game that was released in the previous decade was regarded as a “retro” title. Now it’s a “classic” or even more likely, close to indistinguishable from the fall blockbusters.
There’s a new confidence among game designers that their best work could become permanent fixtures of our culture rather than dated technologies destined for the town dump, alongside 8-track players and phones with cords. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing so many remasters of recent games, to ready them for the infinite consoles where titles can be sold in perpetuity. I suspect your children, or your children’s children, will be able to play Red Dead Redemption or Ico or Portal or The Witcher 3 or Her Story. They may find them a little dated or hokey in places, the way we look at an MGM musical or a 19th-century novel. But they’ll also find them good enough to be appreciated for what they are, rather than only for what they might one day become.
Most games are garbage, sure, but so is most of everything. Thousands of books and movies and albums are produced annually, only to be forgotten before the year is out, much less before posterity ambles its way into the frame. But if you’re disappointed by the PlayStation Pro, one big reason is not because games are bad, but because games are fantastic.
This is the best time in the medium’s half-century of history to be a video game player. A 4K TV isn’t going to make the Golden Age of TV any better, just a little prettier. The same is true for our current (Platinum? Silver? Thamium9?) Age of Games. Thank the Maker.
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