Gaming is an interactive medium. You press buttons and some stuff happens, that much is elementary. What might not be so obvious, however, is just how that “stuff” is governed. Sure, videogames occupy realms of near limitless possibilities in theory – like flying around the galaxy, going to war, or simply wearing dungarees while jumping a mushroom – but in practice all of this can only be achieved within a strict amount of input commands. You can’t, for example, be running around on Call of Duty and suddenly decide you want throw your gun at a useless teammate, or change your underwear or whatever. There’s no button for that. No option in the menus.
Not that it matters of course, because why would you want to actually do those things anyway? The buttons and their subsequent actions have been streamlined over the course of many years to become the exact buttons that you need, and the ones that make the game play the way it does. You can shoot and crouch and run and camp. Camping probably doesn’t count though, as there’s no physical input for that – it’s just you being a lame-o.
But, as in literally all other areas in life, it’s impossible to deny evolution. Call of Duty didn’t just happen to be that way, and I imagine if it were to get made today with no prior context, the controls and gameplay ideas would certainly be very different. So where, then, can we trace our most common gaming mechanics back to, before they were just one homogenized slab that occupies every single aspect of modern games’ existence? Obviously characters in games could always walk or move about, because that’s what people and things do. But what about the things the less obvious aspects? Where did they come from?
Let’s go back in time and find out. And do pay attention, I may quiz you on it later.Next
First seen in: Temple of Apshai – TRS 80 (1979)
XP, Exp, Experience Points, Level Up juice – call it what you will, but it’s the stuff that no game can any longer be without, from dungeon crawlers to racing games. Doing better will no longer mean you just get real life experience, but also an on screen representation in the form of points to confirm it. For a long time it was the reserve of the nerdlingers, using experience points to make their crappy dwarves into mighty wizards or something. I never played Dungeons and Dragons. Technically, that’s where it all began you see, leveling up over the tabletop card game. But the first videogame to include the recording of player statistics was Temple of Apshai, and the format has changed very little since.
It’s amazing it could do anything at all, running on such a staggeringly primitive computer. The TRS tech highlights include a 1.7 MHz processor and a barely believable 48 KB memory. To put that into context, it would take the rough equivalent of 1,043,478 of these computers to match one iPhone 5. But run it it did, and it’s a legacy that’s endured. The rush of leveling up is something other entertainment mediums can’t hold a candle too, and there’s no better way of making you work to unlock more goodies. A book, for example, can’t withhold better paragraphs until you’ve read re-read the intro three times, as much as the author would like to.Previous Next
6) Collecting Things
First seen in: Pac-Man – Arcade (1980)
At a time when video games were all about space-based shooters, Pac-Man effectively created its own new genre. Quite what you’d call that genre I have no idea, but a big part of it was running around swallowing collectables. In this instance, the vast majority of those collectables were paramount to completing a level, but some – like the bits of fruit – weren’t. Did players need them to complete a level? No. Did players need them to attain the new highest score at the top of the arcade cabinet, thus rendering them utterly bad-ass? Good grief, yes. And so it was born.
And then came Sonic‘s gold rings, Banjo-Kazooie‘s puzzle pieces, and Alan Wake‘s *long, drawn out sigh* Energizer ® batteries. In truth, collectibles have now become something of a divisive filler in modern gaming, used by the developer to either make sure the player has fully scoured and appreciated their level design, or simply to pad out the games playtime.
Assassin’s Creed is generally the worst offender, and has you spending exactly 1 billion hours after the game’s main story is finished trawling the map for collectible freakin’ bird feathers, for reasons I absolutely gave up caring about. But, some people just gotta have ‘em, and like it or not, collectible trinkets are here to stay.Previous Next
First seen in: Donkey Kong – Arcade (1981)
Imagine how bad a modern game would be if you couldn’t jump. (Who said Dead Space??) I mean seriously, how would you get over that fence, or those crocodiles, or that gross pile of corpses? Probably the weirdest part about this particular mechanic is that despite having a button assigned to it in every game that will ever be released for the rest of time, it’s not something you really see anyone do in real life. When was the last time you were walking down the street and saw a person just doing a jump? Even an open manhole cover would simply illicit the action of ‘walking around it’.
Still, we live in 3D. No such luxuries were afforded back then and if there was so much as a half-eaten banana on the floor, you had no choice but to leap over it. It seems strange that now computers have caught up to real-life’s three-dimensional nature, the ‘jump’ button has endured. Even games where jumping is completely redundant, (Doom 3, anyone?) the button still sits there, just in case.
But as much as it’s shoehorned in to first-person shooters, we can’t deny its fundamentalism. Without it, a game just feels weird. Plus, there would be no such thing as platform games and subsequently no Mario, no Sonic, and to a lesser extent no Earthworm Jim. Mario, by the way, is the secret innovator here. He’s the guy you’re playing as in Donkey Kong – though at the time, our Italian stereotyped hero was simply called Jump Man, which is quite fitting.Previous Next
4) Inventory Screens
First seen in: Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken – NES (1983)
Let me alleviate your pain of pronunciation by translating this Japanese tongue-twister for you: The Portopia Serial Murder Incident. Though even after that I would imagine you’ve never heard of it, much less played it, but it’s important for a great deal of reasons – chief among which, it gave us the inventory screen.
There’s not a gamer alive who hasn’t come across one of these in the past, whether it be for examining ancient artefacts in Tomb Raider, juggling food and weaponry in The Elder Scrolls, or trying to make enough space for a save-game ink ribbon in Resident Evil. It’s a simple and elegant way of making the player feel more immersed in the experience and more responsible for their actions. It’s also the reason the survival horror genre exists at all, when it was moulded into perhaps its most recognisable form for the original haunted house puzzle masterpiece Alone in the Dark.
Here in Portopia however, the inventory screen serves as a tool to store and examine evidence found at various crime scenes, where you are charged with using it to make the right decision about which of your suspects to lock up for good. It was pretty advanced as NES games went, and as if it hadn’t done enough for us already, it is often cited by Hideo Kojima as the reason he created the Metal Gear series (which also features inventory screens).Previous Next
3) Regenerating Health
First seen in: Punch Out!! – Arcade (1983)
Regenerating health can be seen in many RPGs and basically every modern shooter there is. And I know what you’re thinking, Halo is responsible for it. And here’s why you’re wrong, idiot. Firstly, it was nowhere near being the first game to have recharging health and secondly, it didn’t even have recharging health. It was your shields that recharged, but you still needed to find a health-pack for the fleshy bits underneath. OK, OK, maybe it was responsible for popularizing the regenerative concept in shooters, but still…
So in actual fact it’s Nintendo yet again (have you written them that thank-you letter for ‘jumping’ yet?) for giving us this love or hate mechanic. Punch Out!! was not only cool because it had two exclamation marks in the title, it was cool because of its unique features and memorable characters, such as the iconic Glass Joe. It’s not held in the esteem of Mario or Zelda, and it hasn’t been subject to the endless sequels that they have, but it is still up there as one of Nintendo’s finest hours. Of the sequels it did get, though, Mike Tyson did endorse and appear in one, which is hella cool.Previous Next
2) Capturing a Flag
First seen in: Return Fire – 3DO (1995)
The words “capture the flag” are synonymous with online mutiplayer gaming. But isn’t that particular selection and order of words a very random one when considering wargames? Why isn’t it capture the briefcase, or bomb, or the hostage, or in Halo‘s case, capture the stupid bright pink alien stuff? A flag has a certain possessional symbolism in context, but it’s somehow made its way into everything – and it all started on a console so expensive that I don’t think anyone ever bought one.
Unfortunate really, because EA founder Trip Hawkins’ 3DO was so ahead of its time that even today designers are still only just catching up to the things it could do as a console (multitasking OS, controller headsets, and being region-free to name a few). Just a shame about the price tag being equally as ahead of its time, coming in at a whopping $700 over 20 years ago.
To be honest, I did actually own one, and Return Fire was easily one of my favourite games. The attention to detail and isometric free-roaming where unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, and the classical music soundtrack made it stand out as something very different for all the right reasons. And the aim of the game? To pick a jeep, chopper or tank, infiltrate an enemy base, and capture the flag. It probably caught on because it got a PlayStation release, and I hear that console sold quite well.Previous Next
1) Aiming Down the Sights (ADS)
First seen in: Vietcong – PC (2003)
Since the dawn of time, man has been fascinated with guns (this may not be strictly accurate as guns were not invented at the dawn of time). The first game a kid learns is ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ the casually racist game that simply involves making a gun with your fingers and running round shooting imaginary bullets. It’s an odd fascination, but one I must admit to being partial too. For a long time, though, its representation in videogames was a static, from the hip, approach – which as anyone that’s ever fired a gun will tell you, is not really how they work.
Otherwise decidedly average shooter Vietcong was the first game to make the distinction between wildly spraying from the hip and physically lifting the gun to your eye for more accurate fire, and wow did that stick. Even now, in games that are neither first-person, nor hardly even shooters, it’s become ingrained that a squeeze of that left trigger will zoom the camera in one way or another.
There’s still a few nostalgic dreamers that buck the trend of course, most notably Source games such and Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, and the mighty Counter Strike. Even notorious shooter pioneer Halo decided to try and catch up by sneaking this feature in the back door of its fourth sequel, and I’ll eat my wristwatch if it isn’t a full-blown feature by the time number five comes around.
Questions? Disagreements? What shared video game trope would you like to have identified as the innovator? Let us know in them comments!Previous