Videogames May Not Be Timeless, But What Is?
In the article Are all video games doomed to irrelevance in the Globe, Chad Saphieha argues that, well, title of article because unlike films and novels which are valued for their stories and characters, videogames are valued for “elements that are constantly evolving within the medium, such as game design, play mechanics, and, to a lesser degree, graphics”:
In order to be considered timeless, a work of art must necessarily affect its audience in a similar way and to a similar degree, regardless of when it happens to be viewed. Super Mario Bros. fails this test because those who play it for the first time today have experienced more modern games that significantly expand upon and outdo Nintendo’s archetypal platformer. Everything Super Mario Bros. does well—its run-and-jump action, its hidden levels, its rewarding coin collection system—has since been improved upon by countless other games. We rightfully acknowledge and respect that it served as inspiration for later games, but we also understand that many of these games have inarguably surpassed their original muse.
On the other hand, “If The Godfather had debuted in 2008 rather than 1972, it almost certainly would have received reviews that were just as rave as those it earned 35 years ago. Ditto for a classic novel like Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.”
Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Let’s imagine the Godfather comes out right now – after Goodfellas, after The Sopranos, hell, after Analyze This. After countless mob stories of every variety, let alone after the aesthetics of music videos and commercials have had massive influences on the style and pace of film storytelling. It would be shrugged off as a well-acted but nonetheless stodgily-paced and derivative mob drama.
I should know. I recently lent my Godfather box set to a friend who had never actually seen the films. He was less than impressed, but understood a key point: the sheer influence the film has had on subsequent films lessens its impact. I’ve felt similarly watching Breathless and Rashomon: the feats of technique and storytelling that made them remarkable upon release – and indeed won their entry into the canon – now seem commonplace by virtue of widespread imitation.
This is perfectly natural. Appreciating these past artworks requires not only a sort of aesthetic suspension of disbelief but also a certain knowledge of the work’s history and context. Really, there is no ‘timelessness’ in art; every work has its time and place. A work may speak beyond its own, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. This is true of videogames just as it is of any other art form. Videogames may change more rapidly than other forms, but hey, what doesn’t these days? And really, despite the advances in graphics, AI and online play and suchlike, we’re still clearing levels and beating bosses like we were in the 80s.
People do still play Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. The classics live on in emulation and on Live Arcade and the Virtual Console and even in their original physical incarnation. (To say nothing of the many current releases, including many art games, making use of “dated” technology like 2D graphics.) Our classics – as young as they are yet – are still alive and well, thank you very much.