I remember when the Playstation 1 was first released. It was a different age – retailers were successful, the Australian Cricket team were on top, and video games up to that point were largely simple affairs without the inherent complexities associated with the third dimension (I actually know someone who refuses to play anything that has a third dimension). But it was also an era where, honestly, console video games hadn’t changed a whole lot. So imagine the explosion of people’s minds when, BOOM, out comes a system from Sony of all companies, with no-holds barred 3D capability, fantastic sound and, wait. What is that? Is that the controller?
You see there was something about the Playstation controller that screamed, well, advanced technology. You know when you walk through the alien ship in 2006’s Prey and see that weird alien language all over the place that you JUST CAN’T READ? Well that’s a bit how picking up the Playstation controller for the first time felt. I can remember walking up to a kiosk set up in a store with demos for Battle Arena Toshinden and Destruction Derby and being actually confused with gaming for the first time. X, O TRIANGLE, SQUARE? What does that mean? L1? I’m not sure what you’re asking me to do. Wait, hang on, so I need to go into the screen? What is this madness?
Sure I got used to it, but I can remember looking at the controller and thinking how on Earth I would ever remember button combinations that weren’t A B X and Y. And looking at a cheat code guide for a Playstation 1 game just seemed to be absolute gibberish. Similarly when developers started utilising dual stick controls for first person shooters, it took me a solid few weeks of walking into walls and making my character stare at either the roof or the floor before I felt comfortable with this new fan-dangled way of controlling my video games.
So you know what, I totally dig that people new to videogames find them just so damned complicated.
I just finished playing through Splinter Cell HD on the PS3 and what a nostalgic romp through a complicated and non-sensical global conflict it was. It was also a relatively primitive despite being less than a decade since I first played it. At the time it was somewhat of a technical marvel on each platform it hit. Sure it was at its best on the XBOX and PC, but even the PS2 and Gamecube versions were pushing the boundaries of what had been done on those systems to date. Luckily what sat underneath all of that prettiness was a solid game. On its surface Splinter Cell a stealth action game, THE stealth action game for some people. But if I were to distill the game into its core components, it really is just a puzzle game where you’re establishing the most efficient path through each level by managing a series of metrics, albeit with some pretty innovative and cool gameplay mechanics to boot. Essentially you’re trying to solve the equation for X by minimising sight, light and sound. That’s the game at its absolute most simple. And despite being rather formulaic, and almost rote in the way in which you begin to approach each scenario once you’ve been playing it for a while, it really is still to this day a solid stealth game.
But for me what it represents is something more than just a game that was pretty, had some innovative mechanics and happened to be pretty popular. It represents a shift in what video games as a medium were expecting from their players. Players really were expected to understand the intricacies of how the game was working on the back end in order to make the most of the experience. How will the AI react to any given action? How will the game’s dynamic lighting react if I shoot the light out? What tools will the game allow me to use here? Splinter Cell wasn’t just expecting you to play the game, it was expecting to know it inside and out. And with that came a layer of complexity that went beyond a player having to grapple with superficial adversity of your on screen adversity or level design or even a difficult control scheme. Rather it was a complexity that can in some instances only ever be overcome by dedication and a prerequisite level of experience in how video games expect you to think in order to solve the problems they present you with. And with the barrier to entry never higher, you almost need to be super spy Sam Fisher to unlock the secrets of how to play a modern video game.