I still remember that to play Mechwarrior 2, I had to set my resolution and terrain detail so low that the mountains had jagged slopes, and the only way I could know for sure I had actually achieved anything was from that sultry, mechanized, computer voice narrating my clumsy piloting through choppy, staccato visuals. Further stifled by the need for the included sheet of commands that utilized most keys on my keyboard, I soon found myself hearing her say, "Gauss Rifle. Gauss Rifle. Gau-Gauss Rifle," over and over again as I repeatedly selected it as my weapon, since that became more fun than what I was actually supposed to be doing. Maybe I needed a new PC. But maybe I would have just rather played Triple Action, and faced my opponent in battle tanks, with a total of only four commands: turn left, turn right, move forward and shoot. Of course, not all high-profile titles leave those kinds of scars. But some do.
The split in the gaming road lends itself well as a clear instantiation of an important philosophical question. How valuable is progress? Most take the importance of being cutting edge as a self-evident truth. In the gaming industry, the headstrong march to push every envelope has sometimes been to the detriment of gameplay, a fact of which the committed low time (and low income) gamer is all too aware.
The fact is, technology will always be moving forward, keeping the cycle running fluidly, trapping high-road gamers into a never-ending struggle for more, ringing the familiar bells of the perennially dissatisfied middle-class American. Buy, consume, then buy some more.
The case is like that of the mythical Sisyphus, eternally pushing a stone up a mountain slope, whence the stone falls back under its own weight, and the climb begins anew. That high road can perhaps be likened to this slope, with the endless cycle of renewed and heightened expectations keeping any end inevitably unreachable. Perhaps, as with our look back at early games, there is indeed wisdom in classics. (Sisyphus would have probably had better success with my Mechwarrior-mountains, since the slope was composed of diagonally-arranged horizontal lines, where he presumably could have taken a break.)
There is something to be said for the low-investment gamer and for low-investment gaming. There is a kind of minimalist purity in avoiding a Sisyphus gaming climb to the hardware and complexity summit, only to roll back down and climb again. Then again, once you do reach the top, the view can sure be spectacular.
Simon Abramovitch is a philosophy graduate and freelance writer, and currently maintains a blog about the purpose of humankind at www.thehumanpurpose.com