Old Is New: This Year's Best Games Are All About The Classics

This fall, we've been getting the best sort of déja vu. From Dishonored to XCOM, many of the best games of the fall have learned from past classics and reworked them into smart, satisfying, fresh-feeling games. Is this new appreciation for 90's classics a trend, or an anomaly? What exactly does "old-school" mean? Does the future of gaming depend on this current crop selling well? Is Mitt Romney actually a giant spider?

My oh my, those sure are some... Burning Questions.

Kirk: Hello Jasonbro! It has been a little while since we did one of these. I guess we've both been busy playing lots of video games, huh?

Jason: I fucking hate video games.

Jason: just kidding

Kirk: This time of year, it can be easy to start feeling that way. Especially if you're, say, reviewing Resident Evil 6. Heyo! (Too Easy? Low-hanging fruit?)

Jason: Low-hanging fruit that pops back up every time you try to take it and says "YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE LAST OF ME YET!" Yeah, I'm lucky enough to have spent my time with a ton of great games over the past few weeks. Dishonored, XCOM, Virtue's Last Reward...

Kirk: As well as Torchlight II, Borderlands 2... the list goes on and on. Honestly, there's been some grumping from people I know about how 2012 has been a bad year for video games, but I think they're tripping. Skyrim may not have come out again this year, but 2012 has been fantastic. Fantastic, and super interesting.

Jason: Fantastic, super interesting, and old-school.

Kirk: Yeah! Which is our topic du jour—how all of these old-school ideas and philosophies are showing up in modern games, and how for the most part, they're working.

Jason: We sure are enjoying them, aren't we? Maybe it's because of nostalgia; maybe it's because design was actually much sharper 10 or 15 years ago. I don't know. But you're right — it's 2012 and here we are raving about games like Dishonored, which is basically Deus Ex, and XCOM which is basically... XCOM.

Kirk: I think you make the delineation thusly: X-Com for the old game and XCOM for the new one.

Jason: Dashes and lower-case letters are so 1994. The future is all CAPITAL LETTERS.

Kirk: AND THANK GOD, REALLY. But yeah, as you say: It's important to plumb why, exactly, we like these games so much. Is it nostalgia, or is it because they're good games? Though actually, let's deal with that one swiftly, because it feels like a less-interesting digression. Dishonored, XCOM... these are effin good games by any metric. Nostalgia, shmostalgia.

Old Is New: This Year's Best Games Are All About The Classics

Jason: Right — I mentioned to you while we were playing Dishonored that this is a game I would want to show someone as an example of what video games can do. Like, here you are in this situation, and you have to figure out how to accomplish your goals, and the story is what you do along the way. Emergent narrative, and all that jazz. I usually prefer a more linear, tighter story, but it's hard not to be impressed at just how empowering a game like Dishonored can be.

Kirk: And there really is something classic-feeling about it; the way that it works, that flexibility. The fact that you can lean. It feels like Thief, like Deus Ex. But it's also just a smart, cerebral video game. In an era where AAA console gaming is largely defined by Call of Duty (which series, when writing about Dishonored, our friend Tom Bissell awesomely referred to as "digital Pirates of the Caribbean log-flume rides"), something like Dishonored inspires a sort of terrified hope. Could it be that the types of games we fell in love with as kids are actually going to be popular again?

Jason: Were they ever unpopular? We don't know how well Dishonored is doing, but it's been getting rave reviews from both critics and gamers all over the place. There's this general consensus that Dishonored is the type of game people have been craving for a very long time. EA or Activision might not have been able to fit it into their crowded lineups of intense military shooters and free-to-play mobile games, but I think a game like this would have been critically acclaimed whether it was released in 2012 or 2005.

Kirk: Yeah, that's kind of the question here. I'm not sure these types of games ever went out of style, but it sure did feel for a little while like no one was making them. Like you just said—there is a hunger for this game, and you don't get hungry if you've been eating well. There's a reason that both Dishonored and XCOM have felt like an oasis in the desert. Looking back at 2008-2012, it feels like we were stuck in this big-budget, consolized rut. But was that actually the case, or does that diagnosis overlook a bunch of games?

Jason: Well! Let's not generalize too much. Like 2012, the past few years have been full of all sorts of games, both indie and big-budget, both PC and console, both crazy-linear and stupid-emergent. Both good and bad. But you're right in that I can't think of any games like Dishonored—maybe Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes the closest?—or XCOMFire Emblem? Valkyria Chronicles?—that have been released during this current console generation. They both feel very old-school. So let me turn that point around: what exactly makes a game "old-school"?

Old Is New: This Year's Best Games Are All About The Classics

Kirk: Right—and actually, Human Revolution felt much the same to me as Dishonored did this year, though in the end Dishonored focuses on a couple fewer things and as a result is more flexible, empowering and polished. But yeah, that question: "What the hell does 'Old-School' mean?" Does it mean more difficult? More complex? Less approachable? More tweakable? I liked Jason Killingsworth's article over at EDGE that discussed that topic as it pertains to Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall's "Old-School RPG" Kickstarter. Jason summed it up well: "To label one's project Old School RPG seems to just draw attention to this appeal to nostalgia in such an obvious way that it comes off feeling a little crass, perhaps too forward." Maybe, though, the answer is that "old-school" is more than just a nostalgic ideal; it's shorthand for "Longstanding design ideas that seem to work well."

Jason: And it is perhaps not a coincidence that Brathwaite and Hall's Old-School RPG seems like it will miss its funding goal. I'm glad you brought that up, because on one hand you have that project (which has since been updated and named, but was rather generic when it first launched) and on the other hand you have Project Eternity, Obsidian's old-school RPG. The big difference? With Project Eternity, all they had to do was namedrop: "Hey, this is going to be like Planescape: Torment meets Baldur's Gate meets Icewind Dale." Boom. Instant gushing from anyone who grew up with those specific games and misses the way that they played. Not so surprising that Project Eternity raised almost $4 million—a new record for a Kickstarted video game—in just over a month.

Old Is New: This Year's Best Games Are All About The Classics

Kirk: And there, you have to think that while Obsidian will use those games as inspirations, their game will surely be updated for modern times. (And if and when Brathwaite and Hall make their game, it's a safe bet they'll do the same.) It's easy to forget that a lot of things about those older games just weren't very fun—I love Planescape Torment, but replaying it earlier this year, I was struck by just how fiddly and unsatisfying everything is. Ditto X-Com—that game is a seriously dense, not-that-fun-to-handle thing. What's been remarkable is how these successful games we're talking about, particularly the smart yet streamlined XCOM, take "old-school" design ideals and make them work better, and smoother, than ever.

Jason: Good point! As our expectations get higher and higher, and as video games start offering more and more polish, it's really tough to go back and play some of those old games. Which makes us crave the "old-school" even more: if I'm looking for, say, a great sci-fi tactical isometric RPG-strategy game with base-building and character customization, my options are kind of limited.

Kirk: We kinda want it all. The feeling those games gave us, but updated for our more sophisticated palate. (And here I'm going to go ahead and say that "complex micro-management" and "sophistication" are not necessarily the same thing.) I'm sure there are people who legitimately would be happy playing crusty action-point-based isometric RPGs forever, but once you play something like XCOM, it's hard to go back. I'm not sure I'd say that Dishonored pulls such a leap over Deus Ex or Thief, but then again, it's certainly a hell of a lot more user-friendly without sacrificing any vital levels of complexity.

But you know, I think that part of the reason we're all so enamored of these two games in particular is that, for one reason or another... they just feel unlikely. You know? We're so used to publishers cramming shit like Medal of Duty 3: Modern Ops down our throat that it feels somehow insane that we'd get a game like Dishonored, with its single-player-only campaign and brand-new, non-derivative world. Are we really all so jaded?

Jason: We are. I mean, you were at E3. We both were. Dubstep, shooters, neon, war, you know the rest. I welcome the unlikely.

Kirk: A couple years ago, I would have told you that dubstep + Far Cry seemed pretty unlikely, but yeah, I take your point.

Jason: Speaking of unlikely games, let's talk about the game I can't stop playing. Virtue's Last Reward. Yesterday you promised me you'd check it out—did you? Or are you going to break my heart?

Kirk: I did! I played a little bit before I fell asleep. What the hell is this game, Jason.

Old Is New: This Year's Best Games Are All About The Classics

Jason: hahahahaha ok. hahahahahaha.

Kirk: I mean. Seriously.

Jason: Tell me your first thoughts. First impressions. Go.

Kirk: First impressions? I like the idea behind the story. There are a lot of words. The acting seems weird. It feels like an iPhone game. I'm intrigued, but more because you say it's good than because I've been sucked in.

Jason: Okay. Let me give readers some context, here. Virtue's Last Reward is the sequel to 999, one of my favorite games of 2010 and one of the best adventure games I've ever played. Like 999, VLR is a cross between a visual novel and a point-n-click adventure. It's a big interactive story. To get through, you read, make choices, and solve puzzles as you try to figure out where the hell you are.

Kirk: So yeah, speaking of unlikely games...

Jason: Hahaha! It's very Japanese. You've grasped the basics of the story, yes? Nine people are trapped in this facility by some crazy character named Zero (who speaks through a bunny rabbit avatar). They're forced to play this twisted game. Or die.

Kirk: Right. It's like that movie Cube! Sort of. I need to play more.

Jason: You have to read a lot, and think a lot, and once it grasps you, you won't be able to stop. All of the characters have their own hidden secrets, and there are tons of other mysteries to find (and try to solve) in this facility. Also, there are like 24 endings. 24!

Kirk: So, to attempt to wheel our careening locomotive back onto something resembling "the tracks" of our previous discussion—this does feel like an unlikely game. And while it's not really AAA (It's on 3DS and Vita, right?), it is a good example of another unlikely, old-school feeling (puzzles + interactive fiction) game hitting the market. Telltale's The Walking Dead is another good example of this—people are actually coming up with interesting things to do with the "old-school" adventure game, breathing life into it in ways that feel fresh, approachable, smart, etc.

Jason: Right, I was getting there! People loved 999 (and will love Virtue's Last Reward even more) not just because it's well-written and engaging, but because it reaches back to the fundamentals. It was made by Japanese developers, but those developers are clearly fans of Western games like Zork and Monkey Island and Myst. Old-school games. You can see a great deal of all of those games in Virtue's Last Reward.

Old Is New: This Year's Best Games Are All About The Classics

Kirk: Right. And on that tip, I've been seeing some really interesting stuff come out of the interactive fiction scene. I feel like you probably didn't check out Emily Short and Liza Daly's First Draft Of The Revolution, but that game was almost effortlessly unlike anything else I've ever played. It asked questions and explored spaces that I've literally never seen a game explore. And it does it with text. All of this really just makes me think that for all the hand-wringing we do about how much everything sucks now, the truth of the matter is that we are still just barely exploring video games and all of the different things they could be.

Oh boy, I'm starting to get pret-ty broad here. Um... quick, make a joke or something.

Jason: Umm... I guess you could say we have a binder full of video game possibilities?

Kirk: Nice! Topical! Honestly, I was expecting a joke about Mitt Romney turning into a giant spider.

Jason: Nothing funny about that. I'm just surprised more people aren't bringing it up. I mean... he turned into a spider! On national television!

Kirk: Yeah, though fortunately not a nano-tech video game spider. Just a regular old giant spider.

Jason: Still terrifying. So anyway, we've talked a lot about the new games we're playing that feel old, but hey, that's old news! Let's talk about the future. Are there any genres or systems or types of games you'd like to see resurrected in the next few years?

Kirk: You know, I'm pretty stoked about how good developers are get at making complex games work on controllers. Not just from a technical standpoint, but also in the very core of the game's design. We're finally seeing games that have all the depth of an "old-school" PC game but are playable while sitting in front of your TV. I'm excited to see how much better game-makers can get at that. I'm also hopeful that both Dishonored and XCOM will convince more AAA publishers to support more games like those two. Though really, fuck 'em—if there's anything we've learned from the past year, it's that where there's a consumer desire, there's a way! And often, a Kickstarter. How about you? Sensing any trends this fall?

Jason: Bro. You didn't answer the question.

Kirk: I've been watching too many presidential debates.

Jason: OK brobama.

Kirk: Okay, okay. Hmm. I truly think that XCOM has awoken in me a real thirst for good turn-based strategy games. As much as I like FF Tactics and Tactics Ogre, I get the sense that developers could do a lot more with the turn-based idea. Furthermore, turn-based games can work well on a controller, since you don't have to do complex actions quickly. So, that's my answer: More big-budget turn-based strategy games! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW, MR MODERATOR

Old Is New: This Year's Best Games Are All About The Classics

Jason: That's good! What about on a Wii U controller? I have spent many-a-night fantasizing about a potential Final Fantasy Tactics sequel—a true sequel, not one of those Advance spinoffs—that uses the Wii U controller for grid-based battling.

Kirk: Haaa I like that you spend your nights fantasizing about Final Fantasy Tactics on the Wii U. But yes—I bet that controller could be fabulous for just that kind of game. Maybe a Wii U Fire Emblem sequel... hey maybe you should ask Reggie about that the next time you two are hanging out.

Jason: hohohoho. He does love telling me about Fire Emblem. Okay, so I guess it's my turn to resurrect a genre?

Kirk: That it is.

Jason: Dungeon Keeper. Enough said.

Kirk: Nice.

Jason: So to summarize this whole conversation, everything old is new again. But when will it become old again? When will we start wistfully remembering the days of military first-person shooters and dubstep?

Kirk: Heh, I'm sure it will. I mean, there was a time not so long ago when we were SO SICK of World War II shooters. And Modern Warfare came out and everyone was like, "Finally! Something new and different!" And... well, now look at us. When I played Company of Heroes 2 at PAX, the whole time I was thinking, "Man, it's so nice to be playing a World War II game again." Aah, the circle of life. Its radius stretches over eons, but all things must return from whence they came.

Jason: Yes. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, shooters to consoles.

Kirk: So it is written, so it is known.

Jason: Amen. Praise Tebow.