Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds are all timeless works: no matter how much time passes they remain thoroughly enjoyable. In games, we have Pong and Tetris and Super Mario Bros. (NES). These classic video games are still just that, classic. Pong holds up fine nearly 50 years later.
But modern video games don’t seem to play according to the same temporal rules of classic storytelling in film or literature. I’m mostly considering 3D games in this context. 2D games generally resist this degradation possibly because their graphical simplicity places more of an emphasis on art style and gameplay.
The onslaught of HD remakes of classic franchises makes video games a medium in which diminishing returns or degradation are a part of a product and technological lifespan, breeding sequels and reboots. The graphical and computational component of games make the medium unique in that the materials (engines), like the paint in fine art or paper in writing, are regularly changing. The effect of jumps in graphical processing power produce a sort of diminishing returns on modern titles because “not HD or 60 fps at 1080p.”
We see something like diminishing returns in attitudes towards black and white film. I say attitudes because you can quickly adjust to a film in black and white if given the chance. But the same can’t necessarily be said for playing an old game that doesn’t have save file functionality or a shooter without camera or aim control, nearly universal conventions today.
Sure the degradation often stem from graphical limitations. Gameplay can remain classic at times if the systems are simple enough, e.g, Super Mario-like platforming or Unreal’s shooting mechanics. But because video games are able to update code, streamline, and add QOL (quality of life) improvements, a newer version of a game can safely be considered the more playable version. Patches and updates give games the incredible liberty of something akin to being able to rewrite and edit a novel that’s already published.
Consider the Ratchet & Clank reboot, an HD and gameplay upgrade of the original. In many ways this game has made the original obsolete: the full control over aiming, the slick menus, the gameplay enrichment, and graphical fidelity. In the decade plus that has passed since the original’s release, games have changed significantly and the new game mostly reflects the best of those advancements.
Games are as much computer engineering as art and time allows developers to think out problems and put forth improved designs and solutions. The ability to reiterate makes old versions of games obsolete, but also creates a unique space for improvement.
Maybe modern games can’t be timeless, as the HD or soon-to-be 4K remix or reboot will continue to cannibalize the original. But it may be the original ideas and baseline designs that make an older game timeless like the aiming of Quake or the platforming of Super Mario.