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Indulgence Reigns: Creativity and Limitations

I’m not much for nostalgia. If you know me or have read my writing in the past, you’ve probably figured that out. I value my memories, but I’m perfectly content with leaving them in my head and moving on. I accept change as a positive thing. The gaming landscape shifts, new techniques are discovered, and things, in general, improve. 

Memories are vital. They are to be cherished. Clinging onto them in the foolhardy hope that things stay the same so as to relive those memories instead of embracing the creation of new ones, however, does nothing but harm both the medium of gaming and your enjoyment of it on a personal level.

That said, as glad as I am that we have gotten past some of the unfortunate design trends from the early days of gaming, there was a benefit to the stifling technological limitations that created so many of that era’s annoying quirks. Most creative minds will tell you that restrictions are great for the imagination. They’re annoying, sure, but they force you to be your best and to think outside the box. 

Well, the technology of gaming’s past was nothing if not restrictive. There’s an almost magical simplicity to the best the retro generations have to offer that modern games just can’t match.

The culprit is indulgence. Why are the blippy tunes of old so much more memorable than the expensive orchestras of today? It’s not because music has gotten worse; far from it. It’s simply that the hardware limitations forced a focus on pure melody and nothing more, creating intensely catchy, if simple, tunes. Today’s production values sweep away the need for such limitations and the music we get is epic, complex, satisfying, and, perhaps, a little less memorable because some of that simple melody has gotten swept away.

Indulgence is the reason modern gaming is so caught up in a focus on “cinematic” this and “immersive” that. We have so much computational power, relatively speaking, that designers are free to go nuts. Why use only two buttons on the controller when there are so many more waiting for you to give them functions, to add depth? Why simplify when you can add and layer and build? 

Super Mario Bros is iconic on every level because of its limitations. The music is catchy. The gameplay is so simple anyone can play it. The tiny morsel of a story doesn’t get in the way. Even modern Mario games can’t match its powerful iconography.

Even in the days of early 3D, simplicity often created great things. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the greatest adventure games of all time. There’s a reason Nintendo has copied its design many times over with the Zelda games since: it’s a work of genius. 

A large part of its genius comes from the very fact that it was built on a platform that was about as powerful as your toaster probably is today. Even in a game that large in scope for its day, every scrap had to be used to its fullest potential. Every second had to matter. Nothing was wasted. Reading an article about the 3DS remake of Ocarina reminded me of this fact and made me anxious to play it again. It will be a great relief to be able to relive a classic without the burden of having to ignore the unfortunately outdated presentation.


Indulgence is our modern dilemma. We revel in processing power while neglecting the basic building blocks of what makes a great, fun game in the quest to use every last drop of it. 

I’ve long thought that the most exciting time in any console’s lifespan is near the end, but I’ve never been able to fully explain why. My PC gaming friends are yearning for new hardware, aching to make the most out of their expensive machines that are being held back by the meager console offerings still dictating the course of development for new titles, but I’m happily soaking up the terrific games coming out left and right.

Now I can finally put my finger on why this is. Yes, the end of a console’s lifespan exposes its limitations. It makes us see what’s on the horizon and wish for new and better things that can alleviate these problems and allow new games that are better, prettier, and more amazing.

Until those things come though, what we have is a brief window in which indulgence no longer reigns. Developers, having gotten past the phase where they could bask in the raw power of the consoles, must enter a new phase where they need to carefully wring out every last drop of performance in order to do new and interesting things.

Sound familiar?

E3 this year demonstrated to me that I’m perhaps more ready to move on to a new hardware generation than I’d like to admit. I saw too many muddy textures and too little graphical improvement in the games to come over the next couple of years. I finally felt myself getting restless with the little machines that have been sitting comfortably under my TV for longer than the average console lifespan already.

This new realization on the power of limitations has helped me calm down a bit. Yes, I’ll be happy to learn of new hardware. I love a good gadget and shiny graphics. In the meantime, I’m now excited to focus on the non-graphical innovation that will come in this brief window. Indulgence no longer reigns on the PS3 and 360. We’ll have to put up with middling graphics for a time, but the tradeoff will be developers doing amazing things with relatively little, stretching their abilities to the limit and letting their passion show through in the great games that will come flooding our way as the lifespan of these platforms come to an end. 

With the end of graphical improvement comes a focus on what’s really more important - the gameplay. I say enjoy this brief time. Stop your yearning for the tech of the future. Embrace it when it comes, but appreciate what you have in the meantime. When indulgence rears its head again in a few years, there will be a price to pay, even if we’re too distracted by the allure of shiny new things to notice it for a time. I, for one, am glad our sturdy current generation has lasted this long. It may not be much to look at anymore, but it’s damn fun to play.

Best of all, it will only get better from here.

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