In defense of GTA, part 1: A short history of video games

You’ve probably noticed that a new Grand Theft Auto game is out, GTA IV. As usual, the release of a new GTA has resulted in a new round of articles criticizing (or outright excoriating) the game.

I’m a big fan of GTA. I’ve played every 3D GTA game from start to finish. As such, I feel I can provide an informed perspective on the game series. I see a number of annoying misconceptions and deceptions repeated time and time again, the most infamous of which is the claim that the game rewards you for killing prostitutes.

I’d like to explain why I continue to play every GTA game released. But before I can do that, I need to talk a bit about the history of video games, so that I can explain exactly why GTA was (and is still) so groundbreaking.

(In the text that follows, please excuse any lapses in chronology; my focus here is on general trends in game design, rather than the minutiae of which games were released when.)

The first wave of video games: the arcade

Video games are a comparatively new medium. While a few experimental games were created as early as the 1950s, it was in the 1960s that the first recognizable video games began to appear on university computer systems. In the early 1970s, these primitive games began to appear in amusement arcades.

Early games mostly belonged in one of two categories: sports games and shooting games. The first amusement arcade game, PONG, was an example of the former. It presented a stripped-down approximation of a familiar competitive sport, in this case tennis. Other games attempted to simulate baseball, hurdles, and other sports events.

Perhaps the earliest example of a shooting game in the arcades was Space Wars, an adaptation of a mainframe game. It allowed two players to maneuver spacecraft on a vector graphics screen, and attempt to destroy each other with missile fire.

In 1978, Taito launched Space Invaders, which introduced two vital changes to the shooting game formula. Firstly, it was a single player game, so players no longer needed to find a friend of similar ability in order to enjoy play. Obviously this was a relief to the kinds of people who played video games, but it was the second innovation that really changed gaming: Space Invaders presented the player with an enemy whose forces were apparently overwhelming.

It was a massive hit, and set the pattern for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of video games. Sometimes the enemies were Japanese aircraft, sometimes egg-laying aliens, sometimes undersea creatures; sometimes the screen scrolled horizontally or vertically, or even diagonally. However, the basic situation was always the same: large numbers of enemies were invading for no adequately explored reason, and as they moved around the screen you attempted to kill as many of them as possible. The genre became known as the shoot-em-up. While it soon became formulaic, and is no longer popular, for a while almost every other video game seemed to be a shoot-em-up.

In the 1980s, a few new primeval video game formulae were invented. The game Scramble turned the tables, making the human player the aggressor in an invasion attempt; this idea was repeated later in games like Zaxxon and R-Type. Mazes became popular, in games such as Pac-Man and Berzerk. Pac-Man also introduced many people to the game mechanic of evading enemies rather than destroying them, a formula also used in Q*Bert and Crazy Climber. Driving games made an appearance, from purist Formula One simulations to avoid-the-enemy variations with cars in mazes. Eventually true 3D graphics began to appear, with games such as Battlezone, a commercial game which was adapted into a military tank battle simulator.

One thing that was clear on entering any 1980s video arcade was that there was a tremendous focus on shooting things, and not a great deal of story-telling going on. Partly this was because of technological limitations, but mostly it was because the purpose of an arcade video game was to extract as many coins from customers as possible. Games therefore attempted to give the most intense experience possible, so that even a five minute gameplay session could feel exhausting. The easiest way to achieve this kind of intensity was with lots of violence, often enhanced with pulsating sound and visuals. Eighties games such as Robotron: 2084 and Defender still rate amongst the most intense video game experiences devised.

The second wave: console games

While arcade games battled to fit more and more killing on screen, video games began to undergo a parallel evolution in the home. In 1977, the Atari 2600 introduced the idea of a video game console which could play any number of different games, loaded onto it from cartridges. Prior to this innovation, home video game consoles came with a fixed set of games built in.

Cartridge-based console gaming lowered the investment needed to put a game into commercial production, and reduced the amount of money the customer had to risk to try a new game. At the same time, companies like Atari were making incredible amounts of money, so game designers were allowed to experiment with games that would have been unsuitable for arcades. And with no requirement to keep game sessions short in order to pull money from the player’s pockets, games could become longer.

So it was that another video game genre began to become popular: the adventure. Often modeled on pen and paper role-playing games, adventure games offered players the chance to take part in a comparatively lengthy quest, which often had some sort of narrative purpose behind it. For the first time, games began to explore why the protagonist was risking his life and why he was being attacked. Furthermore, almost all adventures had an ending in which the player could actually win the game.

It wasn’t long before some adventure games began to offer players true choice, with multiple ways to “win”–for example, by rescuing the princess, defeating the dragon, or recovering the treasure.

The third wave: home computers

During the home computer boom of the 1980s, the price of game distribution fell further, as software for home computers could be duplicated on regular audio cassettes. In addition, home computer programming languages put the means of game development in the hands of millions of people. This led to another explosion in the degree of complexity found in video games.

As well as graphical adventure games, there were adventures where the gameplay was represented purely as text. One of the earliest was called simply “Adventure”, and was developed in the 1970s on business computers which lacked any kind of graphical output. It was played at universities and colleges all over the world, before being adapted to run on home computers.

Text adventures were able to use the power of the written word to represent situations that the primitive computer graphics of the time were not suited to. In addition, because the player could type complex commands, it was possible to affect the game world in more sophisticated ways than was feasible with the four-way joystick with single fire button that was common at the time.

Hence for a number of years, text adventures led the way in showing what video games could be capable of. Most text adventures avoided violence entirely, encouraging players to find other ways to make progress within the game universe. Characters other than the player-controlled protagonist were commonplace, and they soon began to exhibit their own programmed personalities and act according to their own distinct goals. For the first time, games began to feel comparable in complexity to more established artistic genres; a text adventure game could feel like you were actually in a novel.

As the worlds modeled in the games became larger and more complex, many players began to find that exploring and mapping the world was an enjoyable and entertaining activity in and of itself. Games began to be advertised on the basis of how large they were and how many different locations they featured.

The death of the arcades and the rise of 3D

Meanwhile, the shoot-everything approach of arcade video games had run into a dead end, and the industry had collapsed. There were lean times for consoles too, as the limitations of their low priced hardware prevented their games from competing with those found on increasingly powerful home computers.

By the late 1980s, high resolution color graphics were commonplace on most home computer owners’ machines. This made it feasible to use full 3D color graphics in video games. One influential early 3D game was Wolfenstein 3D, which challenged the player to lead a heavily armed soldier into a maze-like Nazi encampment.

While there had been 3D action and adventure games on home computers as early as 1980, Wolfenstein 3D achieved notoriety for the level of violence depicted. The player was encouraged to kill hundreds of German soldiers, who were seen falling to the ground in a spray of blood. In addition, killing the “boss” at the end of a level resulted in an instant replay of his death. Although the game was controversial (and arguably tasteless), its high speed 3D graphics were groundbreaking, and it won many awards. It also kick-started the video game genre known as the first person shooter (FPS), still incredibly popular amongst Windows gamers.

The makers of Wolf 3D went on to make Doom, which ramped up the complexity of the 3D world. Rather than limiting the player to wandering in 4 fixed directions in a grid-like world, Doom provided the illusion of a true 3D world in which you could move in any direction at any angle. Doom also featured exploration-based puzzles involving locked doors and hidden switches. More controversially, it ramped up the violence level. It was another hit.

Before long, video game developers tried taking the kind of free-roaming 3D graphics popularized by Doom, and using them in story-based action-adventure games. The ultimate aim was to make a “cinematic” game; one that would feel like you were inside a movie.

By the mid 1990s, it was possible to model objects using polygons, and draw them at high speed on screen. This led to games in which both the world and the objects in it were truly three-dimensional. The launch of the Sony PlayStation boosted video game console power, enabling similar feats of programming in console games. But while game programmers could now draw and animate pretty much anything, the complexity of the resulting game worlds now became a major problem.

Next, in part 2: the complexity problem.