Our journey together through the history of video games has finally reached the modern-day. Anointing the current generation as the best one ever is a hard thing to do since its obviously still ongoing. The current lineup of the PlayStation 4, Xbox One & Nintendo Switch still have a lot of gaming left in them and what will largely define this generation for future gamers may still be unwritten. However, we also about six years into this most-modern era of gaming and in a lot of ways the impression that the 8th generation of gaming will leave with players has already been decided. So, for the final time in this series, let’s dive into the reasons why this generation stands above all of the rest.
When video games first came into being during the 1970’s, the technology available to developers was limited and many games had to have their worlds and play areas represented by simple shapes, lines and dots. This dictated the type of games that were possible with many games having simple rules so as not to overwhelm the system they were running on. As technology advanced so too did the game worlds we played in, now it wasn’t simply about getting a higher score but living through a story that was shaped by your actions, enabling games to no longer be viewed as simply a ‘distraction’ but a way to experience feelings, emotions, illness (mental or otherwise) and all manner of things that ‘passive’ forms of entertainment like television and literature can’t replicate. In short, video games evolved to allow us to have new experiences.
However for years the level of these experiences was still being held back by technology. CD’s and DVD’s could only hold so much data and software/hardware limitations forced many of these experiences down linear corridors which could impact the level of interaction depending on what type of player you are. But now, as we creep towards the 3rd decade of the 21st century, gaming technology has finally reached the point where nearly any idea put to paper can possible end up as a video game. Both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are incredibly powerful machines that can deliver almost anything that gamers may have imagined short of photo-realistic visuals and this ability to convey nearly idea effectively is probably the single biggest strength of the 8th generation.
Now when you think of gaming with unbridled limits in terms of creativity, you might think of the biggest games imaginable with 100’s of hours of gameplay, a deep narrative, a living-breathing world to explore and advanced control options and while yes, this generation has yielded games that even during the last generation who have been considered pie in the sky territory (Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2 come to mind) but a look at the opposite side of the spectrum shows that creativity can flourish with all manner of games, big or small, especially inside of the healthy and booming indie gaming community.
As we saw when we discussed why the 2nd and 3rd generations of gaming were worth remembering, the Video Game Crash of 1983 had long-lasting effects on the industry one of which being the implementation of protectionist policies so that only approved software by reputable companies appears on a game console. This policy (or variations of) remained in place at Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft until the 7th generation when all three firms began to loosen regulations and allowing independently developed content to appear on the Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 respectively. And while it was slow going at first this opened the door for the explosion of high quality indie games that has been steadily appearing on our systems for years now. Games like Cuphead, Axiom Verge, No Man’s Sky, Shovel Knight and Minecraft are all products of creativity being allowed to flourish, something which no era of gaming has been able to claim to the same degree as this 8th generation.
While creativity and limitless boundaries are hopefully a trend that will continue to keep the industry vibrant for years to come the 8th generation is also notable for the technological leaps and bounds that each platform manufacture has taken in the past few years. When this generation began the three main systems on the market were the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Wii U with all three being available by the end of 2013. Now as we approach the end of 2017 each of those system has been (or will be very soon) replaced by a technologically more advanced platform. The PlayStation 4 Pro promises smarter gaming while the Xbox One X aims to deliver the most powerful console experience ever and then there’s Nintendo, once again disrupting the industry with its innovative Switch hybrid that opens up many new avenues when it comes to crafting gameplay experiences.
Processing power and graphics are only part of the experience however and this generation also brought us a brand new way to see games with the advent and commercialization of virtual reality. Long thought of as the ideal ‘most immersive experience’ possible for a video game, virtual reality technology remained extremely expensive to produce during the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s and difficult to perfect with the technology of the era. That didn’t stop companies from trying to sell virtual reality to gamers (Virtual Boy, R-Zone) but to call these platformers VR was more marketing spin than reality. Now however, thanks to the efforts of companies like HTC, Sony and Oculus virtual reality is well… a reality and many gamers can now experience games in a whole new light, allowing for experiences specifically catered to tricking the senses and deepening one’s emotional response. As an example. one just needs to look at a game like Resident Evil VII: Biohazard and its VR capabilities to see that the level of horror on display is unlike anything possible with just a TV and controller.
During our look at the 7th generation we talked about how gaming had never been so inclusive thanks to new technologies like the Wii Remote, PlayStation Move and Kinect. These devices helped open gaming up to a whole new market that may have not considered gaming a ‘fun’ pass-time before. However looking at the current lineup of systems (Switch excluded) you’ll see that each of them is supported by games that largely target the traditional ‘core’ gamer instead of the more ‘casual’ player. The reason for this in large part is the shifting of these players’ play time over to mobile devices like cell phones and tablets. And while the mobile gaming industry has a lot of flaws, especially when it comes to quality control and money-making tactics, there’s no denying that anything that keeps gaming at the forefront of the public’s view is good for the industry at large since it helps grow and renew the size of each platform (console, mobile, handheld and PC)’s install base.
You’ll notice in this look at the 8th generation that I haven’t really mentioned the handheld (Nintendo 3DS, PS Vita) and PC gaming side of things as much as in previous articles. That’s not because these segments of the market are in decline or of lesser quality than what came before, quite the contrary as both handheld and PC gaming seem to have reached a ‘maturity’ that the more ‘innovative’ and in flux console market isn’t experiencing at the moment. The 3DS and Vita for example have been receiving a steady stream of games that cater well to their target demographics and PC gaming has become simpler than ever thanks to services like Steam and the streamlining and standardization of components to build a computer than can stand toe to toe with the current home consoles. In short, these markets are doing well following the ‘slow and steady’ philosophy and those who put a lot of time into their handheld and PC games are likely as happy as ever.
The Sun has yet to set on the 8th generation of video games and already it’s been a wild ride. So far we’ve seen (nearly) every major platform get a hardware refresh and the stream of extremely high quality games does not seem to be drying up any time soon. But more than video processors, memory and chipsets, more than graphics, soundtracks and art work its the creativity that is going into these titles that really make them stand out from their previous-gen counterparts. Never before has the industry been so vibrant, so diverse and so unafraid to take new ideas and gaming has never been better for it.
And with that we’ve now taken a look at why each and every generation of gaming has the potential to be called the best ever, and while each and every era of gaming is special and deserved of the title for a reason in particular we still have to compare them directly to see which takes the title. So come back next week for the conclusion of this series as we determine which generation of gaming, is the best of them all.