Musings: mechanical weaknesses into strengths

Musings: Make your mechanical weaknesses into strengths
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I’ve had video games on the mind (spoiler: most of these are going to be about video games), in particular on the vast difference been mechanical power between now and the old systems.

I was digging through a box of old memory cards, and was slightly taken aback from the proud display of “1 Megabyte” on the front of some of them. The actual size wasn’t what surprised me, since back then game save files were often Kilobytes (!) big, but how it was an advertising point. Now-a-days, if a PC or console’s memory isn’t large enough to fit every single game made in the 1990’s onto it, it’s consider poor hardware. And yet here’s this humble little one Megabyte memory card confidently displaying its power, once a power house of its day.
It was both amusing and kind of frightening; just thinking about the difference in tech formed in such a relatively short amount of time was kind of mindboggling. Mostly because, despite the lack of mechanical power and freedom, some of the most genre defining games came out in the mid nineties and early 2000’s. And then THAT got me thinking about what provoked this musing: that developers often worked around these weaknesses to make them strengths.

Take Silent Hill* one and two for example. The real-time graphics and environments were much harder to implement then the traditional pre-rendered backgrounds of the same era, and due to this the draw distance was severally limited to hide the texture loading and rendering. Without this severely limited view, however, we might have never had the now iconic fog of Silent Hill, an oppressive presence felt throughout the entire game, hiding who knows what kind of monsters. It’s become so iconic and important that its absence in the “HD rerelease” of Silent Hill 2 was met with almost universal criticism.

An even bigger example would be from the Metal Gear franchise, which supposedly got its stealth mechanics from hardware limitations. When ‘Metal Gear’ was developed in Japan on the MSX2 (don’t worry if you never heard about it, it never really got the advertisement it needed in the West), the hardware couldn’t support the number of enemies and bullets necessary to make it a decent action game. The story goes that Kojima decided to reverse the idea: rather than being a high octane action game, the player would instead be encouraged to AVOID enemies, using a then revolutionary idea of guard sightlines and detection. Making clever use of mechanics (such as making the player quite fragile, enemies tough but apparently short-sighted etc.), Kojima made what was for all intents and purposes the first stealth game.

The old saying goes that ‘challenge breeds excellence,’ and I think that can be applied here. When presented with an obvious limitation and problem, some developers get creative and find ways to make those weaknesses into strengths.
I should clarify that I don’t think negatively of the LACK of limitations in today’s systems: expanding one’s power and options is more often a good thing then a bad thing. I’m just offering the viewpoint that we shouldn’t let the power today’s technology define what can and can’t be done. As several very good games have proven, when there’s a will, there’s probably a way.

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For those interested in sources, part of the Metal Gear design philosophy can be seen in Kojima’s interview with NowGamer, found here (in addition to several other big name interviews; it’s quite an interesting read):
http://www.nowgamer.com/before-they-were-famous/
*Also, take a moment of silence for the untimely cancelation of Silent Hills. We never saw you fulfil your full potential, but you will be missed, game that could have resurrected the horror game genre.

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