The release of Return to Monkey Island (September 2022) has jogged video game fans' memories back to 1990, when The Secret of Monkey Island debuted, a graphic adventure based on the vicissitudes of Guybrush Threepwood, a somewhat awkward would-be pirate whose story inspired the film Pirates of the Caribbean. While the protagonist of today and then is the same, as is the point-and-click interface, which requires one to use the mouse to make him perform actions in his surroundings, video games in general have changed a great deal in 30 years, driven by the technological revolution that is the lever of their development.
The recent releases of titles such as God of War Ragnarök, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, and Resident Evil Village: Shadows of Rose, evoking series that have been popular for 20 or 30 years, might suggest otherwise. In reality, although characters and sagas have been repeated for decades, what changed radically was first and foremost the graphics: at the time of the first Monkey Island, video games used a maximum of 256 colors and a resolution of 640x480 pixels, today colors have become millions, and pixels can reach even 4K resolution (3840x2160): it is clear that with such a vast number of dots to make images, settings and protagonists of games are much more defined and photorealistic.
NEW GENERATIONS OF MACHINES
Much of the credit is due to the advancement of gaming consoles. As much today as 30 years ago, when the Super NES was raging, the market is dominated by Japan's Nintendo, with its Switch hybrid, which allows games to be played on a portable display or by connecting to a TV, and of which 113 million units have been sold. But revolutionizing the market, bringing video games into living rooms around the world, was Sony in 1993 with the PlayStation, which quickly became synonymous with consoles.
Within three decades we have reached the ninth generation of gaming machines (the first is considered to be that of models such as Magnavox Odyssey, which came out in the 1970s and 1980s): today's PlayStation 5, compared to its progenitor, offers not only more computing power and better graphics and sound, but it now relies, like Microsoft's rival Xbox X-Series, mainly on the digital distribution of video games downloaded from the net. To establish itself, this system needed the development of broadband, and thus replaced the Cd-Rom or later Blu-ray, which were considered revolutionary at the time they were introduced. Progressive advancement meant that a game went from occupying four three-and-a-half-inch floppy disks, totaling less than six MB of memory, to today's even 250 GB, to hold which would take over 173 thousand floppy disks!
The evolution over time of the video game medium, unlike others such as film or literature, is inextricably linked with related technological development. One example is that of "game engines," or software that enables PCs and consoles to translate programs into interactive sequences. The most advanced, released last April, is Unreal Engine 5, which allows photographs to be imported to create virtual worlds, and was used to create a scene containing 10 billion polygons, the minimum geometric units to recreate the illusion of three-dimensionality in games.
In 1992, recreating a 3D environment on a computer display was difficult, so much so that the programmers of the video game Wolfenstein 3D resorted to an optical illusion through a solid modeling technique called ray casting, through which one could simulate the movement of a character in an enclosed space framed from his point of view. It was thanks to that game's insight and the development of 3D graphics engines that the "first-person shooter" genre, in which the player looks at enemies through the protagonist's eyes and confronts them with a firearm in his fist, flourished, becoming one of the most popular (along with others such as puzzles, platformers, role-playing games, strategy games, and so on).
IMMERSED IN THE GAME
It is precisely in order to involve the player more and more with the senses in the adventure that video game creators began in 2016 to use virtual reality, that is, visors such as those from Oculus, HTC or PlayStation itself, which are able to trick vision to the point of creating, for the wearer, the illusion of being inside a three-dimensional digital environment in which one can move, can shoot and can interact with various objects.
This technological revolution has changed the way we play games for many, but even greater impact on the masses has been the explosion of mobile gaming, or the enjoyment of video games through portable devices: still in its infancy in the 1990s, with the introduction of titles such as Snake on Nokia phones, interactive pocket games boomed from 2007 onward with the arrival of the iPhone and other smartphones, which, taking up the concept of handheld consoles such as GameBoy (1989) and Game Gear (1990), expanded it to an audience of millions of users, thanks to the possibilities of computing and commercial development offered by the app system.
Indeed, every innovation in hardware brings with it novelties in software and in ways of playing games: thus the spread of phones equipped with high-definition displays and cameras has cleared the way for the use of augmented reality, that is, the superimposition of digital images on real ones framed by the user, for video game use.
THE POKÉMON GO PHENOMENON
The most striking and successful example is that of Pokémon Go, the game in which users by holding their smartphones can search for Pokémon in their surroundings and attempt to catch them, and then use them in battles with friends: launched in 2016, the video game has been downloaded by 590 million people and has generated more than $5 billion in revenue. Another fad that, for more than a five-year period, enraptured fans was the one launched by the Nintendo Wii, later followed by Sony and Microsoft, a console designed to get users off the couch and entertain them with motion games such as tennis, golf and bowling, through the introduction of a controller equipped with accelerometers capable of sensing the user's movements in space and translating them into reactions of digital alter egos on the screen.
Considered a niche phenomenon still in the 1990s, especially in Italy, the video game market has exploded to be worth about 200 billion euros with three billion players, according to estimates by Newzoo. In our country, according to data provided by IIDEA, the association that brings together companies in the sector, the market in 2021 had a turnover of 2.2 billion euros and involves an audience of 15.5 million people, mainly in the 15-24 and 45-64 age groups, with an almost equal proportion of men and women, a sign that yesterday's fans have not disaffected and more younger ones have joined the club.
For some, the obsession with video games has turned into a real job, through sports competitions, so-called eSports, which borrow the idea of leaderboards of the best scores achieved by players, already present in the first arcade games placed in bars in the 1980s, such as Space Invaders or PacMan, to turn it into a multimillion-dollar business: today teenagers with the best reflexes and strategies, properly trained in real academies, participate in tournaments of titles such as Dota 2, Fortnite, League of Legends and many others, with prize pools that in some cases have exceeded 40 million euros (in Italy the phenomenon has an annual economic impact of 47 million, according to IIDEA).
The 29-year-old Dane Johan Sundstein, known by the nickname N0tail, has earned 7.1 million in his nine-year career, to which must be added deniers from partnerships and sponsorships.
VOICE AND MIND COMMANDS
Such a global phenomenon cannot but look to the future to find new followers through innovation. The first and most obvious is that of the metaverse focus, bringing mechanisms from the blockchain technology used for cryptocurrencies into the gaming world. Thus the idea of existing multiplayer universes, in which to experience adventures such as World of Warcraft, is reinvented albeit in a different way by platforms such as Roblox or The Sandbox, in which users can play and earn a currency or create and win digital items to resell them, thus allowing them to earn money by playing.
Another concept that has been experimented with for years in video games, often with disappointing results due to immature technology, is that of using voice as a command, and that is now becoming viable thanks to artificial intelligence's giant strides in understanding natural language put into practice by voice assistants: in February 2023, Dead Island 2, the first title that will use Alexa Game Control, software for being able to ask one's alter ego to perform certain actions simply by speaking, will be released.
If interaction then always takes place through an avatar with whom one identifies and, in narrative titles, in dialogue with other characters, the next frontier could be to create digital humans indistinguishable from real ones and even replicas of oneself, as more and more technologies will allow, such as Epic Games' MetaHuman, which renders skin pores, eye reflections, expression lines, hair and every other detail in an ultra-realistic way.
At that point, having one's own digital clone could perhaps make one of the other dreams long cherished by video game creators come true, namely using the mind as an interface: if a monkey was able to play Pong with the Neuralink wireless implant funded by Elon Musk, and designed for far more serious purposes such as curing quadriplegics, it is clear that sooner or later someone will try to propose it to replace the joypad. Resetting reaction times during video game events and, why not, creating the ultimate eSport champion.
Licenciada en Bellas Artes y programadora por pasión. Cuando tengo un rato retoco fotos, edito vídeos y diseño cosas. El resto del tiempo escribo en MA-NO WEB DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT.
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