In 1994, I could boot up my family’s PC, wait around ten minutes for it to warm up and then delve into, of all things, a real estate development simulator that engrossed me for hours as I transformed a humble office building into a mixed-use spire that would put Hancock Center to shame. In 2012, I can boot up my much, much faster PC and play a game that simulates what it’s like to ramp off a cliff on a motorcycle, freefall onto the nose of a fighter jet, ride it into the clouds, hijack it, send it careening into the statue of a dictator and then land unscathed. Video games sure have changed, but in a very strange way the two games I’m referencing resonate with me by connecting with the same set of emotions.
The first game is SimTower, the deceptively simple “computer toy” from 1994 by Maxis, makers of pretty much everything with the term “sim” in the title. The second is Just Cause 2 by Avalanche Studios, released 16 years later. On the surface (and quite far below it), these two games have nothing in common. One puts players in the role of some kind of benevolent Donald Trump figure and the other smashes every action movie cliche into a single experience for a generation raised on cable TV and Mountain Dew. And yet, they both tap into moments of simple pleasure stemming from a bit of elusive realism.
As much time as I’ve spent blowing up whole military installations solo in Just Cause 2, I might have spent a comparably sizable chunk of time tearing down its in-game freeway at high speeds, never once shooting a gun or running down an enemy soldier. In those times, doing anything outlandish or violent would have broken the mood. It was beautiful to hop into a sports car and reach top speed just as the sun slid behind the mountains. In the best moments, it was like I could feel the wind from the back windows, naturally cracked. I could connect with that simulation because, while I’ve never piloted an attack helicopter on a suicide mission against a missile-crazy despot, I have been on a freeway late at night going an inadvisable speed just for the thrill of it.
Likewise, I have never actually been in a massive skyscraper that has offices, a hotel, condos, a movie theater, a luxury restaurant and a freakin’ chapel at the top, but I’ve been in all of those places separately. SimTower is an inherently peaceful game and though it isn’t realistic in its scale or configuration, it taps into true memories with its simulations. It asks players to imagine every office they’ve ever been in by playing a very realistic sound clip of office noise every time an office block is clicked. It asks players to remember the strangeness and excitement of staying in a hotel. Most of all, it asks players to see the wonder of modernity writ large by throwing it all into one place and positing that, money and zoning being no object, doing so in real life might just be plausible.
There aren’t as many “peace” games out there today as there were back in the ’90s. These days, players more often than not have to invent their own peace games within inherently violent games like I did with Just Cause 2. There are a lot of reasons most gaming today is loud and explosion-centric, but mostly I think it’s just that the culture of gaming has merged with the mainstream so weird, little toys like SimTower don’t have room to thrive anymore. There’s some hope in browser, mobile and social games that have players tending a farm or something equally sleepy, but the quiet, even contemplative nature of old games is absent in today’s frantic designs.
Really, this particular nostalgia trip isn’t just about how video games have changed in the past 20 years. It goes deeper than that. Today, technology is loud, social and ubiquitous. In the ’90s, tech was on the margins most of the time. Computers were cold and quiet, their pacing necessarily deliberate for their slow processing speeds. Video games are signs and symbols of information technology as a whole. Games in the 1990s were weird, detached and surreal. Even the ones with guns and bombs were oddly quiet. My nostalgia isn’t for those games themselves. Rather, it’s for the unique experience of technology first learning to attach itself to our lives, our memories of hotels and night time freeway driving, but still being strange to us. It was nothing less than our society’s first contact with alien beings.