Imagine if tennis worked like video games. Every five years, the latest gizmos dreamed up by clean-cut French and British engineers would be revealed ceremoniously at Roland Garros and the All England Club -- electrified force fields on court boundaries, perhaps, or a charged ball to be used with a racquet-replacing glove capable of electromagnetic induction. A surface of ice instead of grass or clay, or of lava, with Nike-branded impermeable boots allowing players to vault from contracting to expanding hunks of igneous court.
To be sure, the results might be awesome. But that new awesomeness would likely never produce a result like the Isner-Mahut match, which required a century of championships on and off the grass courts of Wimbledon to reveal itself. It is only now that we realize, for example, how strangely strong and fragile the game of tennis really is when placed in even hands, like a soufflé that somehow survives on the line of scrimmage.
There is thus a virtue in familiar, well-trod platforms like the grass courts of Wimbledon. While they hardly exude the novelty of the next big thing, the rhythm of their longevity brings about new explorations of seemingly familiar spaces.
When new console platforms or controller gizmos or sensor upgrades or operating system revisions appear as frequently as they do for video games, we never even get a chance to plumb the depths of our old ones.
Instead, we maintain the collective hallucination that technical unfamiliarity is an equivalent to unfamiliar familiarity.
The result is all too familiar indeed: familiar characters commit familiar acts in familiar places -- but in slightly unfamiliar ways, or using unfamiliar display technology, or by means of unfamiliar interfaces. These are the sitcoms of game design, and they have their place. But must their place be the only one?
Of course, some designs do live on despite the gizmo crusade that motivates them. Genres and conventions evolve from technology to technology, making subtle shifts even despite often being deployed in the interest of a familiar franchise. And unfamiliar takes on familiar work sometimes emerge from technical provocation. After all, Pong taught us something new about tennis (table tennis anyway), by having a simple circuit design that effectively restricted movement to the baseline.
Can we imagine plumbing the depths of the Mario bros., rather than just sinking them into yet another set of iconic pipes? Games like VVVVVV offer examples of plumbing the depths of a mechanic (in this case, gravitational reversal). And for what it's worth, it does so without 3D goggles or motion controllers.
It is a game that could have been made on a ZX Spectrum or a Commodore 64, a fact laid bare by creator Terry Cavanagh's brave refusal to update its graphics for contemporary eyes. But mechanical depth is just one way to experiment with unfamiliar familiarity in games.
Additionally, like Isner and Mahut, we could immerse ourselves entirely in a platform or an interface or a genre or a convention, refusing to come to the surface until we'd found new treasure in its murky depths, dismissing new attachments and upgrades as dangerous distractions, holing ourselves away like athletes practicing one dense corner of our craft to mastery.
It's a stance that seems almost unthinkable today. After all, the industry as a whole refuses to believe anything new and worthwhile and surprising could yet emerge from the Atari or the Dreamcast or the 8-directional joypad or the tilemap. Of course, until recently, that's what most people thought of tennis's fifth set too.