The Designer's Notebook: Revenge of the Highbrow Games
September 29, 2006 Page 2 of 4
A great example of works acquiring highbrow status with time is Shakespeare. Shakespeare didn’t intentionally set out to be highbrow. He was brilliant at writing for all levels of society at once: swordfights and dirty jokes for the groundlings, family intrigue and plot twists for the bourgeoisie, and political satire delivered in iambic pentameter for the aristocrats. If that sounds horribly classist, tough, remember that it was a classist time. Part of his audience could read Latin, while another, larger part couldn’t read at all.
If age is the only source of highbrow status, however, we’re in real trouble. Video games don’t last. Their hardware becomes obsolete. We can write emulators, but what happens when the emulators themselves become obsolete? Are we prepared to keep porting emulators to newer and newer machines for the foreseeable future? And writing more and more new emulators, as new graphics boards, sound cards, and physics chips replace the old ones? Throw in digital rights management, which is intended to prevent anyone from ever enjoying a work of art if he didn’t buy it from the manufacturer, and games can count their lifespans in years, not decades or centuries. The manufacturers of many great games are now defunct.
Most interesting of all the mail were the many, many outraged retorts that we already have highbrow games, accompanied by suggested examples. The complete list is too long to print here, but it includes everything from the plausible (Myst, Balance of Power, Rez) to the laughably inappropriate (Wing Commander, the King’s Quest series). Let’s take a look at some of the nominations. Leaving aside a few oddballs (Majestic), they fell into several recognizable categories.
Highly realistic vehicle simulations. Examples here included Microsoft Flight Simulator and Falcon 4.0. My reply: not really. There’s a lot to be said for verisimilitude, but flying and driving, even in highly complex vehicles, aren’t what I think of as culturally elite activities.
Paradox Entertainment's Europa Universalis (2001)
Simulations on serious topics. In this category we have the Civ games, Balance of Power, Colonization, Democracy, SimCity, and so on. Most of Paradox’s games (Victoria, Hearts of Iron, Europa Universalis, etc.) also got mentioned. This is the sort of thing I mentioned myself in the earlier column; there are some good candidates here. They’re not about people much, but definitely about ideas.
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