The current console generation is home to a number of initiatives that see earlier games lumped under the prestigious banner of Classics. The respective online stores of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 feature subsections for the games on their predecessors, while the HD Remaster efforts (at least on the PS3 in PAL regions) carry the title of Classics HD. Most consumers see it as convenient branding to better distinguish them from more modern products, but when you consider the nature of what has historically been termed ‘Classic’, one might begin to consider this mass cataloguing, irrespective of quality, as sacrilegious. With this feeling at the forefront, the question coalesced: “What defines a Classic?”
“A work of enduring excellence”, is one of the listings provided by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. But how does one determine whether that definition is applicable to any product, particularly when it is fresh and new, its influence on culture as a whole yet to be established? More importantly, does gaming follow the example of its forebears of film and literature in this regard, or is it so separate from them that it is forced to blaze its own trail? Before those questions can be answered, the fundamental concept of the Classic in those other mediums must first be explored, and it is easy to draw parallels between the factors for consideration in them.
The most prominent similarity is that the products that are held in the highest regard are firmly products of their time, though featuring themes, messages or narratives that are capable of resonating through the ages. It isn’t necessarily a single genre that marks them out; anything from philosophy to romance, mystery to speculative fiction is fair game. Quality runs a very close race to this incomparable aspect but it, nevertheless, remains subservient to story and the myriad elements that that incorporates. It’s easy to pick and choose from the long histories of these passive mediums to provide examples of this: Commedia, Paradise Lost, The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, War and Peace, Atlas Shrugged, The Lord of the Rings, Casablanca, Soylent Green, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Time Machine, these form but a few of the titles deserving of eminent praise and each marks out their classification as a Classic through a single viewing or reading.
Their entitlement stems from literary achievement and, by proxy, artistic merit. There is no real reason that these same conceptions cannot be applied to video games, except that, historically, very few games have been able to capture any semblance of meaning or true excellence via their aspirations of erudition. Those widely regarded as the best from the days of yore are almost universally flawed, or simply too shallow to fairly be referred to as defining moments in storytelling. Final Fantasy VII, Deus Ex, The Legacy of Kain; each falls far short of their purported superiority from other titles when viewed from a pure literary standpoint. Since the inception of the sixth generation, the quality of game narratives has been rising, though shining examples are still few and far between.
A near perfect marriage of story and gameplay: Shadow of the Colossus is a Classic
Many gamers will hold up Shadow of the Colossus as an example of the best there is, and this is difficult to disagree with. The directed story is minimalist, as you take the role of a young man seeking to revive his lost love. The path to this is through the sacrifice of sixteen hulking beasts. There is precious little exposition in this quest, but a sense of loneliness and desolation is brought to life by the empty expanse in which the game is set. Sympathy is provoked by the fact that Wander’s mission is one of destruction that is selfish and, at the same time, selfless. It also shows how well the unique properties of a video game can be harnessed, as the gameplay mechanics lack superfluity making every action that the protagonist is capable of meaningful in some way. And, although there is only one way to bring down each Colossus, it still feels like your game. It highlights the importance of player agency, but SotC has the almost unique property of utilising this within a linear story framework, serving to make the story, and particularly the ending, more powerful than it would be if the game adopted a different style.
It is one of few that is truly deserving of being called a Classic. Being such, it also outlines the way in which the definition of them must be fundamentally altered before being applicable to gaming. The medium is dichotomous, with equal import being granted to both the interactive and non-interactive aspects. The two must be unified and equally powerful for the product to be able to take a place in the annals of history as a defining moment, and taken as such, the list of those deserving of that prestigious title is short. Arguments can be made for the likes of ICO, Okami, BioShock, Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, Journey and Grand Theft Auto III, among others. Looking deeper, each of these games has had a single creative entity behind them; the kind of development lead that is usually referred to as an auteur, but the importance of their kind in this industry is an argument for another day.
The seventh generation brought about a fundamental shift in the gaming market by popularising online multiplayer to the point that, today, it is almost ubiquitous. This is enough to make one wonder whether the trend-setters and innovators in that marketplace are also deserving of equally eminent praise, in spite of the fact that they usually have no story to tell. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, for example, took the framework of multiplayer shooters, infused it with the ideals of role-playing games and created a new standard. LittleBigPlanet gave creative control to the consumers, granting them the same tools as the developers with which to generate levels and effectively birthed a revolution. Demon’s Souls blended single player with multiplayer seamlessly, allowing players to invade each other’s games to help or hinder at random, imbuing it with a unique kind of community. Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit introduced the Autolog, evolving leaderboards to promote player competition, even when not directly contesting each other.
Each of these games is notable for being a progressive step in the evolution of the online sector in some way, and although each will be fondly remembered for doing that going forward, are they deserving of the same recognition as those single player experiences that are memorable due to a story that could not be told as powerfully in any other way? By the very definition of a Classic, the answer to that is a resounding “no”. Although they are powerful examples of player agency, there is no literary value to be found within them and, as such, they have not the power to endure. Their quality will invariably be utterly eclipsed before too many years pass.
There is no doubt that the same argument can be made for the stories that games tell as they are a similarly iterative process, but there is a difference. The public can attach themselves to story, narrative and character in ways they cannot to a purely competitive experience. It gives the single player aspects of gaming an indelible benefit that allows them to be held up to scrutiny, even after many years, their merits and achievements dissected until the final verdict is passed on whether the title is allowed to bear the hallowed designation of a Classic. And it is only over time that anything can really be determined as deserving of that taxonomy, even though it may be thought possible from day one. Why else is it only in retrospect that we are truly appreciative of excellence?
Publishers, and those that grant these titles, need to recognise that status isn’t granted on a whim. Just because a product is old or critically acclaimed, does not mean that it is deserving of the same barometer of cultural significance as, for example, Orwell’s 1984. The mass categorisation based on the single factor of age is a mistake that deserves to be looked upon with utter disdain. It is a status that needs to be recognised by those most able to do so, and that is, most assuredly, not the creators or even the fans. It is the realm of true critics. It requires subtlety and scrutiny, literary dissection and dissertation. This is truly what defines a Classic.