I don’t play video games much anymore, but I still have fond memories of when I did. Don’t worry, I won’t share all of them with you. But it’s hard to talk about science fiction without at least occasionally mentioning video games, because their anything-is-possible dynamic makes it the perfect medium for telling a good science fiction story.
One of my all-time favorites is Flashback: The Quest for Identity. Developed by Delphine Software, it was released in 1992, but we didn’t get it in our house until a little while later. Over the years, I’ve played it for both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, and I remember preferring the Genesis version, but I don’t remember my reasoning, as they were, as I recall, pretty much identical. But hey, I was a teenager and probably quite stupid.
In Flashback, you play as Conrad, who at the beginning has no memory of what happened to him. As the game unfolds, you get your memory back and become embroiled in a conspiracy involving aliens bent on conquering Earth. Flashback is what’s called a platform game, which means the gameplay involves a lot of jumping, but there are also puzzles to solve and bad guys to shoot.
The story is told partly through animated cutscenes which, for me, served as rewards for getting through the actual gameplay bits. I wasn’t very good at this game. I lacked the timing and reflexes required for some of the jumping. Playing this game, I was frequently torn between my desire to uncover more of the story and my urge to smash the controller to pieces. Only once, through uncharacteristic perseverance, did I manage to beat the game in a single sitting. The experience probably took years off my life.
That happens a lot. I’ll slog through any sort of gameplay, no matter how dreadful I am at it, to get every last piece of the game’s story. In Flashback, the story may seem a bit sparse (aliens are going to invade Earth, and you’ve got to stop them), but video games don’t need to rely solely on the “story” to deliver a great experience.
No, it’s video games’ ability to immerse you in the world through interaction that makes them such a powerful medium for storytelling. I’m always happy when I see a developer leverage the potential of interaction to tell their story (more examples to follow in later posts), but it doesn’t happen often. Too many games simply use cutscenes to tell whatever “story” the developers whipped up to justify the gameplay. Or it can go the other way: they rely on cobbled-together gameplay to fill the space between their elaborate cutscenes (I get the impression a lot of game developers actually wanted to be filmmakers). In either case, the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts. They can do better.
Of course, the whole purpose of a video game is to be fun. Good storytelling isn’t necessarily required. But the story is usually my reason for sticking with a video game, so that’s what I’m focusing on.
And I think Flashback does it right. The cutscenes merely add to the storytelling experience rather than being the totality of it, and the exploration of the game world is genuinely interesting and engrossing. If you haven’t played it, I definitely recommend it, but get it for one of the old consoles if you can. Emulators are okay, but you may want to brush up on their legality before downloading and using. Just a suggestion.
In 2013, some video game execs realized how popular Flashback was among fans. Recognizing the sales potential in marketing such a safe, familiar property, and demonstrating the sort of innovative thinking so common among video games execs, they decided to (wait for it) develop a remake. Imagine that. The world is truly not worthy of such mind-boggling genius. I just don’t know how they do it. A remake? That’s some next-level thinking right there.
See, they know that customers don’t like new things. Game execs are aware of the potential inherent in video games. They know they have a wealth of tools and talent at their disposal. And they understand that anything is possible, any experience can be had, any idea can be realized. But they bravely choose to use those resources to give us sequels and remakes and reboots and re-imaginings, because they know that’s what we want. They repackage the same characters and situations over and over again because they know we won’t buy it otherwise. New things scare us. They cause our wallets to shrivel up in terror. So they never even suggest anything new. Isn’t it such a comfort knowing they’re looking out for us?
Did I mention I don’t play video games much anymore?
By the way, the remake sucked. It’s best to just forget about it.
But I won’t forget the original.