Playing Final Fantasy VI some eighteen years after it was released is akin to reading Don Quixote in English: you can tell both that it’s a masterpiece and that something is missing in the context. The rapid development of video game tech hasn’t tarnished any of FFVI’s shining narrative, of course. It is still a tale of horror, wonder, wit, and hope. Yet even as I played through it for the first time—ever—I could see that I was going to have to dig deep to really get at the importance of the title. Something was speaking to me, I just didn’t know what.
What was it that kept me away from it for all these years? Why buy it now (aside from the fact that it is going for eight bucks on the Wii Store)? Why am I so enraged by its random battles yet so drawn to the game? Is it just the narrative or is it something more?
Video games are about abstraction. The gamer takes a controller or keyboard and mouse and is suddenly put into the role of a superhero, soldier, or plumber downing mushrooms to grow big enough to take down a princess-stealing dinosaur. One can travel to distant galaxies or stick around at home, making life more comfortable for simulated humans with consumer products and love. There is a literal fourth wall—the screen between TV/Monitor—with a game on one side and a player on the other.
This is why controls are so important to a title. Good controls remove one more barrier between a player and the gaming world. Bad controls take a player out of a game, like seeing a boom shadow in a film. The illusion is shattered. Frustration replaces aspiration. It takes time to learn the controls of a game, of course, but if the design sensibility matches the learning curve, the transition becomes seamless.
SimCity came about in a rather roundabout way. Will Wright, working on a completely different title, discovered that he had much more fun developing the level editors for the game than the game itself. Believing (rightly so, as it turns out) that others might share his interest in civic management, he eventually created a game that, though puny by today’s standards, is the grandfather of all city-simulation titles.
Thus, a franchise and a genre were born. Soon, gamers would be harnessing all kinds of zones, ordinances, and utilities to create masterpieces of design. Theme parks followed, as did hospitals, ski resorts, prisons, and even schools. The classic top-down look has been little changed since then, but other forms of expression changed the flow to keep things from getting stale. Where would we be without the disaster button, filling us with the power of Old Gods to rain down our displeasure on the unwary Sims of the cyber world?