How well do you remember your childhood? If I asked you, what was the first video game you ever played, would you remember? And when I say remember, I mean really remember; not the game you think you want your first video game to have been.
Strangely, what I’m about to write I can’t vouch for. Some of it may be true, some a recollection of a snippet of truth, and the rest could be fabrication of the highest order. But what I can say is this: I’ll try and tell the story of Flashback truthfully. It’s the least I can do.
The first game I ever played was Flashback. This statement alone makes me doubt its authenticity. In a previous review, I wrote about how watching my uncle play Alien Resurrection fed my interest in gaming - even though I only glimpsed the screen through the crack of a door. That was Christmas 2000 and Flashback was first released in 1992 on the Amiga. Remember those?
I have a distinct memory of playing Flashback, and yet Alien Resurrection somehow appears in my memory’s timeline before Flashback. This is false.
Whilst the same uncle was living with my Dad and me, he would sit in front of the television in the lounge, on the old threadbare carpet, playing his Amiga 1200, connected directly to the TV. Next to him was an acrylic storage container for all his games. The contents of which you could see through the clear lid: a catalogue of floppy disks.
What’s it About?
At the beginning of the game, we see Conrad fleeing capture and crash-landing his futuristic bike in a vine-ridden jungle. Due to the nature of the storytelling in Flashback, it can be troublesome to comprehend what exactly is going on. After playing the game for the first time, I repeatedly started anew because I found myself enthralled by a world where there seemed to be endless scope for story.
The story wraps up in short clips that stimulate the imagination more than the clarification of details. A concise sentence here or there could have aided the understanding of the story, but that would have hurt how the world of Flashback introduces itself to the player. After all, Conrad himself temporarily suffers from a bout of amnesia at the beginning of the game. The sparse and veiled story meshes nicely with one of the central themes of the game: the steady uncovering of knowledge.
Electronica of the Stars
Once the game begins, the soundtrack ceases and a jungle soundscape creeps to the fore. The sounds of unseen fauna remind the player where they are. The sounds of their feet on the ground, and the noise made when they jump, build a stark reality.
The lack of soundtrack during the intervals between important situations — combat and key story points — is an inspired method of storytelling. There’s an understanding that, between plot points, the player must play the game, concentrate, and become absorbed by the setting. The soundtrack becomes more provocative when it’s needed, to inform the player that something important is taking place.
FromSoft is the perfect example of show don’t tell and remain a misnomer in this field. For Miyazaki, this is a conscious artistic choice.
Flashback used these short cut-scenes to give life to its world and Conrad’s journey. There was no dialogue in Flashback. Merely a scene that furthered the story, accompanied by a short piece of music. It was exciting to be suddenly thrust into these short segues after figuring out how to further the story.
While Flashback isn’t a difficult game; it’s an awkward game. The player movement, whilst animated superbly, is poorly executed through the controls. Despite these obvious shortcomings, it’s a game that truly creates a representation of reality.
What’s Over There?
As a child, these locations were inspiring locales that reinforced my urge to exist in this future world. Great science fiction often has a way of making dystopias seem more appealing than our reality. It’s a strange pull that alternate worlds can have; often counterintuitive.
The backdrops used in Flashback were hand-drawn and use an animation technique called rotoscoping for player and AI movement. This makes movement appear fluid.
Throughout each of the levels are a series of non-scrolling screens. These screens have multiple levels, meaning the player must jump, grab, climb, drop down, and use elevators where necessary to navigate the pseudo-maze.
These spatial puzzles become increasingly difficult as the player progresses through each of the seven levels. This was one of my favourite aspects of the game.
Walking Through Quicksand
Pressing a directional button, or performing an action gives the impression of delay, where there is none. It’s this false veil that makes character control feel sluggish. This style verges on realistic biomechanics; the awkward, though elegant, movement of human beings.
For a game as old as Flashback to have one outdated aspect of gameplay is impressive in itself. Many games from a similar period are quite boring. A lack of diversity (game content) was par for the course. Older games relied on the simple fact that they were achieving something new: they were transplanting a player’s reality to somewhere else.
What game developers discovered quickly is that gameplay is not enough by itself. Each discipline of game design is a wall for another ceiling.
Flashback is an old game - ever so slightly tweaked for our bigger, prettier screens. It is a partially collapsed structure; standing like an ancient castle that vigorously defies a society that has no use for it anymore, save for admiration.
Here Today, Here Tomorrow
Flashback is forever immortalised in the pantheon of video games that I’ve played. Whether that’s due to it being the first game I ever played, or its originality for the time.
I often (wrongly) compare older games to newer games. It’s easy to assume that older games did more, that they pushed the boundaries of game design. And to an extent, they did. Games like Flashback existed when the early visionaries were practising their passion. Gaming was burgeoning but it wasn’t the megalith it stands as today.
So then, newness, freshness, originality, and anything that happens to be pioneering often appears in the infancy of development. Gaming continues to grow, of course, though in some areas it has stagnated. But it’s nowhere near the end - these are still the early phases. Mindbending video games are still made, but the field is rife with bugs.
Video gaming is a highly competitive environment, that much is obvious. Whether it be the developmental stage of a new game, the marketing of a game, or even the thirst for attention once a finished game releases, there is competition for status amongst fans and streamers.
The field feels worn out by the continual use of harsh pesticides, though a bumper crop is still occasionally harvested. It stands to reason that any further evolution — a grand leap so to speak — will rely on the pioneering of those who are already in the industry, and those who are innocently earning their stripes. Will their inspiration come from the past — developers are frequently resorting to the rereleases of older titles — or a future we’ve yet to imagine. One, which, like Flashback, allows us to imagine ourselves living in a reality that we shouldn’t want to exist in.
Sometimes we think we know the future. We predict our future so perfectly that knowing it through numbers allows us to pretend we’re in control. Once we’re out of control, it’s possible that the new stories will flow, like water channelled by irrigation.
What I’ve said here might be true; that said, I could have forgotten something.