Just as there are no new stories, you can also claim that there's no new games. However, it does not mean it isn't fascinating to look back and see where the subgenres that are popular today have their roots.
Now, I am not going to claim that these are the deepest roots, but I am going to select some games and talk about them and their impact. Best of all, all the old games I am going to list can be played today, legally, for free! That's right, take a trip down memory lane and relive the games that may have been failures for their time, but went on to spawn mega hits ranging from Cookie Clicker to Firewatch to Rimworld and beyond.
When videogames began there was a pretty simple philosophy: Games are about competing. Whether it was competing to win against a live opponent or competing for the high score, that was the heart and soul of gaming for decades. Who knew that the idea of simply exploring an environment could be just as, or more, successful. No challenges, no achievements, not even any dialogue or words... welcome to the world of Bernband.
Heavy pixilation and languages you can't understand make for a truly alien landscape
In 2014, not too long ago, Tom van den Boogaart released Berband. It wasn't the first walking simulator, that is for sure, but there's no doubt it made a big impact on the idea that you can have a game make an impact with NOTHING. Journey had a puzzle to solve, both narratively and a requirement to progress. Thirty Flights of Loving had interactions and some kind of story that I am still pretty confused about. Berband has stripped it all away to create an alien world where you are an alien, knowing nobody, interacting with nothing, and exploring a truly foreign world. It's deep... it's shallow. It's basically anything you want it to be.
Why do we like these games? Well, the answer to that is as simple as the premise of Star Trek. We love the unknown. We love to explore the mind of someone else, and what better way than an interpretation of their psyche in a game like Berband or The Stanley Parable. It is a method of storytelling that really gives us control over both the progress speed and, at times, the very narrative its self. Our imaginations are REALLY good at telling stories, a lot better than game developers are most of the time.
Casual Clickers / Incremental Games
We're stuck on a theme of doing nothing. I guess that tells us something about today's gamer. Imagine a game where you barely had to do anything. In this genre I believe there are two defining features: Progress for progress' sake and a series of non-impactful decisions to make.
First, progress for progress' sake, or basically you're doing something to get more of something else, whether that is gaining levels or money or making buildings. Having them doesn't GET you anywhere as far as the game goes.
Second, you get to make decisions. Whether that is building something to help you click better or leveling up some skill that may help you (or not)... your decision gives you the feeling of control without actually making any real impact on what the game is.
Here I present two interesting and different takes on the same game. Progress Quest and NPC Quest
NPC Quest came about in around 2003. The premise is stupidly simple: You control only what your character buys and what they level up in. Then they go off into the world and fight in real time on a map, you see how they do, and adjust your stats/equipment as you need/can afford.
Shopping. What RPG would be complete without it?
Progress Quest takes a more passive approach. Create a character, complete with stats, and just let the various progress bars fill up. While I was writing this article I let it play in the background and here's the result:
Ah, my life as an Enchanted Motorcycle Inner Mason begins
Hours later I have reached level 2, but most importantly, exterminated cub scouts.
Why do we like these games? This comes down to another primal drive of humanity. We yearn to progress in our lives. Seeing the visual stimulus of progress is, to us, the same as actually achieving something. Better yet, if we can salivate over some kind of reward, plan for it, and achieve it our brains are wired to just pour dopamine into our system to say "Hey, good job you! Progress is what keeps the species alive so keep doing it!" Even when the progress has zero impact on your survival. So go on, level up your mage. Get a new fireball. It really will make you feel better!
Once again I return to 2003, apparently an impact full year in my mind. Notrium was a freeware game developed by Ville Mönkkönen. It's still available here, and a deluxe version is on Steam if you like what you see here.
In a way Roguelike games were all survival games, but Notrium was brilliant in the pacing. You've crashed on an alien world. You're low on food, energy, water. Hostile creatures roam the land and night is coming...
Is that blood mine? Probably.
If that setting doesn't set you up for a good night of gaming and being terrified for your virtual life I don't know what will. Modern survival games, the ones truly about survival and not some multiplayer gankfest (I'm looking at you Ark / Rust), are broken into life stages and Notrium is no different. What may make it different is the fact that I don't know if anyone did so earlier.
First, survival. Collect the basic materials and systems to keep yourself alive and relatively safe.
Second, explore and arm. Begin collecting the materials to advance, find new things, and arm yourself for the future.
Third, organize and escape. While the objectives vary, in the third stage you're well equipped and ready to tackle whatever is ahead of you. Whether it is escaping an alien planet or murdering the thing that has been going bump in the night is up to you and the game.
Notrium is well ahead of the pack, with multiple endings and plenty of danger around every new corner you turn.
Why do we like these games? Simply put, this genre is actually the same reason we like progress bars, but in a different form. We are given a simple task, either implicitly or explicitly, and then achieve that task. Whether the game is telling you "get off this planet, start by building some shelter" or you just land and realize "night is coming and its getting cold..." this game genre is broken into fairly discreet tasks that have to be tackled in order to plan for the future. It adds the challenge that clickers lack which appeals to some people, but not everyone. It additionally creates emergent story telling, the idea that we can tell a story based on the random events in a sandbox world. This ties into the first item: Our brains are good storytellers by design, we do not need someone to write us a book when we can create our own story to tell others. The blending exploration and visual progress is an incredibly powerful combination. To see your humble beginnings, whether a dwarf in an ASCII map or a Rimworld crash site, turn into a true Dwarf Fortress or survivor paradise is an incredibly rewarding experience, but the tales you tell your friends will be of the unforeseen disasters and unexpected results of the interacting forces. Notrium takes a less free-form approach to this story-telling method, but the rough idea is there that helped pave the way for these future games.