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Pushing Buttons: The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One ushered in an era of technical brilliance – but creative timidity

It was at this point 10 years ago that the future began. Obviously, I am referring to the almost simultaneous launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles in late 2013. These machines ushered in the era of universal high-definition gaming. They brought us into the cloud computing age, allowing games such as Forza Horizon and Titanfall to perform complex maths remotely, freeing up your processor for other tasks. They forged ahead into game streaming, allowing us to play retro games across broadband connections, and recognised the growing importance of sharing gameplay, including functions that made it easier to record and broadcast gaming experiences across social media and Twitch.

It was an exciting time, but looking back, a lot of mistakes were made. Microsoft fell on its face with its awful Xbox One debut event in Redmond, talking up the machine’s TV services and laying out a vision of an always-online console with digital-first software, seemingly destroying the idea of sharing and reselling our games. Although Microsoft was correct that digital downloads would soon dominate and that fast broadband connections would become almost universal among gamers, it was all too much, too soon.

Furthermore, its bizarre effort to make motion-sensing cameras mainstream, by packaging the Kinect with every console, massively overestimated our desire to have a camera watching us play badly at sports games. It also felt weird that Xbox One and PS4 ran on almost identical AMD hardware, and that both looked like early Betamax players – great slabs of black plastic. The days of wildly different industrial design seemed to be over.

So what did this age really bring us? I wonder if it’s a coincidence that during what we call the golden age of long-form TV dramas, these machines brought us the biggest, broadest narrative adventure games we’d ever played. Yes, the PS3 and Xbox 360 had epic story games – it was the time of Mass Effect and Uncharted, after all. But 2013 brought the narrative ambition of games in line with the technical, network and social advances of the 2010s. Bloodborne, No Man’s Sky, Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, Metal Gear Solid V – these gargantuan experiences mixed multi-strand storytelling, visual magnificence and immersive world-building. The first two generations of PS5 and Xbox Series X titles have owed so much to this era and its brands and conventions – perhaps to a fault.

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It is also telling, however, that the greatest innovation of the period – at least when it came to financial and cultural impact – was the evolution of the shooter from death matches to squads and battle royale. Fortnite and its many acolytes created a new form of large-scale multiplayer interaction; they opened up competitive gun-play to wider audiences; they essentially forced the arrival of cross-platform play; and they built marketable spaces in which pop stars and fashion brands could get a glimpse of the potential of the metaverse.

For all the technical brilliance of the best PS4 and Xbox One games, the era must also be remembered for its timidity. Publishers and developers ducked out of telling stories that had something meaningful to say about the world. Political undertones were underplayed or denied, development staff denied that their latest game about war in the Middle East or global terrorism or corporate greed or armed revolt had anything to do with real-world events. “We’re just creating a scenario for the player to make their own interpretations,” they would say, shoving away responsibility so as not to trouble the bank accounts of financial stakeholders.

This was an era when mainstream video game storytelling could and should have matured thematically. At the time, TV was giving us Fleabag, Atlanta, The Americans, Watchmen, Better Call Saul, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – shows of moral complexity and maturity. But while PS4 and Xbox One games could riff on parenthood, honour and gender (as we saw in The Last of Us, The Witcher 3, Uncharted 4, Persona 5 and Life Is Strange) they almost always stopped short, the arguments hanging in the air like stray pixels.

Yet these games also gave us vast worlds to explore, secrets to discover and share, spaces to exist in. This was the era in which the idea of games truly and fundamentally shifted. Things to play became places to be. Titles such as Minecraft, No Man’s Sky and Destiny transcended traditional video game lifespans to become hobbies in their own right. We didn’t get everything we wanted from this dawn of broadband connected, high-definition console technology, but it provided the foundations. Perhaps a truly brave new world will be built on top of them.

What to play

If you’re looking for a dystopian career simulator (rather than actually living in one), then seek out CorpoNation: The Prologue, released on Steam this summer. It’s kind of a futuristic take on the acclaimed immigration sim Papers, Please requiring you to test lab samples for a shady megacorp despite distractions and moral quandaries. This is a free teaser for the full game, and it’s a stylish, imaginative glimpse at the amusing horrors to come.

Available on: Windows
Estimated playtime: Two hours

What to read

  • A sign of the times here as events company ReedPop is seeking a buyer for Gamer Network, a collection of video game news sites including Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Eurogamer. Huge changes to advertising and SEO convention are making it harder to monetise online games journalism.

  • It’s fun to see the return of interactive entertainment’s most beloved debate: what actually is an “indie game”? It’s back because offbeat deep-sea adventure Dave the Diver has been nominated in the best independent game category at this year’s Game awards, despite being published by the billion-dollar South Korean company, Nexon. News site VGC sums the whole thing up. I’m not getting involved.

  • The editors of a new anthology of video game writing have appeared to suggest that nothing like this had ever been attempted before. Naturally, this led to considerable consternation among the people behind the many anthologies of video game writing produced over the last 30 years. Gita Jackson has a good summary of the controversy, which also traces the routes of subjective games criticism.

What to click

Tetris puts me in a state of zen. If only it did the same for my family

Jurassic Park Classic Games Collection review – a great way to relive a lost world of gaming

‘I played video games with a voracious appetite’: writer Carmen Maria Machado on being a lifelong gamer

Question Block

This week we have a short and simple question from @Cuddy75 on Twitter, who asked:

“Why don’t games go out of copyright like books or music? That would mean any game over X years old could be remade.”

I went straight to Alex Tutty at legal firm Sheridans, which has years of experience in the video games sector, with this question. “The answer is that they do go out of copyright just the same as books and music,” he said. “The key elements of copyright in a game are the visual representation of the game as an artistic work (like a picture or a photo) and the source code which is protected as a literary work (like a book). So a game is really a collection of pictures and words (just in source code form).

“The length of copyright protection in these is typically the artist’s life plus 70 years, and so games will go out of copyright. However, as most of the developers are still alive and none have been dead for 70 years, they are still in copyright protection.”

This means games won’t start to drift out of copyright until around 2050, when the earliest titles will be subject to expiry. Until then, copyright law makes it difficult to legally transfer older games to new storage media, which means that many copyright-expired games may be unsalvageable by 2050. In the meantime, there is the legally ambiguous concept of abandonware – game code which is freely available online, as the developers and publishers are now defunct. And 40 years of software piracy and emulation has ensured that the ROMs of thousands of classic games are online, if you know where to look.

Whatever the case, if you want to see a legally sound remake of Jet Set Willy that removes the legendary game-breaking Attic bug, you have a long wait ahead.

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on pushingbuttons@theguardian.com