Hit me with your best shot...
Abandoning WoW is great, because I get to play games again, but I'm in an odd place, because, after leaving the den, and blinking my eyes, my vision slowly returned, and I realized that I was really hard to please before I got lost in MMO land. The time there has only made the condition worse.
It's not because I'm some kind of obnoxious squid groping at Captain Nemo's finest invention, and it's *not* because I'm HAL reconciling impossible and conflicting priorities by refusing to open the Pod bay doors. Do not shock, stab, or lobotomize me. I think it's because I've been doing this for a long time--this playing games thing, and my entire experience is riddled with disappointment.
I'm a gamer, and I love gaming, but I think if we old guard could be candid, we'd quickly realize that gaming itself has been a nonstop pain in our collective ass for as long as it's existed.
Let's go back to the very beginning, shall we? There are 2 games which kind of interfere with each other in an argument over which was the 'first' video game: Pong and Space war. Space war was a reasonably fun two player game, that was, at first, only playable on the most advanced equipment of the day--available to a handful of people. Even later, when the Chuck E Cheese mouse made a few boxes and put them in bars, the distribution was still limited. Meanwhile, Pong, the most idiotic game on earth, was rendered into a format for use in the home, and sold widely. I'm not going to get into the technical reasons why--I'm just saying, this is emblematic of where the industry was headed.
So leaping forward to my experience in the game world... I remember getting some commodore gaming system, or something... I don't really remember what it was. But it had snakes. Where you were a snake, and there were other snakes, and you ate the snakes, and they ate you, it was probably also called 'snakes', and quickly, you became bored, and tried to kill yourself with the controller, which was a pygmy moccasin (so that part was, at least, easy). There was also pipes, where you had water going down pipes, and you tried to make more pipes, it was probably also called 'pipes', and, eventually, you got bored, and tried to kill yourself with the controller, which was a 5X3 Bushing (making it laughably difficult). Video games *sounded* cool, but the reality of them was like a punishment.
Still later, we got a computer at a swap meet, and a friend loaned us some software to try out. He'd programmed a game where you had a tank, and you shot filthy communist asterisks who were plotting against the government with their wildcard-driven anarchist agenda. *This* was fun. But in order to recreate the experience, after we gave him his floppy back, I had to learn Basic, and build the game myself. I was 4 years old or something, and I liked drawing dinosaurs, so I was more into doing that, than learning how to code. Clearly the fact that *I'm* a slacker, in proper gamer fashion, was obvious at this point. Or, at least, I looked like one; there wasn't a 'polycount' in those days. Otherwise, what happened next might have been more fun for me.
The next major step forward was an Amiga 500. Well, that's a lie; we had a nintendo with Robbie the Robot. But I'll get to that in a second. The Amiga was great for 3 reasons. One, I could edit the cursor picture, and make it into a howitzer, which resembled the silhouettes on the cardboard chits from Panzerleader. Two, I could play a game called Carrier Command which had 3d vector graphics, and a laser canon that went 'Bpowowowwww'. Three, we had Deluxe Paint, and I could animate klingon cruisers fighting gradient-fill vessels in the purple spray-paint nebula! 256 colors, baby. It was glorious.
It sounds really rosey, but if you'll notice, two of the activities mentioned were not, technically, games. As a kid, I remember playing carrier command, and thinking that it was remarkably obtuse. There was an enemy carrier out there, somewhere, but it was much much faster than you, and I never was able to catch it. The idea was to send out your jets with some kind of payload and shoot up its engines, while wandering around and capturing islands. But the process of island capture was remarkably slow, and fraught with annoying docking sequences. The carrier itself had this great canon, and this crazy drone launching system, where a camera flew into the sky out the back of the carrier, and you could target missiles at the terrain it flew over, but most of it wasn't very useful against an island--and since I couldn't catch the, faster enemy vessel, they weren't much good against it either. Plus, while there was probably documentation, I remember having alot of frustration at trying to figure out how the game worked.
Those who played carrier command, including myself, will tell you that it was the absolute cream of the crop for its day. It is still one of the finest games ever put together, both in terms of the premise and basic design. But the fact remains that it was a massive chore to play in alot of ways. My fond memories of it are wrapped up in my naivete as a kid, and the fact that it was another fascinating aspect of the Amiga.
The Amiga had some great shareware, and was an interesting experience all the way around. I remember playing simple lunar-lander type games on it that worked on the desktop, using whatever windows you had open as platforms. Another sweet quirk was the fact that programs didn't necessarily have icons inside the GUI. So you might put in a shareware disk, filled with stuff, but see nothing when you double clicked on it. Instead you had to go into the shell window and have it list directory contents. That was a mystery and a half until I got the hang of it, and when I did, I felt like I was hacking Black ICE.
I'll say a couple words about the Nintendo here... The nintendo was a repository for the most impossible goddamned games on the planet, and was no fun at all for a kid, from my perspective. I *craved* it, I *wanted* to like it. But Mario would kick my ass. There was a skiing game where you had to dodge snowmen. It made my hands tired to keep pressing forward on the dpad for an entire race--so much so that I'd fail to dodge a tree, and it would kick my ass. There was an olympics game where most of the mechanics were based on tapping the button real fast. I do not even know, to this day, how you were supposed to pole-vault over 15 feet. There were a bunch of events that you couldn't even try unless you competed in the full campaign-like olympics mode, but because of the button pushing events, my ass would be kicked, and I never saw several of them. There was Gumshoe, which was awesome, except that it had a bug where you fell through the clouds in the second level and couldn't get any farther. We tried many times, and ultimately returned it. Now, I just went out to look for information on this, assuming that somewhere, the internet would note this oddity and there'd be some unassuming little epathet about it. But, as it turns out, you can run out of bullets by shooting things. Was that what did it? No way to be sure. This was one of the games we liked the most until we returned it in disgust. I think the implication here is that, if it wasn't a bug, the fact that it felt like one is what really sticks with you.
There were a couple wrestling games, the one I remember involved alot of button tapping to win control--which is a standard in wrestling games to this day. Eventually, you would fight an enemy which was able to do the combos, and button tapping faster than you, and you'd lose. Or your dad's fingers would get tired, and he would give up on letting you repeatedly chew on his head as the pirahna-man (so much potential!).
Rush N Attack? Died to the first guy. Bionic commando? Ran out of fuel and didn't realize how to get more (you had to kill guys and gather the little whatsits they dropped). Ghouls and Ghosts... do I even have to say? Widely regarded to be the game that prompted the the invention of the term 'hard as balls'.
Contra was a great game only because my mom would enter the Konami code for me (I couldn't do it), and I could play with enough guys to get through the game. I guess I was a kid, but considering how I had the wherewithal to build model airplanes, or use powertools (My dad was an artist and a carpenter, and he taught me how to use stone grinding wheels to engrave glass, and a dentist drill to make sculpture out of spare alabaster), it seemed trivial, stupid, and, above all, unrewarding to play these obnoxious games. They were all designed to punish you. Some of them barely seemed to work at all. ET on the Atari launched a legacy of insane barely functional crap. I'm not the only one to think this way. Gaming was a punishment, with a few accidentally entertaining standouts like marble madness, or that tank game that I can't remember the name of. With the tank. Probably called 'Tank'.
This was all a plague caught from the arcades, where the only concept was to get people to dump money into the machines at the fastest possible rate. Red Wizard needs food badly.
Back to the Amiga... The Amiga, as an art tool, got more use out of me, but as a gaming tool, I found it fascinating. I remember my parents and I tried to play that Rocketeer game over and over again, and I only once *ever* managed to make it aboard the Zeppelin that was stealing the scientist and his daughter, and when I did, I accidentally hit on his daughter one-too-many times, and got booted out of the cockpit, into the uncaring Atlantic. Which is an awesome way to lose a game, I'm sure you'll agree. Especially when you're wearing a jetpack that you just used to chase down and fly into the goddamned cockpit. Now, I'm not *sure* that it was necessary to save them in order to win the game... but the nazis destroyed the earth everytime we didn't do it. Which was every time we played. Because saving them without Hindenburging them was damn near impossible.
I bet you'd never considered the possibility of Hindenburg as a verb... I'm blazing new trails.
What does all this amount to? Work-years... in fact, work-decades, of developer time spent building an industry out of crazy bricks. The Game Industry was conceived by evil people, people who wanted to hurt us. The fact that, now days, when we have Jack thompsons wandering around, whipping the populace into a frenzy over Grand Theft Auto's degenerative impact on youth, we're all upset at him, not because we're disagreeing with the premise that Grand Theft Auto has crimes to answer for, it's that we feel he addresses the wrong points. Grand Theft Auto's crime is not exposing kids to violence comparable to popular media in general... it's in making you die if you land hip-deep in water. Water is not deadly. What's truly remarkable is that you can land, in a *car* in water, and be protected, but when you get out, to escape the sinking car, you die.
It's not upsetting because it's violent, it's upsetting because, somehow, they made a game out of pure fun, and then threw in this one inexplicable thing. It's not to prevent you from switching zones! It's not! You get in boats and switch zones! It's certainly not to restrict you to the first island--because the entire premise of the game is to go wherever you want, and complete the optional missions... or not. They're optional.
But this is the kind of terrifying reality we confront when we game. Even to this very day.
A terrifying reality which is, to some extent, a product of being incredibly half-assed, and to another extent, one of not understanding or caring about the basic methods of gaming available.
The most primitive form of gaming is asocial and involves no skinning. In general, you do not delicately separate the hide from your opponent. The hide stays intact, and instead, you make claims about what will happen in the environment, and record the results. The environment, for this level of gaming, is typically a purely random element. Gambling over dice is the traditional method which humans have practiced since ancient times--and is a prominent form of gaming in the few still-existing hunter-gatherer societies.
Gambling without strategy or acumen is, at its basis, a metaphor for the environment, and boils down to risk-management. Our ancestors did not know when and how mother nature would fuck them sideways. The only process for refining survival was the one which suggested itself from natural law; selection. Those who played games of various kinds, were typically competing to be selected for some desireable trait. However, in competing, there is an element of danger and vigorous decadence which suggests, to all animals, an opportunity to be more efficient. Humans, as tool users, take every opportunity to reduce energy expenditure (like every other animal) to compensate for a large, greedy brain, which demands a constant sacrifice of calories. Gambling over dice, or any other simple random outcome, is a great way to reduce the effort required to compete. The fact that competition in this manner didn't produce or select for any particular end is irrelevant--the instincts are not designed with any particular end in mind either, they simply have turned out to work well for us over time. However, it is, ultimately, one of our several meaningless mistake behaviors; by and large, betting on the outcome of truly random circumstances, and, to a lesser extent, risk management, is a waste of time. Gambling is deplored, in its skillless form, for this simple reason. Aphoristic morals don't necessarily drive good philosophy, but it is, at least, a barometer for issues which people feel a need to continually articulate. Also, it happens to work with my argument. Which is nice.
In terms of the life cycle of a human being, this is pain response. Ouch it hurts, and how much can I get away with before it hurts?
The second form of gaming is recognition and response. Rock paper scissors is probably the prototypical example, but most people will more readily recognize its use in education. Simple suggestion and counterpoint litter basic childhood games, such as matching shapes and colors, or recognizing symbols. In terms of grotesquery, Pong is the primordial video game legacy which represents this kind of gameplay. It may appear to be complicated enough to fit into the third category--an asyet unbombasted portion of this very work, but it only appears that way because you are psychic, and can see my straw man looming out of the shadows even as I light the wick which will burn him down. Stepping over his ashes for just a moment here, the essence of the experience is that pong typically does not move fast. There are versions in the storied history of this game which involve the ability to do trick shots, and shoot lasers, and control the ball's motion with invisible forces. I am not discussing those versions. At its core, the movement of the ball takes place in a system so predictable and simple, that its limited number of possible outcomes is merely a matter for each player to recognize and move their paddle appropriately. I refer to this behavior as target acquisition, since we are highly visual, and the process of recognizing a thing is a major portion of our thought process. Doing so quickly and accurately is important to success, and the visual metaphor for recognition is readily adaptable to concepts, collections of symbols, and visualizations that typically accompany even auditory stimuli. The fact that video games are highly visual makes this wording useful.
In terms of the life cycle of a human being, this is audiovisual. Recognizing the voices and faces of parents--and eventually acquiring language for use both internally and externally.
The third form of gaming, which spawned my hideous straw man, earlier, is a recognition game with an element of management. Let's euphemize this as duress, since management of disparity is the ultimate duress upon the human spirit. I only say this to throw something irrelevantly intriguing into the middle of the flow of information, so don't dwell on it. Games which meet this criteria are diverse, but space invaders is the easiest comparison to make. It is the simplest application of the formula, since the targets to acquire are things like 'number of remaining lives', 'incoming fire', 'targets', and 'move left or right'. As a child, management tasks are kind of unusual in the sense of play, and you usually see management introduced by adults as part of growing up. Management is, in general, seen as the prototype for responsibility, even though it's not particularly related. This is most likely because most forms of 'honest work' are management tasks. Management of risk and recognition of required responses to a set of regular structured inputs is how most people make a living. The requirement for long term strategic thinking, or even unfettered creativity is comparitively small in society, and for most people, aspirations beyond this point can be depressing. By upholding routine management as the important, key, ingredient in maturity, it helps assuage, to an extent, some of the more depressing aspects of existing in a regular economy of some kind.
In terms of the life cycle of the human being, this is post toddler progression, where a human being learns to manage needs of food and sleep, with play and the expectations of others (for instance shame, taboos, and status).
The fourth form of gaming, in this pedantic, repetitive series of paragraphs, is management of possibilities. Psychologically, this is a complicated concept to articulate. The Human brain undergoes a number of distinct stages of development, including, at an early age, the ability to realize that, when something leaves your field of view, it still exists--a sense of continuity. This mechanism evolves over time to become a recognition of different objects being the same. For instance, animals growing up, plants flowering and wilting, and so forth. The canned explanation is that, when pouring water from one container into another--of different shape, a person recognizes that it is the same volume of water. I believe this is supposed to have happened by age 7-8. Strategic thinking is, in many ways, linked to this ability. For instance, being able to recognize that several different possibilites have the same meaning in their personal context, and, correspondingly, that one solution, can address several outcomes. This is the essence of strategic thought. The most direct instrumental use of this asset is to map, mentally, a tree of events, and then learn how to navigate that tree in order, both, to attain personal goals, and frustrate the goals of rivals. It becomes key, later, when a person attempts to mate, to be able to pursue these kinds of paths. What's interesting about that comparison, is that the most obvious game for this form, is Chess. Chess, and its kin, being one of the oldest, arguably most complicated (for many 100s of years) board games--one often only enjoyed by royalty, it's an interesting window on decadence, regarding essentially sexual behavior. Though the ability to plan strategically, obviously, is too generic to be rooted in mating.
In terms of the life cycle of the human being, this, as previously mentioned, is a gradual recognition of an ability to manipulate events for personal ends, to assist friends, and to frustrate rivals--ultimately connected to learning how to compete over, and win, desireable mates (simply because that activity is so important to us in general--also, biologically, it happens when fairly young, regardless of current standards of behavior).
The 5th, and I would say final, form of gaming (If I had to confidence to be sure that no metagame involving the previous structures could be considered some new category--which I don't), if not for marauding parenthenticals, is open ended experimentation. The only example of popular gaming that follows this formula, is sports. For the simple reason that managing the human body, in real life, is complicated, and requires the processing of large numbers of unknowns to achieve some end. As each previous stage has combined elements of the preceeding, this form of gaming (and why sports, and those who are great athletes, warriors, and hunters, have always been considered noble and inspirational, whereas game players are often considered trivial and childish--though who considers which, what is variable) is the most elaborate, and most fully engages the mind, and, ultimately, provides the most satisfying experience. It's not necessarily only the traditional physical activities which fall under this heading, either, but virtually all hobbies which engage people (model building, railroads, carpentry, sewing, embroidery, music, gardening, reproducing). While you may never know, exactly, what result your actions will have (though practice will teach you enough to make good predictions), you will always know that your actions do have a comprehensible result. Which isn't to say that this (or any other category) is automatically fun and fair--only that this is what human beings considered true diversion. While, certainly, other activities take up our time, they do not embrace the player in the way that provides fulfillment. Chess is a diversion, it is not satisfying as a way of life. Simple work will not sustain, and, of course, mere risk management, and education don't make up content for a lifetime on their own, either. Video games, however, can bypass these tenets, and ensnare the player, both through conditioning mechanisms, and through extreme low barrier to entry (it is usually cheaper and easier to screw around playing a video game for hours and hours, than to go and attempt some real diversion--the human mind is not equipped to deal with multimedia equipment, yet).
I bring all this nonsense up, because, recently, I noticed a resurrection of the classic Lucasarts offering: Sam and Max. The only means to get at this was to go into Gametap, subscribe to their service, and download the episodes one at a time. The games themselves, are not particularly entertaining. I would say they're gametype 2, only, when it comes to some of the more illogical puzzles, it's more of crapshoot. Crapshooting is not nearly as much fun as it sounds, and it doesn't sound very fun, but the games are meant to be enjoyed for their pure appeal--writing which goes from humorous in episode one, to depressingly predictable in 2 and 3, then beyond excellent in episode 4, and ultimately settles into 'well worth it' in episode 5.
Gametap itself is trying to turn gaming into television. To begin with, the selection of games is anything between story driven, and mindless simple fun of yesteryear--including some intriguing ports of arcade games. Some true gems like Xcom (which is a very fun type-4 game from the mid 90s), break up the selection, but basically, it's the chance to be a dilletante and enjoy a variety of equally lackluster--but nostalgic, or otherwise intriguing, experiences. The gametap 'experience' itself, is very much like television--commercials (whose purpose seems to be to advertise products on the service which are basically free, or the service itself, which you *already* subscribe to--very much like television) force themselves into your view as often as possible, and it's impossible to play any of the downloaded games without first entering through the gametap interface, which, itself, always starts in a state which requires you to look at some of their media. Ultimately, obviously, you will be paying for gametap, and being exhorted to buy shit left and right. They will, no doubt, start installing software 'as part of gametap' which will encourage sponsors, offer us crap we don't need, or whatever--basically putting it on par with television, magazines, and so forth.
Clearly it is the future, and yet, what of the humble game? Has the term lost all meaning? The subscription service favors the mindlessness of the television model. While some good television is made, it is undoubtedly true that the majority of it isn't particularly valuable as an experience. Certainly, as a parent, telling a child to go outside and play, or join the soccer team at school, rather than sit in front of the TV, is a no-brainer. But we spend more and more time in front of televisions and computers, and, while this is not an *inherently* bad use of time (there are great works of art, and educational possibilities in television and gaming), because it is vastly easier to become sucked in (and a relative minority seems resistent to it), the culpability of media providers to make a worthwhile experience is much greater.
So, what's ultimately interesting about the experience is that, while sam and max isn't a *game* per se, that I'd do backflips over, it's a fun story, and some great comedy writing; admittedly wrapped up a kind of annoying key-goes-in-door mechanism--which nevertheless is sometimes creative enough to be relevant to the story or the humor. Because the product is substantial, I feel better about it, and the fact that Xcom is available, and functioning (since it's an older game, and I can't get the various other versions I have to work) hints at a possible future for gaming in which traditional passive kinds of media (of reasonable quality--and I mean that unjudgementally, I like action films and soppy overwrought love stories too) in limited interactive contexts will be sprinkled in with much more robust and interest gametypes. For instance, being able to play the upcoming slice of awesome, spore, while scenarios and set piece writing and imagery is piped into the gameworld for you to observe and enjoy, even as you play out the deep branching game, is appealing. Ultimately, games which are interesting in and of themselves, will be married to the purely social entertainment of MMOs, and the serial production of media to provide a more all-encompassing service. We're already moving that direction (and have been for quite some time) with lobbies, friend's lists, matchmaking services, integrated email and chat, voice chat, the Windows LIve console crossover stuff, and, of course, monthly fees.
There's going to be a period of time when people are just wasting away in front of these possibilities, because there will be no great incentive to provide decent gameplay. I think we'll probably, ultimately, lose 30-40 years of society, straight down the gullet of this new media, until enough people become resistent/bored that quality of the experience becomes relevant.
back to the news...