In 2012, Jenn Frank wrote about how she rediscovered some floppy disks carrying some of her Norn creations from the artificial life simulation Creatures (Millennium Interactive, 1996). She saw them as coffins. She sent her Norns into stasis on floppy disks but they never woke up; she had murdered her brood.
Save games. A thorny subject for sure. In 1981, we might have asked whether a man was not entitled to the control of his own leisure time. ‘No!’ said the developer from his office cubicle. But we are not in 1981 any more. In 2014, I should be able to do anything I want, whenever I want, with whomever I want, multiple times. Not only can I do whatever I want but I can also shout at people on the internet for doing whatever they want. This is liberty.
The save game is one of the most important innovations in game design. It’s also a promise to the developer that we’re coming back.
But why do we sometimes break that promise?
When British mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, it was reported his answer was, “Because it’s there.” The desire to climb does not have to make any sense, have any rhyme or reason. The mountain was a challenge that called to Mallory. It’s very existence was enough to seduce him to its slopes in 1924 – and the mountain claimed his life. Mallory’s body was recovered in 1999.
There is a similar pattern in our desires to take on challenging videogames. Playing Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010) isn’t making us smarter and doesn’t teach us anything about the human condition. We might argue that it improves reflexes but this is the kind of comforting babble we tell people who don’t play games. Players needs no such justification.
Oh, wait! Except when we do!
Some reviews of Kickstarted puzzle game Full Bore: The First Dig (Whole Hog Games, 2013) find its rewards not shiny enough. “Gems […] have no apparent value other than raising your completion percentage,” writes Britton Peele for Gamespot. “Why should you spend time collecting them, other than because they're there?”
In other words, why should we spend time solving puzzles in a puzzle game?
This is the concluding part of No Alternative, the first part was posted yesterday.
What if someone wanted to market a hypothetical “non-game”? Channels for marketing and distribution have matured for games but are there any channels for publicising or selling “non-games”? Are developers being coerced into calling their works games for commercial reasons?
A couple of years ago in an essay called A Theoretical War, I touched on the Holy War over the meaning of the word ‘game’. The war has not gone away. Each time some ‘alternative’ release reaches across the divide – such as when Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2013) or Depression Quest (Zoe Quinn, 2013) hits Steam – there’s an outbreak of unpleasantness. This battle to control ‘game’ even has a parody Twitter account, TheGamePolice.
Outside of the mainstream, there’s a strong belief that no one needs to define or control what gets to be called a game. Everything can be a game. But let’s put aside a technical discussion on definitions. The word ‘game’, in popular culture, has connotations. It is a complicated word that means different things to different people.
Last year, Darius Kazemi published a slideshow called Fuck Videogames in which he suggested not everyone needs to make ‘games’. He admitted he had dropped the term himself, pitching his own work under the banner of ‘weird internet stuff’.
Here’s a question for you. Are there problems with calling everything a game? Here’s another. Are there developers who would rather not call their software a game? I consulted Kazemi, Ed Key (Proteus), Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn (Tale of Tales) and Dan Pinchbeck (The Chinese Room) on whether we need an alternative.
Puzzle games have a delicious quality. They are honest. The design never lies because everything you need to know is on the screen. There are no special switches and no powerups are required. The answer is in front of you, it’s right there, if only you could see it. Look again. Look harder. This is possible, you know it is.
Actually, now I think about it, the game is taunting you, mocking you. Are you still stuck on this level? Still? Don’t worry, I can wait, sweetie. You just take your time. I’ll have a cup of earl grey over here while you think your brains out.
That honesty? Passive-aggressive is what it is.
This is the final part of the Learning Curve trilogy. In the first part, Learning to Walk, I learnt to program and make games on the Atari 8-bit home computer. In the second part, Learning to Run, I wrote a game in machine-language which was sold commercially.
I think it was 1995.
It was the difficult second year of my PhD at Reading University, where far too many of my water wave simulations exploded into colourful infinity and I wanted to shoot my research in the head five times. We had a series of presentations from industry types looking to charm the latest batch of Dr. Mathematicians being squeezed out of the academic womb. I was impressed by one guy from a company called Geoquest that made oil field mapping software, and followed up on email. I asked Geoquest Dude how I might make myself more valuable after my research was complete. I told him about my grand game-making plans, hoping this would sell me as an unstoppable code hero who could work machine language like Jimi Hendrix worked the guitar.
His response? He told me to stop.
This is the second part of the Learning Curve trilogy. The first part, Learning to Walk, explored how I became a game programmer in the 1980s.
It is 1992.
Beyond small projects, I couldn't finish a damn thing. I had folders crammed full of design sketches for games and numerous disks littered with crude prototypes. I was apt to spend my time on title screens and structure, leaving the actual game bit to be "filled in later", always chasing the high of creation without actually creating something. I believed I was a genius of unearthly codemagick power yet had nothing to show for it except for the work I did with my father: Blitz, Runaround, Escape and also Runaround II (published in New Atari User #53, Dec/Jan 1991). I needed to prove that I had the discipline to see one of my own ideas through.
But that wasn't all I needed to prove. If you wanted to get decent performance out of an 8-bit computer you had to do the business in assembly language. I’d written plenty of machine language snippets and done my share of hacking commercial games to make them easier so I believed I could write one of those grandiose machine language games if I wanted to. But development in assembly language is like having to marshal individual grains of sand into a sandcastle. The scale of the task was enough to subdue any hubris. I needed to prove I could write a game in machine language.
I threw one more goal onto this project of projects. This game I was going to make? I was going to sell it like a proper developer. If I pulled this off, I would never doubt my Atari skills again.
This is the first part of the Learning Curve trilogy.
As the years progress, the human brain archives ancient experiences it decides aren’t so relevant any more. It shoves the past into a blender face first, making it difficult, if not impossible, to identify events let alone organise them into a sensible chronological sequence. Cause and effect are corrupted.
But there remain flashes of important moments and here are some from my videogame childhood: running home in tears when a café owner switched off a Check Man (Zilec-Zenitone, 1982) arcade cabinet seconds after I’d inserted my one coin for the evening; walking back to the bus stop from Porthcawl beach where there was one last videogame arcade to visit, a place in which we discovered Tutankham (Konami, 1982) and Jungle Hunt (Taito, 1982); losing a whole morning to an obsession with my first virtual world, Adventure (Atari, 1979) on the Atari VCS.
I know that we bought an Atari VCS during a stay in London because I recall seeing its box, complete with screenshots and Ingersoll Electronics logo, bundled onto a National Express bus bound for Wales. I know the most anticipated Christmas presents at that time were Atari cartridges. I could usually tell which presents were the cartridges but never opened them all in one go, as I wanted to savour the annual tradition of the Christmas unboxing.
Childhood seems longer than it is. Although I am left with an impression that the VCS dwelt in our house for many, many years, this cannot be true. I have a receipt here that says we bought it in a store called "GEM Electronics" on 23 August 1980, and I have another receipt saying we purchased an Atari 800 on 8 October 1982. I can rescue cause and effect from these receipts. They imply we sold most of our VCS games in 1982, just two years after we bought the console.
The reason my parents sold the console was practical. Primary school wasn’t stretching me enough and I was the kind of child who engorged his brain on Open University television programmes. A primary school teacher even told my parents off for teaching me at home, pushing me ahead of the class, but they confessed it was because I watched adult literacy programmes like On the Move. My parents decided to buy a computer to prevent me from getting bored, to channel my energies. We didn’t have much money, so the VCS was sold to raise funds for a 32K Atari 800 Home Computer with an Atari 410 Program Recorder.
It was hard to say goodbye to those black, chunky cartridges and their colourful boxes, but we didn’t say goodbye to every game. My little sister had told prospective buyers that we didn’t like Basketball (Atari, 1978) so they took her sage advice and did not buy it. I still have this box today.
But I'm not here to tell you about the Atari VCS. I'm here to tell you about my years as a game developer.
Environmental narrative, which Richard Rouse III defined as "the little stories told through the world itself" [PPT], has been around for decades.
Even in a game as focused on play as DOOM (id Software, 1991) world-building through environment was important. The second episode "The Shores of Hell" takes place on missing Martian moon Deimos where the sky is blood-red and the UAC research base is meshed with "Satanic structures", suggestive of the moon having been dragged into the Hell dimension. In the third episode "Inferno", the player descends into Hell itself and fights through structures constructed from flesh with mutilated bodies treated as decoration. Although this graphical re-skinning has no functional impact, they help reinforce DOOM’s holy wafer-thin plot.
We’ve since experienced Valve’s highly-regarded environmental work on Half-Life (Valve, 1998) and Portal (Valve, 2007), and recent indie games such as Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) and Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) which foreground what most games consider background.
We're living in the era of environmental storytelling but, despite this, there's often confusion about what it is... and whether it's actually important.
The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013) was released last week and I ploughed through it over two nights, reaching a number of the game’s “endings”. I only dabbled with the original Half-Life 2 mod incarnation once, during IndieCade East earlier this year. But rather than fire up the mod as soon as I returned to Electron Dance HQ, I elected to wait for the remake.
There’s no doubt that the game is fun and you can almost smell the sweat and passion that’s been invested in its development. It might be best referred to, as Amanda Lange put it, “a work of absurdist surrealism”.
Okay, all good. But what does The Stanley Parable mean?
If you’re ready for spoilers, read on. If not, then you can choose to– oh GOD I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE THIS JOKE.