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.
Last month I tried out a preview version of Boson X (Mu & Heyo, 2013) and gave it around 20 minutes but no more. This wasn’t because it was bad but because it wasn't my thing, a brutal slice of twitchplay that hangs out in the same bar that Super Hexagon (Terry Cavanagh, 2012) frequents. Got inhuman reflexes? Like intolerant gameplay? Love to grind your skills to success? Boson X is just the ticket for you.
Four decades into my life I don’t have the stamina to take on these challenges any more. Nor reflexes... but I never know whether that’s down to a poisonous mixture of disinterest and playing when fatigued. In an article about Twine a few weeks ago I mentioned “I am quite rubbish at it”.
Then I played Boson X night after night, determined to get on there as well.
One day soon, my son is going to ask why we never park the truck in Euro Truck Simulator 2 (SCS Software, 2012) and I will explain, nay confess, that it is because it is bloody difficult. Having to get the truck into a precise position, like boarding a wagon for the Eurotunnel Freight Shuttle at Folkestone, freaks me out.
Oh, I've tried therapy. One night, while Little HM was asleep, I practised parking a trailer, determined my son would see his father reverse a truck without a hitch. And, in this parental fantasy, he would be inspired and grow up to do great things in the world.
Fortunately, the meat of ETS2 is driving and Little HM has always pushed for the longer jobs. He wants to take on a job that's too long for our driver to do in a single stretch and has to find somewhere to "sleep" in the game. At this point, the jobs available to us are not that long and we can drive from start to finish without stopping for fuel or rest.
A couple of weeks ago, we didn't have much too time to spend on the PC and we chose a job delivering coal from Luxembourg to Verona. I thought we’d be done in about twenty minutes or so.
I’ve written previously in the comments that I don't get on with Twine games.
At last, I have figured out why. It turns out that Twine games offer too much player agency.
Three years ago, I spotted Red Faction: Guerrilla (Volition, 2009) in a Steam sale and, recalling some positive blather about it on Rock Paper Shotgun, decided to buy the bullet. As with most sales, the game ended up in my backlog and it slept there for some time.
A few months ago, wanting to engage in some easy-going mainstream tosh, I finally installed it. Installs for big and chunky mainstream releases are always amusing. I need a few libraries, they whine. Oh, this Games for Windows Live thing is also super-important, couldn’t Windows Live without it. Chug, chug, chug, goes the hard drive.
As with every 3D shooter, I had to fiddle with the graphics options and mouse sensitivity. This inevitably mars those early honeymoon hours as finding a game's groove can be a slog. Until the game and I click, I constantly question whether I'm missing a handful of vital performance tweaks to improve the embodiment of the player or whether I just need time to accept the game on its own terms.
Sometimes the process fails. Instead of assimilating me into its unique, digital country that cost millions of dollars to establish, a game deports me back to reality.
This is what happened with Guerrilla.
This is a revised version of a comment published on the Tap-Repeatedly article "Age of Broken Promises".
Double Fine’s Broken Age, the original Kickstarter sin, won’t be finished on time. And it will need more cash to see it through to completion. Cue gnashing of teeth. Even Rock Paper Shotgun got in on the action with Nathan Grayson writing:
...these actions do set a somewhat unsavory precedent. Here’s hoping this is an isolated incident and not the birth of a trend.
Ya know, most days videogame culture feels like an episode of Adam West’s Batman, with BIFF! BAM! POW! filling our Twitter screens.
Boy oh boy, in the romantic, halcyon days of the home computer, playing a videogame was arduous. Putting aside now antiquated ideas of difficulty like pixel-perfect jumps, black magic was required before we could actually play a game.
First, there was no downloading. Computer owners faced either a trip to a local computer store or filling in an order form and posting it off with a letter and a cheque in the post. Sometimes the latter was the only option, particularly if you were not an owner of a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 which were the leading platforms in the UK. Of course, there’s still a strong retail component today but I haven’t bought a physical copy of a game in years. Even though I hate PayPal, I still groan whenever a store page doesn’t offer a PayPal option because I have to get up, leave the room and find a debit card. Dude, wayyyy too much hard work. Games are supposed to be fun!
Of course, once I’ve downloaded the game, which can take anything from a few seconds to an hour depending on my broadband and the size of the game, it’s time to play. Not so in medieval times of yore. Nope, for the owner of an Atari 800 computer, it was insert cassette tape, turn on computer holding down the START key, press PLAY and hit RETURN. And then wait five minutes. Or maybe ten. Or maybe—BOOT ERROR
Happy happy joy joy. Rewind and try again and maybe this time—BOOT ERROR
No one desires a return to the tape loading days. I mean, why would you? What could possibly be gained from waiting so long you might not have time to play the very game you’ve been waiting for?
Something strange happened to my e-mail recently while I was playing Michael Brough’s headfuck game Corrypt. The Electron Dance inbox seemed to glitch out and I ended up with several mails corrupted. Amongst the wreckage of shredded headers and splintered streams, I discovered one of corrupted mails bore a new attachment, named “vesper6.odt”. At first I thought it was a fictional piece – but I now believe this is a document that has slipped across from a parallel reality.
I present it to you now with hyperlinks relevant to this reality.
I’m trying to figure out whether Michael Brouge has sold out or whether he’s tricked his audience into a giant psychological experiment. Perhaps the sad truth is all games are experiments, from the earliest methods to keep the coins flowing into the slots to the contemporary buzz around “freemium” and the like. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s go back one year.
Michael Brouge created the game VESPER.5 for a Super Friendship Club game jam with the theme of “ritual” and it picked up plenty of attention, even becoming nominated in the IGF awards this year. The surprise of VESPER.5 is its simplicity. It's an explorer game with a twist. The player takes control of a monk who is allowed to explore the game’s pocket world and there is no apparent goal beyond that. The twist is the player is only afforded one move per day, between which the monk meditates. Completing the game can take months.
I didn’t really grasp the importance of the ritual but kept it up because I intended to see it through. I never expected to write about it because I didn’t extract anything meaningful from the game. I was taken by the idea that Brouge could force players into a slow, long-form experience but what that could mean eluded me. I was silly enough to assume I would be impervious to its effects; I was wrong.
The game became annoying. Every day, I had to wait for the monk to retrace his steps and that process became longer the deeper I got. Eventually I ran out of patience and just wanted it to end already. That day finally came and then: crap. From Twitter:
It is almost two weeks since I whittled VESPER.5 down to one final move. I still have one move left.
I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. It took a while, but I did find the strength eventually:
Tired and disaffected with the PC. So it was the perfect time to take the final step of VESPER.5. It is done. And now it is time to sleep.
Even today, there’s still plenty of talk about VESPER.5 and Polygon wrote about it in March. The game still has legs. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when Brouge confessed to me that a sequel had been in development since attending GDC this year.