In his epic Dark Souls Diaries series, Matt “Steerpike” Sakey wrote about a key moment when he felt guilty for killing an NPC he had intended to save. Sakey didn’t have long to mourn. Rather than leave him to wallow in his misery, one commenter told him there was actually nothing he could do. Don’t feel bad about it.
Player guilt is so easily destroyed, it seems, if we learn everything is a foregone conclusion. We are fascinated by what lies behind the curtain and the fear that the game might be making a fool of us, exploiting us through an illusion of agency. No one wants to be Stanley of The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013), the developer’s puppet.
We crave the weight of consequence yet revel in its destruction. How do we make sense of this contradiction?
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?
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.
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.
Cards on the table time, folks. Here’s the question for the big prize. What is the 2D shooter about?
Well done! It is indeed about the shooting of stuff but let's peel back the outer layer of this onion. I also want to discard some of the games where the primary mechanic is navigating obstacles rather than shooting, such as Scramble (Konami, 1981) and Zaxxon (Sega, 1982). When we take the genre as a whole, we notice that shooters usually require players to destroy as much as possible.
Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) lays out five ranks of aliens which march across the screen and taking the occasional decisive step towards the ground. If a single alien makes it to the bottom, the game is over. Aside from the distracting saucers, the player must blast everything.
Something more recent? In arena shooter Death Ray Manta (Rob Fearon, 2012) the player must dispatch every green bunny and pink robot to proceed to the next Manta stage. Even something like Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, 2007), where each level only lasts as long as the background track, encourages the player to wipe out as much as possible for the purpose of acquiring extra lives and creating safe space.
I'm reminded of this short exchange from Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994):
Mathilda: Léon, what exactly do you do for a living?
Mathilda: You mean you're a hit man?
What is the 2D shooter about? It’s about cleaning.
This is it, people, this is enormo-spoilers. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
When they tell you that you are gorgeous and amazing, you wonder if it's not you at all but the butterfly effect. Maybe they have fallen in love with the synergy of a Zeitgeist moment and you are merely the object of misplaced affections. So you do something that looks backwards, something that tries to clone that superstar attention. We are all human.
The Aspiration remains one of the best pieces of writing you will find on Electron Dance. It is a detailed journal of my struggles in a game of Neptune's Pride, covering not just strategy but alien role-play and flirtation with a game-induced nervous breakdown. But once the series was done in 2011, the traffic did not stick around and for the rest of that year I could not shake off the feeling that I had slipped silently from internet wannabe to internet has-been.
I had some ideas for essays that extended The Aspiration and decided in 2011 Q4 to run a spin-off series. During the original series, The Aspiration had revealed they were heading for Earth so for the spin-off The Aspiration would finally reach Earth then hack Electron Dance. Also running it over Christmas might be a win in terms of traffic because most sites stop updates during the holidays. Thus The Xmaspiration was born. It sounded awesome, almost as awesome as alien vampires.
I attempted to hype it up before the series launched except... I created something monstrous. Something I lost control of. What I envisioned as a harmless bit of fun mutated into a full-blown ARG, an alternate reality game.
This is the story of that accidental ARG and how it destroyed Christmas.
I had finished writing a mail to Ed Key, the developer of Proteus, and the pointer hovered over the Send button. I proofread the mail a couple of times and everything looked good. It was time to click the button.
But I hesitated. Even though the wording was perfect, something was wrong. Doubting myself, I leaned away from the monitor and nudged the pointer off Send.
It did not take me long to realise the stupidity of what I was about to do. Twenty minutes in the making, I deleted the mail in less than a second.
This is a story about confession.