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Electron Dance Highlights


The First Open World, Part Three

This is the concluding part of The First Open World in which we discuss the true nature of Mercenary, the ending and its legacy.


Because Mercenary could conceivably play for ever, there is a save gameplay facility. A winning situation should also be saved, as this will give beneficial entry into "Mercenary II".

– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions

Mercenary is a game cleaved into two.

The city and the underground represent its two sides that maintain an uneasy coexistence. The surface has been drained of function, whereas its underground maze game is saturated with it. It's as if a true, borderless open world cannot support anything resembling player agency.

With Woakes' predilection for challenging the player with opaque systems, perhaps it was destined that Mercenary's approach to the open world would eventually fail as a commercial model.

But that view is short-sighted and misunderstands what Mercenary is.   

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The First Open World, Part Two

This is the second part of The First Open World.


Computer & Video Games Magazine #45 (July 1985)

Technically, Mercenary: Escape from Targ (Novagen Software, 1985) was not the first open world. That title probably goes to Ultima (Richard Garriott, 1981) like the Wikipedia entry for “open world” currently suggests. But Mercenary stands alone as representing the open world sandboxes that are big business today. This is why it was critically acclaimed and jumped from the Atari 8-bit to practically every other home computer at the time, even the ZX Spectrum which I had believed too underpowered to support it.

But lest we get too wrapped up in golden age nostalgia, let's cut some of the crap here. Mercenary did not deliver on all the promises Novagen sold to the gaming public.    

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The First Open World, Part One

This is an appendix to the Where We Came From series.


For Mercenary, author Paul Woakes, has created what can only be described as a world simulator. The first release using this technique is sub-titled "Escape From Targ".

– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions

Paul Woakes’ debut title on the Atari 8-bit home computer was a tense and memorable re-imagining of Battlezone (Atari, 1980) called Encounter! (Novagen Software, 1984), using vibrant raster graphics instead of the flickering green wireframes of the Atari arcade original. It quickly became a favourite for Atari owners who liked their action games to be fast and responsive.

From A.N.A.L.O.G Magazine #20 (July 1984)

From A.N.A.L.O.G Magazine #20 (July 1984)

Shortly after, hints of Woakes’ followup title began to seep into the news sections of computer magazines. What could Atari owners expect next from a developer whose first title had conquered the action genre?

A first-person 3D open world offering intrigue and complete freedom to explore a planet.

In 1985.  

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The Revenge of Boson X


I've talked about Boson X (Mu & Heyo, 2013) a few times now. First, it was my way of explaining why I didn't get into Twine. Then I released a video to explain how players navigate the fast-moving space of the game. Finally, I came out and admitted that I had become addicted, desperate to get on the leaderboards. It was my little Super Hexagon (Terry Cavanagh, 2012) for a while and then I put Boson X away behind a thick wall of lead, with all the other radioactive isotopes.

But Boson X is back.    

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Links: The Dying Creative World

This week, Link Drag is called Links. Who knows what it will be called next week.

  • Is Simon Pegg crying out for the sweet release of death?
  • What can we learn from an interview with Dirac prize winner David Deutsch in 1992 about the educational aspects of videogames?
  • What happened to couch co-op?
  • An honest postmortem of Kickstarter?
  • How difficult is it making a horror game?
  • Are TED talks lying to you?
  • How will the reimagined Pathologic relate to the original?

Find the links below.

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Filed under: Link Drag 4 Comments

The Gamer Uprising

Mine is the last voice you will ever hear. Don't be alarmed.

Mine is the last voice you will ever hear. Do not be alarmed.

Instead of the planned link roundup, here is a special edition dedicated solely to #gamergate.    

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Filed under: Link Drag 4 Comments

The Trouble With Serious Games


This week’s viral video masterpiece is a surreal Russian dash cam road rage incident. Thanks to longtime Electron Dance reader Ketchua, it hit my Twitter a couple of days ago and the ensuing laughter brought tears to my eyes.

Then I started thinking about the context around the video, why it was funny and how it's an analogue to the problem of games that act all serious.   

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Filed under: Longform 10 Comments

Hypnosis in the Sand: Why Spec Ops Fails


When I read some fiction about a character, say he’s called Dave, who did something terrible, I don't feel guilty about it. It's not my story, right? It’s Dave’s. And Dave is a piece of shit.

But what if the book forced you to act out what Dave did, go through the motions like some puppet? Would you feel guilty then? Would you feel like it was all your fault? Perhaps I should ask an actor.

And this here is THE LINE you should not cross if you want to avoid spoilers for third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) and the epic Immortal Defense (RPG Creations, 2007). Okay, maybe Penumbra: Black Plague (Frictional Games, 2008) too.   

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Read Out: Your Pants Look Like A Horse

This week, Link Drag is called Read Out. Who knows what it will be called next week.

  • Is Raph Koster responsible for getting a horse to eat your insides?
  • How much are indie dev customers really worth?
  • Oh, really, what could possibly go wrong with a story involving "F2P game" and "two-year-old"?
  • How has Ingress taken over Laura Michet's life? Can we get her back?
  • Why not choose your own adventure?
  • What's Actual Sunlight all about then?
  • Why does The Act of Killing stand out against other documentaries about mass murder?

Find the links below.

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Filed under: Link Drag 11 Comments

The Unwritten Life Story of an RTS Grunt


Of all the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, the landing at the sector codenamed “Omaha” was the most bloody. So much went wrong. The German coastal defences were completely intact as bad weather resulted in Allied bombers dropping their payload too far inland. Many landing craft couldn't make it all the way to the beach so the infantry had to wade through water first. Platoons were scattered across the beach, meaning chains of command were disrupted and chaos prevailed.

I doubt any of these soldiers, who were being mown down by German machine-gun emplacements, had hoped their desperate struggle would become the tutorial level for a videogame. But they were fortunate to have their sacrifice immortalised in the tutorial level of Company of Heroes (Relic Entertainment, 2006).

Technically, it's the first mission of the game, but it's still baby hour in the grand scheme of things. Players are effectively given an infinite supply of troops while they try to make progress up the beach. Initially, I cared about these little men disorganised and vulnerable, but I realised the only way to make progress in this crucible of death was to throw them all towards the shingle.

We might hope that the game forces players to contemplate the terrifying nature of war: that soldiers must die in pursuit of a goal which is larger than they; how a commander must remain detached to be able to send people to their deaths. But this level, as with every level of every real-time strategy game before it, taught me one thing: I was playing with pieces on a board, not people.    

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Filed under: Longform 39 Comments