Electron Dance
9Sep/11Off

The Forever Machine

Filling in for HM today is another member of the Arcadian Rhythms set, ShaunCG, also known as Shaun C. Green, also known as Nostalgia for Infinity, also known as one quarter of the band Wrecktheplacefantastic.

Here he lays out his argument for the PC being the premier gaming platform.

[Star Control 2 Screenshot]

Only a few days have passed since Joel wrapped up the Where We Came From series with The Last Dream, the conclusion to a series that has variously explored a history of gaming from technological, design, cultural, nostalgic and autobiographical perspectives. I don't know how to follow that and I'm not sure I could.

But you didn't come here to read me verbally fellating Joel, you came here because you didn't realise he was taking a short sabbatical and had conscripted a motley gaggle of fellow bloggers to string you along until his return. He had only one rule for us: that whatever we wrote, it should be about PC gaming. (He later retracted this rule but I'm sticking with it.)

In The Last Dream Joel identifies the PC as “a safe haven, the forever machine that never has to say goodbye”. He goes on to acknowledge that this will not always be so, but certainly today's PC is a machine capable of spanning the generational divides that so clearly characterise and delineate the eras of gaming history. Sure, it may take a little effort to make this so, but it can be done and it's never been easier.

The PC as a platform is a highly personal machine. Pick and choose your era: GOG.com and abandonware sites can supply you. Hell, pick your machine: the PC can emulate most of them. Pick and choose your investment in hardware and performance. With this individualist idea held in mind, here are two games I've chosen to write a few words about because they illustrate some of the things that I love about PC gaming.

The first title is one that you are unlikely to be familiar with. Chaos Overlords was published in 1996 by New World Computing (most famous for the Heroes of Might and Magic series). It's a turn-based strategy game in which you play the head of one of up to six criminal gangs and fight for control, influence, cash and power within a cyberpunkish city environment.

[chaos overlords screenshot]

Conceptually it's very simple but there's some surprising depth to it. Capturing territories is just the beginning; you need to use your gangs to lean on local businesses within each territory to gain influence over them and bleed them for benefits (enhanced healing from hospitals, extorting rent from condos; you've played videogames, you know how this works). There are also research options to unlock superior weaponry, armour and gear for your gangs – of which there are many available for hire, all with different strengths and weaknesses. Chaos Overlords is a surprisingly addictive experience, and a rarely boring one because it demands that you balance so many different concerns at once.

It's also a terrible and broken game. Actually finishing a match is a rare experience. Typically the mid-game involves you getting bogged down in endless brawls with enemy gangs and trying to track down the bands of stealthy cyber-ninjas who are slaughtering your weaker, brainier research gangs. What was initially an exciting and proactive experience is reduced to reactive fire-fighting. By forcing your focus to shift onto immediate problems rather than future strategies the magic is lost. It's also a deeply buggy title; even on its native Windows 95 it exhibited regular crashes and graphical corruptions.

But still, I've kept the installer for this title for well over a decade now: it's survived hard drive purges, hardware failures, OS reinstalls and upgrades. There's something about its unusual gameplay and its charming successes and failures that makes me want to hang on to it.

The second game is one you will have heard about: Star Control 2. I don't think it's really necessary to spend much time explaining what the game is or what it does; suffice to say that it's a tongue-in-cheek space opera action-adventure with RPG elements, a ton of galactic exploration and a robust combat engine that still holds up well today.

What's interesting about Star Control 2, aside from the fact that I really like it (I suppose that you might say it was my Rescue on Fractalus!), is that it's a game which performed very poorly commercially and had little impact on the future of corporate game design. It came out around the same time as Wing Commander, which did rather well. This was taken as pudding-proof that top-down was out and 3D was in.

[star control 2 screenshot]

And yet the influence of Star Control 2 is everywhere... if you know where to look. It's there in EV Nova, Space Pirates and Zombies, StarFight, Space Rangers, Starscape: indie titles one and all. As an experience Star Control 2 resonated with a lot of people who later went on to make their own games; this passion mirrors the development of Star Control 2 itself, which was funded by its two developers after it outran its deadline and budget.

The publisher, Accolade, wanted to release the game as it was – with no music or dialogue implemented – but developers Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford refused, determined that their labour of love not be unleashed in a half-finished state. Practical and financial concerns, to a point, were made subordinate to passion and dedication. They drew on volunteer musicians populating the Mod community of the time to create a free soundtrack for and tapped their personal savings in order to continue working on the game.

These two games illustrate what I like so much about PC gaming: the possibilities that it offers. The freedom to produce a beautiful failure, or to defy paymasters and keep working until a game is finished. A rich, deep and broad history, much of which is shared with other PC gamers but much of which remains hidden; a past that can serve as an archaeological treasure trove to the patient digital excavator. And, today, an independent scene that is as comfortable with innovation as it is indulgent nostalgia for its influences. With these often contradictory impulses at its core PC gaming is not only my homeland, it is also my heartland.

Further Reading

If want to read more of Shaun's writing, you might like his honest yet smitten review of Beyond Good & Evil HD, his meditation on the impact of Consolevania, or his shortest piece of work this year, Stupid Comment of the Month #1.

Download my FREE eBook on the collapse of indie game prices an accessible and comprehensive explanation of what has happened to the market.

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Comments (19) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I think there is much to be celebrated in the flaws of gaming, with each failure providing a platform on which success can be erected. And the pc is better at flaws than most other platforms due its open nature, so I’m with you there Shaun :)

    Paul Reiche III worked on Archon and I always wondered where he went to as Freefall Associates was a husband and wife team, with Paul the … er … gooseberry.

  2. I don’t think that either Paul or Fred have worked on anything particularly great since SC2, though their die-hard fans would argue otherwise. These days, their company mostly seems to work on children’s movie tie-ins. How the mighty fall!

    And thanks, HM. :)

  3. Beautiful failures. YES. I’d say that’s gaming’s forgotten legacy on any platform.

  4. Shaun are you not even going to mention the fan remake of Star Control 2? I would assume that would have been the first thing you would have linked?

    It also disproves some of HM’s comments, I had never played the game before last year (or was it two years ago?) and got quite involved in it, even it scared the shit out of me, not as much as AI War though. That game had me running back to my eight buttons and two thumbsticks in no time. Fascinating game, just terrifying to a person who isn’t used to that many layers.

  5. BC, when you say it disproves some of my comments, which ones are you referring to?

  6. @BeamSplashX: yes, indeed! I wonder which is the hardest failure to face, for a team or developer. A commercial flop may curtail your ability to continue, but at least you didn’t screw up your project in some way…

    @BC: I thought about it briefly but it was kind of an aside, although now I realise that mentioning the whole open source aspect would’ve fit in perfectly. So here we go, before the last paragraph:

    “In 2003, Fred and Paul – through their company Toys for Bob – regained control of the majority of the Star Control IP. All that they lacked was the Star Control brand itself, which remained ensnared in the legal maze that was the post-Accolade corporate gaming landscape. Paul, Fred and the rest of Toys for Bob elected to release the Star Control 2 source code to Star Control fandom, a small but devoted and tightly-knit group of fans around the world. Since then a volunteer team has worked to integrate the PC and 3DO versions of the game, as well as fix the game’s few existing bugs, integrate optional remixes of the soundtrack and make the game ready for play on contemporary systems.”

    And before “And, today, an independent scene”, the line: “The ability for developers and gamers, who are so often one and the same, to indulge their generosity and camaraderie on an unlocked platform.”

    ‘Owzat?

    I’m also curious about which comments you feel my piece disproves. I am wondering if you mean this: “The 80s video game experience is travelling away from us into the distant past. Emulators let newer generations simulate the old technology but, in the absence of proper context, retro play cannot convey the cultural significance of video games or the impact they had on individual lives. Simply manhandling a few old curiosities leaves the modern player with a coarse, low-resolution impression of our 1980s low-res existence, a broken framing of the decade in terms of what video games couldn’t yet do, rather than what it was doing for us.”

    I’m not sure that there’s much conflict between the viewpoints; I’d contend that an old game can be played today by a young person and they can find it personally significant in a way that feels similar to what a young person in the 80s or early 90s would have. (If a game is sufficiently immersive then your imagination fills in the gaps. Same reason books will never go out of style.) But I’m not sure that’s a point I made or implied above?

  7. @ShaunCG:
    I guess it depends on how the creative forces behind the game perceive failure. Keiji Inafune thought Mega Man 3 wasn’t nearly as good a 2, but 3 was held as one of the series best for a while- is that failure on some level? Future generations may like Bioshock 2 more than 1, even… I know I’m guilty of skipping games in a series if later installments have more refined gameplay, even if the story is worse/poorly integrated into the gameplay.

    Maybe gaming’s bond with technological progress is one of the greater hurdles to enjoying the past. Or maybe it’s its bond with UI progress. Or, maybe the former is the issue for younger audiences (because console friendly menus in New Vegas are a damn sight more tedious than Deus Ex’s hotkeys) and the latter is what keeps it in the past for older players.

  8. Sorry, I wasn’t very clear in my assertions. What I meant is that I played ‘The Urquan Masters’ (I can never remember if that is the correct name) way after it was made and immediately found it intoxicating. I meant that this disproved HM’s theory that maybe games can’t be revisited and that nostalgia clouds our judgement.

    Star Control 2 stood the test of time.

  9. @BC: Ah but I already conceded (commented against your article) that there are games that endure but I’d note we’re more forgiving of games from an era we experienced.

    One data point is Kyle Orland’s Eurogamer piece in which he found it an uphill struggle to connect to Atari 2600 games.

    And even the great X-Com, which is considered to be not just a classic but a survivor, has not found its way into my game-time because I haven’t mustered the courage to work through the interface. (I missed most of the 90s MS-DOS/Win95 gaming era; it’s not my era.)

    Will all these games continue to stand the test of time? Personally I doubt it. I think they will retreat into retro enclaves, kept alive by hardened supporters, much like curators who maintain museum exhibits. Jump forward not just a few years but a century: are people really going to be playing Half-Life, Starcraft or Silent Hill? If you have virtual reality games that are completely interactive, I wonder if retro will be consigned to having just historical/cultural value than actual gameplay value.

    It’s cynical, perhaps, but the fall of Ultima IV as a notable RPG was my watershed moment; I’ve already had to deal with this. And revisiting the 80s made me realise I had no right trying to convince anybody to revisit the games from my childhood: because many of them annoyed the hell out of me in 2011.

  10. @BC: The Ur-Quan Masters is the right name of the open-source version, yep.

    @HM: I think the kernel of the argument, that “we’re more forgiving of games from an era we experienced”, is true to an extent. I can think of exceptions that may be more or less valid – I virtually missed the PS2/Xbox era (sure I was playing PC titles but my PC was oooold at the time) but still dig such games; I have played games that were effectively before my time like Wasteland (but okay, I had some reference points) – but I suppose I was old enough that these exceptions were still arguably within my frame of reference.

    The question, then, is what predated me? Asteroids? Space Invaders? Arkanoid? Pong? Spacewar? I’ve played all of these games bar the latter, and I’ve enjoyed them, but I’d not say they resonated with me. So for me, perhaps, the line of division is less what I can play and more what I want to play.

    Yet that is quite a different scenario to Brainy Gamer’s class of early-20s/late teens trying to play Ultima IV. Perhaps I am just old enough that those very early games still qualify as being within my frame of reference, and because of the relative youth of the industry I can’t quite put myself in someone else’s shoes.

    I’m not really arguing one way or the other, I think. Just bouncing ideas around. I have had a few pints.

  11. @HM: re. your “in a century” point. I think that is too difficult to say. No other medium of entertainment particularly has to worry itself about UI. Okay, you might draw comparisons between books and the literacy rate in times before nationalised education, or films of the silent or B&W era, but the former is less about UI and more about social context and the latter is, to me, more a question of generic convention and technological possibility. So yeah, I think in the sense that UI is integral to the gaming experience we have to accept that gaming has a more ephemeral tendency. But equally, it’s a very young medium, and we can’t envision the future a century from now – that’s more than twice the age of gaming as a medium, really, and no futurist can guess at that.

  12. God this is long.

    @Shaun I have a suspicion this discussion is eating itself rather than fleshing out an analysis; my line that people are not engaging in the past they didn’t experience seems to just muddy the waters. I’ll try to just rephrase the core idea in a different way.

    So: retro enthusiasm is largely fuelled by childhood. I cannot conceive that a bunch of young folk are fascinated with the Stella emulator and keeping alive the spirit of the 2600. Yes, sweeping generalization, there are exceptions- but sites like AtariAge are frequented by people who lived through Atari rather than came to it thirty years late. This is not the Canabalt generation.

    Now, yes, there is a retro-chic that surfaces in modern indie titles, but note that most of that retro action is directed at 90s pixel play and not earlier. You can find references to the ZX Spectrum and C64 period (VVVVVV, Leave Home) but most of what is considered retro style today is evocative of the NES/SNES era. This makes sense if you accept that 90s kids are more connected and have more time to develop games/write blogs reflecting their childhood than the 80s kids.

    I would be wary of citing iconic titles from any era: they have their own cultural momentum. Even if no one plays Space Invaders any more, everyone knows it and an alien invader is a common signal for video games and sometimes retro. (Hello Arcadian Rhythms!)

    Going back to the “century” point. You’re correct that predicting the future is a mug’s game but it was more a thought experiment to draw out the UI penalty that gaming has built into its medium. I’m going to venture that at some point we will establish holodeck-like virtual reality experiences. The children raised against this backdrop will find it bizarre to point-and-click at characters on a 2D screen that spit out predetermined responses. I’m not saying no one will play them – there is always going to be a fascination with the past – but its reasonable to assume these games will find it hard to maintain a significant audience with modern gaming being so far advanced. (An interesting alternative view is that old games will be considered to be so “poorly” interactive that they will be looked upon as closer to literature.)

    What I see being the potential Achille’s heel in my own argument is this: have game UIs succeeded in reaching a point where they can endure? The 2600 and 8-bit era look positively archaic and their foibles frustrate the impatient players of now. They’re obviously dying. But what about the corporate, polished 90s? Are these games much more likely to survive for thirty years?

    The problem is – as I abused Kyle Orland to demonstrate – deciding whether game UI & design has evolved to a durable, timeless state is incredibly subjective. We’ll only know the real truth in another decade or so. But I’ve already read that words to the effect that maybe Sonic’s time has passed. (I do wish I’d remembered BC’s article on Sonic 4 “Misremembered?” because it would have been great to cite in The Last Dream and I wrote some massive comments there.)

    Keep posting under the influence of alcohol!

  13. Thanks for bringing up back on-track!

    Most of what you’ve said above can’t be argued with and I do think you’ve pretty much put this one to bed. :)

    A couple of minor comments, though, just for the sake of being talkative:

    “You can find references to the ZX Spectrum and C64 period (VVVVVV, Leave Home) but most of what is considered retro style today is evocative of the NES/SNES era”

    Jeff Minter’s Minotaur Rescue springs to mind as well, but I concede that this one example hardly weakens your main point.

    “But what about the corporate, polished 90s? Are these games much more likely to survive for thirty years?”

    In recent years I’ve revisited the original Command & Conquers, Dune 2000, Unreal, Quake, Quake 2 etcetera. Some fare better than others but it’s been interesting to see just how certain games now seem terribly frustrating for reasons that simply weren’t considered a problem at the time (by me, at least). In fact, today’s Eurogamer retrospective on Rollercoaster Tycoon makes this very point… although it also concludes that the game is still rather wonderful. Distance, I suppose makes the heart grow fonder, and reacquaintance may make it grow fungus.

  14. Interesting that you took from ‘Misremembered’ that Sonic’s time has been and gone. Hmmm.

    As for the Ur-quan Masters, I was coming at it from having just played Way of the Samurai 3 and wanting something that wasn’t going to hold my hand. A present game becoming the doorway into exploring a game that I had no interest in when it was first released (I am not sure if I was even playing games during that period).

    Anyway, I hope no one is playing Half Life 2 in a 100 years time, that would be very depressing for me.

  15. @ShaunCG: Yes, VVVVVV/Leave Home were just examples and I know there are others out there (Minotaur Rescue didn’t occur to me) but it was just that, as you also note, they are a minority. “Reacquaintance may make it grow fungus” – brilliant.

    @BC: Nay, nay – I was only commenting that people were saying “Sonic’s time has passed” and you had an article that jumped into this topic; it was a rebuttal it if I recall correctly. I just wished I’d remembered it. That’s right, I forgot an article called “Misremembered”. Ah yes, and how could I also forget that you’re not one of them Half-Life 2 fanz.

  16. I can’t take credit for the phrase; it’s tweaked from an old song lyric by… erm, what were they called. Late 90s Canadian pop group. Barenaked Ladies!

    Google tells me that it’s also the name of an album by Omar Rodríguez-López, so no doubt that is disgustingly pretentious.

  17. I’ve not much to add here but I will say that Toys For Bob did the excellent The Unholy War on the Playstation, a game which my brother and I loved. I still own it and believe the design holds up remarkably well, so much so in fact, that I could imagine it being remade and retooled on PC and being a very successful and competitive multiplayer game. It’s essentially a hex-based turn-based strategy game between two factions interspersed with real-time one-on-one arena battles over territory and resources. It was terrific and sorely overlooked. If there was any game I’d like to see make a reappearance, it’s The Unholy War!

    http://www.mobygames.com/game/playstation/unholy-war/screenshots

    Anyway: GREGG B IN LATE TO PARTY SHOCKER!

    Great article Shaun! I hope to get round to Ur-Quan Masters one day, I played it briefly a couple of years ago and was impressed by the writing and sense of humour. Didn’t get much of a feel for the game itself though. Space Rangers 2: Reboot has been installed on Steam for ages now and I keep threatening to start that. Same goes for Space Pirates And Zombies… eee gadz, so many games. I too loved ‘Reacquaintance may make it grow fungus’.

  18. @Gregg:
    I actually saw Wrath Unleashed for the PS2 first, which looks similar to The Unholy War, though I’ve played neither. I mostly got hooked on the idea of turn-based strategy with action battles after playing a ROM of SD Gundam: Winner’s History on the Game Gear. That game had some lovely music on top of being really fun, though some battles dragged on a bit too long.

  19. @GreggB: Better two years late than never.