Electron Dance
30Aug/11Off

The Last Dream

This is the final article in the Where We Came From series.

[Blurred picture of a small boy]

"When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood." (Sam Ewing, 1992)

*                     *                     *

I was obsessed with video games during the first decade of my life. I remember having many dreams that ended up at a video game arcade; it was a particular place that my dream-self knew well, although it did not exist in the waking world. I never really played much there, as I usually woke up pretty quickly after I grabbed the controls of one of the machines. It was more about the signature of the arcade than its function, a perfect amalgamation of every arcade I'd ever visited.

But, in time, this place eventually slipped out of my dreams and I forgot all about it.

Years later, I dreamt of a beaten-up old building, all peeling paint and boarded-up windows, holding court on a strange disconnected island in a sea of wild grass. I explored inside with a friend and found some dilapidated, broken arcade cabinets. I realised that this was that old dream arcade.

I had been given one last chance to say goodbye.

*                     *                     *

Somewhere in your teens, you become aware of history as something you have existed in as opposed to something you have not. Some of us deal with the knowledge of time's arrow better than others. I'm terrible with it and suffer vertigo when I look back across the yawning chasm between now and the start of my life, seeing the past as a sequence of experiences that are locked and cannot be revisited. For this reason, Jason Rohrer’s Passage was a gut punch to my soul. For this reason, Noah Kalina’s “Everyday” was deeply moving.

Five years back and I’m excited to build a new life back in Britain. Ten years back and I’m in Japan with an exploding social life and more freedom than I’d ever had before. Twenty years back and I can see my student existence, learning about abstract mathematical substructure and squandering time in a big way. Thirty years back and I slam into the Atari home computer.

Steve Hunt and I often get lost wandering through Atari game videos on YouTube. In addition to this, I also toy with an Atari emulator from time to time. For me, the purpose of these activities is not to have fun but to torment myself that I can’t reproduce that childhood joy.

The truth is I've not been telling you the history of 80s gaming over these last three months, I've been indulging in my childhood. This is video gaming as Joel Goodwin saw it. You’ll notice a significant lack of articles on the Commodore 64, the ZX Spectrum, the Amiga, the Atari ST, the Oric-1, the Dragon 32, the TRS-80 and the VIC-20… where are their stories?

*                     *                     *

In April 1986, A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing published a program called Paperweight by Curt Cox. The accompanying text opens:

“Atari Corp. has released the access procedure for the 400/800 self destruct vector (SDV). Why should you use the SDV? Being put into a closet to rot forever is a degrading death for an elegant machine. Hari-kari is a far more fitting and dignified death.”

[Screenshot saying Self Destruct Vector found]

This joke program was an early example of using software as art. It made the point that the 8-bit Atari was being redefined, in the latter half of the 80s, as nothing more than an expensive paperweight. This was the dawn of 16-bit computing but many of the original home computer pioneers felt no need for “more powerful machines” and didn't want to throw away all of the knowledge and software they'd accumulated over the years. We believed this technology was for life.

And herein lies the great paradox: the pioneers themselves began to oppose new technology, becoming curmudgeonly sticks in the mud. I remember sniping at the new, younger machines that were coming out and rubbishing the game consoles that were starting to take over from the home computer boom. I thought of these consoles as silly obsessions with pretty graphics and sound, the “game” being just a shallow afterthought.

I finally broke out of this conditioning in the early 90s after experiencing Sonic the Hedgehog on a Sega Megadrive for the first time, astonished at what console gaming really was. I closed the book on the Atari and never looked back.

*                     *                     *

History is an educator but its dark twin is nostalgia, which is history as inertia. It is easy to over-romanticise and talk about the golden days of [insert personal hobbyhorse here].

Rob Beschizza’s engrossing piece “Nomen Ludi" got a lot of play, which told of the author’s search for a long lost game title and its damaged, reclusive developer. It tapped into that 80s pioneer-era magic and the comments gushed:

“One of the most touching pieces of games journalism I've read for a very long time"

"It's really exciting to see games journalism maturing!"

"Nicely done. Is this a true story?"

No. It was fiction.

*                     *                     *

The PC is a safe haven, the forever machine that never has to say goodbye. Many MS-DOS era games are still playable thanks to efforts like DOSBox. Perhaps in my mature years I've abandoned transient fly-by-night consoles so I don't have to say, yet again, goodbye to a beloved platform.

[Image with words "It too could do for you"]

It's a false sense of security. The free-to-play space continues to grow and mobile gaming is massive. The more serious threat is in thin-client services such as OnLive. They are poised to usurp console and PC as leading game platforms. Maybe not today. But definitely tomorrow. The PC gaming revolution could yet be replaced by the latest corporate-walled garden.

But where do you want to live? In the past or the future?

*                     *                     *

David Fox made the point that we can appreciate old films within the context they were made and implied this extends to video games. But it’s more than just accepting a past in which Mario saves a hopeless princess in yet another castle and putting Lara Croft, Alyx Vance and April Ryan aside. I would counter that the element of interactivity is more problematic: given the choice most Facebook users wouldn't want to go back to the days when they had to write individual letters to friends on paper. New game design makes old design feel slow and frustrating.

Kyle Orland decided to explore Atari 2600 games for The Escapist as they were before his time. I was suspicious when Orland offered observations such as "I barely cared that the games mostly looked and sounded like something the cat dragged in" especially as pixel-chic has been all the rage the last few years. It was clear that Orland had no personal connection with the games of the early 80s but there is nothing wrong with that.

However at the article’s conclusion, Orland throws in: “I feel my beloved NES games have aged better than the Atari 2600 titles that are, to me, just a few weeks old." It was a statement of gut and not something that emerged through analysis. He'd fallen victim to the very problem he was trying to understand.

Everyone has a gaming childhood and the siren call of retro touches every generation, not just the children of 80s pixel poverty.

[Screenshot bearing words "Now that you're gone"]

*                     *                     *

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.

And so we write furiously to save this secret history.

*                     *                     *

I’ve been writing for three months about where we came from: childhood. It is irrelevant which of the last four decades you were born in, as we have all had our own, unique video game upbringing. I’ve shared with you some of the stories that created mine and what has happened to the people involved.

But it still wasn’t enough. I wanted to turn those difficult feelings – the joy of childhood and bereavement at its passing – into something tangible, something I could share. So a few weeks ago I set out to create a video eulogy for my Atari childhood.

Here it is. A small boy dreams of an arcade…

Only you will be able to tell me if it works. But at least now I can say I’m done.

At least now I can say goodbye.

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (18) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Joel, bravo. The ‘Where We Came From’ series has, as a whole, has been sincere and intimately detailed in a way that few pieces are these days. That you strung together several of them in a row, well, you know how much work you put into it. What I’m saying is it paid off brilliantly.

    The video piece was especially neat. I dug the footage and the song at the end a bunch. Was that stock footage or did you shoot that?

  2. Now THAT was beautiful. I’m honored to have helped with this project.

    I think gaming’s past is safe in some regards- geek chic brings in a lot of imitators but it’s also a backdoor into keeping older games cool for the masses. I think the appeal of games that are organically rules-driven will not fade, even as designers of all stripes get ever closer to finding out how to blend narrative with play effectively.

    On the other side of that coin is the fact that games from the Before Now era could also be more complex, at least on the user’s end. In other words, PhysX integration is complex for developers, but choosing equipment and materia in Final Fantasy VII is more involving for players*. Some friends of mine recently got into D&D despite not having a lot of experience in games with complicated calculation systems. Yet, after this, I think any RPG that automated aspects of this process would be much easier to digest.

    What could really do old games a service is if upcoming generations learn coding together on a society-wide level. All of a sudden, the achievements packed into these games will blow minds (as they should now, but the majority of people can’t even read the code, myself unhappily included).

    I’m glad I got to know you better this way, Joel. It makes me wonder if there should be a grand game history or just a giant collection of autobiographies-via-gaming. It would also perfectly illuminate how personal this gaming business is.

    And in the grand scheme of things, video games are among the easiest things to enjoy once you reach the other side of age. I doubt footballers are successfully recreating their youth once they’ve gone grey. Losing those reflexes with age just shuts one out of reflex-driven games.

    *I just realized how amusing it was that FFVII was remembered as a game where you tediously used the Fight command over and over, when the reality of playing it now reveals it to be a much more complex beast compared against more streamlined/opaque games like Fable or Square-Enix’s own Kingdom Hearts series.

  3. Gah! Nice read, I disagree with quite a bit of what you are saying although my piece on Sonic (BC Ruminates: Misremembered?) touched on some of that.

    At the same time I have gone back to games, or even gone to games that I never played at the time and enjoyed them immensely.

    The idle thumbs talking about The Last Express is a really good point of reference.

  4. @jordan: Thank you – it’s been quite a fight these months so it’s great to hear that people have got something out these “old stories”. The footage at the end was all done by me over the weekend just gone. Just in time, really, as it looks like the 2011 summer is dead already. Incidentally, I picked up the song from series 2 of the Swedish series Wallander. It just seemed a perfect uplift after what had gone before: you know it’s the ten second countdown that gets me every time.

    @beamsplashx: Thanks Sid, I had to squeeze your name in there. You bring up an idea which I thought was kind of inevitable ten years ago, but we’re still not there yet. With the rise in computing and programmable devices, I thought it was only a matter of time before coding became a common skill. But what’s happened is a big push on the HCI front, with Apple leading, to simplify interfaces and minimise the need for a coding mind. I don’t know if this is good or not. Simplicity plays well in the short-term but often stabs in you in the back in the long run.

    @badger: There’s a lot of nuance that could have been added (you have no idea how many paragraphs were cut from this) but it would’ve weakened the overall thrust of the writing. But as I don’t want anyone commenting who disagrees with me I… where’s that banning button gone again? There are certainly titles that will still work; I am fired up with the idea of going back to blast through some unplayed Infocom adventures after enjoying a super-fast replaythrough of Planetfall at the start of the WWCF.

    But all of the 30 year old stuff I played for the video didn’t fill me with feelings of “ooh goody, I want to play this again!” but more “hot damn, good times”. I’d love to play Ultima Underworld, but it offends my hands.

  5. I think coding should either replace or at least supplement math and science education in schools. Did I pass calculus in high school? Yes. Do I remember anything beyond basic algebra? No- and it hasn’t had a negative impact on anything other than my desire to learn a programming language over a scripting one. Writing programs makes for a perfect answer as to what real-world uses of math and science might be if neither one will be your professional field.

    I feel like the major aspect holding me back from Underworld is the choppiness and the input method for attacks. There was a Playstation release of it, but it’s Japanese only (just like the PS2 release of Might & Magic 8). Having a PSX version wouldn’t be as problematic as modern consolized ports might be, since the 90s tended towards a million button combinations over simplified controls, which I’m totally fine with.

  6. We should get Underworld rewritten for modern systems. Oh hang on, some already did it: Arx Fatalis.

  7. But the pixel art, Joel!

    Granted, I’m still totally going to play Arx Fatalis one day. And it should be soon since my computer can actually handle it.

  8. Arx is a great place to explore, I really enjoyed it (some years ago, now). And some of the secrets of the game are, like, really actually secret and hard to figure out.

  9. On The Stick puts up a counterargument against the idea that “retro is just nostalgia” which underpins The Last Dream.

  10. Hmm, his counterargument centers around the NES-era games like Contra and VICE, which are hardly similar to something like Rescue on Fractalus. I wasn’t nostalgic for those games either, but they have an obvious immediacy that some Atari games you wrote about wouldn’t have.

    Also, you addressed the issue of lineage pretty well- you can trace Angry Birds back to Mighty Bomb Jack, but is that enough to get Angry Birds players to actually play it? Angry Birds has all the polish. And while no one will be applauded for slagging off Citizen Kane, it shouldn’t be a surprise when precisely no one recommends that you actually see it. Not because it’s bad, but because its value isn’t as visible. The main attraction now would be Orson Welles’ performance, just like Rescue on Fractalus’ appeal for me would be in its unique visuals.

  11. Sid, I nod towards you sagely. I do concede that there definitely are games of the past that are still worth our time and someone like gnome does a great deal of digging to celebrate what we might have easily forgotten.

    I have no stats to prove this, of course, but it’s reasonable to assume most of the retro interest stems from people who lived through it. And that’s the key thing – that you lived in that era. From Joe’s article:

    “It’s an NES game I missed, but when I played it, I found it to be a woefully underappreciated 8-bit gem. I could not have nostalgia for it, because I never played it as a child. And yet, I still enjoyed it.”

    But! He still has the nostalgia of the NES era pumping through his veins and is no stranger to its control schemes and game design and is more forgiving of the era’s drawbacks. The real test is whether someone can go back and find something suitable to play before they got game. Can he engage with Atari 8-bit titles? 2600 titles? Kyle Orland couldn’t and he made an Escapist project out of it, even seeking help from Ian Bogost.

    This was the kind of revelation I had from my day with Prof Steve Furnell. I found myself not particularly interested in consoles I hadn’t experienced: “With the Videopac I feel no nostalgic warmth, just frustration with an antiquated interface from pioneering days when little was known about game console design.”

    I doubt many readers of the series were encouraged to fire up an Atari emulator to look at these old games (apart from Switchbreak, gawd bless him, who even bought a copy of Necromancer from eBay). Few readers clicked on the game videos presented in this series and I do have stats to prove that.

    This strikes me as telling.

    I’m glad I’m taking a holiday off Electron Dance, because I can write ridiculously long comments like these. Fear me blogs of the internet, I am back!

  12. Wonderful, thank you for this series. Although we have a different frame of reference when it comes to video games and the past (my being nintendo 8/16/64-bit, and turn of the century computer games such as baldurs gate, commandos, hexplore and grim fandango), these series strike something within me, that yearning back, that nostalgia. For me, it’s like I’m stuck in the past somehow, in more than one sense; I dream almost every night of my childhood, of coming back to that now twisted place, as if through a looking glass; my psychoanalysis focuses much on the ghosts that haunt me, and all that proper love and admission of proper value which I should have been given; the memory of video games and my experience with them, my living in them, secluded, my own, a place to which I cannot return, even with the help of the video games themselves. It’s like everything of unity and innocence lost is channeled into those video games I played when I was a kid, as if they are the ultimate synecdohce of all that was bittersweet and have become more bitter since, all that which I continue to search for in new games but never find because I’ve changed, because I’m so fucking analytical.

    And today, even the sadness I used to feel over that lost place is hard to find when I boot up the games. Which is why I’ve decided to not do it for another 20 years, until I get children of my own, or just decide I want to return. Dare return. Huh, what a disappointment I would get if my children wouldn’t get anything out of it, and they probably wouldn’t either. These feelings are essentially something which cannot be shared, or recollected, and I would probably do my future children a disservice to put that pressure on them to experience these things which I want to regain with me, simply because these feelings are so important, and I’ve waited so long, and because something would change within me if my childhood memories got “rejected” by someone else that way. As if it made it less real somehow, a feeling of realness which is barely possesses as it is.

    A piece that reminded me of yours was this one:

    http://nightmaremode.net/2011/06/your-homosexual-lover-is-in-another-castle-a-year-of-interviews-with-jeffrey-auburn-1-6558/

    http://nightmaremode.net/2011/08/_____-on-the-planet-x-a-year-of-interviews-with-jeffrey-auburn-2-8751/

    It has this nostalgia over something which kind of never was and never will be that makes me sad and happy. So thank you once again, your journey was one that I enjoyed. Good luck with that garden now, and those plants. I read about someone who was all stressed out and never took the time to enjoy, to cultivate oneself and ones sensibilities, ones interests, so zie got a flower (was interested in botanics) and every time zie saw that the flower was wilted or somehow “sad”, zie would know that this reflects what zie was feeling, was a consequence of hir not taking care of hirself… Hopefully, we can all get flowers of ours so that we can take care of ourselves.

  13. I think growing up in the 16-bit era actually makes the 8-bit generation acceptable. Games on the SNES weren’t necessarily more complicated than NES games.

    That said, the PS2-era is still a sweet spot for UI, innovation and production value. The succeeding generation seems to be repeating the 16-bit era’s advances, but there’s even less new-ness than before.

  14. Hi Ava, thanks for the enormous comment!

    I still find a modern joy in gaming but nothing, of course, will be the same as that play of exploration in my younger years: years where everything seemed full of wonder and mystery, where rules and pattern were unknown. But now the years of play have yielded all that mystery. We know too much and we can’t go back. Not as we are, anyway.

    I think it would be possible to teach your own children to play old video games – provided you started out with those titles before jumping forward to iPhone experiences and so forth – but I another question I would ask is: do I want to impose my childhood on them or let them discover their own?

    I guess I will share some of my past with my own two children – but will probably let them develop their own gaming childhood memories that will serve them well in years to come.

  15. Certainly a good question, but one must also make a choice when one decides to let ones kids play modern games, if the question concerns new vs old. Probably they’ll have more to discuss with friends with newer games though, and maybe in the long run they’ll get more out of learning the rhetoric of modern games. Hey, not only would I love to go back to my own childhood through kids, but I would also like to see myself be left in the dust with youngsters taking gaming to whole different levels. :)

  16. Ava, the question of how I let my children grow into gaming is a thorny one which I’ve put off for the moment. The eldest is three years old. I still have time.

    I have so many conflicting voices in my head on this that there’s almost definitely an Electron Dance post in it somewhere =)

  17. The entire series was so enriching. And I tried to watch as many of the videos as I could! I’ve read this final piece twice now, and it is certainly the masterstroke of WWCF.

    My hat is off to you, master of harbours.

  18. Max, thank you for your kind words! I’ll cross you off the list of people who didn’t watch the videos! Also epic thanks for today’s post on Tap for the full WWCF series.