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.
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.
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.
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.
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.