Best Games - Descent
At one point 3d graphics were so whiz-bang new that a game could be based entirely around the ability to move in all directions. Soak that in for a second. Moving forward, back, left, right, up, down, and rotating around an axis was so novel that a very successful game used that as it’s selling point.
Descent hangs a very thin story, repetitive mission structure, and combat mechanics as nuanced as a schoolyard snowball fight on the ability to move in any direction without the hassle of pesky things like gravity or realistic inertia. It was amazing, groundbreaking, completely disorienting, and for most people, almost completely unplayable.
It’s not very surprising then, that after Descent, and a few other attempts at this freedom of movement based gameplay, the industry sort of just gave up on it. Our brains are really good at 2d and limited 3d movement. For most of our lives up is up, down is down, and our heads remain consistently level with the horizon. Even when we ride in vehicles that can operate in fluid environments like air and water, we still know that up is up, and down is down. Removing that restriction takes some getting used to.
Descent is more experiment than actual game though. Flight simulators had been around for a good long time before Descent came out, but they all operate on the idea that they are modelling a real physical world that reacts in ways we are accustomed to. Descent is a game of what if. What if gravity was not a factor. What if the horizon is relative to the observer, not a predefined aspect of the physical world. What if your rotation and direction of travel were independent vectors. Of course, all of these what ifs are actual facts of movement in a 3 dimensional universe, but for earthbound mammals like us it can be difficult to shed our preconceptions.
Descent would likely be a strange footnote in the history of video games. One success among dozens of failures. I think maybe it just came out too early.
In an industry driven by novelty, they ability to navigate your environment in ways that are just not normally possible might be the most novel thing of all. Pair that with a unique way to inhabit that environment, like the Oculus Rift, and you have the rebirth of an entire genre of movement based games. Keeping your lunch down might require a more old school solution. What I’m really saying is, maybe now would be a good time to stock up on ginger root.
So, up until last week I had a perfect record. 144 weeks since I started doing this posting something every monday, usually a screed hastily smashed out on sunday night, I have never missed a post. A couple of times I posted around 11:30 monday night. Even when we took a trip to DisneyWorld, I managed to type something up on the Nexus 7 tablet and had it posted for monday. Unfortunately, last monday technology failed me. I was heading out of town and wouldn’t be back until late on monday so I decided to use the post scheduling feature of my websites content management system. My post consisted entirely of a single picture and a short caption. The post didn’t get posted, and the caption was lost to the digital ether. That picture went up on tuesday, and I couldn’t be bothered to recover the caption. Technology, I’m not mad, just disappointed.
On the other hand, the content of that post was the first object ever extruded from my 3d printer. A few weeks ago I wrote about assembling the machine. That was as far as it got. Assembled. I was able to start the thing up and shuttle the print head around a bit, but I couldn’t get it to graduate from demo mode to actually printing.
After some investigative diagnostics, I managed to figure out that the temperature sensor for the print bed wasn’t working. Actually it was smashed practically back to sand. A handy safety feature for the printer is that it won’t try to heat anything up if it can’t tell what temperature it is. So that’s good I suppose. Less good was waiting for the replacement parts to arrive. Thermistors cost somewhere south of 40 cents, but they are apparently required to circumnavigate the globe before they can be delivered to you, so I had to wait weeks before I could find out if this structure I had constructed could actually print at all.
A quick solder job later and the new thermistor was installed. The printer started up just fine and accurate temperature readings started squirting out of the print bed. It wasn’t until the next day that I managed to get it to print one very small part.
I printed a tiny thing that I had modelled in Blender and hastily ran through software that breaks the model down into tiny slices and converts that information into g-code, a common language used to control automated machines. I printed that a few hours before we left on our trip. I took a picture of it and created a post scheduled to go up mid afternoon monday, a time I knew I would be driving. The post never went up, but I would say that, technology wise, I came out ahead.
Next week I’ll probably be back to writing about games again. On mondays.
Time magazine ran a cover depicting Oculus founder Palmer Luckey leaping into the air in front of what appears to be a high school grad photo backdrop from the late 80s. His invention, the Oculus VR headset, looks like a goofy Johnny Mnemonic throwback at the best of times. Luckey, in the photo, appears to be headed to the socially maladjusted digital rapture. This led a lot of people involved in video games to implicate Time for the attempted murder of VR. The photo is cheesy, ridiculous, and plays into revenge of the nerds style stereotypes. If ever there was a button that could be pressed that would send all of games media into a frothing rant, that's it. Time Magazine pressed it, and the response was dishearteningly predictable.
Video Games folks, as a collective culture, feels nothing more strongly than our deep sense of general inadequacy. When other facets of popular culture began garnering some small glimmering phantom of what might be called respect, games lagged behind. Movies are called films, books are called literature, and video games remain the butt of basement dwelling nerd jokes.
Video games are barely 40 years old. For huge chunk of that time a person was represented by a stack of squares and a dozen colors. If you weren’t on board with games early on, there was no way you would be won over by the abstract graphics and dismal audio. As the graphic and sound fidelity increased, so did the interactive complexity. Pac Man is operated with only 4 discrete inputs and all of them are marshalled by the player with a single joystick. Street Fighter 2 can represent recognizable characters and environments, but there are no fewer than 14 discrete inputs, and they can all be used in patterns, combinations, and timings to create thousands of interactive possibilities at any given moment. Even though fighting games may represent the deeper end of the complexity pool, games in general have become complicated enough to be frightening to those who didn’t stay all in from the days of pong, or mario, or whatever their own particular onramp was. Since what we video gamers were doing seemed so impenetrable and foreign to people who didn’t play video games, it was an easy avenue of ridicule. If you were in you were in, if you were out you were out, and both sides of this culture divide were wrong.
The people that have been on board with video games for most of their lives have internalized that ridicule, and perceive any attack on video games, as an attack on our own identities. We rush to the defence of a medium that needs none. Here’s the thing, that fight is over. No matter what anyone says for or against the respectability of video games or video game players, games are simply another vehicle of culture. Kids who grew up with Mario or Pikachu don’t have a separate rung on the ladder of relevance for those characters. They exist alongside Mickey Mouse, Superman, Odysseus, and Huck Finn. The war, if there ever was one, ended decades ago. The generation that grew up alongside games, my generation, we can stop fighting now.
Time magazine is still well respected, and maybe they were out of line depicting the founder of the newest frontier in digital interactivity as a weird shoeless geek on the most budget of holodecks. It really doesn’t matter. The people who will pick up that technology and push it forward, the newest generation of gamers, they don’t feel the sting of being slighted by a magazine. They don’t understand fighting for the respectability of the medium. Video games are simply a part of their cultural landscape. Amazing games and interactive experiences will continue to be made by people who think they have something to say in the medium. Some of them will use VR headsets to tell their stories and make real their ideas. Video games will continue to grow and change and branch out, maybe in ways that are unrecognizable to those of us who were around when they started. But die? no were far beyond that now.
Best Games - Miner 2049er
I have never finished Miner 2049er. Even now, when emulation, level select codes, and other digital wankery, would make completing the last level of this game trivial, I still haven't finished it. I don't think that I want to.
I first played Miner 2049er on an Atari 800 computer. I knew that it existed on other computers, because I would paw over all the game boxes at the local computer store compulsively. What I didn't know at the time, was that it had actually been written on the Atari 800. Like a lot of games from that era, it was ported to every object with a processor in it, but many of them have system specific changes, or concessions. The Atari computer version was created with such focused intent, that it's difficult for me to imagine the game any other way.
At first blush, Miner 2049er looks like a Donkey Kong ripoff. There are platforms to walk and jump on. There are ladders to climb. A bulbous, hat wearing, protagonist is tasked with scaling navigating an impossible structure, one screen at a time. There are amorphous baddies that mindlessly march a set pattern and don’t actively assail the player character. All pretty damning stuff. Really though, Miner 2049er and Donkey Kong are nothing alike.
Donkey Kong is a sort of dexterity challenge. The players goal and path to that goal are perfectly clear, but navigating the games obstacles required fast reactions and quick thinking. Miner 2049er is a set of 10 puzzles. There is a time limit, but it is fairly generous. For the most part you can take your time and figure out how best to complete the variety of challenges on offer. Each level presents a different novelty from teleporters, to vats of radioactive waste, to scissor lifts, to cannons packed with TNT. The catch to these puzzles is that you must step on every platform tile in every level to win. Some levels have platforms that can only be reached by following a very particular path making the entire level a sort of navigation puzzle. Of course the main difference is that when Mario dies, he spins around and falls over, but when Bounty Bob dies he crumples into his hat like Super Dave Osborne. Now that’s comedy.
When I played Miner 2049er I had no manual and no one I knew played the game. There was no internet, so there was literally no way to ask someone what I was supposed to do on each level. If let’s plays existed they were probably recorded on betamax taped and placed lovingly in shoebox under someones bed. I have only just yesterday learned that there was a code that could start you on any level that you wanted. I just played the game over and over until each level was etched somewhere in the reptilian portion of my brainstem. I reached the 10th level, the one with the cannon you load with TNT, several times, but I could never quite put it together. I didn’t know at the time how close I was to finishing Miner 2049er, or I may have been enticed to complete it. I have held on to that as some strange mark of shame for all these years. It was a game I was good at, but one that I could never defeat. A low priority white whale.
Now, decades since, I know that I could go back and finish it. I have seen videos of the game being completed. It would be so very easy. I think I would rather not. I think that one level I never beat makes this game a little more special. A tiny nagging memory of joy. It’s small, simple and trivial, but it’s mine.