Best Games - Battlezone
It’s the late 1960s. Saturn, Titan, Vostok, and Proton rockets have been launching from both sides of the cold war. The official word is that they have been carrying probes, satellites, astronauts, and cosmonauts. These are science focused spacecraft. The mission is exploration and the betterment of mankind. lies.
The premise of the 1998 remake of the classic 1980 vector tank game Battlezone is schlocky scifi alternate history at it’s best. It posits that the space race was a cover for a covert war fought across the solar system for an alien metal called scrap.
Scrap has the ability to self assemble into all manner of space tank, space factory, space turret, and other space stuff. All you need to do is send out mobile resource collecting vacuums to suck it up in quantities sufficient enough to build new things.
The game is played primarily from a first person perspective, either on foot, or from the inside of a space tank. It would be easy to mistake Battlezone for a first person shooter, but it is a strategy game at its core. You manage your bases, defenses, and troops from on the ground. Issuing orders, building units, and setting waypoints is all handled from inside your tank.
What struck me immediately, was that there was no grid system, no suggested locations for any of the more mobile units. The strategy section of this action/strategy game is about as freeform as they could make it. I would regularly use moon craters and martian canyons as environmental cover, drawing enemies into a prearranged crossfire. Being flexible and using the terrain to your advantage is the key to victory in Battlezone.
The usual point of view for a real time strategy game is from high overhead allowing the player to command and organize their troops board game style. Since Battlezone is played almost entirely from the point of view of a unit on the ground the way you issue orders to your units is unique, and seriously hasn’t been improved upon in the last 16 years. Battlezone uses an incredibly elegant hierarchical menu system that you operate with the number keys. You get shockingly fast at wrangling your troops using this system, and what small amount of micromanaging that you lose by not having a birds eye view, you can make up for with your own tanks combat abilities and movement speed.
Just driving the hovering space tanks around is a pure joy, which is good because driving around is what you spend most of your time doing in Battlezone. You drive over here to tell this unit to follow you, then you drive over there to tell another unit to hold a position. You drive over to one of your other units to order the pilot to switch space tanks with you so you can drive out with a faster, smaller tank. You park that smaller tank in a crater so that it’s hidden when you jump out on foot to go spy on the enemy operations from a high cliff. Then you use your sniper rifle to take out a few enemy pilots while you’re up there. You jump down and hop in one of their newly driverless space tanks, and you drive that back to your base.
Battlezone is space tank driving, strategy thinking fun. There has never been another game quite like it, and it did things that have yet to be improved upon. It’s one of the best games.
We just returned from a trip to Disney World. I could go on and on about how impressive I found nearly every aspect of the park. How the garbage cans are uniquely designed to be both ever present and completely invisible. How lines for rides are finely tuned psychological tricks that can make you feel like you haven’t waited very long at all, while still keeping you thoroughly corralled and out of the way of passing traffic. People at Disney have put an enormous amount of work into making the actual functioning machinery of the park disappear. That is probably why I found the fictional game created for Wreck It Ralph so impressive.
The Fix It Felix Jr. arcade machine was created to disappear. You would think that the first impulse of a gargantuan entertainment company would be to pull your focus to whatever peripheral merchandise they had on offer. This game could have been a massive movie tie in, put out on every game system available, and sold by the hundreds to collectors as stand up cabinets for home arcades. Instead, you can download the executable for the game for free to run on any home pc. It’s really quite a good game too.
The arcade machine appears to be a gutted and repurposed Nintendo cabinet for Donkey Kong or Donkey Kong Jr. The control panel and screen bezel artwork certainly apes the Donkey Kong cabinet in some really shameless ways. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that they art direction for Fix It Felix Jr. was to imagine an alternate world where Donkey Kong was never created and Fix it Felix was in fact the first Shigeru Miyamoto game. Fix It Felix Jr was the follow up sequel released in 1982. If you tuck this cabinet into a row of other classic games from the early to mid 80s, as they did in the one arcade we went to, it blends in so thoroughly that It would be difficult for someone who didn’t know to tell that it is only a year or two old.
This historical camouflage covered every aspect of the machine. Different part of the decals had been faded in different ways. The crt monitors used as the games displays were in various states of phosphor degradation, so the color reproduction on one machine was completely different from it’s neighbors. Scrapes on the sides of the case were in straight lines at different heights, hinting that at some point in the past 30 fictional years another shorter cabinet had rubbed against it in transport. There were different spring tensions in the sticks suggesting that one cabinet had seen more abuse than the others. One of the machines even had a cigarette burn in the acrylic control surface.
I don’t know if I have ever seen a fictional artifact so fully realized. It’s especially impressive considering that the target audience for the movie would not have been born when this game was supposed to have come out. There is a very real chance that kids could walk into that arcade and think that Wreck it Ralph was based on an actual game that came out in 1982. Whoever you are who made these things, you have my applause.
My house has moved on. We were a Minecraft house. Minecraft for breakfast, Minecraft to tuck you in at night, Minecraft in your dreams. On the time scale of a 7 year old, we stopped playing that decades ago. In reality it has been weeks. The obsession with Minecraft has been superseded by Terraria.
To the uninitiated both games seem fairly similar. Both are sandbox style toys that allow the player to change the world as they see fit. They can tear down the world as it is, and recreate it to suit them. The player can use resources extracted from the world to create new, more powerful items, which can be used to extract more valuable resources, and build more spectacular items. So it’s a lot like real life.
Even though they are much the same mechanically, I think the draw of Terraria over Minecraft is the constant progression. Where most of the world is available to you from the outset in Minecraft, Terraria must be tackled in stages. You can’t craft this item or enter that area, until you defeat this boss, or complete that quest. There is a gated progression. There is narrative. This then that.
You have to play Minecraft to play Minecraft. Any time that you are not playing the game, you could imagine the things that you would like to build, but without the tools there, in front of you, you can’t really do anything concrete. There are very few goals, besides the ones that the players impose on the game.
Terraria on the other hand, can be played while away from the computer. There are plans to be laid, strategies to consider. You can approach each boss battle or world event in dozens of different ways. You can compare the relative strengths of stacks of armour, weapons, tools, and equipment, choosing the ones that best suit your play style. Each puzzle or enemy that you best will spawn new possible challenges. In Minecraft you construct a world, in Terraria you construct a story.
There are some very hostile and ugly things going on in some dark corners of video gaming. You can read about it here if you like, http://www.vox.com/2014/9/6/6111065/gamergate-explained-everybody-fighting .
If you read a lot of media focused on the industry it may seem as though there is a full scale assault on indie developers, studio developers, journalists, bloggers, critics, reviewers, and on and on. There is not. The overwhelming majority of people who play games, make games, buy games, sell games, probably have no clue that anything of note is going on. They don’t know or care that a small group of angry, distasteful people have been organising to attack and harass specific developers and writers. They don’t know that these same people spawned and bolstered multiple, apparently pro-consumer, activist movements as a smokescreen to distance themselves from borderline illegal, and actually illegal, activity. There is no reason for most people to know any of this, because it doesn’t affect them. It doesn’t affect me. Not really. Not immediately. Not in a, fear for my career or life, sort of way. Not in the way that it does Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Jenn Frank, or a long list of other devs, writers, or critics. A list composed primarily of women. Women who make, play, and love games. I lied before. It does affect me, if you play games, it affects you. It affects the entire medium, top to bottom.
Games are a cultural byproduct. We make them just by being human, by playing, by being a mammalian apex predator with some free time to think about our place in the universe. Games come from the same place as music, theatre, poetry. We have always, and will always make games.
For any medium, a broad range of voices, from a broad range of experiences, elevates. Creating an environment so toxic that some people don’t and can’t feel safe speaking their experience, sharing their stories and games, will doom “gaming” to a cultural backwater. For people like me, who have played and loved games their entire lives, and have grasped for any sign of cultural legitimacy for the form, it is heart wrenching to watch. To see a writer the caliber of Jenn Frank silenced by a hateful few made me feel hollow, angry, powerless. When hers was a voice that we could point to and say, there. look, she knows why games are important, and she explains it so much better than we ever could.
Film didn’t end with Birth of a Nation. I don’t think this is the end of games. I don’t think that this medium of expression will be denied cultural legitimacy. In fact, I think the tide has already turned. Those of us that grew up with video games respect them alongside music and novels and paintings and sculpture, as a cultural artifact. An important facet of our collective identity.
My worry isn’t for us. If young girls coming out of high school don’t feel safe sharing their voice through games, we will all be poorer for it. If people from the LGBT community don’t feel that games can tell their stories, share their experiences, due to the potential for threats, and hate, they will express themselves through other media, and games will be poorer for it. The ethics, and gamer culture that these movements purport to protect will be broken. The voices silenced will take a generation to replace.
It is very lucky for us then that teenage girls and marginalized people can be relied upon to regularly throw up a middle finger to oppression. And lets be perfectly, crystal clear here, oppression is what is going on. This isn’t about journalistic integrity or corruption. Any claim made that attempts to house games media and journalistic integrity in the same sentence, is either by someone terribly naive or someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of those words. And I’m not suggesting that this is a considered, crafted oppression. This isn’t a pogrom on uppity female developers. This is the more insidious kind. The sort of oppression that is feverishly rallied around by disenfranchised 16 year olds, afraid that one of the few things that they have in life to hang an identity on might be slipping away from them. That the video games, skate parks, metal bands, or other scenes, might be fading away. Or worse yet, you might be outgrowing the scene and are clawing back at it as hard as you possibly can. I like to think that I would have been too introspective or empathetic to engage in this sort of activity, but it’s the sort of oppression I could have seen my 16 year old self attempting to justify. And I would have been wrong. Terribly, horribly, unforgivably wrong.
If you read any of the #gamergate commentary, and think, well maybe they have a point, I would like you to remember these three rules for dealing with any commercial industry.
The customer is not always right.
You can speak, but you do not have a right to be heard.
Not all points of view are valid.
I steal from the past.
There are literally thousands of games floating around out there. Games, books, limericks, bathroom graffiti, and the stunning industrial design of cotton swabs are all created by people influenced by previous works. You could go ahead and act like a turd heap by saying that your ideas are wholly original. Somehow, among the great miasma of human output, you managed it. You did something that no one else had ever considered. Just reach back there and give yourself the old patty pat.
Never happened. Not once.
This might sound like one of those “its all been done. shut it down” screeds. It’s not. It hasn’t all been done. Not even remotely. New ways of doing things, new objects, new concepts, are generated at a rate that would stagger the Flash. Not The Flash back when Wally West couldn’t vibrate through objects and stuff. The old Barry Allen Flash where he would regularly outrun laser beams. All of this new jazz being created is built from the crust of what came before.
Games are entertainment, and since almost all entertainment is driven by novelty, it is easy to convince yourself that a game concept or mechanic is “new”. That mechanic is probably borrowed from some obscure and unsuccessful game. Even more likely, it came from some other mundane task completely unrelated to games like washing dishes or folding laundry.
Me, I like to steal. I comb through literally thousands of old games to find fun mechanics that I can appropriate. I don’t find the idea of remaking an old game interesting, so that isn’t really my aim. I try to find things that I enjoy in a game, and then see how that mechanic can be used elsewhere. Hopefully to better effect. As an example, do you remember Paperboy. Everyone loved that game, even though the control was awful, you often couldn’t tell what was a hazard and what wasn’t, and navigating the later levels had to be done in some sort of yogic trance that would allow you to see the future. There was one incredibly fun part though. Throwing the papers forced you to estimate your speed and lead your target. You could aim for the mailboxes and front porches of your customers, or you could choose to use your very limited resource of rolled projectiles to bust windows, take out villains, and break up fights. Every time you throw a paper in Paperboy, it’s fun. That is a mechanic that is in desperate need of stealing, If only so that it won’t be tied to the rest of that mess of a game.
There are at least hundreds of underused game ideas floating around, often in popular, or once popular games. Not stealing them and building better games around them would be… wasteful. Admit it, you thought I was going to write criminal there didn’t you. didn’t you. yeah you did.
Everyone steals their ideas. I just want to be honest about it.