Gaming Made Me: Descent

By RPS on April 16th, 2011 at 10:00 am.

Our Gaming Made Me series has always focused on the writer’s personal association with a vital game from their childhood, but this week that emphasis is even stronger. Here, James Murff talks of how Parallax Software’s 1995 sci-fi FPS Descent became one of the keystones in mending his troubled relationship with a father – as well as why the flight-based shooter still has much to teach today’s game designers.

My father and I have had a rather tumultuous relationship. Throughout my life I’ve waffled between “Dad, get out of my face,” and, “I wish I had a father to talk to right now,” with many nuances and shades in-between. He was mostly absent in my childhood years, away on some trip or another doing whatever business I didn’t know about. I’m still not entirely clear what he did on those trips. Sometimes I like to pretend he was off being a high powered executive or doing really important nonspecific things that a child dreams about. In all likelihood, he was probably doing tech support for the company he was with. It was hardly glamorous, but it did end up pulling him away from his family as me and my sister grew up without a father. Our gradual drift from his influence was only hastened by the various neurological and psychological issues.

The times he was back home were mildly awkward, namely because I had forged a strong connection with my mother in his absence. The one thing that brought us together, though, was games. My father is an old breed of gamer. He played pen and paper games in college, buys the latest hardware for his gaming rig every few months, and buys plenty of games to test his computer’s teeth on. As such, we had a number of different games that the whole family enjoyed, such as Worms (something my mother almost always won at, thanks to her crazy aptitude for mathematics). For the most part, though, it ended up boiling down to me and my father playing 1-on-1.

The one game we found to be the best – the one that made us enjoy each other’s company the most – was Descent.

When Descent was released, all of the adults I interacted with were obsessed with Doom. While I certainly loved Doom at the time (what child doesn’t love destroying monsters with awesome weapons?), I was always more of a science-fiction nut. Although Doom nominally took place on Mars, it was essentially a glorious mishmash of colors and corridors to my childlike eyes. All gore, all explosions, no science-fiction. Descent, however, was a science fiction game. Rampaging robots, evil corporations, and satisfying futuristic weaponry held my attention far more than Doom ever did. I still find Descent to be more enjoyable than Doom over a decade and a half later. My father noticed, and we began to play together.

I was bad at Descent, at least at first. Descent is one of the first true zero gravity games, and putting a child into an environment where every direction is defined by the player is a bit disorienting. Naturally, the first games we played were rather one sided, with myself naturally being the loser. Still, we played and played, and I got better and better. As I got better, and as I started approaching my father’s level of skill, we found that we had a lot more to talk about. From weapon selection to tactics, we seemed to have an endless selection of topics to discuss, all of them relating to Descent.

The was especially the case once I started to delve into the single-player. A collection of maze-like levels, with any number of possible orientations, kept my attention and gave me something to rant about. I still find myself booting up Descent from time to time and trying my hand at a level upside down or backwards. The longevity of Descent’s single-player can not be overstated. Much like Doom, Descent is a game that will forever have lessons to teach to prospective designers.

There are three key elements to Descent that stick with me to this day. First, Descent has extremely meticulous enemy placement. The designers knew exactly where and how the average player would approach a situation and built the level around them. As such, Descent is always a challenge. Robots come at you at the worst (best) times, and the reactor rooms are still extremely tough to clear for that full level finish. The static levels, already well-designed as is, are enhanced to the point of timelessness by the robot placement.

Second, Descent is still one of the few games that has a zero-gravity, six-degrees-of-freedom control scheme. Shattered Horizon is the most recent game to touch upon this, and Miner Wars is soon to come out, but it’s a relatively ignored method of play. Perhaps it’s the innate difficulty of the scheme that drives people away. After all, we are used to orienting ourselves to an objective ground, not subjective space, and without a frame of reference a lot of people end up confused and disoriented. Perhaps it’s the steep learning curve of the controls, as the player must learn to rotate and pan along all three axes without a second thought in order to be effective. Perhaps it’s because creating levels is far more difficult when the player can approach them from any direction and any orientation. No matter the reason, it’s both disappointing and exciting that most games don’t consider it. Disappointing because it is an exciting and wildly divergent control scheme, and exciting because it means it is not abused to the point of ridiculousness.

Finally, Descent built levels that encouraged exploration. Whereas the modern shooter emphasizes style and linear narrative, Descent emphasized player involvement. Each level was a complicated collection of passages, each one twisting and turning and flipping to fit into place. Sometimes this meant passages that led you back to where you were, and other times it meant changing your orientation to fit a new situation. Above all, though, Descent required you to be attentive.

The secrets rooms were key to surviving, as they contained ammo and weapons for the discerning bot-killer on the go. They were also hidden behind walls that didn’t look quite right, or walls which had seams, which rewarded the player for taking the time to look instead of run around and shoot all the walls. The level exit was just as important, as destroying the level’s core initiated a destruct sequence that forced you to find your way out quickly.

There is a distinct quality of carefulness that permeates Descent, and it’s very obvious even now. This is something that the sequels attempted to touch upon, but they never quite got the formula right. Descent is the perfect mix of simplicity and depth. Kill robots, destroy core, escape through exit. The strategies for approaching a level might differ from player to player, but the basics remain the same. Descent 2 added some new bots and weapons that ended up being confusing to someone new, and Descent 3 completely discarded the classic Descent formula for something a little more story-driven. Descent, however, still remains as accessible and fun as it was the day it was released.

All of these design lessons gave me and my father something to talk about. Something which was desperately needed. As a child, and arguably as an adult, I was never the most socially apt person around. I was awkward, fumbling, and naive. Part of this is due to neurological disorders, and part of it is just who I am. My faux pas are legendary among my family to this very day. When I was playing Descent, though, it melted away. It was just me and my father, exploring huge levels and gunning each other down. While the violence was certainly enjoyable (what kid doesn’t love to see explosions?) the real benefit was the social interaction. Despite the person on the other end being a father I barely knew and sorely missed, I still found common ground: the battlefield.

After our sessions, me and my father would talk about the strategies we used. He was always a better shot than I was, whereas I had a better memory of the levels and the best routes. It usually came down to our respective strengths. If I caught him off guard, I would score a kill, and if he got me into a fair fight, I would go down quickly. Despite the blood-boiling intensity of it all, however, we never got mad at each other. Even when more players were added to the mix (usually family friends), Descent always seemed to be our zen state. The one place where all the inhibitions and anxieties of growing up were replaced with explosions and laser fire.

In a way, my father and I connected over Descent because he was as much of a child as I was. We connected through the medium of games in a way that we could never do so in real life. While his work and age made conversing and interacting difficult outside of the game, there were no such distractions inside. It was an unspoken bond between father and son. A bridge crossing a generation and distance gap that seemed insurmountable. Parallax Software managed to create a game which helped to assuage the pains of a tumultuous family life, and that’s more than I can say about any game I’ve played since.

My father, unfortunately, was recently hospitalised due to some health issues. As I type this, he sits in the chair across from me, sleeping and snoring peacefully. When he is awake, he stumbles, forgets things, and rambles nonsensically. He will most likely never be the same person he was before he was hospitalised. More than being sad, though, I’m thankful for everything that helped to bridge the gap between us before his illness.

Descent, besides being one of the most important and entertaining games in the history of the medium, opened the door to the long road to familiarity and companionship. It set a child on the path to a career in videogames and helped a father repair a broken and neglected relationship.

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72 Comments »

  1. pilouuuu says:

    Is that the same as saying “Gaming made me decent”?

  2. Amun says:

    A) I want to make a joke about Klingon fathers and sons , but I’ll just post this pic instead:
    http://i.imgur.com/mKu2P.jpg
    B) I played Descent 2 in non traditional co-op with a friend of mine for ages. He would use a gamepad to shoot the lasers and missiles while I would pilot the ship. I know it sounds like a stupid way to play, but it was excellent fun to depend that closely on another person.

    • gorgol says:

      :D Me and my brother used to do something similar with Frontier Elite.

    • pilot13 says:

      Me and my mate did the same with Stalker. We didn’t get too far…

    • Stag says:

      I played Comanche with a friend the same way! :D

    • Christine says:

      One year in elementary school, whenever there was free time, we played Descent a LOT, like that. The idea of a single person handling all those controls on their own was just completely inconceivable! Couldn’t be done, no way.

      I’m really glad we were totally inept, because it wouldn’t have been half as fun otherwise.

    • One Pigeon says:

      To throw my lot into the ring, Descent was the first game on the first PC my family ever owned.
      It was a Packard Bell with the oddest operating system I have ever seen and for the life of me can’t remember what it was called. But the important thing is, it came with descent.

      My sister and I took turns at controlling the keyboard for forward/backward/strafe and other controls, and the mouse for look around/shooting.

      Good times!

    • anotherman7 says:

      When I was around 9 me and my dad would play Half-Life together. I’d watch him do all the shooting and he’d ask for my help with the jumpy-bits. We’re in a similar situation relationship-wise and this piece totally warmed my heart. =)

    • BAReFOOt says:

      It’s not a stupid way!
      Most fighter planes and helicopters work exactly that way. (As they are made for two people.)

    • Phydaux says:

      @One Pigeon, Do you mean Packard Bell Navigator? My parents had this with their new computer and Descent came free with this, on the same CD as Virtual Pool.

      @Amun, FWIW this is exactly how I used to play. One of us on the joystick, the other at the keyboard. :)

    • Joshua says:

      My brother and I did exactly that with Combat Flight Simulator.

    • The Magic says:

      4-7 siblings+cousins all on the same keyboard, playing the same game: Freespace 2

  3. heretic says:

    Excellent piece. My brother’s been playing this recently, I should give it a go :) Hope your dad gets better and plays some Descent with you soon.

  4. PatrickSwayze says:

    James, I really really hope that you get to play Descent with your father again sometime soon.

  5. Andy_Panthro says:

    Always love these articles.

    It was my Dad who got me into gaming too, he was always fascinated by new technology and so always let us upgrade the computer and buy new games.

    As for Descent… I do love the idea, but I find the whole thing so disorienting I could never manage to get beyond the first few levels. I could see the potential there, but it never grabbed me in the same way that TIE Fighter did.

  6. Jonas says:

    Great piece. I hope your dad gets better.

  7. Bilbo says:

    I lost my dad a couple of years ago, and the thing we bonded over the most out of anything was C&C Red Alert.

    Man alive he was into that game.

    • heretic says:

      lol… my dad used to be completely addicted to this game. He’d play skirmish on the hardest difficulty setting, at first it was funny seeing getting destroyed by the AI, and then the bugger managed to ace every single mission @_@

  8. phenom_x8 says:

    I hope your father going well as soon as possible, James!
    I miss my father very much since he passed away a year ago and read this article make me remember him. He loved to play side pocket (billiard game) with me on NES 16 years ago (when I was 10 years old) and he was a busy man at that time.

  9. Ajh says:

    My father refused to have anything to do with us ever. He tries to make it up by attempting to buy our love now, but I just refuse his money, pat him on the head and show him how to use Youtube to see baseball stuff usually. I forgive him, he didn’t know what to do with girls, gamers, builders, artists, musicians, or anything my sister and I were, so it was left to my mother.

    She was only watching and providing commentary because at that point her arthritis had taken her out of gaming. She used to play a really killer game of pinball. I had no idea how someone who couldn’t get Mario out of world 1-1 could consistently just wipe the floor with me at pinball.

    However, by the time I got Descent, she was a well accomplished spectator gamer and I have many many fond memories of my mother looking on while I crept around a corner. “I just KNOW they put a robot there…It’s the meanest place for one.” Good times.

  10. Phydaux says:

    I loved Descent as a kid. I too preferred it to Doom. It had some of the scariest moments I can remember in gaming, at least from back then. Having to light up dark areas with flares, and then the sound of a homing missile lock-on from somewhere in the dark made me panic! Beep…….beep……beep…beep…beep..beep.beepBEEPBEEPBEEP DEATH! :D

    And for what it’s worth: http://www.dxx-rebirth.com/ – if you want to play it now on a modern PC.

    • Dakia says:

      I actually installed that a few weeks ago. Descent was one of my all time favorite games from my early PC gaming years.

      The graphics upgrade through that download makes the game amazing.

    • Veracity says:

      There’s d2x-xl, as well. More focused on 2, as far as I remember, but both let you play either game a bit tidied up for modern sensibilities, and with homing missiles it’s theoretically possible to outmanoeuvre. xl has more optional shiny and actively changes the game more; rebirth is more focused on reproducing the original.

      You can play it on a console box controller, incidentally, in case you aren’t Tim Stone. Preferably with analogue triggers for forward/back.

      I do wish there were more of these. Forsaken (is that right? thing with hover bikes) doesn’t count, as it was terrible. Also agree 2 wasn’t as effective despite some technical improvements, though I do like 3. Really would just like to see more things use the movement style, not necessarily more Doom clones with a gimmick.

    • Caiman says:

      You could always out-manoeuver homing missiles. And mega missiles too. Tip: fly straight at them and dodge diagonally at the last moment (even if you were traveling backwards). It was what separated the killed from the killers in multiplayer.

      Yes, I love Descent. It holds up the same way that Doom holds up – it’s timeless. But I always preferred it to Doom because there was so much more skill to mastering flying your craft.

      What I’d give for a reboot by Volition.

    • Odiorne Point says:

      Thanks for the great read. I loved Descent, and likewise always found it more challenging and engrossing than Doom. And a special thanks to those suggesting the Descent Rebirth project. I can finally play Descent 1 & 2 again, and maybe I will even beat Descent 1 this time around.

  11. Mario Figueiredo says:

    It was indeed a unique game. Still today. My third favorite game of all time and one of the most played. The only game which I didn’t finish too. While I got better at it, I was never able to develop the necessary skill to finish it.

    Very nice reading. All the best for your father and glad to see that troubled relationship has come to a closure. Both my parents are already diseased. While I did have a normal relationship with them, I feel a bit envious of you. Would have love if my father had shown an interest in games or computers. But has is, it was the other kids on my neighborhood I played with. Weekends used to be a mix of pen & paper RPG, and later computer playing at each other houses.

  12. benjaminlobato says:

    I love the “Gaming Made Me” series, and this is another great example. Thanks.

  13. Squishpoke says:

    Oh hell yes, Descent. I totally played this game when I was a kid at a long lost relative’s place. I could NEVER find the name of the damn game until over ten years later when it showed up on gog.com.

    Needless to say, I’m a big fan of Good Old Games, now.

  14. Rich says:

    I think I played a demo of the last Descent 3, for a bout 5 minutes. I couldn’t understand why I was supposed to fly a ship down a corridor. To be fair this was after Freespace 2 had come out, and although I never actually got a chance to play it, that was the game really I wanted.

    • Squishpoke says:

      Personally, I like flying around in the corridors because the 6DoF effect is much cooler. Flying around in space? How boring! All there is is vast blandness, with the occasional space station and a couple of dry rocks.

  15. gorgol says:

    I don’t know if its because I’m a bit emotional today, might be to do with a the hangover I have, but in all seriousness I did shed a tear reading that. A heart warming, honest, and interesting story. A poignant reminder that games can be more than just entertainment. As well as educational they can also be geniunely social and/or life changing activities, yes even if it is played on a super nerd’s PC :)

  16. Mooglepies says:

    Awesome article. I nearly missed a train because I was so engrossed in reading this!

    I myself have fond memories of watching dad play Flashback and Alien Breed on our old Amiga. Good times.

  17. abigbat says:

    Very touching article. I adored Descent, and this retrospective is definitely inspiring me to dig it out.;

  18. cytokindness says:

    “Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.”

    • MattM says:

      It’s funny how the book made this out as some kind of revelation only a tactical genius could come up with. Anyone who has played much Descent learned to let go of preconceived notions of up and down after about 5 minutes op play.

    • wu wei says:

      It’s hard writing a genius convincingly when you’re not one yourself. (Even more so when you’re a total asshat.)

  19. Sobric says:

    Great article – I’ve never played Descent, but I did play a few games with my Dad when I was younger. Great times.

  20. Basilicus says:

    I don’t normally associate RPS with touching memoir, but this was very important to me. As a gamer, and someone for whom the last year’s been especially rough, I appreciate being able to see how other people muscle through all the crap the universe can throw at you. I feel like I can’t quite grab the words to show my appreciation, but thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  21. Grey_Ghost says:

    God, I wish my Dad would play PC games with me. The most I can hope for is Wii Bowling or Golf every now and then. He is not keen on having to use two hands at the same time to play games.

    This is the first game I actually bonded with my sister by playing. We had a lot of fun playing it together. Wish we could still find the time to play games together nowadays.

  22. Oak says:

    Out of curiosity, why don’t these ever link to a bio or a blog or similar when they’re done by non-RPSers?

  23. mbp says:

    Sorry to hear about your Dad’s health issues James but much respect for your choice of game. Descent really was ahead of its time, the first “real” 3D game. I credit Descent for introducing mouse look to PC gaming. It wasn’t the default control scheme (I think Parallax strongly recommended a joystick) but a gentleman by the name of Rob Markovic made a Usenet post back in 1995 recommending this strange new mouse and keyboard control scheme that worked really well. That control scheme went on to become the standard for FPS games on the PC. Rob is an unsung hero of PC gaming.

    Do you remember those b*stard green things that fired unrelenting volleys of missiles? Or how about those angry little feckers armed with Vulcan cannons? What about that big purple cannon that was supposed to be the best weapon in the game but as actually pretty useless?

  24. Chunga says:

    Never played Descent, but the article is a great read, both sad and heartwarming at the same time. Thanks!

  25. AlonePlusEasyTarget says:

    I played this game back when I was 5 in 1996. I usually play those MS-DOS games with my sister but she didn’t enjoy this game as much as I do (preferred Jazz the Jackrabbit), Tried to play by myself but never finish this game.

    • jbalooshie says:

      My sister and I played plenty of Jazz Jackrabbit too…funny to look back at that game and compare it to what Epic Games makes today. If you go to the credits section, theres a blurb by Cliffy B. bragging about how the the bonus levels in Jazz are in 3D…perhaps he felt his manhood was compromised in the 90s and uses the meatheads of Gears to compensate.

  26. sexyresults says:

    Lovely article James

  27. andtriage says:

    wonderfully written. i also played descent in my childhood years, and it was a blast. in fact, i think it was descent that really plunged me into PC gaming. i saw it on demo mode at a office supply chain, toyed around with the joystick and keyboard for several minutes, and knew i wanted in on it.

    descent 2 was also great. and wasn’t there a 3?

  28. Rii says:

    Great read. I’ve often felt that our (often rose-tinted) recollections of past games are as much the product of our age at the time and the social context in which we encountered them as the qualities of the games themselves. That’s certainly the case with some of my fondest gaming experiences such as Mario 64.

    I agree that there’s a definite lack of modern 6DOF games. Can I blame consoles? I want to blame consoles.

  29. James Murff says:

    Thanks for all the kind words everybody!

    For those curious as to my father, he’s been gradually getting better. He’s still a bit out of it, but during the days he’s mostly lucid. It’s at night time, when he gets tired, that the illness really starts to show. It’s tough dealing with it sometimes, not because he’s doing things which are especially bad, but because he just doesn’t feel like the same person any more. Still, he’s on the long road to recovery, and we both appreciate the well-wishes.

    • Navagon says:

      My father was in hospital not so very long ago and not too dissimilar to what you describe (although probably for totally different reasons). It might well be that the medication is the explanation behind most of the symptoms. As the need for treatment eases, so might the symptoms and you see something more of the man he was in him again.

  30. c-Row says:

    Any chance all of the GMM episodes will be made available as a proper book at some point in the future? Please?

  31. Navagon says:

    Another great addition to the series. Well worth reading. Thanks for sharing this, James.

  32. The Army of None says:

    Wonderful article, and very sad. Mirrors some parts of my childhood, with gaming being a common ground between me and my father. Thank you for this, I enjoyed it :)

  33. Daryl says:

    I liked Descent, but for some reason the GoG version does not work properly for me. Turning is extremely slow no matter what setting I use, which pretty much prohibits me from playing the game. I tried and got through a decent amount of it, but it got prohibitively difficult at one point and I couldn’t progress.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      Are you trying to play with a mouse/keyboard? The game (as shipped) sucked with mouse control. Use a source port and copy the data files from the GoG version over and it works. Think the one I’ve been using is dx-rebirth.

    • Dervish says:

      Try the DXX-Rebirth source port: http://www.dxx-rebirth.com/
      The GOG version has all the files you need, just download DXX-Rebirth and follow the instructions.

  34. abase says:

    Descent rocks – best Fps ever!

  35. jbalooshie says:

    An excellent story, Descent, along with Warcraft II, were two of the games that introduced me to PC Gaming. I can still remember walking into his office in the house (traditionally off-limits) to see him ordering around guys in the Warcraft II demo, and having him explain to me what an “orc” was. I try to reciprocate this by getting him a PC Game for Christmas every year, this year I got him Peggle. Him and my mother have high score competitions in it now.

  36. Metonymy says:

    This game was 10x better when you used the cheat code that sped up the entire game. Basically, it was a way to bypass the (inexplicable?) limitation on turn speed. Everything moved several times faster, so using the mouse for pitch/roll/yaw no longer made me want to scratch my face off.

    Predictably, later versions of the game did not fix this critical design flaw, in each one, the ship still turns at a sanity-crucifying 45 degrees a second. Game companies that make good control schemes (Blizzard) tend to do amazingly well. Why don’t pc game designers act on this obvious fact? Why do we still have games that are drastically inferior to 8-bit mario?

    • Urthman says:

      Metonymy, that sounds like it would play more like a zero-gravity Quake than like Descent. I can see why someone might prefer that, but I definitely prefer Descent. Those slow turning speeds make the ship feel like a real, physical object that you’re flying around, not just a camera with guns attached.

      If I close my eyes and think about Descent, I can feel the weight and size of my ship as it moves through those corridors. I know exactly how much clearance I need to round that corner, when to start my turning so that I’ll be facing forward when I reach it.

    • Metonymy says:

      I fully understand what you mean, but my belief is that gameplay should come first. The more distinct a simulation is from reality, the more chance you have for a new experience.

      Once a game is designed, then parameters can be changed to account for realities like inertia, metal fatigue, weight, and so forth. A mod that creates a realistic simulation can exist without detracting from the original design.

    • Dervish says:

      I fail to see how 10x easier equals “10x better.” The game was designed with those limitations in mind. “I don’t like turning slow” is hardly indicative of a design flaw, nor does it explain how the mechanics were supposedly compromised.

  37. Urthman says:

    Really glad to see some love for Descent at RPS. This is the game that made me a PC gamer.

  38. ChampionHyena says:

    “You have chosen to open
    setup_descent_1_2.exe
    which is a: Binary File
    Would you like to save this file?”

    Ahh. Much better. Thank you James, thank you GOG, thank you Parallax.

  39. The Infamous Woodchuck says:

    thats deep

  40. geckomayhem says:

    Ah, the good old days of Descent, Doom 2 and Warcraft 2 over 9600 dial-up. Or was it Descent 2 as well? Either way, those games were so much fun with my friends. Makes me reminisce about other classics such as Shadow Warrior, Rise of the Triad and Duke Nukem 3D. XD

    Too bad my own parents were anti-games – and now my wife is anti-games as well. It sure makes life hard as a gamer. :(

  41. Cvnk says:

    Man, what an awesome game this was. Descent quickly took over as the after-work deathmatch game of choice when it first came out. Well, at least until Quake came around and changed everything.

    One of the most amazing things about this game was the robot AI. It was disconcerting how well they could avoid you or sneak up on you (DAMN YOU, THIEFBOT!!! :ARGH:) given how complicated the levels were. Kudos to those developers, it couldn’t have been easy.

    Also, I don’t remember, did they ever explain why you were flying around in a toaster-sized space ship?

  42. PodX140 says:

    LOVED this game as a kid, always loved games that absolutely motivated exploration, and sadly very few games do this today (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Er… Yeah. That’s all I can think of ATM. I can’t tell whether that’s sad on my part or games’). I loved this in RtCW, Serious Sam, and lots of other games as a kid, and I hate that I can’t seem to find anything similar.

    • PoulWrist says:

      That’s a function of the popular modern shooter. The most exploration those come up with is hiding “Intel” around the level, which means that while the game is shouting at you to do this or that, you will have to break whatever immersion the linear and extremely cinematic narrative was trying to give you, to run around looking for suitcases or newspaper cutouts in the middle of a warzone.
      Secret room, secret levels, secret powerups/better weapons/ammo dumps, all of this is pretty much gone now a days or made so selfexplanatory that it can’t be called secret anymore :p