What I Write About When I Write About Games

By Adam Smith on October 26th, 2012 at 12:00 pm.

This is my first week back from a holiday, during which time I barely looked at an internet, let alone wrote on one. I didn’t play any games either, unless you consider freezing to death on a remote Welsh hillside to be some sort of game. As is often the case, not doing something for five minutes has made me think about why I do it in the first place. Why, of all the wonderful and fascinating things that exist, do I spend so much time thinking and writing about games?

One of the first games I can remember playing was Horace Goes Skiing. All I really see when I think of it now is something a bit like Frogger, except I was controlling some nostrils that had sprouted arms and legs. Or perhaps it was a walking pelvis or a weird double-bum. Hard to tell. I do know that I liked the fact that whatever the abomination was, it wanted to go skiing. I’d never been skiing (still haven’t) but I knew what it was and I knew all about crossing roads as well, which seemed to be the first obstacle between Horace and his skis. The double-bum’s quest was perfectly sensible, all thanks to a recognisable theme, no matter how odd it might have been.

Things were always abstract back then, by necessity, and it wasn’t always clear if a game was set in fourteen million AD, in space, or in the near future of 1991 during a mad techno-war. In modern games, the expensive ones at least, the facts are usually more obvious. If the main character is bald and gruff, the setting is almost certainly space. If he is wearing some sort of hat and is gruff, it’s more likely to be a near-future war.

Although I interacted with many scenarios on the Spectrum, Commodore and Atari 2600, it’s Ant Attack that sticks with me. Sandy White’s nightmare suprematist world probably gave me my first taste of survival horror, beset as it was by creepy-crawlies and with player characters woefully ill-equipped to combat them. It felt like something I would have built with the blocks of my childhood as much as something that had been made for me. I wasn’t being told what to do, I was being encouraged to learn. For all of those reasons, Ant Attack reminded me of playing with Lego. Those tactile blocks were much more exciting than any of the actual games I owned, which all came with their limits and rules. Lego is limited only by quantity and the actual edges of each construction.

I owned one actual kit, a medieval castle, and I built it over and over again, fascinated that a series of apparently isolated diagrams so easily became a physical thing. I followed instructions but I felt as if I were writing them as I read them, because I was the builder and since I was my own boss, I could be the architect as well and stick an extra parapet on the side of the place if I damn well pleased. Or not, because to do that I’d have to rip one of the walls down and then baddies would get in.

Apart from the castle kit, with its shiny box, I also had lots of loose bricks. They didn’t belong anywhere, just miscellaneous odds and ends that my parents probably picked up at a jumble sale. I kept them in a massive plastic tub and the most important were four flat green sheets, the base to which all my creations were attached. Those sheets were the soil from which bizarre flora grew, the foundations of alien castles and the pavements of tiny cities. Lego was everything. A collection of possibilities and a doorway from the turbulence of being alive in the Manchester of the eighties.

Even in these grim, industrial climes I had friends and eventually, as we played, we imposed rules of our own. Building became turn-based, cooperative or competitive depending on the mood. Place two blocks, drawn at random, and then wait while everyone else does the same. Maybe we’d build together or maybe we’d contradict the attempted architecture of the others, discovering new configurations for our imagination.

I never owned toy soldiers, although I’m not sure whether that’s because I was being raised by ex-hippies or because, being incredibly cowardly and surprisingly politically and ethically astute for a child, I turned my nose up at the trappings of war. Fake, long ago, far far away wars were apparently fine though and I had a fine collection of Star Wars figures with which to fight a thousand battles. At first Han Solo would always win because he was my favourite, but I quickly applied certain rules. Weapons had crudely calculated range, cover was employed (usually Lego cover) and one adventure would lead into another. I made campaigns. I’m pretty sure I pre-empted Mass Effect by enacting thrilling space romances as well – plastic figures bopping their heads together in a ten year old boy’s imitation of a kiss.

Then there were the games that already had rules and needed to be stripped of them. Games with a strong theme appeal to me even if they’re not as interesting in other ways, which is probably why I love Arkham Horror so much, even if it plays me far more than I play it. Ghost Castle was the equivalent back in the day, a very simple boardgame with one absolutely awesome feature – in the centre of the board, the castle’s tower rises and occasionally a plastic skull must be dropped into an opening at its top. From there, it can roll out in several directions, sometimes knocking a player’s figure flat. I’d send all manner of toys on paranormal missions into the castle, but they’d be bombarded by the skull (which glowed in the dark, as the box proudly claimed). Physics in action! That entertained me for much longer than the gothic Ludo that the rulebook described.

At secondary school I missed out on tabletop RPGs because I was too busy inventing boardgames of my own. Maths exercise books were the best source of graph paper, so I’d nab one from a supply cupboard and draw dungeon maps on every page, devising far-too complex systems of movement for the hundreds of characters that ran through those paper corridors. Most people played on the sports fields during lunch breaks but a few of us would sneak into the science labs, as far from noise as possible, and play these preposterously elaborate experiments, along with card games and whatever else wasn’t cool that week.

All of that personal history is there whenever I think about games and it’s rare for anything I write about them to have every trace of it excised, even when I’m actively trying to forget. That tub of Lego, such a fundamental part of childhood, is always there. I’m still building on the green, stippled foundations, but now people are creating worlds made up of more blocks than I could ever own. The links between some blocks and those memories are impossible to ignore – Minecraft being the obvious example. It has its own ruleset but it’s easy to tear apart, either with mods or through invention and discovery. To me, it’s a game about exploration more than construction, so I fill the world with as much variety as possible and my stories are of dusk falling on haunted forests and of excavations beneath ancient castles.

Other blocks aren’t quite so obvious. Long before Minecraft, I spent days at a time in worlds that were far more prescribed, but, because of their fidelity, were more believable than anything I’d ever drawn on those sheets of graph paper or built on my bedroom floor so long ago. RPGs were capable of absorbing my attention entirely, although it was more often than not those that didn’t insist on conflict and the constricted corridor of a main quest. I think my love of RPGs, however you choose to define the term, peaked with Ultima Underworld. For all its claustrophobic limitations, it was more a living place than any imaginary world I’d ever taken part in before. The manipulation of objects, the apparent freedom to do whatever seemed *fun*, even within a prison.

I’ve written about Ultima VII before and I’d only repeat myself if I talked about why it had such an impact on me. It should be clear, as well, how a land where it’s possible to tailor clothes, to bake bread and to murder every last living thing fits into the idea of games as pure play, with rules to be bent, broken and even created.

No surprise, then, that as my fascination with graphical RPGs receded somewhat, it’s because something else was putting them into the shade. Roguelikes. And not just roguelikes, but those things like roguelikes. Games that convinced by telling rather than showing; simulations without the shackles of simulacra.

I began to prefer abstractions, like the graph paper scribblings pieces of my childhood, things that could be turned any which way. I rediscovered that play, for me, was essentially a creative pastime. It’s why I’m still drawn to abstract representations and why I believe a map will probably always represent history and its alternates better than an elaborately modelled depiction of a thousand battles. It’s why I find aspects of The Sims fascinating, even if the game’s heart is cold consumerism.

Aesthetic requirements and ambitions can harness technology wonderfully in service of world-building but it’s the worlds and lives that we build for ourselves that I find the most compelling – the Dwarves in their Fortresses, the hunter starving in the wilderness, the daughter of a farmer forced to work in a factory from the age of 12, dead by 30. A select few of the great game designers are almost unique in that they make those who experience their work feel like a part of the creative process, thereby making great designers of those who choose to engage with their work. Where else does interaction assume the thrill of collaboration? There are emotional connections of that sort – singing along in a crowd of thousands at a live performance – but games provide creative and intellectual connections that could well last lifetimes.

I love games that tell a story and I love games that present a challenge and a threat, but mostly I love games that give me some blocks and ask me to build.

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50 Comments »

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  1. frightlever says:

    What I’ve learned from this is that you need to pick your holiday destinations more carefully.

    I used to spend hours making armies of plasticine men, arming them with little scraps of metal from things I’d disassembled and have them wage war in lego castles. In many ways, my tastes haven’t changed much – I still want to feel like a god in the games I play.

    Good article.

    • Edgar the Peaceful says:

      Cold Welsh hillsides are where it’s at. Have you not seen all the latest winter fashion shoots – bearded men wearing turn-of-the-(last)-century clothes, on a hillside (naturally), dry stone wall, grey British sky etc.

      • Baboonanza says:

        That’s how you catch Sheep Herpes!

        Well, that’s what my dad told me…

    • Rico021 says:

      rip god games ;o(

  2. phelix says:

    Welcome back, Adam.

  3. Arbodnangle Scrulp says:

    Heya Adam, welcome back from The Derp. Perhaps RPS should consider hiring Rab now that he’s footloose and fancy free. Would be quite a coup.

  4. rustybroomhandle says:

    The one thing making Ant Attack less of a horror, was the bottomless supply of grenades.

  5. brulleks says:

    Is it Love? Is that what you write about when you write about games?

    (Do I get a biscuit for spotting the reference? Or maybe a bottle of Cava?)

  6. Prime says:

    Ohmygod, Ghost Castle!

    I’ve long since lost the game but I still have the skull!

    • alm says:

      I used to have it too. I only remember this from the picture and don’t have anything of it anymore. Completely forgot about it till now. Awesome it was!

    • sophof says:

      I completely forgot about its existence up until now and now the memory floodgates have been opened. This game (and especially the skull) had me mesmerized as a kid (looking scarily similar as the kid dropping in the skull on that picture).

      And yet I forgot…

    • slowly_over says:

      I feel short changed, I’m pretty sure my version of this game had a ball bearing, not a skull.

      Nevertheless a hefty dose of nostalgia frisson from that picture, it also brought to mind that my proudest possesion was once this glow in the dark witch model

  7. Ergates_Antius says:

    Hey, don’t be rude about Horace – he was ace. Besides – you’ve seen what he does to those spiders!

  8. Muad'Dib says:

    I love you, Adam!

    (In a gruff, manly kind of way)

  9. wodin says:

    I remember Ant Attack…I had a BBC B (well it was my dads) so sadly never owned Ant Attack.

  10. biggergun says:

    Yes yes yes boardgames. Especially home-made boardgames. We had, for instance, a game where you could be a mercenary captain travelling a big map, hiring different kinds of soldiers and then fighting tactical battles on other, smaller maps. It still amazes me that it was basically Mount and Blade, on paper, in 1998, invented by a bunch of russian ten-year-olds. Inspired by the “White Company”, I believe, and also Warhammer FB most of us saw once or twice but could never ever afford. I think I even have it somewhere in the attic.

  11. sinister agent says:

    It’s interesting how similar, and yet how different my early game experiences were. I did similar things with using existing toys or board games, but I never really had any interest in making new rules or systems to toy with, and leant instead towards putting together stories above all. It wasn’t so much “here are some things, let’s see what happens if we put them together”, but more “here are some things, and here’s what they do next”.

    I wonder if you’ve played Hidden Agenda at all? Looking at some of the links in this post, I suddenly remembered it for some reason.

  12. Rao Dao Zao says:

    Gosh, I’m not the only one that coloured level designs into graph paper as a child. I did it even before I really knew what computer games were.

    And I still play with my Lego. When one’s code is compiling at the office, a bit of Lego to fiddle with makes the time fly away.

  13. Joe Duck says:

    I see that someone has been reading Murakami… Awesome.

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      Makariel says:

      Everyone should read Murakami.

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      Oozo says:

      *puts on glasses*
      Actually, Murakami used is a reference. It’s taken from Raymond Carver’s short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. I’m only saying this because, well, Carver’s writing has had an enormous influence on short story writing, which can very much be felt to this day. And (much like with Murakami) while his popularity lead to a backlash later on, if you’ve never read him, it can be quite an epiphany. Even though it’s very minimalist, realist and sober, so not at all like Murakami.

      tl; dr: Carver is absolutely nothing like Murakami. Still, if you don’t know him (and I suppose you don’t), it’s a good read. Like, one-of-the-most-important-writers-of-the-late-20th-century-but-still-totally-accessible-stylewise-good.

      *removes glasses and leaves to go and feel very, very lonely, in a sober and very realistic way.*

      • Joe Duck says:

        Thanks for the pointer, I mentioned Murakami not only because of the title but also because of the biographical subject and the writing style. But yes, Carver.

      • abuzor says:

        Murakami has been translating works by Carver, Irving, Salinger and the likes (which all are, in my opinion, much more interesting than his stuff, but well…)

        When all is read and done, Murakami leaves nothing but a distant reminiscence of Thomas Mann (read the Magic Mountain and compare it to Norwegian Wood…a sobbering operation)

        Acceptable stuff still, but it just works thanks to the “mild-exoticism” his books crave on: metropolitan sensibility, characters viable anywhere in developed countries, + that little orientalist vibe and a few dreamlike sequences to catter to the modern readers lust for myth.

        Sorry if this sounds patronizing, but there are so many better authors around, it would be too sad to stop at Murakami (as I did for many years).

  14. Radiant says:

    Somewhere off in the universe a young Rab is disappearing from existence; cursing older Rab for reading this article.

  15. Lord Byte says:

    This feels like my childhood, although mine was definitely coloured differently. Whereas you made up rules for your legos, I made up narratives, it wasn’t until later, after many a game on my uncle’s C64 that I started making games… On paper :) Which I played with a select few friends. From adaptions of typical kid games, to much more elaborate rules. These were oddly narrative free, focussing instead on simulating the computer games I played.
    I took a while longer, when I started playing boardgames other than checkers or snakes and ladders, Heroquest and Risk really changed things around. Suddenly HeroQuest became the vehicle by which I could do elaborate narratives with the players AND rule in extras that fit with the narrative. A super-long quest became a way for a friend to gain Goblin allies, other guards were bought off, heroes were captured, and so on.
    And then I read about Pen&Paper roleplaying games, with no idea where to actually buy those except in foreign countries, which for a twelve year old seemed impossible. In combination with the books I was reading at the time a new world opened. I made my first roleplaying game, and kept updating and improving it (and it got real popular with my friends), until a random person walking past, who saw me working on it told me he knew a store “nearby” that sold such games, his son played those. I never stopped GMing from then on…

  16. Didero says:

    “Ant Attack” reminds me of an old DOS game where you had to protect picnic baskets against approaching (and multiplying, for some reason) ants.
    The gameplay and especially the music was repetitive, but I kinda remember playing it quite a bit.

    I wish I could remember which game I started out with though…

  17. zbmott says:

    Don’t you mean “Wot I Write About When I Write About Games”?

    Anyways, between this and the “Games Are Best…” articles this week, I am comfortable asserting that RPS is one of the finest publications on the internet.

  18. kwyjibo says:

    I thought people who write about games write about the companies that sent them mountains of Doritos and Mountain Dew.

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    Bluerps says:

    I think, from those three articles (will we get another one from Mr Meer? Mr Grayson perhaps?) this one resonates the most with me.

    It’s not that I always try to bend or break the rules of a game to create something new – but I love to build. Whenever a game gives me the opportunity to create something, I spend a large amount of time with that part of the game, even if it’s just some little thing without any game-mechanical importance.

    Similar to Mr Smith, I think I already liked to build stuff as a kid. I also enjoyed playing with Lego (though I never had much of it myself), and I loved to build elaborate labyrinths out of wooden blocks with a friend, so that we could put his hamster in them, and watch it search for the food we had placed at the end. It was the same with the games I played as a kid. I still remember that I sometimes tried to build little towns in Warcraft 2, instead of actually trying to win a mission.

    • biggergun says:

      >still remember that I sometimes tried to build little towns in Warcraft 2, instead of actually trying to win a mission.

      This is still the main reason I suck at RTS games.

    • mr.black says:

      -Happened to me also in my early days of learning what computers, video games (and English words) were. And I was disappointed I couldn’t grow more towns and had to go and do the stupid battles. Caesar III changed that, it becoming one of the 5 best games of 90-es to me. And now I tend to play Civilization on Warlord difficulty, so not entirely challenging, just to have that awesome feeling of constant discovery and growing my country.

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    beardedkeet says:

    Bizarrely, I started humming the theme to Brookside while reading this. Must have been on in the background when I was messing about with Lego or graph paper.

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    hippocrat says:

    @Bluerps: I used to build hamster-runs, too, out of LEGO. Vicarious dungeon-running.

    In my teens I was introduced to Warhammer 40k & Fantasy Battle, and since the most interesting part of it was the points-to-army ratio and the balancing involved, I set to figuring out my own streamlined system based on roll-probabilities. I think I called it Raven, as in smart, but I never finished it. I would like to wrap it up and use it in math classrooms when covering probability.

  22. jkkj says:

    Registered just so I could thank you for the Raymond Carver reference. It made my day.

  23. Bushcat says:

    Once upon a time i created the perfect shattered Arnhem street,prowled by plastic tigers and fought over by precisely cast plastic heroes.Jumble sales provided the lego for the raw material.
    However, who can forget fighting the Africa corp at the bottom of the garden, during that endless august?
    One day i will possess the mans sand table from N.A.T.O HQ.Until then i must play these games with perishable pieces…

  24. slowly_over says:

    My brother and I played a Lego game based around one of us, out of sight of the other, constructing a house with a secret room. There would always be two downstairs rooms, one roofless, and one covered by an upstairs room or two. To access the concealed room there would be some kind of fiendish mechanism, constructed from sliding tiles, hinges, turntable blocks etc… perhaps a sliding step in the stairs, or a loose brick to be pushed into the external wall, or a concealed trapdoor, for example.

    Then the house would be handed over, and the search for the hidden mechanism(s) could begin.

    This was a favourite game of ours for quite some time – our security measures became more and more elaborate, with all kinds of layered, interlocking devices.

  25. MrShoggoth says:

    I used to have Ghost Castle! Except here it was re-branded as “The Real Ghostbusters” boardgame. … Except, I looked it up, and they were both re-branded versions of Which Witch? Who knew?

    Good essay.