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Gaming Made Me: Descent

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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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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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