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A Dying Art: Man Versus Machine

The Suspense of an Ending

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What if your computer wanted to kill you? Imagine entire worlds that contain nothing more important than a terrifying machine intelligence that absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. Through the filter of aliens, robots and an Atari 2600, here are some thoughts on why it’s good to run, to hide and to die.

A bullet ricochets off a wheel axle and the onlookers fall silent. The splinters of wood that kick into the air could just as easily be splinters of bone, shattering from a wrist or a skull. Billy scrabbles in the dust, fires another shot, hears a coughing gasp. Clenches his fist tighter around the gun, clenches himself tighter around himself, feels warmth flood down his thighs, the waters of life broken, red soaking through the thickness of his chaps. He didn’t even hear the shot.

That was David Crane’s Atari 2600 port of Outlaw, although it was more of an adaptation than a port, adding two-player support and obstacles like the wagon that was pathetically implied in my verbal meanderings. Along with Joust, it was my first experience of multiplayer gaming, before I had a crack at Pong and long before LANs and Doom became a teenage obsession.

It’s weird to remember how important multiplayer games were to me back then, but as the years (decades) have taken their toll, I’ve become more of a singleton, fascinated by systems and simulations, which I’m much happier studying when I’m alone with them. I’m like a monk in my cell, poking at pretend history and occasionally writing a screed about how important and fascinating it all is.

Thinking back to the days before Doom got me thinking about playing games side by side and, more than that, games in which the setup is one vs one, whether both agents are played by a human or not. Beyond beat ‘em ups and some sports games, it’s not something I come across very often. Nowadays it’s all 42,000 vs 65,002, or a fictional world with so many people from the real world in it that sometimes I think I might as well have stayed there. I tend to enjoy reading about those games more than I enjoy playing them.

Flip Outlaw on its side and there’s a gun at the bottom and a gun at the top, with obstacles scattered about the screen to hide behind. Replace that top gun with twenty and counter their numerical advantage by having them move and fire predictably and you’re looking at something similar to Space Invaders. What if the one smart opponent was more popular than the many stupid ones? What if there had been just the one Space Invader, cunning, resourceful and intelligent?

Two of my favourite films have never been made into games and I reckon they’d both suit the one vs one style of play to perfection. They are, of course, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sleuth. The first, a bitter and eviscerating dialogue-based investigation of a relationship in which every word is a needle directed at the heart; the second, a mystery about character and the workings of the mind, a nightmare in which neither player can be sure, until the end, whether they are winning or losing, or even what the rules of the game really are.

Bullshit. I actually want to talk about Alien and The Terminator. But haven’t there been loads of games based on those two? No! The hypothetical person asking that question has fallen into my trap. I’m talking specifically about the first films, Alien without an ‘s’ and The Terminator that cast Schwarzenegger as an inhuman, terrifying killing machine rather than Edward Furlong’s creepy uncle.

The Alien series, as seen again in the upcoming Colonial Marines, almost exclusively translate across to the interactive realm in “THIS TIME IT’S WAR” mode, although Alec just brought my attention to the Spectrum version, which does utilise the Nostromo. I love that ship. It’s a ramshackle, industrial coffin and an ideal setting for a game. One player, one alien, a smattering of doomed NPCs. You could even ditch the NPCs, make it an even lonelier and more terrifying experience, but as long as they’re mainly meat for the meatgrinder, I reckon they’re allowed to take part.

The xenomorph though? That bastard is computer controlled. When it tears through a vent and rips your face off, you shouldn’t be high fiving your buddy because he/she mastered the ‘wall pounce’ and you shouldn’t be able to see through its eyes. You cannot understand how it works and when it kills you, you won’t have anyone to congratulate. The only ‘gg’ that you should ever say will be contained within an ‘arrgggghhhh’.

Think Amnesia but with a persistent, intelligent monster and a branching maze that turns back on itself, inward, up and down. No linear progression and barely any chance of survival. Even if NPCs dying all over the place, chances are it’s going to come down to a horrible game of hide and seek between you and the monster. I’d like my Alien game to be a sibling of System Shock rather than Doom, even if there is an aesthetic appeal to hordes of the horrible things scurrying across a ceiling that I won’t deny.

I will never get tired of this picture

The Terminator would provide an entirely different experience and one that two players could enjoy together. It’s only natural that games have concentrated on the robot war aspect of Terminator’s story because there are people in the original film who don’t have guns. In fact, the film’s hero is a woman who is terrified but brave, who has no combat training but nevertheless faces down overwhelming odds. A bit like Ripley in fact, although Connor does have a bit more help, in the form of sterling future-man Kyle Reese.

I’d rather play Reese running around the 1980s than a grunt in the war against Skynet – better music back then – but putting the solo player in soldier’s shoes, even if he does have to borrow them, would be a mistake. Congratulations, you have made not just an escort mission but an escort game.

No. The game must begin in blood and terror, at the moment that Sarah first realises that she is being hunted. Run and hide, player one, your friend has been killed and you are next.

basically imagine the exact opposite of this screenshot and you'll have an idea of the kind of thing I'm talking about

Then it’s hide and seek again, but this time across a city, packed with people. The Terminator knows what Sarah looks like and it (probably) cannot be stopped, at least not with THESE weapons. As with the xenomorph, the methods by which it hunts and tracks are a mystery hidden in the code because you cannot be the hunter, although a second player could be Reese, I guess, although I’m enough of a bastard to plead for an alternate timeline in which he accidentally went back to 1884, 12 Monkeys style, and ended up punching a particularly lifelike marionette.

Sarah would have to survive – eating, drinking, sleeping. The city could be managed in discrete blocks, as she moves from one, another is generated from prepared components. The Terminator strikes randomly and she could spend hours of playtime without seeing it, but it’s always out there somewhere. At first it might stalk, a silent assassin wanting to be sure it didn’t attract unwanted attention, but eventually, if she survived its initial attempts on her life, it would cause wholesale destruction and bring down the attention of the law and perhaps even the military.

Is it a first-person game or isometric? Does it focus on resource management and survival, or finding a means to fight back? I reckon there’s room for several interpretations. Heck, do it in ASCII and serve up a Terminator Roguelike!

ain't no party like a spy party party

All of this is quite a leap from Outlaw, sure, but when I play with the technologies we have now and think of these stories that are so much a part of our culture, I want to see how we could tell them again. And again and again and again. Howard Scott Warshaw dealt with the limitations of the 2600 by converting an adaptation into the bizarre and brilliant Yar’s Revenge (also E.T.) and Geoff Crammond’s The Sentinel had thousands of environments and one, sinister enemy.

The limitations of technology today are incomparable but when so much is possible it can be instructive to set artificial obstructions. What if procedural worlds were possible but they could only contain one artificial intelligence? Who or what would it be? How would it discover the player, or the player discover it? We don’t necessarily need new genres or even franchises – although I genuinely would like to see the Sleuth game – but a shift in scale and perspective on some well-worn ideas would be wonderful.

Terminator and Alien games are about people shooting things, but it’s not much of a stretch to see them as games about a single person evading a single thing. Spy Party is a brilliant example of one person facing another in a thoughtful arena, and this is a brilliant dissection of how it can work, but let’s clamour for more. Aliens and robots will always want us dead, that’s one of the first things games taught me, but if we must die, let’s hope to do so in a thousand fascinating ways.

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