Sundays are for looking. Scrabble around your brimming shelves until you find it down the back of your Gamecube games. A lighter, still full. Flick it on and hold it underneath your monitor till the heat warps the plastic, the frame cracks, and liquid crystals start to dribble on to your desk. Trepanning is the only way to get the madness out.
Along with roguelikes, poker was my first experience of playing something where there was something “at stake” every time you play – not the three minutes of a Counterstrike game or the rankings of a 1v1 competitive ladder, but many many hours of focus and concentration, effort, study, and (in poker’s case), money. The experience informed my contemporary opinions about game design, the value of roguelikes (and other games with an “arcade mentality” such as shmups), and the importance of being able to lose. This is thus the story of the most crushing defeat I suffered in poker, why after that hand – now three years ago – I haven’t played a single hand of poker since then, and also the benefits (and risks) of taking play a little more seriously than normal.
Firstly, you must buy a scratchcard only as an impulse, when buying other things. Arriving one day at the checkout, with your hands full of milk, bacon, chilli-coated peanuts, you will glance absent-mindedly at the stand of colourful cards and be immediately shaken with the intense feeling that you are alive and that nobody can stop you from winning everything. Although, that is not to say you feel confident. This is a feeling more wistful and playful in nature than confidence. It stands to reason that what you are feeling is a sense of fatefulness. If you are an atheist, this is the closest you will ever come to detecting providence in your life. Put down your milk for a moment.
Everything fits together so well in Gone Home that the experience creaks and bends like the old house itself. Environmental storytelling is difficult because anything less than ontological fullness breaks the immersive promise of a lived-in world. And for the most part, Arbor House is empty, furnished to a minimum, the same sideboards and books, the same fixtures and accessories repeating from room to room. Bioshock‘s Rapture drew power mostly from its visual style, its intricate art deco design effectively suggesting that a drugged-out Objectivist civilization once lived within it. But the empty, ruined world has become too common in games, and Gone Home suffers for the sins of its predecessors.
Yet the system has its fervent supporters — some in spite of its short life, others because of it. Brendan Sinclair of sister site Games Industry is one such enthusiast. “Dreamcast was the best,” he gushes. “It was my golden age of gaming. For a year and a half, I was treated to the most incredible, bizarre, and eclectic experiences of my gaming life. For the first time, I had disposable income to spend on whatever games interested me, to import them if need be. And with Sega getting increasingly desperate in its last days as a hardware company, it took all kinds of risks with its content. I haven’t enjoyed this hobby as much before or since. I doubt I ever will again.”
Remarkably, this tinkering-and ignoring the teacher-didn’t get him into trouble. Instead, it got Roberts his first paycheck: “The next year, the teacher of that class became the editor of The Micro User.” He remembered that me and my friend were in the back of the class trying to make games, so he called up and asked if we’d like to write a ‘game of the month’ for the back of the magazine. In the old days they’d put a game of the month in the back of the magazine that you could type in in BASIC.”
This unique reporting angle added a certain contemplative air. After all the bullets had been fired and all the baddies were on the floor, radioing in the remains gave a real weight to your judicious carnage. I’ll never forget the attention to detail either; after sorting out a nasty bank robbery, a criminal that was previously writhing on the floor had gone still when I came to report him in. The audio sample coldly announced “this one’s bled out”. This kind of detail underlined the respect that Sierra had for the real-world SWAT discipline, and concurrently lead to you playing with the same degree of respect for procedure, even if the shout button was just too fun to spam (but could defuse an angered bystander without having to chuck in some CS gas). You weren’t a soldier, but a police officer, and the urge to subdue with minimal force (and maximum points) became a moral quest. No other FPS has gone to such lengths to engender restraint.
Sherman’s involvement with the museum mimics a bit of the competition’s spirit, as a digitalized exploration of the Library’s physical source materials. “The British Library is really willing to try out lots of different things because it has this vast body of inspirational material. The entire sum of knowledge of being British—or as close as anybody has come to it. So they’re thinking, ‘Well, what can we do with this? How can we make all of this stuff relevant to new people telling new stories?’”
You need to be careful that you don’t provide answers that are worse than leaving the question unanswered. Think about how you felt after seeing a magic show versus how you felt after you found out how the trick was done. Magic tricks imply bad secrets, by design. This is how they stay secret. If the secret was awesome then you would get a thrill from telling your friends about it, rather than a groan.
And by “glory”, I of course mean “more crime”. Should you try to get into the nearby town in your future clothes, two monks beat the crap out of you. So, you need a disguise. Luckily, it’s about this time that an unfortunate passer-by decides it’s time for their yearly bathe and gets undressed for a swim, leaving their clothes where any old time traveller could just swoop in like a greedy magpie and leave them stark naked in the woods without so much as a moment of regret or sympathy.
I find it interesting but not particularly significant that the props, scenery and action beats of games have become more prominently than usual in our popcorn cinema. The toy-town simplicity of Transformers and Battleship, the Heinlen-styled exploration of real and simulated action in Ender’s Game, and even the exhaustively referential irony of Scott Pilgrim – this is all so much surface. What would be more remarkable is a structural, rather than visual acknowledgement of games in cinema – perhaps even the incorporation of elements which assumed familiarity with the structural conceits and conventions of games. This is where we inch closer to Edge Of Tomorrow.
Music this week should be Kate Bush, whose live show I went to see, but instead here’s TOO MANY ZOOZ, whose experimental brass-house beats I’ve been propelled by all week.