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Raised By Screens, Chapter 6: Scorched Earth

Tanks for the memories

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Raised By Screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a memoir – glancing back at the games I played as a child in the order in which I remember playing them, and focusing on how I remember them rather than what they truly were. There will be errors and there will be interpretations that are simply wrong, because that’s how memory works.

Before we had penises, we had Scorched Earth.

Before we were ruled by our penises, at any rate. That I lacked the wherewithal, opportunity and confidence to act upon my trouser tyrant’s orders in quite so timely a fashion as some of my classroom peers surely had some bearing on how much deeper into games I would disappear in subsequent years.

First, though, there was the game of tanks.

SCORCHED EARTH
1991, IBM-COMPATIBLE PC/DOS
DEVELOPED BY WENDELL HICKEN

Turn-based artillery game in which up to nine player- or AI-controlled tanks battle to destroy each other (and the terrain) with a wide array of highly destructive missiles and defences.

We began a new school year with the first bristly flecks of stubble on our chins, and found to our excitement that the ancient BBC Micros were out of the computer room, and futuristic yet intrinsically boring RM Nimbus 286 PCs were in. It didn’t take us a moment to work out enough DOS commands to copy, load and if necessary conceal a few bootlegged games, and in short order Scorched Earth was our god. Bar the few who would spend every god-given second they had on sports, everyone lived for lunchtime and pre-class multiplayer tank battles.

For the typically outcast likes of I, Scorched Earth was heaven-sent. It was inclusive – partly because, unlike the football and rugby I so struggled at, it did not require physical skill, or even hand-eye co-ordination, but mostly because it supported up to nine players at once. No-one particularly wanted stroppy, speccy Alec Meer on their team, but far better to make up the numbers with me than to set one of the tanks to be AI-controlled. Victory is so much sweeter when it involves crushing a human.

As ingenious and ambitious (the destructive force of some of those warheads!) as it was, really we played Scorched Earth because it provided an infrastructure for bragging and bravado. This was, not coincidentally, the time in which swearing first became part of the schoolyard lexicon. As the urge to play up and resist authority grew in us, Scorched Earth contests offered us the opportunity to exercise our new words and feelings. Scorched Earth was a game of the winners’ aggressive cheers and the losers’ explosive vitriol, and that latter was most certainly something I could join in with.

It fascinates me now to think about the demographics of my classroom, and how Scorched Earth placed certain people into certain categories.

– The losers

Boys like me, introverted and poor at physical skills, but not so fortunate as to have that introversion include great intelligence. Scorched Earth required patience and calculation, using maths to estimate the curve and force of each shot. We were fiddlers, too excited about playing with the most devastating missiles or setting off an unexpected chain of events to give the game the consideration it required. Sometimes we’d win by luck, and our chests would swell for a week.

– The sportsmen

Neither habitual winners or losers, and only stuck with the game for as long as it took to bag a few victories, before losing interest. This was not a true challenge to them. Perhaps that would have changed were there a more fixed tournament structure – an old enemy that must ever be defeated.

– The brainiacs

For the straight-A boys, Scorched Earth – and, I suspect, all games – were beneath them. I blame the parents, of course – pushy, authoritarian, convinced that their child’s academic prowess was infinitely more important than his happiness. These unsmiling, straight-backed boys would sit patiently and quietly waiting for the computer room lesson to begin, while the rest of us lobbed nukes and turned the air beyond blue. Scorched Earth, and all the pre-macho posturing it entailed, was a pointless distraction from study and essays, and worse, a threat to perfect grades. I noticed one of them watching me play once, and his expression was one I imagine Mister Spock would pull if he caught Captain Kirk masturbating in the elevator.

– The inbetweeners

Not a term which existed back then, of course, and in truth this loose collective was infinitely smarter than those sitcom buffoons. Not cool enough to be rebels, but not driven enough to be star pupils. These were the kids who, while perfectly capable at them, recognised that neither academia or sports were the be-all-and-end-all, and so were able to choose, to some degree, what they would be. (I, by contrast, was capable of excelling in neither field, and was frowned upon by teachers and parents alike for it. Hence I felt I had no choice other than to fail, and in turn became over-defensive and difficult to like).

What they wanted to be, for a few months, was superb Scorched Earth players. And they were, because they had the casual mathematical prowess and spatial awareness that it required, plus just enough spirit of rebellion to feel that this was a worthy anti-authority pursuit. In later years, these were the lads who were the best pool players, for those very same reasons.

This was the group I wanted to be a part of. Scorched Earth, for a time, made that happen, and opened the doors to a new collective of friends (this was to inevitably change once the class converted to penis worship). I can close my eyes and see the lurid concentric circles of Scorched Earth’s landscape-obliterating MIRVs and nukes, and still feel the warm glow not just of a VGA apocalypse, but of fleeting acceptance.

There’ll be a new chapter of Raised By Screens every Thursday at 1.30pm UK time, until it reaches its end.

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Who am I?

Alec Meer

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Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about videogames.

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