The RPS Book Club For Games: Descent

Hello! Welcome to (at last) the first group meeting for The RPS Book Club For Games. Hopefully everyone was able to have a good shooty read of Descent, or at least thumb through its pages. Below is my retrospective of the game, and hopefully yours will be added too. Link your write-up in the comments, or send it to me via my name at the top of this article, and we’ll add links to them in the main post. Then when this gets released into the wilds of the outside internet, hopefully it will bring an audience to your writing. (Stick it on your own site, a Tumblr, Pastebin, whatever. If you want your writing protected, please remember to add your own copyright/copyleft notice to it.)

Descent felt like my computer unfolding to reveal a whole new set of hidden abilities. Coming only a year after Doom had revealed fast-paced action to me, this was a whole other axis, a far more real sensation of being within a 3D space. Its six-axis gaming, as it was to be known, maintained the claustrophobic corridors that were becoming familiar in FPS gaming, but floated you within them, able to fly, rotate, and be in charge of which way was up.

It’s perhaps a form of madness that twenty years on, the game still feels like something special, original, unexplored. While there are occasional efforts to embrace the concept, like last year’s splendid Retrovirus, the cupboard still remains pretty bare. Fortunately, the game works superbly through DOSBox, and remains a proper pleasure to play today.

What I had entirely forgotten was the interminable gibberish the game throws at you as its “storyline” in the opening moments. Page after page of dense, leaden text in which you discuss pretend politics with some bloke behind a desk, blathering on and on as if it’s needed to justify flying around inside mined meteors and blowing up baddie ships. I’ve never needed an excuse to do that! Let alone a novel. SKIP!

Skipped, you can get on with flying around inside mined meteors and blowing up baddie ships. Pick up some hostages along the way, shoot out the reactor core of the mine, and then flee to the exit before you go kablooey with it.

In the years following Descent, there was a bit of a backlash against the simplicity of goals in mid-90s FPS gaming. Collecting blue, red and yellow keys to open blue, red and yellow doors was seen as trite, and became a design faux-pas. As reviewers sneered at the system, games were either forced to disguise the coloured keys and matching doors with idiotically elaborate meandering nonsense in the form of a half-arsed interrupting narrative, or more usually, by just making the game a straight line. No one was going to bitch about having to look for keys if there was only ever one door to go through, right? Hello Call Of Duty/Medal Of Honor/etc. Look what you did, you idiot 90s critics.

The freedom in Descent’s weenie little levels feels like joy. In fact, they’re designed such that there are large chambers therein you don’t even have to find in order to finish things! Sections of a game there to discover that you’re not forced to look at! You can complete your main tasks without getting all keys, finding all hostages, and so on, which only impacts on your score, if you’re inclined to worry about such things. Or you can meticulous scavenge every area, hunting down secret doors and the weapon bonuses hidden behind them, frequently checking the wonderful line-drawn 3D map to see if there are unfinished corridors remaining to be filled in.

What doesn’t stand up quite so well today are the textures. Which is to say, they’re a horrendous mess. The frustration of DOSBox’s preference to either play in a window smaller than the human eye can detect, or at a pixel-stretching full-screen, means a comfortable medium is a fiddle to reach. Blue ships in blue locations, and so on, are pretty tricky to pick out in the splurge of archaic detail. But heck, that just means you have to play better.

Lots have suggested adding support to the game for modern controllers, but I have no desire to step away from the magic of the mouse/keyboard controls. While I do desperately wish I could increase the mouse sensitivity, it’s otherwise such a pleasure to use, letting you flit and swoop about, rotating with Q and E, including the precision of aiming with the mouse. Get away with your joysticks and twinsticks and Prittsticks – this is a proper old PC game for proper old-ish (because let’s not imagine playing without the mouse) PC controls.

However you choose to approach it, do approach it. Even if you think, “Man, I remember playing that when I was a tadpole, and hated it.” You were probably really stupid. It’s such an epic classic, equalled by its superb sequel (and then let down by its crappier third instalment), and it’s such a raw, shining shame that we aren’t inundated by games trying to copy and update its format. At least we still have this delicious treat available.

14 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    Wait I thought this was going up on the 14th! I’m not ready yet!

  2. Rizlar says:

    If you want your writing protected, please remember to add your own copyright/copyleft notice to it.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t everything you create protected by default? As in, unless you specifically state who can use it for commercial gain, the copyright remains with you. And putting a notice up is just to inform the viewer of what is already the case.

    • Premium User Badge

      SuddenSight says:

      Not all countries have the same copyright laws. Automatic copyright is mostly a result of the Berne Convention, but some countries (most notably the US) give extra benefits/precedence to works that have been registered (discussed here).

      But whatever country you are in, actively announcing your copyright will probably give better results than relying on the “automatic” copyright you always get.

  3. Anthile says:

    I played a bit but found it nigh-unplayable.

    -It’s really hard to see anything at all. Enemies blend too well into the background textures.
    -I always want to strafe but you can’t, and I die all the time from it. In fact, the entire game is really hard.
    -It’s incredibly disorienting which also gives me a headache after playing for some time.
    -Lifters have got to be some of the most terrifying enemies ever designed. The game is pretty terrifying in general. Sometimes the AI seems much smarter than it should be, and then the noises the robots make…

    It was also on AGDQ the other day:

    • Scandalon says:

      You most assuredly can “strafe” in Descent. Along two axis no less! You might need to check your key bindings.

  4. Eleven says:

    I was surprised that it only took about half an hour to get used to Descent. It’s an intimidating game on first brush, quite unlike anything before or since, so I wasn’t sure of what to expect. My next closest frame of reference is piloting a Scythe (a jet-fighter/hovercraft hybrid) in Planetside 2, where you only rarely have to cope with tight, enclosed spaces, and trees are often more lethal than the enemy. Descent however revels in twisty corridors and complex chambers, but somehow makes navigating it feel so effortless once you master it.

    But dear god, you’d never get away with that lack of situational awareness in a modern game. You have one viewpoint, a first-person view straight forward out of the cockpit, and even that has large chunks of the screen blocked off by the UI. No turning your head to look in different directions, no third-person view, no minimap radar, or any other method a modern game might use to soften the challenge of keeping track of where you are. It’s totally up to the player to visualise their position relative to the walls at all times, lest you end up smacking into a corner at a vital moment, becoming disorientated and a sitting duck for the enemy drones. There’s no tutorial or hand-holding either, you’re just left to repeatedly bump your ship into the walls until you get better. Just not getting lost in a level that doesn’t have a firm sense of up or down is a challenge.

    Once you get past the first few moments of wallbonking, it gets actually quite easy. I played the DXX-Rebirth mod which has joypad support, and maybe the game wasn’t strictly balanced around the dexterity afforded by modern analogue controllers. There’s so much opportunity to strafe around enemies in three dimensions, and so much terrain to hide behind, that avoiding relatively the slow enemies is pretty simple, at least in the shareware episode I played. You maybe have too much agility, even if the manoeuvrability does give an awesome sense of speed and power, that the challenge of the game wanes. It’s probably a fun game to speedrun, though :D

  5. cpt_freakout says:

    I completely forgot about this, so I’m too late to give it a shot, but I’m really looking forward to all the write-ups. There are always many interesting opinions in this site!

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    I vaguely remember the previous post about this!

    I was always crap as Descent though, so I’ll have to pass on replaying this. I had always assumed it would be the sort of game that would age really badly, but I guess it retains a certain amount of it’s old charms.

  7. Bugamn says:

    I think this was the first FPS that I have ever played, when I was just a little kid. It wasn’t as scary and violent as Doom, but still felt like something forbidden. It was funny to see how the game felt familiar the instant it started, even though I hadn’t played it since then. Mouse and keyboard make for easier controls since then, but it’s a game that really hasn’t been copied enough. The textures might be a little aged, but if I didn’t have to study for university I would probably play it a lot more.

  8. Melody says:

    Wanted to write something for this, but I died from motion sickness after 20 minutes. Never touching Descent again.

  9. Premium User Badge

    boundless08 says:

    Well bollocks, this seemed like fun. Just became a supporter two days ago and missed this.

    Two questions: 1. When will this be released to the internet and 2. When and what will the next assignment be?

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    Harlander says:

    Anyone know what was so bad about the third instalment?