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.