Last week we got to talking about the idea of our gaming education and influences: the games that made us the kind of people that we are today. Which was the game that made us stand on a table and say "O Captain, My Captain"? Which game bullied us after school and made us frightened of walking alone at night? Which game would a psychiatrist want to talk to after our first session on the couch? We've picked out a bunch of titles that stood out as defining in our lifetimes of button-mashing, whether good or ill. What will they be?
I'm stood at the deep end, and I get to go first.
Which gave me my disdain for unimaginative subtitles. Why bother if you can't match Brutal Deluxe? But there's more to it than that.
Having only had access to a BBC and then a crappy Amstrad home computer in the early years of gaming, my knowledge of what was even possible remained ruinously stunted until 1991. My first encounter with the Amiga 500, some three years after its first appearance, was a moment of intense revelation. I watched my cousin Rob - who suddenly seemed less like a surly teenager and more like some kind of glowing prophet of my inexorable tech future - playing Lemmings or The Killing Game Show, and my tiny, immature brain lit up with excitement. By the time we got to play Speedball 2 the consummation was complete. Jim Rossignol was born. The Amiga would become the altar of my teenage years, and this game was going to be my hand-blistering focus for countless weeks to come.
In fact I've no idea how long I played Speedball 2 for. It might have been as much as four years, on and off. But it was mostly on. I had a huge old Yamaha amplifier that I'd inherited from elders hooked up to the Amiga, and the enormous bass boost noise of the Speedball 2 ball launcher, piped via huge separate speakers into my room, often signalled my return home from school. Kid Next Door would soon be there, and I'd occasionally let him win, to keep him interested. To be fair, he always won at Streetfighter 2, and I'm pretty sure he let me win occasionally too, silently returning the favour.
Both games rewarded extreme bouts of practice. Becoming intimately familiar with the exact interaction of pixels, internalising the timing of animations, the crucial pure feedback loop of hand-eye co-ordination, understanding precisely the patterns of movement that came with a game which did not use "real" physics. I would never come close to mastering Streetfighter, but the simpler, purer actions of Speedball 2 would be wholly mine. With this in mind, it seems clear that my relationship with Speedball 2 begun my personal obsession with being good at gaming. I've sunk disgusting amounts of time into a few subsequent games, almost purely because I wanted the skill, and then I wanted to improve, to win. My addiction to Quake III, and Quake variants, seems little more than an expression of my Speedball 2 love. Speedball 2 gave me the taste for being a competitor, and I doubt it will ever truly disappear. It also made me believe that it doesn't matter that games are violent, it matters howthey are violent. When the simulated brutality is tied into a game, something that we can get better and better at, that we can feel good about mastering, then it's a good thing.
I also think it gave me an appreciation of a certain kind of minimalism in skill-based, competitive gaming. Every time I see a game with more features, more weapons, more ideas heaped into the arena of their combat, I find myself quietly tutting, and thinking about how it come be stripped back, reduced to the bare essentials. The most skeletal of games, brilliantly presented, is all I've ever needed. And that's one reason why Speedball 2 has never been bested.
The four-screen Dungeon Master with guns. This had a DOS version and an Amiga version, and it was the Amiga version that I spent the most time with. The best part of a week one glorious summer were spent inside a gloomy room, playing this through end to end with my friend Tim.
There were three things going on here that have stayed with me ever since:
- Co-operative gaming. There were a bunch of co-operative games that I played a lot of around this time - Alien Breed and Chaos Engine stand out particularly - but Hired Guns' RPG nature made the experience more complex. We shared resources, and were able to come up with plans that were better developed than "kill all the baddies". And yet it had arcade elements bound into it: the fact that it was also a kind of proto-FPS (with real time firing and reloading) meant that there was some genuine tension to keeping both people's characters alive (we took two each). Further, we were able to do things like setting up crossfire traps for monsters we knew were going to over-power us. I often think about how that game inspired incredibly sophisticated play, despite its crude nature. Few games seem able to do that now.
- Twisted atmosphere sold by evocative audio. The world design for Hired Guns was pretty peculiar: robots and bounty-hunters on the surface of a gloomy planet called Graveyard, fighting genetically enhanced monsters that ranged from sea-monsters through monks and squirrels. Being a Dungeon Master style block-by-block first person RPG, it had to be pretty careful about what it presented on screen - something that was reduced further by the four tiny windows. It seems impossibly crude now, but the sound effects remain superb: the distorted roar of the automatic weapons, the distant metallic dog noises, the heavy pulse noise of the more industrial environments. Few games really sell their experience proper through audio, and this is a fundamental example of what an awesome asset noises are for game designers with limited tools.
- Exploration for its own sake. The demo of the game obsessed me because it had a teleporter tool that you could use to portal into secret locations across the map. Many of them were meaningless underwater tunnels, or random ledges, but I nevertheless obsessively tracked them all, hungry for secrets. Once I had the full game there was a beautiful - if rather meaningless - map screen, which laid out the levels in a grid. What was interesting to me about that was that a bunch of the levels were dead ends. There was no reason to go there if you were progressing through the game. They were also appalling difficult to play through, which somehow made their mystery all the more alluring. Few games seem to make entire levels optional, or skippable. And fewer still seem to deliberately obscure weird secrets within their depths. There was a time when the idea that their would be a wealth of secrets with in the obscure corners of a game level was a given.
I really don't need to go on about this too much. Eve Online changed how I viewed the relationship between gamers and games. The looping feedback-based nature of the development of the game, the brutal aspect of the PvP, the lack of level structure, the single galaxy shard. Eve is a brilliant realisation of what a persistent world could be, wilfully ignored and misunderstood by gamers, designers, and journalists. I wanted to understand it, because the disappointment I felt with MMOs as a whole was lessened by its existence.
When I was a kid I used to rewatch a bunch of sci-fi films over and over. Star Wars, Bladerunner, Aliens, Predator, Terminator, even Dune. I can't really remember why, other than I loved the worlds they showed me. I wanted to soak them up. It was as if I wanted to capture something about them, to store up the exact timbre of the escapism. I'm not sure why I lost the ability to enjoy things over and over like that, but after I was about sixteen I stopped. I never rewatch anything now, if I can help it. I suspect it's something to do with the way videogames have rewired my attention towards active consumption of media. I now need to be involved, to be leaning forward, not back. In fact there's only been one subsequent piece of culture that I subjected to the same repetition as those films, and it arrived when I was a young adult. It was Half-Life.
Sure, I've played through Stalker three times now, and I've gone back to a couple of other classics over the years, but Half-Life I sat and played through again three or four times as soon as I'd finished it. Then I watched a couple my mates play it. I found myself bottled up with excitement at the best bits, fascinated to see how they'd handle the marines for the first time, or the thing in the blast chamber. Occasionally I'd blurt out something about what they needed to do, and get a kick in the shins. Spoilers, etc.
I played it again last year, and it was wonderful.
Half-Life was a game that contained a huge amount within multiple layers of detail. It was the little things made it concrete enough to be totally totally involved with: guns were placed on tables or in racks, they were not a spinning icon. The environment was real and dynamic. Although it was entirely scripted, it suddenly felt far more alive that the "stage set" backdrops of previous games. Walls exploded outwards, things fell, and broke, and buckled. The moment when the marines fired up through an airduct was, and remains, breathtakingly effective.
It brought environment to the forefront of design, and not in a way that made it a spectacular deathmatch arena for your activities, but in a way that made it plausible context for your adventure. Rather than supporting the big picture (this is a shooter!), it was a series of scaffolds for your disbelief, and engine that kept up your forward momentum into a story. And it didn't have to tell us it was a story: there was no break, no cutscene. It was, rather than "show, don't tell", a game of "do, don't show". Even now, game after game comes out and proves that the designers didn't grasp how or why that worked.
Half-Life made me because without it my expectations of the quality of games, their world design, consistency, and the pace, would be skewed. Without it I'd be incorrectly calibrated, and of no use to anyone.