Last week I was in the Houses of Parliament doing some actual reporting. Yes! Outside, where the diseases live. This is because the 12th of January was the first Parliamentary Games Day, as organised by UK volunteer consumer interests group Gamers' Voice. The thinking behind the event was that it would allow politicians to interact with members of the games industry, play some games and basically learn a thing or two about these modern video shootems that they’re expected to legislate.
“Games Day” is a misnomer- the event would only be two hours long, thereby limiting my chances of contracting Spongeskin, Pauper's Wilt or any of the other infections which are rife in the city. I like my immune system like I like my women: clean and inexperienced. But I digress. How did Games Day go? Well, let me tell you. It had some moments.
The Parliamentary building of Portcullis House is significantly less imposing than the name suggests. By the time I reached the room where Games Day was taking place I had yet to stop being amused by the Visitor's Pass hanging from my neck, which displayed a hastily taken picture of me which would stare up, perpetually startled, at anybody I was talking to.
I arrived just as the other 40 or so attendees went murmuring elegantly into the room. I spotted RPS contributor Lewis Denby in the crowd and, as I approached, saw that he was sporting a life-threatening case of Journalist's Beard. We chatted for a bit and sized up the room, which featured an array of TVs and monitors, all of them displaying the main menus of various games. I love main menus. So eager to please! You know what had a good main menu? Deus Ex. You know what had a better one? Metroid Prime. It's true!
Having got our bearings, I joked with Lewis that perhaps everyone here was either a member of Gamers' Voice, a developer or a journalist, and we had no politicians in our ranks. As it turned out, this was literally the case. Parliamentary sessions had resumed for the new year, and with two votes being held at the same time as Games Day there was no expectation of a sizeable turnout.
Over the course of the evening 16 MPs found time to drift into the room, but at this point there was precious little happening. To kill some time I decided to do what any PC gamer would have done- I collected a glass of wine and sat down at the solitary PC in the corner to play Portal.
God! It was even better than I remembered it. Within 10 seconds I was laughing at Glados, smiling at the puzzles and taking fat gulps from my glass, the kind where you feel the booze spread from the pit of your stomach outwards.
Imagine my surprise, then, when after 10 minutes I was snapped out of this by a 50-something Member of Parliament, all suit and face, dropping into the seat next to me. I looked around and saw that he had a small audience behind him. The important man was here to look at a computer game.
“Oh,” I said, trying to assemble my reserves of intelligence like I was speed-building a house of cards. “Hello!”
I’d wager that most of you reading this are aware, as people who care about games, of the difficulty of trying to explain the beauty of a game to a non-gamer. A friend, a spouse or parent, anybody at all. These explanations are an art, and botching them is the most frustrating thing in the world. It’s like trying to present somebody with a spiderweb. You take this intricate, lovingly-crafted thing, but it all turns to gum in your hands.
I’ve been through this wringer a hundred times, but tasked with demoing Portal to an MP; tasked with demoing an astonishing game to somebody with the power to help or hinder the entire games industry, all of those past explanations seemed like training. This was it.
“Right,” I began. “This game is, ah, called Portal. It gives you a device which allows you to create... instantaneous... portals... between any two flat surfaces, then gets you to use this ability to get across rooms.”
I was, as it happened, on the worst imaginable level for showing Portal to anybody. It was the room where murky, poisonous sludge first makes an appearance, and I was stuck on a little glass platform in the middle of it. At this point you haven’t even unlocked the ability to fire orange portals, so I was frantically trying to work an angle whereby I could fire the blue portal and see myself out of the orange one. Or vice versa. It was a harder puzzle than anything in the game.
“It... requires immense spatial reasoning!” I hazarded, stalling for time.
“Portals are kind of like mirrors,” said a member of the crowd behind me.
“Yes,” I agreed. Then I immediately thought: What? How are portals like mirrors? They’re the opposite of mirrors, you saboteur bastard!
“It’s a puzzle game,” I said, eager to move on from the concept of Portal being a game where you shoot sodding mirrors around.
“Well, it’s certainly puzzling me!” said the MP, chuckling to himself.
At this point I made a noise of cardboard amusement, something like “Ah-aaa!-aa,” and conceded defeat. Critical hit, basically. I stood up and let a member of Gamers' Voice take my place at the table.
It dawned on me that I could have been talking to that man about anything. I could have been talking about anything. A Jimmy Corrigan-style daydream began.
"Yes, sir, this is the chicken-threshing machine... it's the heart of the operation, the heart, sir. Once the chickens are inserted, it's simply a matter of ensuring all the valves are clear, and then by pressing this button the threshing pistons spring into action. Don't know what we'd do without it. It was invented by the Scottish entrepreneur P.J. Lickwine, who was struck by the idea after his wife broke a glass ashtray over his head. Not a day goes by where we don't give thanks to P.J. Lickwine's notorious infidelity. Don't know what we'd do without this fabulous machine."
"Well, I wouldn't know what to do with it!"
" Ah-aaa!-aa, that's funny sir, you are possessing of a fine wit. Don't see a wit like that these days-- JESUS CHRIST don't stick your hand down there! That pipe will suck the bones clean out of your fingertips!"
Back in reality the controls of Portal had been handed to the politician, who was at that moment floundering awkwardly with the WASD keys. There was a smile on his face, though- a genuine, animal one, and his tongue and teeth looked like they might come tumbling out from between his tipped lips at any moment. The problem was, he was clearly pressed for time. The room expected mingling and movement from him, and he was going to have to stand up and walk away from the table any minute now, having made no progress with the game. Not wanting to be around to see that, I walked away.
My peers were all jinking around and getting interviews with politicians at this point, but I couldn’t quite face that, and left it to the hungry-hungry journos of the room. On my way to collect more wine I noticed that Heavy Rain was playable in the opposite corner, rigged up with the Playstation Move motion controller. I'd be meaning to investigate both that game and that controller for months, so naturally I went weaving and squeezing through the crowd and gross eddies of human heat towards it.
For about five happy minutes, I watched a man play. It was only when he smilingly passed me the controller that Ed Vaizey, the UK Minister for Culture, came up and asked me what this game was all about. This was the man in the room everybody wanted to talk to, and here was me not wanting to talk. A friend of mine caught the beautiful moment on camera.
But I was warmed up by now, and things started well. I quickly sketched out who David Cage was and how the French games industry had a commendable history of pursuing a more artistic interpretation of what videogames can be. Heavy Rain, I explained, was the most recent and high-profile example of that, with Cage striving to create a more cinematic, believable, character-driven game than the world had ever seen.
Mr. Vaizey and I then both watched in silence as I waved the Playstation Move at the TV in a great number of mysterious variations. I was trying to get my character to open the front door of his house, but didn't know quite how. My character, for his part, seemed burdened with a terrible uncertainty, moving his hand to the doorknob, then back to his side, over and over again.
This parody of motion controls having gone on for some five seconds, Mr. Vaizey got half way through asking whether I was trying to open the door before I replied in the affirmative. After another five seconds, he thanked me and left. I hadn’t even bothered to tell him I was a journalist. All I wanted was for these people to understand.
Which is mad, I suppose. Not because it’s impossible, but because it’s already happening. The only people to whom games are a foreign entity are those who didn’t grow up with them, and those guys are disappearing every year, being sucked out of windows or blasted by lightning. So why fight it? Why try and press the faces of the elderly against these lukewarm LCD screens? Our hobby is, I suspect, more opaque than many of us are willing to accept. Each time a non-gamer walks away from one of our zealous explanations of a game with a platitude like "It's just not for me," we take that as a failure of ours, or theirs, rather than an inevitability. For our sanity's sake, that should probably change.
One sentence that came out of Gamers' Voice chairman Paul Gibson during the night is still bouncing around in my head. It was when he gave his brief speech, which unfortunately clashed with the second vote of the evening. His bit about games becoming increasingly social and intuitive was accompanied by the last of the MPs scuttling out of the room. Paul delivered the tail-end of his speech, wherein he knocked the shit out of some more common misconceptions on gaming, to a room full of gamers. But it was still pleasant to listen to. Did you know that in 2010, the UK boasted 24 of Develop's top 100 game development studios? Japan only had 16, and Canada had 9.
"Right!" Paul cried, having finished his piece. "Everybody, please, help yourself to wine and enjoy any of the games we have on display. You all know how to play, and those who don't have left."
Ah! They haven't yet, Paul, but you're right. We should all relax. This'll all be over before we know it.