What I Write About When I Write About Games
Escaping the shackles of simulacra
This is my first week back from a holiday, during which time I barely looked at an internet, let alone wrote on one. I didn't play any games either, unless you consider freezing to death on a remote Welsh hillside to be some sort of game. As is often the case, not doing something for five minutes has made me think about why I do it in the first place. Why, of all the wonderful and fascinating things that exist, do I spend so much time thinking and writing about games?
One of the first games I can remember playing was Horace Goes Skiing. All I really see when I think of it now is something a bit like Frogger, except I was controlling some nostrils that had sprouted arms and legs. Or perhaps it was a walking pelvis or a weird double-bum. Hard to tell. I do know that I liked the fact that whatever the abomination was, it wanted to go skiing. I'd never been skiing (still haven't) but I knew what it was and I knew all about crossing roads as well, which seemed to be the first obstacle between Horace and his skis. The double-bum's quest was perfectly sensible, all thanks to a recognisable theme, no matter how odd it might have been.
Things were always abstract back then, by necessity, and it wasn’t always clear if a game was set in fourteen million AD, in space, or in the near future of 1991 during a mad techno-war. In modern games, the expensive ones at least, the facts are usually more obvious. If the main character is bald and gruff, the setting is almost certainly space. If he is wearing some sort of hat and is gruff, it’s more likely to be a near-future war.
Although I interacted with many scenarios on the Spectrum, Commodore and Atari 2600, it’s Ant Attack that sticks with me. Sandy White's nightmare suprematist world probably gave me my first taste of survival horror, beset as it was by creepy-crawlies and with player characters woefully ill-equipped to combat them. It felt like something I would have built with the blocks of my childhood as much as something that had been made for me. I wasn’t being told what to do, I was being encouraged to learn. For all of those reasons, Ant Attack reminded me of playing with Lego. Those tactile blocks were much more exciting than any of the actual games I owned, which all came with their limits and rules. Lego is limited only by quantity and the actual edges of each construction.
I owned one actual kit, a medieval castle, and I built it over and over again, fascinated that a series of apparently isolated diagrams so easily became a physical thing. I followed instructions but I felt as if I were writing them as I read them, because I was the builder and since I was my own boss, I could be the architect as well and stick an extra parapet on the side of the place if I damn well pleased. Or not, because to do that I'd have to rip one of the walls down and then baddies would get in.
Apart from the castle kit, with its shiny box, I also had lots of loose bricks. They didn’t belong anywhere, just miscellaneous odds and ends that my parents probably picked up at a jumble sale. I kept them in a massive plastic tub and the most important were four flat green sheets, the base to which all my creations were attached. Those sheets were the soil from which bizarre flora grew, the foundations of alien castles and the pavements of tiny cities. Lego was everything. A collection of possibilities and a doorway from the turbulence of being alive in the Manchester of the eighties.
Even in these grim, industrial climes I had friends and eventually, as we played, we imposed rules of our own. Building became turn-based, cooperative or competitive depending on the mood. Place two blocks, drawn at random, and then wait while everyone else does the same. Maybe we’d build together or maybe we’d contradict the attempted architecture of the others, discovering new configurations for our imagination.
I never owned toy soldiers, although I’m not sure whether that’s because I was being raised by ex-hippies or because, being incredibly cowardly and surprisingly politically and ethically astute for a child, I turned my nose up at the trappings of war. Fake, long ago, far far away wars were apparently fine though and I had a fine collection of Star Wars figures with which to fight a thousand battles. At first Han Solo would always win because he was my favourite, but I quickly applied certain rules. Weapons had crudely calculated range, cover was employed (usually Lego cover) and one adventure would lead into another. I made campaigns. I’m pretty sure I pre-empted Mass Effect by enacting thrilling space romances as well - plastic figures bopping their heads together in a ten year old boy’s imitation of a kiss.
Then there were the games that already had rules and needed to be stripped of them. Games with a strong theme appeal to me even if they’re not as interesting in other ways, which is probably why I love Arkham Horror so much, even if it plays me far more than I play it. Ghost Castle was the equivalent back in the day, a very simple boardgame with one absolutely awesome feature – in the centre of the board, the castle’s tower rises and occasionally a plastic skull must be dropped into an opening at its top. From there, it can roll out in several directions, sometimes knocking a player’s figure flat. I'd send all manner of toys on paranormal missions into the castle, but they'd be bombarded by the skull (which glowed in the dark, as the box proudly claimed). Physics in action! That entertained me for much longer than the gothic Ludo that the rulebook described.
At secondary school I missed out on tabletop RPGs because I was too busy inventing boardgames of my own. Maths exercise books were the best source of graph paper, so I'd nab one from a supply cupboard and draw dungeon maps on every page, devising far-too complex systems of movement for the hundreds of characters that ran through those paper corridors. Most people played on the sports fields during lunch breaks but a few of us would sneak into the science labs, as far from noise as possible, and play these preposterously elaborate experiments, along with card games and whatever else wasn’t cool that week.
All of that personal history is there whenever I think about games and it’s rare for anything I write about them to have every trace of it excised, even when I’m actively trying to forget. That tub of Lego, such a fundamental part of childhood, is always there. I’m still building on the green, stippled foundations, but now people are creating worlds made up of more blocks than I could ever own. The links between some blocks and those memories are impossible to ignore – Minecraft being the obvious example. It has its own ruleset but it’s easy to tear apart, either with mods or through invention and discovery. To me, it’s a game about exploration more than construction, so I fill the world with as much variety as possible and my stories are of dusk falling on haunted forests and of excavations beneath ancient castles.
Other blocks aren't quite so obvious. Long before Minecraft, I spent days at a time in worlds that were far more prescribed, but, because of their fidelity, were more believable than anything I’d ever drawn on those sheets of graph paper or built on my bedroom floor so long ago. RPGs were capable of absorbing my attention entirely, although it was more often than not those that didn’t insist on conflict and the constricted corridor of a main quest. I think my love of RPGs, however you choose to define the term, peaked with Ultima Underworld. For all its claustrophobic limitations, it was more a living place than any imaginary world I’d ever taken part in before. The manipulation of objects, the apparent freedom to do whatever seemed *fun*, even within a prison.
I’ve written about Ultima VII before and I’d only repeat myself if I talked about why it had such an impact on me. It should be clear, as well, how a land where it’s possible to tailor clothes, to bake bread and to murder every last living thing fits into the idea of games as pure play, with rules to be bent, broken and even created.
No surprise, then, that as my fascination with graphical RPGs receded somewhat, it’s because something else was putting them into the shade. Roguelikes. And not just roguelikes, but those things like roguelikes. Games that convinced by telling rather than showing; simulations without the shackles of simulacra.
I began to prefer abstractions, like the graph paper scribblings pieces of my childhood, things that could be turned any which way. I rediscovered that play, for me, was essentially a creative pastime. It’s why I’m still drawn to abstract representations and why I believe a map will probably always represent history and its alternates better than an elaborately modelled depiction of a thousand battles. It’s why I find aspects of The Sims fascinating, even if the game’s heart is cold consumerism.
Aesthetic requirements and ambitions can harness technology wonderfully in service of world-building but it’s the worlds and lives that we build for ourselves that I find the most compelling – the Dwarves in their Fortresses, the hunter starving in the wilderness, the daughter of a farmer forced to work in a factory from the age of 12, dead by 30. A select few of the great game designers are almost unique in that they make those who experience their work feel like a part of the creative process, thereby making great designers of those who choose to engage with their work. Where else does interaction assume the thrill of collaboration? There are emotional connections of that sort - singing along in a crowd of thousands at a live performance - but games provide creative and intellectual connections that could well last lifetimes.
I love games that tell a story and I love games that present a challenge and a threat, but mostly I love games that give me some blocks and ask me to build.