Joe Turvey looks how computer games developed as he did…
Why do people play video games? To me, it is an old question. I remember being asked by my parents, not overtly, but in their tone. I was interrogated simply in their dismissal of my time spent in front of an Amstrad CPC monitor, gripped by only 16 colours and the accompanying bleep and bloops. I answered the repetitive “why don’t you play outside like a normal inquisitive child?” with shrugs and a stubborn refusal to address dinner at the designated time. (17:30, as Neighbours began, dinner all over by the Six O’Clock news, rewarded by an episode of The Simpsons if completed within the required time frame) Why was I never ready to meet fish fingers or faggots on time, as requested?
At that time, the answer was straightforward enough; I was having too much fun. Exploring systems, achieving bizarre, incommunicable and arcane personal targets, or seeing what the territory of the next level had, or what happened if I put the oil on the mine cart. It was simply great fun to see what the game makers had designed, being challenged to think in lateral ways, or just to twiddle my fingers harder to make a sprite bounce further in a little 2 dimensional box. My little 11 year old brain wasn’t ready to acknowledge it at the time, but the drive was always there – what new challenges might be presented to me, how could the systems that held the world together be adapted to new, fresh applications, and perhaps most importantly, what form would the “end game” take?
But video games developed, as did I. As I saw more, beyond ancient constructs such as Jet Set Willy, Gauntlet, and Super Mario Brothers, I began to see that not only was the technology changing, bringing with it the possibility of a greater variety of styles of games, but I enjoyed experiencing the games on a single platform in different ways. The CPC, and the breakout of home computing with the Spectrum and the Commodore gave us a whole host of styles of games, including 2 dimensional platform games, challenging sports simulators, the tangible thrill of taking on the avatar of our favourite characters destroying the Death Star, and exploration of our moral compass in huge open world games such as Elite.
In this absorbing precursor to many increasingly tired and morally irrelevant conceptual sequels, a lone spaceship captain might choose to make a mercenary living killing pirates and selling their wares, saving a galaxy by collecting fuel, once the player had independently worked out how to skim the Sun using a fuel scoop, or engaging in definitively evil practices such as the slave trade or selling drugs. How would the game reward us for our efforts?
I found that while all of these things were fun, because I enjoyed simply playing games, and seeing what computers were able to give us, the fun that I got was metabolised in different ways. Some were fast and thrilling rides, our main opponent being our ability to manage our own frustrations and to see the task through to it’s bitter end. Others required a laborious and considered approach, and still others demanded the slow working out of puzzles through degrees of trial and error, in the way that people enjoy Sudoku, or developing poetry.
As time went by, new technology opened up more possibilities to game developers. and it became possible to do more things with games. Point and click adventures like the consistently hilarious The Secret of Monkey Island used exciting and surreal narrative devices to tell stories in ways a players could never have experienced in any previous form of literature. And yes, Mum, Monkey Island was a kind of literature. One recent development in this style of gaming is the “walking simulator”.
This is a perhaps unkind description of games like Gone Home, or Dear Esther, in which players have very limited interaction with games themselves, but simply expose themselves to an experience. They are often simply encouraged to appreciate a narrative which has already taken place in the environment, and despite their own actions having limited effect on the world, allow for a pacing which can be both curated by the developers in collaboration with the player. This is the game as art, not providing heart pumping thrills or the feeling of accomplishment at puzzles completed, but simply to be observed and digested.
Games cannot be written off as a total waste of time, as I have been told by my parents. In an market saturated with games which are essentially enormous tick lists of meaningless accomplishments and resources to gather, or the type of games which teenage girls play on mobile phones in bus shelters (Blossom Burst Saga is my favourite), there are delightfully rewarding experiences yet to be had. The Stanley Parable, a walking simulator in which player agency, the very core of traditional gaming narrative is undermined by a narrator with no avatar, shows us that games can give us experiences which can be found in no other artistic format. Senua’s Sacrifice is a new game in which a schizophrenic protagonist is beset by voices which undermine her and the player’s confidence in their ability to carry on with the challenge which confronts her. The mechanics of the game support this, threatening the player with the constant fear of a wiped 7 hour-deep save and the necessity to restart completely in a fail state. This supports the theme of fear that Senua experiences throughout.
As far as emotional reactions go, the deeply perverse Five Nights At Freddy’s demands that the player sit in front of a screen, harried continually by the threat of jump scares provided by a host of mechanical toys. I do not recommend this, but then, I don’t recommend visits to theme parks either. But people seem to love it, and the series has now spawned four sequels. Gaming has something for everyone, or at least, something for everyone prepared to look past the stigma of being content to spend a lot of time hunched over a gamepad staring blankly into a screen. And prepared to be late for their tea.