I got my first personal computer in 1981 and the first thing I did with it, even before I started using it for word processing and teaching myself how to program, was play games. My memories of computer gaming stretch back over the four decades since, which is longer than half the people on the Internet have been alive. I like to think that gives me a unique perspective on games, both new ones and old ones. Whether it does remains to be seen.
I’ve written about games several times on my Adrift in the Infosphere blog, but that never seemed the right place for it. I like to use that blog for writing about television, movies and Disneyland, which is so close to where I live that you can hear the fireworks going off at night. But I wanted to create a new space where I could write about games and nothing else.
This is that space. If you’ve stumbled in here and don’t care about computer games, you should probably stumble back out. No offense, really. I just worry that you’ll be bored here. There are a lot of things I like to do, but bore people isn’t one of them.
Now that I’m just talking to the gamers in the audience, let’s circle our PCs and Macs and smartphones (because you’re probably not reading this on a Playstation or an Xbox) and chat about the thing we love most, the sublime confusion of a good computer game. I call it sublime confusion because that’s how I know when I’ve discovered a genuinely great, innovative, obsessively playable new computer game. I find myself utterly and wonderfully confused by it. I have no idea what I’m doing, but somehow I know that the game is going to tell me. That’s how I felt the first time I played an Infocom adventure. That’s how I felt when I booted up my first computer RPG. That’s how I felt when I first plunged into the original Doom. That’s how I felt when I saw the opening text of Firewatch. I had no idea what I was doing or what I was experiencing. I just knew that I loved it.
A well-designed game doesn’t let you stay confused for long. It either resolves that confusion for you level by level or, better still, lets you resolve that confusion yourself, through exploration, experimentation and problem solving. If you’re still totally confused by a game an hour after you’ve started playing, then something has gone wrong on the game designer’s end. Or you’re just not trying hard enough to figure it out. Sometimes it can be a combination of the two.
Doom, the original one, is my benchmark for confusion resolved through gameplay. While Doom-style gameplay has become almost too familiar over the years, on its first publication it was something new under the pixelated sun. The original DOS version dropped you into that first level like a paratrooper who had landed on a battlefield without being briefed beforehand about the mission. All you knew was that you had a weapon, you had something that looked human shooting at you and you died before you got out of the first room. The second time you played you were a little more prepared but you still died before you got out of the second room.
The third time, you started fighting back. And winning.
We’ve entered an era, though, where games can offer such deep confusion that you’re expected to go outside the game to resolve it. I dare anyone to play Minecraft for the first time and figure out how to survive the first ten minutes of the Survival Mode without watching a YouTube video (which Mojang used to, and may still, provide on its website) about surviving the first ten minutes. I’m not sure it can be done. Minecraft is so opaque in its mechanics that it not only resists providing an in-game tutorial (which, given how tedious in-game tutorials can become, may be a good thing) but you need to find an out-of-game tutorial (which can be even more tedious) to learn how to carve a cave out of a stone wall to protect yourself from the things that go bump in the night. I haven’t played it lately, so maybe Microsoft has added a help file. At least Minecraft provides gameplay that’s worth the effort of learning it. But that’s a subject for another time.
I know I’ve found a mediocre computer game if I feel no confusion at all. A mediocre computer game is one that feels like you’ve played it before, even if it had another name and a slightly different premise. Sometimes this can be a sublime familiarity and may explain the popularity in recent years of retro games. A retro game is intentionally designed to look and feel like the games you played on your Nintendo Entertainment System or your 256-color VGA graphics card. There’s a nostalgic charm to these games and I enjoy playing them too. I don’t always want to be confused. Sometimes I want to settle into a game like it’s an old chair, one softened by years of use yet still somehow strong enough to support the increased width of my backside. Nostalgia can be fun.
In the many posts that follow, I’m going to talk about old games like Doom and I’m going to talk about new ones like, well, the latest remake of Doom. There’ll be a place at the end of each post where you can leave comments, so I hope you’ll talk about these things too.
First, though, I’m going to do something I enjoy doing a little too much: I’m going to talk about myself.
I’m a writer. I’ve written books on astronomy, I’ve written books on biology, I’ve even written three science fiction novels and 11 books in the Hardy Boys series. But what I’ve mostly written about is computers. Some of those books were about game programming and I think a couple of them were pretty good. My 1993 book Flights of Fantasy was the first book on the market to explain in everyday language how anybody with some C++ programming experience could create professional quality animation on the screen of a DOS PC, especially 3D animation like you’d see in the out-the-window views of old flight simulators. Flight of Fantasy stayed on computer-book bestseller lists for several weeks.
The second of those books, Gardens of Imagination, was about programming what we later started calling first-person shooters. It didn’t sell as well as the first book because by then other publishers had realized there was a large market for books on game programming. I had competition and it was outselling me. I had created a market that became so crammed with books I could no longer compete in it.
Flights of Fantasy and Gardens of Imagination are extremely dated today. I don’t recommend buying used copies as a way of learning how to program AAA-quality games like Fallout 4 or The Witcher 3, though I’ll probably talk about those games at some point in this blog. I wouldn’t have the first idea how to program a game like either of those because I haven’t kept up with the state of the art in game programming.
I have, however, kept up with the games.
Right now I’m playing a series of retro adventure games with occasional side journeys into Shadow Warrior 2, but a few days from now I’ll probably be obsessed with something else. If it’s a game I’ll discuss it in these pages. Given my erratic attention span, I’ll probably be stopping by here often to talk about the new games I’ve discovered, but I’ll generally do so by giving some of the history behind the genres that those games belong to, because I was there for a lot of that history.
That’s enough for one post. Your own attention span is probably starting to wander. But I promise I’ll be back to discuss one aspect or another of the computer games that have obsessed me from the 80s and 90s right into the 2010s. You’ll know what aspect I’m going to talk about when you read the next post, but right now even I don’t know what aspect that’s going to be.
I just hope you come back to find out. I can guarantee that I will. I’m curious to see what it is I’ll come up with.