The Birth of 3D Gaming

This is going to be a story about me and about games. But mostly it’s going to be about 1992.

1992 was when it all changed. It was the year when texture-mapped 3D graphics became up close and personal, no longer just a collection of flat-shaded polygons viewable through the windows of airplanes in flight simulators and tanks in military simulators, instead offering a down-and-dirty first-person view that remains the standard in computer graphics to this day.

Two very different yet equally important games appeared in the spring and summer of that year. The first was Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss from Blue Sky Productions, an early incarnation of Looking Glass Studios, which would go on to create both the System Shock and Thief series. Underworld was only nominally an entry in the long-running Ultima line of RPGs. It was a standalone role-playing game where you explored a multi-level dungeon, the “abyss” of the title, in its full, three-dimensional glory. Technically, it was so far beyond anything else being done at the time that nobody even attempted to imitate it, and it remains one of the greatest CRPGs ever published.

Ultima Underworld
Ultima Underworld – The first true 3D dungeon crawl.

Three-dimensional dungeon crawls weren’t entirely new. Games like Dungeon Master (which I’ve written about before), and Dungeon Master clones like Eye of the Beholder, used a kind of stepwise 3D to simulate a four-way perspective view of a dungeon, but the smooth gliding movement of true 3D was conspicuously lacking. Even earlier, games like Wizardry, The Bard’s Tale and Might and Magic did something similar, but with less high-resolution realism. Ultima Underworld, though, was the real deal.

Yet it was eclipsed only four months later by a game less radically innovative but far more influential: Wolfenstein 3D. Its creator, Id Software, set their sights much lower than the creators of Ultima Underworld, but in terms of both popularity and influence what they achieved was considerably greater. They created a new genre, the first-person shooter, and imitations flooded the market for the next year and a half, until Id upped the ante again with the considerably more ambitious Doom. But Wolf3D was where the 3D revolution really began, for two reasons: It was easy to imitate and the gameplay was startlingly fast, even on 33mhz 80486-based PCs. Some players complained that running down endless hallways shooting at Nazis gave them motion sickness; now that’s realism! Never mind that those Nazis were flat cartoons pasted on top of the 3D background like sprites in an arcade game. The sheer exhilaration of the gameplay was something new under the gaming sun. Wolf3D was fast. It was addictive. It changed the way gamers looked at games.

Wolf3Db
Wolfenstein 3D – The game that launched a thousand Nazi hunters (and one B.J. Blazkowicz).

Let me back up for a moment. To the extent that I’ve had a career in the gaming industry it involved writing books about it. In late 1991, while I was serving as a moderator on the Compuserve Game Publishers Forums, I ran into an editor/publisher named Mitch Waite, who owned a company called Waite Group Press and was looking for someone to write a book about programming flight simulators. I had strong coding skills honed through years of programming as a hobby and I’d experimented a bit with 3D graphics — I’d managed, at least, to create a three-dimensional cube with multicolored sides that I could rotate on my computer’s screen — so I rashly volunteered to write it. To my surprise, I found myself almost immediately with a contract in hand for a book to be called Flights of Fantasy.

Mitch Waite wanted a book about flight simulators, but I was in touch with enough aspiring game programmers via Compuserve that I knew the market was ready for a lot more than that. I took writing Flights of Fantasy as an opportunity to teach both myself and other self-taught programmers how to create a wide variety of games with professional quality code. The irony was that I was not a professional programmer myself, unless you counted the programs I’d published in my earlier books for young adult readers, but Compuserve put me in touch with enough people who developed games for a living that it was fairly easy for me to learn how to write fast, optimized code for DOS-based animation. What I couldn’t learn from other programmers I could learn from books, many of them intended for advanced college courses in computer science. And what I couldn’t learn from books I could figure out by myself. Not to brag too much, but Flights of Fantasy was the first book that contained all the information programmers needed to write commercial games and I’d like to think I helped set a generation of young programmers on the road to doing precisely that.

Flights of Fantasy
Flights of Fantasy – I would have preferred a cover where the words “Programming 3D Video Games” were a whole lot larger.

My friends on Compuserve knew what I was working on and were eager to see the results. Just as I was putting the finishing touches on the book I logged on to Compuserve’s PC Forum and found a copy of the shareware version of Wolf3D, which had appeared without any advance publicity, in their download libraries. Somehow it had failed to appear in the gaming forum libraries and a few days later it wasn’t available on Compuserve at all. The company’s German branch had complained about the Nazi iconography that Id had liberally sprinkled about — swastikas and pictures of Adolph Hitler — and demanded that the game be taken down. But it was too late to prevent the game from becoming a juggernaut. Wolf3D was the talk of the summer.

It blew me away. My friends on Compuserve’s Flight Simulator Forum scoffed at it. Wolfenstein 3D wasn’t a true three-dimensional game, they complained. It cheated by using a 2D map and translating it into a three-dimensional image through some simple algorithmic trickery. To my mind, that missed the point. Computer games were all about illusion and the fact that Wolf3D created the illusion of high-speed 3D movement was enough to start the revolution in gaming graphics that the slow-moving, if engrossing, Ultima Underworld had failed to ignite.

Flights of Fantasy found an audience large enough to place it on computer-book bestseller lists for several weeks. (I should add that it would never have been finished without the help of my online friend Mark Betz, who wrote the flight model and designed the dashboard graphics while I wrote the 3D engine. I have no idea where Mark is now, but I owe him a debt of gratitude for helping me out on the most difficult book project of my career.) As it became apparent that Flights of Fantasy was a success, I suggested to Mitch Waite that I should follow it up with a book that demonstrated how Wolf3D and its imitators worked. The result was Gardens of Imagination, which wound up hitting bookshelves just a little too late in the curve to draw the audience that its predecessor had. Flights of Fantasy demonstrated that there was a huge audience for books on game programming and other publishers had already jumped into the fray. I’d created a field that was already too crowded for me to compete in.

Yet Gardens of Imagination was a lot more fun to write because it turned out that a Wolf3D-style graphics engine was remarkably easy to program. Even before I agreed to write the book, I created a prototype game in C++, using a simple trick called raycasting to simulate Id’s graphics. Like Minecraft three decades later, Wolf3D created its world out of blocks, much larger blocks than Minecraft uses, large enough to simulate walls and hallways, and drawing those walls on a video display involved a few simple trigonometric stunts that cast visual rays outward from the position of the player — hence the term “raycasting” — to determine what pixels those rays encountered as they snaked their way across the floor, up the walls, and back across the ceiling. It took me about three hours to get my first raycasting engine running, minus floors, ceilings and any kind of texture mapping on those surfaces. It was the kind of elegant programming that I found exciting because the code practically wrote itself. Adding texture mapping was more complicated, but it was still simple and elegant. The hardest part was making it run fast enough for realistic animation, which took me several weeks, as I rewrote a few key parts of the code in assembly language and unrolled loops into inline code, because by then my programming time was being eaten into by the task of actually writing the book.

But enough about me (for now, anyway). Anyone who was playing games in the period between Wolfenstein 3D and Doom remembers how raycast games suddenly flooded the market, many of them using Id’s own graphics engine. Raven Software, a company that was immensely skillful at taking other programmers’ ideas and making them look a thousand times better, created Heretic (for Id) and Shadowcaster (for Electronic Arts) using a modified version of the Wolf3D engine. When Id struck out on their own, their former publisher Apogee launched its own raycast shooter franchise with Blake Stone and the Aliens of Gold, but it came out just before the entire game changed, as it were, and never caught on.

Blake Stone and the Aliens of Gold
Blake Stone, substituting aliens for Nazis.

That period BD — Before Doom — seems distant and nostalgic now. Doom, released in shareware form in December of 1993, was so much more sophisticated than Wolf3D had been, using programming tricks so clever that I tried to imitate them in Gardens of Imagination and failed, that it encouraged developers to create increasingly advanced 3D shooters that always seemed a step behind Id’s brilliant lead programmer John Carmack — e.g., Bethesda Software’s Terminator Rampage and The Elder Scrolls: Arena, which seemed locked into the period between the two Id games in terms of their graphic capabilities. (Arena did essentially invent the 3D open-world game, but I’ve written about that elsewhere.)

Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain – As good as it’s going to get?

With the arrival of 3D graphics accelerators like the 3DFX Voodoo cards in 1996 and 1997, and the publication of games like Quake that could be modified to take advantage of those cards, computer gaming entered a new era of graphical realism, one that finally seems to be nearing its apex more than two decades later with games like The Witcher 3: Wild HuntMetal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and Far Cry 5, which contain such vividly rendered worlds that it’s hard to imagine that 3D gaming is going to get any better on a technical level in the years to come. All that’s left is for developers to find increasingly inventive ways to use the graphics tools at their disposal. And, with the cheap and ready availability of gaming engines like Unreal and Unity, even small teams of indie developers can contribute to the continuing three-dimensional wave. Games like Gone Home, Dear Esther and Firewatch show how much can be done with a relatively tight budget and a lot of stylish ingenuity. But you can trace that wave straight back to 1992, when it first began surging toward the distant shore, that it finally seems to have reached, of photorealism.

With the publication of Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D, 1992 was when 3D gaming began. And I’m glad that, in my small way, I was there.

Catacomb 3D
Catacomb 3D — Actually a pretty good raycast FPS

NOTE: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Wolfenstein 3D didn’t really originate the first-person shooter; it just popularized it. The original FPS was probably Id’s earlier raycast game Catacomb 3-D, first published in the floppy-based magazine Softdisk in November, 1991, an EGA shooter with a dungeon setting. But C3-D lacked the public visibility, as well as the 256-color VGA graphics, of Wolf3D and barely made a ripple in the computer-gaming pond.

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Ubisoft in a Blender: Far Cry 5

Ubisoft games are addictive. I don’t mean that as a trivial observation, like “Ubisoft games are a steaming pile of horse puckey,” but as an operative principle. Players and critics commonly snark at the company for using the same tropes in game after game, series after series, but it’s as canny a move on Ubisoft’s part as the addition of extra nicotine is to the manufacture of cigarettes (and, to be fair, less harmful to the user). Through trial and error, or perhaps through real-time MRI scans tracing endorphin activity in the brains of beta testers, they’ve discovered tropes that induce pleasure in the gaming cortex, drawing players back for more — tropes that are, not to harp on it too much, addictive.

You can tick these tropes off in bullet points that could pretty much serve as an outline for the company’s next game:

  • Someone gets killed (Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed: Origins) and/or a community finds itself in the clutches of a malevolent criminal organization (Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, every Far Cry entry, Wildlands, Watch Dogs 2).
  • A lone hero (the player) sets out in the company of animal and/or human companions to right the wrong and take down the hierarchical pyramid of bad guys responsible by conquering the regions of the game world that they’re in charge of (every game named above).
  • The territory is mapped out by climbing to the top of various towers (every Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs game, Far Cry 3 and 4).
  • A drone, bird or dog spots enemies from, usually, an aerial perspective (Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Far Cry Primal, Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed: Origin) and tags them with distinctive markers, making them visible through buildings and scenery.
  • You engage in reckless, destructive vehicular chases (WildlandsWatch DogsFar Cry 3 on), a trope stolen from Grand Theft Auto.
  • Somebody natters at you on a car radio or walkie talkie (Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Far Cry), playing music or occasionally giving you news that’s actually useful, a mechanism that seems primarily designed to keep you from getting bored during those vehicular chases. (Yes, this is also a trope stolen from the Grand Theft Auto games, though Ubisoft doesn’t offer as many channels on the car radio.)
  • Cut scenes when some major goal has been achieved to reward you for completing multi-part missions that steal several hours out of your life (Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Far Cry, most Assassin’s Creeds).
  • Somebody slips you a drug every now and then so that you can drift your way through fantasy missions that look like the Dark Dimension sequences from Doctor Strange (recent Far Cry games, several Assassin’s Creeds).
  • You stumble on arcade games that let you play quick, casual versions of the same game you’re in (Watch Dogs, Far Cry 5).

Repetitive though they may be, I can’t find a single element here that doesn’t give me pleasure (except for the GTA elements, like the nattering car radio and the vehicle chases, which I could happily live without). There’s a sweet satisfaction in the swooping duotone territory reveals produced by Far Cry 4‘s tower climbs and a burst of pleasure every time I see an enemy light up with a red dot when viewed from a drone (or through binoculars or simply by pointing a weapon in their general vicinity). Even the cut scenes are spaced out at intelligently planned intervals rather than used as constant interruptions of the action, as they are in the GTA games.

I miss these tropes when I’m off playing something else, which is why I’ll pick up a new Ubisoft game the moment it hits Steam rather than wait for it to show up on sale. It’s like ending a period of withdrawal with a hit from an old, familiar drug. And it’s why I’ve now been playing Far Cry 5 for five days running. The addiction has kicked in again.

The great thing about Ubisoft games is that, should you inadvertently fall in love with one of them (as I inexplicably fell in love with three of them last year), you’re pretty much in love with all of them. I’m not the first or even thousandth person to observe that Ubisoft reuses the same tropes through game after game, adding just enough variation within a series and  between series to keep those tropes from growing old. But most people seem to find this a negative. For me, it’s the reason I keep coming back to their games.

Far Cry 5 has pretty much all the tropes listed above, except for climbing towers to map terrain, a mechanic that’s jokingly dismissed in an early mission when your radio correspondent tells you, “Don’t worry — I won’t have you climbing towers all over the county.” Instead, you have to pick up map fragments lying in old houses to fill in the dark spots on the map screen. Or you can simply explore.

Far Cry 5 Street Scene
What else can a poor boy do?

At first Far Cry 5 plays like a retread of the previous two games in the series, which were embarrassingly identical twins. (I preferred Far Cry 4, but maybe that’s just because it’s the one I played first.) You start out, as per formula, by meeting the Big Bad, running afoul of the leader of a doomsday cult that has Hope County, Montana, locked down without communication lines to the outside world. (Presumably you could just hoof it over to the next county down the road, as a lot of the locals have, but you’d get a “Leaving Mission Area” error if you tried and plenty of NPCs have an understandable interest in sticking around to keep their businesses and homesteads intact. Why none of the escapees thinks to tell the authorities to send in the National Guard is never explained. Or maybe the cult has killed all the escapees. They do, after all, seem to be everywhere.)

The cult is called Project Eden’s Gate, but the locals, who hate the cultists with a vengeance that the player is supposed to supply, just call the members Peggies as a deliberately trivializing shorthand. Following the standard Die Hard approach of previous Far Cry games, you start out having to fight the cult alone, then join an occasionally helpful resistance group that expects you to do most of the work. This is where the game opens up and becomes at least a little different from its predecessors. As in earlier games you can hire locals to fight with you — up to two, once you acquire the Leadership perk — but some of these are “specialists,” NPCs both human and animal who bring some useful skills to your game. My favorite, and by now apparently everyone’s favorite, is Cheeseburger, a local circus bear you can befriend with a freshly caught salmon. (And, yes, you have a mission to catch that salmon before you can catch that bear.) Cheeseburger is the best weapon I’ve seen in a video game, even better than the BFG in Doom. I’ve watched him take down entire Peggy compounds without my having to do anything except revive him after he gets shot. (He does the same for me, licking me back to life while I’m holding down the CTRL key to “cling” to my waning existence.)

20180402095500_1
No, I’m not going to shoot Cheeseburgerr. He’s my friend!

The missions are generally well designed — my favorite so far has you playing defender against an onslaught of brainwashed cultists at a prison, a seemingly hopeless bloodbath that turns out to have a satisfyingly simple solution — but a few of the main missions are merely annoying, e.g., a tedious Story Mission where I had to rescue some guy named Merle who was trapped on a ridge and needed somebody to keep him alive until the rescue chopper arrived. I must have died 40 times before I realized that all I had to do was hide behind a large rock with Merle and pick off the Peggies as they climbed up the cliff after us. What made my repeated failures so frustrating is that the mission was neither optional nor something you could put off until you were in the mood for it; you had to save Merle before you could go back to the open world of the main game. There are also some annoyingly non-optional hallucinatory missions where the cult leader drugs you with something called Bliss and forces you to make a timed run through a gauntlet of ghostly enemies, ending with a wild leap into what looks like the Outsider’s otherworldly domain in Dishonored. I hate those missions and they recur at what seem to be timed intervals. In fact, Father Joseph has a bothersome habit of playing catch-and-release with the player character, interrupting whatever I’m doing to force me to fight my way back out of one of his compounds to get on with my life, such as it is. Why he just doesn’t kill me after he’s caught me, I haven’t figured out yet, but I wish he’d just let me keep playing the damned game. That, after all, is why I’m here.

As frustrating as these mandatory quests and unasked-for interruptions can be, the open world is worth getting back to. It’s huge and it’s gorgeous, a bit like the Bolivia of Wildlands crossed with the Kyrat of Far Cry 4. There are spectacular mountaintop views that are better than anything in Skryim, even now that Skyrim has been given a nominal retrofit for more up-to-date graphics boards. The facial renderings are as realistic as anything I’ve seen in a computer game, with the sort of sweaty specular patches on NPC brows that only a couple of years ago would have been reserved for pre-rendered cut scenes. Even when tied up and forced to watch talking heads jabbering backstory at you, the game lets you squirm around and view those heads from different angles, so you can tell that the rendering is being done in real time. This may be the first instance where I’ve begun to wonder if there’s anything left for video hardware manufacturers to add, other than speed, that will make games more photorealistic. There’s no uncanny valley here: These virtual puppets look like real people who could have walked out of your television screen, except that they seem a little more real than most characters on TV. The voice acting is little more than adequate, with no real standouts, with the possible exception of a feral female archer who keeps heaping off-the-cuff praise on Cheeseburger. (“Bitchin’ bear!” “I wish I had a bear!”)

As in any open-world game worth the description, Far Cry 5 lets you solve most problems in any way you can get to work. I remember the thrill I got in Watch Dogs when I realized that a car chase I was unable to complete wasn’t even necessary. All I had to do was shoot the car’s tires out before I began chasing it. (Several car chases in Watch Dogs turn out to be avoidable with a little thought.) I felt a similar thrill in Far Cry 5 when I realized that I didn’t have to land my helicopter in the path of a convoy and then chase it in a ground vehicle to destroy its contents. I could just shoot the crap out of it from the helicopter and never so much as touch ground.

The dialog, which is often no more than functional, can occasionally be crisp and witty. (Specialist: “You and me, we’re gonna be like Butch and Sundance!” Specialist’s Wife: “Nick, they both died in the end.” Or: Feral Archer: “You drive like my drunk old man. That’s a compliment.” Or my favorite: “I used to be a deputy like you, but then I took a bullet to the knee.”)  What the game lacks is a villain as fascinatingly charismatic as the flamboyantly metrosexual Pagan Min in Far Cry 4. Father Joseph Seed, leader of the cult, is a bad guy just a little too obviously from central casting, too straight-faced and dry to be fun, too ineffectual to be intimidating. His main strength is the bizarre hold that he maintains over what seems like thousands of nameless Montanans who follow him under the influence of drugs, because what clear-headed person would fall under the spell of a guy this boring? It’s certainly not because of his charisma.

Joseph Seed
Father Joe, droning on and on and on…

The scariest villain in the game may well be Joseph’s sister Faith, a diaphanously dressed flower child who blows Bliss in your face and flirts with you in a field of sparkling grass and butterflies, then floats away on angel wings. She’s scary because, like Pagan Min, she isn’t played as scary.  She’s played as innocently seductive, like a drug — and drugs are her specialty.

Faith Seed with Butterflies
Faith Seed with butterflies. (SPOILER: The butterflies represent drugs.)
Marshall with Butterflies
Rescuing the Marshall from Faith Seed’s butterflies. (SPOILER: The butterflies…oh, never mind.)

Before this game came out, I had my Ubisoft addiction on low maintenance by alternating between Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, the latter a game I’d had no interest in until an online acquaintance suggested I try it. Neither of those is as much fun as this game is — Origins takes itself too seriously; Syndicate, though less serious, is more than a little repetitive (though nowhere near as repetitive as the initial game in the AC series, which I’m pretty sure, after 11 years, I’m never going to finish). Far Cry 5 is more fun than either of these games by a Montana mile.

I know I’m supposed to hate this game, to get all snarky about it like this, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I know there’s nothing remotely original in Far Cry 5, but that’s not why I play Ubisoft games. I play them for the same reason a surprisingly vast audience plays retro games, for the comfort of familiar mechanics that I already understand and have developed an affection for. Far Cry 5 takes most of the Ubisoft tropes I’ve enjoyed in their other games, throws them in a blender, and comes up with an Ubisoft smoothie, but damned if it isn’t a great smoothie, one that feeds my addiction as effectively as taking a long drag on a cigarette must feed a smoker’s nicotine craving. Still, even something this entertaining gets wearying after a while and if Father Joe sends me through his drug-induced “cull-the-herd” gauntlet one more time I may put the whole thing aside for a week until it begins to seem fresh again.

It will, though. There’s just too much to love in Far Cry 5 for it to stay boring for long. And I haven’t even met all the human and animal “specialists” yet, though I plan to have that bear on my team no matter who my second specialist is. (Right now it’s pilot Nick Rye, who neatly picks off Peggies from his airplane as I cower behind nearby concrete barriers and watch.) Yeah, it’s silly. Yeah, the interruptions are annoying. Yeah, much of the premise makes no sense. Yeah, I feel a little embarrassed at how much I’m enjoying it. But when that bear goes into action,  it’s more fun than any circus act I’ve ever seen. The game is worth playing for that damned bear alone.

Adventure Games: The Graphic Years

Another reprint from my blog Adrift in the Infosphere:

In early 1984, IBM released a computer called the PCjr. It was an attempt to create a low-cost entry-level version of the company’s expensive, business-oriented PC that would be cheap enough to gain IBM a place in the home computer market, then dominated by the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and the Atari 800 computers. It was expected to be a huge hit.

The IBM PCjr
The PCjr. It never grew up.

Only it wasn’t. It flopped. Big time.

Although it was in some ways software compatible with its big brother, which in two-and-a-half years had taken over the microcomputer market the way Hitler had taken over Poland in the late 1930s, the PCjr’s compatibility had been seriously crippled to prevent it from competing with IBM’s more expensive, grown-up models. Very few existing PC programs would run on it and almost none of the ones that people might actually want to use would. But it did have one feature that made it superior to IBM’s business models: state-of-the-art (by 1984 standards) 16-color graphics and impressive sound capabilities, with no add-on cards required. The PCjr was made for games, though unfortunately it wasn’t priced at game console rates.

And because it was made for games, IBM wanted games available for it when the product launched. They approached several companies about designing games that would take advantage of the PCjr’s flashy hardware and one of these companies was Sierra On-Line, the same company that had popularized if not quite invented the microcomputer adventure game with Mystery House on the Apple II. And since Mystery House had been the first game to combine graphics with adventure game mechanics, perhaps its designer Roberta Williams, along with the technical staff of Sierra On-Line, could create something far more ambitious that would take advantage of the Junior PC’s much superior video display.

The game they produced, King’s Quest, delivered on that promise. Unlike previous graphic adventures, King’s Quest didn’t use the bottom half of its screen for text and the top half  for a static image, like a page out of a children’s book. King’s Quest looked more like a proscenium stage on a computer screen, with colorful scenery and characters that could be guided through that scenery using the PC’s cursor keys. You still had to type commands using simple phrases a la The Colossal Cave Adventure, but you could actually see the results played out on the screen as though you were watching (and directing) a play.

King's Quest 1
King’s Quest. It may not look much now, but in 1984 this was the pinnacle of high-resolution adventure gaming.

The PCjr may have flopped — by the summer of 1985 IBM was stuck with a warehouse full of unsold models — but King’s Quest didn’t. Sierra went on to release eight games in the series for multiple computers, many of the later games modifying the interface so that the player no longer had to type in commands. So successful were the King’s Quest games that they spawned several similar Sierra game series, including Space Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory (an adventure game-RPG hybrid) and Leisure Suit Larry (a more sophisticated implementation of an early Sierra text game called Softporn Adventure).

Softporn Adventure
Softporn Adventure. Although she didn’t write it, that’s Roberta Williams, wife of Sierra publisher Ken Williams and designer of King’s Quest, on the right. This subsequently became…
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
…this. Yes, it was sleazy and included both bawdy humor and graphic sex. Nobody complained.

As computer power increased and audiences demanded more bang for their video game buck, Sierra complied, upping the visual resolution and number of colors as a new generation of home computers arrived on the market. The sophistication of the games increased too, with some fans regarding Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight series as some of the greatest adventure games of the 90s, at least from Sierra. (Confession: I’ve only played the first half of the first Gabriel Knight game, so I have to take the word of others for its superiority.)

Gabriel Knight
Gabriel Knight: Apparently not interested in a high-stakes game of chess.

I’ll admit my bias against Sierra here. Although their adventure games were impressive by the technical standards of the time, the puzzle-solving was unimaginative, characters could be killed off suddenly and arbitrarily in ways that were far more frustrating than fun, and you could often find yourself locked in dead-end situations from which the game could not be completed, even though you were never informed of this. It was possible to spend days trying to solve a problem in a Sierra adventure only to discover that it was unsolvable because you’d neglected to pick up a screwdriver four scenes earlier in a location to which you could no longer return.

And yet Sierra had the legitimate distinction of creating a style of adventure gaming that revolutionized the field and saved it from the fate of text adventures in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, their proscenium-style adventures were widely imitated by other companies. And while many of the imitations, from companies like Accolade and Activision, were roughly comparable to Sierra’s titles, there was one company that took the concept and turned what at Sierra had been run-of-the-mill if technologically advanced games into masterworks of late 20th century computer gaming.

Yes, that’s my bias. And the rest of this post will be about it.

The Age of LucasArts

In 1987 Lucasfilm Games, later LucasArts, released a graphic adventure called Maniac Mansion. It was similar to the Sierra adventures, except that it ran on the Commodore 64, which is where I first encountered it.  It was a parody of low-budget horror films and, to be honest, I can’t even remember if I bought a copy when it first came out. I found myself drawn more to Lucasfilm Game’s second adventure, the 1988 Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, which I found surprisingly engrossing, much more so than the Sierra adventures I’d encountered up until that point. Zak McKracken had a subtlety of wit and puzzle design that made Sierra adventures look as though they’d been designed by sledgehammer. I was hooked.

Zak McKracken cover
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders cover at by Steve Purcell. Copyright (c) 1988 by LucasArts, now a division of Disney.

This is not to suggest that Zak McKracken was any kind of technological marvel. Perhaps to allow it to run on lower end machines than those targeted by Sierra, the graphics seemed fairly flat and crude, even by the standards of the late 1980s. (More advanced versions of this and Maniac Mansion were published a couple of years later for more powerful machines.)

Screen from Zak McKracken
Screen from Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. Note the menu-driven control system that eliminated the need for typed commands. Copyright (c) 1988 by LucasArts.

But the strength of Zak McKracken as an adventure game was its wit. The interactions between Zak and other objects/characters in the game, even the timing with which dialog appeared on the screen (there was no voice acting in the game), suggested a creative sensibility that placed less emphasis on the kind of expensive programming skills that Sierra brought to bear on its games and more on an intuitive sense of what was funny, what was challenging, and ultimately on what was compelling to the player. I found myself enthralled.

LucasArts made rapid leaps forward over the next two or three years with their games for the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga and DOS PCs, games like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (based on the film) and Loom (an innovative adventure that incorporated music into its problem solving). For me, though, the real breakthrough, the game that showed me just how much quality LucasArts was capable of shoveling into the confines of the graphic adventure format, was The Secret of Monkey Island, a game that remains available in updated versions today. You can even buy it for your iPhone.

I knew that Monkey Island, about a young wannabe pirate named Guybrush Threepwood trying to discover the eponymous secret of the eponymous island, was going to be good when I spent a couple of hours working my way through the playable demo that LucasArts made available through online services like CompuServe. How good it was, though, wasn’t apparent until I bought the complete game and played it nonstop for two days.

The Secret of Monkey Island
The Secret of Monkey Island, when LucasArts adventure games went from being good to being great.

Monkey Island wasn’t just the funniest adventure game I’d played up until that time — I still laugh over the three-headed monkey joke — but had the most ingeniously designed puzzles (always fair and just challenging enough not to be frustrating), characters I actually enjoyed spending time with (including not only Guybrush but Governor Elaine Marley and the ghost pirate LeChuck) and a surprisingly effective romantic subplot. And the soundtrack, even on a PC SoundBlaster card, was possibly the best I’d heard up to that point in a computer game.

The Secret of Monkey Island was followed by a string of sequels (Monkey Island 2, The Curse of Monkey Island and Escape from Monkey Island), but also by a raft of LucasArts games that at least equaled if not surpassed the Monkey Island games in quality. These included Sam & Max Hit the Road, The DigFull Throttle, Grim Fandango and the Maniac Mansion sequel Day of the Tentacle, any one of which has a legitimate claim not only to being the greatest LucasArts adventure but the greatest adventure game ever. My vote is with Day of the Tentacle, which was such an insanely epic comedy adventure that it contained a complete, playable version of Maniac Mansion hidden inside it as an Easter egg, but other gamers will inevitably differ. Grim Fandango has a well-deserved reputation as Peak LucasArts and is currently available in a remastered edition.

Day of the Tentacle
The tentacles have their day.

The second half of the 1990s, though, saw the output of LucasArts adventures slow to a trickle. Escape from Monkey Island, published in 2000, was the last original adventure game from the company, despite promised sequels to Sam & Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle.

Other than a few new adventures imported from the European market, this was pretty much the death of the adventure game on the American scene, amateur interactive fiction notwithstanding. However, a few years later, graphic adventures would rise again from their graves, thanks in part to a team of designers who had formerly worked at LucasArts.

But more about that in the next installment of this post.

CONFESSION: I never got around to writing the next installment of this post. For more thoughts on LucasArts games and their design ethic as compared to Sierra’s, see the earlier post in this blog, “Methadone for Lucasarts Withdrawal: The Blackwell Saga.” I may yet get around to writing about the games teased in the penultimate paragraph, i.e., the Telltale adventures. But that means I’d have to go back and replay a bunch of the early ones, which isn’t likely to happen soon.

Adventure Games: The Text Years

Not having an entry to add to this blog at the moment, I’m reprinting a post that originally appeared in my blog Adrift in the Infosphere:

What’s your favorite type of computer game? If you’re a typical gamer of the 2010s you may have replied CRPGs (computer role-playing games) like Skyrim or The Witcher, or their massively multiplayer online counterparts like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic. If you like your action faster and more furious, maybe you’re partial to first-person shooters, like Halo or Call of Duty. If you prefer fast-action multiplayer battles, you may have said MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. Or if you lean more toward thoughtful, turn-based exercises in strategy, you might have replied 4X (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”) games a la Sid Meier’s long-running Civilization series. And if you don’t have much time for gaming but need a quick bit of relaxation during your downtime, you might have put in a vote for casual games like Bejeweled or Candy Crush.

But if you’re a long-time gamer, one who’s been playing for 20 years, 30 years, or even more, you might just have said … adventure games.

Tales from the Borderlands
Telltale Game’s Tales from the Borderlands: What adventure games looked like in 2015.

Adventure games have gone through many permutations over the last 40 years. They’ve fallen in and out of fashion, they’ve gone through multiple visual and gameplay styles, and there have been periods when they’ve nearly disappeared altogether. But after four decades, they’re still here. And it’s possible they’re more popular than ever.

In the early to mid 1970s, when microcomputers were still barely a blip on the computer hobbyist horizon, mainframe programmer and part-time spelunker Will Crowther logged on to a DEC PDP-10 and used his FORTRAN skills to write a computer game called, simply, Adventure. It was set in a huge cave not unlike Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which Crowther had explored. He wrote the game in part so that his daughters could play it and in part to indulge his love for Dungeons & Dragons. By all reports Crowther’s version was fairly rudimentary compared to later versions, but it caught on and spread from computer system to computer system. In 1976, a Stanford University graduate student named Don Woods expanded Adventure with Crowther’s permission into what became known as The Colossal Cave Adventure. Although it was too large to be played on most microcomputers of the period, it was widely available on mainframe and minicomputer systems. Here’s what it looked like running on a DEC PDP-10:

Colossal Cave Adventure
Colossal Cave Adventure: What adventure games looked like in 1976.

The Colossal Cave Adventure looks deceptively simple — you type in one- or two-word commands to move around in and interact with a world described purely through text — yet it created a remarkably large, surprisingly open world and went on to become one of the most influential computer games ever written. It spawned a long line of imitations that continues to this day, though you might not recognize most of its descendants based on the text screen reproduced above. If you’ve never played the Colossal Cave Adventure and you’re curious what it was like, here’s a simulation sponsored by the AMC-TV show Halt and Catch Fire.

The original Crowther and Woods version wouldn’t have run on microcomputers in the late 1970s because early personal computers weren’t powerful enough; they didn’t have enough internal memory and they mostly lacked disk drives. However, in 1978, a young Wisconsin programmer named Scott Adams (no relation to the creator of Dilbert) set out to prove that something very much like the Colossal Cave Adventure could be written on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I, a popular home computer of the day, and that he could do it in 16-kilobytes of memory. Yes, that’s not 16 gigabytes or even 16 megabytes — that’s 16 kilobytes of memory, where a kilobyte is 1,024 memory locations, each of which can store a single number in the range 0 to 255. To give you a sense for how much memory that is, the text in this blog post takes up about one and half kilobytes, but that picture at the beginning of this post (from Telltale’s second Walking Dead game) requires more memory than Scott Adams’ TRS-80 had in total.

Amazingly, Adams succeeded, writing a game called Adventureland that neatly mimicked the Colossal Cave Adventure without copying it and it ran, as planned, on a 16-kilobyte TRS-80. Adventureland was successful enough in the early gaming marketplace that Adams was able to spin off his own company, Adventure International, and market an entire line of adventure games for several different models of computer. Although no longer for sale commercially, you can still download playable versions from Scott Adams’ own website or play them directly on your browser using the links he supplies at that address.

Scott Adams' Adventureland
Adventureland: Still text, but no PDP-10 required.

Like the Colossal Cave Adventure, the play mechanics of the Scott Adams adventures were simple. You typed in one or two word commands, like “look” (to get a description of what was visible from your current position in the game’s world), “west” (to go in that direction) or “get sword” (to pick up any swords that you may conveniently have stumbled upon).

Even while Scott Adams was marketing his first adventure games, a small group of programmers at MIT consisting of Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling were creating their own, far more ambitious variation on the Colossal Cave Adventure. They called it Zork.

That name may or may not ring a bell. If it does, you probably just experienced a pleasant flash of nostalgia. Zork was witty, quite huge by the standards of late 70s games and had something that neither the Colossal Cave Adventure or Adventureland had: a parser that could read English language sentences and respond to commands longer than one or two words. Admittedly, it still couldn’t understand English as it’s normally spoken between human beings, but if you knew how to construct a command properly — say, “Pick up the gold sword on the wooden desk” — Zork wouldn’t get confused. Zork was the next step in the evolution of text adventures.

Zork: The Great Underground Empire
The first Zork game. Be careful. You might get eaten by a grue!

The microcomputers of the late 70s weren’t ready for Zork, but by the early 80s they were and the Zork programmers, following in Scott Adams’ footsteps, created their own publishing house to publish Zork and the sophisticated series of text adventures that would follow. They called that publishing house Infocom.

Like the word Zork itself, the name Infocom sends shivers down the spines of old-time gamers. Infocom was one of the greatest game publishers of the 1980s, perhaps of all time, and they produced adventure game after adventure game, every one of them just as sophisticated as Zork had been and some of them even more so. Infocom spent most of the 80s turning out one classic text adventure after another: more Zork games, Planetfall, Starcross, Suspended, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leather Goddesses of Phobos and others.

Yet even as text adventures were increasing in sophistication, so were the graphics capabilities of microcomputers. In 1980, a young programmer named Roberta Williams, became obsessed with the Colossal Cave Adventure when she played it at home on an Apple II computer serving as a terminal for her husband Ken Williams’ office mainframe.

Roberta Williams, game designer
Roberta Williams, creator of the graphic adventure Mystery House and a significant designer of early adventure games.

Williams combined the graphics capabilities of the Apple II computer with the mechanics of a text adventure to produce the game Mystery House, which her husband used as the flagship game for what would become one of the most successful game publishing companies of the 1980s and 90s, Sierra On-Line. The graphics for Mystery House were crude, but they were an early sign of the direction in which adventure games were headed.

Mystery House by Roberta Williams
Mystery House: Crudely drawn, but a harbinger nonetheless.

By the mid-1980s, purely text adventures had fallen out of fashion in the commercial marketplace. The graphic capabilities of home computers had improved to the point where nobody wanted to play a game that involved reading words rather than looking at pictures. More advanced attempts than Mystery House were made to create text adventures that showed pictures at the top of the screen while text flashed by at the bottom, but this was only a stopgap measure until somebody came up with a better way of combining high-resolution images with the puzzle-solving interactivity that made adventure games so alluring.

Text adventure with graphics
A text adventure with shifting graphic images at the top of the video display. Published by Telarium.

Text adventures never died, really. Nowadays they’re called interactive fiction (IF) and people still write them, primarily as a hobby, to share with other IF fans. To learn more, check out the Interactive Fiction Wiki to find out where you can download new games and collect tools that you can use to create your own. (I’ll write more about the current interactive fiction field when I get the chance.)

Even as the original Infocom games were thriving in the early 80s, though, the seeds for a radically new type of adventure game were being planted. Those seeds would take root at Sierra On-Line and the game designer who would bring them to fruition was the same person who created Mystery House: Roberta Williams.

I’ll talk about that in more detail in the next installment of this post.

Open Worlds and Closed Space Stations: My Favorite Games of 2017

I’ve been lax about maintaining this blog in 2017. I’ve written a couple of perfunctory posts, just so that people will remember (or finally notice) that I’m here. I won’t go into the reasons for my absence, but one was that I was playing so many games.

My rationale for that, beyond simply my love of gaming, is that it made sense to learn as much as I could about what’s happening currently in the gaming industry. This, I reasoned, would give me a better, more informed perspective on what kind of games, indie and AAA, are currently on the market so that I could write more cogently about them.

Precisely the opposite has happened. The more games I played, the more I despaired at the prospect of summarizing the current state of the art a few thousand words at a time. In fact, the gaming industry is all over the place right now, from the emergence of wilderness survival games as an insanely popular category (largely, I think, due to the brilliantly designed sandbox mode in The Long Dark with some lingering influence from Minecraft) to the increased pandering to the retro market, with games that supposedly resemble, in their pixelated glory, the games of everybody’s youth. (They don’t, really, but that’s a subject for an entire post.)

Instead, I simply want to talk about the games I’ve most enjoyed playing this year, even the ones that I’m embarrassed to admit I love. (True confession: I’ve become obsessed with Ubisoft games. Go ahead and laugh. You’ll have more opportunity later.)

If last year was my year of gaming emotionally, this was my year of gaming bigly, embracing huge AAA titles with large open worlds, intense, often linear narratives and gorgeous graphics. While I’ll admit that I had an unexpected emotional response to one of those games, which I’ll name below, I was mostly gaming for the sheer widescreen fun of it. And here, in no particular order, are the games that have offered me the most fun. (Unlike last year, I’m going to stick with games published in the same year that I’m writing this post, i.e., 2017.)

Prey

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GLOO-gunning your way through the rafters of Talos-1.

As far as I know, the trapped-in-a-space-station (hereafter referred to as TiaSS) genre began in 1994, with Looking Glass Studio’s innovative adventure cum shooter cum zombie survival game System Shock, which I still think is one of the ten or so best computer games ever to grace my video display. Its setting and basic mechanics have been copied quite a few  times over the years, most notably by its sequel, System Shock 2, which I’ve never learned to love. (I usually end up cowering in a corner waiting to be killed by the lumbering zombies I’ve let myself become orbitally entombed with.)

Dead Space brilliantly crossbred the TiaSS genre with full-on survival horror in 2008, but it’s only in the last year or so that this type of game has genuinely flourished, maybe because it’s relatively easy to construct a space station interior out of Unity assets. TiaSS games from 2017 include the soporific but visually appealing early-access game P.A.M.E.L.A. and the awkward but promising early access game STARDROP. (Early access games also deserve a post of their own, but not until next year.) The Gone-Home-in-space game Tacoma, which also deserves an entire post, has a lot in common with TiaSS games, but doesn’t really fit into the genre.

None of those games, even Dead Space, can hold a half-melted Christmas candle to Prey, the “spiritual sequel” to System Shock from Bethesda and Arkane Studios. (Spiritual sequels, a category that’s only just beginning to take off as a way of capitalizing on nostalgia for specific games, may also deserve a post of their own, as soon as I figure out how many there are besides this and Torment: Tides of Numerera.)

Prey is a stunner of a space station game, opening with a trope freely lifted from Philip K. Dick. (I’ll stay mum about the twist for players who are waiting to pick the game up cheap during the holiday sales season.) The part of the premise I can talk about: The game takes place in an alternate future where John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated and a joint effort between America and Russia created a space effort very different from the one that peaked and went nowhere after Project Apollo. The player character is trapped on a space station, Talos-1,  in orbit around the moon and has to work out both the reason that he’s there (his memory’s been wiped) and what he has do to get out.

Like System Shock, Prey forces you to piece together its premise and its backstory from emails, audio logs and videos. (This much-used mechanic probably originated with System Shock, though now it’s found its way into a wide variety of games, even in medieval RPGs where defunct characters leave a remarkable number of handwritten notes in their wake.) The space station itself is lovingly and meticulously constructed around an art deco aesthetic reminiscent of the city of Rapture in the first two Bioshock games but without the heaps of economic and ethical philosophy piled on top of it. It’s magnificently explorable, with objects and passageways secreted away on top of the infrastructure and in hard-to-spot crannies. Talos-1 is a joy to visit, though no sane game character would want to live there.

The weaponry available to the player is a peculiar mix, starting out with a crowbar apparently borrowed from Gordon Freeman. The already-notorious GLOO gun isn’t especially powerful and the crossbow isn’t so much a nerfed weapon as it’s literally a nerf weapon, designed for recreation by bored office workers. Yet the seeming uselessness of these weapons forces the player to find creative ways to use them, which is one of the things that makes the game so fascinating. There’s a lot of emergent gameplay in Prey and I suspect no two people will play the game in exactly the same way unless they’re following a walkthrough. (Ah, there’s another idea for a post: the boom in visual game walkthroughs on YouTube and Twitch.)

I’ve discovered that playing on the easiest mode makes the exploration more fun, because those annoying creatures that wander through the hallways keep spoiling the view. But the easiest mode isn’t all that easy. I love Prey not so much because it challenges me in the traditional, rapid-twitch way that shooters have traditionally challenged players, but for its complex  environment (including the exterior of Talos-1 as well as its interior), which challenged me to find ways of exploring it that were completely different from anything I’d seen in a game before. Let’s just say that the GLOO gun is useful for more than just attacking your enemies.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

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Wheelchair fighting at its finest in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Seriously, this is the best, most satisfying first-person shooter since Half Life 2 back in the mid aughts. (I’m not counting Prey as an FPS because the weaponry is so pathetic.) What’s so astonishing about MachineGame’s latest entry in the Wolfenstein series is that B.J. Blazkowicz finally makes the full transition from that pixelated image at the bottom of the Wolf3D screen into a completely realized character, one who begins this game broken and with vital organs collapsing. In the opening sequences he goes from fighting in a wheelchair (in a marvelously executed series of navigational puzzles) to fighting in a powered exoskeleton, somehow managing to remain a strong FPS protagonist while struggling against a depression over the state of the world, his life and his loved ones that’s so deep it poses more of a threat than the Nazis. (Brian Bloom deserves plaudits for a masterful voice-acting job as B.J.) At one pivotal juncture he’s saved from both death and depression by what seems at first blush like an absurd deus ex machina, but on careful examination turns out to have been skillfully set up in the early portion of the story in a bit of sleight of hand so deft you never notice MachineGames sliding the card up their virtual sleeve.

The revelation, which I’m pretty sure hasn’t come up in previous Wolfenstein games, that Blazkowicz is half Jewish on his mother’s side lends much-needed weight to his never-ending fight against the Nazis. And the depiction of his father in flashbacks as physically and emotionally abusive not only deepens Blazkowicz as a character but has a powerful payoff in one of the most startling moments I’ve seen in a computer game. The New Colossus was my emotional high point for the year, one that I didn’t see coming when I sat down to play it. Some Steam users have complained that this isn’t a worthy follow-up to Wolfenstein: The New Order, but I think it’s a better, richer game than its predecessor and much deeper emotionally than I ever expected a first-person shooter to be.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands

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The lovely mountains (and towering cathedrals) of the Bolivian Wildlands.

This is where you get to laugh. Go ahead. I can see you  trying not to snicker too loudly (or at least not so loudly that I can hear you all the way in Long Beach, California, from wherever it is you live). Wildlands is the game where Ubisoft unites the long-running Ghost Recon series with the company’s signature formula of a lone character (here actually four “lone” characters) taking down a pyramid of underbosses on the way to the big boss at the top. I’d never had any interest in playing a game with Tom Clancy’s name on it (except for the original Splinter Cell, which a friend recommended and which I found surprisingly engaging a decade ago) and wasn’t really expecting a lot from this one.

All I remembered about Ubisoft before I played this, other than the Tom Clancy connection, was that they produced the Assassin’s Creed series, which I’ve never cared for. Over the years I’ve picked up the first AC game every several months and tried to make sense of its unending series of tedious rooftop-jumping assignments. And every time I’ve failed. (It’s finally started to sink in on me that I may be taking the games in the wrong order; there are some well-regarded entries later in the series.) I bought Wildlands primarily so that I could have something graphically impressive I could use to show off my (relatively) new gaming computer. Instead, I found myself obsessed with it.

Steam says I’ve spent 214 hours playing Wildlands and while the game was probably sitting in the background during a large chunk of that time, waiting for me to stop surfing the Web or watching television with Amy, the majority of those hours represent actual play. I came to each of its story missions as a mini-world of its own, a tactical landscape that I had to puzzle out in order to accomplish whatever goal my CIA handler had stuck me with. As silly as the game’s depiction of a druglord-ruled Bolivia may be, those missions became an important part of my life for several weeks. And while I can’t say that I was blown away by every one of them, I found enough of them compelling that I had to force myself to stop playing when it was time to go to sleep. (Given that the game lets you go on playing after you’ve overthrown the uber-boss, I’m technically still playing it, though I haven’t touched it in several months. It loses a lot of momentum once you reach the top of the cocaine-cooking pyramid.) Shoot up a casino to embarrass a Sicario? Sure. Capture a lieutenant and choke him until he coughs up information on his buddies? Why not? Run a video revealing a priest’s sordid mob past in the middle of his sermon, then drag him out of a giant cathedral without the Sicarios killing him? I’m there!

The open world of the game is voluptuous, gorgeous to look at, with single-lane roads winding treacherously through tall, jagged mountains and a range of biomes from tropical to desert to sub-arctic. I don’t know if the real Bolivia is anything like this — honestly, it felt more like Skyrim at times than South America — but as a landscape for a game it’s perfect. The world frequently becomes repetitive, with conspicuous reuse of landscape and architectural assets, and the side missions that you discover on the map pretty much fall into a small set of scenarios — Sicarios parked by the road and ready to start shooting, Sicarios flaunting their presence in rural villas and ready to start shooting, Unidad (secret police) in the pay of the cartels ensconced in large, well-guarded compounds and ready to start shooting — but I felt a feverish need to complete the main missions. I systematically ticked them off the quest list and don’t regret a single minute I spent doing it.

Wildlands led to several months of Ubisoft obsession that included Watch Dogs (which had been sitting in my collection for a couple of years unplayed) and Far Cry 4. Now I’m playing Assassins Creed: Origins, the first AC game I’ve actually liked enough to play for more than 45 minutes at a sitting. I’m dubious about the historical accuracy of its Egyptian setting, but Origins has a more compelling story than any other AC game I’ve seen, with a main character who actually feels like he belongs in this milieu (Ubisoft ignores their Animus device in the early stages of the game) and a revenge motive not unlike the one in Watch Dogs. (Diving into the Nile to avoid arrows from guards is a lot like diving into the Chicago river to escape a police manhunt in WD. Maybe they should have called the game Watch Dogs Primal.) And it’s the first game in the series structured as an actual RPG, complete with a branching skill tree, so you feel as if you’re accomplishing something as you work through the main quests and side quests. If Assassin’s Creed games had been this good from the beginning, I would have been lined up to play each year’s new entry the moment Ubisoft rushed it to market.

It’s too early to say whether AC: Origins belongs on my 2017 list, but there’s no question in my mind that Wildlands does. Say what you will about Ubisoft — and a lot of people have said a lot of nasty things — but I’ve never seen games that work their butts off as hard as Ubisoft’s do to show the player a good time.

Sniper Elite 4

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A railroad bridge enjoying its final moments in Sniper Elite 4

When Ubisoft’s oeuvre began to wear thin, I picked up this stealth fighting game set in World War II Italy as a change of pace. I’m not sure what I expected from it but it slid neatly into the obsession slot that Wildlands and Watch Dogs had recently vacated. Having subsequently tried the earlier games in the series (plus the Zombie Army Trilogy that uses the same interface and engine, not to mention the same weapons and main character), I can confidently announce that this is the first Sniper Elite game that Rebellion has gotten right. The designers don’t push you from goal to goal, a device that’s antithetical to the idea of an open world and that Rebellion uses liberally in their other games. You can take the missions within each map in almost any order, though there’s usually a key goal that will finish off the level and is best left for last. That’s really the only major change from Sniper Elite 3 and the Zombie Army games, but it makes an (open) world of difference in the way that the game feels.

While the sniping aspect probably isn’t realistic, the shooting feels much more grounded in SE4 than the shooting in Wildlands did, and SE4‘s worlds are almost as open as Wildlands’. Each one is a portion of Italy large enough to hold multiple missions, some of them discoverable, marked with large circles on the game map. The game play captures a pleasant balance between relaxing stealth strategizing — slinking past or silently slitting the throats of the Nazis who seem to have systematically driven out or murdered the Italian populace — and high-speed FPS play when your stealth play doesn’t prove subtle enough.

The musical score, which sounds like something from the soundtrack of The Godfather, sets a low-energy mood, signalling that the player should take each scenario at an unhurried pace. That was fine with me. Scoping out the landscape is half the fun in an open-world stealth game on this mid-sized scale and I pored over the maps in each scenario with the glee of a long-time historical wargamer, something that I’m definitely not. I studied the differences between weapons, selecting them carefully for the situations I was in (sniper rifle for distance, machine gun or pistol for close range), and hid in deserted houses, trying to find the best windows for picking off passing enemies. Each landscape is smoothly  designed for stealth play, with a plethora of hiding places and strategically located scenic overlooks for long-distance sniping. Until the enemy discovers you, the game gives you lots of time to pick your shots. Who knew that a shooter could be this laid back?

My favorite scenario was about blowing up a railroad bridge, a process that involved finding the perfect spot to place a satchel charge and then the perfect spot, very far away, from which I could fire a bullet into it with my sniper rifle. Watching the massive bridge crumble into the river far below, carrying an entire train with it, was as satisfying a gaming moment as I’ve had all year.

Is it coincidence that two of my favorite games this year involved shooting Nazis? Probably. But Nazis never get old as the targets in computer gaming’s eternal shooting gallery. They’re easy to hate and satisfying to shoot, a lot more satisfying than the spectral monstrosities of Prey, which just kind of get in the way.

The Rest of the Crowd

I’ve lost count of how many games I’ve played this year and have no intention of opening Steam to total them up. There are quite a few games that I’ve bought and installed but have yet to play. However…

Here are some of the most interesting ones that I did play but never became obsessed with:

What Remains of Edith Finch

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The crooked house of Edith Finch and her defunct family

Edith Finch, which bears a superficial resemblance to Gone Home but was clearly produced on a higher budget, is about a young woman returning to her family homestead to learn how each member of her family died. As she explores the rooms in an old house that’s so convoluted it must be shaped like a tesseract, she finds an animated recreation of each death — every one in a different style of animation, with differing degrees of interactivity. The only reason I’m not putting this in the main list is that, while I admired it hugely, I never found myself deeply engaged in it or emotionally involved. Not that this was necessarily the designer’s intent.

My favorite death sequence is rendered in the style of an early 1950s EC comic book a la Tales from the Crypt. As a long-time EC fan, that one sequence alone made the game work for me, but the inventiveness of the other sequences is equally impressive, especially a first-person sequence where the young female protagonist turns into various animals, both realistic and fantastic, gnawing on larger and larger victims to satisfy a seemingly bottomless appetite. Essentially a children’s book for adults, Edith Finch is well worth playing on artistic merit alone. I do, however, plan to write a piece on why neither this nor Tacoma packs the same emotional punch that the simple, unassuming Gone Home does.

Echo

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Rose Leslie trying to sneak past spectral opponents. Good luck on that.

A visually appealing stealth shooter with an interesting gimmick: Your opponents “echo” your own behavior. I’m not far enough into the game to give it a fair assessment, but what I’ve played so far is intriguing. Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones, The Good Fight) gives a pleasantly raspy voice performance as your character, a space traveler on a mysterious mission to find her grandfather in a buried palace, and there’s enough exploration (through a fairly repetitive environment), sneaking and fighting to keep it reasonably engrossing. I wish I’d been able to set aside more time for it and plan to do so in 2018.

Elex

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Looking for allies and discovering enemies in Elex

A science-fiction RPG that asks the eternal question: Does Piranha Bytes have more than one game in them? Every RPG I’ve played by them, in the Gothic, Risen and now this series, feels identical, a story about an outsider wandering into a closed environment — a penal colony, a village of pirates, the survivors of a planet-wide apocalypse — that’s splintered into philosophically distinct factions, trying to find a way to fit in while enacting his or her own personal agenda. It’s an interesting formula that would be compelling if PB were capable of creating characters who did  more than gesticulate wildly and spout banal dialogue.

ELEX is their most interesting variation on this theme to date. The planet Magalan is reeling in the wake of a collision with a comet, which left behind a powerful energy source called ELEX (the reason for the all-caps name isn’t clear) that can be used pretty much any way the plot demands, including for magic. The most effective ELEX users, the Alb, have decided to conquer the disparate factions that have arisen in the disaster’s wake and you play as a disgraced Alb pilot struggling to escape the wrath of your former allies while not giving away your identity to the Alb’s enemies. Succeeding means that you have to decide how you want to use ELEX (which you pretty much have to, given that the game’s Pip-Boy-like mapping, crafting and skill-tree interface depends on it) and pick a side in the war. This is such a strong premise, and the world is so well imagined, that even Piranha Bytes can’t entirely screw it up and, despite its occasionally clumsy presentation (and poor-to-competent voice acting), the game more or less works. The choice of factions would seem, though I haven’t finished my first playthrough yet, to offer considerable replay value and perhaps multiple narrative threads.

Your character starts the game in almost a pathetically weak state, low on skills, armor and weapons. You’ll die a lot in minor fights with forest creatures before you can do any proper exploring or faction choosing. The most fun I had in the early stages was using my jetpack. It’s only good for short flights, but it can get you into spaces an RPG character normally couldn’t reach. Like most Piranha Bytes games this is a diverting enough way to pass time if you’re in the mood for open-world exploration, stealth fighting, crafting, etc., and are bored with any better alternatives at hand. Watch for this on Steam’s and GOG’s holiday sales. At this writing both have it at a 33% markdown.

Endless Space 2

“Let’s blow some stuff up! I mean, let’s do science!”

The cleverest and best-looking of the recent spate of space-based 4X games, with some of the best-conceived (and occasionally humorous) spacefaring societies any game developer has let loose on an unsuspecting galaxy. Between this and Endless Legend, Amplitude is shaping up as the most innovative developer of 4X games since Sid Meier’s original Civilization appeared from Firaxis predecessor Microprose more than a quarter of a century ago. They’ve been good about responding to player feedback on this and the game has improved substantially since its initial release. Admittedly I find myself getting bored with it after an hour or two — I’ve found this happening more and more with 4X games in general — but I always come back to it and don’t expect that to stop any time soon. Like Edith Finch, it’s a game that I admire more than love. Endless Space 2 is well worth picking up when Steam marks it down.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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Melina Juergens having afternoon tea with the voices in her head in an Oscar-worthy mocap performance.

A visually stunning schizophrenia sim in the guise of an adventure game. I’m still stuck at one of the pattern-rotating puzzles early in the game– at least I assume it’s still early in the game — so I can’t really say much about it except that it features a superb motion-capture/voice performance by the game’s video editor Melina Juergens, who would almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave awards for video game performances. Also: The sound design is as powerful and multi-layered as anything you’re likely to hear through your Bluetooth headphones in 2017 and probably 2018. I really have to get back to playing it, though I hate pattern-rotating puzzles.

Game of the Year

So, after all this, what was the best game I played? I’m marking it as a tie between Prey and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The first is the most imaginative strategic shooter I’ve played in years, not to mention one of the best looking. The latter is the first FPS I’ve encountered with genuine emotional depth. (Sorry, Gordon Freeman, but I never really felt I knew ye.) Either one would have made this a great year for gaming. As it stands, I think this year has been a high water mark in the era of AAA games, the best since, oh, probably 2016.

I feel bad about omitting The Long Dark, but the sandbox mode has been available in early access for a couple of years now and the story mode, added a few months ago, is the weakest part of the finished game. Maybe next year I’ll settle back into playing emotionally/strategically satisfying indies. But Far Cry 5 is waiting just over the horizon and I suspect my Ubisoft obsession will reemerge to embarrass me all over again. I may just keep playing bigly until Campo Santo’s follow-up to Firewatch, In the Valley of the Gods, appears on Steam in 2019. But Campo Santo looks like it’s on its way to becoming yet another AAA developer. We’ll see.

Game Saves and Checkpoints: A Brief Introduction

When you hit Escape to bring up the Options menu in a PC game and click “Save Game,” what happens? I mean, besides a dialog box asking you which slot to save in and possibly requesting an arbitrary name for that slot?

Here’s the simple version: The game program dumps the value of all relevant variables to a file on your disk or cloud or other storage venue. Depending on the complexity of the game, this variable dump may be huge or relatively small, but the process is straightforward. Any moderately experienced game programmer knows how to do it.

So why do so many games only save at specified checkpoints?

If you’re an experienced gamer, you know what I’m talking about: Those games that nag you, when you try to quit the game, pointing out that you’ll lose everything since the last save, even though you don’t have the ability to save the game on command. These games are using checkpoints. Usually a symbol appears in the corner of the screen when you hit a checkpoint — that is, when the game is saving itself — even though half the time you don’t notice it because you’re caught up in actually playing the game.

Why don’t programmers let you save the game any time you feel like it? The short answer is that I don’t know. The longer answer is that I can make an informed, and fairly lengthy, guess.

Early game consoles lacked any kind of external storage device to dump variables to. (Similarly, very early PCs used primitive external storage devices like tape drives where game saves were excruciatingly slow.) Most games from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, especially arcade-style games, had no save-game function. Why bother? The games were of limited duration and you could always start again from the beginning.

Some games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came with static RAM in the game cartridge that you could use for saving your game, but those games were expensive, because memory was costly in that era. Other games would show you a string of alphanumeric symbols you could write down that represented your current variable values, but this was a pain in the ass and gamers really didn’t like having to transcribe the symbols. And, needless to say, that string of characters only held limited information, so the games couldn’t be especially complex.

During this period, game designers discovered something important: When a Save Game function was available, gamers tended to use it as a substitute for tactical thinking.  If you could save your game whenever you wanted to, why not plunge willy-nilly into the action and learn from your mistakes rather than carefully planning your movements ahead of time? Furthermore, if players could restore their characters to life magically whenever they wanted to, they would have less emotional investment in the fate of those characters. That little avatar on the screen that responded to the controls became a piece of disposable Kleenex, easily replaced by the next piece of Kleenex in the box when it fell afoul of bad strategy on the player’s part.

With the first-generation Playstation in the mid-to-late 1990s, Sony began selling memory cards that could be plugged into the console for game saves, but the first memory cards were extremely limited in their storage capacity and programmers only allowed game saves at specific moments during play to minimize the number of variables that needed to be dumped. This both reduced memory card use and maximized player investment. Before long, gamers became conditioned to the idea that game saves were a precious commodity, only parceled out by the designers when they deigned to allow the player to save.

Ah, but what if you needed to go to bed? (If you were an older gamer, your spouse might be finding your absence in the bedroom both conspicuous and annoying. I have to wonder how many marriages have been ruined by somebody calling down the hallway, “I’ll be there as soon as I’ve killed this boss, hon!”)

And what if you needed to go to dinner? Or if you were afraid of losing the contents of your dynamic RAM in a power failure? You were, forgive me, kinda shit out of luck.

There was a time when PC games tended to allow game saves at arbitrary moments — there’s that large hard drive available, after all — and console games didn’t. But, at least in the current AAA game world, PC games and console games tend to use much the same code and are largely identical between platforms. So if game-saving is restricted on the console version, it’s restricted on the PC version too. Indie game designers have, in many cases, taken their cue from AAA game designers and limited saves to checkpoints on PC games as well. If I had to guess, I’d say that the majority of games I’ve played on my PC lately only save at checkpoints and a minority allow arbitrary saves. This is starting to bother me. I like to save my game. I don’t like having to repeat huge chunks of narrative because I lost them when I knocked off for the evening.

I can remember arguments about checkpointing and limited saves taking place on the Compuserve gaming forums back in the early 1990s, so this problem isn’t new. But it’s one that refuses to go away. Furthermore, it’s one without an easy answer. By and large, with the large hard drives on current-generation game consoles, there are no technological limitations preventing players from saving games whenever they want to. Yet checkpointing persists.

Is this just a matter of habit or is it because game designers want players to have the deep character investment that only comes from knowing that your death will require you to replay a large portion of the game?

I don’t know. I’m not sure that game designers know why they do this anymore, though I’d like to think they’ve at least thought the problem out.

But checkpointing in games remains ubiquitous and I’m starting to get tired of it. Maybe it’s time that gamers who resent being forced to wait for a checkpoint start protesting this. Or maybe we’re so used to it we don’t notice it anymore. And I have to admit that there’s something liberating about having the game do Autosaves for you. But, on balance, I think there’s something even more liberating about being able to save the game anytime I feel like it just by pressing the Quick Save key.

Oh, excuse me. My girlfriend is wondering where I am. I’m pretty sure that WordPress has done an autosave on this post, so I’ll just

 

 

Dungeon Master and the Birth of the Modern Computer Game

There are moments around which entire timelines pivot: The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which led to the First World War and the death of most of a generation of young British males. The election of Adolph Hitler, which led to the deaths of millions of Jews and hundreds of thousands of other innocent victims. The series of cosmically unlikely accidents that brought about the evolution of intelligent life on earth, which led to…us.

Me, I don’t worry too much about these things. They happened, there’s nothing I can do about them, and I’m not even well informed enough to speculate about what would have happened in alternative timelines where these events never occurred. But I do know enough to wonder about a smaller, less important, more personal timeline — the last three decades of computer gaming history — and what would have happened if the 1987 game Dungeon Master had never existed.

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Dungeon Master: A pack of regenerating Screamers that you can practice your attack skills on. Go ahead. Shoot a fireball at them.

There’s a good chance you’ve never played Dungeon Master. It was released by FTL Games three decades ago and isn’t currently available through any retail outlet (though you can find a perfect, playable clone of it at this website). It was ported to a number of platforms, but the major versions were for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, which only a small contingent of current gamers even owned, though if you did have one of those computers then you played Dungeon Master. It was the game to have, the pinnacle of RPG achievement in the late 1980s. You may also have played the Super Nintendo port.  I haven’t, but I can’t imagine that it was as good as the ST and Amiga versions. There was a PC port eventually, but it came too late in the curve, and I found a copy at precisely one small computer store. I never saw it on the shelves of Egghead Software, Babbages, Electronics Boutique or CompUSA — the must-visit shopping stops for gamers in the years BS (Before Steam).

What makes Dungeon Master so significant, and why it was an essential pivot point in the history of game design, is not the number of gamers that played it but the number of game designers that played it and the lasting influence it had on the way they developed games. Dungeon Master was the first RPG to feel genuinely immersive, a term that gets bandied about so offhandedly in the modern gaming environment that it’s becoming almost meaningless, yet three decades ago it was a concept that seemed almost unreachable given the slow CPUs and rudimentary graphics cards that hobbled gaming rigs in that period.

I’d only experienced a sense of genuine immersion in a game world twice before Dungeon Master and they were in very different sorts of games. The first was in the Infocom text adventure Deadline, where you spent 12 hours (over and over) in a large mansion following characters around, spying on them, having conversations with them, to solve a locked-room murder mystery. That mansion was alive and interactive, reacting to your presence the way Schrodinger’s Cat reacts to being observed. The second time was in SubLogic’s Flight Simulator 2, where you flew a Piper Cherokee Archer across large regions of the United States, hopping from airport to airport (the game meticulously modeled even the smallest airfields in those regions) or just looking at the sights because part of you believed that they were real.

Dungeon Master plopped you down in what was, by the standards of that period, a photo-realistic stone dungeon — and trust me when I say that the dungeon looked a lot more photo-realistic on the smaller, fuzzier monitors of the late 80s than it would look on the widescreen, 1920-by-1080 pixel, crystal clear mega-displays of the 2010s. You moved through that environment in quantum strides on a four-way grid, turning to each of the major compass points at the tap of a key, seeing what your party of four characters could see from each position. (See Legend of Grimrock for a modern take on a grid-based dungeon crawl.)’

Dungeon Master wasn’t the first game to use that sort of 3D dungeon grid. Even the first Ultima installment in 1980 used simple wireframe graphics to achieve a kind of grid-based movement. By mid-decade, games like The Bard’s Tale and Might & Magic were doing the same thing with more realistic texture mapping. What made Dungeon Master stand out was that it did this in real time, with your enemies moving along that grid toward you whether you made a move or not, and you could see them coming from a distance. You could even see them through barred doors and when the bars weren’t there, even sometimes when they were, you could fight them by clicking on icons representing your characters’ weapons and spells. (The spell-creation system alone was a small wonder.)

What really made Dungeon Master innovative and influential, though, was how well integrated all the pieces were, what one envious game designer referred to as its “seamlessness.” You fought monsters from the same view that you used for movement, without being transported to a separate combat screen, the way you were in Ultima or Wizardry or almost every Japanese RPG ever written. DM was the first RPG to make full use of the mouse in its control system. While you could move the characters with the numeric keypad, you could simultaneously use the mouse to scoop weapons and potions off the floor or drag food into the mouths of your hungry characters. This seamlessness made the mechanics so intuitive that it rendered them invisible and you quickly forgot that you were sitting at the keyboard of a computer, looking at pixels on a screen. You were there, in that dungeon, fighting for your life, and there were moments when you really felt your life depended on concocting just the right spell. Even today, decades after I first played it, I remember the world of Dungeon Master not so much as a game environment but as a place where I’ve actually been.

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The seamless hallways of Dungeon Master.

If all that seems unremarkable, it’s because almost every AAA game on the market today feels like that, but Dungeon Master is where that immersive experience began. You can see echoes of it in first-person shooters going back to the inception of the genre in the early 90s, and outright homages to it in games like Stonekeep and Legend of Grimrock. But every game from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim to Prey owes the seamlessness of its design to Dungeon Master. Games rapidly went beyond grid-based movement to outright 3D maneuvering as the underlying hardware became more powerful, but the designers of those later games either learned how to achieve their seamlessness from having played Dungeon Master or (probably in the vast majority of cases) from having played games designed by someone who was influenced by Dungeon Master.

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The seamless hallways of Prey.

This December, Dungeon Master will turn 30 years old. I think there should be a celebration in the gaming world to mark the occasion, perhaps involving a completely remastered edition of the original (though modders have already created acceptable substitutes by tinkering with the Grimrock engine). Most importantly, though, I think gamers should know how influential DM was to the development of the games that followed it. Westwood Associates, a company that rarely made a game that wasn’t copied from something some other company had developed (Dune 2/Command and Conquer being the lone exception), stole FTL’s thunder when they released their own Dungeon Master clone, Eye of the Beholder, on the PC before DM was ported.

I’d hate for gamers to think that immersive 3D gameplay was invented by Westwood, or Id Software, or even the brilliant Looking Glass Studios (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief). Perhaps because they were so late to the VGA-PC platform, which by the early 90s dominated the world of computer games, FTL has faded from the industry’s history as though they never existed. They deserve a monument for having inspired the modern computer game and every gamer who respects the history of their hobby should bow toward that monument at least once and give thanks to the brilliant minds that gave Dungeon Master life. Maybe modern computer games would have happened anyway (and maybe World War I would have happened without the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand), but to the extent that I can see across the alternate timelines and visualize the one where Dungeon Master didn’t happen, I can guarantee that it would have looked at least a little bit different and a little bit diminished for the loss.