Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
An over-powered chaingun is as good as a rest, says James Leach
The games I haven’t finished must outnumber the games I have by more than ten to one. I don’t know whether to be ashamed of this. Yeah, I probably should. Oh, and I’m not talking about games I’ve reviewed. And, of course, I don’t count online events or theoretically unwinnable experiences such as Tetris and stuff. I’m talking about the grim realisation that I simply am not as good at singleplayer gaming as I would like to be.
Casting aside my natural self-deprecating nature and assuming that I’m not utterly dreadful at games, it set me wondering why I have the ability to pay good money for an entire start-to-finish experience created by an industry I love, and one I work in, only to abandon it before I’ve played it all. On the whole, I finish every book I read and watch every movie to the end, so it can’t be that my attention wanders as soon as something else enters my life, like an ice-cream van.
One of the reasons I’ll leave a game is that I get the impression from it that I’ve seen everything. I’ve fought enough of the enemies or completed enough of the levels to decide that all that’s going to happen is there’ll be more of precisely the same, but it’s just going to be a bit harder. Instead of six attack ships coming at me, there’ll be eight. Even if the game is winnable, it’s likely that, since I’m old and slow, I won’t see the glorious victory sequence, so all I’m doing is the same routine, just quicker and with better accuracy. I’m playing against myself to see how far I get, and that’s eventually going to frustrate me.
My ten-year-old daughter plays a lot of online games, and relishes the idea of getting ever further and getting ever higher scores. Bettering herself this way is programmed into her because she’s ten and not particularly amazing at anything. (Sorry, darling. Better you know this now. But carry on striving pointlessly. There’s a good girl.) She does, though, have the unswerving belief that if you get far enough into a game, or even win it, you will be showered with untold riches and rewards. As I say, she’s ten.
But she does have a point. We were playing an online space combat game recently. It became clear that if you get to a certain point, you’re given a much better ship. The enemy don’t instantly ramp up their attacks to level the playing field, so suddenly, after withstanding a profound and elongated battering from the foe, you get a brief and joyful period of payback. We both revelled in this because it was the same enemy. You see this in films all the time – if only the dead-on-their-feet heroes can reach the enormous gun we know exists, everything changes and we cheer as the revenge comes by the bucketful.
Of course, in both films and games, the enemy catch on and get their bigger guns and we’re back to square one. For a brief moment, however, we’ve been rewarded and although the actual skill required takes a dip, we’ve had a break and it’s far more fun than simply another, marginally harder level. We’re still climbing the mountain, but it’s so nice to find a relatively flat section. Which all mountains should have by law. How about it, geologists?
The truth is, it’s nice to be good enough at something that you find it, for the most part, easy. However, and this might be a character flaw in me, which I’ve passed on, I find it fun when it’s actually made easy by the game. I first noticed this in myself about 60 years ago (probably), when Jetpac came out on the ZX Spectrum. There was one level where the enemy ships intent on colliding with you gave you points when they crashed, as opposed to the norm, where you only got points for shooting them. On this level, there was a platform upon which, if you stood in just the right pixel-perfect place, they couldn’t reach you. This wasn’t hard to do, as the pixels back then were the size of Minecraft blocks. So you could rest and, by doing absolutely nothing, watch your score rack up until the game inevitably froze because, well, ZX Spectrum. I’d do this partly because it was a break from the intense, senses-numbing 8bit carnage, but also because I felt I’d earned it.
Unlike my little girl, I’m not calling for games to be easier, but I am saying that not only is it nice when you don’t have to work as hard, but for me at least, it’s when my imagination comes out to play. These little hiatuses, where I can splat the bad guys with ease, are a good way of demonstrating how far I’ve come since the beginning, when those very same bad guys were terrifying. Oh, all right. I admit this is probably a character flaw. But who cares? I’m going to fire up a Speccy emulator and sit on that Jetpac level for hours and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.
If only the dead-on-their-feet heroes can reach the enormous gun we know exists, everything changes