Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame devel­op­ment

EDGE - - SECTIONS - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

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

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