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Games: Then and Now OMFG On Topic!

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How It All Started
Games burned themselves permanently into my imagination at an early age. It started with classics like Zappa Roids and chunky, solid-color-blocks imitations of Pac Man. The Kroz series factored in heavily; the blunt and simple yet evocative ASCII graphics held a fascinating charm. Despite the draw, though, it was fiendishly hard, and I never was much good at it; to this day my older sisters are the only people I know who successfully finished an episode.

The turning point was Commander Keen. I will never forget one afternoon when my father and I used the old DOS EDIT app to look at some of the data files from Keen 4. One glance at the pages of cryptic, gibberish symbols and I was permanently hooked - I can't recall for certain, but I wouldn't be surprised if I swore to myself that afternoon to become a game developer some day.

It didn't take long for me to get my hands on some rudimentary tools - a Sharp PocketPC with embedded BASIC dialect; the copy of QBASIC that shipped with MS-DOS in those days; and eventually a growing collection of books and sample code snippets scrounged from wherever I could find them. Keen was the first game I tried to emulate, but the graphics and physics were far too advanced for QBASIC. I settled for Kroz, my other gaming obsession, and churned out dozens of clones and variants, eventually moving up to fully scrolling environments and (gasp!) 256 colour "graphics".

I remember the day I got ahold of a copy of QuickC from somewhere or other. If QBASIC (and, later, Visual Basic for the oh-so-exciting new Windows 3.1) was great, QuickC was crack.

The rest, as they say (at least when "they" are considerably more famous and successful than me), is history.

... and Now
Quite a bit of time has passed. Games are so far beyond the days of three-colour ASCII squiggles, and even pixelated sprites. Doom, once a veritable visual orgasm in its own right, looks dated and almost laughable.

The new generation of games is nothing short of astounding. We've been drooling over Gears of War here at the Egosoft office; the word has been abused to the point of nearly lifeless cliche, but at least in the original spirit of the term, Gears is awesome.

My feelings towards Gears are somewhat love/hate right now. The gameplay is simply peerless. The controls are simple and elegant; the only real hiccup (getting "snagged" on cover points while using [A] to run) is pretty minor and can actually be used to your advantage. The UI is clean and has some slick features like the "point of interest" button. The weapons, while not particularly new (as if anything could be new in the FPS genre), are deeply satisfying.

There's so many things to love: the blind fire, the spurts of blood on the camera when you chainsaw the hell out of an enemy, the way friend and foe alike dodge and weave around the environment, the grenades, the really insane enemies (no spoilers), the little reloading mini-game, even the smooth and almost undetectable streaming loads... it's a truly excellent game. As a gamer, it's blissful. So much so, in fact, that I actually bought a 360 just to play the game (although to be honest I was planning on getting one soon anyways).

My developer side is awed and deeply respectful of what's been accomplished in Gears. The skill and mastery of the guys at Epic is evident everywhere from the displacement mapped surfaces and dynamic lighting to the crafty placement of enemies and cinematic events throughout the world space. Frankly, most of us are jealous. (There's one guy who pretends not to be impressed, but that's just because he lost a bet with me that he couldn't survive more than 2 minutes on Hardcore. He got drilled by the first enemy in the tutorial section.)

As enviable and respectable as Gears is from a game development perspective, though, it's also terrifying. Gamers love to talk about how gameplay trumps graphics and how they're not influenced by the prettiest or flashiest title on the market. Sadly, that's a load of bull; the numbers are pretty clear, and the whining (often disguised as wistful "if only this looked better") comments on game forums are even clearer.

Gears doesn't raise the bar. It takes the bar, crumples it up effortlessly with just one finger, spits derisively on the tortured metal, and then flings the remains of the bar into deep space. Not just puny old interplanetary deep, or even intergalactic deep, mind you - I'm talking deep space, like the kind of distance that makes our cosmic horizon look like a hair's breadth.

Or, to use the phrase that popped into my head after playing through the first couple of levels on co-op: Gears lines up every single person in the world and kicks everyone's ass simultaneously.

It's great when you're playing it.

It's not so great when you're working on a title that will eventually arrive in a world that is looking for the next Gears of War - or, in all probability, the game that "kills" Gears. Having to compete with that is mind-numbingly scary; and rest assured, every commercial game for the next-gen consoles and PCs of the next few years will have to compete.

I'm hopeful, though; but I can't talk about why [smile]

Back Then...
Earlier tonight, I finished replaying an old (as in 1994 old) classic called Dreamweb. It's a dark, brooding, and twisted adventure game that seems pretty obscure but is universally praised by those who remember it. I already know the entire plot by heart (the game isn't that long) and there's really only one path through the story so the replay value in that sense is low - but the world is so compelling that even on my fourth replay it's a great experience.

This particular replay was inspired by finding something I've read about but never seen - a PDF scan of the "Diary of a Madman" supplement that originally came with the game. It's a 43 page, handwritten backstory document that explains a lot of the game's details in depth, and reveals some vital clues to solving the puzzles in the game. I've only managed to read about a third of it, but it's such a huge contributor to the atmosphere of the game world that I have no doubt I'll reread it just as eagerly as I've replayed the game.

That got me thinking about Ye Olde Days of Games... you know, back when games still came with 43 page handwritten supplements and that kind of stuff. I suppose the mass-market corruption of the industry is to blame, but whatever the reasons, I'm honestly pretty sad that such things are so rare these days. Even "Collector's Editions" usually just have some art and maybe a "Making Of" movie or something. If you're lucky you might get a little plastic figurine or whatnot.

But long gone is the era when the supplements were an integral and potent part of the experience, where paper and cardboard and some imagination would radically increase the visceral impact of the action on-screen. That, if you ask me, is a damn shame.

As I started developing a taste for more sophisticated games, I found the supplements invaluable. I read the manual to F-15 Strike Eagle III religiously and at one point had memorized large sections of it. I did the same with the manual from Sim City 2000. I didn't care too much for Myst; I don't have the patience to try and figure out what obscure and arbitrary hurdles some game developer wants me to jump over (which is odd because I loved the Monkey Island games and The Dig, but whatever). I did, however, devour the manual. I obsessed over the backstory documents from the Warcraft series, committed the Dark Forces handbook to memory, and still thumb through the booklet for Return of the Phantom on occasion.

For all the earth-shattering allure of Gears of War, it's still soundly beaten by an obscure, visually drab, tiny wedge of a game from 1994 called Dreamweb. Gears has no 43 page supplement which begs you to pause the game and scramble madly through the pages for clues about what you've just seen.

If there's anything that disappoints me about Gears, that would be it. It's a pretty small thing, at least in today's gaming market, and it's so common that I'm grown accustomed to it. (The Halo games, for all their supposed quality storytelling, had piss-poor backstory supplements. It took book licenses to actually tell anything interesting about that universe, and even the books weren't all that hot.)

... and What Next?
As much as I'd love to say otherwise, I don't think this trend will be reversed. The age of rich experiences augmented by extra goodies in the game box is over and gone. There's no real hope of changing that, I think.

I suppose we could bring a 50 page manuscript and a hand-sculpted "Ancient Artifact" to the publishers and beg them to release them... because, y'know, it'd really enhance the experience for all three of the people who'd bother to read the thing. One person may even manage to keep the collectible more than a day before his dog eats it. Definitely money well spent, right?!

I'd love to get home and unwrap my waiting copy of Gears Collector's Edition, plunk down on the sofa with a mug of cocoa, and spend an hour or so engrossed in the dark history of the Locust and the terror they've inflicted on the poor human race in the years since E-Day. I'd love to pore over the journal of Marcus that he etched carefully while being tormented in prison, glimpsing the mind and past of the coldly efficient death machine. I'd love to attach a little Hammer of Dawn fob to my keychain and pretend to zap the fuckers that cut me off in traffic.

Even more than that, I'd love to see the next installment in the X franchise do something like that - I think it'd probably benefit more from a little extra ambience than an action shooter. It'd be endlessly cool to crack open the box and see a handful of "photos" on cards, showing random and bizarre events in deep space, with cryptic scribbled notes on the backs. I often wish for the chance to whip up a short story that explains all the events and past of the X universe from the perspective of an insider, and helps bridge the gap between previous games and the next, to explain some of the changes and history. An extra track on the CD could have some audio recordings with clues and hints to key missions and story events; star charts, galactic almanacs, weapons prototype sketches... I could literally have a comfortable full-time job doing nothing but designing bonus goodies for the games.

I think if I stumble across a djinn or analogous wish-granting device, I know what I'm going for. I want to live in a world where games are seen not merely an entertainment business, but as the art form that they rightfully should be. I want to see stuff like Diary of a Madman every time I pick up a hot new title. I want to see these things become not mere supplements or even complements of games, but rather integral parts of the experience.

And I want to create that kind of holistic, immersive art - art that transcends the digital and reaches its ethereal feelers into the realm of the everyday - art that breaks free of the confines of a virtual space and peeks into reality, the books and pictures and charts lying on the coffee table and inviting us all to leap through the portal.
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Gears of War is a really, really, ridiculously fun game. I can't wait to get my online hooked up to play it online.

The plot left me confused at the end, but ofcourse they're setting up for a sequal(they are only human!). However, I quite like the Locusts(especially the Grubs), they make quite a menacing foe. I'm also curious about the back story of the game, so hopefully they will elaborate on it in the sequals.

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