Silk is About... 1984

Lords of MidnightIn 1984 and 1985, amazing things were happening in the British videogames industry. The following year, Japan would overshadow this with titles like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda that transformed videogames forever by having the ability to preserve player progression (the genesis of save games), but for these two years nobody anywhere in the world can match the inventiveness of British bedroom coders.

One of these stories is well known... David Braben and Ian Bell made Elite, which with its vast feeling of player freedom would go on to directly influence Grand Theft Auto, and thus give birth to the open world genre as we now know it. But even that’s not the whole story, because Elite is a descendent of tabletop role-playing games, specifically Traveller and Space Opera, and it was the infinite agency of the tabletop RPG that inspired Elite’s radical approach to digital agency. It’s always a mistake to think videogames sprung into life from nowhere... they flowed down the river of artworks like everything else.

Two other great precursors to the open world game that came out of these two years are both from 1985: Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid – which I still suspect was an influence upon Grand Theft Auto’s car stealing (although I have not yet proved it), and Paul Woakes and Bruce Jordan’s Mercenary, that took Elite’s wireframe world and made a fantastic story out of it (Surely the faction system in the original GTA was inspired by this game...?). Paradroid is actually my favourite game of the last century, but I don’t feel quite the sense of debt towards it as I do to another 1984 classic, perhaps because I got to work with Andrew Braybrook and Steve Turner in the waning years of Graftgold, and so our stories already intersected in some way.

The last of the four harbingers of the open world is Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight, the best adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to never have had the license. Singleton was not influenced by tabletop RPGs as far as I can tell, but was just interested in how to take the two threads of Tolkien’s epic – the adventure story and the epic war – and represent them in the 48K of the ZX Spectrum, Europe’s most iconic home computer. I was spellbound by The Lords of Midnight, even though it was actually terribly difficult to play, and even more difficult to play well. My appreciation of what it achieved grew when I started giving talks about the history of games, and peaked when I finally sacked Ushgarak (let’s not call it the Dark Tower of Mordor...) in Chris Wild’s outstanding port of the game.

Singleton did not rest on his laurels. The open-world-before-open-worlds concept was revisited in a sequel, Doomdark’s Revenge (which also has a fantastic port by Chris Wild) and later in Midwinter and its sequel, games that moved into polygonal 3D and were equally astounding, perhaps even more so, since they attempted the immersive presence we now expect from first person games before the hardware was in any way up to the task of rendering them. But there was just something about that square-based world in The Lords of Midnight that maintained its magic. It’s a mystical wonder that can also be found in Eye of the Beholder and The Bard’s Tale, which also built their world on squares, although both had so much more computational resources available that they cannot possibly count as the technical achievement that Mike Singleton’s classic was.

I felt a debt of honour to him. I don’t really know why, but I always have. In the 1990s, when I was working on the Discworld games, I tried to make a game in that style, but it was impossible to make the argument for it then. It’s not that much easier now, to be honest! But at least now we have a thriving indie community who sometimes welcome the strange and wonderful into their hearts. So I made Silk, to pay off that debt to Mike Singleton. It’s why even though the game is set in 200AD, it’s also inextricably about 1984.

Next: Glorantha


Silk is About... 200AD

Silk NotesSilk is about 200AD.

Silk is about 1984.

Silk is about Glorantha.

Silk is about religion.

Silk is about Brexit.

Five seemingly contradictory statements, all absolutely true. The fact that all these claims are true doesn’t spring from any conceptual gymnastics, it flows naturally from the way I came to design and ultimately implement Silk, with the incredible help of Nathan (the programmer) and Jamie (the artist), and many others (like Becky, the portrait artist; Chris, the composer; and Patrick and Sean, the producers).

That games are about things doesn’t sound controversial, but in an odd way it is. That’s because the entertainment value of a game (or a film, for that matter) is the moral value we elevate above all others for them – provided a game entertains, all other priorities are rescinded. That’s why games are a multi-billion dollar industry today: not because they are a vibrant, extravagant, hugely inventive artform (although they are), but because they entertain. And who doesn’t like being entertained? By definition, it’s something we all want.

But it’s not enough of a reason to make a game like Silk, because the people who might be entertained by a game like this are not the same people who are going to be entertained by, say, Grand Theft Auto, even though the GTA franchise and Silk have their roots in exactly the same places: the British games of 1984 and 1985 that invented the open world before anyone had thought of calling it that. No, Silk is a niche game... it’s a game for players who are looking to be more than just entertained, who are willing to be challenged to take upon a new way of thinking, one quite different from those that most games present us today.

We should start by acknowledging that this is a game about 200AD. This is a time period I’ve always been enraptured by... the Roman republic has mutated into the Roman Empire, bringing the seeds of its eventual downfall. Thousands of miles east, the Han Empire are about to lose control of China as it slips into the vicious civil war known as the Three Kingdoms. And in between these two ends of the Ancient Silk Road are two other empires that people just don’t talk that much about – the Parthians, who are Rome’s bitter enemy (and whom Rome never convincingly defeated), and the Kushan Empire who rule what we now call India with a cosmopolitanism that is quite astonishing for a time two millennia before our own. To play Silk is to visit 200AD. That’s the player experience we’re offering, over and above any other themes I might have weaved into its narrative design.

I’ve been writing Designer’s Notes since 1993 for every game that I can definitively call ‘mine’ (without denying my immense dependence upon those who work alongside me). I was inspired to do so by Sandy Peterson, the designer of Call of Cthulhu (and level designer on Quake), who first made it clear to me that pretending you’re not influenced by other people’s designs is pure arrogance and folly. In this five part series of Designer’s Notes, I want to look at five things Silk is about. The first, as I’ve just discussed, is 200AD. I’m not going to say too much about that because if you want to know about 200AD you should play Silk – short of a time machine, there’s no other way of experiencing it! But the other four thematic influences upon Silk – 1984, Glorantha, religion, and Brexit – those are things you probably aren’t going to get out of just playing Silk. They require me to tell something of the story behind the game, and that’s what Designer’s Notes are ultimately about. These are the notes I want to make about the most personal game I’ve ever made.

I hope you’ll join me for this journey.

Next: 1984


Brevis Absentia

Monet_LilliesNext week I'm at Gamescom speed dating publishers again, and then I'm on vacation. A Hundred Cyborgs is on hiatus now until Autumn, but will return later this year with more ponderings about the strange creatures we become with our technology. And coming up for September, the Designer's Notes for Silk, which is much more philosophical and political than anything of its kind anyone has ever written, myself included (which is why I'm running it here and not on ihobo.com). Stay tuned!

The Game resumes shortly.


Multiplayer

Gauntlet Four PlayerGauntlet changed the arcade forever, and the moral implications of this shift has both positive and negative implications. From the early forays into co-operative play brought about by player two, the arcade began to discover a whole new realm of play: multiplayer. It meant more money for arcade operators – and indeed, was designed for that very purpose. But it also meant greater emphasis on co-operation, and most of the great commercial successes in the waning years of the arcade's heyday were four player co-op like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons.

It was not the first four player cabinet – Atari had a four player version of Warlords in 1980, for instance – but it was the first game to have co-operation baked into the design. Inspired by Dungeons & Dragons (via John Palevich's Dandy, which had been distributed on the Atari Program Exchange), the game was designed exclusively for players to work together. Yet a lingering competitiveness remained: there was not enough food to keep four players going (after all, for the coins to flow, players must die) so even in a game expressly designed for players to work together, a tension remained.

As such, the moral effects of multiplayer were a distorted Prisoner's Dilemma where no matter how much players wanted to work together, there was always an ever-present temptation to defect. Yet this clouds the core behavioural effect of Gauntlet, one shared by Sega's novel spin on it, Quartet: it made players actively want to play together like nothing before. If pinball always felt co-operative to me, multiplayer co-op removed the metaphor. We sought out new friends to join us in the game – nothing else broke the introverted ice of the early arcade quite as effectively, or as extensively. If there was a commercial motive behind this from the point of view of Atari and the arcade, it did not change the positive impact it had in the lives of those who came together because of its.

Yet even the commercial aspect of Gauntlet's success is arguably more laudable in the context of the arcade multiplayer than online multiplayer today. For Atari's Gauntlet kept alive multiple small businesses (the arcades themselves), providing shared spaces for players to meet and engage socially. Whatever might be said of League of Legends and its ilk today, they are not a socially co-operative endeavour that shares wealth with tens of thousands of local partners, and creates new spaces for play and friendship, but merely a digital funnel leading to yet another giant corporate maw...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #60, the final part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


Player Two

Joust-marquee-1024x512What happens when you add a second player to a game? For most of the twentieth century, arcade games were single player experiences. Yet they still offered, for almost all of that time, the choice to add a second player. The idea that player two would co-operate was not an option in pinball games, and I know of no electro-mechanical coin ops that supported it. Right up until 1980, the purpose of player two was to compete with player one, and if a game supported more than two players it was only to increase the number of competitors.

When co-operative play arrived, it did so against the background of competition. Wizard of Wor in 1980 was a shooting dungeon bash that allowed two simultaneous players, while Williams' astonishing Joust in 1982 was a wild game about knights flying on birds and defeating each other by having the highest lance in the collision. Both allowed players the option to work together while still permitting them to turn on each other and do battle if they so desired. The schizophrenia of this situation was acutely felt by Joust players, who were awarded bonus points for not killing each other in Survival Waves, and points for slaying player two in Gladiator waves. But this was nonsense: I know of no player who enjoyed Joust competitively, nor were the rewards for defection large enough to offset the benefits of continued co-operation.

Joust was, in effect, a failed Prisoner's Dilemma. In the famous thought experiment, the benefits of co-operation are less than defecting, but only if the other person does not also defect. If everyone turns traitor, nobody gets anything. In Joust, the benefits of co-operation outstripped those of defection in all circumstances. What's more, Joust is a better model of co-operation in life than the Prisoner's Dilemma, which is inherently contrived. The lesson of billions year of biology, as Lynn Margulis always stressed, was that co-operation is a more powerful force than competition: a purely competitive world would have resulted solely in specialised bacteria. It was co-operation that brought cells together to make multi-cellular colonies like us – and it was only on a bedrock of such widespread cooperation that competition of the kind player two embodied prior to 1980 could even become intelligible. After all, it is our metaphors that project human competitiveness onto bacteria.

Joust is one of my favourite games of all time. I love it in single player, but in two player it became something even greater: an object lesson in the benefits of working together. Yes, that co-operation is framed in terms of violent competition – you must defeat the enemy knights – and that is true of the vast majority of videogames. But how often do we become cyborgs that are reminded of the value of working together? Every game that achieves this moves far beyond the simple cutthroat rhetoric of player two.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #59, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


Underground Gamers

Joypad Graffiti.2-1

Over on ihobo today, I wrote something about gamers. I know, I know, the word now makes some people cringe, but I'm not one of them. I never think the way to deal with a community problem is to pretend that the community doesn't exist any more or (worse) that is shouldn't exist any more. I really don't know why anyone could ever think this would work, and communities - all communities - are something too valuable to trash indiscriminately.

What I'm interested in exploring in this piece is the relationship between those gamers who are committed to the AAA industry, and those that are just as interested (or more interested) in the oddities on the fringes. Here's an extract:

The players of the underground are free range gamers – they won't be stuck in AAA cages, they have to wander through the entire landscape of games, searching for interesting, novel, unusual, and undiscovered oddities. Without them, we'd all miss out on so many of the fascinating curiosities that are hidden away in a market now so impossibly varied in its niches that nobody will ever again be able to claim to have played everything.

The piece ends with an offer to share anything interesting written on obscure games. I doubt anyone will take this up, but the offer is there! You can read the entirety of Underground Gamers over at ihobo.com.


Game Over

Asteroids Game OverIs there anything that says videogame more than the immortal phrase 'Game Over'? Odd, then, that some early video games did not include it – the 1979 Tail Gunner cabinet, for instance, simply returned to the title screen when you let too many enemy ships get past. The phrase originated in 1950s and 60s pinball tables, which lit up the words with a lightbulb inside the cabinet to confirm that no more balls remained, but even then a light showing 'balls remaining' was more common.

It is quite sobering to think that before the mid-1980s, it was entirely impossible to continue playing a game after either your lives or the timer ran out. For Space Invaders, Pac-man, and Galaga, the last life meant quite definitively 'game over'. Vanguard and Fantasy in 1981 offered the choice, as did the more successful Moon Patrol in 1982, but it did not become standard until Atari's 1985 hit Gauntlet heralded the end of the era of 'one credit, one game' and the beginning of the 'pump and play' era, which let you funnel as many coins as you liked into a single game – the onset and ancestry of microtransactions in games.

To ask about the moral or behavioural effects of 'Game Over' sounds strange – but Gauntlet puts the issue into perspective. Early arcade players such as myself learned to master the cabinets through repetition – and we got extremely adept in the process. By contrast, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Simpsons games in 1987 and 1991 respectively were typically (but not exclusively) played by players once, in one expensive, coin dropping session. The arcades did alright out of this arrangement. But lost was that tenacious persistence in the pursuit of mastery that had, for myself and others like me, characterised the arcade experience.

When I worked in house at Perfect Entertainment in the 1990s, we had a close relationship with Sega and there was a House of the Dead lightgun cabinet in our kitchen. A co-worker was surprised that I declined the option to continue, given that we were given infinite credits. I explained that I wanted to get good at the game, and you didn't achieve that by just papering over your mistakes with a continue. Intrigued, he began to play that way, and eventually surpassed my skill with the machine. It may not seem it, but Game Over sculpted a positive approach to the mastery of skills, one I might gainfully compare to the persistence of the skateboarder. Game Over didn't just end the play session: it made better players.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #58, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


High Score

Arcade high scoreWhat would the arcade be without the concept of the high score? Striving to beat a target had long been a part of the funfair sideshow, and pre-1940s pinball tables (which did not have flippers, and were more like Victorian Bagatelle) often had target scores to win drinks and the like. Then came the high scores. At first, games like 1976's Sea Wolf (a videogame descendent of Sega's 1966 electro-mechanical game Periscope) offered extra play time for hitting a 'high score', which was a set target. Then, with 1979's Space Invaders, the high score could be saved. By the 1980s, every arcade game – pinball included – offered you the chance to "knock" the previous player off the high score or, as soon came after, off the top of the high score table.

Sometimes, our relationship with technology is so subtle we cannot even recognise that there is a cyborg relationship at all. Even when we engage with games with high scores we might not notice any effect on our behaviour. Yet the high score significantly alters the way we act whenever it makes itself felt – it inflames our natural competitive desires, and focuses us towards a purpose, a goal: to claim the high score. It moves us from mastering a game to undertaking a specific mode of engagement. The high score was the gateway drug to the Achievement system that dominates commercial game platforms today.

When Microsoft first announced Xbox Online at a conference I was attending, I was surprised that they made online ranking such an enormous part of their presentation. It left me cold. When I think back through my own episodes of high score chasing, I was always avoiding directly challenging someone else's high score: I preferred finding those machines with only a daily table and setting the score for that day. I was still being influenced by the high score, I just wasn't letting it draw too deeply upon my competitive side. Even now, when a game gives me a choice to opt in to an online high score, I always decline. I have no wish to reduce my play experiences to mere competition.

For many, the desire to compete is central to their aesthetic appreciation of videogames: for me, there is a negative connotation here, a bad memory of whenever my competitive streak burst through to ruin my enjoyment of a game – or indeed, someone else's. If high scores are a design feature so subtle that their influence is mostly unfelt, or is only a tremor foreshadowing the behaviour-distorting Achievement earthquake to come, there is still a worrying sense, for me at least, that the high score cyborg risks narrowing the rich experience of videogame play to the mere pursuit of victory.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #57, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


Press Pause

Control ButtonsAway at Develop this week presenting The Narrative Design Survival Guide, so I'm pausing Arcade Cyborgs for a week. I hope to get some blogging in at ihobo.com while I'm in Brighton, but we'll have to see how it goes.


Buttons

Williams DefenderThe thing about buttons is the immense variation in what they can cause to happen. Push a button to start a game, push another to jump, or to throw shuriken, or to select a power up, or to teleport wildly to some unknown and potentially fatal position on screen. The joystick may have given us control, but the button gave us choices, tactics, possibilities... the button slowly and imperceptibly transformed games from boards and levels to worlds and universes.

I vividly remember how early arcade coin ops used a different kind of button – sometimes a small red plastic wart – for One or Two Player start, and another, sturdier, spring-loaded concave button for game actions. We had the buttons before the videogames, of course: pinball tables had the robust springy buttons for flipper controls decades before silicon chips, but the meaning of the button exploded in the 1980s.

Coin ops began with a wild mix of buttons – one for Space Invaders, none for Pac-man, five for Asteroids and Defender. Then two became standard, and stock cabinets were manufactured on that basis. Then, the stock cabinets moved to six buttons, even though most games used only half of them. Finally, as videogame revenue for the home outstripped that of the arcade, buttons became part of specialised hardware – triggers on guns, accelerators on driving coin ops, eight giant foot-operated buttons for Dance Dance Revolution and its brethren.

The moral impact of the push button world and its ever-changing configurations was far from constrained to the arcade. Vending machines, telephones, and more besides absorbed the button cybernetics, until touchscreens supplanted the mechanical joy of the button with infinitely configurable simulated buttons, like the ones on my phone I am stabling with my thumb to type this. With buttons come expectations. Push a button, something happens, automatically. A world away from the skill of the pinball plunger, or indeed the use of the button to control flippers, which was deeply analogue and sensitive to more than just timing. The human-button cyborg expects things to happen in that moment of pressing, and from the cascade of many-presses that arcade games required.

It is not that we children of the arcades did not learn skill or precision from our love affair with button mashing, and those that followed us are similarly equipped with newly learned reflexes. Mastery of buttons has indeed become purer: Crossy Road turns Frogger's four way control to just one button. But in the expectation of results the button engendered, did we not also learn to expect instantaneous gratification? The arcade, ironically, used the button to allow us to learn new skills. Elsewhere, the button is perhaps more emblematic of a replacement of competence with the expectation of immediate results.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #56, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.