In the first part of this series, I talked about my introduction to video games, with the venerable BBC Micro. I have some truly fond memories of that machine, but as with life itself, gaming moves ever onwards.
If there is one thing I notice as a gamer, it’s that some people are not. Although these days it is sometimes hard to say exactly who is and who isn’t a gamer, you will periodically be faced with someone who is most definitely ‘one of them’.
Any gamer knows the situation. Someone, perhaps a colleague, asks you, “So what are your hobbies?” You answer, “gaming”. And then they give you a look that is something akin to disbelief, marinated with a lavish sprinkling of contempt.
When recently I found myself in this situation, I got to thinking about why it is that I love games so much. I thought back to the first time I ever played one and a tsunami of memories was unleashed. I’m going to share those memories with you now, and as with any story worth telling, it all starts at the beginning.
I played my first ever video game when I was about 8 years old. My school had initiated I.T. classes in a specially built lab containing about 40 devices called a ‘BBC Micro’. The lessons sucked. The only thing less interesting to me than making databases was… well no, there was nothing less interesting. Computers, I decided, were definitely not for me.
One day, our teacher introduced us to something he called ‘a computer game’. I forget the game’s name but the premise was simple; try to make as much money as possible on an artificial stock market. I was transfixed. I can still remember thinking, computers can do this as well?!
It was, as it turned out, a very difficult game to master. No matter where I invested my money, I always ended up bankrupt. But winning wasn’t the point. The point was that for as long as I was playing the game, I was someone else. I was a highflying stockbroker, with a bank full of cash and a burning desire to buy 150 million shares in zinc. It didn’t matter that the next day the share price of zinc plummeted as the market went stir crazy for tin; all I needed to do was click ‘restart’ and begin all over again. Wow! It felt like I was playing God.
I was hooked and so began a lifelong relationship with video games.
At some point in the early 90′s, my school replaced those venerable BBC Micros with Acorn Archimedes computers. There were, no doubt, hundreds of games released for the Acorn, but a few in particular remain in my memory. One was a game called Lander,which was a demo of another game called Zarch and was bundled with every Acorn computer.
It was a really simple game. Left mouse button provided thrust, right fired the cannon and the mouse provided directional input. That the game was set in space was unquestionable and I freely accepted that I was suddenly a spaceship pilot, tasked with manoeuvring over the surface of some unknown planet. Something that occurs to me now is that the one thing I didn’t question was the scores of straw hut like structures dotted around the place. If the game was set in space, why did it look like I was flying over a beach in Hawaii?
You would take off in a spray of pixels, and then proceed to do one of two things. Either you’d fly straight up for a few minutes until the fuel gauge was low before angling downwards and seeing if you could judge the exact moment the ground would appear as you crashed into it in a silent yet exhilarating explosion. Or you would attempt to fly as fast and as low as you could, while spraying the cannon at everything before you. Eventually you’d mis-judge the height of a tree and that would be all she wrote. The things is, I don’t remember there being any point to the game beyond that. There was no pre-flight briefing, no back-story. In fact, the only action that seemed to be implied at all was that I should ‘land’, which was ironic since that was the one thing I had no interest (read ability) in doing.
But none of that mattered. This was a game that I would happily spend two or three hours at a time playing. Take-off.Crash. Take-off.Blow stuff up.Crash. And repeat ad infinitum. It was a flawless example of game design over narrative and it was completely and wholly addictive.
After a while though I began to grow weary of the life of a spaceship captain. It was then that I discovered a game called Chocks Away. Whereas in Lander you could manoeuvre only left and right across the screen, in Chocks Away you now had the freedom of a full 360ºenvironment. Yes, I’d gotten my first flight-sim wings!
The aim? Take off in a WW1 Tiger Moth bi-plane, fly around shooting down Germans and anything else that moved and blowing up buildings and stuff on the ground. It was, in a word, breathtaking. There were actually missions for you to complete; something about a war between Britain and Germany or some nonsense, but I wasn’t interested in those. I spent my time in the free roaming skirmish-like part of the game, where I could take off and then terrorise the skies without being bound by the constraints of “mission objectives”.
You had controls to climb, dive, bank left, bank right, increase thrust, decrease thrust and shoot. Seven keys. The graphics by today’s standards would be considered fairly shocking, but the plane on screen moved with a grace I found mesmerising.
Moreover, I could fly anywhere I wanted. It was a glorious open world whose story was what ever I made of it. And nothing ever changed.There were no upgrades, no DLC promising new paint jobs for the plane, new weapons, or Snoop Dogg doing voiceover for the air traffic control tower. What you saw was what you got and I loved it for that.
Much like Lander before it, the only limit to Chocks Away’s story was your own imagination. The game itself provided very little in regards to narrative. This was a time when games showed you something quite simple and then said, make what you like of this. Today, as great as games like Skyrim, The Last Of Us and Tomb Raider are, there are still gems like Resogun showing us that gameplay can win out over narrative when it’s done right.
Next time, genocide and the rise of team-play!
Written By: Sebastian Young
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I probably played my first video-game, Toejam & Earl on the Sega Megadrive when I was about 4. What is probably most alarming about my early years as a gamer is the absence of Nintendo. The first Nintendo console I owned was a Gamecube, which I bought on the cheap many years after it was released. I was barely aware that Mario existed until I was a teenager and my friend introduced me to him. To be honest, I remain unconvinced by Mario and the like, apart from the Paper Mario games, which are awesome. Read more …