Computer games entered my life in the same way they would have entered that of many children born in the early 70s: by way of my parents turning up one day and forking out for an Atari 2600 console. It was practically the beginning of home gaming and I was right there, kneeling on the floor a couple of yards from the television, taking all 128 bytes of RAM right in my face.
The first game, my first game, was “Combat”. You were a tank, or a plane, and you tried to kill an enemy tank or plane in one on one battle in various battlefields. Bullets could swerve! Yeah, take that, awful film starring Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman and a Loom of Fate; bullets were swerving in the 70s and it was fantastic. Other games followed quickly (luckily my dad kept them coming for a few months) and I loved them. “Pac-Man”, “Berzerk”, “The Empire Strikes Back” (I remember them all) and, best of the lot, “Adventure”, a game I will return to later. I played on the Atari 2600 all the time, as I did all the computers that followed it. Spectrum, Commodore 128 (ooh get me, not having the C64 but the bigger one instead. The drawback was that you had to use a different disc drive and some games wouldn’t load, so that worked out well), Amiga. For something like 15 years I loved games. Then one day, while I wasn’t looking, I fell out of love.
Hardly a surprise, you might be saying to yourself. Games are for kids and once one moves into one’s twenties the chances are that one is no longer a child. Except, of course, games aren’t for kids, really. How can they be when they cost about a month’s worth of paper round earnings and come with 18 certificates promising strong bloody violence? Games these days, and perhaps since the moment they were born, are meant for adults. Technology has advanced sufficiently now that the people who make games can aim them squarely at the more sophisticated and richer adult audience that they wanted all along. Sorry kids. Your time was way back then, when games were written by one person, in their bedroom, trying to wring something fun out of the sort of memory that a computer these days uses to play the Windows music. Since they began they have been a developing art form (Roger Ebert disagrees that they are art but then he’s just bitter because people sometimes mix him up with his brother Qbert) and one that that has developed as much as any other. I sound quite enthusiastic about the state of games now, don’t I? Well, I am, and that’s the frustration. I should like them. I should play them. But I can’t, though I try. Every few weeks an eager MarvMarsh can be seen in a branch of Game, paying up for whatever is the latest hot item for the Xbox, politely refusing the offer of a loyalty card, and shuttling swiftly out, hope fluttering once more in his foolish heart. We should all pity the poor sap because at some point in the following few days he will play that game for about an hour, starting out with enthusiasm, before becoming fed up and eventually putting the game back in its box and laying it to rest in a secluded patch of ground, surrounded by those that came before. It is as if I one day stepped outside the front door to pick up the milk and while I was there the door closed behind me. Now I can’t get back in, no matter how many times I give the handle a rattle.
Oh God, I just realised that I am trying to get back to a childhood that is lost forever!
No, it isn’t that, or at least it isn’t only that. If it were I could have spent a few quid on a counsellor and saved you all the last few hundred words. Games changed. They got better, indubitably better. They became more sophisticated and I stopped enjoying them. So, did the games change for the worse as well somehow?
The already enormous technological development since the glory days of “Combat” and co. has led to games becoming bigger, more spectacular and more complex. A player need look no further than their on screen representative to see all three of those changes to dramatic effect. In fairly recent game, “Red Dead Redemption”, the game is played by controlling John Marston, a former outlaw drawn back to the land of his former life when his family is kidnapped by the government. He has a backstory and a scar on his cheek. Compare John Marston to the central figure of the best game the Atari 2600 ever saw: “Adventure”. The object of “Adventure” is to find an enchanted chalice and return it to its rightful place in the gold castle, all the while avoiding dragons, who for reasons of their own want to make it difficult. The central figure there has no backstory. It has no scar on its cheek or a family that was kidnapped by the government. That is because the character in Adventure is a square. Not uncool. Literally a square.
Of course, it is unfair to claim that characters in games having depth is a new thing (Pac-Man probably has some dark tale in his past that led to him becoming an obsessive eater) but recent advances in games have been in the direction of depth both in gameplay and in the elements that surround it: characterisation, story, all the juicy stuff from narrative art forms. And so I come up against the thing that I always turn to first when wondering why I am struggling to engage with whatever the latest doomed-to-fail purchase from Game is: the influence of narrative in games and the fact – yes, fact! – that game narratives are rubbish.
A game is not a film or a book but there it is demanding that you, the player, stop playing and watch the story, or play – but, for all the sense of an open world that one is free to explore – play the way the game wants. That paradox is something that bothers me every time I try a so-called “sandbox” game. The illusion of freedom that the game attempts to create for the player only serves to demonstrate how far from free the experience of playing the game is. Still, allow me to leave that aside because the bigger problem is that in having all this tremendous computing power at their disposal, and with an adult audience that they want to engage enough to keep shovelling over £40 a pop, games have turned into rubbish cartoons. The story of John Marston in “Red Dead Redemption”, if you strip away the gaming aspect and leave the cut scenes (hooray for cut scenes) is a very poor western. If I want a very poor western I’ll, well, I don’t want one. Did I need a cut scene in “Gauntlet” where Yellow Wizard and Red Valkyrie had a chat about how they first got into the dungeon-raiding business? No. Yellow Wizard had the decency to largely keep his feelings to himself. All we were told was that he occasionally needed food badly or that he was about to die. Or that he had shot the food, the fool. “Gauntlet”, despite this sorry lack of dramatic scenes voiced by mid-level acting talent, was brilliant fun. In fact, it is, as you know full well, the best game ever made.
It occurs to me that I recall the very day the love died. The location was a friend’s house, where three of us grouped round his computer and took turns on “Doom”, which at the time was the latest hot stuff game that everyone had to play. I took my turn and off I went down a corridor, then round a corner and right there it all went wrong. The trick, apparently, was to time your attack; wait for the bad guys to shift about a bit, maybe stop for a cigarette and a chat about their plans for the weekend, and then leap in and pick them off. I found I couldn’t be bothered. Instead of rounding the corner and pausing, ears pricked, eyes unblinking, I decided that the situation would be most swiftly remedied if I bowled straight into the room, got into a massive one-sided fire fight and died in a blaze of feeble incompetence. So I did that. For whatever reason, I suddenly had no desire to put in the work the game asked of me, and from that day to this it has been the same.
Writing this has become an exercise in stirring up old gaming memories. As well as the day my patience disappeared, my brain is turning up the corpses of old game characters, such as Monty Mole, who for a brief period was the platform king of the world, and someone who went by the somewhat cruel but accurate name of Thing on a Spring. He was most certainly a Thing and he got about by means of a Spring that may well have been his abdomen. I know nothing else about Thing on a Spring. Perhaps he too was a former outlaw drawn back to the life he had left behind after the government kidnapped his family. If so, I hope he got Mrs Spring and the little Springs back safe and sound.
The problem for me then appears to be that I have lost the desire to make an effort with games just as games designers, with more powerful tools being placed in their hands every few minutes, have decided that one of the things they really want to do with their greater power is ask the player to put in more effort. Fighting games have become as demanding as flying two planes at once. There you are, on screen, bobbing up and down on the balls of your perfectly rendered little cartoon feet, ready to launch any one of about a thousand different assaults on your opponent and all that holds you back is your ignorance of the innumerable combination of button presses required to make your character do anything more than look tough. On the Xbox controller there are ten different buttons you can press. Ten. It would be quicker to enrol at a martial arts evening class and learn to perform a three move combination in real life than it is to learn how to do it in a game. Actually, I think there might be twelve buttons.
Of course, there are simpler games. Despite my complaints about games designers having the cheek to make their games deeper and richer, some make things on a smaller scale; just the sort of thing for the uncommitted gamer. But still, I try and I fail. One of the best games available on the Xbox, to my mind, is “Limbo”, a sideways scrolling platform and puzzle game with absolutely gorgeous graphics and design. It’s a fabulous piece of work; instantly accessible, simple, in every way like the games I used to play, only better. For an hour I loved it. Then, nope. Out came the shovel and off it went to join the others.
It is impossible for me to escape, after the therapy session that this has become, that the issue is not with the games. It’s with me. I lost the will to play. Games want you to work for your rewards, they always have done, and I have misplaced the desire to do so. I use the word misplaced because I live in hope that I will remember where I put it. If you should see me in Game, queuing up to purchase whatever is that week’s big new must have, perhaps you might consider placing a caring hand on my shoulder and whispering to me that it would be best if I walked away. I will agree but I won’t go. That game might just be the one that gets me back in the house.
MarvMarsh is a Martian. His name is Marvin.