Video games are complicated. They didn’t start that way, the rules of Pong should be obvious just by watching, but that simplicity can’t last. People demand more. Compare Doom to Battlefield 3: in one you can’t even look up, the other has more commands than there are buttons on a controller. This demand for increasing complexity is something that affects all entertainment (just compare Die Hard to Live Free or Die Hard), but it’s particularly troubling for games because keeping up with that demand can limit the audience. This is something other people have written about, and I’ve got no interest in repeating their points here. Instead, I’m interested in where a gaming genre goes once it’s reached that tipping point of complexity.
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This post contains spoilers for Neuromancer, Halo: Reach, Braid, and Red Dead Redemption.
Recently, I’ve been slacking on some projects I’m working on, but I have a good excuse. Well, at least my editor might think it’s a good excuse: I got caught up reading William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer. It’s a foundational work in modern science fiction, one I’m proud to now check off of my long list of shamefully neglected cultural blind spots. There’s a lot to like about Neuromancer, but one of my favorite aspects is the ending—specifically, how depressing it is. This isn’t to say that it’s bad or flawed, just that it’s not a particularly sunny resolution. It’s the kind of ending that also appears in some of my favorite video games.
I always thought that the element that I hated most in video games was ice. I loathe ice levels. Anything that snatches fine and precise control from the player, whose character goes slipping and sliding towards the edge of some abyss sets my teeth on edge. There is nothing fun about an ice level.
For a number of years, I’ve assumed that I would one day write an essay on my hatred of ice levels, a hatred that I think that many gamers share with me. However, I’ve recently noticed that while ice can be annoying that 1) such levels rarely appear in the games that I play anymore and 2) I think that there is something that I hate worse than ice: fire.
I just deleted Temple Run from my phone. Not because the game is bad—far from it. Rather, I deleted it because it is perhaps the most maddeningly addictive piece of software that I have ever encountered. I would walk down the street staring into the screen, in the process bumping into people, stepping on cats, falling down stairwells, and yet still continuing to play. The premise of Temple Run is that you are an Indiana Jones-like character speeding away from what looks to be a pack of wild apes through a maze of ancient temple ruins. Along the way, you tilt the phone to collect coins and swipe left, right, or up to turn and jump.
While Temple Run is a “casual game,” it’s not a terribly casual experience to play it. Every moment requires your absolute attention. There are turns every second or so, and you must angle the character just so in order to collect coins. One second of inattention and – BAM – you’ve run off track and into a tree. After a month or so of non-stop temple running, I started to realize that the game was taking over my life in subtle and problematic ways. I would take a break from work and come back more stressed than when I had started. I would fire up the game every time I had a free 30 seconds, playing on the elevator, while cooking, while walking to the bathroom. As the anxiety and addiction melded and became more obvious, I started to question why I was even playing at all.
This week, the Moving Pixels podcast considers their personal picks for the top five arcade games of all time.
In doing so, we look back to the arcade and the various spaces that game cabinets existed to occupy our time and extract our quarters. What is the place of the arcade machine in the history of a gamer culture, a culture that has largely moved towards home consoles rather than remained gaming in public spaces?