[30 April 2014]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
It is pretty easy to take for granted that video games communicate very directly and very deliberately to players. Certainly, there is all that chit chat in story driven games among a game’s characters, but, more significantly, to gameplay itself are the voices in games that guide players, that aid us in discovering the goals in the game, how to play the game, and other tips and useful hints about what we are engaged in.
Sometimes doing double duty as the voice of a narrator, the tutorial voice comes in many forms, sometimes through aural cues (spoken through the voice of some disembodied narrator), sometimes in written text on the screen, sometimes merely as indicators on a map or in the world that indicate where to go and what is important in a game’s world to experience next. For the most part, this voice is a friendly one, as it performs a service to the player in making coherent a game’s systems and controls or simply making sure that the player’s experience is a clear and convenient one. These are voices that guide, almost encouragements suggesting that a game is an experience that anyone and everyone can get through. After all, all you need to do is listen to the instructions and follow the glowing lines and arrows that will move one along towards the end goal.
The idea of instructions accompanying a video game is as old as the arcade itself, though voicing those instructions within the game world itself is a newer phenomenon. In the arcade, most games featured idle screens when a game was not being played that in addition to featuring examples of gameplay (so that you knew what you were getting for a quarter) also frequently provided some information about the game, usually the point value of defeating enemies and the like. The actual presence of an in game voice was unusual, the first example of synthesized vocals being that of the 1980 shooter, Berzerk.
Berzerk actually began speaking to the player outside of the confines of its game world. In its idle mode in addition to providing gameplay footage and information on point values, it also baited its player in by declaring, “Coin detected in pocket.” If one dropped said coin into the machine, one was greeted with a dystopian universe in which humans found themselves hunted by killer robots, who actually spoke about the player as they hunted him, “Get the humanoid, “Destroy the intruder,” “Attack it.”
Obviously, this was not the friendliest of greetings in the context of the first time that the arcade machine would aurally acknowledge the presence of its player.
In addition to issuing orders to the game’s antagonists, the killer robot, which said things like, “The humanoid must not escape,” the game even taunted the player under certain circumstances. If one completed a level by simply reaching that level’s escape point without destroying all of the robots present during that sequence, the game was more than willing to troll the player, “Chicken! Fight like a robot!”
Of course, unlike the modern PC or console game, arcade games were not games that were intended to be “completed.” These were machines designed to amuse people in short bursts, to extract quarters from those individuals, not to aid them in feeling the satisfaction of inevitable victory. These were not games designed to be beaten. These were games designed to beat you.
Which is why for me the most honest voice of the arcade era is that of Sinistar.
Sinistar was like a game of Asteroids on steroids, featuring better graphics, a scrolling world to fly your starcraft through, and, of course, significantly, a synthesized voice. Each level of Sinistar had a fairly straightforward and fairly fatalistic premise. A robotic death machine, the size of a space station, was being built in one area of the game’s map. A group of mining ships accompanied by some fighters would mine asteroids in the area for crystals to bring to the area in which that death machine, Sinistar, was being built as material to complete its construction. The player controls a ship that can disrupt this work, slowing or disrupting the inevitable process of Sinistar’s construction, by destroying workers and mining crystals himself that will be transformed into “Sinibombs” that can be used to destroy Sinistar.
If Sinistar himself was completed, a battle would ensue, one in which the player through some preparation could conceivably win using his collected Sinibombs. However, the difficulty of this machine is infamous, especially because Sinistar’s attack is a simple one. He simply devoured the player’s ship if he came in contact with it. Oh, and Sinistar moved fast, much faster than the players ship and much more erratically.
In essence, the completion of Sinistar signaled for most players the inevitability of a Game Over screen. But the most sinister thing about Sinstar was that Sinistar himself communicated that inevitable end by declaring when he was completed, “Beware, I live.”
To anyone who played arcade games in the 80s that declaration, “Beware, I live,” was the death of hope. It was also the moment in which Sinistar most clearly stated the game’s intent, “I hunger.” The voice of the machine was a voice that declared the real goal of the arcade, consumption. Sinistar was about to consume you, consume your quarter. Again, these were not games designed to be beaten. These were games designed to beat you.
Like the voice of the modern gaming tutorial, Sinistar revealed the goal of the game to the player (which, again, was not your success, but your inevitable failure) before offering you a very simple instruction on how to play: “Run.”
And run you would, madly firing off any stored missiles you might have at this point, though you knew and the game itself clearly knew what the inevitable conclusion of fun could only and always be in the arcade: Game Over.