A Literal-Lateral Conundrum
Then, at Christmas, I received my first video game . . . Suddenly I wasn't watching Harrison Ford act out Han Solo or playing with a tiny plastic doll of Han Solo: I was Han Solo.
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
We were always contemporaries, but it was some time before we would meet. I was born in 1971, a porcine blond-haired babe who, from photographic evidence, quite possibly provided the impetus for early character sketches of Jabba the Hutt. I grew up in the south of England, a child of the television age and of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I lapped up the homegrown science fantasy of the BBC's Doctor Who, imported action shows like The A-Team and Miami Vice and the big screen adventures of Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.
Sure these examples of '70s and '80s pop culture were often ridiculous or trite or otherwise problematic. At the same time, though, they were also exciting, vibrant, and, crucially, made me think laterally about the world. So much so that the influence of such TV shows and films continues, in some residual way, to this day, evident most obviously in my professional work as a writer and teacher, and most covertly in my daydreams. For my digital contemporary, the video game, such influences are often equally present in some form.
It was also in 1971 that the arcade video game business erupted into pulsating, cacophonous life, thanks to Nolan Bushnell's Computer Space. It's true that video games had been around for a decade or so before that point: Spacewar! , widely acknowledged as the first full example of the form, was invented in 1961. But it was created by scientists and played, by and large, by scientists or people studying to become scientists. Computer Space represented an attempt to reimagine Spacewar! inside a cabinet for the outside world; namely the wider quarter-clutching public. That it wasn't a success said more about capitalism's much vaunted radicalism than it did about the idea per se; without the necessary backing Computer Space didn't get far. Yet its successor Pong, proved that the concept of a commercial digital game was one which would ultimately prove very profitable, indeed.
In 1983, I finally got to meet the video game. When I was 11, I was awarded second place in a national newspaper competition. School children from around Britain were asked to "Design a House of the Future", the kind of building we might expect to find ourselves living in come the year 2000. At the time the year 2000 was about as futuristic a set of digits you could wish for, more so than even 1987 (when Buck Rogers would apparently disappear into the 25th century), and even 1999, when, according to Gerry Anderson, the Earth would be destroyed and Moonbase Alpha sent on its eventful way.
The year 2000 was not that distant to me, however. I clearly remember scoffing at my best friend Michael Eley's imaginings, which included a teleporter in the kitchen. Ever the realist, I laughingly pointed out that technology would never have progressed that far in a mere 17 years, before busying myself with the design details of my robotic cat, Mog-E. Second-prize winner of the competition, I won a state-of-the-art Atari 800 and 1050 disc drive.
In those early months of ownership I hadn't the faintest idea what to do with the gigantic beige machine I'd acquired, which ,like much technology of the time, looked like the bastard off-spring of a radiator and a typewriter. I had even less idea of what to do with the accompanying disc drive, which seemed to serve little more purpose than to give the appearance of a badly designed toaster. I would listlessly type in the lists of programming instructions in the Atari manual, producing initially impressive spiralling patterns or randomised maths questions, until I became bored and returned to my ever expanding collection of Star Wars figures.
Then, at Christmas, I received my first video game. It was entitled Star Raiders, it came on a cartridge that plugged into the left-hand slot underneath the hatch on the Atari's top and it was sublime. I found myself staring out of a cockpit into deep space, my fighter tasked with defeating the various marauding ships of the Zylon Empire. The dogfights I'd watched on television and seen in the cinema were happening around me. Suddenly I wasn't watching Harrison Ford act out Han Solo or playing with a tiny plastic doll of Han Solo: I was Han Solo.
Twenty years later I got to interview the creator of Star Raiders, Doug Neubauer. He's an incredibly modest man who seems utterly bemused by the public's continued fascination with something he put together some two decades earlier. I played the game again as preparation for the interview. Certainly it's a successful game because it keys into a notion of what actually piloting a space fighter might be like replete with appropriately sci-fi graphics and sound effects. But in replaying it I realised that there was something else at work here, some other vaguely tangible quality.
The game industry has grown through the arcade and console frenzies which characterised the '70s and the home computer boom of the '80s, which in Britain, particularly, saw an explosion of cottage industry creativity. The global industry has developed through the resurgence of the console in the '90s to a position where a triumvirate of mighty corporations Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo dominate the early years of the 21st century. Games themselves have transformed from the two-dimensional static playing fields of Pong and Space Invaders into three-dimensional, roving environments, populated with recognisable men, women and machines rather than abstract colours and shapes.
And just as games changed, so did I. Just like video games, children start out as abstract, colourful shapes. They are imaginative, they think laterally and create wondrous things with the minimum of raw material. Unfortunately the process of adolescence invariably bangs us into inappropriate holes, our shapes distorted and our colours dulled. The adult world assuredly functions on literal terms, and growing up is little more than an often inordinately painful course of inculcation in the necessary life skills or the dread "common sense" needed to enable us to function as successful citizens. The biggest irony, of course, is the fact that society, in terms of art, politics, and literature, prizes the lateral above all else. Or at least, and note the bitterness, claims to.
Has the video game been similarly hammered into a literal shape as it has evolved? We might argue that, aside from notable exceptions, video games have certainly become more literal and less lateral. This isn't necessarily a result of the movement from the abstract to the figurative and representational, since many older games we might now consider abstract were in fact attempting to be representational but were forced into forms of abstraction by the limitations of the then available technology.
Activision's classic Pitfall! (1982), for instance, an adventure game in the mould of Indiana Jones, struggled very hard to portray a real world, of sorts. Yet the resulting blocky representations of the hero Pitfall Harry or the crocodiles that menace him look undeniably abstract by comparison with the textured complexity of today's polygon-constructed imagery.
Literal representations don't necessarily have to marshal against lateral gameplay. Indeed modern classics like Halo or Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, both which employ figurative and representational approaches, are successful precisely because of their ability to encourage lateral thought on the part of the player. It's this, as much as the beautifully realised audiovisual environments, that enable these particular games to stand out amidst the surfeit of unoriginal and hackneyed product that otherwise dominates the market.
The reason that earlier games seem more lateral is much more prosaic. The advantage for those early examples of the form resides precisely in the fact that they were the pioneers of the medium: pretty much anything they did was experimental. The sheer diversity of games that appeared in those early days is testimony to this: gamers of yore were able to pick from maze, action, driving, text, adventure, platform games, and from the manifold hybrid forms that arose combining various of the constituent elements. For contemporary gamers, innovation by and large occurs at the technical, minute level: in lighting changes, perhaps, or in advancements in sound. For every lateral-minded game of the majesty of Halo or Vice City, there are numerous examples which not only look literal, but demand literal engagement on the part of the user. The question inevitably arises as to how we get back to the freshness that characterised the early days of the form?
In terms of appearance and attitude, myself and the video game are more literal than we were in our youth. The secret of Star Raiders' success resides in its ability to not only portray as literally as possible what it would be like to sit in the cockpit of a space fighter, but in its continued ability to make me think laterally about when to fire my photon torpedoes, when to flee, when to refuel, and when to use my shields. In the worlds of literal representation that the video game has evolved into, the challenge lies in being able to still encourage that crucial element of lateral engagement. But then holding on to the lateral in the world of the literal is a challenge for us all.