“Computer games console me…” My personal history with computer games
When I was younger I never used jumpers for goal posts, unless of course they were virtual. I never spent much time on a football pitch unless it was in the latest version of Fifa and I rarely went out cruising just for the hell of it unless I’d just jacked the car at gunpoint before wheel spinning off to the distant soundtrack of approaching Police cars, Grand Theft Auto stylee. I think that it would be fair to say that, when I was a Miner, I was Manic for computer games, and though I may not have gotten out much I still managed to visit far away worlds to rescue stranded aliens, I got to fly low-level sorties above an angry Deathstar whilst in formation with other X-wing fighters and I even defended a mist shrouded temple from invading Ninjas using my impressive button-summoned Kung Fu skills. I am a Geek, a nerd, a lover of all things technological and gadgety. I make no apologies for this and would even be willing to fight for my right to play games and to call myself a games lover…assuming of course that there was no End of Level Boss to have to face at the end.
My earliest introduction to video games was in 1980 when my Dad purchased for us a Sinclair ZX80. Though my Dad had little exposure to computers in his life, he was still forward thinking enough to foresee just how important and how utterly integrated they would become in our daily lives in the years to come, after all it was a computer on which all of the USS Enterprise’s data was stored, a computer called Deep Thought that designed the Earth which led to the discovery of the number 42 and it was computers that gave the Smash robots the ability to successfully coordinate their potato information gathering reconnaissance missions. Sadly however, though he had bought the computer for us to use as a learning tool, not even my Dad could have believed in the last years of the 20th Century that human affairs would mainly be conducted via the internet and that real people would soon be replaced by 2D or 3D anthropomorphic replacements known as Avatars.
The ZX80 was effectively a piece of cardboard with a keyboard crayoned onto it and the word ZX80 scrawled in one of the top corners. It had about as much computing power as an average frozen fish finger and its’ flat plastic keyboard gave little away to suggest that you might actually be hitting any of the buttons. However, with time, patience, and a little TLC you could get some letters to appear on the screen…but that was about it. Actually, having blown the nostalgic fairy dust from this memory, maybe the ZX80 wasn’t all that after all.
1982 saw the creation of an altogether different beast, the ZX Spectrum. Unlike the ZX80’s 1k memory, this now sported a top of the line memory chip which consisted of a whopping great, mind bogglingly vast 16k that performed at lightening speeds achieving 0-60 in approximately three and a half months. If the ZX80 was the speaker that only went up to 1, then this was the speaker that went, not just to 11 but all the way to 16 and those who lived long enough to see one of its games eventually load were rewarded with a visual cornucopia of staggeringly basic colours that, when placed too closely together on the screen, would then fight for dominance leading to what nerds would soon live to fear and know as, colour clashes!
But, having listened to a whole album of, biiiib, bib, biiiib, biddle-iddle-iddle-iddle…as its basic coding was streamed at full gramaphonic speed and volume from the cassette player to the CPU, I found myself playing games I never could have imagined. One minute I was playing as a Manic Miner, jumping from platform to platform whilst avoiding being trodden on by a Pythonesquely long-legged boot, the next minute I was playing as a Mr Blobby character called Horace who would ski down a totally photo-unrealistic snowcape in search of anything that could adequately satisfy his hunger.
In our house we did not fall foul of the marketing ploys that led to people stampeding out in their droves to buy the next generation in the evolution of gaming machines, the Commodore 64. No…we played the long game. Could we have bought the 64? Hell yeah, if food was something we’d grown tired of being able to purchase then, yeah, sure, we could have bought it…but we had bigger aims in mind, we had seen the future…and it was called the Atari ST. OMG! (Oh my Gates!)
Oh my Gates, those colours, they didn’t even clash. How was that even possible? How could it have been that colour could have coexisted on the same part of the screen at the same time without there being some form of kaleidoscopic arm wrestling involved?
And the games, oh the games…so advanced was this computer that the makers had invented a thing, never before seen in the physical world. They had created something called the third dimension. In a game called Hunter I was able to walk further away and, if I wanted to, closer to the screen. I could spin around, walk, sail, drive and even climb into a helicopter to fly for a thimbles’ worth of fuel before crashing into the ground with a gloriously hued collection of triangles which, with a little imagination and a great deal of sad desperation, the viewer could imagine was an explosion.
The thing was that in those early days games designers had to rely heavily on the imagination of the player. This meant that, due to the lack of computing power, the designers had to work harder in some ways in order to deliver a feature, rarely seen these days, that we then called gameplay. Not able to rely on flashy realistic effects and incredible sound quality, the games then had to be more innovative and challenging in order to capture the players’ attention and, ultimately, money.
I’ve probably owned more than twenty PC’s in my time ranging from basic-basic word-processing only type PCs to all singing all dancing gaming laptops. I’m not saying that as if it’s something to be proud of, I’m just explaining my reasons for being single most of my early adult life. But these machines were adaptable, upgradeable, customisable. In those early years I found myself tinkering and meddling with the innards of many of my PC’s, not necessarily because I had to sometimes but just because I could. Soon I had upgraded the Ram, had installed a quieter fan and had even disabled the on-board bleep generator to replace it with something called a Soundblaster. And what was the point of this Soundblaster nonsense? Did it make me more attractive to the opposite sex? No! Did it cover up those unwanted facial wrinkles or remove that unwanted carpet stain? No! At first, I wondered, why I had spent the cost of a small family car on a small board that looked fit for nothing more than slapping on the grouting with so as to finally complete my bathroom tiles. And then I turned it on and…hang on…what the…Did…did Obi-Won just say “The force will be with you..”, “Oh my Gates Obi, how long for?!”, “…Always.” “Always? Agghhhhhh! What the fu**?” Alec Guiness just confirmed that the force would be with me, in fact I think he may have even said my name…I can’t be sure about that last bit!
Games had not only broken the third wall but now they had punched a hole through the sound barrier, had reached through a hand and given the world of humans a rebelliously cocky two fingers. I had arrived! I wasn’t sure where it was but I liked it and, If nothing else, it at least sounded good!
The following few years saw the invention and introduction of the CD-Rom. This sadly allowed games designers to become very (very) lazy for a short spell. No longer being so confined by such small data storage devices as floppy disks, designers suddenly threw at the players lavish cutscenes, fully orchestrated soundtracks and an untold amount of scratchy live video footage. This temporarily blinded players who were easily distracted and engrossed by the new shiny-shiny that flashed before them. Poor reviews and even poorer sales however would soon force games designers to return to what it was that made them great in the first place, designing good games…and not relying on the technology alone to sell their wares and trinkets.
An XBOX, XBOX 360, Nintento Wii, Atari 2600, PS3 and PS4 later (Handhelds aside) and yet I can still remember the fright that I experienced the first time I tried in vain to rescue downed pilots on the alien world of Fractalus and, having closed my airlocks too slowly, I was attacked by an alien that took up the whole of the screen as it screamed at me. I remember the first time I stopped my horse along a deserted dirt track to wonder at the incredible sunsets and in so doing temporarily delayed the long-fought-for redemption of John Marsden. I remember the first time I laughed at a Lucasarts point and click adventure and the many times I laughed at them after that. I look back and chuckle at the time my Brother and I first experienced an online game in the form of Delta Force and my character, armed with nothing but a knife, chased his, armed to the teeth with machine guns and rifles. I remember fondly how cars nearby me collided violently against one another in GTA V as I paused to marvel at meticulously designed waves as they crashed spectacularly against sun drenched rocks. And though I have travelled virtually the whole world now (that is to say, via Google Earth) I have also travelled much of the actual world now too. I have finally dragged myself out into the melting light of the real world and, though there’s more to me than just being a computer nerd, I have enjoyed all of these gaming moments as they’ve accompanied me on this journey of mine.
And it was in ‘Journey’ that I found the inspiration to write this blog. It is Journey, on the PS3 and now on the PS4, that has inspired me to reflect on my relationship with games consoles and PCs and the gaming moments they have given me. Journey, made by THATGAMECOMPANY, is for me the culmination of years of games design evolution. Its design is elegant, its music, sorrowful yet full of hope. The journey itself, (NO SPOILERS ALERT) is short lived, maybe a one to two hour experience, but it is so beautifully executed as to make it a must have for any gaming enthusiasts’ collection…but moreover I believe it is something that transcends being just a mere game. It is an ‘experience’. It is as aesthetically simple as it is emotionally complex. Yet, in its gorgeously designed simplicity lies a wonderfully detailed depth and a heart-warmingly presented tale.
The journey introduces the player to strangers from parts of the real world in the form of randomly decided pairings but soon, with a simple language of tweeps and chirps, these strangers become treasured companions who accompany and teach us along the way and who we in turn help guide as we travel ever nearer to our final destination. A genuine feeling of attachment is soon experienced for these almost-silent travellers with whom we have nothing in common bar the fact that they too are on the same Journey as us.
For anyone who has lost the passion for gaming, for anyone who has forgotten what it was once like to not just play but to also experience a game, in fact, for anyone who needs a gentle reminder of just how beautiful the journey can really be, I can’t recommend more to you that you dust off your old PS3 or fire up your shiny new PS4, turn off your phone, grab a glass of wine and sit down to share a short lived but emotionally and beautifully inspiring Journey.
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