Posts Tagged ‘king’s quest’

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Tools and Toys: Origin of a Gamer (#BoRT)

November 7, 2012

Prologue: I promise I’m going to write some blog posts that aren’t #BoRT entries someday. I’m moving across states this week, nine months after last time I did it. Time is…well, it’s difficult to come by.

The theme of this month’s Blogs of the Round Table is “Origins”. Per #BoRT curator Alan Williamson: “What are your earliest memories of gaming? How do you think your childhood (or childish adulthood) experiences of gaming have influenced your life, if at all? Are there any game origin stories that reflect your own?”

Here goes nothing:

* * *

I didn’t “get” my first console. It was just, you know, there. I don’t even remember how I came to start playing it, just that I played it. I played Pong on it with a paddle, I played Combat on it with a joystick. It was an ugly thing, a giant brown box with conspicuous ports, buttons, and switches. It was my older brothers’ machine, and for some reason, when they moved out, they left it with my folks.

It was an Atari 2600. It didn’t change me or anything, I just can’t imagine my childhood without it.

I remember playing Pac-Man on that machine. I loved Pac-Man on that machine. I’m fully aware, 30 years later, that the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man is largely derided as perhaps the worst version of a classic game, but it didn’t matter. It’s amazing what can come off as brilliant when you don’t know that anything better exists. All I knew at that point was that it worked part of my brain that no other entertainment could. It also offered the first hints of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies when it came to video games; even when I was five years old, my Pac-Man strategy was to get all the dots first, saving all the power pellets for the end.

I remember playing Football on that machine. Honestly, I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

I remember playing E.T. on that machine. I may have played more E.T. than any other Atari game save for Pitfall II, certainly more than any other game that I “inherited” from my brothers. It was a fascinating and alien thing. It was aggressively strange, punishing, and difficult, and I wanted so badly to understand it. I got pretty good at it, if I’m being honest.

I remember playing Yars’ Revenge, Venture, and Super Breakout. I remember playing Pitfall, and Kaboom, and River Raid. I remember playing some odd Sesame Street thing that involved an exclusive number-pad peripheral thing. And I remember playing them over, and over, and over again. Somehow, my parents let me stick with these games, they let me treat them like any other toy, and not like the devil in the TV.

Heck, I should probably thank them for that.

The first machine I was alive for when it was introduced into the house was an IBM PCJr. As if to try and convince me that this machine was a necessary component of our household, my dad showed me Jumpman on the first day that computer was in the house.

Do you remember Jumpman? Think a sub-8-bit version of N+ and you’re probably not too far off.

My god. I just remembered that computer was in the kitchen. THE KITCHEN. Why was it in the kitchen?

The actual cover art for the IBM PCJr version of King’s Quest.

As much as the 2600 showed me what video games could be and do, that PCJr showed me what they were made of. I bought books of BASIC programs that I one-fingered into files, LOADed, and RUNned. Every so often, a game I bought in the store would error out, and I’d get a glimpse of the source code, a stray GOSUB or a division by zero error. It was proof that these things were written, line by line, by actual honest to goodness humans. I admired these humans, even at six years old. I wanted to meet them, and I wanted to be them. I wanted to know what it was like to make something as open-ended and gleefully difficult as King’s Quest (a PCJr exclusive when it was first released!) and as utterly mysterious and far-reaching as In Search of the Most Amazing Thing.

Where the 2600 represented the future of toys, the PCJr represented endless possibility, a world in which creation and consumption could coexist and intermingle, a world in which I could, when I learned enough, change my games to suit my needs and interests.

Could I have articulated all that then? Hell no. Still, I think it was there in an abstract sense. Just as a child can sense tension even when all the grownups in the room are still plastering smiles on their faces, a child also knows when the future is knocking on the door.

My brothers, and then my father, brought the future into our house. I didn’t even have to ask. It’s no wonder I can’t just “play” games. I have to understand them, too.

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L.A. Noire: The Interrogative Mood

June 16, 2011

Yes, I borrowed the title. It’s a very good book, by the way.

Oh, hi Cole. Looking serious again? Yeah, thought so.

In a review of L.A. Noire that I wrote for PopMatters a week or two ago, I touched on a part of the reaction to the game that struck me as curious: the disappointment that people seem to be feeling that interrogation is either “frustrating“, “broken“, or “opaque“, among other criticisms. As the most distinctive part of the game, it’s also the part most ripe for criticism, but the criticism that has appeared often seems misdirected.

The problem is that much of the criticism is boiling down to “I was terrible at it, and therefore there must be something wrong with it.”

Game critics are gamers who have necessarily played hundreds of games. There is an expectation that comes with playing a game — at least, a console game — that your mistakes will be erased with the push of a button, that you’ll get to try, try again until you get it right. The interrogation sequences of L.A. Noire don’t allow for this. If you get something wrong, your suspect/witness clams up and you just have to go without whatever crucial piece of information they might have been hiding. This is, obviously, unthinkable.

This issue seems partially related to the way the interrogation sequences are presented to us. Theoretically, we should be able to look for a sideways glance, a furtive breath, or a bitten lip and know right away that whoever we are speaking to is a DIRTY LIAR. On the other side of that, if the person looks directly at us, speaks clearly, and doesn’t hedge their answers, they are a SHINING BEACON of TRUTH. It is, of course, not that easy in practice. When “intuition points” are introduced, which offer the player the opportunity to glean some extra insight into what the “right” approach might be, the initial reaction is to scoff. “I won’t need those,” we think, “I’ll just look extra carefully at the eyes.”

Seriously, what could this look possibly mean?

Still, there’s a hint in that they are called “intuition points”. Unless there is cold evidence that the person is lying, much of interpreting the answers that the person gives is up to the player to, uh, intuit. Often, the most effective method of questioning is based on a hunch. If a player looks sideways but has no apparent reason to lie, chances are, they’re not lying. What the game doesn’t tell us is that hey, some people just look off to the side when they talk. Sometimes, a sideways glance is nothing to get excited about.

How do we know which instances are which? Well, those intuition points suddenly look awfully useful. I found myself driving around L.A. circa 1947 just for the sake of finding random landmarks that would help me gain the experience levels necessary to gain more of the things. You simply can’t collect enough of them.

Really, the game sets us up to fail, and fail often, and then live with our failure. More than anything, these passages evoke games like the original King’s Quest, games that don’t tell you when you’re screwing up, content to let you screw up until you’re in such an irrevocable position that you have to start over. Missed an item along the way? Well, go ahead and keep going, but eventually, it’s going to bite you in the ass. You’re never going to be able to get to the end without it. In L.A. Noire, you can keep going, and you can even solve whatever mystery it is you’re working on, but good luck winning the affections of your superiors, much less your colleagues.

As pointed out in the review, this serves to separate player from character, which I believe was actually the developer’s intent. That interrogation is frustrating you is the point. If Cole Phelps were better at it, he would cease being Cole Phelps and become a reflection of the player, and really, nobody should want to see more of themselves in the character of Cole Phelps.