I am a reluctant gamer. Sure I played video games as a kid, and while at university I dabbled pretty heavily in tabletop role playing games, but I don’t think, except for a couple of years in my early teens, that I was ever a serious gamer. It was never a lifestyle for me, just a thing I did occasionally.
Now there are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that my true love and passion is stories. Games, even tabletop role playing games, are not about stories. In a video game you are not in control of the story, there is only the illusion of control. The stories that are generated in table top games are not interesting stories. They are emotionally rich experiences, I will give them that, but they are not detailed or anything more than shadows of the stories they invariably attempt to imitate. At best they are compromised by the limitations of being collaborative and improvised.
There is nothing wrong with this. There are people who do get enjoyment from playing the game, and not the story. There are also plenty of people who aspire to and succeed in enjoying a modern day and paraphernalia ridden version of a camp fire tale. Rich emotional experiences.
I am not one of these people it turns out.
I read comics, and I read the newspaper daily, and I read novels and short stories constantly. I like my fictions and non-fictions to be carefully assembled and to be the centre of the experience. This is why I am a reluctant gamer. I enjoy the idea of being able to repeatedly sit down and lose hours playing a video game. There are games I have played which at least for a while let me do this. Red Dead Redemption is a recent game which I managed to lose a day of my life playing quite happily.
However I haven’t yet come across a game which I have the same relationship with that the protagonist of Iain Bank’s fine novel Complicity has. Cameron Colley has Despot and Xerium, what do I have? Well I happen to have a couple of ideas for two of games I can imagine getting hooked on.
We shall start with my conception of a fantasy RPG. What do I want here? Well I want to be the hero, or the villain. I want to be the viewpoint character and more than that I want to on my own be the person that enacts change within the game world. I do not want a party around me. The only person I want to slay the dragon is me. Ideally I think this would be a third person game and probably fairly cartoony. Graphically abstract even. I have imagined for years that the greatest game ever would be a dungeon crawling game, like Angband and Nethack except simpler, with the interface of a recent 3D Legend of Zelda game and with the customisability of Morrowind.
There’d be a dungeon, for sure, and there’d be an ultimate goal: slay the dragon, steal the goblet of XYZZY or something. But they key thing for me would be how optional that’d be. See I reckon that it’d be just a fun game if you were allowed to dive into the dungeon to grab loot and try and operate a business as well as go on quests. The game would scale so that the deeper you dive the harder the challenges you face would be.
That should hold my attention for a wee while. If not indefinitely.
The other kind of game I want is actually something I have tried to program. This was back at the start of my computer science degree, years ago, and I never finished it beyond a very simple demo stage. See another kind of game I enjoy is the shoot ‘em up, a genre of game affectionately known to some as the SHUMP.
Now what I imagined was a skinnable SHUMP. This would be a strictly 2D affair you see, with sprites. Now all the sprites would be stored in a single file using a method known as a sprite map. Basically a grid of all the possible moving images that can appear in the game. The size allocated to everything in the game would be well defined. Everyone would know where on the map the spaceship would go, and everyone would know where the laser sprite and monsters one, two and three would go. This would mean the graphics in the game could easily be swapped and changed.
If a bit of common sense was applied then using the same logic the sound effects and music could also be changed.
Another idea I imagined for this game would that there’d be two different modes of play. There’d be an procedural mode which carried on forever until you ran of lives. There game would throw predefined waves of enemies at you in a sort of random sequence. The second mode of play would be more traditional and would be the game running through a predefined sequence of enemy waves.
This game, if calibrated well, should be genuinely addictive, and have no problems competing for my attention. Calibrated well means that if it spots that I am not winning then it makes the game a bit easier; likewise if it spots that I am doing well then it makes the game harder.
The interesting thing with these two games is that they appear to appeal to different parts of my brain, but both of them are abstract and lack stories in the traditional narrative sense. The stories which come from these games are emergent and are derived from my gameplay choices. What they lack in narrative they make up in being almost pure games. The first game, the RPG, is an exercise in resource management combined with exploration which is directed either at a final goal, minor quests or the accumulation of wealth. The second, the SHUMP, is a reflex game where the pleasure games from the twitch factor.
I don’t really want to play games for story; books and films already exist for that. What I want from a game is a time-sink to occupy the other parts of my brain.
If these two games existed in some form, or, if they exist, I owned them, then I suspect I’d have reached a state of games nirvana. Of course, if I want to get better at writing anything it is probably for the best these games never actually enter my life and that they remain dreams.
It is probably best that these games remain dreams.