Game over man, game over!

PS4 games controller

I am not, what, in modern parlance would be described as a “hard core gamer” I buy no magazines, follow no feeds, very rarely dip into forums and am completely lost when classic video games are referenced. I am a perpetual “noob”, a “scrub”, that lowest of the low; a “casual player”.
I am a (slightly) overweight, balding 64 year old in a world populated by aggressive gung-ho confident 12 years olds, long time nerds who have moved on to well paid jobs in IT, and proud dads dutifully trying to bond with their offspring over their latest birthday/Christmas present.
I have however always been fascinated by games and completely susceptible to immersing myself in their allure of an alternative reality.

I was, what was simply called in the 60s an awkward, difficult, or sometimes more cruelly, retarded, child. Only recently have I established that I am on what is called the “Autistic Spectrum”
What bugged everybody was that I didn’t want to play with other kids, would find alternative uses for just about any toy bought for me and generally seemed to live in my own weird world.
My mum had been a commercial artist, and encouraged me to draw and paint and also took control of selling the idea of reading and writing to me. I got it, eventually, and after a very slow start was reading everything I could get my hands on. My dad, an economics lecturer didn’t know what to make of me – which wasn’t surprising, as it was from his side I had inherited the AS!

By the age of eight I was reading every spare minute, even under the desk at school during classes, my head was full of other worlds; Just William, Biggles, Hornblower, Sherlock Holmes, H.G Wells, Edgar Alan Poe…

I also got bought Lego.
For birthdays, Christmas, Easter and at random moments in the year – in fact any time I needed sedating. Back in the 60s Lego came in a very limited set of brick sizes, a small range of colours; mainly red and white, with grey bases and a very few yellow, blue and black pieces. I soon had the biggest Lego set of any kid at school and those uniform bricks became my passport to all the new worlds bubbling up in my confused little head. I never built the stuff on the box covers; the bricks became icons, symbols for what I wanted them to be, soldiers, sailors, spitfires, bombers, battleships, chariots, horses. I built castles, mazes, ocean liners, prisons and even an airship. I piled the bricks up, knocked them down, smashed them apart and threw them at one another, floated (and sank) them in local streams, set fire to them and generally abused the hell out of what those enlightened Danes had envisioned as a “educational toy”

In October 1967 my parents, being quite liberal, and suspecting I knew a little about it from the reading, decided to let me stay up late and watch a BBC documentary on the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. We were living in a small flat in Epsom and I had my own room for the first time. The floor was black and white, a lino tile chequerboard and the bed was pushed into one corner. Later that week my mum came in to tidy the room and could hardly open the door.

The floor was a a Lego re-enactment of the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war; lines of white Lego confronting lines of red Lego with regiments, artillery, cavalry, officers and generals and a set of game rules which I can only vaguely recollect; not at all figurative – each brick on its end was a soldier, a square brick on top denoted an officer, a longer brick with a standard brick on top was a cavalryman and artillery was a combination of bricks with soldiers around it. The bricks were not “clicked together” The black and white tiles were territory, there was a currency, based the small selection of yellow bricks (gold) and some torn up writing paper “banknotes”. The whole game was essentially turn based with me lying on the bed flicking the small single spot black Lego pieces into the chosen frontline square and removing the white or red pieces depending on how they had fallen;

1960s Lego – limited pieces and colours; imagination required.

Face down = killed,
Faceup = wounded,
On the side = captured.

Survivors were promoted, squares changed hands, and currency was exchanged for prisoners, used to heal the wounded or to buy more artillery.

My mum complained about the mess and despite explanations, and protestations, eventually swept it all up.

A long series of other games ensued, I spent my pocket money on dice, roulette wheels and packs of cards and even enjoyed a brief surge of being good at maths, when the syllabus touched on probability.

PONG – the start of it all

In the early 1970’s I came across Pong, but after a interesting half hour or so realised its limitations and got bored.

Pong is a table tennis–themed arcade video game, featuring simple two-dimensional graphics, manufactured by Atari and originally released in 1972.

I was living in South Africa and got roped into one of the school’s rugby teams. I questioned the illogical way in which the points were awarded and had to escape to the wing, where all I had to do was wait for the ball to be thrown to me and then run like hell. A lot of the kids weren’t that keen on this weird British kid questioning their national sport, but luckily I developed a knack for speed and avoided most of the heavier tackles. I was never much of a team player.
50 years on and the points system has changed drastically, I still don’t get it!

I started a casino at school and briefly ran a book on the school sports day – an extremely silly thing to do given the strict laws about gambling in South Africa at the time; luckily the school, scared the press would hear of it, didn’t want to run the risk of the bad publicity, had no actual rule against gambling (it hadn’t occurred to them) and decided to let it run its course, confident I would learn my lesson by losing money, which of course I did, (school sports days are pretty predictable and my maths really wasn’t that good) I got a telling off and my days as a hustler were put quietly aside.

I played the average amount of arcade games in the 80s, (high score at Space Invaders in college for a couple of days) but by now I was aware of my addictive personality and started to realise some stuff should just be left alone!

As a press cuttings reader in the late 1980’s I did come across an interesting article in The Independent on why certain scoring systems are used in certain sports – tennis being a prime example; the weird scoring, game, set, and match formula is designed to make games more edge of seat for spectators (as opposed to first past the post). Don’t get me started on electoral systems (I’ll save that for another blog!)

In Harry Potter; am I the only one who thinks the scoring in Quidditch doesn’t add up?

In 1989 I became the proud owner of an Atari 1040st, but gave games a miss, settling for DTP, the cheaper black and white monitor, and “grown up stuff” with the exception of backgammon and chess. A flirtation with an F16 flight simulation program soon led to frustration when I realised I couldn’t even get off the ground, even after strafing the airbase buildings with cannon and missiles, (first by accident, then by bad temper.)
The platform and puzzle games of the 1980s just didn’t interest me; (cute Italian plumbers and cuddly animals bouncing about for fruit, yearrrg!) despite having a cousin who made a small fortune as founder member of a games company in in the early 90s.

So I missed out of what many older gamers regard the golden age of computer games.
I came across “Cossacks – the art of war” sometime back in the early 2000’s and played it incessantly on various PCs, even installing (with much time and effort) a 3rd party modification to update it and improve the AI, which had a previous tendency to wander about aimlessly and get stuck up hills; from the very beginning it took me back to my Lego Russian Civil war on the black and white tile floor in the Epsom flat.

Cossacks: European Wars is a real-time strategy video game for Microsoft Windows made by the Ukrainian developer GSC Game World. It was released on 24 April 2001. The game has an isometric view and is set in the 17th and 18th centuries of Europe. It features sixteen playable nations each with its own architectural styles, technologies and no limit on unit numbers

So when, after much agonising we decided to get a PS3 in 2013, it was more for the Blu-ray player and compatibility with our Sony Bravia TV than for gameplaying – I was more into strategy games (which are almost exclusively a PC genre), right?

Well, if controlling vast armies, herding up peasants to dig for coal, and building factories to produce cannons is your thing (it was mine) then, yes PC, mouse and keyboard, is there for you. In fact you can do pretty much anything with a mouse and keyboard, BUT, when it comes to aiming down the barrel of a gun and moving around, jumping and dodging, without basically having to learn a strange form of typing, then a controller (as in PlayStation or Xbox) is far more user friendly.

My first experience of a games controller came with the arrival of the PS3… and Destiny; a bundled game I hadn’t even heard of, nearly took straight to the local 2nd hand game store and hated for the first couple of days.

Destiny: the lost hours

In the beginning I just couldn’t get the hang of the controller and spent the first few hours walking into walls, punching the air and falling off things. The fact was I was so unprepared for the massive leap in game graphics I didn’t move for the first 5 minutes, not realising the cutscene had finished and I could! My first gun, a battered, hideously underpowered AK47 knockoff juddered in my hands and sprayed a stuttering dribble of “bullets” at the creatures who nimbly jumped out of the way and disdainfully killed me.
Eventually though I fought through the pain, got better weapons, a spaceship, travelled to other worlds, picked up a few dance moves, made a few friends , killed them in the player versus player arena and the game opened up.

The basic mechanics of this, and most computer games can best be summed up as “wash, rinse, repeat” i.e

  1. kill things
  2. pick up the stuff that results from this
  3. get more powerful weapons/abilities
  4. kill more powerful things
  5. return to 1

A lot of game play is what players call the “grind” whereby certain activities are done repeatedly in order to slowly accumulate a high enough power to attempt the next level and so on. This is where finding team mates or being matched with random other loners comes into its own, adding variation to an otherwise stale environment and providing some genuinely quirky human moments.

There is of course a “Campaign” – a linear story illustrated with breathtakingly film like cutscenes, that rewards you with the basics to enter the final phase of the game and after all gives you a valid excuse to go round slaughtering all those pixels.

The endgame consists of increasingly more challenging patrols, missions, quests and strikes until you attempt the virtually impossible Raids, which require a well organised group possessing extremely hard to come by, supremely powerful, exotic weapons with unique attributes, able to communicate and with good team skills and a passion for the timely despatching of almost indestructible bosses.
If that sounds like an online job description – that’s not far off the mark, as groups will actively recruit and interview candidates to make up Raid teams.

Needless to say I have never actually done a Raid!

In the old days it used to be a simple matter of buying the disc/cd rom/dvd, shoving it in the pc and you were in a world of your own. Games were advertised with cinema-like trailers and cutscenes that that promised much but were as far removed from the actual game play as the serving suggestions are on modern convenience food packaging. In the utilitarian world of computers games were a side product – 2 dimensional animated games of solitaire, for loners and social misfits. The internet has moved them smack bang into the middle of mainstream entertainment, The biggest games are populated by characters voiced by some of the best known actors and actresses from film, TV and stage and the majority of games are online only. Player interaction is increasingly important and with devices such as player “emotes”/animations and a much wider range of movements some genuinely laugh out loud moments spontaneously occur amongst the more inventive and irreverent players – seeing a group spontaneously form up after a public event; guitarist, drummer, and keyboard player, play to another group who danced in front of them for a short time before deluging them with grenades, people drinking tea up flagpoles, handing out popcorn or just sitting around in trees, does build a strange, but wonderful sense of online community. With downloadable content, expansions and seasons, games can be refreshed almost in real time and to the constant annoyance of players, weapons can be “nerfed” or “buffed”

Games ain’t just about shooting things!

In the early days of the Ps3 we did look around to see what games were available and ended up watching walkthroughs on YouTube, specifically by a player and reviewer TheRadBrad. We actually watched some back to back like they were a TV series.
For most games now there is the option to share screenshots and videos of gameplay, and stream contests. Any number of forums, companion apps and websites are available for managing inventories, communicating with team mates, or looking up how to progress if stuck. The player is no longer tied to the PC or console and can arrange to meet up with a team, or clan for a future game from a phone or tablet.

Which is probably the conclusion I was looking for. Games are no longer the lone, slightly anti- social and ultimately unrewarding addiction they were once considered. They are to all intents and purposes just as worthy as watching a film, a tv series or reading a novel. and require far more participation. They can be as social as players want them to be

I have a PS4 pro now, still not big on the social side, and still really only play a couple of games, I still don’t get too involved with the formal group activities but am not averse to joining other “randoms” for some light hearted, explosion filled silliness. Other times I can spend hours enjoying the scenery and vast isolation of No Man’s Sky

For the alone times!

And this time my mum can’t just sweep it all up!

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