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April 22, 2003

Computer Games and Me

Friedrich --

Despite age, fatigue, and ever-increasing self-absorption, I still make the occasional effort to get in touch with the directions pop culture seems to be going. Computer games, for instance. Every few years, I go to a videogame parlor and drop a 20 trying games out. (I always wind up at the old-fashioned games, the ones with steering wheels or revolvers. Joysticks confuse me.) After we got our Imac, I watched over the Wife's shoulder as she got very good at Bugdom, the cute game that came with the machine. Remember the hullabaloo some years back about "Myst"? Finally, art and a computer game together, etc etc? I bought it and gave it a try, even if I did quit within 30 minutes. (The game insisted that I solve puzzles before moving on. Fat chance of that.) The Wife and I even watched (if mostly on fast-forward) "Resident Alien," the videogame-based movie that I'm told true videogamers approve of.

Let's see ... The up arrow moves me forward, is that right?

Idea and artwise, I do get what's interesting about the computer-game experience, or so I like to think. On a more basic level, though, I'm worse than hopeless. Last week, for instance, I became convinced for who knows what reason that what I most needed in life was to give myself the experience of getting really, deeply involved, with a computer game. How would I know what that's like otherwise? So I went out and bought Hexen II, which is said to be pretty good and to work well on pokey ol' Imacs too. I'm willing to put hours into exploring this game, I really am. I load it on the computer, I click into it ...

hexen II 02.jpg
Where's my gun? Er, my sword? Er, my rocket launcher... Ooops, too late.

And I'm completely stumped. Back in our day, games came equipped with rules, and these rules were easily accessible, and you learned them before playing the game. With computer games, figuring out the game seems to be the game. Right. So I stare at the screen, jab at some of the keys on my keyboard, and try to puzzle this thing out. There are corridors. There are doors. There's some blah-blah under the embarrassing, movie-wannabe opening credits about something called "levels," and there seems to be some kind of backstory involving bad-fantasy-novel characters whose names I can't remember. I manage to deduce that using the arrow keys will move me through the corridors. But, despite my best efforts, I have yet to be able to fire off a bullet -- or a missile, or fireball, or whatever it is I'm meant to wield. I have yet to be able to defend myself, in other words, let alone actually get anywhere. Only a minute or two after I set out, Darth Vaderesque bad guys blast me into a zillion polygons.

Once again, I feel like I'm trapped and helpless in someone else's nightmare database. So I went Googling for help. Here's what came up:

The four horseman of the Apocalypse lurk in the shadows before you. They are Death, Pestilence, Famine and War. They are the root of all that is evil. They are the least of your worries.

The last known Serpent Rider, Eidolon, lives. As the Necromancer, the Assassin, the Crusader, or the Paladin, you must defeat the dark generals and their Hell-spawned legions before you can face the Archfiend and attempt to end his ravenous onslaught.

With the destruction of D'Sparil and Korax, the forces of Light believed that they would gain respite from the vicious attacks of the Serpent Riders. They were wrong. As you clinch your bootstraps and ready your weapons, you can only hope and wonder what lies in the depths of the recently besieged castle that stands before you. All of humanity rests on the edge of your blade. Go in peace and you will surely die.

What the ...? Yet this passage is meant to help me be able to play this game. Can you make any sense of it?

I'm beginning to get the feeling that I'm going to be frustrated in my attempt to get really, really involved in a good long game of "Hexen II."



posted by Michael at April 22, 2003


I feel your pain. I used to work in a four-man company, all programmers, all ten years younger than me, and we would play a networked game of whatever the very latest first-person shooter was on Friday nights. The humiliations I endured scar me to this day.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on April 22, 2003 2:01 AM

My first instinct is to be incredibly snarky, but I've let it pass in favor of saying that people who actually play games as a form of enjoyment generally figure out what they like first (shooters, adventure, role-playing, simulations) and *then* pick a game and play it, hopefully based on recommendations from friends they trust. You seem to be hampered in large part by technology and, no offense, a sort of prideful, willful ignorance. Something tells me that you might want to curl up with a nice book, instead.

Posted by: Kenneth G. Cavness on April 22, 2003 10:54 AM

Kenny, gee, that was kind of harsh.

Personal opinion moment: If a user is "hampered [edit] by technology" in any computer application, even games, then the developer/programmer has failed, not the user.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 22, 2003 2:49 PM

Hey Aaron, One of these days I'm going to have to twist your arm and get you to sit me down and explain a computer thing or two to me.

Hey Kenneth, That scornful tone? That "I'm going to say that I won't be snarky and then go ahead and be snarky anyway" ploy? You may find that life goes a little easier when you get used to the fact that non-geeks almost universally find that particular brand of behavior annoying.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 22, 2003 3:04 PM

One of the humiliating discoveries of my latter years has been the one that I suck very badly at shoot em up computer games. I have been killed countless times either in or just beyond the torture chamber that begins Return to Castle Wolfenstein (Nazi torturers and ghouls and so on), repeatedly blown to Kingdom come in Die Hard before I can defuse the first bomb, and killed in action halfway down the road to the gun battery in Medal of Honour. My three-year-old grandson seems to be a lot more proficient ...

Posted by: Dave Farrell on April 22, 2003 3:18 PM


The problem is, you walked into the theater in the middle of the third act--so to speak. Hexen II and its ilk largely follow a set of conventions that goes back to Doom and (before that) to the original Castle Wolfenstein 3-D. I rather expect that most players of Hexen II have played one or more of the earlier games, and know what they are getting into. (That's no excuse for bad documentation, of course....)

Try pressing F1 while you're playing; that's usually the help key. It might show you what keys to press. Alternatively, look under Options; games like Hexen II let you remap the keys any way you like, so generally you need to look there to see what the current mapping is.

And if you're really interested, you could do worse than downloading Doom, and giving that a whirl. The graphics are low-tech by current standards, but it's still a pretty nifty game.

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 22, 2003 3:54 PM

I haven't paid much attention to games since we got connected to the Internet. There is way too much to take up my time. Mahjongg is more my style, but I did enjoy Monkey Island (way way out of date; from at least 10 years ago) The neat thing about it was you didn't get "killed" everytime you made a little mistake. Probably too easy for serious gamers.

Posted by: Lynn S on April 22, 2003 4:46 PM

Thanks to all for the tips. Let's see: "Doom," and "Monkey Island"... No, maybe "Monkey Island" first.

Hey, does it seem as clear to anyone else as it does to me that the mind that has been structured by videogames and computers is a very different thing than a mind that was formed by books and movies? They seem to have different goals, and to pursue them differently too. I wonder if ever the twain shall be able to converse. Or whether we book and movies people will just ride off into the sunset, and that'll be it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 22, 2003 9:40 PM

Shane!! Come back, Shane! Shane, come back...

Posted by: annette on April 22, 2003 9:52 PM

Michael said, "Hey, does it seem as clear to anyone else as it does to me that the mind that has been structured by videogames and computers is a very different thing than a mind that was formed by books and movies?"

Hmmm. I don't think those are mutually exclusive things. I've been reading voraciously since I was six, something that still continues today (as visitors to our web site can attest); and though not quite as voraciously I've been playing computer and video games more or less constantly since they were invented.

I think it's just a case of knowing the conventions. I'm sure you saw an awful lot of movies before you gained the insights into movie-making you have now. It's the same with videogames--except that perhaps, being interactive, videogames aren't as accessible. Many of the conventions involve how that interaction works.

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 22, 2003 10:37 PM

Ok, I hate the fact that I'm writing in not to discuss politics or art, but to give a recommendation on a video game, but.... About a year ago, my boyfriend discovered a game from 1999 called Outcast. It is also a little bit of a shout-'em-up, but it is also non-linear. It's an alternate universe tale with a "tough guy with a heart of gold" character named Cutter Slade. He/you is in a world named Adelpha, which has its own religion, customs and culture. As you solve problems in order to achieve your goal, you interact with these characters, and some of what happens is frankly really funny. I say it's non-linear because you are not forced to do anything and any specific order. And you do not finish one "world" then go to another--you move between the worlds. Our copy of the game came with an instruction booklet. Moreover, when your character arrives in this world, you are in a safe place where the other characters teach you skills you need to know before moving on.

In addition, the graphics are stunning (given how "old" the game is) and the music is incredible. The soundtrack was specifically composed for the game and performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. I've recently embarked on the game, and my boyfriend has been trying for almost a year to find another one like it.

Posted by: Keiran on April 23, 2003 9:49 AM

"Hey, does it seem as clear to anyone else as it does to me that the mind that has been structured by videogames and computers is a very different thing than a mind that was formed by books and movies?" Doesn't seem clear to me at all. Why are you seeing such a strong relationship between these games and books and movies? What is the common thread you see?

Would you be surprised to know that the way I play softball is not informed, particularly, by youthful adventures with Risk, Monopoly and reading "You Know Me, Al." But maybe PS2 has ruined my mind so I can't see the necessary connections.

Posted by: j.c. on April 23, 2003 3:32 PM

Hey Kieran, Thanks for the computer-game recommendation. And who says that has nothing to do with art?

Hey Will, Hey J.C., Interested to hear that you don't notice much diff between the minds of those, say, 40 and older and the minds of those, say 30 and younger. In the media biz, it's a fairly common thing to notice, actually. I joke that we oldsters have "Dewey-decimal system minds," and that the youngsters have "Playstation minds." The oldsters are more oriented towards making sense, organizing things in linear ways, and experiences of depth. The youngsters are more oriented towards nonlinear things, and towards very surface-y, effects-and-impact experiences. Even with tons of exceptions (and the usual diffs between the older and the younger) allowed for, this seems to hold true. Whether it's for better of for worse, beats me. But I do find that the changeover from analog to digital ways of storing, organizing and accessing knowledge and information is having an impact on people's thinking processes, as well as their art-and-media tastes. You really don't? I'm surprised.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 23, 2003 4:26 PM

At, for example, gallery shows, I find that while the younger idiots spew a different line of B.S., they are no more reflective about their line of B.S. than the 60s hold-overs. It's a surprise when anyone one from any generation has something original to say about the show.

As general drift goes, people naturally tend to act like their peers when in groups, and the true characters will appear a bit more interesting one-on-one. I wonder if some of what you are seeing is that, starting with kids born, oh let's say the fifties, each generation has been, overall, more and more spoiled. The spoiled tend not to be particularly thoughtful. Being ego-centric and analytical aren't naturally compatible. It seems unlikely that Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton were any more or less thoughtful than the Hilton sisters are. Do you think 20 and 30 something actors, for all their talk of meaningful roles and social import, are any more or less concerned with social issues and folding money and fame than actors of the past?

On the other hand, I wonder if widely available information (TV, internet) hasn't made it easier for poor kids to become better thinkers. But perhaps in the past poor kids saved their pennies for copies of "Popular Mechanics" and learned from that.

I would agree that mainstream arts and entertainment have become more simple-minded. This is, I hope, balanced by the fact that alternatives have flourished.

By the way, if you haven't seen "Sullivan's Travels," you might want to rent it for an old-timey discussion of why people like things simple and dramatical. Just substitute Cartoons for Grand Theft Auto.

Oh, and since I'm in super soapbox mode, is there a meaningful difference between fearing the red menace and fearing flesh-eaters? The generations are decades apart, yet militants vegans think like McCarthy. (I'm allowing that militants are not center spectrum in any society.)

Posted by: j.c. on April 23, 2003 8:52 PM


Much to my surprise, I find I can't comment on the "40's and older" vs. "30's and younger" divide you speak of. I'll be turning 40 later this year (gasp! I haven't quite absorbed that yet) and I discover that I don't really know that many folks in the younger category. And the ones I do know don't tend to play video games. Go figure.

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 24, 2003 10:56 AM


You should really try some non-shooters. People say great things about The Sims, where you run the lives of simulated people. My girlfriend and I have wasted happy hours lately playing Civilization III, another simulation game where you run a small empire.

And if you are still curious about shooters, I'd recommend Ghost Recon. It's not about shooting as quickly as possible. It's more about making a plan, and sneaking around trying to lay a good ambush. (This is the subgenre of tactical shooters.)

I played games a lot growing up. Then I stopped entirely. Now I'm at it again. I think they currently have no redeeming value besides the pleasure they offer, but I suppose you could say the same thing about detective novels or a mild coke habit. I am hereby exercising my prerogative as an under-thirty to offer only this surfacey & effects-based criticism.

Posted by: alexis on April 28, 2003 2:08 PM


If you want to learn how to play first-person shooters, then you'll have to spend some time on your game. First, you'll need to make sure your keys are mapped to useful features, and that your mouse buttons are similarly mapped to useful features. For rather detailed help, check out Note that this won't necessarily make you any good, but will prevent you from being embarassingly bad. I still play FPSs occasionally, and almost always end up close to the bottom of the scoring ladder, although rarely am I dead last. sigh.

Also, game designers, especially in titles which are sequels, are not really targeting the first-time player. In general, after the first game comes out there is a large mass of highly vocal game players/journalists/fanboys who are (1) extraordinarily adept at manipulating the controls of their computers, (2) deeply in love with complexity as an amusement, and (3) better at the first game than anybody (including the people who wrote it). These people will demand harder tasks, faster enemies, smarter opponents, tougher jumps, etc etc etc. The game development companies, hearing quite a great deal of "that was too easy" and almost no "that was too hard", oblige the fanbase with a much harder game next time 'round. You have unfortunately wandered right into the middle of that.

Finally, there is an analogy to modern (i.e. blockbuster-driven) Hollywood movie-making that I'd like to draw here: the writers can afford to spend less time actually establishing what needs to be done if they can show an idiomatic (or iconic) visual representation of some other game/movie that you would have already known. In this case, by making the game look like "Doom" et al, they assume that you'll recognize the idiom and play it like you played "Doom" et al. The downside is, as you're discovering, if you don't recognize or know the idiom you're just completely hosed. Hollywood does a similar thing: if the hero is on the run from the police, the writers don't have to find a new way to increase the suspense since they can have him walk into a bar with a television on. They know that all their viewers will fail to be surprised that the newscaster will break in with a report about the missing fugitive (including a good head shot of the hero), and when the shot cuts back there'll only be a swinging door. Voila! Scene established and everybody goes home early.

Posted by: Mitchell Morris on April 28, 2003 6:01 PM

Alexis, Mitchell, thanks for the tips, hints and explanations.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2003 12:58 AM

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