Tuesday, June 05, 2018

i think you're all crazy for getting rid of your optical drives: notes from a technophile luddite

asking around, it's clear that almost nobody has optical drives around their home anymore, unless they have a blu-ray player or a game console attached to a television. young people in particular simply do not have access to an optical drive in their life. in truth most people don't seem to care and won't miss them, convinced that streaming provides a convenient and inexpensive push-button, remote-control access to everything that matters. the removal of bulky optical drives from laptops makes them thin and sexy, because the market has been repeatedly convinced by Apple Computer that thin and sexy is the best thing for laptops to be. and look at that – Apple has a streaming store, one of the first big ones on the internet. how convenient that for almost ten years now they haven’t allowed their customers the choice to have an optical drive in their systems

forget the fact that independent media productions are almost universally locked out of the streaming services that people actually use (except youtube, a platform on which the only way to make any money at all is to be immensely popular). ignore the ability to trade media with friends or like-minded communities, to borrow media from libraries, purchase titles from around the world, or sell media on used markets when the user is finished using it. nevermind the fact that streaming services in fact have only a very limited archive of media currently available, and almost universally present little depth or breadth to their available media: no controversy, no history, nothing which is too weird or hard to understand, nothing from other times or other countries. just the same collection of corporate material found on walmart shelves and gas station discount bins three for five dollars. these are inconveniences, certainly, but the more significant reason that i think everyone should keep an optical drive around is control

it is important to recognise that tangible benefits do exist for media streaming, not the least of which are environmental in nature. while streaming services use more electricity than Netflix, Apple, or indeed almost everyone would like to admit, over a period longer than ten years optical media have a tendency to end up not on the shelves of domestic or public libraries but rather in landfills, and at many times in their lifespan their physical presence signals the expenditure of gasoline for shipping. it is encouraging that optical media are able to be industrially recycled, but since doing so costs money which municipalities are not paying, only the most dedicated and wealthy consumer would ever worry about the environmental footprint of their optical media use and take the time to expensively ship their garbage discs to recyclers. furthermore, from the point of view of media users it is far more convenient to select a film from a streaming archive than to go to a store or shop online for an optical disc. streaming services also allow access to a more broad community of users, as geographical isolation tends to cohabitate with media isolation. with access to streaming services, rural communities are less dependent on the habits or economic realities of their local retail store owners, for example. the immediacy of the archive provokes a false sense of media expertise, of falsely enjoying a position of privilege and control. “i’m no sucker,” says the Netflix streamer. “i am more in control over my media experiences than anyone ever before”

however, it is not likely that Netflix will ever pick up that interesting bela tarr film people sometimes write about. those interesting Iranian films from the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s which poetically blended fiction and non-fiction into potent political allegories are not likely to be bought by streaming services, given the chameleon nature of geopolitical happenstance. inspired by a friend’s recent binge of japanese underground cyberpunk films of the 1990s, a search online only leads to disappointment when learning that no current service offers even Tetsuo the Iron Man, which is a million times more visible than any of the other weirdo films mentioned by that friend. in fact Netflix has nothing at all approaching sections for art and experimental films, silent films or the early hollywood studio era, european modernism, Bollywood musicals, or guerilla documentaries from the margins of latin american and african post-colonialism. due to competing licensing concerns, Netflix isn't even the best place for blockbuster films, as the studios are slowly trying to each have their own smaller netflixes, presenting a future in which fans collect apps instead of movies or music

while Spotify is smart enough to have licensed weirdos such as :zoviet*france: to their platform, the business model they offer to artists (aka no money at all) will not allow the next weirdo band to emerge, unless those weirdos happen to be independently wealthy. my guess is that if they are still around in twenty years, Spotify will be a frontend for Top40 artists whose new licenses give them copyright access to the archives of recorded music history for free 'as a service to their fans'. sure, weirdos and independent media could set up their own websites to allow consumers access, but the reality is that those attempts rarely work. as any independent media person could tell you, the vast majority of people simply will not go out of their way to access your independent media. in the early days of the internet david bowie and prince offered fans a direct sales model which in addition to music and video material also provided email and music licensing services, but not too many people used them. it is definitely tough for artists to sell to fans directly, however with optical drives at least there remains a possibility for such an exchange to occur. randomly go to a bar and be impressed by the band to the point where you buy a disc  it can be played in any optical disc player. some random street vendor in taipei is selling local music on disc – it can be played in any optical disc player. for a long time profits in the music industry were sustained by artificially inflated compact disc prices, and consumers were rightly pissed at being asked to pay $15 for 74 minutes of crap to hear the 5-minute song they actually wanted to purchase. but streaming and downloading music does not sabotage the profits of the record industry, whose artists are essentially multinational media investments backed by sufficient financial capital to use 'songs' and 'music' as advertisements for fan participation in a celebrity 'experience'. music fans who don't pay for music are not 'striking back at the industry'; they are failing to provide artists who aren't superstars with a revenue stream on which they can tour and produce music, rent an apartment, and buy food

now that optical drives are increasingly not owned by media consumers, the vast majority of optical disc content not transferred to streaming services will remain arcane mysteries except to the most dedicated of media scholars, existing as a hazy ‘there-be-dragons’ cloud of bytes locked behind an artificially antiquated viewing practice. after all, in both cases the viewing practice is the same; what has changed is the means of distribution, with new forms of distribution falling under the control of an increasingly smaller elite of corporate entities. after a number of years teaching film and media studies classes, it is clear to me that media content which is not immediately clickable simply does not exist for the streaming generation. content is somewhat secondary to convenience of access: students will click and watch a maya deren film on youtube, but will not watch an older version of Star Wars on DVD. perhaps such is inevitable, and the media consumption of the masses has always been of concern to media scholars, but i understand the termination of access to physical media as signalling something else, something a bit more consequential. not quite the tired end-of-history talk common to end-of-media discourse, but worry rather about a more precisely prescribed history to come

the point i wish to make here is much less about what is available on streaming services than what is made unavailable by the loss of optical media drives. as a Netflix subscriber myself – for the tv shows they produce – this article is not intended to convince anyone to drop their subscriptions. rather, i want people to reconsider the loss of an optical drive from their lives. optical drives are relatively open standards, whereas online streaming protocols are not. anyone incorporated or not can freely produce material (granted, within the confines of national obscenity laws) and distribute it to media consumers who have a technical platform capable of reproducing it. of course there exist a number of methods to restrict access to the optical disc as an open platform, most notably the numerous digital rights management (DRM) methods implemented for the protection of copyrighted materials. while optical drives attached to computers provide the greatest amount of flexibility for reproducing the contents of optical media, consumer optical devices such as compact disc, DVD, and blu-ray players are also relatively open platforms when the inexpensive and often freely-available protocols they use are adhered to. in other words, any musician, individual, or company may produce and sell any audio signal they want knowing that disc will be reproduced properly for all listeners so long as the disc conforms to the ‎IEC 60908 protocol for audio reproduction (also known as redbook audio for compact discs). currently there exists millions of individual media titles on optical disc formats and all of them can be reproduced by all users of optical disc drives. the paradoxical point here being made is that in practice optical drives are more open as a media distribution standard than is a digital network connection

no such analogy as independent music exists with streaming services. let us put aside the false binary of physical and non-physical media, for streaming services and file sharing and every other computational medium is a complex articulation of silicon chips, magnetic and electrical storage devices, network hardware, software protocols, and financial assets which all manifest as physical ‘things’ whose physical use and ownership have physical and non-physical implications on the media they deliver (the ‘internet of things’ is really just ‘more things on the internet’, the continued application of the physicality of networked computation to an increasing number of ‘things’). i watched as friends sold off their disc collection after ripping their music and movies to hard drives. after all, why keep the disc when it can be sold and my friend can keep watching their rip? consumers empowered by optical disc rips enjoy a false mastery over the consumer market however, as over the long term – say longer than ten years or so – that rip and sell strategy does not work unless my friend has a professional data management plan in place, ensuring yearly backups to new hardware with file integrity validation procedures. hard drives crash, operating systems and user activity often fail to keep data intact, and magnetically-recorded bits can flip polarity (1’s become 0’s and 0’s become 1’s) over time, and unless a person has expertise in long-term film management or is paying someone else to have that expertise for them it is almost certain that they will lose access to their data at some point, and probably much sooner than they expected. much as many users lost access to the files they kept on floppy disks but did not transfer to a hard drive before purchasing a computer lacking a floppy drive (Apple users who in the late 1990s purchased the first iMacs as perhaps the most famous example), users who expect permanence to their files often forget that those files exist as physical instantiations, with access requiring a performative interpretation by a specific hardware architecture. as this truth renders computational media highly volatile and fragile, it is best to embrace open rather than proprietary standards. the point, and one which for many readers will perhaps be overly belaboured, is that optical drives represent a significant open standard which we should not be so quick to abandon

that being said, it is indeed possible to discuss some issues related to a changed physicality. it is not possible to ‘lend’ or ‘sell’ streamed media after use, and it is not possible for content to be shared between services or with users who have not subscribed to any service, or with devices incompatible with the service. for example, for DRM purposes Netflix currently requires computer users to have very specific processor and operating system architectures in order to stream 4k video, chipsets so specific in fact that computer users who are not official ‘Microsoft Insiders’ as part of the Windows 10 operating system subscription model are not able to stream 4k content. Apple mac users cannot officially stream Netflix in 4k and are forced to either hackintosh a workaround or limit themselves to 4k selections in iTunes. streaming is a tenuous network of gardens walled by proprietary protocols and DRM efforts and held together by legal and financial discursive practices, whose commercial existence precludes any function as a stable personal archive or cultural repository. here's the thing about streaming that media consumers aren't considering: all those streams exist on servers owned by companies which are guaranteed to either 1) go out of business at some point, or 2) be acquired by a larger media conglomerate. when either of these eventualities happens, the licensing arrangements media consumers previously made with companies become null and void. long story short, consumers get to purchase their media access all over again, and in the process it is guaranteed that specific titles will become lost in the legal shuffle, unavailable once a user has reset their subscriptions

while this process (of legal ‘censorship’) occurs with formats previous to optical media (witness for example the loss on home video media due to music licensing arrangements of many sequences from the originally broadcasted episodes of WKRP In Cincinnati), but this process is exacerbated by the ease with which streaming services and other media companies change their relationships with their customers. for example, Netflix periodically removes content for reasons related more to marketing concerns rather than licensing issues. another example involves the digital game series No One Lives Forever (NOLF), well-produced parodies of James Bond and the 60’s spy tv show fad with a solid female protagonist and released by Fox Interactive on computers between 2000 and 2003. as the copyright for the series is enmeshed in a complex history of corporate mergers, bankruptcies, and acquisitions while the companies involved are not allowing anyone to license the game for sale while not themselves selling it (despite the games’ first-person action mechanics remaining commercially viable in 2018), the only way for anyone to currently play NOLF is to purchase a retail copy of the game on the collector’s market. while the game is neither easily nor inexpensively acquired, it is possible to do so only as long as one has access to an optical drive. more to the point, if you have an optical drive i can lend you my copy

drives remain quite inexpensive but are no longer as ubiquitous a retail presence as they were only a few years ago, and as computer optical drives and stand-alone consumer optical disc devices disappear from stores the inexpensive acquisition of an optical drive is going to change faster than optical media fans such as myself are probably prepared for. small companies, especially in the audiophile market, will continue to service optical drives for niche markets, but those niche markets will have to pay a luxury price for their rejection of the mass market. we laugh at the weird names of craft beer companies started by bearded millennials and then get mad at the expensive results (re: the PC of ontario 'buck a beer' electioneering promise), but as the mass market quickly abandons optical media over the next seven years the same trend will apply for currently-obsolescing media forms such as music, films, and software on optical media (and magazines, newspapers, and books in print media). at that point, it will be increasingly difficult for media to be shared among people without passing through one of the corporate media streaming keyholes, controlled by shareholders who do not wish controversial media content to affect their bottom line, even if some consumers are willing to pay extra for the controversy. at the inception of its streaming service, Netflix was notorious for censoring much of the content it was distributing. while the Blockbuster chain of video stores was known to have censored some of the films it offered for rental, viewers could readily acquire media from other sources and play them on the same video device as used for watching videos rented at Blockbuster; furthermore, they were able to purchase unedited versions of films – otherwise known as the standard retail release – directly from Blockbuster itself. there was no way for Blockbuster’s corporate interests to limit a user’s ability to use their device; equally, there is no way for Netflix, iTunes, or any other streaming service to keep users from watching other streams. media consumers are however limiting themselves to the contemporary business arrangements of a very small number of corporations when they chose hardware incompatible with previously-established open standards such as optical discs. in short, gilles deleuze was correct in describing a 'control society' in which lives are voluntarily mediated by access rights

while desktop and laptop computers could eventually alter sufficiently to the extent that they are no longer useful as media consumption devices (looking at you, phones), it is likely that whatever happens to computers as work and leisure tools most homes will incorporate servers into their structure, much as they incorporated other once-separate technological functions such as delivering water and regulating heat. as a person is no longer likely to purchase or build a house without a furnace or central plumbing, future homeowners will likely view home servers as mandatory components of their domestic lives. given that such servers would likely follow developments from present server technologies, optical drives will indeed have a place in such computer platforms, if people want them to be there

do not ditch your streaming service subscriptions, but equally do not rush to ditch that bluray drive under your television, or choose a laptop, tablet, or other computational platform with no ports to attach external optical drives. for myself, it’s media apocalypse bunker time: next time i build a computer, i'm going to buy four or five extra optical drives and put them in storage. a drive lasts about ten years (smoke-free environments are key to the lifespan of electronics...), and properly stored those drives should keep future generations happy that we have been outlived by our libraries of media

[image from Wasteland 2 copyright inExile Entertainment]

Monday, May 09, 2016

Let's Play... Paradroid

1985, Hewson Consultants

originally played on Commodore 64

Don’t let Apple’s Siri fool you into complacency about artificial intelligence. Automatons have been a worry for a while now, and not just in our home appliances and digital devices. Humans being overcome and ultimately destroyed by the robots who serve them has been a longstanding trope of science fiction literature since its inception, and earlier literary examples include E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann and Johann Richter’s satires. Indeed, primitive mechanical automata were often darling court entertainments for the aristocrats of the European enlightenment. More pragmatically, automatons and the automation of human endeavour they represent remain the playthings of the wealthy elite. Anxiety toward robots manifests real fears of human obsolescence, as technological developments within modern capitalism tend to displace workers from their jobs by making their work obsolete and the workers hopelessly uncompetitive. Such exploitation is really only one articulation of the possibilities enabled by the automation of human labour, and not the inevitable outcome of technology. This anxiety – which famously and somewhat apocryphally brought the word ‘sabotage’ into the English language after French and Dutch labourers halted the machines which were intended to replace them – is really directed toward the ontology of the human experience, as since the mastery of fire our existence has been predicated on our technological capacity. If the human is defined primarily by the non-human tools which displace our previous sense of ourselves, then is the purpose of the human experience to transcend itself? Robots stand in the place of our worry that we will not live up to ourselves.

Paradroid is a strategic action game in which players act as both robot and (offscreen) human. Released for the Commodore 64 in 1985 by the English developer Hewson Consultants and programmed by Andrew Braybrook (whose previous game Gribbly’s Day Out had received favourable attention from the British gaming press, and who would go on to develop the equally well-regarded shooter Uridium), the game situates players as being in remote control of an ‘Influence Device’ on board a derelict space craft, tasked with destroying a ship full of robots which killed the human crew after their circuits were damaged when the ship passed through a spatial anomaly. These derelict spaceships are now travelling into enemy territory, with grave consequences for humanity should the ships fall under control of enemy forces.
you play as the 'hat', not the 'head'
The Influence Device earns its name by allowing players to take control of any other robot on the ship, thus opening access to a variety of different capabilities according to the type of robot captured. Robots are depicted with a number identifying their rank, with higher numbers in general being more powerful robots than lower numbers. But of course, power is a relative thing. While most of the robots are equipped with weapons which increase in destructive power according to rank, some high-ranking robots have other useful capabilities but no weapons. Capturing robots involves a strategic gameplay sequence in which players have a limited amount of time to dominate a circuit board by routing electricity through logic gates in favour of an opponent’s routes, respectively identified as purple or yellow in colour.
capturing robots through power electronics
Different robots have different capabilities for capturing other robots, reflected in the number of electricity nodes each player is able to deploy on the circuit. Generally speaking, higher-ranked robots can more easily dominate lower-ranked ones, but this is not always the case, and players are often provided opportunities to punch outside of their weight class, as it were. Players use these robots to destroy the other robots and access other parts of the ship. Robots are destroyed either by ramming (given sufficient armour on the host robot), capturing, or shooting them.  

Of course, like most games of the period almost nothing of this narrative or atmosphere is found in the game itself, but rather in the manuals and box art, with differences extant between the British and North American releases (the box description of the NA version suggests that the crew of the ship is still alive, and renames the Influence Device to an “anti-Droid weapon”). The game itself focuses on presenting the core mechanics of the game – exploring large, contiguous maze-like levels to capture and destroying or capturing fast-moving robots while avoiding being shot – using a responsive and efficient game engine which effectively convinces players of the vastly different capabilities each robot the player inhabits (the reviewer in Zzap!64 praises the varying movement patterns for effectively depicting each robot’s personality).
one of 24 different droids encountered
Indeed, the smooth scrolling of the game engine was rightly praised by critics at the time of the game’s release, as only basic hardware scrolling had been implemented on game or computer platforms (Nintendo’s Famicom, which implemented a useful hardware scroll, had only just arrived in North America; in any case, early Famicom games did not extensively use the scrolling feature). Shooting elements can get quite challenging when multiple high-ranking robots are involved, and the varied environments of the ship levels (varied in terms of layout, not graphical elements) allow for a variety of tactical situations. Elevators allow access to other levels on the ship, which players may explore whenever they like, a fact which often gets less patient players in trouble. Computer terminals located throughout the ship provide maps and information about other robots, and each level has at least one device to heal and restore a player’s energy.
ranks are important; 139 is a loser
Damage is aggregated but not visually rendered until a robot is close to destruction, at which point it begins to flash and the player has a limited amount of time to transfer to another robot before the Influence Device is destroyed. Furthermore, some of the higher-ranked robots are unstable when captured by the Influence Device and only allow players to inhabit them for a short period. After destroying all robots on a level, the level darkens with a ‘powering down’ sound, with the player expected to continue clearing levels until the entire ship is free of hostile robots. Like many action games of the time, there is no real ending, as once a ship is fully cleared the player is simply transported into a new one full of robots at a higher difficulty setting. Although it is oddly fulfilling to clear a ship of homicidal robots and attain the loneliness of a powerdown, the goal is to master the skills required for a high score, not fulfill a narrative agenda. Indeed, the reclamation of the ship by the humans who transported the Influence Device there (a theme which might have made interesting subject matter for a sequel) is left unexplored.

While the game’s graphics, sound, gameplay, and atmosphere were universally praised – most contemporary magazine reviewers were highly effusive about the game’s merits while publications such as Amiga Power and Retrogamer have listed the game as among the best computer games of the 8-bit era, and the game's popularity proved sufficient to allow a 16-bit remake of the game on the Amiga in 1990 – in retrospect it is the minimalist aesthetic of the game which allows it to stand out when viewed against its contemporaries. 
good level design, great 8-bit graphics
Indeed, much like the survival horror games which began to emerge in the 1990s, the atmosphere of the game is nearly entirely dependent on its minimalist audio presentation. Avoiding the wildly creative use of the Commodore 64’s SID chip for music common to the British game dev scene of the 1980s, Paradroid is soundtracked by the low continuous pulse of the ship’s engines as well as the synthesized noises of the various robots, punctuated by the sounds of doors opening and weapon fire from the robots. While pulsing music is often appreciated in action games, and was certainly a staple of the English coding scene, such enthusiastic soundtracks tend to undermine the atmosphere of the stalk-and-be-stalked gameplay found in ParadroidThis tension is further emphasized with the implementation of a basic fog-of-war mechanic which hides enemies from view when they are around corners and behind objects and doors. Rarely do players feel safe on a level, as even the powered-down levels clear of robots invoke the dread and isolation of deep space.

Like most games on the Commodore, Paradroid was heavily pirated, finding its way into the libraries of almost everyone who owned the machine. I remember discovering the game during a rain-filled weekend in the summer 1987 on a floppy disk full of other arcade-style games including Jumpman, Hunchback, and Miner 2049er, which had been copied onto the back of the game Impossible Mission, which was the only game I knew about when I copied the disk from a friend. Most of my experiences with Commodore games were similarly exploratory, with hidden treasures emerging with each directory listing. LOAD “$”,8 >> LIST was a holy mantra opening the digital cave of the forty thieves. Before my father started bringing home lists of pirated software available from an emergency room doctor he worked with, friends and I would exchange games with each other by copying whole disks at school. Disks labelled with only one or two games often contained many more, and it did not take long to discover that what was once a collection of dozens of games was in fact a library of many hundreds. It was usually the strange titles which captured interest. British games such as Monty on the Run, Blood and Guts, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Jet Set Willy were not only cheekily titled but also wildly subversive and unpredictable, with odd art and sound effects and surreal characters and gameplay. Nothing like these games was available on consoles. Indeed, after having access to so many games at once there was no way that I could ever go back to gaming on consoles, whose expensive cartridges limit consumptive excess to the rich. Commodore gaming – whether on the Vic 20, the 64, or the Amiga – was often a continual stream of new experiences, a flow of content unmatched until the internet democratized software distribution.

Small teams and independent programmers working autonomously produced a hugely creative game development scene, especially in the UK where the market was dominated by low-cost computers and cassette storage media. Ideas were allowed to develop into commercially-released games often for the simple pleasure of exploring the frontiers of computing and the burgeoning new media such as digital games which accompanied affordable home computers. A DIY aesthetic which emerged from punk music informed the development of the British gaming industry in its early years, with new companies springing up and quickly disappearing and programmers allowed near-total independent authorial control over their games.
clear robots from each deck of the ship
As the UK scene was centred primarily on cassette tapes as storage media for software, game developers could readily replicate and distribute their own software outside of any corporate (read: committee) control of their product. Significantly, the average price point for games in the UK was considerably lower than in the US, allowing people to purchase games on a whim rather than save up for them. Games purchased for £2-5 could be short diversions which presented one or two gameplay ideas and didn’t even need to be fully developed in terms of graphics or sound, rather than the long investments of playtime and elaborate art budgets expected from a game purchased for $50-60. While my research into game pricing is currently not complete enough to provide the statistical rigour requisite to a causal analysis, it is likely that for a variety of reasons the UK market can be described as situating its products in accordance with what could be described in terms of the North American market as ‘low-budget’ and ‘casual’ demographics.

It is interesting to note the parallels between this period and present-day indie game development on Steam, where inexpensive ‘idea’ games such as Goat Simulator, Pony Island, Dropsy, and The Stanley Parable have found a commercially-viable home (and sometimes become a commercial hit). While large publishers have been known to release interesting titles, the general trend for commercial game development is akin the Hollywood production model: exceptionally large capital investments are deployed to continually shift audience expectations for games toward a dependency on large capital investment. When executed well, corporate production strategies beget money printing machines, as old gameplay ideas are exhaustively recycled with new art assets and franchise expansions (witness any EA sports title, or DICE’s Call of Duty series). However, such successes (or need for such success) often compromise and even stifle interesting ideas which lie outside of the commercial mainstream. Worryingly, Steam’s competitor in computer game distribution has started to close its platform to better enforce strict control over games and game developers. With Windows 10 and the Universal Windows Platform, Microsoft is taking cues from Apple, Sony, and Nintendo’s strict control policies for their platforms. No longer will independent studios and developers be able to release games at their own discretion, but must comply with Microsoft’s policies for the platform. Obviously, such service will not be freely given, so developers can expect to pay licensing and developer fees, much like they do to Nintendo or Sony for being able to release on their platforms. As of the end of April 2016, the games released on UWP have been relative disasters, likely souring developers who have not yet adopted Windows 10 exclusivity. It is likely that the contemporary computer game scene will soon be defined by open versus closed platforms, with the mainstream market likely following Microsoft into the walled garden. If such control represents the automation of game development relative to the corporate strategy of a handful of companies, then perhaps we must admit that the robots are winning the influence war.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Let's Play... International Karate

International Karate+
1987, System 3 Software

originally played on Commodore 64

Sometimes you just have to beat a person down. Punches in the face, kicks to the ribs, whatever. We can tell each other that we shouldn’t, but the reality is that we love the pleasure of overcoming our own weaknesses by overcoming the weaknesses of some other fuck. Especially through punches to the face, in fact. Of course, with most respectable elements of society thoroughly frowning upon violence – unless it gets ritualised for financial gain through military conquest and sports, or is hidden as slave wages within industrial society – there are only a few outlets for the realisation of this pleasure. Mainly, there’s the whole ‘trying to be a civilised person’ thing that most people won’t shut the fuck up about. And so we have violent films and videogames and aren’t we all so much better for them. Surely.

One reason for the goodness of violent media is that they let my brother and I punch each other in the head without damaging our future cognition-oriented careers. My own enjoyment from mediated martial arts was provoked by an unsuccessful attempt to learn aikido, a failure caused not by lack of discipline or coordination but by my inability to pay for classes. From grades four through eight the school board subsidised a month-long period of phys ed lessons (called ‘options’) in activities expensive for kids such as hockey, football, skiing, dancing, and one or two martial arts. For a lot of us, this was the only time we could do some of those kinds of things. Equipment rentals were a cost I couldn’t afford, so martial arts and dancing were my choices. The military industrial toy complex which ascended with Star Wars and patterned masculinities into rigid forms of consumption and behaviour rested its guiding hand on my shoulder – aikido it was. Four weeks of twelve lessons and I was hooked and like a junkie I couldn’t afford to continue.

Martial arts culture was everywhere in the 1980s and early ‘90s, the west having rejected pop trends for pacifist and spiritual elements of eastern culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s in favour of a mythologized culture of violence and discipline anachronically appropriated from the aristocratic warrior class, and which was more easily commodified than Indian ragas and Buddhist meditation, Beatles be damned. Toy weapons and war-themed action figures were best-sellers in major department stores, ninjas made cameo appearances on late-night television, and the philosophy of the samurai code was adopted by Wall Street wolves. Right-wing teenage male power fantasies such as American Ninja, Lone Wolf McQuaidBig Trouble in Little China, and The Karate Kid linked the libertarian elevation of individual agency with the conservative desire for social order, deference to authority and tradition, and personal discipline, all captured in the symbol of the ninja superhero.

New martial-arts action superstars emerged, as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Stephen Segal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Jackie Chan replaced the gun-toting Dad types of the previous generation such as Charles Bronson, Gene Hackman, Charlton Heston, and Clint Eastwood. ‘Martial Arts’ was its own section in video rental stores, often next to the horror section as gloriously shitty (and often quasi-amateur) b-movie and direct-to-video releases like Enter the NinjaMiami Connection, and Ninja III: The Domination as well as badly-dubbed Asian imports like Ten Tigers of Kwangtung, Five Element Ninjas and Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky were much more violent and weird than the Hollywood mainstream. It wasn’t long before every action hero and pretty much anyone involved in a fight on television and in the movies was able to break out top-drawer fighting techniques without breaking a sweat or ever appearing to train. Of course Van Damme and Segal can turn every encounter with a bad guy into a death ballet; that’s fine and no one has a problem accepting that. But the sheer absurdity of a non-stop stream of anachronistic ninja clans proliferating in contemporary crime syndicates and police departments quickly overstayed its welcome, and guns once again emerged as the cinematic death tools of choice, mainly because any idiot can shoot ninjas dead without much hassle. Action film and television retreated from action stars being preternatural jujitsu masters with convenient helicopter piloting skills to their mastering an amorphous, generic, rapid-edit fighting style suitable for exploitation within a broad range of distinctive genres: witness the culturally-indistinct fight styles presented in modern James Bond films, superhero franchises, revenge films like Taken, or the Jason Bourne series. Suddenly, every IRL wimpy non-fighter from Matt Damon to Scarlett Johansson to the old man version of Harrison Ford can be made to look like a kickass fighter. Perhaps it’s even more ludicrous to cast Liam Neeson as a Dad assassin than it is to use ninjas in a bank heist, but fuck it. For big-budget entertainment, production efficiencies have always punched logic in the head.

stellar power lines
Wimpy white people kicking ass on screen is one legacy of 1980s martial arts culture. Another was its influence on hiphop, figuring not among the fashion trends of street culture and the videotape fetishism of mainstream ‘90s rap, but also in the ritualised emcee battles which replicate ninjitsu agility and Shinto philosophies in language. And of course, a videogame genre emerged focused on martial combat, staring with traditional martial arts before exploring more fantastic, cartoon-like themes, and this is where my virtual fist most often struck my brother’s virtual face.
stay down
International Karate is a one- or two-player arcade-style fighting game which came out for most home computer platforms in 1987, the same year that the first Street Fighter game hit arcades. Unlike that most famous of videogames, IK does not provide a health meter for fighters. Action follows the rules of tournament karate, in which two fighters (three in the updated International Karate+) score points adjudicated by referees who halt the fight after each strike. Animations for the original 8-bit releases are detailed and evocative, and hit-boxes are pixel-accurate. Bonus rounds between fights allow players to defend themselves from balls and bombs. Button mashing will work to some degree, but players will have to strategically place and time their attacks and defences in order to defeat more challenging opponents. Punches and kicks which land are awarded either half or a full point, with three points winning the match. Being an early fighter which adheres to The Karate Kid rules, there aren’t any combos or advanced moves to learn. To strike your opponent or defend yourself, you press the only button and move the joystick in one of its eight directions. Someone has to go down before the timer runs out, you know the drill.

IK+ motivates everyone to greatness
The 1987 UK release from System 3 on Commodore 64 (released the following year as Chop N Drop by Activision in North America) is perhaps the most well-known version of the game, thanks to pirating but more importantly because of Rob Hubbard’s fantastic score, which fully exploited the famously idiosyncratic SID chip in the C64. The 1988 releases for 16-bit Atari and Amiga computers feature significantly upgraded sound, graphics, and animation, with detailed character sprites and very fluid motion, although Hubbard’s score was replaced with the kind of percussion-heavy ‘80s midi funk which soundtracked movies plotted around Kawasaki ninja attacks. 

Two-player videogame duels are the oldest form of digital games, with the earliest games relying on human players to provide gameplay when artificial intelligence and enemy strategy algorithms were non-existent or in their infancy as processor and storage requirements for artificial opponents were too high. (For comparison, IBM’s Deep Blue chess machine – the first to beat a grandmaster human opponent in 1997 – used 30 central processors and 480 specialised chips). Once artificial opponents did start to appear in digital games, intelligence routines were often simulated rather than actually computed in real time, leading to the necessity for pattern recognition of enemy behaviour to succeed in games (and infinite play once the patterns are learned). Of course, games which were not played in real time but were instead turn based, such as many strategy and role-playing games, could more readily implement intelligence routines. The inevitable progression of computational capability has allowed for the utilization of increasingly complex intelligence routines. The first digital game – 1962 mainframe-based Spacewar – predated arcades and was an academic marvel of violent destruction as grad students and professors took turns lasering the living shit out of each other. Spacewar came to arcades in the form of 1971’s Galaxy Game and Computer Space. Many of the early and mid-70s arcade games such as 1972’s Pong, 1975’s Gun Fight, and 1976’s Barricade required two players to operate, as did Atari VCS launch title Combat. As computer hardware continues to develop, digital game players have continued to engage in multiplayer mayhem, although in the 1980s and early ‘90s competitive social gaming occurred more often in arcades than in the home. The release of Doom in 1993 and Warcraft in 1994 inaugurated a new era of competitive multiplayer gaming, a phenomenon centred on networked digital computers and thus unavailable to consoles, which were limited to fight games until the release of Halo on the Xbox in 2001. For most people, multiplayer digital gunplay is a 2000's thing. Social gaming in the ‘80s and ‘90s was dominated by fight games.

Not every threeway goes according to plan
So you kick and punch your friends to beat and humiliate them for hours of joyful play. Most everyone likes that. My brother and I certainly did, at least a few thousand rounds in International Karate+. We never did fight all that much IRL, at least in the ‘punch that bastard’ kind of way, or more accurately we stopped fighting once my little brother got big enough to punch me back. “Just hit him, he’ll stop,” my Dad always told him when he cried about me bullying him for toys or the TV remote or just because teenage boys try being assholes before hopefully figuring out other strategies. And so one day at the age of twelve and a height over six feet he did punch me back and it hurt so I stopped being a low-level dickneck bully. Fights became verbal, markers of quick wit with a touch of emotional abuse, more like the verbal swordplay of the Monkey Island games than anything approaching real violence.

the sound effect is pain
Videogame fighting was a good release for us, and so we moved on from International Karate to Palace Software’s amazing Barbarian and Barbarian II (which uses the two-player combat style for a one-player game), published by Epyx as Death Sword and Axe of Rage respectively in North America, but nobody bought or pirated those versions because everyone in North America was apeshit Nintendo and the most widely-pirated software came from European cracking groups. Barbarian was amazing not only because of the amazingly cheesy mid-80s fantasy cosplay box art (cleaned up for America, of course), but also because you could decapitate your opponent at any time, bypassing their health meter. A grumpy lizard would then swear at you before cleaning up the corpse and kicking the head off-screen. Slick shit. Somehow I could destroy my brother at this game, which gave me an unfounded confidence betrayed by the next decade of fighting each other.

With occasional diversions into Thai Boxing (which was amazing because between rounds your trainer would clean up your bloody, broken face like a window washer), Knight Games, and the brutally hilarious Blood ‘N’ Guts, my brother and I chopped off each other’s heads well into 1991 before the Street Fighter II arcade machine came out and everybody lost their collective shit for the next decade of game design clones. There was a very brief interest in Tongue of the Fatman, largely because of the box art and surreal fighters, but the game itself was kind of shit. After SF2 every fight game used combo moves, hopefully dozens of them, and allowed for character selection from a collection of mutant cartoon weirdos and psychopaths. Of course, as consoles began to totally dominate the digital game market by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, computers suddenly weren’t the best place for fighters. Other than decent SF2 and Mortal Kombat ports, the only decent fighting game to come out for computer systems in the ‘90s was the excellent manga-inspired giant robot fighter One Must Fall 2097, a shareware title which thoroughly outclassed its big-budget corporate competition by incorporating equipment upgrades and RPG-style skill system elements.

It was with the robots that my fights with my brother ended: a Tuesday in September 1995, just back from school, and my brother challenged me in OMF2097 with a new joystick he picked up. Overconfident from almost a decade of punching my brother’s virtual face really murdered, distracted from videogames by a bullshit sixteen-month attempt at being a musician in a string of unheard weirdo bands, I took up his $10 challenge that he could beat me left-handed with his eyes closed and turned away from the screen. Of course you can’t win, fucker. I’ll destroy you in 90 seconds or less you dumb... and I lost without landing a punch in slightly more than thirty-one seconds. Pay me, bitch! was the last thing I remember before figuring out that in addition to being blind and handicapped my brother was also drunk and realizing suddenly that I actually hate motherfucker fight games.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Let's Play... Surgeon Simulator 2013

Surgeon Simulator
2013, Bossa Studios

originally played on PC

So I always wanted to be a surgeon. Along with astronaut it was one of the job boxes I ticked off every year in that big blue book parents in Ontario used to track their kids' progress through school in the 1980s. Another consumer memory brought to us by the fine folks at Jostens. Of course, this ambition disappeared as I grew older and came to realise that I wanted to memorise songs and books instead of physiology and stress-relief methodology. So the humanities and a long life of poverty for me, then. Both my parents worked in health care, and my brother and I spent a lot of time after school wandering around the hospital waiting for the age of ten so we could stay home alone as latchkey kids. You see a lot of things wandering around a hospital unsupervised. Patients in various states of recovery are obviously interesting to a young kid raised on horror films, but so are the small dramas traced into hospital waiting rooms and hallways along with family members, worry for loved ones made supine like a struggling dog by the rules of the institution. Parents annoyed by their loss of control to institutional processes, fighting with doctors and nurses for tiny scraps of hopeful good news and just a quick glimpse and please maybe let me hold their hand. Friends visiting the infirm and the elderly who only wish them to leave if they didn’t want them there in the first place. Spouses hiding their frustration and loneliness as their love for each other strains and sometimes breaks in front of a quiet public. Sublime horrors of bodies objectified, flesh drawn and quartered to find out what’s wrong, what needs fixing, a painful and necessary violence fundamental to understanding. Like Councillor Krespel in Hoffman’stales, medicine must often destroy its object of study in order for understanding. A poisonous cure, to be sure. Walking through the hallways and backrooms of the hospital alone or with my brother, sometimes we would see something very graphic indeed. Seeing a few fingers in plastic wrap abandoned teaches a person that medicine is an abstraction as much as it is an abjection. Distanciation and humour are the only recourse for sanity.

Of course, to deal with all of the domestic trauma, heartbreaking grief and loss, as well as the mountains of gore, many people who work in medicine adopt a form of gravedigger’s humour in order to compartmentalise the abject and the horrific in order to maintain their capabilities on the job. Ankle-deep in blood and crying loved ones, you smile and enjoy the smells as you wipe blood across your forehead. Metaphorically, of course, as hygiene must be maintained, in Canadian hospitals at least. I’ve noticed this attitude in friends who are cops as well – humour used to paint over otherwise horrible experiences. A friend of mine who drives ambulances spent the first day in his job cleaning up brain matter from the highway to Toronto before coming over for a birthday party for my brother and revolting every single one of the guests by not having changed his uniform first. I’m covered in brains. You’d think I would have had the bright idea to change, he said before forgetting his Asian alcohol allergies and passing out in a closet upstairs after drinking the neck of a Molson Canadian. Similarly, my father edited film and video for medical procedures, sometimes while we ate supper in the living room. The likeness of my mother’s lasagna to the fleshy subdermal parts of the inner leg was a constant source of amusement for him.

don't tell me you don't want to shake his head around, because you do
Surgeon Simulator 2013 (2013) brings this laisez-faire attitude to home medicine games. While most games dealing with health care are managerial simulations – SimHealth (1994) and Theme Hospital (1997) being the most obvious examples – or cheap licensing entries in film and television-based transmedia franchises, such as ER (2005), Grey’s Anatomy: The Video Game (2009), and House M.D. (2010), there are some examples of games which try, realistically or otherwise, to depict actual medical procedures. Life & Death (1988) and Life & Death II: The Brain (1990) are perhaps the most well-known iterations, having been compiled on numerous shovelware releases in the early CD-ROM years. This was in fact the manner in which I came to play both games, for as a farewell present when our family moved to Southern Ontario my father’s co-workers at the hospital gave him a CD-ROM drive for our fancy new 386. A collective effort in financing, as these drives were very expensive back in the day (starting around $1,000) and quite the gift. Within computer geek circles, our machine was the envy of everyone around for almost a year. Except for libraries and universities, nobody had a CD-ROM drive in 1991. The technology was so new that in order to fully experience what it had to offer, sound routed from the drive had to be sent to a mixer along with the output from the computer's sound card. Likewise, publishers had little understanding of how to properly use the medium, either filling titles with uselessly small (75x75 or sometimes 130x100) video clips often repurposed from extant video media such as television and home video, or compiling as many non-related games as they could get their copyright licenses on. A database medium, then, and unless dictionaries and encyclopaedias are of particular interest to you, nothing interesting came out on CD-ROM until Sierra started releasing ‘talkie’ versions of games such as King’s Quest V: Absence Makes The Heart Go Yonder! (1990) and Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers (1991), quickly followed by Interplay titles such as Star Trek 25th Anniversary (1992) and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I (1990). More often than not, however, such exciting multimedia versions of popular games were marred by their decidedly non-professional voice acting, often invoking the indie DIY spirit of the time and using members of the programming team in character voice roles. It should be noted that this dynamic of economic necessity forcing the conscription of terrible voice acting from programmers is different than occurred when designers purposely put themselves into their games, as Chris Jones did when he took an increasingly prominent role as the character Tex Murphy in a series of adventure games from Mean Streets (1989) through The Pandora Detective (1996). Shudder-inducing as thespian delusions, these early non-professional multimedia experiments are often fantastic if appreciated in the right spirit. Of course, some of these releases were very well done indeed; the CD-ROM editions of Interplay's Star Trek adventures were in face the last collective effort from the cast of the original television series.

the most realistic four-colour surgery simulator ever released
The most popular use of the medium, however, was as a shovelware platform on which to dump a variety of unpopular titles along with a marginally-popular one. And so Life & Death came into my possession along with Beyond the Black Hole (1989), Bruce Lee Lives (1989), The Chessmaster 2000 (1986), and Cribbage King / Gin King (1989). By far the best part of Life & Death – and in likelihood actual medicine – is the screaming. Patients scream when you poke their sore spots during observations and when you perform surgery without administering an anaesthetic. Rendered in monophonic 8-bit sampled bliss and reproduced to everyone’s amazement using the famously crappy and useless pc speaker, the screaming in Life & Death is alone worth an hour of your drunken time at a party with friends. Life & Death is a fairly realistic simulation of these procedures. Players are expected to be very meticulous in performing the steps necessary to complete these operations. Ultimately, while enjoyable, the game presents players an often frustrating experience of the OCD required by modern health care practitioners as players slowly learn how to do things properly through trial and error, as well as reference to the game’s manual and in-game commentary on player performance.
surgery is definitely for the OCD set
Of course, the screaming stops should you ever choose to perform an operation properly. The game offers two surgical procedures, appendicitis and aneuritic aorta, in a small attempt at educational gameplay. Despite  the use of four-colour CGA mode for the game’s original DOS release,the presentation and simulation aspects of the game are remarkably realistic for the time and have yet to be matched in any other commercial release.

Surgeon Simulator 2013 is frustrating for quite the opposite reason. Basically a cartoon exercise in fun with physics, Surgeon Simulator tasks players with performing a variety of challenging and totally unrealistic surgical procedures. Players are in direct control of the virtual surgeon’s hands, thus providing a level of haptic complexity to the interface which guarantees that players will fuck up even the simplest of gestures, such as grabbing and maintaining a hold of an object. Don’t be turned off by the fact that the game doesn’t include a tutorial, as the fun of playing the game isn’t really about completing the challenges offered to players, but rather about enjoying the comic mayhem inherent to amateur surgery.
drunk interface. drunkterface?
The game drops players right into the matter with heart surgery as the first mission with little warning and a gleeful disregard for patient safety. Indeed, black humour runs throughout the game, evidenced not only by the playful main menu, which allows players not only to answer the phone and write on a notepad but also to play computer games (I should note here my own history with physicians who were early enthusiasts in digital gaming) and most importantly launch everything off the doctor’s desk in a flailing attempt to learn the game’s interface. Fun involves the comic mischief caused by the juxtaposition of the seriousness of surgical medicine and the autistic inability of the surgeon to control his or her own limbs, and also by the impossibility of the game to operate as a simulation of anything approaching actual medical procedures. Bones are sawed off and organs are removed and placed wherever there is room, all with no regard whatsoever for how these pieces would ever be put back together again ‘in real life’. Unlike in Life & Death, play is only concerned with opening patients up; the sawed-off bones and scooped-out organs don’t need to be reconnected after the procedure. While the game offers a variety of scenarios, such as performing heart surgery in the back of an ambulance while the doors flail open and elements of the surgery theatre continually fall out, or completing an alien autopsy / transplant in zero gravity on a space station. Of course, I have only been able to complete a few of the game’s surgeries and have not unlocked the full game.

careful... careful...
Fundamentally, Surgeon Simulator 2013 is a game of frustration, as controlling two human hands by means of the mouse and five keys on the keyboard is much more difficult than would initially appear. Simple movements are made exceedingly difficult as in a sense players relearn or recalibrate their hand-eye coordination. Of course, this leads to a variety of fun achievements on Steam, such as flashing metal horns or flipping off the patient before abusing his face like he’s in a Three Stooges routine, or successfully completing surgery after stabbing yourself in the arm with enough drugs to start hallucinating. This kind of fun only improves when playing with multiple intoxicated friends.
great, now you've hopped yourself up on goofballs
Sadly, the PC version has yet to be updated with the hilariously oppositional co-op mode from the PS4 version, in which each player operates one of the surgeon’s hands. Also sadly missing is the screaming. But the fact that as a surgeon I can inject myself with drugs and go to space while smacking the patient’s head around like Curley before telling him to fuck off and pulling out all of his organs with a hammer and replacing them with empty plastic water bottles and my watch makes me a very happy person indeed.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Let's Play... Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance
SSI, 1988

originally played on Commodore 64, Amiga

I hesitated before starting this one again. Just look at the simultaneously beautiful and hideously atrocious box cover art and you’ll quickly understand what I mean. The beauty is perhaps less obvious: a classic Clyde Caldwell fantasy painting, an artist well-known to all Dungeons & Dragons tabletop fans, depicting a standard male power aesthetic found all over the best and worst of fantasy art and culture. Metal and man-hair shine with equal precision. The sword half-poised like a cock. The dragon oddly feminised. Taken as a whole, these elements betray both a nerdy powerlessness and a strangely appealing masculine power trip fantasy, one which fully grabbed hold of me as a precociously impressionable twelve-year old. Of course, like all infantile compulsions the negative connotations specifically associated with ‘heroic fantasy’ iconography fully outweigh any sense of aesthetic pleasure derived from what is at best a skilled technical ability which readily evokes a sense of perpetual nostalgia within a certain kind of game consumer and a certain kind of revulsion from most normally everyone else.

an early-game encounter
Interestingly enough, my own experience with this box cover art was not enabled by consumption, at least not in its official capacity. My father brought Pool of Radiance (1988) home one day, copied from a physician friend at work on the basis of the game program being the largest ever released for the Commodore 64: four double-sided 5 ¼” floppy disks. Game piracy was of course not exceptional behaviour in the 1980s. Games were passed around with friends at school on a nearly weekly basis. At this point in the computers-as-pedagogical-tools debate, school computers were entirely misunderstood by teaching staff who had obviously never been trained to use them, so any use by students was viewed by teachers as an appropriate display of computer science aptitude. Friends and I would sit at the back of the classroom copying and playing games and receiving straight A’s.

The more official procedure for our family (i.e.: condoned by parents) to acquire games was to go through ‘The List’, a document dozens of dot matrix computer-printed pages long. My brother and I would select from The List the games we would want to play. My dad’s physician friend would then charge according to how many disks were used, not how many games were copied. I’m not sure whether he actually owned all of the games that were on his list, but he had a whole lot of them. Marriage and kids had not stopped this workaholic emergency room doctor from acquiring a large library full of games. My father brought me over there a few times, and I was instantly amazed by the bookshelves which housed games to the ceiling in nice-smelling oak with brass and silver accent lighting. Treated like a fine library, the doctor’s game collection was my projected masculine fantasy. He must have been buying fifteen games a week for the three different computers set up in his study. On each of the few times I was there, I was allowed to rifle through the boxes and play some of the games released only for IBM and Apple ][, systems far too expensive in the 1980s for my family. Distinct from game consoles, home computers allowed full access to media production technologies such as disk creation. In fact, the early history of home computing was almost entirely informed by a culture of software sharing and copying, as many of the computer clubs functioned essentially as game swap meets. Over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, the industry had to educate consumers to convince them not to copy their floppies. As a barrier to piracy, a lot of the games employed off-disk copy protection in the form of manuals, maps, charts, printed graphics, and code wheels which were often creatively integrated into gameplay. With the doctor, of course, these materials involved additional fees. Ancillaries, he called them. In addition to using four double-sided disks, Pool of Radiance required two large manuals full of expository text and information about the gameworld, and a code wheel. Needless to say, the game was quite expensive to copy.

educating the masses about the dangers of software piracy
The SSI gold box games were particularly important to my formative videogame habits: extended play sessions, meticulous procedures for backing up save files, attention to detail with a forensic and autistic focus, a logical strategization of progress, and meticulous documentation – admittedly a skill developed playing other RPGs which habitually required players to create their own maps and log narrative and quest information. Ultimately, as a result of the cost of pirating complex games such as CRPGs, and the fact that by the age of twelve I was in receipt of a fairly regular income stream, I purchased a copy of every other gold box game I played. From age seven I had been delivering newspapers, and by twelve I had begun to make a profit buying and selling comic books, a bedroom industry in which I thrived until adults started paying attention to comics as investments and by 1992 had priced me out of even trying. Before Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989) and the other gold box games, however, it was Pool of Radiance which captured everything I could call my attention. My father brought the game home, showing off the disks and wondering in amazement about “where it will all end”. Of course, he meant computer technology and wasn't challenging me to complete the game before he did. As a kid I didn’t think my parents played games, maybe due to the fact that they would sometimes get mad when my brother and I played games instead of doing “something outside”. My mom certainly never bothered with them, and it wasn’t until I was older that my father admitted to having enjoyed Douglas Adams games Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984) and Bureaucracy (1987) and strategy games such as Ocean Trader (1983), Trader Trilogy (1982), Starflight (1986), and Elite (1986). So he came home from work and was immediately excited that I was immediately excited by the game. In retrospect, this enthusiasm made sense. A few months prior, my religiously-inclined mother and I had gotten into a huge fight after she had found my first-edition copies of the Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide and Deities and Demigods. Fuelled by a trend in religious hatred against D&D quite popular at the time, my mother had decided to destroy an admittedly satanic-looking book and one which quantified the gods of world religion along with their occult rituals, which I had recently acquired from a friend’s older brother as part of my transition, along with every other D&D player my age, from Dungeons & Dragons to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I never forgot the look on my father’s face as he watched my mom tear the pages out of the books, and it was this look which later made me think that he knew what he was doing when he brought home Pool of Radiance, the first official adaptation of D&D for home computers.

glorious tactical, turn-based combat
Having recently completed The Bard’s Tale III: Thief of Fate (1988), another game I had purchased on my own with four-and-a-half weeks of paper route money, I learned Pool's interface very quickly. Enraptured by the character generation screen, among the more advanced for CRPGs at the time, my brother and I spent the entire first night with the game making characters and printing them off in case we wanted to use them in tabletop D&D adventures. Admittedly, I think these characters were only used once in an actual D&D session, but as every RPG player knows that is entirely beside the point. Affect in role-playing games involves fetishising a numerical matrix which qualifies a character within the game world. The numbers tell the whole story of what can be accomplished in the game; the actual narrative or plot is entirely secondary.

perhaps the first game which allowed LGBT characters 
role-playing options add narrative complexity
This being said, Pool of Radiance deploys a rather complicated narrative form for its time. While not exhibiting the narrative depth or complexity of text adventures, Pool utilised a fair number of narrative text passages which guided an admittedly wholly pedestrian and routine fantasy RPG plot. But as with many media texts from the early days in a medium’s history, we must properly contextualise what the game actually accomplishes rather than dismiss it for the many things it does not. At several points in the game, players can make choices which branch the narrative slightly or bestow useful items. While certainly not demonstrating the narrative significance or complexity of Balder’s Gate (1998) or The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings (2011), Pool of Radiance does experiment with the hack and slash mechanics which characterise a significant portion of gameplay. And what mechanics these are. The game presents a complex tactical combat system modelled on actual D&D rules and with elements not only from SSI’s previous RPGs such as Wizard’s Crown (1986) and the Phantasie (1985 – 1987) series, but also from the company’s many legendary war and strategy game series. Almost anything that you could think of doing could be accomplished in the Pool of Radiance game engine, or so it seemed to us at the time.

encounter with the end boss
While slow, the advanced, turn-based combat presented players with (at the time) a rather extensive amount of tactical possibilities. Unlike most of my friends, I was a dedicated computer game player who didn’t have a console at home except an old Atari VCS and an entirely ignored Odyssey 2. For the entire height of the Nintendo boom in the late 80s, most people I knew made fun of me and my family for not having a NES at home. My brother rectified this situation in 1990, but before that my NES time was limited (admitted not quite the right term in this context, as this was the time of extended weekend sleepovers) to time spent at friends’ houses. I took their abuse in stride because I knew that there were things that computers could do in games that consoles simply could not do. Because of piracy, computer gamers always had access to far more games than even rich kids with consoles. The much greater memory capacity of most home computers allowed a far greater complexity to programming code and resultant game design while allowing greater graphical prowess. Most importantly, computers had floppy disks and cassette drives used to save information. As a result, many computer games were designed around gameplay ideas necessitating the tracking and deployment of player data, be it as a record of gameplay behaviour or outcomes or to save a player’s progress. They often presented a different framework for gameplay and presented entirely different ideas to players than did the infinitely more popular console games, extending over weeks or months instead of single sessions, and adjusting themselves to player activity and altering their worlds as a result of player behaviour. Additionally, computer games could utilize highly advanced control interfaces and control interactions allowed by keyboards in addition to console-standard joysticks and trackballs. As fewer people had access to computers in the home, these games tailored themselves to niche rather than mass markets. Some genres such as strategy and flight simulation didn't even appear on console games until very recently.

Accordingly, I used to love showing off to my friends aspects of computer games that console games simply couldn’t do  the personalization and content creation functions, the extensive graphics and gameplay options. Many of these differences existed with Pool of Radiance. Players have control over the appearance of their characters throughout the game. Hundreds of different inventory items are available, allowing for extensive customization. One of my friends was absolutely amazed that enemies could be killed to the point where they were cleared out of an area in the game, and then the game machine could be switched off and the game resumed later with these same areas still clear of enemies. Two months later, he convinced his mom to buy him an Amiga; although Pool of Radiance had not yet been released for that system, rumours were that the best version of the game would be for Amiga but he would have to wait and in the meantime he had Hillsfar (1989), Heroes of the Lance (1988), Defender of the Crown (1986), Blood Money (1989), Dungeon Master (1988) and every other game that was completely amazing on Amiga. Indeed, this minor procedural detail of housekeeping enabled by player data save technologies is the entirety of Pool's plot: clear an area of the city before moving on to the next one and ultimately defeating the end boss, who in this case is a rather fearsome dragon not unlike the one which graces the cover art. Essentially, players are the city's cleaning service; gameplay is precisely a record of this process of 'cleaning'. Despite a few superficial RPG aspects, there was simply no way for console games such as The Legend of Zelda (1986) or Dragon Warrior (1986) to operate in a similar manner. Code passwords weren't the same. No matter what you did on the consoles, the monsters always came back.

exploring the city, Amiga version
More to the point, however, this style of gaming was not only appealing to math-heavy, idiot-savant youth such as me and my friends, it was also very practical in terms of being a group gaming activity. Playing the game in a large group of people, individuals can make their own choices about a character, and the visual presentation makes everyone feel as though they are hovering around a digital boardgame instead of a computer monitor. Strategic decisions are complex and variable, allowing numerous opportunities for partnership and disagreement with other players as they think through their party’s situation. While I did end up finishing Pool of Radiance alone at home after several months, I also played a significant portion of the game with five friends at school as well as each other’s houses. As the game allowed six characters in the party, everyone got to create and play their own guy (please note that no girls were included in this group of twelve-year old CRPG fans, either in real life or in the game). Everyone had a copy of the save disk, and disagreements would break out when someone would play alone at home without input from other players, thus disrupting our collective progress. Complex social interactions emerged from our play, but I'll leave such observations to researchers more qualified than I in anthropological study.

sweet tactical combat on the Amiga
We didn’t finish the game together, but we did manage about half of it before everyone got distracted by other things in their lives, or maybe other games, I choose not to remember.