Friday, March 05, 2010

Byte: The inhumanity of videogaming

Don't get me wrong. I love videogames where you get to shoot people in the face as much as the next sociopath (indeed, tonight I came home from Sainsburys with a copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox 360 so that I can shoot my friends in the face online), but I've been trying to think of games that eschew this violent formula and have game mechanics that are genuinely positive and actually serve to help other people rather than yourself.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, I'm coming up rather empty. I've played hundreds, if not thousands of videogames over the last three decades (give or take a couple of years) and I'm having difficulty of thinking of any games set in the real-world (or a non-abstract game world where there are people) where the core game mechanics don't involve you going around blowing shit up or murdering people.

There are some games like the Phoenix Wright and Trauma Centre series where the aim of the game is to help people rather than find innovative ways of rearranging their internal organs (or indeed, making their internal organs external), but these are very much the exception, not the rule. The problem is that games like these tend to be quite scripted and not have much replay value - hence they can never really be popular with the online crowd and will more often than not end up back in the store on the second hand resale racks.

But I do recall one game from my early gaming days that didn't involve fighting, killing or blowing shit up that was set in a simulated real-world setting and asked you to do truly humanitarian work. And I was hooked on it for years.

That game is Cyclone, on the ZX Spectrum.



Cyclone was an early game from Vortex Software (or as my brother and I liked to call it, Costa Panayi Software, since this was still the era of bedroom coders, where one man could set up a successful software games company) that cast you in the role of a Search and Rescue (or, to use the proper parlance, SAR) helicopter pilot. The game was set in an archipelago stricken by the storm-force winds of a violent cyclone - essentially a hurricane or typhoon, depending on which longitudinal hemisphere you happen to live in (I always assumed the game to be set in a fictional set of islands in the Carribean, but that was more a personal flight of fancy than anything). The biggest thing that struck me about the game was that the primary antagonist of the game was utterly unbiased and impartial - a force of nature. The one other threat in the game is the possible collision with low-flying aircraft, but this rarely becomes an issue, once you learn the flight paths they follow.

Though the game thrusts you into a tragic situation - a natural disaster, where people are in peril - the overriding aim of playing the game is overwhelmingly positive and humanitarian. Your role as a SAR pilot means that you have to rescue helpless civilians from danger and return them to the central island that houses the headquarters of the rescue effort and base of operations. In order to progress between difficulty levels (harder difficulty meaning that you lose control of your helicopter and crash at lower values on the Wind Force bar), you need to collect six supply crates and return them to the HQ. Additionally, you may also choose to rescue civilians for bonus points. Mechanically, the game is quite challenging as you have a set time limit to find and return the supply crates for each level, and they may be located absolutely anywhere throughout the archipelago. Not only that, some of the islands don't have helipads, so if you have to land due to the wind force getting too high, you will continue to lose fuel while the winds batter overhead.

So playing Cyclone becomes a balancing act. Do you just concentrate on returning the supply crates to base, or do you try the completist approach and go for the highest score possible? The latter is most rewarding, both existentially and in terms of points score, yet is by far the hardest to achieve given the time limits and the capriciousness of the cyclone. Both my brother and I, should you talk to us about Cyclone, would tell you that we suspect that the AI cheats. The cyclone will seemingly wander the map randomly until you need just one more crate and then it will make it almost impossible to retrieve the last crate by simply hovering over the area until you run out of time (this is especially true if you've progressed five levels or more and the wind force doesn't actually have to get into the "DANGER!" part of the wind force bar before you can no longer control your helicopter.

One of the odd things about playing Cyclone was that even as a pre-teenage kid, I was fiercely gallant: there was only space on my helicopter for the women. The Titanic evacuation approach definitely held true for me - women and children first! The blokes? Well, fuck 'em. They can take their chances... (This may explain my more recent gaming predilection for RPGs - this desire to do what is morally "right" is very Lawful Good) More often than not, I tried to adhere to the completist approach, mainly because I enjoyed the experience of flying the helicopter around more than anything else - and that the one problem with the game was that after level 5 or so, the helicopter just became so sensitive to the wind that the game started to become unplayable.

Even so, the experience of playing the game and the warm fuzzy sensation of knowing that you'd helped and rescued (virtual) people more than made up for the mechanical flaws in the game. Cyclone was the first game that made me think more about the other characters within the game and their well-being than my own progression through the game. In other words, most games are selfishly revolved around the experience and survival of the player. Cyclone, on the hand, revolves around the selflessness of the player. Do they want to do the most good, or do they want to top the high score chart?

What surprises me is that after a full quarter of a century after I first played this game, I'm finding it difficult to name another example of a videogame where you're expected to act with the same level of selflessness. I grant you that even in 1985 the vast majority of videogames were still about blowing shit up or killing people, but regardless, I find it somewhat dissapointing that we're still churning out videogames obsessed by death, violence and destruction like they're ten-a-penny, while fantastically compelling and uplifting games like Cyclone are a rareity.

Good drama requires conflict, self-evidently. The question I would like to pose to game designers is that why does this conflict always have to involve shooting each other in the face with small arms? Good games don't require explicit, graphic violence and death to be compelling. I'd like to see more developers to make games like Cyclone and fewer generic cover-based shooters with BIGZ SHINY GRAPHIX like Gears of War 2. Not only would be videogaming be more diverse as a form of artistic media as a result, but it would lead to some more interesting games being produced as well. The intransigence of Nature is a great narrative device that could be used far more within games. Instead, most developers would rather play it safe and let people run around and shoot each other dead in ever greater graphical fidelity. And I can't help thinking that's rather sad...
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