Page 28, press hold, and reveal. Digitiser's founder speaks out
On staying 17 and growing breasts. Kind of...
Edge #133, February 2004
The age of the average gamer is creeping steadily higher, as fewer of us refuse to give up the hobby with the onset of middle-age on the horizon. As one matures, one likes to consider one's tastes as becoming more refined. It'd be nice to think you don't change as you get older, that you're not ultimately turning into some horrible blend of your parents (I'm certainly developing my mother's breasts), and that you're not becoming too set in your ways, and all that. But the truth is you can't stay 17 forever. And, as Her Majesty's Courts recently pointed out to me, I'm not going to be able to hold back ageing by consuming the boiled flesh of teenagers. No matter how much of it I eat. Inevitably, I digress.
The point I'm making is that I'm maturing (oh, all right - becoming an embittered old fart) my gaming tastes are becoming narrower. Nowadays, I rarely step outside of my favoured genres. Nevertheless, you can occasionally teach an old dog new tricks, and I'd like to think that I'm more open to certain new experiences (like having a catheter fitted) than I was ten years ago.
Go on - try and guess which game I played more than any other last year? The Wind Walker? Nah; too much semi-aimless wandering for my palate. Devastation? Pff! About as linear and tedious as shooters get. The Sims Makin' Magic? Hardly - I'm neither a girl nor a homosexual. Off-Ground Touch? Well yeah, but discussing what I get up to in school playgrounds has no place in videogaming's most-respected publication.
No, the game I've played more than any other this year is the Game Boy Advance version of Scrabble. What's that you say? That's the most absurd thing you ever did hear in your entire life? Well I shit thee not: GBA Scrabble has dominated the last six months of my life. And to think I have the GBA's godawful screen to thank for it.
So, there I was in a hotel in Brighton (don't ask) twiddling my thumbs (stop sniggering) and bemoaning the fact I'd neglected to bring anything with me to read. I was unable to walk the three minutes to the nearest shop on account of my crippling apathy. I was sharing a good-sized family room with my daughters (shut UP), who had long since fallen asleep, meaning a game of British Bulldog was out. Nevertheless, Child B (it beat having to trawl through baby-naming books) had brought her GBA, along with several years' worth of review carts. Most of these - being the ignorant, Pokémon-only girl that she is - she'd never even bothered to look at.
Rooting through the bag, isolated in the dim semi-light of a single bedside lamp, I struggled to work out what was going on in Super Mario Advance 2, Earthworm Jim and others, before resigning myself to a toss-up between the original monochrome Tetris and - ye gods - Scrabble. By 4am I was still Scrabbling, my synapses firing with the intellectual stimulus of it all and my adrenaline gland pumping because I KNEW this wouldn't end. I'd be beaten, or beat the machine, and I could just start again. It was a game without end, because every time I turned it on I knew I was going to get a different selection of letters. Several months later I'm still hooked (short of toilet breaks and attempts to earn a living notwithstanding). I'm not even playing it against other people - just the game's selection of hilariously-rendered artificial opponents. Sadly, they are my only friends these days. Undoubtedly, the cynics among Edge's eternally youthful readership will indicate that this is indeed a sign I'm getting on in years. "What's that, old man? You can no longer bear the noise and the pace of today's cutting-edge titles?"
Maybe so, but I like to see it more as a sign that I'm wising up while you lot are grounded in the ugly stupidity of youth. While I'm still playing my £15 Scrabble in six months' time, your 40-quid copy of Medal of Honor: Rising Sun will have long since rotted on your shelf. How many other games offer such open-ended gameplay? How many other games are this different and random every time you play? How many other games are so beautifully streamlined? Arguably, multiplayer gaming is open-ended, but how many of those test language skills beyond typing 'UR GaY'?
The thing is, modern gaming is geared towards the finite experience. You have a goal, you reach it, game over. Sure, you can always go back and try to get a better time, or score, or find all the poxy coins - but these are still finite. They have an end, either when you've seen everything there is to see or your patience runs out, whichever comes first. Super Mario Sunshine is a finite experience. Prince of Persia is a finite experience. SSX3 will expire. Halo, Half-Life and Pikmin are all great games, to be sure, but games with an end. Developers have become so obsessed with telling a story, or with selling marketable characters, and so consumed with trying to turn games into the interactive equivalent of movies and books, that we're forgetting that games can be abstract and ongoing experiences. Would tabletop Monopoly be improved if play were broken up with vignettes telling the story of an evil property baron?
Stories, by their nature, have definable boundaries. Yes, we can always go back to familiar tales, but the surprises will be gone. How many infinite games have we seen in the past few years? Worms, the criminally underrated Animal Crossing, The Sims, Grand Theft Auto (perhaps) and various post-Tetris puzzlers - though even some of those insist on featuring thoroughly pointless story modes - and that's about it. Far be it for me to advocate that every game be random, but if more games were to concentrate on providing some transcendent longevity than teasing us with an inconsequential and ultimately redundant plot, they'd surely provide better value.
Once again, I implore developers to get their heads out of Hollywood's backside and back into games. To take this medium and open it up, offer us something we can't get elsewhere. Hollywood may have been influenced recently by the visual presentation of games, but they're never going to be concerned by the lazy, derivative plotting.
Anyhow - that's enough from me. I've got a piss bag to change.
Mr Biffo is a semi-retired videogame journalist. His views do not necessarily coincide with Edge's
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