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Column: Phantom Fingers

Phantom Fingers: The Series -- Part Five: Myths and Legends

August 28, 2010 12:00 PM |

[Phantom Fingers is a new GameSetWatch-exclusive column on 'the growth and curious development of that relationship between the gameworld and the player' by writer and game theorist Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne [aka Eric-Jon Waugh]. Following looks at Pong, Breakout, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man, he now examines the inexorable rise of Shigeru Miyamoto, from Donkey Kong through Mario Bros to Super Mario Bros.]

It is 1981. Somewhere between testing and mass release, interest in Nintendo’s Space Invaders clone Radar Scope had cooled. It’s not that the game was poor. It’s just that six months earlier Pac-Man had changed the arcade landscape, and in the narrowing landscape for Invaders clones there was only room for excellence. Do we order Radar Scope, or do we order Galaga? Easy choice.

Enter the slacker art school kid who was only ever hired as a favor to his family. Shigeru Miyamoto was told to recoup losses by designing another game for the returned Radar Scope hardware, preferably aimed at US audiences. Inspired by Pac-Man, Miyamoto took pretty much all of Iwatani’s new ideas of scenario, character, empathy, and play narrative, and pretty much built a whole game on them without the traditional clutter.

“How High Can You Get?”

Whereas half of Pac-Man’s appeal lay in its character dynamics, Donkey Kong is nothing but character dynamics. You’re an everyman in a fairy tale, saving a damsel from not so much an evil as a misguided antagonist -- rather like Pac-Man’s ghosts. If anything, Donkey Kong is less violent than Pac-Man; any hazards are inanimate, and even the final confrontation is curiously indirect.

Phantom Fingers: The Series - Part Four: Gobble Gobble

July 14, 2010 12:00 PM |

[Phantom Fingers is a new GameSetWatch-exclusive column on 'the growth and curious development of that relationship between the gameworld and the player' by writer and game theorist Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne [aka Eric-Jon Waugh]. Following looks at Pong, Breakout and Space Invaders, we now examine the all-time Namco classic Pac-Man.]

To bring you up to speed, in 1976 Breakout came along to refocus Pong as a single-player experience, to redefine the videogame in terms of the player’s relationship with the gameworld, and to inject a remedial sense of narrative.

This had profound effects technologically, in terms of design theory, and in terms of the narrative application of videogames. Three threads would arise: the home PC, and two distinct schools of design; one focused more on the the pure theory, and one more on the storytelling potential of the form.

Two years later, Space Invaders reinvented Breakout as a tense battle between the lonely individual and inevitable doom from above. Suddenly players could reach out and touch the targets, and it mattered if they did. Add in a high score table, and a cultural phenomenon was born. Arcades were established just to fill with this one game. The videogame had become a summer blockbuster, its audience’s emotions and impulses carefully orchestrated for word-of-mouth and return visits.

Yet all was not well. Just as Pong had enjoyed several years as the generic videogame, overnight Space Invaders became the only game in town. Every game on the market, from Galaxian to Radar Scope, was an Invaders clone. And yet its appeal was not universal. Somehow, as the young Toru Iwatani observed, those dingy, smoke-filled arcades were filled entirely with socially-inept males. Furthermore, the game’s bleak tone and the mental state it aroused through constant repetition was a bit worrisome.

Clearly there was something wrong with this picture, and Iwatani set to figuring it out.

Phantom Fingers: The Series - Part Three: Focused Fire

June 21, 2010 12:00 PM |

[Phantom Fingers is a new GameSetWatch-exclusive column on 'the growth and curious development of that relationship between the gameworld and the player' by writer and game theorist Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne [aka Eric-Jon Waugh]. Following a look at Pong and Breakout, we continue on to classic Taito title Space Invaders.]

What can I say about Space Invaders that you don’t already know? Not a lot, I reckon, so I’m not going to go into too much depth on the facts. If you need more, there’s the Internet. Rather, I mean to frame the available information within the discussion we’ve been having, with an aim to highlighting its greater relevance.

You will recall we talked about Pong, and the easy introduction it provided into that alien space on the other side of the TV screen. Although there wasn’t much meaning to be had, the passive control the game provided over that one packet of information, bouncing around its tiny gameworld according to discernible laws acting on their own, allowed the player to mentally map out the game’s reality.

There was a whole new, bottled system of cause and effect for the player’s mind to lock into and understand. And as minimally involving as the laws and interface were, they were novel and fascinating, and simple to digest -- to the extent that Pong became a cultural sensation.

Then, as we discussed, four years later, Breakout came along and reframed Pong as a solitary experience, as a complex space, and as a distinct narrative. Now the player’s focus was entirely on the gameworld, rather than the gameworld acting as a catalyst for two players to entertain each other. In turn, the gameworld had more to focus on.

The player’s every action -- as indirect as the interface remained -- resulted in a tangible effect, or consequence, within the world. A tile would break, the board would be a little more open, and the surfaces to bounce off of would be a little different. The interaction was suddenly more meaningful, at least within the narrow scope provided. And then when the board was clear, twice over, the game was over. There was a distinct goal to achieve, entirely within the parameters of the game’s bottle universe.

Well, all those changes were significant. Different designers took away different lessons by how they balanced those changes in their heads, and ran off to extrapolate further -- leading us to at least two distinct schools of game design and a new focus on a single player’s causal relationship with the gameworld, as compared to videogames as a mere game or social tool.

For now let’s jump the Pacific, and ride the narrative train for a while.

Phantom Fingers: The Series - Part Two: Brick-A-Break

June 1, 2010 12:00 AM |

[Phantom Fingers is a new GameSetWatch-exclusive column on 'the growth and curious development of that relationship between the gameworld and the player' by writer and game theorist Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne [aka Eric-Jon Waugh]. Following the introductory column, this installment moves forward in time to look at Atari's classic 1976 title Breakout ...]

Though Pong, which we covered last time, opened the window to a new world, that world was a void. You had some basic physical rules, and you had a packet of information bouncing around in a box.

The bulk of communication was supplied by a second player. Pong exists in a weird medium that offers the player the vaguest hint of another reality -- a persistent, active set of laws that react upon the player’s every stimulus -- then anchors that experience back in reality. It’s sort of like shaking hands through a curtain of water.

You pass through, and get a fleeting sense of, this alternative medium. That’s nice, and it gives you a sense of the basic laws of water. But compare to snorkeling along a coral reef, and the whole alien world that water opens up by virtue of those laws.

For about four years, no one significantly built on Pong. You saw things like four-player Pong, and Pong with two paddles, and a vertically-oriented Pong that passed itself off as a Volleyball sim.

Atari did experiment a bit with Gran Trak 10 and Tank!, but somehow it took until 1976 for Bushnell and Bristow to hit on a one-player version of Pong. And that pretty much was the missing piece that gave us two distinct schools of design, the home PC, and thereby the information revolution that allows a person to research articles such as this.

As these things go, Breakout was pretty well-named.

Phantom Fingers: The Series - Part One: Echolocation

May 13, 2010 12:00 PM |

[Phantom Fingers is a new GameSetWatch-exclusive column on 'the growth and curious development of that relationship between the gameworld and the player' by writer and game theorist Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne [aka Eric-Jon Waugh], whom you may know as a co-founder of seminal game site Insert Credit. First up, an introduction...]

We are all inhabitants of our own reality. On the one hand we're kind of like sponges, absorbing everything around us and integrating it, whether we care to or not. On the other hand, deliberately or not we shape our worlds to reflect our own inner structures.

Whatever we may carry into a situation, experiences physically change our neural pathways. Repetition, familiarity, reinforces a link, like sketching over a line again and again until it becomes solid. Likewise, the way we position furniture, leave piles of papers or empty cans, what we choose to clean and how, what projects we leave unfinished, what we ruin, what we fix, what we wear down; how we choose to break up and break in and use the space given to us, it all imprints our environments just as emotions crease our aging faces.

In effect, our inner and outer worlds build up a feedback loop. As we carve out our place in the world, we settle into the spaces we carve, reassuring ourselves with their familiarity while we use those bold lines, so often scribbled over, to brand ourselves inside and out. This, we tell ourselves, is how the world works.

This is why videogames are so interesting; they are, in effect, bottled external worlds, into which we can momentarily plug our inner worlds to see what happens. Each game is a little feedback loop, allowing the player both to imprint his actions into a world, to leave his little mark -- even if only in a high score table -- and to absorb, from a simplified sketch with no social or practical consequences, a new way of being, a new way of doing things.