Friday, May 10, 2002

The Secret Lives of Videogames

I was never really a serious video game enthusiast (even though I was an adolescent during the glory days of the coin-operated variety) but I have always had at least some interest in the things. I had a discussion the other day about the "stories" behind the games, especially the early ones. I'm not talking about the "Two programmers went without sleep, living on pizza and Mountain Dew for a month creating the hit game 'Asteriods'" story - I'm talking about the story-concept behind the game play, along the lines of "Your space craft is dangerously situated among fast moving asteroids in an asteroid belt... Armed with a front mounted weapon and the ability to hyperspace, you fly through the debris, destroying each rock one piece at a time. Alien saucers visit the playfield from time to time with an eye towards destroying your ship!"

For a game like Frogger, the story is fairly straightforward and obvious just from a glance at the onscreen graphics: "You are a frog. You need to hop your way across a busy road and fast-moving stream to get home." But then you take a look at a game like Tempest, with nothing more than some angular lines and multicolored squiggles on the screen. The graphics on the machine's cabinet give you some indication that you are on the edge of an alien universe, and those lines and squiggles represent aliens, transporters, and energy fields. Of course, without the graphics on the outside of the machine, and the descriptions provided by the game instructions, there'd be no telling what those abstract graphics were supposed to represent. Being a word-problem type of guy, I've always liked having a sense of the story so I can get into the experience more.

But what about the grandaddy of them all, PONG? The Killer List of Video Games lists the abstract as: "A Table Tennis type game. Most people are familiar with it. Keep the ball in play and hope your opponent misses." That's pretty boring, especially for such a groundbreaking game. What if there was more to the story, much more?

There is. See it for yourself here.


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