Thursday, October 12, 2006
Beguiling the Time
Computer games bore the bejabbers out of me. Ennui overtakes me as I watch over Freddie's shoulder, his avatar striding some war-torn landscape engaging in hand-to-hand combat that he is eventually guaranteed to lose. The instant he overcomes his adversary, another one pops out of the bushes and off they go again. What's with all the agitá? What do these cartoon figures have against each other? Wouldn't they all be just happier if they knocked off the Warcrafting, rolled some doobage and told tall tales about chicks? Well, son, I think, there's four hours you'll never get back.
Yesterday, citing a sore hip, I slagged off work and took to my bed. (It really was sore; I'm beginning to knuckle under to the inevitability of a replacement -- but enough of that for now.) A look at the books on my bedside table stirred no excitement, and my thoughts rather unexpectedly strayed to a copy of Myst IV: Revelation I'd been given some while back. I'd laid it aside because it crashed on my old Mac laptop; but this new, more testicular one might handle it better. What better way to beguile the time on an unexpected afternoon in bed? I found the box on a shelf, threw on the software, and presently found myself blissfully, meditatively enthralled, wandering through a beautiful house built around a desert-canyon lagoon while soothing New-Agey music played unobtrusively. Sure, there were puzzles to solve, a backstory to unravel, but -- and this is the vitally important point -- nothing was trying to kill me!
I just hate it when things are trying to kill me. Don't you?
The appeal of the Myst series for me how unhurried the gameplay is. Rather than sock-pow frenzy, you're invited to explore these quite stunningly rendered landscapes at your leisure before you even bother to try to solve the puzzles and move on to the next level. I was quite tickled to find myself really admiring and envying the kitchen in the fantasy house in Tomahna, the first world: So simple! So austere! Yet so sumptuous! I really wish my kitchen were cantilevered impossibly out over a lagoon like this! I could really get some cooking done in a kitchen like this one! Yes, sir!
What? Puzzle? Save Achenar's daughter from the evil clutches of her malign brothers, destroyer of worlds? Who cares! Dig this kitchen!
But, as ever, my training as an interface designer also kept trying to assert itself -- to my chagrined amusement. I know the devices and doohickeys that one's meant to solve -- machines you have to repair in some way, codes you have to break, natural-world science you have to apply -- must necessarily obscure their own functionality, else they'd be pretty piss-poor puzzles. But in my "waking" life, as it were, this is precisely the sort of thing I'm paid to work very hard at avoiding. I kept asking, "Really, Achenar? You'd design a whole electrical system such that two obscure little symbols engraved on a terminal device provide the information necessary to run it, and the key to the symbols is to be found in a drawer in a desk in your bedroom all the way back on the other end of the house? Wouldn't it have been a more practical matter to simply put up a little sign?"
Or, "Really, Achenar? You'd build a lovely home clinging to cliffs over a lagoon, and then make inter-room navigation dependent on a single bridge that changes position to connect rooms depending on which way you push a control device? What if you really needed to go to the crapper all of a sudden? Is that really great design?"
Ah, well. In these games nobody ever has to go to the crapper. Maybe that's their problem over at Warcraft. They're all plugged up. They should relax, let go. Second door on your right. What's that? How do you open the door? Ah... I shan't tell you and spoil the puzzle!
(Later edit: I once wandered into a video-game store in a shopping mall, to placate Freddie's pleading. Remembering how much I'd enjoyed the Playstation version of Myst III, I inquired of the tattooed clerk (who could easily have been played by Jack Black) if there were any games in his shop that weren't about killing, mayhem, bloodlust, and the skillful manipulation of unintuitive, thumb-intensive combinations of R-1 and X and Triangle buttons. Games like, you know, Myst.
(After staring at me as though I'd just sprouted a penis from my forehead, he just grinned and shook my hand. "No," was all he said.
(I find this less than credible. I put it to my wise and cultured readership: Are there any other games in this vein? No killing, no anxiety, no obscure button combinations to be found on page 125 of the manual? Just, you know, puzzles. And trippy landscapes. Surely there must be!)