Playing computer games is a habit; I love them and I hate them. At their best, I love them for the artistry, storytelling and problem-solving. I hate them because every hour spent playing is an hour I’m not creating something. In the days of ZX Spectrums, I used to like trying to write simple games in BASIC, so there was a smidgen of creativity going on. In more recent years, the equivalent has been modding – making maps, creating new appearances for characters, adding models created by other fans, rewriting bits of the code when it was within my capabilities; that sort of thing. Even so, if I find myself playing computer games for an extended period, I can usually take it as a sign that I’m trying to distract myself – something is Not Right.
There are so many distractions! Any period of history, fantasy or science fiction can be created. Any aspect of human (or nonhuman, such as badgers or lynxes) endeavour – political, economic, military, artistic, scientific – can be turned into a game. They can be played on cellphones, desktops, laptops, TV screens, or in virtual reality headsets in a suitably empty room, alone or with others.
Personally, I’m not keen on online multiplayer games. I’ve had a bash at Star Trek Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic, but apart from a handful of missions with others, I played them mostly as single-player experiences. For the life of me, I cannot understand why I can’t simply pay for these single-player missions offline and ignore the rest of it; the experience of being the only starship captain or Jedi knight given a galaxy-saving mission is somewhat lessened when one sees dozens of others being given the exact same missions, standing next to you.
No; the timewasting I prefer is in the form of single-player PC gaming, where each story that is told is your experience and yours alone – guiding a civilisation from the stone age to the space age, refighting famous wars (or wars that can never be fought on Earth), experiencing stories and overcoming puzzles. I don’t care so much about a game’s graphics; it’s the content that matters.
I enjoy immersing myself in new worlds: the mediaeval steampunk fantasy of Thief: The Dark Project or the military science base in Half-Life (1998); the achingly beautiful and hauntingly emptiness of deep space in Homeworld (1999); feudal Japan in Shogun Total War (2000); the dystopian settings of Portal (2007) and Borderlands (2009); the incredibly rich and detailed lands of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), or the swinging sixties as depicted in NoOne Lives Forever (2000). I think my favourite is the epic mashup of Leonardo da Vinci, One Thousand and One Nights and Erik von Daniken in Rise Of Legends (2006):
As creative as these game worlds are, they don’t allow much opportunity to be creative. Once a puzzle is solved, a story completed, or a battle won, replay value might be found in exploring other branches or harder difficulty settings on the way to the same conclusion.
I think there’s one game which has managed to avoid these pitfalls in recent years: Kerbal Space Programme (in development from 2011, released in 2015). Taking control of the space programme of a planet of little green men and women, you have to design rockets and figure out how to get them into orbit, explore space and return home. It’s incredibly addictive.
The whole game uses (simplified) physics models for rocketry, aerodynamics, and orbital mechanics. The first moment you get one of the little green dudes walking on their nearest moon is satisfying on a number of levels. For one thing, you’ve had to figure out how to build a rocket. Then you have to figure out how to get it to the moon. Then how to land it, with enough fuel to return home. It’s positively mind-expanding.
Once you figure out docking in orbit, the way is open for more advanced designs. This is what makes the game so appealing to me: the intellectual leaps and the opportunities to be creative. Astonishingly, nobody’s shooting at you. More advanced players – the ones with the time and patience to do the maths – can overlook every aspect of the space programme, trying to create vehicles within particular budgets. The difficulty comes with additional challenges, rather than faster reflexes or ‘smarter’ opponents.
Apparently, the Kerbals have popped up in classrooms, and among real space engineers enjoying some downtime. Only a game? I don’t think so; it’s more than that…