Games are beautiful and amazing and art and all that shit. I truly believe this. I think the videogame is the artform of the 21st century, like the movie was the artform of the 20th. (Let’s just go with that grand, sweeping narrative, shall we? Yes, it’s comforting and I want that simplicity right now.)
But sometimes you don’t want The Seventh Seal or Citizen Kane. Sometimes you want to huddle up with a bowl of popcorn and watch, I don’t know, Buffy.
This week we got some shitty medical news. Let’s not talk about that here. But it knocked me for six. Today was the first day I’ve left the apartment in a week, I think, except for stuff I absolutely could not avoid.
I’ve been playing videogames, though, in between trying to work and feeling a bit hopeless. I thought it might be interesting to talk about each of them for a moment.
Rome Total War: Barbarian Invasion.
Rome: Total War was my introduction to the Total War franchise, and it was a big one. Huge armies! A massive map covering all of Europe! ROME! CONQUEST! My best friend and I ecstatically swept our legions across Gaul, slaughtering those dirty barbarians. We took turns fighting the real-time battles and also taking, um, turns. The game became a huge link in our friendship. Long after I’d lost touch with him, I still had that game, and still swept across Gaul with my brutal, unflinching military complex.
Not sure why I like bashing barbarians so much. Hm.
I picked Barbarian Invasion this time because I’ve been watching the excellent miniseries Extra History, and last month they covered the reign of Justinian, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. Inspired by tales of his reconquest of Rome from the clutches of the Goths (again, those bearded freaks!), I booted up BI and took the reigns of Byzantium.
Clearly, the European scale no longer awes: Europa Universalis has gone a lot bigger. And the “huge” battles are underwhelming now that I know that, historically speaking, Justinian’s invasion of Italy was massively undermanned at 7,500 troops. (I think the biggest battle I’ve fought has been 600 per side.) But there is something beautiful about smashing down gates, or zooming in to watch your men slaughter those peasants in the melee, or sweep your cavalry down a hillside to crash into the squishy barbarian flanks.
I do feel a bit put out when the game throws something at me that I clearly can’t handle, though. When a horde (literally, a MASSIVE HORDE, thousands strong) of Vandals arrived right on my Western doorstep, I was extremely panicked. I sent a diplomat to negotiate and we agreed on a ceasefire.
A ceasefire which he immediately broke when the MASSIVE HORDE laid siege to one of my cities. Still, I sent the diplomat to negotiate again and, once again, he agreed to a peace. Which he broke again. So I negotiated another ceasefire.
This went on for about ten turns. It was ridiculous. I decided that clearly the diplomat and the Vandal king were on such good terms – my guy was just so damn likeable, like a Byzantine Ian McKellan or something – that every time they were in the same room they just couldn’t help being the best of friends. Maybe they were having a gay love affair. After all, he was a Roman! They were pretty gay! But once he left again, his advisors would whisper in his ear: “But look at that lovely city… brimming with lovely lovely things…”
But then the Huns turned up. Another horde, equally massive, but their leader did not appreciate my diplomat. He was having none of the potentially sodomous delights offered by this humble servant of the empire. So the Huns just smashed the city gates and that was that.
So I’ve been playing this, on and off, for a few days. I can’t play for extended stretches because the real-time battles are a bit repetitive, but it’s nice to come back to something so familiar, that was such a large part of my life for so long.
I’ve been meaning to finish the Knife of Dunwall DLC for this, so I thought I’d go back to it. Bad move. I felt frustrated, helpless and overwhelmed with the aforementioned bad news. And in Dishonored, you are a man with a big knife. You can also teleport and slow time.
You know what a man does when he feels powerless and you give him a big knife?
He cuts. He cuts everyone.
I rushed heedlessly into combat. I enjoyed blinking about with abandon, coming at them from all sides so they couldn’t retaliate, blade flashing out of nowhere. I made strange noises in front of my computer as I did this. There were a lot of dead people.
After about five minutes I died, of course, and decided this wasn’t a great idea. But I guess it was an opportunity to vent.
I’d been meaning to try this for a while. Sitting on my backlog. I like Vlambeer’s games so thought I’d give it a try.
Wow. This was exactly what I needed. It’s quick, it’s sleek, it’s so clearly put together with love. It’s not complicated, or at least, it needn’t be. It’s about you, your plane, your guns, and pointing them at things. It’s also about sweeping through the sky like a bird, twisting in the wind, tumbling downwards as you lock weapons with someone, climbing back up as you hit the ocean. Yes, I love it for the shooting and the clever goal/upgrade system and especially the music, but the sweeping curve of your plane as it climbs, or dives, or turns – the way it swells up or down, the way you turn at the apex, the way you use and are used by the pull of gravity – there’s something precious in there, there’s grace there.
And it’s a game about shooting a load of Nazi planes and ships and there’s a blimp and there are skulls everywhere. Of course.
Actually, are they Nazi planes? Or am I the Nazi? I actually have no clue. It doesn’t matter. They’re planes, locked in the endless neverwhere of World War 2 videogames. They exist to kill each other, and then respawn and kill each other again. That’s it.
Another backlog game. I played the beta (the one that won the IGF ages ago?) and was enraptured. I even wrote to Richard Flanagan (the dev) to say how impressed I was. He wrote back. He’s a nice guy. I’ve felt bad that I haven’t been able to sit down and play this.
So I sat down and played it. And it’s kind of lovely.
But it’s also not speaking to me right now. I think my head is in entirely the wrong place. I need Buffy and this is definitely Citizen Kane territory.
That’s not to say there weren’t things I liked. The world feels vast and full of hidden things, because it is and it is. There’s some signposting, but it’s not obvious, and sometimes you have to go off the beaten track. But go off the track too much and you might fall 100 feet down, which won’t kill you but it will land you in a new area which means there’s even more stuff to get overwhelmed by, which is both beautiful and very daunting.
I also like how the game uses no text, just visuals and symbols. I found a machine and had no idea what it did. I fiddled with it and it did something weird. It wasn’t until I found another machine that I figured out what they did, and was able to parse their strange new visual language.
But yeah, not the right headspace right now. I don’t want to power through this only to find I’ve ruined it for myself. Onto:
I planned to write an article on Thief 2. In fact, I started playing a few weeks ago to get material for it. It’s going well, and making little notes about things I hadn’t noticed before is kind of fun and makes me feel productive, like I’m not just wasting time playing videogames.
This is not my first time at the Thief rodeo. The series is one of my all-time favourites. I still think they do things that have not been matched by games since – even games like Dishonored which were directly inspired by them.
The reason I stopped playing them, six-ish years ago, was that I’d over-exposed the systems. Guards no longer felt like people, but like clockwork dolls that responded predictably to inputs. If you disturbed a guard and went back to the shadows, he’d look for you then go back. And if you did it again, he’d do the same thing. You could endlessly freak him out and have him go through the motions. There was no sense that the guard was becoming more agitated, or more suspicious, or changing over time, because he just wasn’t.
But these games occupy a special nook in my brain. The corridors that protagonist Garrett sneaks down have scored deep, unconscious ruts in my mind. It’s worth noting that, in my “post-Thief” period, I still wrote one-and-a-half Master’s papers and an article, featuring the Thief games to a greater or lesser extent. I didn’t replay the games, though. I didn’t need to.
For all their simplicity – the endless guard patrols, the simple AI, the fact that you don’t reeeeally need half the tools the game throws at you – they’re still quite complex. I don’t think any other game I’ve played has equipped you with this many tools for editing your environment: putting out torches or destroying iron beasts with water arrows, deadening loud surfaces with moss, scaling a wall with a rope arrow. Other games may give you loads of weapons, or items, or outfits, or upgrades, but Thief‘s aren’t just numerous: they’re incisive. These tools are not the funnest, or the most brash, or the most satisfying, but they’re like pencils you can use to re-draw the world one line at a time until it resembles a puzzle you can solve.
Ok, maybe Gunpoint. But that was pretty great.
It’s also adorably simple sometimes. I still like the “thwack” of the blackjack as it knocks someone out, and the little sigh they make as they go down. I love the fact that occasionally a lone guard will rush at me, head-on, and my swordsmanship is just a little better than his and I’ll kill him. But I’m not that good, so I’ll have to cram my face full of all the apples and cucumbers and venison I’ve been hoarding for the entire level just to get my health back. And I like the arc of the arrows: there’s nothing more satisfying than lining up a shot from 40 feet away and seeing the poor guy pirouetting as he spouts blood, probably thinking “Where the fuck did that come from?!”
I bounced off Dishonored, but fell right into this after a while. Partly it’s the familiarity, but I think Thief is calmer, too. You don’t need to kill – sometimes it’s actually against the rules. It’s smaller, and it’s about a sneaky man who can’t really use a sword but who’s got one anyway and is good at walking very quietly and nicking things. And while Dishonored does give you lots of tools, many of them are most useful in combat, and most of them are magical powers inherent to you, to the character. But in Thief, your character is a short sneaky man with a gravelly voice. What gives him power are his external tools: the arrows, the lockpicks, the devices. Sometimes the most useful tool is a tip, written on paper for crying out loud. But Garrett is fragile. I think that, right now, I prefer that to Dishonored‘s “You’re a magical badass” narrative. It forced me to calm down and take things more slowly.
Some more thoughts
I’m aware this piece fits neatly into the genre of “videogame confessional” writing: you take a game or games, and write about how the game affects you. It’s a genre which I have a personal weakness for – I love seeing into other people’s heads or, shall we say, their emotional spaces – but I’m also aware that, to many people, it’s overused, irritating and lacks the rigour of a more distanced piece of writing.
That’s ok. I agree with all that. But I also don’t want people to stop writing these things. Plus we should continue to write about how games impinge on us, because that’s, you know, the whole point.
Also worth pointing out that, just as these games were comfort play, this piece is comfort writing.
Lastly, part of the reason we play games is to escape to other worlds when ours becomes too much. I don’t expect anyone else to see it like this, but I think this was worth writing just to document what that experience feels like when you’re in the middle of it.