If I have been remiss in blogging for a few days, it is because I have recently become the proud owner of an XboX 360 Elite system (a Pujo gift for someone I love the most: myself) ! And unless the dreaded ring of death casts its malevolent shadow over my unit (Microsoft seems to have a severe quality problem with the Xbox 360s), kindly excuse me as I marvel at the jaw dropping textures, lighting effects and overall bleeding-edge graphics that seem to burst out through my beloved 46 inch HDTV.
My love affair with computer games started in the early 90s when I would go to my dad’s office to use his PC to play arcade-style DOS games like Parachute, Space Invaders, Dig Dug and the snazziest and jazziest of them all: “Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego?” with its 16-color world and its “Peenk Peenk” sound. Then in my first year of college, at a friend’s house I played for the first time a game called Wolf3D (shortened for Wolfenstein 3D), often considered to be the first 3-D first-person perspective shooter. After an hour of running through narrow alleys and dispatching Nazi enemies with violent flair, I felt sick to the pit of my stomach with “motion-sickness” , almost on the verge of throwing up. But then losing one’s virginity is never a painless experience. I was well and properly hooked.
Then came Id software’s Doom . With its simple “Shoot it if it moves” premise, it set the bar for gameplay for many years to come and though it shows its age now, its ending (for the shareware version) has still to be surpassed for its abrupt creepiness. There was the wannabe Quake, the Doom sequels, the Quake sequels, the graphically stunning Quake wannabe called Unreal, the knock-offs like Blood and Heretic —- I played them all. Or to be more precise: their shareware versions collected carefully from the CDs that came on the back of DataQuest/PCQuest.
Of course playing shareware sucked big-time and as the games ended with a screen telling you to buy the “full version” I was left feeling like Ashwathama after drinking the “rice water” as a substitute for milk.This feeling of dissatisfaction fired me up to study harder (yes I know—the irony) so that I would have enough money to actually fill up that last “Buy full version” screen.
Or maybe it wasn’t much of an irony. Because games formed a vital part of our Computer Science curriculum at Jadavpur University. No I do not mean game programming or computer graphics with its boring “circle drawing method” and “anti-aliasing”. I mean going to Numerical Analysis lab during second year and playing “Prince of Persia“, “Aladdin” and “Need For Speed” instead of writing a program that implements Gauss Siedel iterative method for equation solving. Lest people misunderstand and think we were no-good hobos using government subsidized labs to engage in frivolity, I should add that people took their games really seriously—I recall a physical fight in our lab when someone intentionally unplugged the PC of someone who was on lap 4 of a 5-lap race and was winning. And the story goes that once during a numerical analysis viva voce, the instructor was faced with a student who had no idea of what was being asked or any recollection of what he did for a full semester in the lab. In exasperation, she asked: “Okay forget it. Tell me what happens at the end of “Prince of Persia”. Don’t tell me you did not even finish that.”
He had. And why not? After all we were in an university deemed a “center of excellence”.
As for me, I never went close to the end of Prince of Persia—somehow always kept falling down the infernal crevices and dying. Not that I tried too hard cause my favorite in the college years was 3D Realm’s Duke Nukem 3D(followed closely by its knockoff Shadow Warrior) —with guns, evil aliens, urban decay, bigger guns, wisecracks, small touches like being able to pee in the cubicles and press the flush and of course the voluptuous strippers who turned into demons after you had said “Shake it baby” about a hundred times. It was a pity that they never came out with Duke Nukem Forever which became so hyped as the “paradigm shift” in gaming as early as 1997 that the game is, in 2007, still under development. Kind of like Ajit Agarkar still waiting to realize his true potential.
There was also another game I enjoyed those days that belonged to a genre which never really took of. Namely naughty and raunchy humor as implemented in the infamous Leisure Suite Larry series where slimeball Larry tried to ensnare women through conversation and mini-games. The conversations were pathetically scripted, the mini-games embarrassing but the women characters were beautifully drawn—it was good to see that some people had gotten the circle-drawing algorithms just right. Not all games I liked however: there was Myst which was so darn tough with its puzzle solving that I felt it was better use of my time just doing the problems at the back of Hopcraft Ullman.
Oh wait. How could I forget to mention the sports games — EA Sports FIFA and that horrendous lump of code, with more bugs than in a basement of a two hundred year old abandoned building, officially passing by the name of EA Sports Cricket —which was even then visually and sound-wise (with Richie Benaud’s monotone and the total lack of sync between what is being said and what’s going on in the game) the most pathetically implemented game around. In 2007, it still is. Unfortunately EA Sports Cricket is also very addictive (just like its poorer cousin “Stick Cricket”) and it is the only place left in the universe where one can still score 18 ball centuries with Sachin Tendulkar. Which is why I still play it on my laptop till my fingers shake from the trauma of belting Brett Lee and my legs cramp up from running the virtual twos.
In 1999, I set sail from India in a British Airways flight and in 2000 after I passed the nerve-shattering PhD qualifiers and graduated from a teaching assistant to a research assistant (a princely raise of 400 USD a month), I purchased the thing I wanted ever since I touched down on foreign shores: my very own Dell gaming machine which had, oh sweet Jesus, a 23 inch monster monitor—a behemoth that reflected my own rapidly increasing weight and girth. As time went by, my cupboard became home to full version games: Half Life, Unreal Tournament, Deus Ex, Hitman, James Bond.
This was, needless to say, accompanied by a corresponding decline in research productivity.
By this time, many of you must be thinking I am a kick ass gamer. Nothing can be further from the truth—I suck, having reflexes like those of a drunken gorilla. Which is why I never play online (I am guaranteed an ass-whopping from a seven year old), play at the lower difficulty levels so that I can get through maximum game in minimum time and frequently use “cheat codes” when the going gets tough (For those uninitiated few, putting in cheat codes makes you “God like”—kind of like President Musharaff in Pakistani polls).
However my lack of skill never dampens my enthusiasm. In 2003, just a year before my graduation, after dithering between whether to go for a PS2 or Xbox, I threw in my weight (most considerable) behind Xbox—principally because I hate and still do hate Sony as a company because I feel their products (including their TVs) are overpriced and overhyped. I bought a “special edition Halo” Xbox which came pre-packaged with this game I had not heard of before: Halo Combat Evolved.
What can I say ! I was blown away by Halo and the Xbox. Halo redefined the first-person shooter genre that had fallen into a rut since Half Life was released (it is frequently cited as THE killer game that “made”Xbox) and along with it, the Xbox with its haptic feedback controllers (the controllers which you use to play the game shake and vibrate with the intensity of the firing weapon) redefined the gaming experience for me in a way my first brush with Wolf 3D did. A series of Xbox titles followed: some good, some bad (I count the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto series among the bad), some too difficult with Halo 2 again standing out as a cut above its competition.
And then I got a job and moved to Maryland.
Which is where I encountered the game which I consider to be the very best among those I have played. It combined action, adventure, character development and a open-ended storyline that was not just simply a prop to hang different action pieces. Yes I am talking about the brilliant “Knights of the Old Republic” and its lesser sequel (but still amazing) “Knights of the Old Republic II: the Sith Lords” : two games that so sucked me into their world that I found myself playing on the weekends for close to 14 hours at a stretch stopping only for bio-breaks exploring the non-linear story and the beautifully etched “worlds”.
Yes good games get inside your head. After a few days of playing “Hitman Contracts“, a game that requires you to scan maps of installations like buildings and factories and plan a stealthy assassination, I found myself at my company’s Christmas party in an old colonial mansion subconsciously trying to “plan” how a stealthy attack could take place here. Till I realized: “Oh right there is noone to kill here.”
And so now, after much dilly-dally concerning balancing my married life and gaming life, I have bought an Xbox 360, Microsoft’s next generation Xbox console. (yes it is obvious which side of the argument won). PS3 was out of consideration for reasons mentioned before, Wii is cute and all but no serious gamer would be caught dead using it —more suited for digital “party games” than a walk on the wild side. Which doesn’t mean I wont buy it later on (cause I do think it is innovative) but Xbox 360 gets first crack at my wallet.
I often wonder why I am, even at 31, so fascinated by gaming. Is it the love of a visual spectacle (Doom 3 released 2004, in my humble opinion, is a work of art)? Is it the joy of escaping into alternate worlds where you can do things you always wanted to (like blasting zombies with a chain gun or collecting cursed souls using an enchanted artifact or swinging a double-headed lightsaber as hordes of Sith attack you from all sides) but cannot?
Or is it simply a not-so-silent stance against growing up and taking responsibility for the real things in life?
Or perhaps it is just a way of not losing a sense of wonderment—of being able to shout out with hair on end, as a ghoulish figure attacks from the shadows using terrifyingly realistic AI or as the physics engine unleashes a response to an action that you never thought someone had accounted for:
“Wow ! That was freakin awesome!”