The Wild Digital West

I am not typically one for non-fiction. As a general rule, I figure that if I want reality there is a perfectly good threepenny shitshow of a universe happening around me 24/7, so I don’t really gotta go looking for books about it.

Masters of DoomRecently, though, I’ve found that some subjects actually do capture my attention. I finally listened to one audiobook, Masters of Doom, that has been in my Audible library for literally years. It tells the tale of the fateful meeting of John Carmack and John Romero, the formation of Id Software, the rise of Doom, the revelation that John Romero is the ur-asshole from whom all trash-talking douchenozzles on gamer headsets everywhere sprang, and the catastrophic creation and destruction of the game company Ion Storm, whose primary claim to fame is the notoriously horrible Daikatana.

No, I will not put in a link to anything Daikatana. If you want to brave that nightmare, you can Google it.

Anyway, the stuff in this book was fascinating as hell. Mostly because of the circumstances under which it all took place. I always forget that well into the early Nineties the Internet was still the fucking Wild West. There were no rules. If you wanted to release a computer game, you could do it with three dedicated guys, a month of dev time, and a modem that could dial you into the relevant BBS. It was that bizarre, flash-in-the-pan era where it was possible to make hundreds of thousands of dollars off shareware.

Dungeon HacksGoing back even further, I also just finished reading Dungeon Hacks. While Masters of Doom mainly focused on the first-person shooter, Dungeon Hacks travels back in time to the Eighties (and a bit before, in some cases) to chronicle the many separate births and parallel evolutionary paths of the roguelike, a lesser-known genre that’s mostly about getting the shit kicked out of you by various typographical entities in randomized dungeons full of traps and treasure and starvation and actual demons until you die forever and have to start over.

A screenshot of Rogue
Looked a little something like this.

It’s more fun than it sounds, I promise.

The Eighties were an even stranger era than the Nineties. Computers were almost exclusively university creatures, oversized beasties huddled in labs, their processing power timeshared among terminals that could only send and display data. Back then, if you wrote a game, it was probably in an implementation of BASIC or Pascal. If you were stuck with BASIC but wanted your game to run faster and more efficiently? Time to learn assembly, which is one step up from the Matrix machine gibberish your computer’s CPU speaks natively.

Once your game was finished? Better use your university computer to dial into Usenet and hit up the appropriate newsgroup to share it, so other people could download it to their university computer to play. Oh, and people were walking around distributing operating systems on cassette tape.

Operating systems.

The trip through the insane not-so-distant past aside, I think that the thing that really impresses me about all this is how elemental things start out. You couldn’t have two more different genres: the first-person shooter—predicated on twitch reflexes, respawns, and invitations for defeated opponents to “suck it down”—and the roguelike, which operates turn-by-turn, methodically, each discrete instant spent in mortal danger considered like a logic puzzle, a single poor choice liable to cost the player all their hard-won progress.

From those two ingredients, you can logically extrapolate just about any Western game you can think of. Stick Doom and Hack in a blender and you could wind up with Mass Effect, or Skyrim, or World of Warcraft.

And you still have purer iterations of both genres hanging around nowadays, too. Halo and its primary descendants depend on pure skill—no RPG improvement curve to be seen. That pistol will always deal the same amount of damage, it’s up to you to aim it between that Covenant bastard’s eyes. Then you have the Diablos and Torchlights of the world, which layer attractive graphics and real-time action over the roguelike affinity for procedurally generated everything and all the weirdness that can come with it.

Which just goes to show that you can do something that’s been done before if you do it really well, and that you can do something that’s completely novel by having two sets of mechanics (or two different genres) swap tartar sauce.

How about you lot? Any interesting nonfiction reads you’ve picked up recently? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. This will probably be my last blog post until December, seeing as I’m gearing up to be voluntarily brutalized by NaNoWriMo, and if you’re not participating in NaNoWriMo my friend Marisa has a long list of reasons you absolutely should, you slacker.

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