Monday, May 09, 2016

Let's Play... Paradroid

1985, Hewson Consultants

originally played on Commodore 64

Don’t let Apple’s Siri fool you into complacency about artificial intelligence. Automatons have been a worry for a while now, and not just in our home appliances and digital devices. Humans being overcome and ultimately destroyed by the robots who serve them has been a longstanding trope of science fiction literature since its inception, and earlier literary examples include E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann and Johann Richter’s satires. Indeed, primitive mechanical automata were often darling court entertainments for the aristocrats of the European enlightenment. More pragmatically, automatons and the automation of human endeavour they represent remain the playthings of the wealthy elite. Anxiety toward robots manifests real fears of human obsolescence, as technological developments within modern capitalism tend to displace workers from their jobs by making their work obsolete and the workers hopelessly uncompetitive. Such exploitation is really only one articulation of the possibilities enabled by the automation of human labour, and not the inevitable outcome of technology. This anxiety – which famously and somewhat apocryphally brought the word ‘sabotage’ into the English language after French and Dutch labourers halted the machines which were intended to replace them – is really directed toward the ontology of the human experience, as since the mastery of fire our existence has been predicated on our technological capacity. If the human is defined primarily by the non-human tools which displace our previous sense of ourselves, then is the purpose of the human experience to transcend itself? Robots stand in the place of our worry that we will not live up to ourselves.

Paradroid is a strategic action game in which players act as both robot and (offscreen) human. Released for the Commodore 64 in 1985 by the English developer Hewson Consultants and programmed by Andrew Braybrook (whose previous game Gribbly’s Day Out had received favourable attention from the British gaming press, and who would go on to develop the equally well-regarded shooter Uridium), the game situates players as being in remote control of an ‘Influence Device’ on board a derelict space craft, tasked with destroying a ship full of robots which killed the human crew after their circuits were damaged when the ship passed through a spatial anomaly. These derelict spaceships are now travelling into enemy territory, with grave consequences for humanity should the ships fall under control of enemy forces.
you play as the 'hat', not the 'head'
The Influence Device earns its name by allowing players to take control of any other robot on the ship, thus opening access to a variety of different capabilities according to the type of robot captured. Robots are depicted with a number identifying their rank, with higher numbers in general being more powerful robots than lower numbers. But of course, power is a relative thing. While most of the robots are equipped with weapons which increase in destructive power according to rank, some high-ranking robots have other useful capabilities but no weapons. Capturing robots involves a strategic gameplay sequence in which players have a limited amount of time to dominate a circuit board by routing electricity through logic gates in favour of an opponent’s routes, respectively identified as purple or yellow in colour.
capturing robots through power electronics
Different robots have different capabilities for capturing other robots, reflected in the number of electricity nodes each player is able to deploy on the circuit. Generally speaking, higher-ranked robots can more easily dominate lower-ranked ones, but this is not always the case, and players are often provided opportunities to punch outside of their weight class, as it were. Players use these robots to destroy the other robots and access other parts of the ship. Robots are destroyed either by ramming (given sufficient armour on the host robot), capturing, or shooting them.  

Of course, like most games of the period almost nothing of this narrative or atmosphere is found in the game itself, but rather in the manuals and box art, with differences extant between the British and North American releases (the box description of the NA version suggests that the crew of the ship is still alive, and renames the Influence Device to an “anti-Droid weapon”). The game itself focuses on presenting the core mechanics of the game – exploring large, contiguous maze-like levels to capture and destroying or capturing fast-moving robots while avoiding being shot – using a responsive and efficient game engine which effectively convinces players of the vastly different capabilities each robot the player inhabits (the reviewer in Zzap!64 praises the varying movement patterns for effectively depicting each robot’s personality).
one of 24 different droids encountered
Indeed, the smooth scrolling of the game engine was rightly praised by critics at the time of the game’s release, as only basic hardware scrolling had been implemented on game or computer platforms (Nintendo’s Famicom, which implemented a useful hardware scroll, had only just arrived in North America; in any case, early Famicom games did not extensively use the scrolling feature). Shooting elements can get quite challenging when multiple high-ranking robots are involved, and the varied environments of the ship levels (varied in terms of layout, not graphical elements) allow for a variety of tactical situations. Elevators allow access to other levels on the ship, which players may explore whenever they like, a fact which often gets less patient players in trouble. Computer terminals located throughout the ship provide maps and information about other robots, and each level has at least one device to heal and restore a player’s energy.
ranks are important; 139 is a loser
Damage is aggregated but not visually rendered until a robot is close to destruction, at which point it begins to flash and the player has a limited amount of time to transfer to another robot before the Influence Device is destroyed. Furthermore, some of the higher-ranked robots are unstable when captured by the Influence Device and only allow players to inhabit them for a short period. After destroying all robots on a level, the level darkens with a ‘powering down’ sound, with the player expected to continue clearing levels until the entire ship is free of hostile robots. Like many action games of the time, there is no real ending, as once a ship is fully cleared the player is simply transported into a new one full of robots at a higher difficulty setting. Although it is oddly fulfilling to clear a ship of homicidal robots and attain the loneliness of a powerdown, the goal is to master the skills required for a high score, not fulfill a narrative agenda. Indeed, the reclamation of the ship by the humans who transported the Influence Device there (a theme which might have made interesting subject matter for a sequel) is left unexplored.

While the game’s graphics, sound, gameplay, and atmosphere were universally praised – most contemporary magazine reviewers were highly effusive about the game’s merits while publications such as Amiga Power and Retrogamer have listed the game as among the best computer games of the 8-bit era, and the game's popularity proved sufficient to allow a 16-bit remake of the game on the Amiga in 1990 – in retrospect it is the minimalist aesthetic of the game which allows it to stand out when viewed against its contemporaries. 
good level design, great 8-bit graphics
Indeed, much like the survival horror games which began to emerge in the 1990s, the atmosphere of the game is nearly entirely dependent on its minimalist audio presentation. Avoiding the wildly creative use of the Commodore 64’s SID chip for music common to the British game dev scene of the 1980s, Paradroid is soundtracked by the low continuous pulse of the ship’s engines as well as the synthesized noises of the various robots, punctuated by the sounds of doors opening and weapon fire from the robots. While pulsing music is often appreciated in action games, and was certainly a staple of the English coding scene, such enthusiastic soundtracks tend to undermine the atmosphere of the stalk-and-be-stalked gameplay found in ParadroidThis tension is further emphasized with the implementation of a basic fog-of-war mechanic which hides enemies from view when they are around corners and behind objects and doors. Rarely do players feel safe on a level, as even the powered-down levels clear of robots invoke the dread and isolation of deep space.

Like most games on the Commodore, Paradroid was heavily pirated, finding its way into the libraries of almost everyone who owned the machine. I remember discovering the game during a rain-filled weekend in the summer 1987 on a floppy disk full of other arcade-style games including Jumpman, Hunchback, and Miner 2049er, which had been copied onto the back of the game Impossible Mission, which was the only game I knew about when I copied the disk from a friend. Most of my experiences with Commodore games were similarly exploratory, with hidden treasures emerging with each directory listing. LOAD “$”,8 >> LIST was a holy mantra opening the digital cave of the forty thieves. Before my father started bringing home lists of pirated software available from an emergency room doctor he worked with, friends and I would exchange games with each other by copying whole disks at school. Disks labelled with only one or two games often contained many more, and it did not take long to discover that what was once a collection of dozens of games was in fact a library of many hundreds. It was usually the strange titles which captured interest. British games such as Monty on the Run, Blood and Guts, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Jet Set Willy were not only cheekily titled but also wildly subversive and unpredictable, with odd art and sound effects and surreal characters and gameplay. Nothing like these games was available on consoles. Indeed, after having access to so many games at once there was no way that I could ever go back to gaming on consoles, whose expensive cartridges limit consumptive excess to the rich. Commodore gaming – whether on the Vic 20, the 64, or the Amiga – was often a continual stream of new experiences, a flow of content unmatched until the internet democratized software distribution.

Small teams and independent programmers working autonomously produced a hugely creative game development scene, especially in the UK where the market was dominated by low-cost computers and cassette storage media. Ideas were allowed to develop into commercially-released games often for the simple pleasure of exploring the frontiers of computing and the burgeoning new media such as digital games which accompanied affordable home computers. A DIY aesthetic which emerged from punk music informed the development of the British gaming industry in its early years, with new companies springing up and quickly disappearing and programmers allowed near-total independent authorial control over their games.
clear robots from each deck of the ship
As the UK scene was centred primarily on cassette tapes as storage media for software, game developers could readily replicate and distribute their own software outside of any corporate (read: committee) control of their product. Significantly, the average price point for games in the UK was considerably lower than in the US, allowing people to purchase games on a whim rather than save up for them. Games purchased for £2-5 could be short diversions which presented one or two gameplay ideas and didn’t even need to be fully developed in terms of graphics or sound, rather than the long investments of playtime and elaborate art budgets expected from a game purchased for $50-60. While my research into game pricing is currently not complete enough to provide the statistical rigour requisite to a causal analysis, it is likely that for a variety of reasons the UK market can be described as situating its products in accordance with what could be described in terms of the North American market as ‘low-budget’ and ‘casual’ demographics.

It is interesting to note the parallels between this period and present-day indie game development on Steam, where inexpensive ‘idea’ games such as Goat Simulator, Pony Island, Dropsy, and The Stanley Parable have found a commercially-viable home (and sometimes become a commercial hit). While large publishers have been known to release interesting titles, the general trend for commercial game development is akin the Hollywood production model: exceptionally large capital investments are deployed to continually shift audience expectations for games toward a dependency on large capital investment. When executed well, corporate production strategies beget money printing machines, as old gameplay ideas are exhaustively recycled with new art assets and franchise expansions (witness any EA sports title, or DICE’s Call of Duty series). However, such successes (or need for such success) often compromise and even stifle interesting ideas which lie outside of the commercial mainstream. Worryingly, Steam’s competitor in computer game distribution has started to close its platform to better enforce strict control over games and game developers. With Windows 10 and the Universal Windows Platform, Microsoft is taking cues from Apple, Sony, and Nintendo’s strict control policies for their platforms. No longer will independent studios and developers be able to release games at their own discretion, but must comply with Microsoft’s policies for the platform. Obviously, such service will not be freely given, so developers can expect to pay licensing and developer fees, much like they do to Nintendo or Sony for being able to release on their platforms. As of the end of April 2016, the games released on UWP have been relative disasters, likely souring developers who have not yet adopted Windows 10 exclusivity. It is likely that the contemporary computer game scene will soon be defined by open versus closed platforms, with the mainstream market likely following Microsoft into the walled garden. If such control represents the automation of game development relative to the corporate strategy of a handful of companies, then perhaps we must admit that the robots are winning the influence war.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Let's Play... International Karate

International Karate+
1987, System 3 Software

originally played on Commodore 64

Sometimes you just have to beat a person down. Punches in the face, kicks to the ribs, whatever. We can tell each other that we shouldn’t, but the reality is that we love the pleasure of overcoming our own weaknesses by overcoming the weaknesses of some other fuck. Especially through punches to the face, in fact. Of course, with most respectable elements of society thoroughly frowning upon violence – unless it gets ritualised for financial gain through military conquest and sports, or is hidden as slave wages within industrial society – there are only a few outlets for the realisation of this pleasure. Mainly, there’s the whole ‘trying to be a civilised person’ thing that most people won’t shut the fuck up about. And so we have violent films and videogames and aren’t we all so much better for them. Surely.

One reason for the goodness of violent media is that they let my brother and I punch each other in the head without damaging our future cognition-oriented careers. My own enjoyment from mediated martial arts was provoked by an unsuccessful attempt to learn aikido, a failure caused not by lack of discipline or coordination but by my inability to pay for classes. From grades four through eight the school board subsidised a month-long period of phys ed lessons (called ‘options’) in activities expensive for kids such as hockey, football, skiing, dancing, and one or two martial arts. For a lot of us, this was the only time we could do some of those kinds of things. Equipment rentals were a cost I couldn’t afford, so martial arts and dancing were my choices. The military industrial toy complex which ascended with Star Wars and patterned masculinities into rigid forms of consumption and behaviour rested its guiding hand on my shoulder – aikido it was. Four weeks of twelve lessons and I was hooked and like a junkie I couldn’t afford to continue.

Martial arts culture was everywhere in the 1980s and early ‘90s, the west having rejected pop trends for pacifist and spiritual elements of eastern culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s in favour of a mythologized culture of violence and discipline anachronically appropriated from the aristocratic warrior class, and which was more easily commodified than Indian ragas and Buddhist meditation, Beatles be damned. Toy weapons and war-themed action figures were best-sellers in major department stores, ninjas made cameo appearances on late-night television, and the philosophy of the samurai code was adopted by Wall Street wolves. Right-wing teenage male power fantasies such as American Ninja, Lone Wolf McQuaidBig Trouble in Little China, and The Karate Kid linked the libertarian elevation of individual agency with the conservative desire for social order, deference to authority and tradition, and personal discipline, all captured in the symbol of the ninja superhero.

New martial-arts action superstars emerged, as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Stephen Segal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Jackie Chan replaced the gun-toting Dad types of the previous generation such as Charles Bronson, Gene Hackman, Charlton Heston, and Clint Eastwood. ‘Martial Arts’ was its own section in video rental stores, often next to the horror section as gloriously shitty (and often quasi-amateur) b-movie and direct-to-video releases like Enter the NinjaMiami Connection, and Ninja III: The Domination as well as badly-dubbed Asian imports like Ten Tigers of Kwangtung, Five Element Ninjas and Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky were much more violent and weird than the Hollywood mainstream. It wasn’t long before every action hero and pretty much anyone involved in a fight on television and in the movies was able to break out top-drawer fighting techniques without breaking a sweat or ever appearing to train. Of course Van Damme and Segal can turn every encounter with a bad guy into a death ballet; that’s fine and no one has a problem accepting that. But the sheer absurdity of a non-stop stream of anachronistic ninja clans proliferating in contemporary crime syndicates and police departments quickly overstayed its welcome, and guns once again emerged as the cinematic death tools of choice, mainly because any idiot can shoot ninjas dead without much hassle. Action film and television retreated from action stars being preternatural jujitsu masters with convenient helicopter piloting skills to their mastering an amorphous, generic, rapid-edit fighting style suitable for exploitation within a broad range of distinctive genres: witness the culturally-indistinct fight styles presented in modern James Bond films, superhero franchises, revenge films like Taken, or the Jason Bourne series. Suddenly, every IRL wimpy non-fighter from Matt Damon to Scarlett Johansson to the old man version of Harrison Ford can be made to look like a kickass fighter. Perhaps it’s even more ludicrous to cast Liam Neeson as a Dad assassin than it is to use ninjas in a bank heist, but fuck it. For big-budget entertainment, production efficiencies have always punched logic in the head.

stellar power lines
Wimpy white people kicking ass on screen is one legacy of 1980s martial arts culture. Another was its influence on hiphop, figuring not among the fashion trends of street culture and the videotape fetishism of mainstream ‘90s rap, but also in the ritualised emcee battles which replicate ninjitsu agility and Shinto philosophies in language. And of course, a videogame genre emerged focused on martial combat, staring with traditional martial arts before exploring more fantastic, cartoon-like themes, and this is where my virtual fist most often struck my brother’s virtual face.
stay down
International Karate is a one- or two-player arcade-style fighting game which came out for most home computer platforms in 1987, the same year that the first Street Fighter game hit arcades. Unlike that most famous of videogames, IK does not provide a health meter for fighters. Action follows the rules of tournament karate, in which two fighters (three in the updated International Karate+) score points adjudicated by referees who halt the fight after each strike. Animations for the original 8-bit releases are detailed and evocative, and hit-boxes are pixel-accurate. Bonus rounds between fights allow players to defend themselves from balls and bombs. Button mashing will work to some degree, but players will have to strategically place and time their attacks and defences in order to defeat more challenging opponents. Punches and kicks which land are awarded either half or a full point, with three points winning the match. Being an early fighter which adheres to The Karate Kid rules, there aren’t any combos or advanced moves to learn. To strike your opponent or defend yourself, you press the only button and move the joystick in one of its eight directions. Someone has to go down before the timer runs out, you know the drill.

IK+ motivates everyone to greatness
The 1987 UK release from System 3 on Commodore 64 (released the following year as Chop N Drop by Activision in North America) is perhaps the most well-known version of the game, thanks to pirating but more importantly because of Rob Hubbard’s fantastic score, which fully exploited the famously idiosyncratic SID chip in the C64. The 1988 releases for 16-bit Atari and Amiga computers feature significantly upgraded sound, graphics, and animation, with detailed character sprites and very fluid motion, although Hubbard’s score was replaced with the kind of percussion-heavy ‘80s midi funk which soundtracked movies plotted around Kawasaki ninja attacks. 

Two-player videogame duels are the oldest form of digital games, with the earliest games relying on human players to provide gameplay when artificial intelligence and enemy strategy algorithms were non-existent or in their infancy as processor and storage requirements for artificial opponents were too high. (For comparison, IBM’s Deep Blue chess machine – the first to beat a grandmaster human opponent in 1997 – used 30 central processors and 480 specialised chips). Once artificial opponents did start to appear in digital games, intelligence routines were often simulated rather than actually computed in real time, leading to the necessity for pattern recognition of enemy behaviour to succeed in games (and infinite play once the patterns are learned). Of course, games which were not played in real time but were instead turn based, such as many strategy and role-playing games, could more readily implement intelligence routines. The inevitable progression of computational capability has allowed for the utilization of increasingly complex intelligence routines. The first digital game – 1962 mainframe-based Spacewar – predated arcades and was an academic marvel of violent destruction as grad students and professors took turns lasering the living shit out of each other. Spacewar came to arcades in the form of 1971’s Galaxy Game and Computer Space. Many of the early and mid-70s arcade games such as 1972’s Pong, 1975’s Gun Fight, and 1976’s Barricade required two players to operate, as did Atari VCS launch title Combat. As computer hardware continues to develop, digital game players have continued to engage in multiplayer mayhem, although in the 1980s and early ‘90s competitive social gaming occurred more often in arcades than in the home. The release of Doom in 1993 and Warcraft in 1994 inaugurated a new era of competitive multiplayer gaming, a phenomenon centred on networked digital computers and thus unavailable to consoles, which were limited to fight games until the release of Halo on the Xbox in 2001. For most people, multiplayer digital gunplay is a 2000's thing. Social gaming in the ‘80s and ‘90s was dominated by fight games.

Not every threeway goes according to plan
So you kick and punch your friends to beat and humiliate them for hours of joyful play. Most everyone likes that. My brother and I certainly did, at least a few thousand rounds in International Karate+. We never did fight all that much IRL, at least in the ‘punch that bastard’ kind of way, or more accurately we stopped fighting once my little brother got big enough to punch me back. “Just hit him, he’ll stop,” my Dad always told him when he cried about me bullying him for toys or the TV remote or just because teenage boys try being assholes before hopefully figuring out other strategies. And so one day at the age of twelve and a height over six feet he did punch me back and it hurt so I stopped being a low-level dickneck bully. Fights became verbal, markers of quick wit with a touch of emotional abuse, more like the verbal swordplay of the Monkey Island games than anything approaching real violence.

the sound effect is pain
Videogame fighting was a good release for us, and so we moved on from International Karate to Palace Software’s amazing Barbarian and Barbarian II (which uses the two-player combat style for a one-player game), published by Epyx as Death Sword and Axe of Rage respectively in North America, but nobody bought or pirated those versions because everyone in North America was apeshit Nintendo and the most widely-pirated software came from European cracking groups. Barbarian was amazing not only because of the amazingly cheesy mid-80s fantasy cosplay box art (cleaned up for America, of course), but also because you could decapitate your opponent at any time, bypassing their health meter. A grumpy lizard would then swear at you before cleaning up the corpse and kicking the head off-screen. Slick shit. Somehow I could destroy my brother at this game, which gave me an unfounded confidence betrayed by the next decade of fighting each other.

With occasional diversions into Thai Boxing (which was amazing because between rounds your trainer would clean up your bloody, broken face like a window washer), Knight Games, and the brutally hilarious Blood ‘N’ Guts, my brother and I chopped off each other’s heads well into 1991 before the Street Fighter II arcade machine came out and everybody lost their collective shit for the next decade of game design clones. There was a very brief interest in Tongue of the Fatman, largely because of the box art and surreal fighters, but the game itself was kind of shit. After SF2 every fight game used combo moves, hopefully dozens of them, and allowed for character selection from a collection of mutant cartoon weirdos and psychopaths. Of course, as consoles began to totally dominate the digital game market by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, computers suddenly weren’t the best place for fighters. Other than decent SF2 and Mortal Kombat ports, the only decent fighting game to come out for computer systems in the ‘90s was the excellent manga-inspired giant robot fighter One Must Fall 2097, a shareware title which thoroughly outclassed its big-budget corporate competition by incorporating equipment upgrades and RPG-style skill system elements.

It was with the robots that my fights with my brother ended: a Tuesday in September 1995, just back from school, and my brother challenged me in OMF2097 with a new joystick he picked up. Overconfident from almost a decade of punching my brother’s virtual face really murdered, distracted from videogames by a bullshit sixteen-month attempt at being a musician in a string of unheard weirdo bands, I took up his $10 challenge that he could beat me left-handed with his eyes closed and turned away from the screen. Of course you can’t win, fucker. I’ll destroy you in 90 seconds or less you dumb... and I lost without landing a punch in slightly more than thirty-one seconds. Pay me, bitch! was the last thing I remember before figuring out that in addition to being blind and handicapped my brother was also drunk and realizing suddenly that I actually hate motherfucker fight games.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Let's Play... Surgeon Simulator 2013

Surgeon Simulator
2013, Bossa Studios

originally played on PC

So I always wanted to be a surgeon. Along with astronaut it was one of the job boxes I ticked off every year in that big blue book parents in Ontario used to track their kids' progress through school in the 1980s. Another consumer memory brought to us by the fine folks at Jostens. Of course, this ambition disappeared as I grew older and came to realise that I wanted to memorise songs and books instead of physiology and stress-relief methodology. So the humanities and a long life of poverty for me, then. Both my parents worked in health care, and my brother and I spent a lot of time after school wandering around the hospital waiting for the age of ten so we could stay home alone as latchkey kids. You see a lot of things wandering around a hospital unsupervised. Patients in various states of recovery are obviously interesting to a young kid raised on horror films, but so are the small dramas traced into hospital waiting rooms and hallways along with family members, worry for loved ones made supine like a struggling dog by the rules of the institution. Parents annoyed by their loss of control to institutional processes, fighting with doctors and nurses for tiny scraps of hopeful good news and just a quick glimpse and please maybe let me hold their hand. Friends visiting the infirm and the elderly who only wish them to leave if they didn’t want them there in the first place. Spouses hiding their frustration and loneliness as their love for each other strains and sometimes breaks in front of a quiet public. Sublime horrors of bodies objectified, flesh drawn and quartered to find out what’s wrong, what needs fixing, a painful and necessary violence fundamental to understanding. Like Councillor Krespel in Hoffman’stales, medicine must often destroy its object of study in order for understanding. A poisonous cure, to be sure. Walking through the hallways and backrooms of the hospital alone or with my brother, sometimes we would see something very graphic indeed. Seeing a few fingers in plastic wrap abandoned teaches a person that medicine is an abstraction as much as it is an abjection. Distanciation and humour are the only recourse for sanity.

Of course, to deal with all of the domestic trauma, heartbreaking grief and loss, as well as the mountains of gore, many people who work in medicine adopt a form of gravedigger’s humour in order to compartmentalise the abject and the horrific in order to maintain their capabilities on the job. Ankle-deep in blood and crying loved ones, you smile and enjoy the smells as you wipe blood across your forehead. Metaphorically, of course, as hygiene must be maintained, in Canadian hospitals at least. I’ve noticed this attitude in friends who are cops as well – humour used to paint over otherwise horrible experiences. A friend of mine who drives ambulances spent the first day in his job cleaning up brain matter from the highway to Toronto before coming over for a birthday party for my brother and revolting every single one of the guests by not having changed his uniform first. I’m covered in brains. You’d think I would have had the bright idea to change, he said before forgetting his Asian alcohol allergies and passing out in a closet upstairs after drinking the neck of a Molson Canadian. Similarly, my father edited film and video for medical procedures, sometimes while we ate supper in the living room. The likeness of my mother’s lasagna to the fleshy subdermal parts of the inner leg was a constant source of amusement for him.

don't tell me you don't want to shake his head around, because you do
Surgeon Simulator 2013 (2013) brings this laisez-faire attitude to home medicine games. While most games dealing with health care are managerial simulations – SimHealth (1994) and Theme Hospital (1997) being the most obvious examples – or cheap licensing entries in film and television-based transmedia franchises, such as ER (2005), Grey’s Anatomy: The Video Game (2009), and House M.D. (2010), there are some examples of games which try, realistically or otherwise, to depict actual medical procedures. Life & Death (1988) and Life & Death II: The Brain (1990) are perhaps the most well-known iterations, having been compiled on numerous shovelware releases in the early CD-ROM years. This was in fact the manner in which I came to play both games, for as a farewell present when our family moved to Southern Ontario my father’s co-workers at the hospital gave him a CD-ROM drive for our fancy new 386. A collective effort in financing, as these drives were very expensive back in the day (starting around $1,000) and quite the gift. Within computer geek circles, our machine was the envy of everyone around for almost a year. Except for libraries and universities, nobody had a CD-ROM drive in 1991. The technology was so new that in order to fully experience what it had to offer, sound routed from the drive had to be sent to a mixer along with the output from the computer's sound card. Likewise, publishers had little understanding of how to properly use the medium, either filling titles with uselessly small (75x75 or sometimes 130x100) video clips often repurposed from extant video media such as television and home video, or compiling as many non-related games as they could get their copyright licenses on. A database medium, then, and unless dictionaries and encyclopaedias are of particular interest to you, nothing interesting came out on CD-ROM until Sierra started releasing ‘talkie’ versions of games such as King’s Quest V: Absence Makes The Heart Go Yonder! (1990) and Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers (1991), quickly followed by Interplay titles such as Star Trek 25th Anniversary (1992) and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I (1990). More often than not, however, such exciting multimedia versions of popular games were marred by their decidedly non-professional voice acting, often invoking the indie DIY spirit of the time and using members of the programming team in character voice roles. It should be noted that this dynamic of economic necessity forcing the conscription of terrible voice acting from programmers is different than occurred when designers purposely put themselves into their games, as Chris Jones did when he took an increasingly prominent role as the character Tex Murphy in a series of adventure games from Mean Streets (1989) through The Pandora Detective (1996). Shudder-inducing as thespian delusions, these early non-professional multimedia experiments are often fantastic if appreciated in the right spirit. Of course, some of these releases were very well done indeed; the CD-ROM editions of Interplay's Star Trek adventures were in face the last collective effort from the cast of the original television series.

the most realistic four-colour surgery simulator ever released
The most popular use of the medium, however, was as a shovelware platform on which to dump a variety of unpopular titles along with a marginally-popular one. And so Life & Death came into my possession along with Beyond the Black Hole (1989), Bruce Lee Lives (1989), The Chessmaster 2000 (1986), and Cribbage King / Gin King (1989). By far the best part of Life & Death – and in likelihood actual medicine – is the screaming. Patients scream when you poke their sore spots during observations and when you perform surgery without administering an anaesthetic. Rendered in monophonic 8-bit sampled bliss and reproduced to everyone’s amazement using the famously crappy and useless pc speaker, the screaming in Life & Death is alone worth an hour of your drunken time at a party with friends. Life & Death is a fairly realistic simulation of these procedures. Players are expected to be very meticulous in performing the steps necessary to complete these operations. Ultimately, while enjoyable, the game presents players an often frustrating experience of the OCD required by modern health care practitioners as players slowly learn how to do things properly through trial and error, as well as reference to the game’s manual and in-game commentary on player performance.
surgery is definitely for the OCD set
Of course, the screaming stops should you ever choose to perform an operation properly. The game offers two surgical procedures, appendicitis and aneuritic aorta, in a small attempt at educational gameplay. Despite  the use of four-colour CGA mode for the game’s original DOS release,the presentation and simulation aspects of the game are remarkably realistic for the time and have yet to be matched in any other commercial release.

Surgeon Simulator 2013 is frustrating for quite the opposite reason. Basically a cartoon exercise in fun with physics, Surgeon Simulator tasks players with performing a variety of challenging and totally unrealistic surgical procedures. Players are in direct control of the virtual surgeon’s hands, thus providing a level of haptic complexity to the interface which guarantees that players will fuck up even the simplest of gestures, such as grabbing and maintaining a hold of an object. Don’t be turned off by the fact that the game doesn’t include a tutorial, as the fun of playing the game isn’t really about completing the challenges offered to players, but rather about enjoying the comic mayhem inherent to amateur surgery.
drunk interface. drunkterface?
The game drops players right into the matter with heart surgery as the first mission with little warning and a gleeful disregard for patient safety. Indeed, black humour runs throughout the game, evidenced not only by the playful main menu, which allows players not only to answer the phone and write on a notepad but also to play computer games (I should note here my own history with physicians who were early enthusiasts in digital gaming) and most importantly launch everything off the doctor’s desk in a flailing attempt to learn the game’s interface. Fun involves the comic mischief caused by the juxtaposition of the seriousness of surgical medicine and the autistic inability of the surgeon to control his or her own limbs, and also by the impossibility of the game to operate as a simulation of anything approaching actual medical procedures. Bones are sawed off and organs are removed and placed wherever there is room, all with no regard whatsoever for how these pieces would ever be put back together again ‘in real life’. Unlike in Life & Death, play is only concerned with opening patients up; the sawed-off bones and scooped-out organs don’t need to be reconnected after the procedure. While the game offers a variety of scenarios, such as performing heart surgery in the back of an ambulance while the doors flail open and elements of the surgery theatre continually fall out, or completing an alien autopsy / transplant in zero gravity on a space station. Of course, I have only been able to complete a few of the game’s surgeries and have not unlocked the full game.

careful... careful...
Fundamentally, Surgeon Simulator 2013 is a game of frustration, as controlling two human hands by means of the mouse and five keys on the keyboard is much more difficult than would initially appear. Simple movements are made exceedingly difficult as in a sense players relearn or recalibrate their hand-eye coordination. Of course, this leads to a variety of fun achievements on Steam, such as flashing metal horns or flipping off the patient before abusing his face like he’s in a Three Stooges routine, or successfully completing surgery after stabbing yourself in the arm with enough drugs to start hallucinating. This kind of fun only improves when playing with multiple intoxicated friends.
great, now you've hopped yourself up on goofballs
Sadly, the PC version has yet to be updated with the hilariously oppositional co-op mode from the PS4 version, in which each player operates one of the surgeon’s hands. Also sadly missing is the screaming. But the fact that as a surgeon I can inject myself with drugs and go to space while smacking the patient’s head around like Curley before telling him to fuck off and pulling out all of his organs with a hammer and replacing them with empty plastic water bottles and my watch makes me a very happy person indeed.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Let's Play... Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance
SSI, 1988

originally played on Commodore 64, Amiga

I hesitated before starting this one again. Just look at the simultaneously beautiful and hideously atrocious box cover art and you’ll quickly understand what I mean. The beauty is perhaps less obvious: a classic Clyde Caldwell fantasy painting, an artist well-known to all Dungeons & Dragons tabletop fans, depicting a standard male power aesthetic found all over the best and worst of fantasy art and culture. Metal and man-hair shine with equal precision. The sword half-poised like a cock. The dragon oddly feminised. Taken as a whole, these elements betray both a nerdy powerlessness and a strangely appealing masculine power trip fantasy, one which fully grabbed hold of me as a precociously impressionable twelve-year old. Of course, like all infantile compulsions the negative connotations specifically associated with ‘heroic fantasy’ iconography fully outweigh any sense of aesthetic pleasure derived from what is at best a skilled technical ability which readily evokes a sense of perpetual nostalgia within a certain kind of game consumer and a certain kind of revulsion from most normally everyone else.

an early-game encounter
Interestingly enough, my own experience with this box cover art was not enabled by consumption, at least not in its official capacity. My father brought Pool of Radiance (1988) home one day, copied from a physician friend at work on the basis of the game program being the largest ever released for the Commodore 64: four double-sided 5 ¼” floppy disks. Game piracy was of course not exceptional behaviour in the 1980s. Games were passed around with friends at school on a nearly weekly basis. At this point in the computers-as-pedagogical-tools debate, school computers were entirely misunderstood by teaching staff who had obviously never been trained to use them, so any use by students was viewed by teachers as an appropriate display of computer science aptitude. Friends and I would sit at the back of the classroom copying and playing games and receiving straight A’s.

The more official procedure for our family (i.e.: condoned by parents) to acquire games was to go through ‘The List’, a document dozens of dot matrix computer-printed pages long. My brother and I would select from The List the games we would want to play. My dad’s physician friend would then charge according to how many disks were used, not how many games were copied. I’m not sure whether he actually owned all of the games that were on his list, but he had a whole lot of them. Marriage and kids had not stopped this workaholic emergency room doctor from acquiring a large library full of games. My father brought me over there a few times, and I was instantly amazed by the bookshelves which housed games to the ceiling in nice-smelling oak with brass and silver accent lighting. Treated like a fine library, the doctor’s game collection was my projected masculine fantasy. He must have been buying fifteen games a week for the three different computers set up in his study. On each of the few times I was there, I was allowed to rifle through the boxes and play some of the games released only for IBM and Apple ][, systems far too expensive in the 1980s for my family. Distinct from game consoles, home computers allowed full access to media production technologies such as disk creation. In fact, the early history of home computing was almost entirely informed by a culture of software sharing and copying, as many of the computer clubs functioned essentially as game swap meets. Over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, the industry had to educate consumers to convince them not to copy their floppies. As a barrier to piracy, a lot of the games employed off-disk copy protection in the form of manuals, maps, charts, printed graphics, and code wheels which were often creatively integrated into gameplay. With the doctor, of course, these materials involved additional fees. Ancillaries, he called them. In addition to using four double-sided disks, Pool of Radiance required two large manuals full of expository text and information about the gameworld, and a code wheel. Needless to say, the game was quite expensive to copy.

educating the masses about the dangers of software piracy
The SSI gold box games were particularly important to my formative videogame habits: extended play sessions, meticulous procedures for backing up save files, attention to detail with a forensic and autistic focus, a logical strategization of progress, and meticulous documentation – admittedly a skill developed playing other RPGs which habitually required players to create their own maps and log narrative and quest information. Ultimately, as a result of the cost of pirating complex games such as CRPGs, and the fact that by the age of twelve I was in receipt of a fairly regular income stream, I purchased a copy of every other gold box game I played. From age seven I had been delivering newspapers, and by twelve I had begun to make a profit buying and selling comic books, a bedroom industry in which I thrived until adults started paying attention to comics as investments and by 1992 had priced me out of even trying. Before Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989) and the other gold box games, however, it was Pool of Radiance which captured everything I could call my attention. My father brought the game home, showing off the disks and wondering in amazement about “where it will all end”. Of course, he meant computer technology and wasn't challenging me to complete the game before he did. As a kid I didn’t think my parents played games, maybe due to the fact that they would sometimes get mad when my brother and I played games instead of doing “something outside”. My mom certainly never bothered with them, and it wasn’t until I was older that my father admitted to having enjoyed Douglas Adams games Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984) and Bureaucracy (1987) and strategy games such as Ocean Trader (1983), Trader Trilogy (1982), Starflight (1986), and Elite (1986). So he came home from work and was immediately excited that I was immediately excited by the game. In retrospect, this enthusiasm made sense. A few months prior, my religiously-inclined mother and I had gotten into a huge fight after she had found my first-edition copies of the Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide and Deities and Demigods. Fuelled by a trend in religious hatred against D&D quite popular at the time, my mother had decided to destroy an admittedly satanic-looking book and one which quantified the gods of world religion along with their occult rituals, which I had recently acquired from a friend’s older brother as part of my transition, along with every other D&D player my age, from Dungeons & Dragons to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I never forgot the look on my father’s face as he watched my mom tear the pages out of the books, and it was this look which later made me think that he knew what he was doing when he brought home Pool of Radiance, the first official adaptation of D&D for home computers.

glorious tactical, turn-based combat
Having recently completed The Bard’s Tale III: Thief of Fate (1988), another game I had purchased on my own with four-and-a-half weeks of paper route money, I learned Pool's interface very quickly. Enraptured by the character generation screen, among the more advanced for CRPGs at the time, my brother and I spent the entire first night with the game making characters and printing them off in case we wanted to use them in tabletop D&D adventures. Admittedly, I think these characters were only used once in an actual D&D session, but as every RPG player knows that is entirely beside the point. Affect in role-playing games involves fetishising a numerical matrix which qualifies a character within the game world. The numbers tell the whole story of what can be accomplished in the game; the actual narrative or plot is entirely secondary.

perhaps the first game which allowed LGBT characters 
role-playing options add narrative complexity
This being said, Pool of Radiance deploys a rather complicated narrative form for its time. While not exhibiting the narrative depth or complexity of text adventures, Pool utilised a fair number of narrative text passages which guided an admittedly wholly pedestrian and routine fantasy RPG plot. But as with many media texts from the early days in a medium’s history, we must properly contextualise what the game actually accomplishes rather than dismiss it for the many things it does not. At several points in the game, players can make choices which branch the narrative slightly or bestow useful items. While certainly not demonstrating the narrative significance or complexity of Balder’s Gate (1998) or The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings (2011), Pool of Radiance does experiment with the hack and slash mechanics which characterise a significant portion of gameplay. And what mechanics these are. The game presents a complex tactical combat system modelled on actual D&D rules and with elements not only from SSI’s previous RPGs such as Wizard’s Crown (1986) and the Phantasie (1985 – 1987) series, but also from the company’s many legendary war and strategy game series. Almost anything that you could think of doing could be accomplished in the Pool of Radiance game engine, or so it seemed to us at the time.

encounter with the end boss
While slow, the advanced, turn-based combat presented players with (at the time) a rather extensive amount of tactical possibilities. Unlike most of my friends, I was a dedicated computer game player who didn’t have a console at home except an old Atari VCS and an entirely ignored Odyssey 2. For the entire height of the Nintendo boom in the late 80s, most people I knew made fun of me and my family for not having a NES at home. My brother rectified this situation in 1990, but before that my NES time was limited (admitted not quite the right term in this context, as this was the time of extended weekend sleepovers) to time spent at friends’ houses. I took their abuse in stride because I knew that there were things that computers could do in games that consoles simply could not do. Because of piracy, computer gamers always had access to far more games than even rich kids with consoles. The much greater memory capacity of most home computers allowed a far greater complexity to programming code and resultant game design while allowing greater graphical prowess. Most importantly, computers had floppy disks and cassette drives used to save information. As a result, many computer games were designed around gameplay ideas necessitating the tracking and deployment of player data, be it as a record of gameplay behaviour or outcomes or to save a player’s progress. They often presented a different framework for gameplay and presented entirely different ideas to players than did the infinitely more popular console games, extending over weeks or months instead of single sessions, and adjusting themselves to player activity and altering their worlds as a result of player behaviour. Additionally, computer games could utilize highly advanced control interfaces and control interactions allowed by keyboards in addition to console-standard joysticks and trackballs. As fewer people had access to computers in the home, these games tailored themselves to niche rather than mass markets. Some genres such as strategy and flight simulation didn't even appear on console games until very recently.

Accordingly, I used to love showing off to my friends aspects of computer games that console games simply couldn’t do  the personalization and content creation functions, the extensive graphics and gameplay options. Many of these differences existed with Pool of Radiance. Players have control over the appearance of their characters throughout the game. Hundreds of different inventory items are available, allowing for extensive customization. One of my friends was absolutely amazed that enemies could be killed to the point where they were cleared out of an area in the game, and then the game machine could be switched off and the game resumed later with these same areas still clear of enemies. Two months later, he convinced his mom to buy him an Amiga; although Pool of Radiance had not yet been released for that system, rumours were that the best version of the game would be for Amiga but he would have to wait and in the meantime he had Hillsfar (1989), Heroes of the Lance (1988), Defender of the Crown (1986), Blood Money (1989), Dungeon Master (1988) and every other game that was completely amazing on Amiga. Indeed, this minor procedural detail of housekeeping enabled by player data save technologies is the entirety of Pool's plot: clear an area of the city before moving on to the next one and ultimately defeating the end boss, who in this case is a rather fearsome dragon not unlike the one which graces the cover art. Essentially, players are the city's cleaning service; gameplay is precisely a record of this process of 'cleaning'. Despite a few superficial RPG aspects, there was simply no way for console games such as The Legend of Zelda (1986) or Dragon Warrior (1986) to operate in a similar manner. Code passwords weren't the same. No matter what you did on the consoles, the monsters always came back.

exploring the city, Amiga version
More to the point, however, this style of gaming was not only appealing to math-heavy, idiot-savant youth such as me and my friends, it was also very practical in terms of being a group gaming activity. Playing the game in a large group of people, individuals can make their own choices about a character, and the visual presentation makes everyone feel as though they are hovering around a digital boardgame instead of a computer monitor. Strategic decisions are complex and variable, allowing numerous opportunities for partnership and disagreement with other players as they think through their party’s situation. While I did end up finishing Pool of Radiance alone at home after several months, I also played a significant portion of the game with five friends at school as well as each other’s houses. As the game allowed six characters in the party, everyone got to create and play their own guy (please note that no girls were included in this group of twelve-year old CRPG fans, either in real life or in the game). Everyone had a copy of the save disk, and disagreements would break out when someone would play alone at home without input from other players, thus disrupting our collective progress. Complex social interactions emerged from our play, but I'll leave such observations to researchers more qualified than I in anthropological study.

sweet tactical combat on the Amiga
We didn’t finish the game together, but we did manage about half of it before everyone got distracted by other things in their lives, or maybe other games, I choose not to remember.

Monday, October 27, 2014

missed call: the influence of cell phone culture on political polls

Politics and prophecy have ancient mutual origins in military tradition. It is obvious why knowledge of the future confers strategic advantage. Once a tradition of mysticism and ritual, prophecy now involves the application of algorithmic calculation to large data sets for the production of useful extrapolations. This is how finance capitalism evaluates companies, how Target uses sales data to know about a woman’s pregnancy before she does, and how campaigning politicians know which doors to knock on or avoid. In the era of big data, we should not be surprised that big money remains the dominant influence.

If it seems as though new, contradictory polls are produced daily, then we can thank the news media for increasingly relying on polling data to provide inexpensive programming. Commercial news is an entertainment product, a consequence of media conglomeration by large multinationals. In this context, polls quantify the drama of the electoral road and turn the relative boredom of electioneering into an adult videogame formatted for inexpensive mass consumption. Of course, without editorial discretion on the part of media agencies, this process often results in the publication of polls bearing dubious statistical legitimacy.

Gauging public opinion requires time to properly accomplish. Survey length and complexity dictates cost, and media organizations need to produce other content while waiting for the survey to be completed. As a result, new survey techniques which greatly simplify survey questions while reducing the time and budget required for data collection have come to the fore in the prediction industry, with the resultant products ready for media consumption. Some polling companies such as Angus Reid and Abacus Data have transitioned to online polls of dubious legitimacy. Most companies, such as MainstreetTechnologies and Forum Research – often cited in Toronto media – use interactive voice response (IVR) technology, a self-aggrandizing term for computerised phone surveys.

So what exactly is the problem with telephone polling in the 21st century? Telephone collection of public opinion data from a random selection of Canadians has long been the gold standard for the polling industry, as landlines existed in virtually every residence in the country and data could be collected in a cost-effective manner. However, academic and industry studies have noted that the recent decline in the response rate to telephone surveys has greatly impacted the validity of data produced. Reasons for declining response rates are numerous, but often involve technological developments such as line screening and the adoption of mobile phones. Unlike the phone books which graced every home when landlines were common, wireless carriers have not coordinated their databases to produce a national cellphone directory. Furthermore, due to built-in caller ID and pay-by-the-minute billing, cell phone users are more prone to ignore calls from unknown numbers. As a result of these issues, many telephone surveys omit cellphones from their sample sets, as it is difficult and expensive to correlate demographic information with individual numbers.

Youth, urban professionals under the age of 40, renters, and low-income voters in particular are not being captured by polls relying on landline survey data. Governmental research suggests that mobile-exclusive residences currently represent nearly 19% of Canadian households, a number that is sure to rise as nearly 65% of people under 35 report using mobile phones exclusively. As a result, poll data is skewed toward older, wealthier voters in rural and suburban communities, reflecting a bias for conservative candidates. This bias evidences in polls as reported by the news media, but often vanishes once votes are actually counted on election day: witness the last Ontario election, in which poll data almost universally predicted a Conservative victory, while the actual election granted a majority win for the Liberal party. In a similar manner, Olivia Chow’s popularity lies with demographic groups not captured by landline surveys and so may not be reflected in poll results indicating a race between John Tory and Doug Ford.

According to polling companies, the use of IVR along with advanced statistical analysis results in a rate of predictive accuracy comparable to landline telephone surveys and other established methods for gauging public opinion. However, more often than not, polling companies simply do not perform the requisite statistical calibration to legitimate their results, suggesting that their data acquisition methodologies emphasize turnaround time and affordability rather than statistical viability. My own calculations indicate that IVR is only accurate when the results of numerous polls are averaged over a much longer term than the daily surveys being reported in the news media. Importantly, the long term trend is not reflected by individual studies, which vary wildly from the long-term median.

As a result of focusing on short-term results skewed by unrepresentative population samples, the news media often misrepresents public opinion to the voting public. With an increasing number of miscalled elections, hopefully the public learns the sense of editorial mistrust and critical evaluation which the news media, in thrall to the temporal acceleration of market forces, have relinquished. 

Published for 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Let's Play... Elvira

Accolade, 1990

originally played on Amiga, PC

There’s no way to go through this one without talking about Elvira’s breasts. Absolutely no way whatsoever. Not just prominently displayed on the box art, informing the font used in the company name, but also right in the middle of the back of the box: “Can someone help me find my chest?” So let’s just get them out of the way now, as with Elvira, the self-proclaimed “hostess with the mostest”, fans are very used to this sort of self-objectified feminism. Elvira uses the objectification of women to her advantage, with an irreverent punk rock wit which made a generation of men want to be her sub. An ironic gesture to the kind of oppressive gender constrictions which women faced for most of the twentieth century. That the female body could be objectified for commercial gain was not the problem; horror cinema is all about the objectification of bodies both male and female. The problem, rather, centres upon the beneficiary of this process of objectification.

Elvira, reprising her TV role as 'lounges gracefully'
Elvira herself is of course not an entirely original creation on the part of actress Cassandra Peterson. She references the many ‘horror hotties’ who are used to bolster ticket sales to a largely (or at least perceived) male audience throughout the medium’s history. More specifically, Elvira performs in a tradition of television hosting in which an attractive horror-themed actress introduces late-night horror and science-fiction films broadcast on television station throughout North America. Most of these personalities were limited to being regional celebrities, but a few such as Vampira and Elvira gained national attention. Not just an attractive body, the quick-witted Elvira constantly served as a foil to male desire at the same time as she was herself fully empowered by it (most visible in the financial returns from her celebrity status). This trope has long been used in both counterculture and mainstream cinema and television. By the late 1980s, Elvira was fully exploited across a range of products, including pinball tables, toys, numerous comic book series, a feature film, and of course videogames. In addition to television duties, she hosted a series of horror film releases on home video which, while tame, were still inevitably watched by every fan of the genre. Sadly, while her likeness has been reproduced relatively successfully in Elvira (1990), her persona and most especially her wit have not been so equally-well rendered. What does remain, however, is an appreciation for horror films by the game developers, evidenced by nearly every scene in the game.

A video store near my friend Ryan O’s house used to rent us absolutely everything in the store. A family run business, the owners clearly didn’t care what children watched, although we never did venture into the porn section concealed behind a red fake velvet curtain to fully test out their permissiveness. By the look of the crazy weirdos who went back there, they must have had some fucked up shit on tape in the back room. So no porn, but we could rent anything else. Violent martial arts films with heads being destroyed with weapons in red plumes of death; cable access and direct-to-video softcore thrillers, often starring the same five naked people and their clearly fake breasts; b-list American slashers and Italian zombie and revenge movies. The Italians with their lack of censorship always made the goriest films. I wasn't a big fan of their slashers (except for the eye trauma), but the zombie films are often amazing. It didn’t matter what the rating was – most of the films were unrated anyway – the clerks allowed my friends and I to take the movie home one for 87 cents or five for three dollars.

confusion guides the game's opening, as you are cast into a jail cell
Obviously it was the covers which grabbed us. My religious mother was always horrified when she saw them laying around the house, but there was never any attempt to take them away. We never had ‘the talk’ about movies the way that we had ‘the talk’ about N.W.A. or Iron Maiden and ‘the talk’ about satanic-looking Dungeons & Dragons books, or ‘the talk’ about the copy of Husler she found under my bed in grade seven. One of my favourite muttertrauma moments happened on my tenth birthday. My father had started a yearly tradition of renting a laserdisc player for my birthday and then keeping it through Christmas. Laserdiscs were rare and precious like holy water to video fans in the '80s. While libraries stocked copies of films, laserdisc was really the first home video medium which intended consumers to purchase titles rather than rent them. Of course, the VHS kids of the '90s who turned over rooms of their houses to libraries of horror, anime, or foreign films may wish to dispute this statement. However, in the early 1980s cassettes were priced higher than laserdiscs for the simple reason of their mechanical complexity as well as the time required for their duplication. Still, nobody except rich people bought into laserdisc as it was not a recording medium. Everyone wanted to try the exciting new hobby of taping their favourite shows, especially when they weren’t home to watch them. Laserdiscs felt like something you purchased if you already had a VCR. Even though VHS had shitty picture and sound quality and the cassettes never lasted for long without being damaged, people put up with the faults of the VCR because they could tape Miami Vice and Monday Night Football.

For my birthday, my father and I rented laserdiscs of The Evil Dead (1981), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Black Hole (1979), and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Two of them were for the birthday party with my friends, and two were for later. I picked Evil Dead and Raiders for the party. The Indiana Jones film went fine, and everyone was a big fan of the face melting scene. There’s something about Stephen Spielberg’s early career that I find rather interesting, namely that he really did love grossing out and disturbing children. After making Raiders, with its somewhat infamous and thoroughly entertaining face-melting scene, Spielberg famously ghost directed Poltergeist (1982), a film with so many fantastically gory scenes that the film industry invented the new rating of PG-13 to indicate films meant for teenagers and yet which included violence, gore, and softcore nudity. A perfect rating for the Elvira: Mistress of the Dark film which came out in 1988 to the delight of tween boys everywhere. I’ve always been fascinated by this fetish of the gaze in early Spielberg, an interesting element of his filmmaking practice which in his institutionalization in Hollywood has entirely disappeared along with any attempt at making interesting films. Obviously a hit at a party full of a dozen boys aged nine to twelve, Raiders segued into The Evil Dead without any notice from my parents hovering on the periphery. It was during the tree rape scene that my Anglican minister mother brought a tray a cupcakes into the room, placed them on the coffee table, and stared intently without saying anything. The film wasn’t stopped, but I wasn’t allowed to have birthday movies on laserdisc again.
Lists are sometimes a good thing. I used to walk through video stores making them. Often the cover art was enough to be convincing. Favourite covers included The Company of Wolves (1984), Sole Survivor (1983), The Supernaturals (1986), House (1986), The Gates of Hell (1981), Hellraiser (1987), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), Sleepaway Camp (1983), Scanners (1983), The Visitor (1979), Chopping Mall (1986), Death Spa (1989), Basket Case (1982), Frightmare (1983), Creepers (1986), The Howling (1981), Zombie Flesh Eater(1979), Scream and Scream Again (1970), The Return of the Living Dead (1984), Zombie Lake (1981), Night of the Zombies (1981), Visiting Hours (1982), Future Kill (1984)  still the film with the highest awesome-cover-to-shit-film ratio  Mausoleum (1983), Revenge of the Dead (1983), Burial Ground (1981), and Squirm (1976). Are any of these movies any good? Of course not, with only a few exceptions. But their appreciation is a process greater than the characteristics of any one film. The thing about genre appreciation of this kind is that no individual text is complete or interesting in isolation. An intertextual matrix of relations between texts, their social usage, and the individuals who consume them guides the production of meaning and affect. In this sense, a genre text is never really complete, and this is true even for influential films such as Psycho (1960) and The Shining (1980). Themes, conventions, and tropes animate texts in an equal and polyphonous discourse of social uptake and use value, and indeed come to define the genre and differentiate it from the mass of other possible textual experiences.
I didn't make it
With this idea of intextual referentiality that Elvira the game proper can be fully appreciated. The game takes pleasure in presenting a variety of awful things to players: decapitated heads, bloody stakes hammered into vampire hearts, eyes gouged out and necks ripped open, knifeplay and hangings, and maggot and other atrocities as inventory items. The tone of the game indicates that Horror Soft are clearly invoking in particular the history of Hammer horror films such as Dracula has Risen From his Grave (1968) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). Players are tasked with retrieving Elvira’s chest (see the clever pun?) so that she may cast spells in order to defeat the game’s ultimate bad guy, in this case a bad girl. This spellcasting component most obviously marks Elvira as a genre hybrid. Unlike most role-playing games, Elvira does not present players with the ability to cast spells directly by means of mana points or spellbooks. Instead, as in an adventure game, players collect reagents and bring them to Elvira for her to create items which function like spells. Arguably, movement and exploration functions more like an adventure game than most RPGs. While appearing to be a standard grid-based game like Eye of the Beholder (1990), or Might and Magic Book 1: Secret of the Inner Sanctum (1987), as in many graphical adventures most rooms are only presented from specific vantage points and do not allow for the illusion of a 3-D representation of space. However, unlike most adventure games, other than Hero Quest: So You Want To Be A Hero? (1989) which became the Quest for Glory series (1990-1998), combat is an involved, somewhat tactical affair much like in a role-playing game, functioning in real-time much like Dungeon Master (1987) or Eye of the Beholder. Awkward and imprecise, Elvira's combat is perhaps the least interesting thing about the game. Once players have learned to time their actions against opponents after a few hours of playing, there is relatively little variance to encounters except the amount of damage their can cause and withstand.
combat involves timing mouse clicks for attack and defence
Elvira does indeed have the “look and feel of a graphical adventure”, especially if that adventure is in the degenerately comedic vein of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987) or Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All The Girls (1990). British developer Horror Soft – later to change their name to Adventuresoft (in fact, their original name) with the release of Simon the Sorcerer (1993), their most famous game – were clear genre aficionados, displaying a sophisticated knowledge not only of adventure and role-playing convention, but also a thorough love of horror cinema and all things macabre. While not as well known as their later, more mainstream Simon releases, Elvira demonstrated that licensed properties did not have to be quickly-produced, haphazard attempts to cash in on creative energy expended in other media. In the world of digital games, this is a very rare thing indeed.
you'll probably end up in the soup
Most of the game plays like a classic adventure game with lots of inventory objects to find and manipulate. Many of the game’s set encounters – a vampire asleep in her bed, a man who turns into a werewolf, a mad chef keeping Elvira out of her kitchen – are not combat encounters but rather inventory puzzles. These portions of the game are quite good if you like late '80s, early '90s graphical adventures. Luckily, Elvira is not a pixel hunt game, as objects are always visible (or hidden behind other visible objects). Puzzles are usually quite logical and hints are often given during conversations. Save often, as players can easily fuck themselves over by destroying inventory items or getting killed in combat. After combat has been mastered, however, the game can be finished in a few hours. All really neat and tidy, really. Except for the massive amounts of triumphantly visceral gore. 
the end: wanting, but not getting
Elvira would be a fun remake, but we'll probably never see it. A fairly competent sequel Elvira II: The Jaws of Cerberus was released in 1991, and the company made one more horror game Waxworks (1992) before turning to wizards and British humour and mainstream success.