Game Over

The new video game sensation is ‘The Last of Us’, and for the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage, it’s bringing to clear focus just how hopeless he is playing them.

And you know what, Stuart, me too.

As a child of the 80s and 90s, my game memories begin with the beige box of dreams that was the Commodore64, cassette tapes and all. And whilst “New Zealand Story” and “Paddington’s Garden Game” passed off without incident, and the most basic of basic racing games attracted my borderline autistic tendencies, anything beyond “point, click, shoot” made my heart sink.

Upgrading to the Mastersystem and latterly SNES didn’t help. I could do Mario, I loved Mario, and Prince of Persia, all 2-D scrolling platforms and minor difficulty curves. Sometime between the SNES and not having anything at all, I had a brief relationship with the original PlayStation, though only for the aerial-shot “Grand Theft Auto”. And then…nothing. For about 20 years, give or take.

As expected, the subsequent years without anything more taxing than matching coloured shapes to each other to pass the time has not been without moments of computer game awkwardness. I’m the trainee judge, the clueless grandfather, the nervous first-date, politely taking a controller only to have it taken off me with barely hidden pity. Football classics such as “ProEvo” become lessons in advance mathematics, my eyes forever focused on a player unable to move, or unwilling to join his teammates, or just more interested in dancing around the touchline than touching the ball. “That one, that one to shoot!”, “SHORT! Just needs to be SHORT!” and all other manner of spirited instructions come my way for no great benefit.

A few months ago a friend asked if I wanted to join in as a third player in some crazy looking multiplayer first-person shooter effort. It soon came to an end; he and another player ran ahead shooting, killing, jumping, crouching, attacking. I was stuck. “Is that the sky?” I asked. “Yes, Liam, press that to run, run over here, we’ll wait.”

Oh, “We’ll wait”, how often I heard that. They would clear a room of enemies whilst I banged into doors, walls, or had my lower half cut to shreds by an unseen assailant. “We’ll wait ahead,” he’d say, watching me spinning around confused. Sometimes literally.

People I know are left bemused. Me, of all people, should be up to my elbows in computer games, eager to throw myself into words of warcraft and such. No, alas, not. I lose all my concentration, understanding of basic functions and sense of normality. Heat rises, confusion reigns, sense drips away like a badly coded Health Bar. I watch others play, say, “Red Dead Redemption” and think it would be possible to learn that sort of thing pretty easily. Then I have a go, and there’s more “dead” than “redemption”. Whoops, there goes my guns/horse/legs. Oh dear, I’m face to face with a leopard and all I can do is scroll through music options or pause-restart-pause-restart like a jumpy teenager worried about an XTube video has woken his parents.

Now games are growing more complex and complicated, not to mention components of multitudes of add-ons, downloads and the like, I’m left on the casual gamer island watching the Good Ship Video Game sailing off into the horizon. Where once I worried my mum with my inability to leave the Commodore 64 loading screen, I’m now sat at the back of the living room whilst everybody else crowds round the flat screen. I’m a regular visitor to ZeroPunctuation, only for the laughs rather than first hand knowledge of the latest installments of Shooter-Season 2011 or whatever the trend is at the moment.

Whether I like it or not, I have to accept that video games fell from my grasp at the first sign of advancing into what they are now today, leaving me with regular psychological check-ups for addiction to WordsWithFriends. Maybe “The Last of Us” truly is the newest high-point in a good few years in gaming, I really wouldn’t know. I’d spend too long fathoming out how to stand up straight before crashing into a wall. And then maybe I’d try to turn the game on….

Mortal Outrage

My relationship with computer games – as I resolutely continue to call them – can best be described as ‘sporadic’. The CV reads like a potted history of a person who shouldn’t be considered a geek at all; following most of the 80s staring at the blessed blue screen with boxes of cassettes and floppy disks, months turning into years with the final “upgrade” in the form of an infrared ‘gun’ with the size and weight of a dead cat.

I moved onto a Master System (it saw its last days covered by the contents of a knocked-over bottle of Bass Shandy), SNES (pretty much ditto if I recall), before ending the games console ‘thing’ with a first generation PlayStation with only a copy of Gran Turismo for company. Consequently my reaction to modern games consoles resembles that of Grandpa Simpson resenting having to kneel on the floor to fathom out the arbitrary button combinations which have replaced the one jolt of an old joystick.

During High School, twin phenomenons Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter swept through the playgrounds in frenzied swaps of cheats, special moves and cries of Hadoukan. Like a badly aimed fireball, they wooshed over my head. I was completely unable to learn how particular combinations of buttons enabled one character to high-kick another to death. Having barely moved on from motor racing games, it’s little wonder one-on-one urban fistfights passed me by. One standout memory from a family holiday in Spain – and if you don’t know me by know, this should help – is from an arcade near the hotel with one British lad getting all the attention for turning successive Street Fighter characters to pulp with me directly beside on my own playing a Tetris-knock-off…

If memory serves – and even if it doesn’t, it’s not too difficult to invent – British tabloids fed off controversial aspects of Mortal Kombat and the copycat games of the horizontal scrap genre. No matter that “extreme gore” (© Daily Mail) looked like a carton of tomato juice squeezed too hard, “blood” is blood! Inevitably protests and parental anger covered the newspaper letters pages – this is pre-internet, folks, bear with me – which nudged the industry to introduce cinema style age ratings for games. Professional commentators sniffed and sneered at Britain’s multi-million pound games design industry, preferring to use the ‘violence’ as examples of how progressing from Pong was proof of whatever phrase we used in the 1990s to describe Broken Britain.

(Similarly, moving on from 240p in the pound was akin to introducing pears to your anus.)

How the Outraged of RedTops will react to the new Mortal Kombat – numbered 9 and out next year – is anyone’s guess. For absolute lack of doubt, here’s one selected highlight in print form, as a taster before the video at the end of this blog…

During “X-ray moves”, the camera will zoom in to show an inside view of the character who is being attacked while bones and organs are broken or ruptured.

Got that? Yup, cinema’s torture porn, a fetish on its last (broken) legs despite ]
another Final Destination, appears to be influencing the games market still. Games violence and the censorship issue has been ongoing for years, from Leisure Suit Larry to Red Dead Redemption. The cinema age ratings have helped quell the issue whilst not solving the core problem, which personally speaking is the balance of industry involvement verses parental control. Parents do not have 24-hour watch on their children, nor should they. Games designers have little involvement in this issue at all, for the ability to cut open an foe’s head like a wet Cos should not be regarded as permission to practice on the winging brat from two doors down. Hell-bent on promoting fear – encouraged by the kneejerk attitude to ‘anti social behaviour’ turning everyone into curtain twitching CCTV subscribers – tabloid newspapers love violent games for the very intent to highlight them as irresponsible. Call me wet and libertarian if you must, I just cannot hold Mr Games Company responsible for the 8 year old playing an 18-certificate game in which poker games are rudely interrupted through the introduction of Mr Grenade.

The newly released MK looks to have smashed its moral compass into the battered face of its first-draft characters. If parents know about the content of the game and make a decision based on that knowledge, applause to them; if their children acquire the game through whatever means and don’t feel the need to carry out copycat attacks in the Post Office, all hail maturity and reasoned behaviour. If the tabloid press decide the sight of brutal death as a ‘game’ is somehow more abhorrent than the cartoon-like fighting scenes in James Bond or contrived traps of Saw, more fool the lot of them.

Censorship by whichever industry, film or television or computer games, runs counter to the maturity and independence which all national institutions should treat the consumers who happen also to be citizens. One example of a child stabbing another with a fork is not evidence for the wholesale ban of cutlery (there is a letter in today’s i suggesting Theresa May had better ban wooden-legs and pillow cases to dissuade others using them for bombs). This new MK is violent and gruesome, whilst also being exaggerated and self-aware. Its violence should be obvious from its name and reputation. I fear, through experience of living through the civil liberty sapping ‘war on terror’, that its release will be swamped by waves of moral indignation. Such moves should be finished off without a second glance.