Shredding geeks

Many gamers are looking for one semi-mythic, intangible quality in games: immersion. It’s basically the ineffable property of making you forget that you’re sitting in front of a computer screen or TV, grasping a gamepad or a mouse, and feel that you’re really there. But, let’s face it, even with the most immersive games you never feel like you’re a mute MIT graduate saving the world with a gun in one hand and a crowbar in the other, or a cyber-ninja special operative infiltrating terrorist strongholds or a Persian prince able to run along steep walls and turn back time. There are worlds between playing FIFA 08 and actually kicking a football – there’s little to no comparison between pressing X or O and propelling a leather ball towards the enemy goal with your foot. Possibly the only game that offers near-absolute immersion is computerised chess, because as if you’re, like, really playing chess!

Okay, enough sarcasm – what I’m getting at is this: there are few games that make you believe you’re really doing what your on-screen avatar is doing. Fair enough, really; there are limits to how much I’d want to believe I’m being shot at by alien armies while killer zombies are trying to chew my frontal lobe. And I definitely don’t want to believe I’m actually playing football at Wembley Stadium.

There is a game (or several games, by now) that gives you a fairly convincing illusion that you’re actually doing the thing you’re playing, and that game is called Guitar Hero. I’ve had it for a while, but I’ve only recently started to play it again. And it’s great fun. Looked at objectively, it should be a humiliating experience: you stand there holding a plastic toy shaped like a Gibson guitar, pressing colour buttons and strumming a white bar in sync with popular rock songs. You’re as close to rock stardom as Third French Lord in an amateur production of Henry V is from saying, “And I would like to thank the Academy…”

But, hell, if it isn’t fun… And it does a great job of making you feel like you’re playing complex solos, totally rocking the place, dude! The game mainly works because the rock songs used make for surprisingly good videogame levels. So far, I’ve only made it to the second of four difficulty levels with any success – I’m only using four of the five fret buttons, which means that my hands are in for some pretty bad strain. But the choice of songs is almost perfect: Guitar Hero has everything from ’70s glam rock to ’80s cheese rock (is that a term? it should be!) to 21st century alternative rock. And since I don’t really listen to the radio, it’s this game that has introduced me to the following eminently cool song:

However, there’s a further turn of the screw to my geek joy. I’m very much an old-school gamer – I played games on machines that are practically Etch-a-Sketches compared to a five-year old mobile phone. My first slice of nerd heaven was a Commodore 64, a name that still brings on a hush of awe in the right crowd. The C-64 has been defunct for decades, yet there are insane people still working with them… and this is where I don’t care just how nerdy and geeky I sound, but the following is just distilled nostalgic coolness:

Dungeons and dragons (no bears) – oh my!

I used to love fantasy role-playing games. I’d devour all the Bard’s Tales, Ultimas and Baldur’s Gates I could get my Hands of Great Fingeritude +2 on. Some of my fondest geeky childhood memories are of drawing maps of enormous dungeons (back before the days of wimpy auto-mapping features) and adorning them with clumsy doodles of ringwraiths, dragons and beholders. I got a kick out of reading the rulesets for Dungeons & Dragons and imagining my own (predictably generic) fantasy world, although I never got a successful campaign off the ground – mainly because one of the players was quite mad and better at chewing up PET bottles, skulking off to a corner and rambling incoherently than at role-playing his dwarven fighter. (And no, I don’t think that sort of behaviour qualifies as valid role-playing for a dwarf.)

I still have a weak spot for the Ultima games, mainly because they got two things right: the world and the characters. If I had unlimited time, didn’t have to work and wasn’t worried about my girlfriend thinking I’m even more of a geek than I am, I would try to recreate the series’ Britannia as a huge mod for The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. And then I’d get a kick out of walking from one end of the continent to the other, stopping every now and then to see the sunset over Brittany Bay or to watch a thunderstorm from some mountain peak. Sad, isn’t it?


Anyway, to get back to the issue at hand: I bought Neverwinter Nights 2 last year, an RPG based on the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. I’d heard good things about its story and writing. Somehow I never made it past the tutorial when I got started on it last year, but now I’ve started playing it again. And while it’s okay and competently executed, I realise I’m tired of what the 1UP review calls a “wonky fantasy geekfest”. I’m tired of the D&D ruleset. I’m tired of grumpy dwarfs, aloof elves, of slaughtering cheap orc knock-offs (doesn’t matter if they’re called “bladelings”). Yes, the writing is quite good, but not enough so to make the game much less generic. The characters seem fun – but not enough so to make me care much about the world or about what’s going on. Big evil threatening the Forgotten Realms, and only you can save the world? Please. Give me Planescape Torment instead any day, with its hyper-intelligent hive-mind rats, its puritanical succubus, floating skulls, and the best amnesia story this side of Memento. And its enchanted panty-sniffing armoires. Let’s not forget about the panty-sniffing armoires.

Planescape Torment

Anyway, enough of a rant about generic fantasy RPGs. More later, perhaps. And for those of you who tune in for the movie and TV musings, don’t worry – they’ll be back before long. It’s just that watching anything is more fun if my special someone is sitting beside me. And yes, that’s the kind of soppy, sentimental bastard that I am. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.