Friday, August 24, 2012

Science Fiction & Gaming 1: On the Zerg-Infested Screen



[Note:  I am sorry that I haven't had much to post here the last week or so.  Don't worry, this blog is not done yet!   Rather, I just needed a break to handle some matters.  Eyestrain headaches were starting to kick in from the writing I was doing here and elsewhere, plus I found myself spending more time that I thought possible finding and installing a new video card toy for my old PC - what a difference it has made in my CoD:MW3 performance already!   Lastly, it is the closing days of summer, so I didn't want them to go to waste as I have all fall, winter, and spring to blog!

Moving on....

One of the reasons I love modern gaming is that I find it to be a hypothesized science fiction future made real in the here and now.  We don't look at it this way because like most science fiction that has become science fact, we sort of just accept it as another humdrum facet of the modern world.  I mean, imagine taking such incredible titles Battlefield 3, Call of Duty, & Skyrim back to 1979 when all we had was the Atari 2600 - it would have blown our collective minds to see such technological marvels!  Unfortunately, modern gamers do not appreciate how fortunate they are to live in a world filled with such technical marvels!  Instead they just bitch and moan about how the graphics aren't ultra realistic, or there is ONLY a 30 hour campaign, or even that publishers are releasing TOO MUCH DLC for their game!  Poor little rich girls & boys....

I have always found it interesting that some early science fiction authors actually anticipated the modern era of gaming.  The following article is one I wrote a number of months ago detailing how William F. Wu prophesied not only the development of the modern real time strategy genre, but also the eventual arrival of e-sports.  Check it out!]



Ever since I first downloaded the demo late last year, Starcraft II has proven to be a compelling PC gaming experience for me. Starcraft II is one of the few recent examples of what a true PC-exclusive title can be. Unlike the flurry of 2011’s high profile console ports that merely provide enhanced graphic option for PC gamers, Blizzard’s platinum RTS title oozes the type of deep quality that can only be achieved when a game is single-mindedly designed for our beloved PCs from the ground up, without any compromises being made for other platforms along the way. The graphical user interface, the intuitive responsiveness of mouse and keyboard controls, the map making and modding possibilities – all of it screams “PC EXCLUSIVE!” in a way that only truly authentic PC title can. I honestly can say that before the gameplay even hooked me, the high sheen PC polish of Blizzard’s magnum opus did. PC gamers just don’t get this type of product very often anymore, and I was more than happy to give Blizzard my money for reminding me what PC gaming once was all about.

Of course, there are other reasons for my growing infatuation with Starcraft II. As a 40K purist, I had allowed my bigotry to keep me away from the original Starcraft as the similarities were just too great for me to ignore. However, I have to say that SCII has caused me to be more open-minded in this regard. Perhaps it is the cinematic way that Blizzard has managed to realize its sci-fi vision, or maybe it is merely due to the fact that Relic’s Dawn of War II has fallen far short of the glory of its predecessor, leaving me empty handed and desperate ( console port ), but I found myself embracing Blizzard’s tale of “rednecks in space” locked in perpetual war with the nasty Zerg and inscrutable Protoss. Starcraft II might have begun as a 40K tribute game, but I believe it has now forged its own equally compelling narrative. In some ways it may even be superior as, being limited to three primary races and a core cast of characters, SCII’s tale is far more intensely focused (I hate to say it, but I am slowly beginning to abandon my push for a 40K movie in favor of a SC movie!).

And then we come to the gameplay. Well…do I really need to go into that when there are more than 200,000 Youtube gameplay videos currently available? As a RTS, Starcraft is supreme. Even though it operates on the time-tested but basic gameplay principles of base building and rock-paper-scissors combat, there is as much depth to a session of SCII as there is in chess. It is so friggin’ deep, that I routinely get my head handed to me by both the scary-tough AI, as well as by devotees who seem to have been playing the game since birth. Like chess, you don’t play Starcraft II as much as you devote you life to getting good at it one match at a time.

Which brings me to the ultimate reason why I love this game: the dedicated community. I have always said that for me, gaming isn’t about the games; it’s about the community that springs up around the games. And outside the dedicated community of chess, I have never participated in a gaming community that is so hardcore about its passion. And I am not even just talking about fanbois, either. I’m talking about the burgeoning community of professional Starcraft players.

This facet of Starcraft is what really fascinates me. Sure, we’ve all heard about South Korea being the home of professional SC gamers, but most people just sort of viewed that as a national quirk. Well…it’s not. With the arrival of the North American Starcraft League (NASL), Starcraft as both a game and a professional sport is quickly becoming reality here, too. For example, recently the Wall Street Journal did a story on a new trend known as “Barcraft”. And then Forbes did a piece of the allure of e-sports and even interviewed one of the top Starcraft players in the world.

Welcome to the 21st Century, where the physical sports of the analog era are slowly replaced by e-sports of the digital era….

This promise of pro-gaming has obsessed me for quite some time; really, since I read William F. Wu’s 1979 short story, On the Shadow of the Phosphor Screen. In the best tradition of prophetic science fiction, Mr. Wu sketched a future where professional gamers fought with computerized wargames for profit and glory…and sometimes more. The story focused on two top competitors, Wendell and Richard, whom, because of an accident involving some experimental VR helmets that Richard had cooked up to take their wargaming to the next level, become psychically fused together. How’s that for an unbeatable tag team!

Now, I don’t know much about Mr. Wu, but I suspect he must have been quite the gamer himself because of his relatable depictions of the gaming mentality. Take, for example, this wonderful scene where Wendell recalls the early wargaming he and Richard engaged in as children:
  
And Wendell and Richard were two ostracized, introverted kids in an upstairs bedroom, setting up toy plastic knights. A carefully tumbled landscape of books, boxes, and blankets on the floor formed rugged peaks, treacherous valleys, and unscalable castle walls. Set aside, stacks of various histories provided countless scenarios and suggestions for their vivid visions.

Okay,’ Richard announced, from his own side of the floor. He had his back to Wendell and was maneuvering nine thirteenth-century men in armor down the cascading folds of a blue blanket. ‘Mace-face is leading his puny band down into the valley now, sneaking up on the camp down there.’ Carefully, he lifted a large armored individual with an upraised mace, and knocked over a sentry with it.

'The Norman cavalry is having trouble,’ said Wendell, from his side of the room. He wheeled about seven toy knights, actually from the War of the Roses, and sent them into retreat. They didn’t resemble Norman cavalry at all, but they did have horses and lances. ‘The Saxon shield-wall had held, and reforms while the Normans regroup for another attack.’ He knew Richard was listening with only the barest of attention, just as he was, but that didn’t matter. This way, they could enact whatever battles and time periods and strategies they wanted. This included manipulating defeats into victories, and deciding on their own who would live and die. Both of them always won and the victories were always shared.

Richard sat back suddenly and considered. ‘All of these kinds of people were descended from Roman tradition – mixed up with the Franks and other barbarians, of course. I wonder what would have happened if some descendants of Carthage had lasted into medieval times.’

‘Yeah,’ said Wendell, without interest. He was trying to form a new shield-wall on the fold of a bedspread with nine Saxons and two temporary-converted Vikings, who looked similar enough, but they all kept falling down.

'No good, I guess,’ Richard continued. ‘Even if Carthage had survived the Romans, the Vandals went through later anyway. So did the Arabs, too.’ His voice grew pedantic. ‘Jebel Al-Tarik invaded Europe from Africa in 711 – the easiest date to remember in all history.’

Being boy grogs, an argument soon broke out about whether “Carthagians” or “Carthaginians” was the correct pronunciation. Before long, the two are wrestling on the ground…but then tragedy strikes!
  
“As they rapidly approached their usual stalemate, someone’s foot flicked into a battlefield and knocked over a few miniature stalwarts. Instantly, they both froze.

'Whose was it?’ Richard panted, holding an awkward pose.

Yours, I think.’ They untangled themselves gingerly and returned with extreme care to their battles. Fallen fighters were resurrected, to be killed according to their plan instead of by accident. Although their backs were turned to each other, they repaired the damage with a shared reverence, and in silence.

There’s something about that last sentence that always strikes a chord inside me. Maybe it’s my own poignant memories of similar wargaming with toy soldiers. Or maybe it is just the recognition of a gamer mentality in the making. On the Shadow of the Phosphor Screen is filled with such descriptions; ones that any dedicated gamer will instantly relate to.

Now, just what were these futuristic computer wargames like? Well, they were very sophisticated:
  
The computer bank already held incredible amounts of information – the terrain and weather of the real battles, the morale of the troops, the military capabilities, and the psychological profiles of all individuals that were on the historical record. Minute technological details, such as the composition of stirrups and the age of leather, could win or lose battles.  



Now, the Gamers only controlled two factors completely: they replaced the supreme commander in decision making, and had the advantage of aerial viewpoint over all the significant territory their troops could have seen. They were limited to reality in factors such an on-field communication, mobility, and the availability of friendly forces. Lastly, ‘chance’ factors were also included, to account for unexpected performances, good and bad, on the individual level.

Wow! I think Mr. Wu just described the Total War series! But considering this story was written in 1979, it is to be appreciated that he basically anticipated the contemporary PC gaming genre know as ‘real-time strategy’. Cool. The above description also makes you appreciate the truly sophisticated RTS games we all take for granted these days. Heck, in the story, 2 on 2 multiplayer matches were considered to be a major technological breakthrough!

Mr. Wu even anticipated the value of youth when it came to achieving high Actions Per Minute (APM), the dexterous ability to get your fingers dancing on the keyboard so as to more quickly issue orders to your units:

Kirk Emerald was Director of Trustees in the Gaming Masters’ Guild. More than that, he was a codeveloper of the original game machine and the acknowledged champion of the early contests. The games in the first several series of machines had been slow and studied compared to the current ones. As the games grew faster, the best players became the younger ones. Kirk Emerald had already been middle-aged when the game was developed, and quickly found his reflexes too slow for the later models. 


I feel your pain, Mr. Emerald.

The following is a description of a quick practice match played by Wendell and psychically-imbedded Richard, along with Wendell’s new teammate (for one of the new 2x2 machines!), Terri. Notice how Mr. Wu is basically describing the core gameplay of any number of modern RTS titles:

As soon as Wendell was settled at his console, Terri activated the game.

The screen read: ‘Ain Jalut, 1260 A.D. Ilkhan Mongols.’ Several names followed, and a list of Victory Conditions and odds. Wendell was the second-in-command, leading one wing of cavalry.

‘Hulagu,’ said Richard, identifying the Ilkhan himself. ‘The Mongols, as always, have a totally mounted force. Important: up to this point, they are undefeated. Consider an overconfidence factor programmed into the game.’

‘Right. Terrain?’

‘Mm – inconsequential to an all-mounted contest. Open desert country, slightly rolling.’

Wendell’s fingers wiggled nervously over the keyboard as the minute of orientation dragged by. This would be a rough one for him, demanding skill from his weak points. He felt like consulting Terri, but negotiations conducted through the contractors with the opposing team had produced the agreement that no talk would be allowed between partners. Speaking would eliminate the factor of on-field communication, which had always been important.

‘Opposition,’ said Richard, ‘Victory by Mamluk Egypt, under Baibars. He himself is part Mongol and produces this first major trouncing of the Mongol army by utilizing their own style of war against them. Speed, surprise, mobility, discipline.’

‘Right.’ Wendell had all of this in him somewhere, but having it spoon-fed relieved him of both the pressure and energy of trying to recall it. He squirmed in his seat as the final seconds approached.
 ...
‘Go!’ screamed Richard.

The two sides closed fast and kept moving. Terri worked quickly and easily, setting up one side of a pincer movement. Wendell was ill at ease in the open, slash-and-run conflict. Repeatedly out-maneuvered, he failed to bring about the second wing of the pincer. She was probably annoyed, he thought, as she reconsolidated her wing.

‘Back. Wheel about. Faster. No, faster.’ Richard’s voice was quick and steady.

Wendell tried to set up a defensive posture, but the enemy’s mobility on the open land could outflank any stand. ‘I’m still no good at this,’ he thought to Richard. Fleetingly, he remembered again: Richard was the undisputed number-one.

‘Attack. What are you waiting for? C’mon!’

‘Lemme alone,’ Wendell thought in a snarl. He brought his chaotic squads into reasonable order, trying to use Terri’s more successful units as a buttress. She recognized the effort and helped with a long, sweeping charge which momentarily broke the enemy’s pressure. The battle, made up of charges and sudden wheeling flights to regroup and charge again, rolled over the wide areas of terrain, always moving. Lathered horses whinnied and screamed in the distant edges of Wendell’s attention.

‘Stop trying defense,’ Richard said angrily. ‘Cavalry is an offensive weapon, you know that. Take….’

‘Shut up,’ Wendell thought. He took two good swipes at the enemy flank, but then a concerted enemy charge separated him completely from Terri. A second later he was in full retreat.

‘Satisfied?’ Richard growled. Terri’s force quickly collapsed under the undiluted assault from the other side. Still, her facility with this command remained obvious, even in defeat.

‘Victory Conditions, Mamluk Egypt,’ came on the screen. The elapsed time was remarkably short, even for this kind of battle. All four players audibly relaxed and leaned back, their faces bathed in the phosphor sheen of their screens.


Total War, Starcraft, C&C…you name the RTS game and Mr. Wu described them about twenty years before they existed. Remarkable!

Mr. Wu even touches upon the now common – when this story was written, the debate didn’t exist! – argument about the ethics of gamers delighting in such violent fare:

‘Doesn’t it seem odd that we keep reliving other people’s lives, and killing them over and over? It’s all such total fantasy. And kind of disrespectful to them.’
Terri nodded. ‘Of course. It’s just a game. Gaming Masters are some of the craziest fantasizers around. Isn’t it obvious?’
‘No,’ Wendell said slowly. ‘Maybe not to me. I knew it was true for me, but I guess I didn’t think about how anyone else thought of it. It is disrespectful, though, don’t you think. Kind of arrogant.’
‘We’re all crazy that way. That doesn’t mean it’s serious.’
‘Yeah. Maybe.’

I would just amend Terri’s statement to read PC gamers are some of the craziest fantasizers around. Isn’t it obvious?

I think you can see why I instantly fell in love with this story when I first read it so long ago. Perhaps more so than any other story I have ever read, On the Shadow of the Phosphor Screen captures the essence of not just the mechanics and mentality of gaming, but also the slowly approaching reality of professional gaming as well. It is a true masterpiece of science fiction. And now we are seeing the very beginnings of Mr. Wu’s vision become a reality, and I, for one, am very excited.

Master Gamers’ Guild…here we come, but with Terran Marines and Zerg instead of Mamluks.

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