Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Frenetic Gaming



One of my favorite go-to gaming genres is the first person shooter.  I think the reason why I so enjoy this format is because it is low effort gaming in the extreme.  What I mean by that is that unlike other genres that often require greater mental effort on the part of the player to effectively participate in the gameplay, such as strategy games or role playing games, shooters are more about muscle reflex ("twitch") than they are about deep thinking.  I mean, you don't have to be a genius to figure out how to place a crosshair on a target and pull the trigger.  Now, that is not to say that there is no mental effort required; that would not be true.  As I have pointed out before, most shooters are realistically brutal in their presentations of real world warfare. The player who willy-nilly jumps onto the modern virtual battlefield without using any brain cells will soon find himself to be the first causality on that same field of battle.  Shooters might be low mental effort titles, but they are not zero mental effort titles.

Be that as it may, after a long day I am much more likely to boot up a shooter than I am to boot up any other type of game because it involves the least amount of effort on my part.  Well, at least I used to anyway....


Unfortunately, of late I have begun to notice a trend where shooters are becoming so frenetic that what used to require very little effort is now becoming physically exhausting due to the brutal pace of the gameplay.  This was an idea that that struck me recently after playing Titanfall.  Respawn's mech-based shooter is perhaps one of the most frenetic shooters I have ever played.  It is so bad that the gamer has barely any time to think, instead he is forced into an almost entirely reactive mode.  Now, I am not saying that such a gameplay format cannot be fun - it can be in its own wild, chaotic fashion - but its nature is nonetheless striking, especially in light of how shooters were getting pretty darn frenetic even before Titanfall...er, fell.  Activision's Call of Duty (2007) really ratcheted up the frenetic action with the arrival of Modern Warfare's multiplayer, a game that became the poster child for frenzied "twitch shooters".  Seeing the success of CoD, other publishers soon followed suit.  For example, DICE's magnum opus, the Battlefield franchise, which initially offered gameplay that was much slower and thoughtful due to its combined arms format and large maps, was soon given some speed with the spin-off title, Battlefield: Bad Company 2. And things only got faster from there with the decision of EA to make Battlefield the primary competitor to Activision's Call of Duty.  With the arrival of Battlefield 3 and 4, things have gotten so speedy that many old time fans have now abandoned the franchise with cries of "CoD clone!"  Even Tripwire's Red Orchestra 2, the sequel to the beloved tactical World War II shooter that many considered the slowest paced shooter of all, featured an "arcade mode" that was much faster than traditional RO gameplay, something die-hard fans made quite clear was an unwanted and unacceptable inclusion.

This frenzied trend isn't limited to shooters either as it has taken place in other genres. For example, once upon a time most strategy games were turn-based, a format that allowed - nay, demanded! - the gamer take time and carefully formulate a plan.  However, as soon as PCs became powerful enough to process more information faster, the time-tested turn based formula was almost entirely ditched in favor of what became known as "real time strategy" gaming, a format where there are no pauses in the action, where both sides take unlimited, simultaneous "turns" as fast as they can click their mouse.  Needless to say, strategy gaming suddenly became less about having the superior plan and more about having the superior APM.  Another genre had bent the knee to the speed bug.

It is now pretty much safe to say that the virtual world of gaming has become as frenzied as the real world, a logical cause and effect I suppose. We all now live in a world where the simple act of being able to stop and think has become a luxury, be it in our vocation or avocation.  "Multitasking" (an Orwellian term if there ever was one) is the new norm, and damned is the soul who can't keep up.

Author John Horvat II has noticed this trend as well and has some interesting things to say about it in his excellent book, Return to Order.  Mr. Horvat links this brutal post-modernist pace of life to the rise of the machines:

"When we believe in modern technology's mechanistic worldview, it leads to what Plinio Correa de Oliveira calls an 'adoration of novelties, speed, and machines'....
...
"Most early inventions of the Industrial Revolution, whether train, steamship, or telegraph, celebrated speed more than any other aspect."  

In other words, man became fascinated by the inhuman capabilities of machines, particularly the inhuman speed of machines (John Henry, anyone?), and have sought to emulate those qualities.  Not surprisingly, this has not had a good impact on society:
"This adoration of movement and change manifests itself by a desire for all that is instantaneous without the natural progression of intermediary phases of speed or reaction.  It creates impatience with time and space based on the idea that nothing should stand between ourselves and the objects of our gratification.  It stimulates inside man a restless desire to leave himself and his normal environment in search of new sensations.  It can be seen, for example, among those who misuse an array of gadgets and electronic devices to multiply an instant yet superficial connectivity with others or the intense addiction of those who find fast-paced gratification in video games."  

Wow.  As I highlighted in bold text, Mr. Horvat really nailed the link between speed and video games.  But what he says next really hits the bulls-eye when it comes to the net effect of such speed:

"As a result, many have come to disregard tranquility, recollection, and true leisure in favor of the exhaustion of constant activity.  The mania for speed leads to a nausea for reflection.  Those proportional spiritual pleasures - joys like conversation, art, and silence - have ever less attraction.  'Instead of contemplation,' writes Daniel Bell, 'we find substituted sensation, simultaneity, immediacy, and impact.'[original emphasis]"

Is that not the modern modus operandi of most games these days?  Heck, I think I've seen all four words used as marketing terms for various games over the last year alone!  Gaming is no longer about reflection, about outwitting your opponent, about enjoying every moment of the experience, but just about out-twitching him and then moving on to the next game as quickly as possible in order to keep the frenetic highs coming.  In other words, gaming has become a sugar-laden "empty calorie" affair.  And I believe gaming is the worse for it.

As I keep harping about, I believe modern gaming is in some very bad straits as of late.  And while I didn't add the "need for speed" to my original list, I think it might as well be one of the culprits.  I am just getting really tired of having every game shout "Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!" into my ear all the time.  I think that is why I have suddenly found myself returning to Chess.

When the first batch of next gen consoles hit the market - I mean the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 - and game devs abandoned the PC in favor of the easy cash of the consoles, I found myself playing Chess a lot in an attempt to fill the void.  I always loved the game, but the lack of good PC titles really allowed me to focus on it like never before.  However, as is wont to happen, years of countless Chess games and a recovered PC market eventually served to wear me out on the Royal Game.  So I put it down almost completely for about a year or so.  However, now that I am becoming disillusioned with the world of gaming, I recently picked it up once more, and I am now in the process of rediscovering why I so love this 1600 year old board game (with an age like that, you just know this game is not about speed!).

I won't go into all the details, but here is one big reason why I am relishing my return to the 64-square battlefield:  it is one of the last popular games that actually allows the player to stop and think, sometimes for days (weeks even) if necessary.   Sure, there are fast paced variations on Chess, such as the Blitz and Bullet chess abominations where players only have seconds to play an entire game (yuck!), but they are really little more than a sideshow to the main game.  In Chess, hours is the norm for a single serious game.  And if you like correspondence Chess like I do, months are the norm.  In a world of modern gaming where nobody takes time to think, and mere minutes can decide an entire match, it is so refreshing to play a game where each move is something to be cherished, and each match is a memorable battle that can stretch across many a week.  Unlike the junk food gaming of the modern era, Chess is a lavish, full course feast for the mind where you are expected to chew your food thoroughly!

Now that is how a game should be designed!

Case in point, a recent tough fought match I had over at Chess.com.  Now, keep in mind that this particular match started in November of 2013 and only ended a few days ago!  Yeah, like wine, Chess gets better with age!

I have the Black pieces:



{D20: Queen's Gambit Accepted: 3 e3 and 3 e4} 1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. e3 b5 4.
a4 c6 5. axb5 cxb5 6. Qf3 {last book move} 

My opponent opens with the Queen's Gambit, which I accepted.  I usually refuse but I felt adventurous thos time. so I took the offered pawn.  It might have been a mistake:

6...Nc6 7. Qxc6+



It is amazing how much skill you lose over the course of a mere year.  I just hung my Knight here (i.e., lost it without getting any compensation in return).  A beginner's mistake, but one this experienced player has been committing time and again as of late!

I desperately try to mix it up to salvage the situation:

7...Bd7 8. Qb7 Qc8 9. Rxa7 Bc6 



My Bishop puts the question to the queen.

10. Qxc8+ Rxc8

While I will continue to be down a piece, at least my right flank is now more secure with the White Queen being off the board and no longer able to run amok.

Better, the fortunes of war suddenly turn in my favor as my opponent makes a mistake on the left flank!

11. Be2??



The White Rook is trapped!  By Bishop lets his arrow fly!

11... Bxg2 12. Bf3 Bxh1

My opponent is still ahead in material, and I like his position much better, but this provided my troops with a glimmer of hope!

13. Bxh1 e6 14. Nc3 b4 

Time to put those pawns to work!  Advance!

15. Nb5 c3 16. bxc3 bxc3 17. Nc7+  Kd8 18. Nb5 Bb4


It will now be all about advancing that black pawn towards promotion, if possible.  I think (thinking in a game, how novel!) it is my only chance to save this botched match at this point in the battle.

19. Ne2 c2+ 

Discovered check unleashed by me!

20. Kf1 Ne7 21. Nf4 g6 22. d5 e5 23. Nd3 Bc5 

I look to grab another White Rook.

24. d6 Bxa7 

Got it!

25. dxe7+ Kxe7 26. Nxa7 Rc7 



Got both of White's Rooks.  But I am still losing this game as my two rooks will be easily overwhelmed by all four of White's minor pieces.  He still has this in the bag.

But then Mars smiles on me again!

 27. Nxe5??

Fritz 13 remarks " "White lets it slip away".

27... Rxa7=

I have just equalized.  But White is not done yet!

28. Nc6+ Ke6 29.Nxa7 

White forks my King and Rook, and I am losing again!

29...Rd8 30. Bb2??



I'm still alive!  Fritz remarks "with this move White loses his initiative (30. Ba3 was necessary)".  I finally see a way to get my pawn promoted, albeit it will be a short reign for the newly crowned Queen.

30... Rb8 31. Ba3 Rb1+ 32. Kg2 c1=Q 33. Bxc1= Rxc1

Her sacrifice was a noble one.  We are equalized again.

The battle shifts completely to the left flank.  I think this happened around April of this year.  LOL!  Epic!

34. h3 Ke5 35. Kh2 Rc2 36. Kg3 f5 37. f4+ Kf6 38. Nb5 h6 39. Nd4 Rc3 40. Kf2 g5 41. fxg5+ hxg5 42. Nb5 Rb3 43. Nc7 Ke5 



Fritz rightly predicts "Black prepares the advance f4".  Yup.  I have a three-fold mission: keep White's Bishop and Knight on a short leash; stop White's pawns from advancing to promotion; and try to get my pawns promoted.  Not easy.  This is going to take close coordination.

44. Na6 f4 45. exf4+ Kxf4 46. Nc5 Rxh3 

Okay, the pawn promotion threat is now over.  One mission goal has been met.  Now I must try to carefully shepherd my last pawn to promotion while avoiding the ever present threat of those White minor pieces that are forever marching around the board.

47. Bb7 Rc3 48. Ne6+ Kg4 49. Nd4 Kh4 50. Ne2 Ra3 51. Be4 g4 52. Bf5??


White makes a crucial blunder!  The Bishop will fall to my Rook with a fork!

52... Rf3+ 53. Kg2 Rxf5

The odds are now in my favor!  What a seesaw of a fight!

54. Ng3 Rf3 55. Nh1 Ra3 56. Nf2 Ra2 57. Kg1 g3 58. Nd3 g2 

I recall being perplexed (some more thinking and reflection!) as to whether or not I need advance the pawn with his leige guarding him.  With the benefit of hindsight I now know it was definitely a mistake to send him alone as the White Knight would capitalize on his lack of support and grab him.  Fortunately, it proved not to be a fatal mistake as I would eventually use the Knight's avarice against him.

59. Kh2 Kg4 60.Ne1 Re2 61. Nxg2 Kf3 62. Kh1 Kg3 



White deviously sets one more booby-trap for me.  Fritz correctly notes "the knight is taboo".  Why?  If I take it, White's King cannot make a legal move, causing the game to stalemate and end in a draw.

I will not be deprived of my victory!

63. Kg1 Rxg2+ 

And White's last piece is mine!  Now to bring it all home.

63. Kg1 Rxg2+ 64. Kh1 Re2 65. Kg1 Re1# 0-1

Victory is mine, even if my honorable opponent made me fight for it every step of the way!

The great chess player Jose R. Capablanca once remarked:

"A recorded game of chess is a story in symbols, relating in cipher the struggle of two intellects; a story with a real plot, a beginning, a middle, and an end, in which the harmonies of time and place are scrupulously observed; the fickleness of fortune is illustrated; the smiles of the prosperous, the struggles of adversity, the change that comes over the two; the plans suggested by one, spoiled by the tactics of the other - the lures, the wiles, the fierce onset, the final victory. An hour's history of two minds is well told in a game of chess." [emphasis added]

True.

I will be forever grateful that I discovered this game so long ago and now will always have recourse to its civilized gameplay. As with other timeless examples of man's love for beauty and rationality, Chess, like the Sistine Chapel, like the Pieta, is a reminder that our modern frenetic and mechanistic world is, ultimately, a shabbily mass produced substitute for a long lost and forgotten world that was once much more beautiful, humane and...human.

In the words of Mr. Horvat:

"But today's modern technology is like a galloping horse that drags its fallen rider from the stirrup.  The rider falls because he does not have sufficient zeal for his own individual development, and has not rejected the standardization and dehumanizing elements of technology."

After being dragged through Titanfalls' streets by its frenetic gameplay, I am inclined to agree.

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