Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

I Don’t Know What To Call It

Last night I found myself for a short time at Anita Sarkeesian’s blog, Feminist Frequency, watching a video about the persistent use of the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope in video games. Sarkeesian does high quality production on high quality topics, and this was no exception. But I found myself flashing back to a post I had started writing a long time ago, and never managed to finish, and here I am, trying to push out a post on Friday morning before the chaos erupts that is getting ready for school and work.
My first video game was…wait for it…Pong. Yes, Pong. It showed up in the lobby of a toy store we had in our neighborhood, and I remember it sucking us in immediately. It was so exciting! So different! So unusual!
so lame!
Yes, it was Pong, a game of tennis played on a gray TV screen, where your objective was to twist a knob to control a vertical dash of white to knock a dot of white past your opponent in a a video version of tennis, or Ping Pong. It sounds silly, but it was instantly captivating. I don’t remember the year we first saw it (Wikipedia says it came out in 1972, which might be about right), but it was all the rage.
Pong was soon followed by other video games, most of which I don’t remember. We had a little store in a plaza near us that we always called the Candy Store. It was a luncheonette on the corner of a little strip plaza. At the front of the store they sold newspapers, magazines, and, yes, candy. The middle had a luncheonette counter. Way in the back were some pinball machines which my friends and I avoided, because The Big Kids hung out back there and we were afraid of them. At some point, we became big enough to venture back there (or maybe The Big Kids were off in the woods getting stoned or something, leaving the space empty) and we found, at first, 3 pinball machines and one car racing video game where the car you controlled looked like a sort of squat I-beam in cross section. But it had a steering wheel and a gearshift (fast or slow), not even a gas pedal. It was crude, but awesone—we didn’t know any better.
In the next couple of years, the games got better—gameplay became a little more complex, the consoles developed more controls, and the graphics, little by little, improved. But the two games that really seemed to launch video games were Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Space Invaders was the Elvis of video games. Pac-Man was the Beatles. If you lived through it, you remember.
Did I say the graphics improved?
The funny thing about those early arcade games, though, is there wasn’t much to them. Yes, they had compelling, highly-addictive gameplay, and top shelf (for the time) graphics, but that was it. Shoot down the aliens before they land! Gobble up all the power pills without being eaten by ghosts! Save your cities from nuclear annihilation! Shoot up space rocks so they don’t destroy your ship! Arcades were full of games that had people mashing buttons, spinning wheels and going wild-eyed in frustration for no real reason. Again, the gameplay was fun, but what was the point? Oh, right, to keep you playing, to keep you feeding quarters into the slot over and over and over.
What these games lacked was story.
Around that time, home game systems started coming out. Colecovision. Magnavox. Atari. We had an Atari. It was fun being able to play all those arcade classics on your TV, for free! (Hey, we were kids. We knew it cost money, but it wasn’t costing us money!) Essentially, all the same games were ported to the system, Missile Command and Frogger, Centipede, Pitfall, and newer games, too. Again, compelling gameplay, but a whole lot of fluff.
With the rise of the home computer, gaming began to change. It had to. Arcade games needed to hook you enough to put just one more quarter in the slot, to try one more time, to see if you could clear that level, or get your name to that #1 slot on the leaderboard. It wasn’t enough for the new world of home computers, however. Home computer games came with a heftier up front price tag, and no one wanted to sink big money into a game that offered little reason to play. Blowing up asteroids and eating little glowing energy pills wasn’t enough, nor was thirty seconds of game play. And to get people playing longer, you needed…
When we got our first computer in this house, it wasn’t long before someone slipped us our first computer game. It was crude by comparison to today, a first-person, point-and-click game where you had to solve puzzles (puzzles that could be maddeningly difficult, or completely illogical) to solve a mystery. And that’s pretty much what all those early games that we played were, but what set them apart—or the good ones, anyway—was the writing, the story. The new addiction to video games for us wasn’t in repeated button mashing and blowing things up and trying to score higher than last time, it was in uncovering the story, solving the mystery, finding out what happens next. The good video games were much more like reading a novel, where you hit the end of the chapter and want to keep going on. They’re still like that today. The biggest games, the games like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic and whatever else is popular, put a lot of time and effort into writing and story. Yes, the play has to be fun, but we need reasons for plunking down the cash and for spending hours in front of the screen, and more often than not, it’s the story that keeps us coming back.
And to think, it started with a goofy game like Pong.
Pong image from Wikipeda
Space Invaders from MisterSnappy

11 Responses

  1. I had Pong at home when I was a kid. Be jealous. 😛

    But I was talking about this with a friend the other day how video games are getting to be more and more like walking into a story. Makes you wonder if some day instead of people writing books they'll write interactive gaming stories for people to participate in. Imagine technology allowing you to experience a novel in virtual reality. You'd get to be the character of your choice and live the story.

  2. My Dad bought Pong. I played it numerous times. Thought it was a blast!

    My husband bought an Atari. I don't think I ever had a chance to really play it. He hogged it most of the time.

    But for an arcade game, I loved Galaga. Probably because it was the only game I was good at! 🙂

  3. It is, isn't it? I think the improved technology not only led to the ability to develop more complex stories, I think it *required* it.

  4. We had it on our Atari, which I think we got in the mid- to late-70's.

    They kind of are already. A lot of the games really allow for a great deal of exploratory play (I'm thinking multi-player games like World of Warcraft, or single-players like Grand Theft Auto where you can run rampant over the world). What I guess hasn't been accounted for, however, is you, the player character, interacting independently of the book character. There's still a large degree of scripting that has to be done to keep the 'story' from falling apart the moment you get into it.

  5. I vaguely remember Galaga, but I don't remember playing it myself. And I think the hogging of the game/console happens in most houses–my mother ended up monopolizing our Atari!

  6. We always thought those Big Kids were part of a gang. I don't think we had any actual gangs where I lived, but we lived in fear of them nonetheless!

  7. I never got into video games and still haven't, but I sort of remember those older icons–like Pac-Man. And you are so right: this game (and others) did lack story. What a difference story makes!

  8. Sometimes, mindless button-mashing is just what you need, but as I've gotten older, story matters more and more. Nice to see you back, Cynthia!

  9. Wow, what a great post. I never thought of that, but you're right. And story has changed and revolutionized video games-now so many of them have stories! But I still dig a mindless game of Fruit Ninja!

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