Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Symphony Of Madness

I have a great love of old school arcade games. Give me asteroids, pong, snake, space invaders, and I'll be happy. Actually, pong kinda sucks. Come to think of it, they're all pretty bad, and while I love them despite that, I love (fairly) modern re-makes even more (e.g.). Fuck messy 3D graphics, sophisticated game engines, and plot; just give me a straightforward concept and 3 different commands. Distill everything to extremely simple skills: shoot the rocks, shoot the aliens. Anyone can be hardcore about entertaining games, which is why I respect the gamers of old you stuck with terrible graphics and repetitive gameplay for so many years.

The total lack of explanation is one of the most charming things about these games. Take Space Invaders for instance: no attempt whatsoever is made to explain the premise of the game, you just have to infer it from the title. "'Space Invaders', ok, well I guess those things coming at me are invaders...from space, and I have to shoot them before they get too close or, you know, they'll have invaded". Why is this charming? I like to think that there's actually an elaborate story behind the games, we're just not told about it. Random elements like why different alien ships have different spots in the formation or what the hell the mothership is doing there suddenly become not random, but rational parts of a sophisticated setting that we can only guess at through subtle hints left us by ancient programmers.

Pursuing that thread this summer, I began programming a "sequel" called (cleverly) Earth Invaders: it's payback time. The angle was that, unlike in the original, you controlled an alien vessel attacking Earth. It also differed from the original in that the aliens deployed single, better armed ships that dropped bombs from high altitude instead sending huge suicidal waves towards the surface. The rationale for this new strategy? During the first invasion of Earth (the original game), the aliens had no information about humans and assumed they were like other intelligent, more advanced species they'd encountered. In "traditional" warfare between extraterrestrials, bombs were of no use because of powerful (but short ranged) shields that protected the surface. Instead, attacks would have to fly extremely close to the surface and deploy troops or biological weapons. Since surface defenses employed sophisticated homing missiles, evasive maneuvers were pointless. This same strategy of moving slowly towards the surface was employed against the humans. Needless to say, it failed, largely because of the large population of heroic nerds living on Earth; a weapon the alien interlopers failed to predict.

After the humiliation of this first war, the aliens vowed to return and erase the embarrassment...and the human race along with it. Being aliens, they learned from their mistakes. Instead of sending huge formations at the surface, they opted to send bombers to every major city they could find, where they would pummel the humans from the relative safety of the skies. The outcome? I got sick of working with graphics and intimidated by the prospect of optimizing my shitty code.