Slackur's Obscure Gaming Theatre

Posted on Feb 17th 2022 at 01:00:00 PM by (slackur)
Posted under Avatars, Yars Revenge, Mass Destructon, Seek And Destroy, Chorus

Formulating a digital avatar, a representation of a player's interaction within a video game, is a construct often taken for granted.  Given the importance placed upon player agency in many modern games, from customization and features in Skyrim to vehicle selection and colors in the Forza Horizon series, great effort is often taken to connect the player to what is on the screen.  Upon reflection, four games I've played recently paint a fascinating picture of the evolution of where we started and where we are now.

Of course, in the beginning of the industry only a few pixels at most could be afforded to present the player's avatar, and animation was simple if present at all.  One of the oldest games I often go back to is Howard Scott Warshaw's classic Yars' Revenge.  While the original (now 40 years old!) Atari 2600 version is, of course, the best remembered and praised, the GameBoy Color version is the one I actually prefer.  Telegames' GBC port has a scrolling playfield, a bonus minigame, full-color splash screens based off the original pack-in comic, and best of all a password system to chip away at all 250 levels.  This combined with portability makes for a perfect pick-up-and-play, short-burst experience.

But my high praise for the under-rated GBC port isn't my point here.  Yars' Revenge originally had an aforementioned pack-in comic that went to great lengths explaining the history and detail of the game and specifically your avatar, a slightly-animated single-color mutated housefly called a 'Yar.'  There is in fact an entire high-concept sci-fi background story featuring super-powered space insects from Earth that are now defending themselves from aggressive alien invaders and striking back after the fall of one of their colony worlds, hence the game title.  This was on par for the earliest video games; due to the extremely simple graphics technology, most of the heavy lifting was done by the imagination, channeled via the creative art on the packaging, included manuals, game labels, and arcade cabinet art.

I mean, how else can you connect this:

to this?

Obviously Infocom was on to something with this classic ad:

The point being, the player really had to do some projecting onto what was onscreen to get the most out of the game.  We had to work harder to pretend we were a giant mutant bug, or a tank, or a... giant, round, yellow mouth creature... yeah, sometimes we forget how weird video games are.

Anyway, speaking of tanks, fast forward fifteen years and we have another game I played through recently; the Saturn version of Mass Destruction.  Really the game could be a highly updated single-player version of Atari's own Combat.  You have a tank, you blow stuff up.  I mean it is right there in the name.  The cover art, also an exaggeration of the actual game, still gives a pretty good picture of what to expect:

And while we are leaps ahead in the graphical representation department, we are still having to use our imagination here:

Technically the tank in the game (you pick one from three, each with differing stats but the same weapons) doesn't have any more personality than the Yar, and you still go about the screen shooting and blowing things up.  Arguably Yars' Revenge is far more creative and original.  Yet realistically from a game design standpoint the avatar in-game is still more about what you are projecting onto it (a simple pixel-drawn bug or a boxy tank) and pretending on top of what the avatar is, and what it is doing in-game.  In the case of Mass Destruction there are no real characters to speak of and the details are all kept extremely light; the point of the game is action, and you are not meant to get attached to any narrative or story.  The game is streamlined to a fault in that it is all about (and only about) getting to drive around a tank and blow everything up.   I must say, in that one focus it does succeed; I played through it a few weeks ago simply because that was exactly what I was in the mood to play.

Of course in the intervening decade and a half between Yars' Revenge and Mass Destruction, many games developed far more interesting personalities to their avatars than a generic death-box with an arsenal.  We've sped past characters that began displaying personality through digitized speech, impatiently tapping a red sneaker when left idle, and epic story narratives involving super-deformed characters in fantasies that deceive concerning finality.   Games such as Pac-man, Pitfall, and Frogger predate Mario in the pursuit to give us a character to play rather than a faceless war machine or stick-figure representing the player's in-game presence.  But this is a whirlwind tour based off the last four or so games I played and a reflection thereof, and so let us continue.

I guess I was keeping with the shooty military theme (my gaming really can be a non sequitur potpourri) as I went from Mass Destruction to a little gem for the PS2 called Seek and Destroy

Graphically, the game is only a couple of notches above Mass Destruction, seeing as it was a port of the budget title Shin Combat Choro Q (itself based off the Choro-Q toy line).  But the funny thing about this game is that your polygonal tank avatar, and all of the other characters in the game, are the actual characters; instead of being piloted, the tanks themselves swivel their turrets and talk to each other, not unlike how little kids would make their toys 'talk' during play.  It is kind of hilarious, and really gives a quirky personality to the game.  There are named heroes and villains, fictional countries, and an entire wartime plot to uncover.

The most personality anything displayed in Mass Destruction were the levels of bass sounding from vehicle explosions and the randomized screams of faceless soldiers that were shot or run-over.  In Seek and Destroy, the tanks have personality, ambition, and cartoony shades of morality.  We've gone from Yars' Revenge's few external comic frames giving the skeletal framework that our imagination is to implant upon the simple interactions onscreen, to a full-on multi-character Saturday-morning cartoon fantasy.  (Kids, ask your parents.)  It is not a matter of either competing with Shakespeare, but more about how the expectations have shifted over how we use our imaginations toward our avatars and involvement within the game.

It is a lot of dumb fun, by the way.  The game is in no way balanced between the dozen or so tanks and around 100 weapons to be unlocked, and while I just couldn't get into the goofy story, it is highly enjoyable to play through.

After these last few palate cleansers I was ready for a more modern space epic, so we come to what I'm playing right now:

We've gone from a high-fantasy sci-fi flying-around shooter, to a roll-around with a tank shooter, to another roll-around with a tank shooter with talking tanks and a cartoony story, and back to a high-fantasy sci-fi flying-around shooter.  Now the player in Chorus is straight-up controlling a full-fledged pilot with a complex backstory, nuanced voicework, emotional facial animation, and a sentient AI starship as a buddy/betrayed friend/conversational plot device.  Make no mistake; we've gone from bring-your-own-imagination and plug into the gameplay and into Hollywood-style big-budget sit-down-and-hear-a-story.  And it is great!  Chorus has been an unexpected pleasure to play.   It is a power fantasy that still has balance and challenge, weaving complex lore and interesting (if nearly overwrought) characters with beautiful art design and tight gameplay, all wrapped over a fun space-combat action game.  In many ways it takes the best cues from modern first person narrative shooters and swaps out the standard gun taped to the chin and replaces it with a cool looking, talky spaceship that could chew up KITT for breakfast.  Your avatar, a repentant war criminal, has a lengthy revenge-quest that sets up a grand epic and the story is far better written and interesting than I'm used to seeing in a space combat game.  I highly recommend giving it a try.

In the span of forty years we've gone from boxy dots and radio static to art and sound effects that paint all of the details for the player.  We've also gone from requiring the player to project all of the story onto the digital equivalent of sticks and stones, to practically sitting and watching a modern blockbuster movie.  Where we once had to pretend what and who we are in a game, now we are cosplaying a goth space-warrior.  Our tanks have gone from "press this button to shoot" to "let's watch the British tank swivel a giant cannon to indicate who it is talking to, just like I did when I was five."  One doesn't have to be better or worse than the other; I've played all four games lately and enjoyed each for what they are.

The real question is, where are we headed next?  Nobody playing Yars' Revenge forty years ago could have imagined playing Chorus.  (Their imagination was too busy projecting that awesome art onto a few crude lines.)  In forty more years, gamers like me playing Chorus right now just as surely can't imagine what will be available.  I know one thing; I've loved the ride so far, and I can't wait to find out.


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Always a good read, and this is no exception. I have pondered something similar to this before, and you've really boiled it down to a nice way of looking at the advancements in technology, and how it has changed how we look at the games in relation to ourselves. Good stuff.

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