A different kind of game. (computer games for Windows) (Column)
by Orson Scott Card
Let's face it--the Windows environment hasn't exactly been a gamer's paradise. It's a matter of s-p-e-e-d--Windows doesn't have any!
Admittedly, on a 486 machine with a graphics coprocessor and 8MB of RAM, Windows can run any game fast enough for fun. But even on this Mother of All Machines, which we use for all the serious applications (like typesetting and playing Monkey Island 2), it still takes a noticeable amount of time to redraw the screen and shift from one view to another. And that's deadly for action and story games.
But that doesn't mean there can't be good games for Windows. They just have to be games of a different kind. Microsoft itself pointed the way with the first Windows Entertainment Pack (WEP). The concept was simple and obvious. (All good ideas are obvious once somebody has thought of them.) Develop a bunch of small games that are graphically simple or that can be played in a slow environment, package them together, and sell the whole caboodle for an irresistible price.
The first Windows Entertainment Pack must have been financially successful, because Microsoft has come back with the sequels: Windows Entertainment Pack Two and Windows Entertainment Pack Three (WEP2 and WEP3). Furthermore, Symantec has joined in with the Symantec Game Pack, which has the same concept but brings to the form a style of its own.
I can safely say that no games have ever been played by so many people for so many hours in my house. Part of the reason is the Windows environment itself. That friendly tabletop has a warm, familiar sense of clutter that reminds everybody of sitting around the kitchen table.
You get a window full of great games, and most importantly, the games themselves are like Windows--very friendly, simple to use, kind of fun just to hang around with. The Symantec games, in fact, are downright familiar, since they're the games we all played as school kids. For instance, there's a pretty good Hangman (you can select categories like states or cities or computer companies), and there's also an excellent version of Mastermind called Code Breaker. Memory Blocks is an attractive version of Concentration. My wife and I have found that you can play well only once a day. Your score gets worse every time you play, because you keep remembering where objects were in the games you played previously.
In the familiar Smart Dots, you first draw rows and columns of dots and then try to combine them to make squares. The Symantec set includes enjoyable versions of Jacks and Pickup Sticks, both of which will give your mouse a serious workout.
The Microsoft packs have the usual mix of solitaire card games and tile puzzles, a licensed version of Pipe Dream, and even some simple action games--golf, skiing, and some arcade-style games like the one where you maneuver an ever-growing snake through a maze and a cat-and-mouse chase-and-strategy game. Every one of them is fun, and some of them are brilliant. FreeCell, for example, is simply the best single solitaire game I've ever played. It would be a pain to play with real cards, but the programmers have made the card handling smooth and easy. These entertainment packages prove that there's room in the world for games that don't give you frantic deadlines and that don't take place in a kill-or-be-killed world.
Oh, there are problems here and there. Most of us have pretty much given up on Pipe Dream; at the higher levels, the game occasionally gives you screens that can't be won because the starting or finishing pipe unit is blocked by an immovable obstacle. And the word game WordZap (kind of a high-tech Boggle) is marred by a second-rate dictionary: It refuses to allow three- and four-letter words that every Scrabble player knows. It's frustrating to lose to the computer because it doesn't know that fey and fay are words, for instance. Nothing is perfect, but I want to emphasize that the glitches here are few and far between. Until you can lay your hands on a fast 486 with a graphics accelerator to make Windows handle real animation, these games are worth opening the window to see.