Home Computer Games Grow Up
Orson Scott Card, Editor, COMPUTE! Books
I must admit it took me by surprise. After months of observing that almost no one was making true home computer games, suddenly I find myself with a fistful of games that are everything I could ask for.
And I do ask for a lot:
1. A home computer game should not be designed to minimize playtime - it should not be designed to take away quarters by making the game impossible to beat.
2. It should use the full power of the computer - it should do things that only the computer can do well, and it should use all the appropriate resources the computer provides.
3. It should be an excellent game, not just excellent programming - the play itself should be exciting and not serve merely as an excuse to show off the programmer's expertise.
4. Above all, the game should be designed so the player controls and, to some degree, creates the game as he plays - I have little patience with games that play me, forcing me to follow only one possible track or learn one mechanical skill if I hope to win.
If those requirements sound like what you want, too, I have good news for you: there are finally some software companies making a serious effort to create exactly this kind of game.
The software firm Electronic Arts has added a fifth requirement for itself: The game must be truly original. No Donkey Kong or Pac-Man clones in this group, of games. Even though each of their games has roots in gaming traditions, the object has not been to recreate a favorite board game, or duplicate a sport, or translate an arcade game.
A Colony In Space
After years of spaceships blasting away at each other, Electronic Software's M. U. L. E. (for. Atari and Commodore 64) is a refreshing change. In this game by Dan Bunten, Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, and Alan Watson, you and three other colonists (human- or computer-controlled) have been left to mine for Smithore. However, you also have to produce enough food and energy to survive until your ship comes back in six months. To help you, you have an all-purpose robot called a M. U. L. E. - which can be as stubborn as its flesh-and-blood namesake.
This leaves you with some complex decisions to make. While you are competing with the other players, trying to make a killing in food production, Smithore, or energy, you also have to cooperate with them, so you don't overproduce one commodity and lower the price - and so you don't neglect to produce enough food and energy to keep the colony alive.
In other words, it's a game that faces the fundamental ethical dilemma of humanity, while teaching you, firsthand, the principles of economics. Sounds deadly, doesn't it?
It's Serious Fun
But deadly it is not. From the opening cartoon and the funky theme music, you know that M. U. L. E. is going to be fun. At the start of the game, you get to choose a creature that will be your player-figure. Your choice of creature can challenge advanced players and give a boost to beginners - and the descriptions and pictures of the creatures are fun.
Once play begins, each "month" you and the other players each select a plot of land to develop. Then you take a trip into town, buy a M.U.L.E., and outfit it for the type of production you're planning. Then you get it back to your property and install it, hoping the M.U.L.E. doesn't malfunction and run away during the trip.
When the month ends, you have produced a supply of food, energy, and Smithore. All the players go to the company store to buy and sell. There you bargain until you agree on a price for your commodities. If something is in short supply, the price will probably rise; if there's a lot of it, you can only sell it at minimum. If you mined Smithore and Smithore is selling low, and you need to buy food, which is in short supply, you lose money. The player with the food, however, does rather well. After the auction is over, the computer tells you your current net worth, and you go on and add a new plot of land to your holdings.
There are other elements to play. Wampus hunting and pub crawling can use up the idle moments after your M.U.L.E. has been installed; natural disasters like acid rain, pest attacks, planetquakes, and a fire in the company store can complicate things.
In all this, you never touch anything but the joystick. Going to town and getting your KULL outfitted is all joystick-controlled animation; natural disasters happen on screen, with well-done graphics; and the auctions are choreographed like a Virginia reel, with buyers and sellers stepping forward and back, forward and back, raising and lowering their price until they finally come together and agree. Even your supplies and M.U.L.E. installations are graphically represented.
And your shambling, lazy, stubborn M.U.L.E. is a masterpiece of animation with style.
Strategy and conflict games, in the days before computers, always had a problem: time and realism. The more realistic the game is, the more tedious it gets, moving little army pieces or keeping track of how many wounds your character has sustained. And the less realistic the game is, the more frustrating it is when your well-planned attack is wrecked by a streak of unbelievably bad rolls of the dice.
Some games, like chess, simply ignore realism: in each individual battle, the attacker always wins. Others, like Diplomacy, ignore tactics and move the game to the level of negotiations, where you quickly find out how untrustworthy your friends are.
With Archon: The Light and the Dark, by Anne Westfall, Jon Freeman, and Paul Reiche III, the computer lets the gamer have it all. The game is played on a chessboard - but this board isn't all light and dark squares. About half the squares cycle through various colors, from light to dark and back again. If you're the dark player, your icons (pieces) have much more power on dark squares, and are weaker on the light ones; this gives you a powerful advantage when the majority of the squares on the board are dark.
The icons each have different powers, and move indifferent ways. Your leading icon is either a wizard (light) or a sorceress (dark), which has a repertoire of powerful spells, each of which can be cast only once. Other icons can walk, fly, or teleport a certain number of squares in each turn:
When your icon moves onto an enemy square, you don't just take the square. You have to fight for it. The square immediately expands to fill the entire screen, and your two icons meet in mortal combat. Some are infighters, and must move in close; others fire missiles at various speeds; others have an aura which wards off enemy blows and damages the enemy when it gets too close. If the battle is fought on a dark square, the dark icon has much greater endurance; on a light square, the light icon has the advantage. The action in the battle is as exciting as any arcade game.
And when the battle is over, the victor has the square unless evenly matched icons destroyed each other.
As with chess, it takes a while to learn all the icons and their various strengths, and it takes more than a little agility and practice to master the techniques of battle. But if it were too easy, it wouldn't be fun.
The computer player is very, very good. I suggest you learn this game with 'an evenly matched friend it'll be a while before you can give the computer a run for its money. Archon is available for the Atari, Apple and Commodore 64.
Training Your Pieces
Worms, by David S. Maynard, is that rare thing: an entirely new game, which is not only fun to play, but fascinating, often beautiful to watch. The idea of winning is secondary to the sheer pleasure of watching the game play out on the screen. Versions are available for Atari and Commodore 64.
Four "worms" of different colors are at the center of a dotfilled screen. The worms are really lines, spanning the gap between two dots. Each dot can have up to six lines radiating from it. When all six possible positions are filled, that dot and all the lines radiating from it become the color of the worm that finished filling it. You only get points for the dots you fill. When your worm runs into a place from which there is no escape - no unfilled dot to move to - it dies. When all worms have died, the game is over, and the winner is the player whose worm has finished the most dots.
The best feature of Worms, though, is that instead of controlling every choice your worm makes, you actually train your worm. There are dozens of possible configurations for each dot your I worm might come to different numbers of lines already drawn, in different places, combined with the six possible angles from which your worm might have approached the dot. When you are training a new worm, each time it reaches a configuration it hasn't seen before, the game stops for a moment while you decide what direction the worm should go. Once you've decided, from then on it will always make that choice whenever it sees that identical configuration.
After a very short time, your worm doesn't stop at all - it is fully trained, and continues to do everything you trained it to do. If your training was good, it will finish many dots; if your training wasn't so good, it will either tie itself in a knot and die, or string itself out all over the screen, never finishing dots at all, just leaving long trails for better-trained worms to come in and finish.
In other words, you create a creature that seems to be alive. You can save worms, too, and use them again. The computer can also generate worms according to several possible parameters. And when the worms are fully trained, you can sit back and watch them make their patterns on the screen. At the fastest speed setting it's as exciting as a hotly contested race; at the slower speeds, it is fascinating to study the geometric patterns as the designs unfold.
Seeds and Spacewalking
Jaron Lanier's Moondust Creative Software cartridge for the Commodore 64, like Worms, is a highly original game concept that could not exist without the computer. With a single joystick, you control a spacewalker and several "moondrop ships" with the same motion. When you make them turn, they move in gradual curves rather than sudden angles, and since they leave a trail of gradually fading moondust behind them, the screen display is graceful and strange - a world you have never visited before. Add to this the haunting music, and Moondust is fascinating to play for the sheer beauty of it.
It's also fun. You must maneuver your spacewalker away from the center of the screen, where he leaves a single seed at the spot you choose. After that, you must maneuver the ships to pass over the seed. Each time they pass over the seed, they draw a trail of seed squares after them. You must try to draw the trail of seed squares until they reach the center of the screen; when they do, the energy field dances. However, the seed can only be drawn out into a limited number of squares, and if you haven't reached the center in time, the game ends. And each time the spacewalker collides with, a ship, he gets bashed; too many collisions and he is knocked right out of the game.
Like the Electronic Arts games, this is a home computer game. It would never make it in the arcades. The very things that make it so good - the smooth and ballet-like movement, the gentle mood of the music, the original, challenging, thoughtful play system - would all be lost next to razzle-dazzle games. This game will make you glad. you bought a home computer.
A Musical Toy
When children start playing around with music, the results can be awful. Endless scales and practice songs, sawing at a violin, pounding at a piano, blasting down walls with a trumpet - parents of children who are learning music deserve medals.
Wes Horlacher's The Magic Melody Box, available for Atari from APX, takes all the pain out of a child's first experiments with music, and helps children learn to visualize pitch and duration.
At the beginning of each new tune, you are asked to decide how fast and slow you want. your tune to be. Those words are deceptive - you aren't choosing speed so much as you are choosing a rhythm, a pattern of note durations ranging from whole notes to eighth notes, with some more complex rhythms in between.
Once you have chosen, an orange box appears on the screen, with the rhythm graphically represented below it. You start at the left side of the box and, with the joystick, draw a line to the right. You can move the joystick up or down to raise or lower the pitch; the longer your line stays on one pitch, the longer your finished tune will play that note.
When you reach the righthand edge of the screen, your tune is finished. While you listen, the program makes several quick, soft passes through your tune. The wait is worth it. When your tune plays again, the program has added harmonies-that turn it into a full four-voice arrangement, four measures long. Your tune plays twice; then a computer-generated interlude varies your theme for four measures; then your tune plays again.
Musical purists will probably scream about "manufactured" harmonies. I can only answer that the results here are not tin-can standard progressions: the harmonies are fully responsive to the notes of your tune. The variation in the interlude is mathematically, and musically, derived from your melody. And the result is truly enjoyable music which is nevertheless under your control to a surprising degree. And the two-dimensional method of drawing a melody helps children visualize pitch much more effectively than does the confusing musical staff.
The Magic Melody Box isn't good just because it makes children's experiments endurable, though that is certainly a virtue. In fact, while I enjoyed my children's music and the hours of delight they got from it, I got even more pleasure from experimenting with it myself. I've composed music and played several instruments, and The Magic Melody Box certainly doesn't replace the orchestra, but it does use the computer to remove man layers of theory and many hours of practice which usually stand between the creative impulse and the aesthetically pleasing sound.
I wish other programmers would learn from Horlacher's deceptively simple virtuoso music program: the value of computer sound is not confined to sound synthesis. In fact, the computer can and should be used to remove barriers between the would-be musician and his music. This program reminds you why producing music is called "playing."
What do these games have in common that makes them excellent? They are original; they do what they set out to do very, very well; they allow the player to take part in the creativity; they do things that only computers can do.
Above all, though, is the fact that I didn't want to stop playing. And when I wasn't playing, I didn't want to stop watching other people play. That's as good a definition of fun as I can think of.
M.U.L.E. Archon: The Light and the Dark Worms Electronic Arts 2755 Campus Drive San Mateo, CA 94403 $39.95 Moondust Creative Software 230 East Caribbean Drive Sunnyvale, CA 94086 $34.95, The Magic Melody Box Atari Program Exchange 155 Moffett Park Drive, B1 P.O. Box 42 7 Sunnyvale, CA 94086 $17.95