My hands clutch the controller in a death-grip. My jaws ache from clenching. Sweat is beginning to rise from skin wrapped around my tense and tired muscles. I’m even past the yelling. And now the game is warning me that I only have fifteen minutes left. Fifteen minutes, then ten, then five.
Finally, after 27 minutes and over 150 faults, I finish Gigatrack, and what do I feel? Triumph? Accomplishment? Satisfaction? No, the only feeling I have is relief.
It’s over, I tell myself. Finally, it’s over. I don’t feel that rush of fist-pumping victory because I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished anything. All I’ve done is what the Gigatrack expected of me, the bare minimum.
I feel like I’ve merely filled in some blanks that a developer carefully sketched out ahead of me.
The thought weighs heavily on my mind: imagining the countless hours of play-testing and fine tuning the exact angle and length of a ramp, the position of that barrel in the landing zone, the distance to the next obstacle and the speed a bike will have at that point. Everything carefully, meticulously, excruciatingly precise.
In the end, I simply don’t feel like I have done anything meaningful, instead I’ve just obeyed instructions. It might be hard, but Gigatrack is eminently beatable because, like any obstacle course, it was designed to be.
Alone atop my ziggurat, I carve a swathe through the alien hordes with a well-placed explosion. The music changes.
I swear, I comment on Twitter, that the music changes when you get close to your high score. I feel the drama intensify as I’m about to pass my previous high score.
Then I die.
As it turns out I kept dying at about the same moment, so my high score just happened to sit right at the moment in the musical score where some rising squeals signalled a spike in difficulty, for me anyway.
Gradually I began to learn the pattern. The alien freaks’ assault followed a kind of rhythm I could measure through the appearance of the giant aliens. Just after that second giant one, I thought, I need to be ready to blow up a big group of them and have time to defend against the floating red guys.
Sometimes I forgot, sometimes I misfired, and sometimes I succeeded. My top score was 147 after three or four days of playing. Then the next day, I just didn’t pick up my iPad. I knew what the game had in store for me, and, in that knowledge, I was done.
Riding through Calradia, I spot a group of six sea raiders fleeing from my warband. I chase them down, and ready my blade. My warband forms up, charges and annihilates them. I take the meagre spoils and head back to town to replenish my supplies.
I recruit a couple more lowly volunteers, I now command a group of ten. I am unstoppable.
I see a group of twenty-five mountain bandits and flee.
Curious, I head to the next major town and approach the lord in his castle. He has a task for me, I accept, and head to the small village that’s behind on its taxes. I rile up the locals a little bit as I collect the bags of denars. The lord will cut me in for 20 percent of the takings… or I could just keep this money.
I decide to take it back and honour our deal. After all, I only have ten men, the lord commands an army. Besides, 20 percent of the two thousand or so gold I just collected is good money for my company. With it, I recruit a few more and go hunting for bandits.
Soon I am at the head of my own small army of forty-five.
What happens, I wonder, if I travel to the next kingdom, and attack one of their noblemen? Am I strong enough? I ride.
On the way, it occurs to me that I should probably wield a lance while on horseback, surely the longer reach will be more effective. So I buy one and test it out on some unfortunate bandits. The lance is a great success, and I put my bow away for good.
I arrive in the Southern desert, home to the Sarranid Sultanate and go hunting. Eventually I find a noble party small enough for me to handle, and approach him. No thought for negotiations, I simply attack, and after a pitched battle, I am victorious.
I have taken a prisoner! And it is the noble Emir! The ransom broker will pay me top-denar for this guy! So I secure my prisoner and the other loot, and make tracks back to Swadia.
Just as I approach one of the Swadian strongholds, I receive a message. The Sultan has offered me 1800 denar for my noble prisoner!
1800 denar buys a lot of troops, I realise with glee. I wonder what I can accomplish with fifty men under my banner?
For me, the best games are those I am constantly discovering. Not just the geography: I have crossed the whole of Calradia, Liberty City, Panau, Skyrim, and both New Austin and Nuevo Paraiso many times. There is a mechanical space to these games I can also explore, the space where I can ask “What happens if I…?” and am able to experiment to find out the answer. Because of this, even Mount & Blade, an unpolished game if there ever was one, offers me more joy than Trials or Ziggurat.
The possibility space is much, much wider in these games than in Trials or Ziggurat, where the tiniest variation from the required manoeuvers is disastrous. I know that, upon getting a gold medal in a difficult Trials course, I’ve done basically the same thing as countless people before me, and exactly what the developer expected me to do. In Ziggurat, I know what to do because I know what’s coming — I have to memorise the pattern of the alien onslaught to stand any chance of achieving a higher score. Both of these games require a repetition and rote drilling I can’t tolerate. By the time I’m “practicing” I’ve already learned all there is to know about the game, I just have to get better at it.
Videogames are best, for me, when they are adventures into unknown territory, beyond the frontiers of familiarity. I guess that makes me an explorer.