Feature: Beware the dreadnought – a study in human achievement and self deception

By Neil Merrett

Codename S.T.E.A.M on Nintendo 3DS – released 2015, INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS

Saturday – October  10, 2015 …. Somewhere between the second and third coffee of the day

The course of human history has allowed us to develop a very broad definition of what we as a species consider an achievement.

In 1522, the Basque explorer Juan Sebastián Elcano managed to complete an arduous three year circumnavigation of the globe. Beginning the voyage as a crew member, he was later jailed for mutiny, before rising to the rank of captain within the same expedition to complete a journey that would cross warzones, as well as the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Centuries later, the pioneering work of Poland-born physicist Marie Curie around radiation would cruelly lead to her own death, yet also help shape modern scientific understanding.

Everyday, there are countless examples of unheralded exploit where human beings push through their limits to achieve greatness, overcoming physical and mental barriers and traumas.

Yet within our own personal histories, we have evolved to take in the small victories – where an individual stubbornly clings to a specific goal for no greater recognition than a tiny moment of self-reflective glory.  Videogames, as a medium, have longed thrived on the happy self-deception of offering us small personal successes, often within the secure comfort of our homes.

As overcast afternoons go, there was nothing particularly momentous about Saturday October 10, 2015. The perfect sort of autumn day then for a few wasted hours of Nintendo to unwind and pass time.

After three months, I was drawing to an end of the rather unique – but mostly maligned third person/turn-based strategy hybrid game Codename S.T.E.A.M.

Within an approximated cavern deep below the icy wastes of the south-pole, I had already lost two key members of my four person team.  Their deaths were largely the result of a casual malaise in keeping with a mostly bed-bound Saturday.

The revered literary characters of  Henry Fleming from the 1895 novel ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ and Tom Sawyer had fallen battling their way to the level’s exit, eventually being defeated by two armoured winged demons known as dreadnoughts.

Removed somewhat from the scenarios of their source material, both characters had been lost in an attempt to lure one of the dreadnoughts from hiding behind its winged shields, thus exposing the creature’s weak spot on its chest. I had sacrificed both characters to do so and destroy the first enemy,

A single full powered dreadnought now remained guarding the exit, hidden behind its wings as it waited for an endless number of regenerating enemies to flank and destroy the remaining two characters.  It was game over.

I was trapped.

Considering Codename S.T.E.A.M can loosely be defined as a strategy game, my plans had failed. My kings had fallen, and in order to mount an escape, I was left with two under utilised queens, albeit ones armed with a sniper rifle and rocket launcher.

Unaccustomed as I was to using the fictional warrior queen Calafia and a female marksman seemingly modelled on Zorro known as ‘The Fox’, the game’s tiny little plastic cartridge was clearly the more superior military mind and I was not taking it well.

Rather than attempting to play the computer at its own game outsmart a with wits and strategy, I would use stubbornness instead, an emotion even Nintendo has yet to properly convey in videogame form.

And so it began, additional hours and endless turns in a virtual battle of attrition, precision shooting, and the expense of free-time I may be desperate for as my twilight years come to fruition.

Taking refuge on an elevated platform, I would snipe the respawning enemies that appeared at the flanks of every level upon each term.  Meanwhile Calafia would pummel the remaining dreadnought with whatever number of rockets her steam gauge permitted.  Each hit would barely scratch the dreadnought’s armoured wings, taking 5 single hit points from the hundreds it appeared to have in health.

As hours passed, the creature’s green health bar seemingly deteriorated – was it even possible to defeat the enemy without exposing my remaining character to certain death.  

However, slowly, but surely, damage began to be shown as tiny fragments of the dreadnought’s health bar began to be chipped away.

Turn after turn, shot after shot, time-cost analysis and even the looming threat of mortality became secondary considerations to bringing down the beast.  

Time was now less a matter of minutes and seconds as it was measuring the number of character’s terms, sniping away grenadiers using head shots as they appeared with each enemy turn and unsatisfyingly spraying rockets at the dreadnought as was possible each turn using the steam I had,

So process like had the strategy become that even the Dreadnought’s death passed without fanfare, other than a brief moment of satisfaction as it disappeared into a block of ice and then some in-game coins.  As the Fox continued to snipe at the re-spawning enemies, the rocket firing Amazon was clear to make her way to the exit with little else to decimate along the way.  

It was a win. A cheap, unglamorous win – yet one profitable both in terms of in-game currency and the shit eating grin worn for the rest of the day.  From the jaws of defeat, a small, impossible victory had been snatched through tenacity, stubborn pride, a three hour absence of self-awareness and having little else to do with a Saturday.  For 24 hours at least, that felt like achievement enough.

In the annals of my own tenuous history, October 10 was the day I survived my own Alamo, whereby Codename S.T.E.A.M, Calafia, the Fox and steam powered explosive projectiles all burrowed themselves into my affections forever.

Here’s to life’s next small victory.

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