By Neil Merrett
“To days to come….”
“…All my love to long ago” – Doctor Who
Thrillseekers of all shapes, sizes and ages flocked to London’s Olympia conference centre last weekend for two very different, yet perhaps not entirely unrelated, forms of escapism.
At first it was a surprise to find something of a more mature crowd of couples and old friends at the PC Gamer Weekender. Perhaps it was a sign of how far the culture has come that it was not immediately apparent that a group of pension-age individuals may not be attending a national show bringing together gamers, developers, as well high street and niche retailers to celebrate some three decades of innovation.
While it was unlikely that participants attending the 2017 London Cruise Show would have intentionally gone to the entrance for the games weekender event sharing the same venue that day – was either audience looking for an experience that significantly different from the other?
The ability perhaps to unwind while exploring new lands, occasionally taxing your brain and catching up with a diverse number of unknown characters from around the world to engage in some misadventure without even having to step too far from your room or cabin.
It was a question worth considering.
Now in its second year, the PC Gamer weekender event sought to bring together the past, present and future of games technology, with audiences able to experience the ghosts of gaming past, present and future. This ranged from stumbling around with the latest Alienware and Hive VR rigs, to testing out upcoming PC launch titles or the original Prince of Persia on Commodore 64.
Something for everyone then, or certainly those who find hours of solace in pixels, mouse and keyboard interfaces, esoteric boardgames or cheeringly revamped 2D platformers starring speed-friendly hedgehogs. What a world we live in.
For the die hards there was all you might expect, local area network tournaments for sci-fi strategy titles like Dawn of War 3, as well as Dawn of War 2 for the purists or those still using Windows XP.
After years of engaging via the internet with occasionally faceless adversaries through shooters or strategy games, the event was an opportunity for like minded individuals face-to face in old school shooters like Jedi Knight, Counterstrike or the current great online time time consumer that is Overwatch.
Men, women, singles and couples, gay or straight, and people young and old were there, as well a medical student seemingly in the process of frantically studying while her charges stared cluelessly at complex space strategy game.
As opposed to a potential career in healthcare, they appeared to be contemplating a chance to experience being a space warmonger, or lead a galactic cultural hegemony as a meditation on where true power may lie. Endless possibility.
Mingling with these mere mortals were numerous game programmers themselves. Those grand designers of virtuals worlds – gods amongst geeks. These developers included major studios and indie developers opting to talk players through their latest wares.
There were presentations for the wildly ambitious space simulator Star Citizen, which attempts to allow action lovers to engage in a no nonsense shooters set in a universe shared with cerebral explorers, traders and ship pilots. Much like global cruises, you get what you put into it with some games it seems.
Although not present in person, gaming giant Blizzard also made its presence felt with key developers for Overwatch taking online questions from PC Gamer and social media users in a pre-recorded interview.
Geoff Goodman, the Overwatch’s lead character, or ‘hero’ designer, discussed a number of topics including the need to maintain mystery and balance in a game built around a never ending series of 6 vs 6 conquest battles that involves nearly two dozen colourful characters.
Goodman noted the challenge of trying to appease the reported millions of Overwatch players wanting a consistent, yet richly rewarding team game that doesn’t get stale.
He discussed how specific characters may be found to be almost too powerful and unstoppable when use by first time or more novice players, yet could be completely useless and unplayable for a growing number of experienced players that make a living playing the title, requiring subtle but important challenges to keep balance.
Despite these tweaks, Goodman argued that gamers often did not see the work and efforts going on behind the scenes, due to experiencing a very specific type of gameplay or strategy that they are experienced with, rather than contemplating the overall experience of millions of individual players on a daily basis.
“Players are used to seeing things from their slice of the game. They are used to seeing their own metagame, There’s definately a large spectrum we need to keep in mind,” he said.
The world each player experiences is there own personal game – in effect – their own online reality, where rules and accepted logic about strengths, as well as weaknesses and value lies.
It is politics this.
Where certain individuals and actions that support or validate a player’s own experiences or skills, are perceived to have much more value than a foreign or unknown philosophy or style.
Although connected in an online world, that each player can be their own main character, hero, or villain in a much wider story, can be gaming’s biggest strength and weakness as a media.
But as entire of generations move our social and professional lives, as well as deepest held beliefs online online, the concept of being lost in a tailored meta-game – the full rules of which only we can understand – are not just limited to online shooters, or perhaps even videogames.
In an uncertain, but not entirely irredeemable world, who knows where this may all lead.
As one potential future for the direction of mainstream gaming, a growing number of accessible, if not always low priced VR units are offering the opportunity for games to do away with screens, mouses, keyboard, and other forms of input altogether, by making the individual their own interface tool.
Alienware, for instance, demonstrated its latest headset-based technology that attempts to immerse a player in a full 3D world of killer cyborgs that you are required to locate, avoid, murder or teleport into to incapacitate. It is the dream of gaming writ large to embrace a new identity, world or reality.
Ultimately, VR makes your own body the controller. Yet as you struggle to remember how to pick up the guns attached to your holster, and attempt to avoid tangling yourself in wires while making sure some metallic vermint isn’t sneaking up behind you to finish you off, is there a limit to how realistic you might want an experience to be? This is especially the case when considering spending hours as a sci-fi hero, with all your foibles and clumsiness attached.
In this particular metagame, the sensation of trying to invoke Bruce Willis circa 1998, rather than an awkward and inexperienced clutz was hard to shift, regardless of graphical clarity or the ability to shift behind cover in an unknown future world.
Still giving off the vibe of a very impressive, but limited tech demo, gamers were literally queuing to book places in the several VR experiences on show, which sat alongside more current era-approach to games.
In between them excitement and uncertainty of VR then, it was encouraging to see forlorn developers like Sega, with an impressive array of PC sims and strategy games, giving the chance to pick up a whole new, retro Sonic the Hedgehog adventure.
After a brief immersion in striking VR shoot-foolery, there was a charm to picking up a wired controller and engaging in a relatively simple eight button interface of running, jumping and running a bit faster.
15 years since having any real interest in a sonic adventure, the familiarity of running through 2D loop, or curling up into a blazing blue ball of death, was not just instantly comforting, but invoked muscle memory one might assume would be long since lost.
To most gamers out of their teens, this was a known world. Even with new graphical flourishes and sound, the dynamics were still the same.
Not all attempts at escape from our everyday lives take us off to unknown worlds, or require us to shut out people and objects we normally associate with. They can at times be a simple anchor of where we have come from.
In the metagame of our own existence, little things such as relearning how to thrive while speeding through a world can be as effective as shiny new vistas or places far away. Yet clinging solely to these experiences keeps you from the not entirely rueful experience of trying to shout out Yippie Kay-yay while inadvertently wrapped yourself in in electrical wiring.
As Olympia’s visitors decamped to the nearby pubs and hostelries surrounding its conferences, if not just to steal a seat, some cruise hunters and PC gamers briefly mingled while contemplating where next to take their passions, whether seeing the world, or pumping earnings into a professional standard comfy chair.
Seemingly very different in their hopes and needs, were they not just both playing out an exciting next step in their respective meta-games.