Gauntlet 2: a study in cowardice, mullets and personal development

One of the earliest examples of clear and demonstrable choices I can remember in the heady era of 80s gaming would have been Gauntlet 2.

The much-ported four player dungeon crawler soon found its way from arcades to home computers and consoles with many strange quirks intact.

Over hundreds, if not a potentially infinite number of  fantasy-themed levels, a single player or group had to find a simply marked exit to reach the next dungeon.

In between fighting off hordes of monsters, facing a literal depiction of death that could only ever temporarily defeated and avoiding strange traps, the players would cooperate and compete to gain the most treasure.

It was a thrilling prospect for a game in the 1980’s. One whereby individual health was represented by a countdown timer that could be boosted with food and depleted with damage.

Yet often the biggest challenge in Gauntlet 2, and the wider series as a whole, was perseverance in playing a seemingly endless number of samey levels without succumbing to boredom.

An cursory online search seems to suggest there being no end to the game, with even the most hardcore gamer being defeated by a sense of futility in trying to reach an unknown and unreachable goal.

Yet this proto-Diablo, despite attempts up to and beyond the millennium to update the Gauntlet formula, was a unique prospect in its heyday that has likely inspired more ambitious questing for a team of assembled nerds.

Existential angst

By the second game, each player was assigned an individual colour and could select a heroic axe wielding barbarian, a sword lobbing Valkyrie, speedy bow using elf or a wizard that shot fireballs.  That latter was more effective in using the game’s weaponised potions and also had a beard. That was pretty much all the character development one could expect on mid 80s hardware.

But hey, it was a choice.

As a youngster, the choice seemed obvious, who wouldn’t have been the heroic axe swinging barbarian. This highly pixelated alpha male was a statement on how players would like to see or imagine themselves in the levels of gauntlet. A strong leader of men – and women – that would be the first in and last standing in battles, at least until your timer ran out.

It is doubtful that I have ever fulfilled that role in real life, and arguably even in the game itself.  Meanwhile, others seemed to see in the value in being the quicker girl character, or the old man, or the quick little elf.

But it was the surface strength that appealed in the Barbarian character, a trope employed in an endless number of games and fiction that have followed Gauntlet 2.

For decades, the Arthurian appeal of the chosen strongman, often carrying an enchanted blade and for some reason a mullet, seemed the obvious and only choice in games where a role was chosen.

It didn’t help that these sorts of honest and true figures were often just terrible characters – with a few happy exceptions.  For many they just don’t ring true to real life.

Yet the increasing sophistication of games from a technical, design and narrative perspective over the last 30 years, much like growing up in real life, has allowed the medium to be a little more insightful in reflecting back on the player.

This is particularly the case with how our actions under threat or pressure actually stack up against how we may wish, or believe ourselves to be.

Cowardice is a human personality trait, not one people aspire to, but it is there nonetheless.

It arguably defines a lot of my actions as a person.

It has been there in much justified caution that has let me succeed, as well as many more shameful decisions over a life that narrowly proceeds the release of Gauntlet 2.

Choices such as opting to be the Barbarian in Gauntlet and many other games were perhaps a means of escaping some of this reality and projecting strength to a group. This is again very human.

Yet selecting such a character rarely felt natural in terms of the style of play. Caution, trickery, stealth and a little bastard-like underhandedness were much more me, and no doubts a whole load of other gamers.

It had taken decades to even begin to embrace that my inner elf, wizard and Valkyrie are all much more dominant aspects of character. Yet it was in games that such a truth was first realised.

Wasn’t it much more sensible to trap and trick your opponents, rather than unconvincingly trying to cave in their heads in a direct battle of overwhelming brute strength?

Occasionally, a game will still pique interest in selecting a straight forward hero, perhaps in the vain hope it can be acted out in real life.

But contentment in more modern games, much as in real life, is to embrace the weaknesses and flaws in how we deal with challenge and confrontation.

There is just as much value in supporting and shielding those around you so that they can embrace the hero role in Overwatch or Monster Hunter World, as there is in being the leader.  This can be just as true in a game as it is in an real world office or team.

While series such as Halo are wonderfully effective in allowing for escapism into the alpha-like role of the Masterchief, a futuristic one-man army facing down brutal alien hordes, this is not always the way the game is played.

Lurking around corners to catch monsters off guard and spending much of the game in a permanent crouched state to shoot a monster in the bank of the head are effective survival strategies if they work for the player.

We are defined by our choices and how we employ them to get by in life.  It is down to each individual to deciding when compromise is needed to do the right thing, or simply make life a little easier, and when a line must be drawn.

It is these actions that define us, even in the simulated and largely consequence free realm of games. By acting out those best and worst examples we can be in games, perhaps there is hope of learning and moving forward, even when your digital corpse is having the virtual scrotum of an online stranger rubbed in its face.

You reap what you sow I guess.

tea-bagging

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