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Mission Statement

Many have questioned whether the most popular form of art in the 20th century, the video game, can be treated as art in the same sense as literature, music, sculpture, etc. Different players will not only perceive a game differently, but will also play the game differently, depending on their skill level, strategy, and play style. Some games, such as Minecraft or Skyrim, further blur the lines by offering such a wide variety of experiences that they function not as art by themselves, but rather as a framework within which the designer and player can co-create art spontaneously.

As complex as that sounds, open world RPGs and sandbox gamesare not representative of the vast majority of video games. In most cases, the differences in the game elements presented to different players are either minor or based on skill level. A game of Super Mario Bros., for example, offers the same set of enemies and platforms to every player, and if you play it frequently enough and develop enough skill…
Recent posts

Circus (1977): Casino-style Gaming

The success of Breakout led to many clones and variants in the late '70s, of which the most notable is probably Exidy's Circus (1977).  In place of the Breakout paddle, the game features a pair of clowns taking turns catapulting each other off of a seesaw and in place of the bricks is three rows of balloons in constant horizontal motion.  The objective of the game is to break as many balloons as possible without letting the clowns hit the ground.
At first, I found Circus to be an interesting spin on the Breakout formula.  These early arcade games generally had a high initial difficulty, so playing them feels like constantly teetering on the edge of a cliff.  This feeling is amplified by the paddle controller, which is sensitive enough that even the smallest uncontrolled motions can lead to a missed bounce.  Circus takes that teetering feeling and brings it to life with the clowns, whose aerial acrobatics appear chaotic and constantly on the brink of disaster.  Adding further t…

Adventureland: Adams’ Interactive Folk Tales

Fairy tales and folklore are products of antiquity, times when the spoken word was the most effective means of transmitting stories from one place to another.  Such tales are necessarily simple and repetitive, with an emphasis on fantastic imagery that can be easily recalled in conversation.  One might have thought that they would have faded into history after the invention of the printing press, much less the invention of the internet, but something about these old yarns continues to stimulate imaginations worldwide.  When authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin construct their fantasy worlds, they almost always draw on some aspect of traditional folklore, whether it be dragons, maidens in distress, magical weapons, or riddling little people.
Similarly, when Scott Adams made his first text adventure, Adventureland, in 1978, he too was drawing on folklore, but was in some ways following more closely in the footsteps of fairy tale tradition than either Tolkien or Martin wer…

Space Invaders: A Noxious Assembly Line

Killing idols isn’t really about the idols themselves, but rather what we've made of them.  In 1978,  Space Invaders descended on a video game market still in possession of its innocence.  Gaming was a growing phenomenon, but not the obsession it was soon to become, and the small community of devoted gamers already frequenting arcades were about to see their hobby go mainstream.

At first appearance, the game might have reminded arcade-goers of Breakout, with a “wall” of aliens descending on a lone avatar at the bottom of the screen.  Unlike the Breakout paddle, however, this avatar was armed.  The player’s task is to use their firepower to take out as many aliens as possible before it either gets shot (the aliens are also armed) or before the aliens reach the bottom of the screen.  There are shields that the player can use for cover, but the aliens’ shots gradually eat away at them as the game progresses.
Visually, the game leaves a lot to be desired.  For some reason, the design…

Digression: The Paddle Controller

Unfortunately, there is one crucial element of the gameplay for both Pong and Breakout that is difficult to come by in 2019 -- the paddle controller.  Controllers like the one shown were common features in arcade cabinets and home consoles in the early days of gaming.  They were ideally suited to one-dimensional motion because the rotation angle of the paddle controller corresponded to a physical position of the digital paddle on the screen.  This is fundamentally different from most modern game controllers, like the joysticks and directional pads, which are better suited for issuing motion commands relative to some nominal position.

To help clarify the difference, suppose I'm playing Call of Duty and I'm aiming my gun at the right side of a road, but an enemy appears on the left side of the road and I want to aim at him instead.  Pushing the joystick left tells the game that I want to adjust my aim to the left, but since it's commanding motion rather than position,…

Breakout: Minimalist Gaming

Much like Pong before it, Breakout has name recognition far beyond its actual sales.  This is partly due to the large number of clones and spin-offs that have succeeded it, but a lot of it also has to do with its intimate connection to the legendary Apple II computer.  Steve Wozniak, the brains behind the Apple II design, wanted the computer to demo his version of Breakout (titled Brick Out), so he made sure to include color graphics, sound, and paddle controller support.  These same features ended up being a big part of the Apple II's success as a gaming and educational platform.

But Atari's original arcade version of Breakout, released in 1976, was a big success in its own right and is the version I'll be reviewing here.  The mechanics of Breakout are similar to Pong in that the player controls a paddle that moves in one dimension and strikes an on-coming digital ball.  However, rather than playing against another paddle, your task is to knock the ball against a wall at…

Colossal Cave Adventure: How to Lose Yourself in a Game

It's pretty amazing how few people know about Colossal Cave Adventure (often called simply Adventure), considering how important it was for the history of video games. Aside from single-handedly originating an entire genre, the adventure game, it is also considered by many to be the first example of interactive fiction. Legend has it that every time a copy of Adventure made its way onto a computer network at a university or business in the late '70s, all work would cease for a week or two as the local computer nuts tried to finish the game. When it comes to this game's influence on the video game industry, I can't help comparing it to the Velvet Underground's influence on pop music.  Brian Eno once said, "The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band." So it was with Adventure, which despite its limited commercial impact, effectively started the careers of the genre's earliest and most wel…

Pong: The Game that Started Video Games

Video games have been around almost as long as the computer, with professionals and hobbyists alike finding clever ways to amuse themselves in their spare time. Most of the games from the ‘50s and ‘60s that we still have records of originated as side projects not originally intended for commercial distribution. Examples include Spacewar!, a head-to-head space shooter thatwas developed at MIT in 1962, Hamurabi, a 1968 resource management game that was used to demonstrate a new programming language, and Marienbad, a Polish logic puzzle game that a student conceived in 1961 while sitting through a multi-hour lecture on military theory.

These gaming experiments are perhaps more interesting for their historical and sociological significance than for their playability, however. Even if pre-70s computer hardware hadn’t severely limited the complexity of games that could be developed, designers of this era seldom thought beyond the scope of their immediate peers and most didn’t have any co…