Random Ruminations

It seems to be part of my nature to reflect on all my experiences--even the hobby experiences many people consider trivial. And I reflect best when I'm typing. So, here are some of my thoughts on games and gaming. Enjoy them if you can, comment if you like.
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Old-School Games

United States
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"‘Well, at any rate, the Dormouse said—’ the Hatter went on, looking anxiously round to see if he would deny it too: but the Dormouse denied nothing, being fast asleep. ‘After that,’ continued the Hatter, ‘I cut some more bread-and-butter—’"
"‘But what did the Dormouse say?’ one of the jury asked. ‘That I can’t remember,’ said the Hatter."
Microbadge: 2022 RPG Geek Play-by-Forum Initiative participantMicrobadge: Solitaire WargamerMicrobadge: Live and let liveMicrobadge: Civilization V fanMicrobadge: I completed the 2022 VGG challenge: played 25 video games or played for 250 hours
By now, VGGeeks who recognize my name or avatar probably associate me with Master of Orion. I've been playing and writing about that game for years. Now I've rediscovered another old favorite, Warlords II Deluxe.

It's odd to me that I'd be playing these games so much, because when they were new (in the 1990s) I complained about them all the time. To me, the sights and sounds were very primitive or juvenile-looking compared to the board games I'd been playing for a couple decades. I wished someone would take time to remake the games and polish them up so they'd be impressive instead of embarrassing.

Same with other good old games--e.g., the Gold Box games and The Ancient Art of War. They looked hokey and didn't sound very good either. Yet they functioned well and proved to be excellent as far as pure "gameplay" went.

Around that time, home computers could still be a pain in the neck. I'd buy a game, and it wouldn't run. I might have to replace my sound card, or I might need a patch for the drivers--and I'd have to order that and wait for it to come on a disk in the mail. Memory was scarce, so designers were experimenting with "extended memory" and "expanded memory" tricks. Meanwhile, technology was advancing so rapidly that even casual users like us ended up replacing our system every few years. Big floppy disks got smaller and then switched to CDs, and it got to where my old games seemed unplayable. It would've been too big a hassle for me to run them.

And to me, they weren't worth that hassle. They were all too old-fashioned. They looked old and sounded old. Newer games were much more appealing. Never mind that I had enjoyed playing those old games so much. Because as I said, I complained about them the whole time, wishing they looked and sounded better.

Well, fast-forward to today. Game distributors like GOG make the old games very easy to legally install and play. The games are cheap, too. Sometimes they're practically free. And they run on most anything--on the netbook computer I used to use, or on the run-of-the-mill laptop I use now.

The only problem is that I've been spoiled by interface innovations. It can be quite an adjustment getting used to those old games again. I keep wondering why I have to use a menu or keyboard control when a simple right-click works in every other similar game. It seems weird that the screen doesn't scroll automatically when I move the pointer to the edge. And why is there a special button just to deselect a unit?

Another favorite old-school game is Silent Service II, and it doesn't even support a mouse; it's keyboard only.

When I bought Master of Orion from GOG, the original MOO came packaged with MOO2. I was looking forward to playing the latter, because I'd passed it up back in its day. (It came along between our computer upgrades or something.) I'd heard it was great, and I could easily believe it'd be a big improvement over the original MOO. After all, that's the one I used to complain about all the time. But after playing a lot of both games, I decided I was happier with MOO1. It's simpler and more streamlined in some ways, and I find it just as challenging and interesting. MOO2 is very good, but it has a lot of features I don't want to bother with--all those buildings, the leaders, and (worst of all) the detailed tactical combat.

As to looks and sound, I suppose MOO2 is a little better, but it's not that much better. And to me, those are superficial matters anyway. They're nice-to-haves, and as I said, I used to complain about them when they seemed chintzy, but they're still superficial and much less important to me than "gameplay."

Since then, my eyes and ears have been treated to a number of newer space-opera strategy games, including Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, Stellaris, AI War, Sword of the Stars, Master of Orion - Conquer the Stars, and Endless Space: Disharmony. And the aesthetic side of me is truly impressed. Some of these games are just what I wish MOO had been back in the 1990s--audiovisually, that is. So, why have I uninstalled all those games and kept MOO installed and ready to play?

To put it simply, MOO is a game I want to play--a game I do play frequently. It looks and sounds as cheesy as ever, but the experience of playing it is almost perfectly satisfying to me. And I can't honestly say that about any of the other games I named above.

In my experience, PC-strategy-game design hasn't evolved that much (if at all) since the 1990s. For all the improvements in looks and sound and user interface, the games are no more interesting or challenging than before. There are often more features, but they're rarely features I care about. There are usually more story elements, but I'm not looking for a story when I play a strategy game (instead, my experience as a player always comprises my story, even if it's all taking place in my imagination).

I read a few comments on Warlords the other day. Old-timers raved about the game, but some admitted it was mostly nostalgia. One or two younger players, new to the game, gave it a thumbs-up. But most who were new to it asked why anyone would choose to play it when they could be playing newer, better, games instead--games like Heroes of Might and Magic or Age of Wonders or Endless Legend. I felt obliged to reply to that, and what I said was that there's an elegant simplicity in the older game that is missing from all the newer ones. Newer games are usually more complex, but playing them isn't necessarily any more interesting or enjoyable.

Of course it's a matter of taste. I grew up with board games and had to transition into PC games, so the more "boardgamey" a video game is, the more comfortable I'll likely be with it. Once a game starts to look like a movie--with real-time 3D effects and all--I begin to get disoriented. It's a lot of work for me to learn to use camera controls in a game, and 3D graphics always take extra time for me to get used to. So I'm happier with the old-fashioned 2D, top-down perspective. To me, that's what looks natural in a game. Maybe not cool and exciting, but at least pleasing to take in and comprehend.

Whatever others may look for in video games, the main thing I continue to look for is what always delighted me about board wargames and other strategy games before the PC came on the scene in the 1980s. There was no sound at all, so any music or sound effects are just bonuses to me; I can take them or leave them. Visually, I always appreciated a nice-looking mapboard and attractive, functional game pieces, but I had no objection to the early Avalon Hill wargames with their simple maps and their pink and blue unit-counters. What I mainly wanted was for the game to be absorbing--so fascinating that I'd lose myself in the experience of playing it. If it was a wargame, I'd be imagining the battle or campaign being re-created. And if it was sufficiently challenging and interesting--as it almost always was--I'd also be busy working out good combinations of moves to make. In short, I'd be engaged in a dynamic, interactive learning process.

I also value complexity--up to a point. I love the way Warlords II Deluxe--and wargames in general--have a lot more squares on the board and a lot more game pieces than chess or checkers, for example. Some classic games, including chess and checkers, are so deep that they don't need to be any more complex than they are. But that kind of depth is mainly for people gifted with more brain power than I have, or for people who just like that kind of thinking ahead. I'm more interested in just pushing pieces around on the map and watching what happens. So for me, a big map and lots of pieces helps, as do random maps or multiple scenarios.

However, I do want enough depth to make it seem to me like a game I can play all my life. That is, I want it to be interesting and challenging no matter how many times I play it or how good I get at it. The idea of playing a game once through and being finished with it is almost abhorrent to me. What a waste of time. I play so I can learn, and I want to apply what I learned the next time I play. If a game is ever finished once and for all, that learning process ends, and I'm left high and dry. That's why I generally dislike puzzles: once I've solved one, I'm done, and I have to go look for another puzzle. One of the main things I like about good strategy games is that I'm never done with them. They always afford more challenges and offer something more to learn.

In many games, it seems to me there's extra complexity for its own sake. It doesn't add anything I wouldn't have been happy to do without. For example, if we compare Warlords to Heroes of Might and Magic, one extra feature the latter has is tactical combat. When battle begins, a battlefield screen appears, and the player controls individual units as they move and fight. That's cool, and it's the same in Age of Wonders and even Master of Orion. But it's basically another game entirely--a minigame within the main game. If I like both games, I might be happy to have gotten two for the price of one. But it's time-consuming to play out the tactical battles, and it distracts one's attention from the main war every time. For me, sometimes the change of scene is welcome, other times it's not. Often I'd prefer to just play the main game, so I autoresolve or skip tactical combat. In any case, where tactical combat is not even an option--as in Warlords and Dominions--I'm just fine with that. I simply focus on what's there, and in a well-designed game that's plenty to think about.

Worse for me than adding in tactical combat (or adding a strategic dimension to a game that's basically tactical, like Jagged Alliance) is complicating the game with elements from some other kind of game. Even Warlords has some RPG elements--heroes using items and leveling up, units gaining experience, quests, etc.--but it's all very simple and mostly automatic. The designers seemed to know that players would be approaching the game more or less like chess and wouldn't be expecting a fleshed-out story. But in newer games of this type, such as Age of Wonders III, players are invited to customize the looks and abilities of leaders, engage in face-to-face negotiations with AI players, custom-develop cities, cast global spells, and so forth. All of which can enhance the role-playing experience. Yet it's not a role-playing game; it's a strategy wargame. Taking care of all those extra complexities may be fun for players who like role-playing, but to me they're fussier and more time-consuming than they're worth.

Sometimes, though, I do find added complexity welcome. For example, I like Dominions a lot. It's old enough that it might be called old-school, but the latest version was released in 2017. New nations have been added over the years, along with new victory conditions (thrones), new unit types, new map features, and many new spells and items and such. Yet it all hangs together nicely. The additions are all in keeping with the basic design, so the details never threaten to overwhelm the structure of the game. The player still has no direct control over tactical combat, for instance, and there are still just a few basic buildings--labs, temples, and forts. The added complexity is like a grab-bag of goodies one can choose from, giving each play-through a distinct flavor. The underlying game remains the same, and there are no incongruous elements from other kinds of games thrown in.

Or maybe Dominions (and its sister game Conquest of Elysium) just seem old-school because of their looks. They're indie games, and I think they look and sound pretty good, but I'd guess that a lot more work went into the guts of the game than into the audiovisual aspects. Combat is now played out in real-time, and there's some camera control, but it's still the same turn-based strategy game it always was. And there's a 2D overhead view (except in combat replays). All of that is disappointing to some, but it's familiar and perfectly acceptable to me.

Actually, the simpler the graphics are, the more room I feel there is to exercise my imagination. By that I don't mean I mentally paint in all the detail that's missing and produce realistic images in my head. I just mean there's not nearly as much to notice, so I don't bother looking for it. Instead, I mentally put myself more into the game, vaguely fantasizing about the places and scenery indicated on the map. No story is being explicitly told or shown, and yet I feel I'm living a story of sorts as I play. Wherever details are left out of the art or narrative, lots of possibilities are present there. And my mind lightly and happily dances around those possibilities, as I'm free to picture whatever I want to. To put it another way, since I'm not being told a story, I'm at liberty to write one. In my mind, I'm always dreaming up a "vaporware" version of a story, loosely guided by events that transpire as I play the game. By the time the game ends, I have a completed story, albeit just a sketch of one.

I don't suppose there's anything at all wrong with new-school games. Almost all of them look and sound better than the old ones (except maybe to those with a nostalgic fondness for early pixel art), and modern interfaces are almost always nicer to work with. So if "gameplay" is also good, I have no objection to a game being new. I only start to complain if the audiovisual effects or narration overwhelm the game's basic structure or dress it up as some other type of game than what it really is.

I do find, though, that I can still be quite content with the best of the old-school games, once I readjust to them. They're simply great games to play. That said, however, I still complain about their looks, their sound, and their clunky interface. Guess complainers like me are bound to complain.
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