A different kind of tension.
The grotesquerie of the subconscious is not what makes nightmares scary. It’s one’s lack of control in their shaping, the manifestation of private, impossible fears tricking the mind and convincing it that this horrible shadow of existence is a genuine reality. A nightmare isn’t really a nightmare unless its host feels completely powerless as it plays out, a slave to whatever torture his mind conjures before his sleeping eyes.
So I never understand some people’s need to undermine a slasher film or a survival horror game by commenting that “I wouldn’t do that” whenever a character makes an illogical move. The whole idea of nightmarish terror originates in these “I wouldn’t do that” moments, when people open doors that they shouldn’t or run into a dark forest with a masked killer on the loose. Fear is not a logical, measured emotion, and its origin can almost always be traced back to a sense of circumstantial powerlessness. A good, scary moment in any story terrifies precisely because it shouldn’t be happening, but the audience is unable to stop the inevitable.
Really, all fiction is a bit nightmarish when you think about it. It finds its base in reality, but abstracts and simplifies its logic, forcing audience members into a passive role where the story subjects them to its whims. The inevitability of a story is why one experiences a sinking sensation when, say, characters royally fuck up in a film. Even if the title is a personal favorite viewed many times before, and even if the characters find happiness in the end, that moment of feeling powerless against a terrible fictional development can be haunting in its dreamy insidiousness.
At some point during the past ten years, the narrative of video games shifted toward that of a “medium of empowerment.” The reasoning for this spin is entirely understandable: games need a reason to exist beyond sheer entertainment if they have any hope of ever being taken seriously, and the interactive framework is gaming’s most unique, imperative asset. So of course, “gaming needs better PR” reps place a major emphasis on the player’s involvement, on “ludonarratives” and “virtual tourism,” in an attempt to prove that games are the medium of the future because games are stories crafted by All of Us. (The culmination of this trend is those stupid, faux-inspirational promotional videos where industry types yammer about the “endless possibilities” of a game or how “players will be able to be whoever they want to be” over a U2-lite soundtrack. I’m not going to name names, but I assume you’ve been on Kickstarter and know the sort of thing I’m talking about.)
This evaluation is often spot-on, because video games’ interactivity can help people find a strength they lack in reality, and there’s certainly value in making people feel included and important. But conversely, there’s a fine line between “empowerment” and “entitlement.” The “player is king” sentiment is a bit trite when taken to its extreme, and non-sandbox games that aim for player empowerment over the designer’s vision often sacrifice the drama and tension found outside the player’s control. Any veteran gamer understands that sometimes, the most memorable and emotionally resonant moments in a game are the ones where everything goes to hell, and the player can’t do anything about it. Running out of ammo during a boss fight, forgetting to purchase a crucial item until after it’s too late, getting knocked back to last place by a projectile in Mario Kart. These moments define the gaming experience as much as any moral “Player Choice,” because seemingly arbitrary events outside of man’s control are excellent tools for drama. They’re frustrating and unfair, but so is a huge percentage of what every person experiences in his day-to-day life, and that’s why they render video games something more than just ego-driven fellatio for the player. Video games, like all fictions, sometimes need to feel like nightmares.
The first wave of arcade games were certainly nightmares by design: these games could only end in death and loss. It wasn’t a matter of if the game would turn on the player, but when. That Atari designer Dave Theurer based his radical shooter Tempest on a particularly frightening dream — one where unstoppable monsters erupted from a hole in the ground — is unsurprising. Of all the old arcade staples, Tempest is the one that comes closest to translating its inherent tenseness and frustration-baiting gameplay into full-on fear. Its unusual vector graphics’ rudimentary evocation of 3-D helps the game take on a new level of intensity. It’s one thing to watch the Space Invaders (the game Tempest originally hoped to emulate in a first-person perspective) slowly crawl ever closer to the bottom of an X-Y axis. Witnessing Tempest‘s many monsters appear to genuinely zoom closer to the screen conjures a real, measurable sense of danger. When the game reaches a fever pitch in its more challenging levels, it’s easy to feel genuinely nervous as the opposing forces mount.
As the product of computer programming limitations, video games began with an inherent handicap other visual mediums handled from their inceptions. While, say, film and hand-drawn animation could immediately capture or emulate a depth of field, games first existed in the realm of what the computers could reasonably handle. At first, that limited the world of games to two dimensions, tops. So while the early side-scrollers and top-down adventures created a simple but surprisingly deep language of their own (one still being evoked and perfected to this day), they were also decidedly unreal in design, a near-complete abstraction from the realm of the tactile. (This had to be part of the reason early character-based games like Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. based their worlds in hyperactive surrealism.) While I’ve never fired at cartwheeling spider-claws down a day-glo space tunnel before, Tempest‘s shift in perspective creates something close to a palpable reality. While its graphical aesthetic is as stylized as that of its non-vector-based contemporaries, its depth of field creates a physicality that trumps its visual oddities.
Tempest is an effortlessly cool game. It’s the sort of giddy retro-futurism so ecstatic about its own technological potential that it still feels fresh and forward-thinking to this day. Its vaguely shaped enemies and blacklit playfields are not personable or charming, but they are sleek and effectively convey an alien remoteness. Tempest is not about motivation, even to the level that Asteroids or Theurer’s earlier arcade game, Missile Command, evoke a recognizable hint of story. It is a pure game, its “pieces” as representative of spaceships and monsters as a chess pawn is of a soldier. Yet through its stripped-down nature, its eccentricities emerge and elevate it above the common arcade shooter. The player avatar’s skittering movement across each course’s segmented tracks focuses the player’s visual attention and honed reflexes, its sensitive controls (the arcade game used a nob-like “spinner”) hinting that one’s ship should be in constant motion. And constant motion grants Tempest its singular intensity: enemies dart between lanes, stalk the player, fire several shots at once. It should play like a total mess, but there’s a rhythm and logic behind the insanity. Still, Theurer designed Tempest to overwhelm and assault the senses, and its steep learning curve makes its rewards all the sweeter. Every level ends with the player zooming through the cleared tunnel, avoiding enemies’ abandoned spikes while gliding to the next challenge. It’s a simple animation, but like all good feedback, still exciting and fun on the hundredth go-round. After a fierce round of beating back Tempest‘s wiry monsters, it still feels like an accomplishment.
One of Tempest‘s greatest innovations was the inclusion of a level select screen; players continuing on their next quarter could re-start at any level they’d already cleared. And here’s where the story of Tempest gets interesting. Yes, it’s a tense, rough-and-tumble, classic arcade shooter, uncompromising in its quarter-gobbling difficulty. But by providing the player with various skill levels and starting points, Tempest also provides him with a customizable, personal experience. The game also yields to player control with the “super zapper” ability, a Hail Mary pass of a move that destroys all enemies on the screen the first time the player invokes it. (It’s available twice per level, but the second use is significantly less powerful.) The super zapper adds a touch of strategy to what’s largely a reflex-based shooter, and “strategy” is perhaps the highest form of player contribution. It’s touches like these that make the designer/player relationship so vital to video games: The designer must know the optimal moments to relinquish power that don’t interfere with the tone or message of the game. It’s what separates a video game that feels authored (and despite its terse abstraction, Tempest‘s design choices are undeniably Theurer’s) from games that feel like they undeservedly pat the player on the back. Maybe the best games feel like nightmares, but that doesn’t mean they can’t occasionally be lucid ones.
Like on Facebook for future updates.