Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Undergrad Gaming

It’s an idyllic winter’s night in a gaming household. I’m sitting at my grandfather’s desk with a mug of hot tea and a jar of peanuts, killing time – that is to say, doing research – with a series of minimalist Japanese point-and-click browser adventures (“The plane broke down. Escape from uninhabited island”) while from the next room comes that sweetest of holiday sounds: the crunchy shatter of virtual targets, the BLING of points being racked up, the occasional exultations of victory, the more frequent curses of defeat.

I’d underestimated Link’s Crossbow Training, and the futuristic Wii Zapper gun-conversion doohickey it’s bundled with, in the first assessment. To even a medium/soft-core gamer, it’s a pretty slight experience: ten three-stage levels’ worth of shooting galleries, each stage clocking out at sixty seconds, with the Zapper as cute but inessential novelty. I played it with my nongamer fiancée, burning through the whole thing in less than two hours, and when we sort of shrugged and put the Wii away I figured that was that.

The next afternoon she pokes her head into my office, a strange glint in her eye. “You know what I think would really reduce some stress?” she asks, rhetorically. “Shooting some goblins.” She mimes cradling the Zapper, and I recognize the glint: she’s got The Fever. Link’s Crossbow Training may be slight and light, but that’s what you look for in a gateway drug.

The meh reviews the package received illustrate a problem with absolute numerical game ratings; comparing the LCT/Zapper combo to a fully realized game is like comparing “Essential Japanese for Travelers” to The Tale of Genji. More than just a trivially diverting virtual popgun experience, Link’s Crossbow Training is nothing less than a grammar of videogames.

Gamers seldom consider the mass of convention and idiom that supports modern gameplay – we don’t have to consider it, because it’s second nature. We don’t have to puzzle out how an onscreen radar works, for example; we don’t have to relearn each time the fundamentals of moving through virtual space, let alone relearn the trick of perceiving the onscreen image as space. But for complete newcomers – they’re rare, but they’re out there – these fundamentals of the medium are baffling as hell, rapid-fire babble in an unfamiliar language. LCT offers a way for these poor souls to at least get up to the level of “Hello, my name is…” and “Where is the train station?”

Gaming 101 is simple target shooting, the first stage of each level. Point the aimer, pull the trigger. Concepts introduced: what an aimer is; what a trigger is; basic menu navigation; scoring and score multipliers; target evaluation and selection. Importantly, the shooting-gallery stages introduce that most basic of videogame drug-rushes: beating your own high score, knowing you can do even better, and being offered the chance to try.

Gaming 140, comprising the “Defender” levels, builds on that. These stages are basically rail shooters; Link’s position is fixed but the player can and must look around the game space to find targets. Here, benign bullseyes are replaced with fearsome enemies. They’re all one and the same to us stone-cold virtual killaz, but for an absolute newbie that first experience of a skeleton coming right at you while a warning klaxon blares can be terrifying. Concepts introduced: looking around; awareness of offscreen game elements; basic radar use; sangfroid in the face of marauding undead.

At the 200 level, the “Ranger” stages take the student through their first full-on FPS experience, giving them control over Link’s movement through the space. Here are introduced the final concepts needed for basic interaction with the modern games medium: perception of three dimensions in virtual space; use of a control stick in moving a character through that space; basic gunfight tactics; advanced radar use; exploration of the environment. Upon completion of the course, advanced students may attempt their first-ever Boss fight for extra credit.

Thanks to Link’s Crossbow Training and the Zapper doohickey – technically unnecessary, the physicality of clutching a gun can’t be overestimated as a teaching aid – I’ve watched my girl go, in a few short hours, from “What? What the fuck? I don’t get it!” to happily striving for Gold and Platinum rankings and trading high-scoring tips over morning coffee, from flailing miserably to navigating the game’s combat courses with a confidence and precision that’d get her though Halo multiplayer without embarrassment. I’m really quite proud.

Of course, like any good school, LCT offers students plenty of opportunity to experience – and learn to cope with -- those intangible challenges of the gaming experience that can’t be taught in a classroom: the remorse over blowing hours of time chasing meaningless medals, the clammy feeling of gamesweat, the first twinges of carpal tunnel syndrome, the perceptual vertigo of returning to the real world.

I just pray she doesn’t get The Dreams.

No comments: