john September 24th, 2008
As an undergraduate and right afterwards I was irresponsible with video games, often playing them all night when I should be sleeping, blinking and looking around in the early morning, bleary-eyed and dazed as if all of the world outside of the computer were something new and alien. On these occasions I’d usually order pizza and call it a night, but it didn’t stop me from the occasional realization that something was seriously wrong: that my eyes were solid red from iris to eyelid, that I had an intense headache, that I’d been hungry for five or six hours but that it hadn’t been enough to prompt me to get up and find something to eat.
The games were mostly built towards a specific end, with a handful of goals laid out and specific techniques left to discover. Then once you knew that on the “survive 30 minutes” map you’d need three or four turrets and at least two barracks constantly training marines, the map held little challenge or even fun. That was the problem with most of the games: there were finite discoveries trailed along a very few pathways where victory was possible. The games were not much like life, which is generally brimming with possibilities (though many of them unrealized); instead they all worked as a Socratic method in service of a dull and often non-transferable lesson.
It was partly the realization that I was giving myself the equivalent of a hangover without having been drinking, and partly the realization that the games were fundamentally flawed, that led to my quitting games for a few years. I uninstalled all of the games from my PC and deliberately did not upgrade it so that I couldn’t play the newest ones. And somewhere along the way they’ve mostly lost their lustre.
The distance has been useful: I’ve rediscovered my love of reading and of music, I’ve adopted and completed various projects, I’ve learned CSS, PHP, and MySQL.
Lately I’ve begun playing games again, but in moderation and only for free. One of the games that I’ve found lately that I like a lot is Fantastic Contraption. It’s a crude physics engine with about two dozen levels and a very simple goal: get the dark pink object (often a ball, sometimes a square or rectangle) into the area marked “goal.”
There are only five possible building elements but any number of ways to reach the goal, and one of the brilliant touches of the game is that the creator lets players save their solutions for others to browse. So one person might bulldoze a wall between the start location and the goal, whereas another might build a slingshot and launch the ball over it.
Some of the contraptions built are crude and ungainly, some are elegant and clever, some are unlikely and hilarious, many give that odd frisson of discovery.
For all the game’s attractions it’s worth saying that the physics on show are far from perfect–the game doesn’t handle tensile strength realistically, nor does it take friction into account nearly enough (especially in regards to large objects rolling up a hill). Still I’m willing to accept those both shortcomings as authorial choice: the graphics are cartoony and stylized, implying that suspension of disbelief should be a given.