Games People Play

Halwaz is talking to Ted Anderson, the main programmer on the original Gu development team, and now senior designer at the console game company Zoomorphic. He is still jowly, now in his mid-forties, and has a little less hair and a little more stomach, but his eyes are the same: light blue and intensely intelligent.

"I've been a gamer since I was just a little kid," he says. "Of course, most people who know me would say that I still am a little kid. Which is one of the things I love about games. You can hold on to that sense of wonder."

"Even in the industry?" asks Halwaz. The viewpoint switches to Anderson's, and you grin.

"Even in the industry. Sure, there are a lot of money-men in suits, the usual marketing idiots who are afraid of anything genuinely different and just want the emperor's new skins on last year's breakout success - which succeeded because it was genuinely different - and there's hard work and bitchiness and disappointment. You know, life." You gesture largely. "But when it comes right down to it, it's all about play. Our games sell because we haven't forgotten that, not because we take out an overproduced six-page ad in GameWeek." He leans forward over his stomach. "I like to think of my job as Vice-President of Keeping it Real. I game all the time, and not just console gaming - I do LARP, tabletop, board games, military miniatures, even card games. It's all good."

"You're going to have to unpack a couple of those terms for me," says Halwaz.

"What better way than by example? Here's LARP - Live Action Role Play."

You are still in Anderson's body, but instead of being seated in an office chair you are outdoors in a field, riding a Gu dinosaur, clothed in Gu armor and wielding a Gu lance. Opposing you is a similarly equipped woman, and your supporters - both Gu constructs and other people armed and armored in Gu - are clashing on the ground around you.

The woman pulls a pistol and fires it at you; your armor spangs and dents, as if hit by a projectile rather than the laser beam which actually struck it. You wrest your steed under control again, couch your lance, and charge at the woman through a sudden gap. Gu troops go down under your mount's claws. An opponent, made into a huge barbarian by Gu muscles on his arms and legs, bellows and strikes at you with a two-handed broadsword. It impacts with a soft thud, but you hear a metallic clang, your Gu rocks you off balance and you almost fall from your dinosaur. A red telltale appears, seen through your goggles, to show you've been wounded. You swing your lance into his head, and he goes down.

"It's like the microparks," says Halwaz.

"Yes and no. It's out in the open, there's no detailed script - it doesn't try to channel you down a particular path - and a lot of it is player versus player. It's been around since long before the microparks. Used to be, you just used foam rubber for your weapons, but Gu works even better. The harder you swing them, the softer they get, and yet they preserve more of the illusion in the way they feel and behave. It's a lot of fun. Good exercise, too. Now, this is tabletop."

A living room with packets of junk food and cans of various beverages strewn round. About half a dozen people are seated on pieces of furniture or the floor. A bearded man is speaking.

"OK, I want to resolve Esther's issue with Damian - I reckon what they just went through should give me enough dice."

"Roll for it, Issue Boy," says a thin blond woman in a T-shirt with an elaborate Celtic dragon on it. They consult pieces of paper.

"I'm going to need six more dice," says the man, "two d4s, a d6, two d8s and the big one."

A fellow player manipulates a personal screen and six dice of various shapes, and hence various numbers of sides, fall out of a block of Gu in the middle of a coffee table. The bearded man scoops them up.

"Let's see - green," he says, touching two of the dice, which obligingly turn green, "blue, red, purple."

"Purple?" asks the woman.

"Purple. You'll see why." He gathers the dice and several more which he already has in front of him and casts them. The players stare at the result, making noises of approval.

"I can't beat that," says the woman. "OK, Damian is willing to listen. What does she say to him?"

"See?" you say, speaking over the memory, as the bearded man begins a speech in character as Esther. "Very abstract, in some ways. Pure imagination, almost, modified and prompted by the game elements. If you can't make something work in tabletop, don't even think about any other medium. But still, you notice, a beneficiary of Gu. You could do the whole thing on computers, of course, including the dice rolls, but people don't want to. They want the tactile pleasure of the dice.

"Board games and military miniatures, much the same. You no longer have to make all the parts out of stiffstuff. Your pawn can actually transform into a queen when it reaches the eighth rank, the board can change as you go through the game and you can have huge numbers of pieces, like in Dungeondelve." Visuals of a game board which reveals new areas of an underground labyrinth as the players' pieces advance, new levels as they descend stairs, and where dozens of different objects and monsters appear in the various rooms. "And you can download it - nobody needs to manufacture anything, which is what held a lot of board game developers back. You needed to be pretty sure your game was going to rock people's socks and that they were going to stay rocked before you sunk the capital into making five hundred or a thousand copies. It's led to a lot of crappy board games, of course, undertested and underthought, but we've seen some marvelous gems from unknown designers who would never have had the opportunity otherwise.

"And military miniatures - a lot of people love making terrain and painting the little figures, and they stick to the old ways, but me? I like that I can say, "Thermopylae" or "The Alamo" and instantly get the full terrain, all the figures in their starting positions, and I'm ready to play. The way they advance by themselves and fall over when they're dead is cool too, of course." The accompanying visual shows an American Civil War cavalry charge up a ridge; the little horses' legs move and some of their riders fall off, shot. "You can do it all with holograms, but again, people like to touch."

"So, with all these options, what is it that your console games give you?" asks Halwaz. You are back in Anderson's office.

"I think the allure of the console games is this: You don't have to go anywhere else, like you do in a LARP or a micropark. You don't have to imagine the visuals, like in tabletop. You're inside the action, and you don't have to fiddle with any rules; the physics isn't simulated by rules, it's simulated by moving and touching things and throwing things and hitting things. You're standing there in your bedroom - probably using the Gu from your bed - and yet you're in Cimmeria, or Middle-Earth, or Fidlanth, or you're on a Special Ops mission, or a pirate ship, or wherever you want to be. And you're interacting with other real people who could be anywhere on earth. It's even good for you, because you're moving around - and we try very hard to make sure that they're not just repetitive movements."

The experience which accompanies his explanation is of Anderson himself moving around in his company's latest release (at the time), Planetary II. The Gu moves under your feet, giving a convincing illusion of walking up a rough slope. You reach the top of the ridge and look out across the plains of an early-20th-century idea of Mars. Canals stripe the desert, and giant greyish creatures are moving across the sands. Suddenly, a four-armed, four-meter green tusked warrior leaps from behind a nearby rock and attacks you with a sword in each upper hand. You wrest your own sword from its scabbard and parry, feeling and hearing the blows land on the blade. You fence, but the greater reach and weight of the enormous creature throws you to the ground (which is soft). As it looms over you, preparing to impale you, a blast from a radium pistol rings out, and it slumps to the sand. The excitement is visceral; you're gasping for breath.

"You can fight, pick things up, walk, run, even swim and fly. It's an intensely kinaesthetic experience. Someday, I believe, we'll see a game, or game platform, that combines the best of all games - the excitement and direct experience of console or LARP, the imaginative scope and ability to deal with real human issues that tabletop excels in, and the strategy and tactics of the board games and military miniatures. My part in that is to make the console experience the best it can be, and keep an eye open for the possibilities for fusion."

You're back in Halwaz's viewpoint; Anderson's eyes are flashing and dancing with enthusiasm. Like Denton, he clearly loves his job with a passion.

"I start to understand why you have a hands-on job despite your seniority, and despite all the money you must have made out of Gu," you say.

He flashes a smile. "Yes, they told me I could take any job I wanted. So I did."

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This entry was posted in console gaming, LARP, microparks, Ted Anderson, Zoomorphic. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Games People Play

  1. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    This is for the guys at Story-Games, truly excellent people whose brainstorm on the concept of Gu gave me lots of good ideas to pursue (including the microparks – thanks, Tony). The tabletop game isn’t any existing story-game. It just has the general flavor.And the fact that “Ted” and “Mr Anderson” are both famous roles of the same actor, and the latter escapes from a pervasive virtual world?Complete coincidence. No, seriously. In fact, throughout most of my draft of this post I was calling him “Ted Andrews”. I only figured out that this wasn’t the character’s established name just before I posted.I’ve made him younger at the time of the Gu launch, by the way, so he’s 45ish now rather than having been 45ish then. It just fits the character concept better.

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