The Perfect Game

April 8, 2011

A small number of weeks ago, the delectable Sheffield student paper Forge Press put together a feature on The Perfect Game, in which myself and several other chin-strokers pitched their ideal isometric find-the-object-in-space sims and the like. Only went and undermined the whole affair, like a bastard. You’ll see.

What kind of unambitious, slick-haired, dead-eyed necro-human wants a perfect game? I mean, sure, I’ve played a few. They were okay.

Pong is a perfect game. The glaring, elemental brilliance of white against black. Two oblong poles, a circle, and the nothingness of implied eternity stretching off-screen to the horizon on either side.

The event itself: the essence of competition. Victory or loss is an on/off switch, like an arm wrestle; everything hangs in the balance, with everything to play for, right up until the point somebody is a winner, that second’s Charlie Sheen, and somebody else is a loser, momentarily lost to despair. No hit points, no handicaps, only wit and dexterity.

Perfect. Minimalist. Refined. The Renaissance garden of games. Boring. In essence, about competition, the struggle with your fellow man encapsulated. In reality, about camping in the corner of the screen, yawning, waiting for your opponent to get so sick of boredom that they’ll stop doing the same.

System Shock is an imperfect game. Some would say messy, unplayable. Certainly ugly by today’s standards.  A man awakes from stasis in a spaceship, which has gone to pot. He shoots horrific, 2D ex-people in the head, spends hours retracing his steps across flat, pixelated levels, laboriously picking up objects and placing them in his inventory with the mouse. He is taunted near-constantly by an AI antagonist.

This one time in System Shock, I found a secret weapons cache, or hidden electro-drawer, or whatever. In it was a program of some kind, which I booted up in my character’s future head-computer.

It was Pong.

I gasped, in awed by the idea. A game within a game, like Chinese boxes one inside the other, in 1994. I sat in-game, amongst the bodies, the blood and the 2D ex-people, and played Pong. I probably camped in the corner of the screen, waiting for my opponent to move. And then do you know what I did?

I got bored, and carried on playing System Shock. Because System Shock is huge, ambitious, beautiful, funny, one of the greats. Its flaws are drawn in starker contrast every year we move further away from 1994, but it continues to outlive them.

And Pong is just fucking Pong.

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