Tag Archives: video games

Surviving Survival Games in a Pandemic

There is a very real sense in which I feel that my geeky teenage years, chatting on MSN Messenger, playing video games, and generally being content with my own company, have prepared me well for the days we find ourselves in. The COVID-19 pandemic has had us all stuck inside and glued to our computers like we’ve only just discovered the internet. My IT helpdesk work has been primarily conducted via Microsoft Teams chats replete with cat GIFs. We’re avoiding each other on the streets, much like my introvert self has always done instinctively. And as Australia opens up its economy in the eye of the cyclone, I’m still plodding along with minimal social contact and an odd sense of déjà vu.

What games do you play in a pandemic? Somehow the family board-games-via-Zoom nights avoided the Pandemic board game, though the instinct for survival did not fall entirely by the wayside. My brothers-in-law and I jumped into two very different co-op survival video games: Green Hell and Scrap Mechanic.

The first of these, Green Hell, is absolutely gorgeous and really quite brutal. Our first few sessions after being dropped into the Amazon without a hope or a clue brought intoxicatingly hard won gains, only to be brought low by an attack that destroyed literally everything we had built. So we turned off said attacks and started again, using “totally valid” and “not cheating” settings to balance our psyches against the ongoing challenge of staying alive in the face of thirst, hunger, disease, and animal attacks. This somehow broke the game, though we didn’t realise for a while: after a couple of in-game weeks without rain we figured things were not right. However, by that point, we had also broken through an invisible barrier that exists in Green Hell‘s co-op survival mode between the gameplay phase when you think it’s an open world, and the gameplay phase when you think it’s a linear game. The further east you go, the fewer options you have and the more the world directs you along a single path. You stop exploring and start speed-running; you stop treating your hunger and thirst as something to address and start treating them as something to race. And when you finally reach the end of that path… it loops back on itself. The tantalisingly narrow way leads back to the open valleys. There is no end. No resolution to the struggles. The brutality of this realisation and its effect on our hopes turned out to be the game’s insurmountable challenge.

We have had much more fun playing Scrap Mechanic. We became reasonably adept farmers early on, yet always struggled to fight back the hordes of angry robots each night. We enjoyed both the ridiculousness of the vehicles we built and the challenge of making them work. I honestly don’t know if Scrap Mechanic has an ending to its survival co-op mode, and I don’t care. This game provides a different kind of enjoyment that I found more readily accessible, especially now. It’s not just that it’s a more humorous take on the survival genre, nor that it’s necessarily easier – less punishing, perhaps, but far more technical. I think there’s just more joy to be found in the construction of the slightly absurd than the barely functional. Or perhaps there’s more hope for success when building with wood blocks rather than bare sticks. Or perhaps the brighter colour and sound palettes provoke optimism. Or perhaps all of these combined allow mortality to be a less imminent threat, and one whose sting is only the inconvenient rebirth of the video game rather than a worm-riddled and lonely end under the leaves of an Unknown Fruit tree.

My neighbour just coughed, and I am an antelope at a pond that has just heard a cheetah in the grass. Simulated death can be too real when death is all around. Absurdism, humour, and escape can help us process the risks of our time more gently. While realism and caution help save lives during a pandemic, time away from the news and immersed in a world where gravitational glitches can send cars flying miles into the sky only to land on your head can also be strangely healing.

Retro Adventures

I recently stumbled over an online community dedicated to the Microbee, an Australian computer made in the 1980s, called the Microbee Software Preservation Project. This made me very excited. My Dad owned a Microbee when I was little, so it’s one of the first computers I remember (though by the time we could play games he also had a 286 PC which saw more gaming use). We had a version with a hard drive, but some of the more basic versions would run solely off floppy drives or cassette tapes. Our Microbee didn’t survive one of my family’s relocations (I think it had stopped booting), which is a great shame because it was a pretty fun little thing, in its way.

I remember a couple of games. There was a brick, ball and paddle game, which was fairly challenging because the computer would only respond to your key presses pretty slowly. The game I spent most time on was called Jeskil’s Revenge, a text adventure written in MicroWorld Basic by John Maling in 1985 (according to the source code). I played this a lot after I claimed the Microbee as my own in my early teenage years, and I always got stuck. I even printed out a copy of the source code to try to find my way through like a 1337 h4x0r, though from memory it didn’t help.

There are several Microbee emulators developed now, one of which is online: NanoWasp. This has Jeskil’s Revenge as one of the ‘tapes’ you can load and play. So I played it for the first time in about 20 years. Having recently played Colossal Cave Adventure (sometimes just called Adventure or ADVENT) on one of my Raspberry Pis, it was interesting to compare the two. Jeskil’s Revenge tells you which commands you can use up front. The world feels smaller (though I seem to remember getting lost in it well enough), though a little more descriptive; Adventure has some moments where the descriptions shine, but many of its descriptions seemed more functional. Or perhaps I’m just less skilled at imagining underground spaces than windswept cliffs. Jeskil’s Revenge is also time-limited somehow (I’ve never hit the limit though). Oh, and it pretty much never gets the ‘your’/’you’re’ distinction right. Perhaps it’s an example of grammar being sacrificed to save memory? Not sure. Anyhow, I’ve played it through to the point where I’m pretty sure I’ll need to use pen and paper to map the maze (if it’s even a maze); I’ll have to do that when I have free time again. Also, I’d love to port the game to a modern platform to bring it to the masses, but that’s definitely a post-thesis project.

Another fantastic thing is that the Microbee brand has been resurrected. The folks at Microbee Technology have got things going again and have produced some Microbee kit computers that are compatible with the old machines (though they’re sold out at the moment, and have been for a while if forum posts are any indication). Pretty excellent. I’ve been looking a bit lately at game preservation and thinking about preserving Australian video game music somehow; it’s interesting and potentially really useful that there’s an option that slots between using old hardware and using an emulator for the Microbee platform. I think I might get one of the kits someday, learn to solder, learn to code, and go to town.

HOWTO: PhD Procrastination through Computer Hardware

One of the greatest distractions available when studying a computer-based medium is the computer. And the computer is made up of parts. These parts are cool and totally have thesis-based functions. Here’s how to devote as much of your PhD-writing time to them as possible.



I should have got one of these ages ago. A controller (like this XBOX 360 Controller for Windows) can close the gap between console and PC gaming for ease of use, if you think controllers are easier to use than a mouse and keyboard. They’re not, but whatever. For certain edge cases they’re invaluable: games made with controllers in mind, driving games, and games that have been half-heartedly ported from consoles (this is one of the reasons I only started playing Dark Souls recently). If you don’t have a controller, get one, and then re-play all those games that felt clumsy with a mouse and keyboard.

Procrastiation gain: 2+ weeks.



The former go-to input device for computer gaming, the joystick is now more of a specialist device for simulations involving movement of a plane or a spaceship. But as anyone who’s ever tried to land a biplane on a grass runway using a keyboard will tell you, the joystick is still really good at what it does. If you don’t have a joystick, get one, load up a flight sim, and feel like a pro instantly.

Ludomusicology trivia: the book Music in Video Games: Studying Play features a joystick on its cover. Its usefulness to the pictured conductor is doubtful, however, given that the joystick is around the wrong way. I question whether the person who photoshopped the joystick onto the standard book series image has ever played a game.

Procrastination gain: 10 minutes per painfully slow runway approach, up to your boredom threshold. Multiply by 100+ if you own a VR headset and play Elite: Dangerous, because that is without a doubt the most amazing thing out there.


Mechanical keyboard

Making words flow from your hands is pretty cool, so why not do it noisily? Mechanical keyboards are currently hot stuff among computer gamers and typists alike because they feel better, they’re faster, they sometimes let you hold down more keys at once, and there are plenty of configuration options to suit your preferences. Mine has RGB backlighting with various effects; the “rain” effect set to bright green is currently taking me back to when I was 15 and The Matrix was the most awesome thing anybody had ever seen. I’ve also added o-rings to the back of each key to add some refinement to the clackity-clack.

Productivity gain: A few words per minute.

Procrastination gain: Several weeks research, plus extra time waiting for your perfect configuration to be back in stock, plus extra time for modding it when it’s not quite perfect after all.



Headphones help you hear things. Mine are old and plastic-squeaky, so moving my jaw/chewing food/speaking to team mates in-game while playing is very loud. Needless to say this is not exactly the kind of thing headphones are supposed to help you hear. However, if you keep your jaw really still you can hear a few things that don’t come through the speakers well, or that would otherwise be muffled by city noise, and you can more clearly observe stereo effects.

Productivity gain: Bonus analytical accuracy.

Procrastination gain: Gosh darn, better play that game again with headphones in case I missed something.


The guts

Computers are complex machines that are made up of building blocks that fit together in standardised ways. Like Lego for nerds. They reward endless amounts of tinkering with either significant additions of functionality, slight performance improvements, or crippling system instability. Which of those you get is pretty much down to the luck of the draw.

Until recently I was running an extra video card in order to do more BOINC science tasks. I also run a nice sound card, and I’ve set up the fans to run extra cool and extra quiet so I can hear said sound card’s beautiful work. But I’ve recently stopped overclocking because it was causing random instabilities. I can’t honestly say I’ve noticed the performance drop, but my nerd cred hurts.

Procrastination gain: 1 hour per part installation or upgrade, plus 6 hours troubleshooting per part installation or upgrade. Also add 1 week per overclocking episode.


Portable computer

For when the computers at uni are also used by undergrads. A great thing to take with you to cafes, libraries and holidays so you can maintain the self-impression of productivity while chilling out. Basically the same as a desktop computer but less tinker-able. However, keen players can install an additional OS or three for multiplicative software maintenance requirements. Also, due to lower hardware resource overheads there’s often more incentive to spend time “optimising” how it runs.

Procrastination gain: An hour a month per OS for software updates. Several hours over the length of the PhD trying to connect to various WiFi networks (I’m looking at you Eduroam).


Printer/scanner/multifunction device

Invaluable for printing articles and for communicating with university departments that haven’t yet digitised any of their paperwork. A mainstay of any home office, the multifunction device (literally: the thing that does all of the things) can also help budding academics to do all of the things. Keen observers will note that I am employing a Hart Industries Make-a-Multifunction Adapter Kit (literally: three pieces of wood and some screws) to minimise device footprint while maintaining full functionality.

Productivity gain: Lets you print and scan things, so you don’t have to trek to a library just to renew society memberships.

Procrastination gain: Kit construction ~1/2 day. Maintenance and upkeep: a few hours whenever you can least spare them (see also Office Space, Mike Judge, 1999).


Raspberry Pi

For when your thesis doesn’t contain enough Linux. Useful for nearly any task, but often less useful for any of those tasks than a device created specifically for that task. But look at them, they’re such cute little computers! And a high cable/LED/footprint ratio, so they look like serious business. I have an RPi model B that runs as a print server and a VPN server, and an RPi 2 than does automated backups of my thesis every hour or so. Both also run BOINC science tasks (very slowly, but they’re always on so at least they’re doing something).

Procrastination gain: If you already know how to Linux, 2+ hours every time you think of something else you can make them do. If you don’t know how to Linux, this is a procrastination goldmine of indeterminate depth — good luck.


Lo-fi information storage and communication devices

There are three kinds of books: 1. books that tell you stuff, 2. books that tell you stuff that isn’t real, and 3. books where you tell them the stuff. All of these smell better that computers and only require a source of light to be usable (and in case 3, a writing implement). So, in the inevitable event that one of the various proposed apocalypses occurs and worldwide electricity grids go down, you can still complete your PhD on video games the old-school way. Except for the case study chapters. And now with more of a historical than a theoretical flavour. And with a near-crippling suspicion that you’re wasting your life and should probably be out gathering resources (which may or may not be standard anyway).

Productivity gain: Can enable your thesis work to proceed post-apocalypse. At least until you get eaten by a zombie because you were reading and not running — reverts to an interminable state of procrastination at that point

Procrastination gain: You could read a thousand books a day for 100 years and still not get through all the books in the world. Go nuts.






The Difficulties and Delights of Dark Souls

I’ve been getting into Dark Souls lately. I’ve been playing the Prepare to Die Edition of the first one by myself, and have been playing Dark Souls III with my bro-in-law. Both are excellent. Both are huge. Both are really hard.

What initially made me realise the difficulty of these games was actually coming back to Skyrim after playing Bloodborne which, let’s face it, is basically a Dark Souls game. After having difficulty battling mid-range monsters in Bloodborne, returning to Skyrim and accidentally becoming arch-mage of the Mages’ Guild really highlighted the differences between the difficulty gradients. It seems to me sometimes that Skyrim is so easy that it’s basically about collecting sweet loots. But Dark Souls is so hard that it rewards learning, and that’s really not something you can say about a game very often. The game rewards noticing the patterns that enemies take, and is brutal in its punishment when you don’t. And although I get really frustrated with having to re-play so much after dying so often, I do also really appreciate how much Dark Souls makes you work for your progress.

The one thing I don’t particularly enjoy is how far it is (geographically) between bonfires and boss fights. I don’t find it enjoyable having to fight my way back through 5+ minutes of enemies only to encounter certain death, 10+ times in a row. Grinding is one thing, but this isn’t grinding, it’s just walking. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it somewhere, and I deal with it just fine, it’s just not my preference in a game activity.

I find the use of music in Dark Souls interesting. My best guess at the moment (and I think I’m well under half way through) is that music is used a. at the Firelink Shrine, and b. at a place where you can join a covenant (which also includes the Firelink Shrine atm). But I’m far from sold on this theory. The Ash Lake area is one of these — the first in-game area I’d heard music after Firelink Shrine, and such grand music at that — and it’s huge compared to where you meet Quelaag’s Sister. I also like that when you’re entering Ash Lake the music only begins intermittently, when you’re looking directly at one of the shafts of light descending from the “sky”, and then when you’re on the beach the music becomes constant.

Oh! and also, music is used c. in boss fights. I realised this halfway through fighting Executioner Smough, several tens of hours into Dark Souls. After taking out Ornstein you can keep Smough behind a pillar to avoid damage and just take a swing every so often. This takes a while to get through, and I think eventually I calmed down to a point where the link between gameplay tension and musical tension broke. Which made me realise how much music I hadn’t been noticing. And that makes me think that the music for these boss fights must be near perfectly matched to the action. Very cool.

I also noticed that, while fighting Lautrec of Carim, that there’s another layer of ambient sound added in a musical sort of way (i.e. non-diegetic) — a very atmospheric kind of sound. Now, I’m a fellow who likes his single player games quite single-player-y, so I haven’t invaded any other players’ worlds, and I can’t rule out that this sound might just be the “you’re a phantom now” aural cue. I don’t know. But I’ll find out, because I’m planning a thesis chapter on exactly this kind of use of ambient sound.

Also, I really like that these games have such beautiful worlds. For a games with such dark themes they use light, space and colour very well. And grumble grumble falling off things but it is pretty amazing to have such a masterful use of vertical space in 3D video games.

Between the amazing worlds and the amazing challenge these games present, it’s easy to get lost in them. So far, I’m enjoying this a lot more than I thought I would.

Somewhat miraculously, I’ve also been getting a lot of thesis work done lately. The end appears both in sight and achievable, and that’s fantastic. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m liking how it’s coming together, and I’m starting to believe that it might actually be a worthwhile piece of research.

Terminological Technicalities

I recently* asked my facebook friends the following:

1. Do you prefer to use the term ‘video game’, ‘video-game’, ‘videogame’ or ‘computer game’?
2. Do you think it’s an arbitrary choice?

This was inspired by having “video game” corrected to “video-game” in compound forms (such as “video-game music”) during a review process, a correction I found a little odd. While it seems to be a matter of grammar, it did get me thinking about how even the most fundamental terminology can be up for discussion.

My readings of video game theory etc. tend to indicate that there’s no single accepted form. A lengthy treatise on some aspect of video games will sometimes discuss the matter briefly, indicating (more or less) that the author thinks each term has these or those pros and cons but that they prefer the particular term they’ll use because reasons. Karen Collins often refers to “video games audio”, David Myers chooses “computer game”, and both “videogame” and “video game” are well represented in academic discourse and the press. Each has good points and bad points. I prefer “video game” because reasons. Well, because habit really. I know I thought about it for a while when I was writing my honours thesis, but I can’t remember the details of that inner dialogue — I just know it must have happened, because until then I used “computer game”.

Anyway, I asked my friends the question above. As expected, there was a fairly even representation between “video game” and “videogame”, with a slight preference towards “video game”, and a few preferences for “computer game” or “console game”. There was fairly wide consensus that “video-game” wasn’t an option. Two editor friends pointed out that a hyphenated form is sometimes used when a compound modifies a noun, but that since “video game” is an accepted form (a head word in the Macquarie Dictionary, also accepted by the OED) the hyphenated form probably shouldn’t be used. Aside from that, the difference between “video game” and “videogame” did seem to come down to personal preference and/or local conventions, i.e. US or UK or Australian English usage norms.

The more divisive question was whether “video*game” or “computer game” was more accurate. This tended to boil down to technological factors and preferences, but there also emerged a sense that “video*game” was a conventional term that has perhaps outlived its accuracy. My friend Darvids0n made this point:

Video game is what I say, but computer game is what I mean…. Any console, handheld, phone/tablet/phablet or personal computer is now classifiable as a ‘computer’ imo, and definitely not merely a ‘video’ device. Smart TVs are even computers.

My friend Kyle made this point:

computer game – noun – a game utilizing a computer
video game – noun – a computer game with moving images

which agrees with another point made by Darvids0n:

Whack-A-Mole is not a video game but it is a computer game (arcade if you want to be pedantic)

(which makes the assumption, I presume, that the arcade game has some electronic controls behind it – probably a safe assumption for later versions of the game). In favour of using different terms based on the device on which you’re playing, another friend, Toby, said:

I use “video game” when I’m talking about something played on the TV and “computer game” for one on my computer. In any other situation I’d probably just say “game”

while Evan said:

Computer game and console game. This differentiates primarily between keyboard/mouse and controller based input. Video game is too old and non-specific for me – it’s like ‘moving pictures’.

However, Kyle counter-argued in favour of a text-based rather than device-based classification:

Is minecraft a computer game one day and a console game the next depending on how you’re playing it? No. It is a video game, plain and simple.

I see merit in both these arguments — the device on which you play can greatly affect your experience of a game, and yet if you play the same game on different devices you’re likely to get a very similar experience. Personally I think there’s a good case to be made for sticking with a conventional term like “video game” for the medium as a whole, and using more specific terms as required.

Take Osmos (Hemisphere Games, 2009) for example. This game is available on nearly all platforms — Windows, Linux, Mac, iOS and Android — and the player experience is quite similar on each aside from the user input aspect (I think the touch screens of mobile devices work best, but the mouse is just as usable). I’ve played it most on my phone so I kinda think of it as a mobile game. But on my computer it works as a computer game, with near identical visual and sonic experiences. If I were discussing the similarities between the phone and computer experiences, I could differentiate using the terms “mobile game” and “computer game”; likewise if I were discussing the differences in the haptic experiences. But if I’m just talking about Osmos as a text, the term “video game” works perfectly well.

And yet, the term “video game” does seem, in Evan’s words, “too old and non-specific” in a sense. Many computer games use moving images, but I think it’s difficult to argue that the moving images are all that sets them apart from other games (music, anyone?). Two friends called Paul contributed thoughts on this point — Paul 1 believed that the distinctions between the terms discussed were arbitrary because:

We misuse the word ‘game’ in ‘video game’ so much that being finicky about the word ‘video’ seems silly

While Paul 2 preferred the term “videogame” because:

While board games are games played on boards, you can argue that video.*games don’t require videos or games (in the traditional sense). They’re a new form of media so they ought to be given a single-word name.

Regardless of the terminology chosen, video games can differ markedly from other forms of games even to the point where the definition of “game” is a relevant discussion. It’s possible that the terms “digital game” or “electronic game” create a subset of “game” sufficiently different from other game forms and sufficiently encompassing of the diversity found in games on computers, consoles, mobiles and tamagotchis. Some do use these terms, and I have to admit the reasons seem compelling, but not quite compelling enough to overcome convention. It’s nice when people know what you’re talking about immediately, and “ludomusicology” is a term that tends to use up many of the explainings. Or, perhaps we could follow my friend Andy‘s advice:

People should start saying vig for [VI]deo [G]ame. Along the same lines as movie for moving picture. I’ll inform the President of Games about this.

All in all, it was an interesting discussion. And it relates to a number of different discussions I’ve come across through my studies — ludology versus narratology, “semiology” versus “semiotics”, the rise and significance of mobile gaming, etc.  If you have any further thoughts, let me know in the comments or on the socials.


*Because I started writing this post in 2014 it’s probably best to consider this term in the cosmological time scale