Monday, July 23, 2012

Dying by inches

Back when I was in college (way, way back), my friend Andrew had a BBC Micro, one of the earliest desktop computers. It was lodged for long periods in my room, because I happened to have a small colour TV to which it could be linked, and this provided a rather better experience for game playing than its cumbersome monochrome monitor. Hence, I became something of a social nexus, as Andrew and some of our other friends would spend hours hanging out round at my place to play games (or waiting for their turn). 

Despite my disdain for such a non-intellectual activity, I confess I did succumb somewhat to the insidious appeal of these games myself: I was for a while quite badly addicted to Defender... trying to set myself ridiculous, arbitrary targets of 'perfection' - like playing without ever resorting to the 'smart bomb', or trying to rescue all the kidnapped humans (or all but the last one) before returning them to the lunar surface in one go, or seeing how many 'baiters' (the super-fast, super-thin, super-belligerent flying saucers that would start materializing nearby if you took too long to complete a level) one could collect on one's tail before rounding on them to try to blast them all with one frenzied burst of laser fire.
The white spaceship here is about to die, because the baiter is directly above, and about to rain down fire on it

That, however, was only a brief period of weakness; I shook myself  of it after a few months - either because I'd hit a ceiling I couldn't get beyond (a little above 200,000 points, I believe), or because the pain in my right index 'trigger' finger was becoming too worrying; probably a combination of the two. Such adaptations of the plodding, two-dimensional arcade favourites of a couple of years earlier really weren't all that compelling. Defender was the only one that got under my skin; Galaxians diverted me only for a short while, and Pac-Man, Frogger, and Space Invaders(!) didn't entice me at all.

But then... along came a new, very different kind of game, a game called Elite that would soon be universally hailed as a landmark achievement in the world of videogaming. It was an open-ended sci-fi adventure game which combined 3-D space combat with an element of interplanetary trading: you could turn a profit by transporting a range of products between different worlds, and use the cash to upgrade your spaceships and weapons systems. The graphics were necessarily extremely limited, but there was an impressively detailed story scenario around the game, and a vast - seemingly almost infinite - universe to explore: hundreds upon hundreds of galaxies and planets that you could visit to do some buying and selling (although I think the fabled planet of Raxxla, ostensibly the ultimate goal of your explorations, was only a red herring; after a while, you'd just hop from galaxy to galaxy, searching each one's map for Raxxla, and moving straight on to somewhere else if it didn't appear - but, of course, it may not have been on the maps). Andrew and I - sharing a house that year - got deeply sucked into this one: we may well have spent some hundreds of hours playing it, doubtless at some detriment to our studies.

The thing that finally broke my bondage to this game was - oh horrors! - the unwinnable dogfight

Your ship could zap instantly across and between galaxies using some kind of stargate system, but you would emerge into regular space some way away from your destination planet and be obliged to complete the last leg of your journey at a laboriously slow pace. Sometimes, your destination would loom large on your screen as soon as you popped out of hyperspace, but at others, it would be a tiny speck on the horizon and you might have to slog across the intervening void for 10 minutes or so. If you were carrying a cargo of any value, you might be attacked by pirate ships (or, if you were smuggling contraband, you might be attacked by police ships - who were sometimes even more vicious and relentless opponents). And while involved in a space battle with other ships, the planet you were aiming for never got any closer (often, indeed, it got further away, might even disappear from view completely, if you had inadvertently started flying in the wrong direction in the midst of the melee; but even if you continued to fly directly towards the planet, it would never get any closer while combat was in progress). Such attacks, then, could become irritating, downright tedious. Once you'd got your flying skills up to snuff, they were rarely that much of a challenge, but... they could SLOW DOWN your progress towards the goal of docking and trading quite insufferably.

Eventually, I reached a situation in the game where I always emerged from hyperspace with my planet dispiritingly far away. And I always got jumped by pirates almost immediately. Worse, these were particularly canny, skillful, formidable... invincible pirates! They would attack one at a time. They would attack from long distance, approaching at speed and opening fire immediately they came within range, firing with deadly accuracy. You had to spot them the instant they appeared on your radar and take them out with your first shot; and even then, they might inflict some damage on you with their first flurry of fire. It was enormously stressful, working with such unforgiving - non-existent - margins for error. But each time I tried to get past this challenge, I got better and better. Pretty soon I was able to lock on to these incoming attackers at extreme range and to take them out with my very first shot.

But that wasn't good enough. Because another pirate ship would always appear within a few seconds. And another. And another. There seemed to be no end of them. On one occasion, I dispatched well over 200 of them, and yet more of them were coming. That must have taken me a good two or three hours, and there was still no end of the ordeal in sight.

And during this continuous, protracted dogfight, the dratted planet never got any closer! I tried ignoring the attackers, declining to engage them in combat, and just flying directly towards the planet at full speed. No good: the planet did get slightly closer, but my attackers would shoot me to pieces within seconds (if you didn't kill the first one quickly, you soon got a second and a third on your tail, and then you had no chance). I tried maintaining my course towards the planet during combat (a fully pimped-up ship boasted laser cannons top and bottom, left and right, front and rear - so you could roll or tilt yourself to an appropriate shooting angle without changing your forward direction too much). No good: it was apparently a glitch of the programming that no forward progress through space could be registered during a phase of combat.

It was, it seemed, an unwinnable situation: you might suffer through this for hours, or days, and never see off all of your enemies, never be able to make it safely to your destination. The only options appeared to be: give up on this planet and/or this trading mission (I imagine I had something particularly valuable in the cargo hold, though I can't now remember what) and try going somewhere else; or activate the Escape Pod (which saved your life, but wiped out all your progress in the game, all the fancy enhancements you'd laboured so long to purchase for your spaceship). Clearly these would have been admissions of failure, and were quite unacceptable. Instead, I abandoned the game altogether - vexed that it had thrown such a maddeningly impossible challenge at me.

The truly terrible thing about this situation in Elite was how long it took you to die. You could hold on for hours, just losing a little bit of shield strength/hull integrity/energy reserves in every few waves of attacks, your ship's handling gradually becoming more and more sluggish, the declining meters and blinking warning lights on your dashboard display reminding you of your slow decline toward the inevitable. I sometimes felt that, if I'd kept sharp and determined, I could have held on for 10 or 12 hours, for 24 hours, almost indefinitely; perhaps if I'd just driven myself that bit harder, I might have discovered that there was in fact a finite number of pirate ships to defeat and that this planet was reachable after all. The final defeat tended to feel rather like a suicide: you had accepted that you were beaten, you had to give up trying to fight any more. Putting yourself through such stress for two hours or more was acutely draining, both physically and emotionally. But it was the inescapable hopelessness of the situation, the slow and relentless erosion of the will to fight that was so utterly devastating. If it did not reduce me to tears, it must have come pretty damn close; and I recognise that I am still perhaps a little traumatised by this 25 or more years later.

Which extended reflections were prompted by my experience last Thursday. I was trying to check requirements for my new Chinese visa application online, to fill out said application online, and to complete a raft of related e-mailing, including the forwarding of a draft of the 'invitation letter' I needed from a Chinese friend to support the application (I wrote it myself to make sure it included all the required information, but needed to get his approval and signature). 

For this rather important and urgent and stressful work I was using my new mini-laptop, recently purchased in America. I had thought that I had brought a US-UK socket adaptor with me on my travels, but discovered I only had a UK-US one. There used to be umpteen shops around Victoria station (where I happened to be staying) that sold such useful traveller's accessories, but these days there seem to be NONE (well, I did eventually find one, but it had closed early, just to spite me). New computer batteries are feeble things; it takes a while for them to build up their capacity (allegedly; this sounds like bullshit to me - but my new battery was advertised as being good for 6 hours, and was starting to fade badly in less than half that time). My host has no wi-fi connection of his own, but piggybacks off that of the pub downstairs; I suppose one can't really complain about a FREE (and pirated!) service, but it was a very weak beacon, prone to crashing altogether at frequent intervals, and, of course, becoming even less stable as my own computer power faded.

That little batch of important and urgent work - which should, really, have taken me no more than 10 or 15 minutes - took me something over 3 hours. During the last hour of that, the Internet connection was failing every minute or two. Then my computer starting shutting down for lack of power. I managed to fire it up again after a short rest, but again and again it expired in the middle of my attempting to send my final e-mail (the one including the crucial 'invitation letter'). On the last occasion, I'd decided to copy the text of my letter into the body of the e-mail rather than attempting to attach it (an ever-so-slightly but very dangerously longer process). I had completed my explanatory e-mail to my Chinese friend, I had 'copied' the text of the letter from Word; I just had to hit 'paste' and then 'Send'... and the computer died on me, for the fourth and final time. The whole of my Thursday afternoon had been devoted to trying to overcome this unholy alliance of vexations, and they had finally got the better of me.

And it felt exactly like that last time playing Elite.

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