Walker Sampson

walker [dot] sampson [at] icloud [dot] com

Category: games

On Doors in Games

It’s been a while since I’ve written about games here. This is a draft post from a few years ago; on rereading I think it’s worthwhile.

Doors in Penumbra: Overture

Some time ago, I started playing Penumbra: Overture, the debut first-person horror-adventure title from Frictional Games. I never finished the game or ever played very far in, but I wanted to comment on a satisfying mechanic seen early in the game: manual manipulation of objects — but particularly hinged, swinging doors.

Yes, I’m going to talk about doors in a video game, but I’m certainly not the first.

A little background on the game. Penumbra: Overture shares the perspective and control scheme of first-person shooters (WASD keys and a mouse), and although one combats enemies, this is not a first-person shooter. Your avatar, one Philip stuck in an abandoned mine, has panic attacks when he confronts enemies: breathing contracts, vision is marred, and Philip may stand and reveal himself in a nervous outbreak. Combat is similarly frantic and amateurish. Outside of doors, a player can manually slide, slam, stack, etc., various objects in the game by clicking and holding them, and then moving them onscreen with the mouse. This leads to some physics-based puzzles and object manipulation, and provides a strong sense of analog mechanics at work in the world.

Doors in First-Person Shooters

Let’s return to the operation of doors in the game. It makes design sense that so few (if any) first-person shooters contain hinged doors opened by degrees with a mouse. If the central activity is gunplay or melee, operating a door is a distraction.

Apart from gameplay, it is computationally much more expedient to implement a simple sliding or pocket door. This door will use the same animation every time, and if the game runs a genuine 3D engine, it may remove the need for on-the-fly numbers crunching. In a pseudo-3D system such as seen in the original Wolfenstein 3D, implementing a hinged door would be absurdly difficult and perhaps technically impossible. Thus the player is confronted with the same door sliding door for the entirety of the game and its sequel, from the opening jailbreak setting to officers’ quarters, secret labs and bunkers. Whatever the fiction of the setting, the door never changes.

Going back to gameplay however, a sliding or pocket door features only two states for the player: open or closed. Instead of the player encountering a panel on hinges which he or she must manipulate by degrees to pass through, the player encounters a flat, essentially 2D barrier (even in the case of more modern titles like Halo) that only needs a single button press (if that) to open. The player passes through such doors completely or not at all. Even when it is opening and visually between open and closed, it is functionally closed; when it is seen to be closing it is still absolutely closed and impassable. Many games that feature hinged doors use a preset animation, or use it as a loading screen (Resident Evil). In all cases, doors are a binary gate.

And this is acceptable. It is of course the point of doors, to let something in or out, or keep it in or out. We didn’t make doors for them to be halfway open, although as it happens many are.

Doors of this type are found in numerous older first-person shooters: Blake Stone, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Rise of the Triad. Even a modern title like the aforementioned Halo, which could easily implement a hinged door, has no need to do so. Esoteric or exotic settings have their clear attractions as game worlds for players, but they arguably have equally if not more compelling attractions for programmers, developers and designers. Automatic, two-state doors are infinitely easier to implement than a board that swings, by degrees, on hinges, and it’s reasonable to expect to find such doors in science fiction or otherwise futuristic settings. By that time superior door-tech  would have eliminated any instances of halfway open doors.

(This of course goes into the long tradition of technical constraints informing a game’s fiction. I have a growing mental catalog, from Mario’s design to the preponderance of bald space marines.)

Immersion and a Hinged Door

So Penumbra: Overture‘s doors can be neither entirely open nor entirely closed. Why is that so interesting?

I’m sure some of my interest has to do with how such creaky, realistically old doors contribute to the atmosphere of the game. But it’s also jarring to see something in a middle state, a state that’s not precisely describable. I could say the door is open just a crack, or mostly open, or even halfway open, but these are not absolutes like open and closed. I can have any number of different views into the next room depending on these highly adjustable degrees, as I try to imagine what is still obscured by the door panel.

It is the mundanity of operating the door, and of noticing the space it occupies, which is so compelling. Taking the time to operate the door feels slightly unreal – I’ve never had to think about opening a door in a game, and I mean really think about moving the hinged board over. Each door is opened differently, depending on my angle to it and the position of my mouse. Having to concentrate on this, however briefly, immerses one into the game unexpectedly, and reifies the world suggested onscreen.

Considering again the automatic sliding and pocket doors of first-person shooters: their prime function is to demarcate rooms and divide the player’s challenges appropriately. They reinforce the gameness of the world in that way, in their ability to be completely in the way or completely out of the way. Penumbra: Overture‘s developers do make use of their doors in gameplay. In some cases one needs to block the door from a pursuer. The tension here is that the door returns to its original binary function: it will either be open for the pursuer or closed, and one can watch as the door, by degrees, is forced open. Frequently however the doors are simply wonderfully described objects that exist in the game, outside of your immediate concerns.

This leads me to wonder what other games have used mundane details or provided interactions utterly unrelated to the central gameplay to enhance the realness of the world (and I do not count side quests and such as are found in RPGs: they almost all have very applicable benefits for the player)?

In any case, that lack of a definite state is refreshing, as it happens so little in games. When opponents are felled in a shooter, they are almost always absolutely felled: you do not often maim an opponent with an errant shot and have to deal with his or her suffering. Levels are completely finished, quests are definitely open or closed, achievements are either unlocked or locked, etc. How often can one badly hurt an opponent, and then move on to the next area? If you came back, would it still be there — would you have to hit the opponent a few more times to finish the job? This is the sort unsavory midway point games have dealt so well in discarding, one could argue games have to discard this aspect of our lives to be games at all. In any case, so many games belong in the province of fantasy that dealing in totalities makes thematic (along with the aforementioned technical) sense. Still, it is awfully nice to engage with a world where a few mechanics, at least, are not figured in such absolutes.

ZZT, Anna Anthropy and Preserving Games

I just finished reading Anna Anthropy’s ZZT, from the Boss Fight Books series. While I have a few issues with the book, I was really happy with her work and felt that it struck a great balance between personal narrative and game history.

On the latter, I’m especially happy that the author has taken pains to convey the culture surrounding the ZZT game and its creation tools. There are two reasons for this which tie well into game preservation.

First, it’s a prime example of discussing games and game development outside the context of entertainment. I previously linked to Jaroslav Švelch’s article in Game Studies, “Say it with a Computer Game”. Anna Anthropy’s book demonstrates how a game (in this case ZZT and the games made from its toolkit) facilitated groups, rivalries, skill demonstrations, personal expression, cultural commentary, and so on.

It’s also a great example of looking beyond gameplay as the final result of game preservation. I recently attended the Born Digital and Cultural Heritage conference in Melbourne, put on by the Play It Again group there. In his keynote Henry Lowood emphasized looking to end products of the preservation process beyond playing the game, such as recordings of play, narratives of play, the cultural materials surrounding the game, etc. ZZT preserves some of the experience of play, and of being enmeshed in that culture, through a wonderful preservation technology that goes criminally under-emphasized: writing.

(As a further example, if you download Stanford’s DOOM collection you’ll have the shareware copy of the game, but along with that you’ll find a wealth of artifacts surrounding the game: .WAD collections, web pages and fan sites, articles, reviews, forum user threads, and the like (and I will add, many copies of beta and alpha versions of the seminal shooter, which I have argued before ought to be a key priority for game archives). It’s an excellent resource and any researcher would want to move through this collection as a way to understand the game and some of its critical context.)


Simulation Fever

From Persuasive Games by Ian Bogost:

Previously, I have argued that videogames represent in the gap between procedural representation and individual subjectivity. The disparity between the simulation and the player’s understanding of the source system it models creates a crisis in the player; I named this crisis simulation fever, a madness through which an interrogation of the rules that drive both systems begins. The vertigo of this fever — one gets simsick as he might get seasick — motivates criticism.

Procedural rhetoric also produces simulation fever. It motivates a player to address the logic of a situation in general, and the point at which it breaks and gives way to a new situation in particular.

Say it with a Computer Game

The focus on the “pragmatics” of digital game production can help us broaden the range of analogies game studies is working with. Games can be understood as more than just entertainment products or art pieces.

Jaroslav Švelch, Say it with a Computer Game: Hobby Computer Culture and the Non-entertainment Uses of Homebrew Games in the 1980s Czechoslovakia

Born Digital and Probably Died that Way: Content Loss from Yesteryear

Greetings from QBasic - Wish You Were Here!

Greetings from QBasic – Wish You Were Here!

I’m often asked – in the course of my job or by an acquaintance – to explain ‘digital preservation’ and what I mean by it. And as I’m sure others in this field know, a frequent first guess is scanning – you’re scanning stuff, right?

It’s a reasonable and valid guess – digitization can and is used as a preservation strategy – but it’s a reply that leaves me stumbling, “Yes, but…” as it’s the born-digital content that is most likely to be overlooked for a newcomer.

I’m often tongue tied though to explain why born-digital material is important at a personal level for an individual. To some it seems immediately frivolous – perhaps resulting from a notion that the digital enterprise is inherently ephemeral, or that the ‘information superhighway’ – a dated term but one still with a legacy – is just a media-carrying superstructure over the real stuff.

Not having someone immediately agree with your assumptions startles you into explanation mode. So I reach for a personal example of born-digital vitality. But the truth is that in my recent past I’ve done a pretty good job of preserving the digital materials that are important to me. Setting up a reasonably safe (and this is key: automated) backup routine and checking media health every once in a while goes a long way. So I have no woeful narrative to relate there about personal digital material becoming lost (yet).

And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I find myself agreeing with David Rosenthal’s research that suggests file format obsolescence in a post-Internet world is not a major risk for the majority of digital materials. So I don’t feel terribly relevant trying to spook someone with the scenario of their Microsoft Word files becoming obsolete in a few years. They are far more likely to become lost through neglect before approaching obsolescence.

So I searched back through my own personal history to think of what born-digital content I have lost to time. Not just any old content that happened to be lost, but something that means a lot to me but is simply no more.

Now I’ve visited a near-loss and partial recovery with a high school art web site, so I recall here a complete content loss. Nothing remains but the recollection. This loss still smarts today – the code for my QBasic games. Hear my tale of woe, as I recreate here whatever will be left of those projects.

My kingdom for some GOTO code

When my family first purchased a computer, it took a few years for me to learn the ropes on it. I recall some unintended directory deletions while I was learning DOS, and at one point I thought I had truly broken the system through one of these errant deletes. The incident was only a mistakenly relocated set of files that broke a start-up routine, but it was not without its moments of vertigo that I had broken the family machine.

Eventually I got to understand command line customs, along with the basics of programming in the QBasic IDE, which came standard with MS-DOS and Windows for approximately nine years. Once I got the hang of basic user input and variable handling, I figured it was time to make games in QBasic.

Ah, to be young and just dive in! None of them were ever completed, though this does not bother me. I still believe just diving in is a handy practice.

Lend an ear and I’ll tell you about them.

Kingdom of Kroz

Kingdom of Kroz (1987)


ZZT (1991)

The first effort was a fantastical text adventure with ANSI-style art inspired by the psychedelic landscapes of Kingdom of Kroz and Epic Megagames’ ZZT, but featuring the simple rules of a Choose your own Adventure novel. I got pretty far along before the tedium of hand drawing scenes row by row with the extended character set wore me down. I was still learning a lot.

The Terminator

The Terminator (1990)


Drugwars (1984)

The second game was identical in form, but took some less tasteful tones from Bethesda’s The Terminator title – an early stab for that studio at their now famous open-world design – as well as the Drugwars DOS game. I got even less far along than even the first game – just a couple of sequences before the player was abruptly dumped back into the sharp blue of QBasic’s IDE. I recall becoming bored and directionless at the monotone grimness the setting required, as well as the tedious, screen by screen gameplay.

Legend of the Red Dragon

Legend of the Red Dragon (1989)

The third game, and the most involved, was an RPG collaboration with an elementary school friend, very much modeled after the BBS classic Legend of the Red Dragon – but a single player affair. We had races, classes, a town, shops, NPCs, and had begun modeling the wilderness areas where the player would encounter whatever had to be fought there. However, school hedged in and the friend moved away, and our work stopped there.

I would give my right arm for the source code to any of these projects, but that last one hurts the most. My friend and I spent many hours and long nights developing the RPG – and never got very far – but this piece of digital content represents a huge investment of my enthusiasm and passion at that time. That it is utterly lost is painful. I don’t know what I could have done to have had the foresight to keep it, except to have kept the floppies around somehow by neglect. If this were a project nowadays, perhaps a forgotten email attachment could have wrought it up from the bog. Alas, at that time the only network we had was carting floppies between our houses.

There are other losses, such as my old MySpace page, which captures some of my disposition and contacts in the early college years, an embarrassing old fan site for a band I loved in high school, a lost DOOM level .wad – but the absence of this QBasic code hits strongest. This is simply how things get lost, alas – though I sigh wistfully when hearing of old game code being discovered. That someone, amazingly, has managed to create a modern game coded entirely in QBasic just makes me all the more wistful.

Citizens of tomorrow, your digital content – even if, like myself, you are not a heavy user of social media – can be profoundly important to you and very likely to others. Keep an eye on it, as I wish I had.

ACM Author-izer

I haven’t had much luck getting access to a co-authored game preservation paper through ACM, but along comes this ACM Author-izer and all is well again. The service allows you to authorize a free download of your paper from a specified URL, which is pretty nifty.

I’ve set the link for the JCDL 2011 paper on my about page.

Dwarf Fortress Interviews

Dwarf Fortress screen

Before the week is out I wanted to post to the NYT interview with the Adams brothers, who design and build the incredible labor of love that is Dwarf Fortress.

I had the opportunity to interview Tarn Adams (audio and transcript available), who programs the game, for the game preservation project I worked on in school (all interviews are here at the Center for American History). Tarn is a standout guy, who is awfully generous with his time considering the colossal task ahead of he and his brother. He gave a great interview that illuminated important parts of their game-making, which is in kind with the idiosyncratic and singular quality of Dwarf Fortress.

Check out the NYT interview — Tarn has thoughtful and provoking comments on playing games these days.

And, if you haven’t tried Dwarf Fortress, give it a go sometime. I played it for a year on and off – one day I’d like to make a return to it. It’s not as hard as all that, really – although you should have the wiki open as you play.

Book Review: Racing the Beam [re-post]

A re-post from the Preserving Games blog, February 12, 2010.

Montfort, N., & Bogost, I. (2009). Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Platform Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

Just want to give a brief rundown on a really great read I’ve come across. MIT has started a “Platform Studies” series of books where the idea is to examine a platform and its technologies to understand how this informs creative work done on the platform. Platforms could range from gaming consoles, to a programming language, to an operating system, or even the Web itself if this is the platform upon which creative work is being made. The platform in this case is the Atari Video Computer System, the first Atari home system, later referred to as the Atari 2600 in the wake of the newer Atari 5200.

The authors examine the Atari VCS as a computing system, and take care to elaborate the unique (really exceptionally odd) constraints found there. Six games are investigated in chronological order, giving the reader a sense of the programming community’s advancing skill and knowledge of the system: Combat (1977), Adventure (1980), Yar’s Revenge (1981), Pac-Man (1982), Pitfall! (1982), and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1982).

The most prominent technical details are explained in first few chapters, and they illuminate each game’s construction as an exceptional act of engineering and ingenuity. Just to give an idea of the unique affordances of the Atari VCS, here are a few of the most characteristic details:

  • The custom sound and graphics chip, the Television Interface Adapter (TIA), is specifically designed to work with a TV’s CRT ray. The ray itself sprays the electrons onto the inside of a TV screen, left to right, one horizontal scan line at a time, taking a brief break at the end of each line (a “horizontal blank”) and a longer break at the bottom line, before resetting to the top and starting over again (a “vertical blank”). A programmer only has those tiny breaks to send any instructions to the TIA, and really only the vertical break provided enough time to send any game logic to the system.
  • It was imperative that game logic be sent at these breaks because the Atari VCS had no room for a video buffer. This meant there was no way to store an image of the next frame of the game, all graphic instructions are written in real time (sound instructions had to be dropped in on one of the breaks). A designer or programmer could choose to restrict the visual field of the game in exchange for more time to send game logic instructions. Pitfall! is an example of this.
  • This means there are no pixels on the Atari VCS. Pixels require horizontal and vertical planes, but for the Atari VCS, there is only horizontal scan lines. There is no logical vertical division at all for the computational system. As the beam goes across the screen, a programmer can send a signal to one of the TIA’s register to change the color. Thus, the “pixels” are really a measure of time (the clock counts of the processor) and not space.
  • Sprites, such as they existed for the Atari VCS, were hard-coded into the ROM of the system. Programmers had five: two player sprites, two missiles, and one ball. Reworking that setup (clearly designed for Pong and the like) into something like Adventure, Pitfall!, or even the Pac-Man port is an amazing feet.

The book doesn’t refrain from the technical. I could have used even more elaboration than what is presented in the book, but after a certain point the book would turn into an academic or technical tome (not that there’s anything wrong with that), so I appreciate the fine line walked here. The authors succeed at illuminating technical constraints enough for the general reader to understand the quality of the engineering solutions being described. Moreover, the authors leave room to discuss the cultural significance of the platform, and to reflect on how the mechanics and aesthetics of these Atari titles have informed genres and gameplay presently.

Games that Made Me: Microsurgeon

Microsurgeon Banner


I’ve rediscovered an Intellivision game I played as a kid: Microsurgeon (1982). This was one of the great cooperative console games of my youth, along with General Chaos (Sega Genesis, 1994) and Contra (NES, 1987).

The Intellivision must have been my friend’s father’s — we had both grown up with the NES as the big prize. The console’s controllers each had an analogue directional disc, which struck us as impossibly weird and archaic (but still interesting after too many failed rounds of Sonic the Hedgehog).

The real-world weightiness of the this game made a mark on me. You control a micro-ship inside a human body, where you battle cancer. It was very hard. You could target certain parts of the patient’s body for healing: eyes, brain, lungs, etc. The tumor spread relentlessly and you would find yourself urgently manipulating your directional disc in an effort to hold back advancing grey blocks of cancer cells.

Microsurgeon Medical Chart

Microsurgeon Medical Chart

The challenge was always compelling: you wanted to save this patient.  My most vivid memory though is of the tumor overwhelming whatever organ I was engaged in and the patient dying. Despite the morbid conclusion, the idea of a triumphant heal kept us returning.

Microsurgeon took the mathematical progression of difficulty found in many early arcade games (Space Invaders, Centipede, etc.) and applied it to the body’s battle with disease. I would say it was tragic but my unfamiliarity with Aristotelian tragedy would advise against it. I will just say that it was really sad and a little bit scary to lose. Microsurgeon is still how I visualize cancer doing away with me.

My search phrase (intellivsion health game) also turned up an excerpt from the book Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss. It’s good read; I look forward to reading more.

The second part of this game I remember so well are the visuals, which were gorgeous and appealingly abstract. The banner graphic above and the medical chart display are taken from user Servo’s contributions to the stock of images at MobyGames. The banner graphic reminds me of Basquiat’s popular painting, Unknown (Skull) (1981):

Basquiat, Unknown (Skull)

Unknown (Skull)

There’s some resemblance, isn’t there? Sure the Intellivision’s representation of the skull is medical and diagrammatic, and Basquiat’s is expressive and descriptive. But both skulls are essentially tackled in pieces.

Attending IDCC ’10

6th International Digital Curation Conference banner

I’m happy to break the months-long silence here just to say I’ll be heading to the 6th International Digital Curation Conference in Chicago, Monday to Wednesday of this week. I’ll be manning the poster for the Dr. Winget’s Preserving Games research project, explaining to all willing passerby our findings regarding record creation in video game development and some key implications for curation of these records.

I’ll be able to catch a few talks on Tuesday and Wednesday before heading out. Just a few I’m interested in hearing:

  • “Idiosyncrasy at Scale: Data Curation in the Humanities.” John Unsworth, Dean & Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science & Director Illinois Informatics Institute, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • “Linking to Scientific Data: Identity Problems of Unruly and Poorly Bounded Digital Objects” Laura Wynholds, University of California, Los Angeles.
  • “DataStaR: Using the Semantic Web approach for Data Curation” Huda Khan, Brian Caruso, Brian Lowe, Jon Corson-Rikert, Diane Dietrich & Gail Steinhart, Cornell University.
  • “Dependency Analysis of Legacy Digital Materials to Support Emulation Based Preservation” Aaron Hsu & Geoffrey Brown, Indiana University.
  • “What constitutes successful format conversion? Towards a formalisation of “intellectual content” C.M.Sperberg-McQueen, Black Mesa Technologies LLC.
  • “Assessing the preservation condition of large and heterogeneous electronic records collections with visualizations” Maria Esteva, Weijia Xu, Suyog Dutt Jain & Jennifer Lee, University of Texas at Austin

DCC seems to be pretty serious about “amplifying” the conference to non-attendees and attendees alike. There’s a Twitter account (@idcc10) and a Netvibes dashboard, which will host all manner of media and feeds for the conference.

Here’s the ‘Minute Madness’ slide, which accompanies (appropriately enough) a one-minute rundown of the project:

Winget-Sampon IDCC '10 Minute Madness Slide

IDCC '10 Minute Madness Slide

Here’s the PowerPoint slide.