Recently my daughter bought a Texas Instruments calculator for school. That reminded me of my brother-in-law’s calculator that he used to have for college. His was programmable, and he would often program it to play “Lunar Lander”. The calculator would start by telling you your lander’s altitude, velocity, and amount of fuel. You would then proceed to tell it, turn by turn, how much fuel to burn.
The idea was to control the lander’s descent to touch the surface within an acceptable range of velocity. Use up too much fuel too early, and you might run out of fuel and crash. Use too little and you would end up going so fast that no amount of fuel would stop you in time. We could play it for hours.
This was in the old days before we outsourced imagination.
But then computers became more accessible. My siblings went to college and we were able to play more sophisticated games, like “Hunt the Wumpus”, which was essentially a logic game. You would be in a maze with one arrow. Each time you moved the computer would tell you what exits your new room might have, and if there was a wumpus nearby it would give you a hint. By logic or luck you could figure out where the wumpus may be, and if you shot your arrow in that direction you could kill it before it could kill you. But make a wrong move and the wumpus would get you.
There was an even more sophisticated game called “Star Trek” (obviously this was a kinder, less litigious age) where you were on a randomly-generated 9×9 map of sectors. You had some simple commands you could enter, such as scanning certain sectors, moving, targeting weapons, and firing. The idea was to explore the “galaxy” looking for klingon ships. Each sector consisted of a 7×7 grid with early emoticon-type symbols representing your ship and any enemy ships. You could fight the other ships, take damage, find your bases, get repaired and, if you were sufficiently good, hunt down all the klingons and win the game.
Mind you these text-drawn maps were the very height of graphics in those days.
I also remember play Zork, a text-based adventure game similar in play to “Wumpus”, only with a much broader range of actions. You started the game suddenly finding yourself in a field, with a white house nearby. You had no idea where you were, why you were there, or what you were supposed to do. You could only explore and see what you could figure out. I never had the time to play Zork very far.
Years later I bought a PC game version of Zork where someone had redone the game with graphics. It was pretty cool, but I still was never able to finish it. But only because it was hard, not because it wasn’t fun.
By then the Atari was changing the world, and today we have video games as far ahead of the Atari as the Atari was ahead of those old text-based games. Mind you I would never consider going back, other than for a brief bout of nostalgia, but I do sometimes have to wonder if we didn’t look something by having the computers do so much for us. The range of interactive storytelling is incredible these days, yet are they really more fun? They don’t require as much of us, certainly, and that’s not entirely good.
Not long ago I came across a modernized game of “Lunar Lander. ” All the old elements were there, except now everything is graphical. I enjoyed playing it, but I don’t know it was any more fun just because I could see the lander itself and the landscape I was landing on. The game required more of a manual touch now instead of a mental approach. You didn’t have to think about what you were doing; you just looked at the lander on the screen. If it was going too fast, push a button to fire the rocket. It would burn fuel until you stopped pressing the button or until you ran out of fuel.
It was certainly easier to play, but I can’t say it was any more satisfying than landing on the moon via calculator.