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Friday 1 August 2008

What's in a number? [DrDave]

When I was a wee bairn we used to go on our annual holiday to the Lake District. It was pretty cool when I was younger, but when I grew up and got too-cool-for-school (relatively speaking) I found spending time with the family playing Frisbee to be several storeys beneath me. As a youth, I was never part of any particular "scene" (unless "smart casual" is a scene, and I'm pretty sure it isn't) but I did like videogames. So when the Frisbee came out, I'd wander off to the camp site arcade and stick my football sticker money into whatever game was around at the time.

One particular summer, I remember a battle of wits with an old Slapfight machine. Or, more specifically, the holder of the high score on the Whitecross Caravan park Slapfight machine - "SPU". I don't know who SPU was, I never met him (or indeed her), but I fancy that SPU was tall, broad shouldered, popular with the opposite sex, as adept with a football or cricket bat as he was with a joystick.

I took it upon myself to best SPU, to score a pyrrhic victory that would disrupt the fragile social strata of 80s emo-teens for years to come. I had a Roland Rat wallet full of old ten pence pieces, the luxury of time that only family holidays can provide and the furious purpose of a nerd gone wild! I was ready.

In my mind, I remember that time as a tightly edited sequence of training montages: scenes of despair, desperation, fightback, set to the building crescendo of a soft metal, cock-rock classic. In reality, it was a week of heartache - low scores, endless deaths to unseen bullets - SPU's imagined athletic visage grinning at me from the faint CRT glow of the Slapfight cab: "back to chess club Poindexter, nothing for you here... AHAHAHA".

Then finally, on our final day in the Lakes, something happened. Something inside me clicked, a moment of pure clarity as man and machine melded into one perfect entity. I actually felt something that morning, something bigger than me, some unique resonance with the universe. My score ticked up, 100,000; 500,000; 1,000,000. I was vaguely aware that if I considered my actions, if I attempted to harness this power or invoke some strategy other than blind instinct, I would fail and all would be lost. I held my nerve... SPU was in my sights, my score reaching parity with the on-screen "High Score" that had mocked me so. Then BOOM!, I passed SPU and the High Score began ticking up with each extra kill that I achieved. At that point I lost it, concentration crumbling away with the collapse of neurons and synapses firing in perfect harmony. But it didn't matter, SPU was beaten and I had the top score.

I don't know how long the score lasted. I fancy that maybe, somewhere in the Lake District, that machine still remains plugged in. The high score preserved as a testament to the grim determination of a bored teenager. Maybe even a plaque commemorates the achievement.

Okay, it's a long telling of a short story. One that serves to hint at the unique power in the simple mechanic of high scores. Anyone who has played WoW and visited Molten Core every week for 6 months, purely on the off chance that a random number generator will come good and a particular set of magic pants will fall can testify to this power. But WoW is an evolution of this mechanic, an abstraction that adds a visual component to your achievement. What I'm talking about is the simplistic, repetitive accumulation of arbitrary numbers - the pure "High Score".

Geometry Wars 2 on Xbox Live is a game that captures this power in a way that touches on every base instinct present in every nerd. It is a simple game of hidden complexity, an apparently mindless shoot 'em up, heavy on psychedelia and pulsing beats. But the devil is in the details. See, the scoring mechanic is such that to achieve really high scores, you need to collect "geoms". A geom is a multiplier, each one collected adds one multiplier to your total, so shot enemies provide more points. The strategy comes in deciding whether to kill or collect, to risk your ship to pick up two or three geoms or stay safe and preserve a screen full of enemies ripe for the blasting.

The truely evil part of GW2 though is not the game itself though, it is the Leaderboard. Or more specifically, the presentation of the Leaderboard. Other games chose to hide the Leaderboard away where you can safely ignore the progress of your peers. GW2 slaps it right there on the game selection screen. Every time you select a game mode, you are presented with your position in the pecking order, a constant reminder of your skills or lack thereof. Possessing this information, knowing that Slim or Beej is a mere 20,000 points away, it is simply not possible to turn away from the quick-repeat gameplay. You simply must climb the ladder.

Compulsion is a powerful narcotic to give to a nerd, a dangerous substance that can lead to failed marriage, obesity or ill-advised mailing list posts. GW2 ignores this danger like a heroin pusher in an infant school. It grabs you, it hooks you, it won't let you go.

At the moment, I stand higher than Dunford, but beneath Beej. Unless Dunford logged in after I beat him last night. I bet he did, it's just his style. The scumbag. Maybe I can squeeze in a couple of games over lunchtime? Maybe I could take the afternoon off...?

I can't say for certain, but I'm pretty sure that somewhere out there, SPU is laughing at me.


  1. Holy craps, Slapfight! That was one of the games responsible for turning me from a normal kid into a gamer!

    And I haven't thought about it for 20 years. Must have been on the CPC rather than in the arcade - how could you afford the arcades when on easter/summer hols? I was never given any money and was told that arcades had drug dealers in... sob.

    It's no overt leaderboard, but we have done some occasional high score fighting over PGR and Forza laptimes, haven't we? I like how Geowars 2 puts the name of the person above you on the leaderboard in fairly big text in the corner of the screen :-)


  2. Yes, PGR and Forza is an extension of the same principle. In fact, XBox Live captures the whole essence of high scoring very well indeed, with the Gamerpoint mechanic. The dogfight sparing between you, Am and Ans over PGR4, or my blind compulsion to get the 100% in GTA4 are examples of this.

    And Microsoft opening up Live to the web, so that the channel bot can echo points on demand is genius. The whole compulsion with high scores is not the scores themselves, but the presentation of them. If you can see them, they can haunt you. Just one... more... achievement.