Not much to mull over under that pane of glass. Maze. Pellets. Fruit. Ghosts. Fruit good. Ghosts bad. What’re we packin’ here? Joystick. Yep – familiar with the setup: all in the wrist. Inky, Pinky, Stinky … what were their names? Different personalities, maybe. Different styles. Full-on, round-about. The coin drops, hits the Scrooge McDuck pile. A merry melody. Go boy! Damn they’re fast. Get to the corner. What’s that? Tables turned! Not so hard. Just clear a quarter of the screen per ghost repellent. That work? Damn – nope. Can’t be done. Hope Mum takes her time flirting with Mr. Seachange at the counter. Heat from the open door causing the grimy fly-strips to flutter. Waft from the milk fridge cooling the back of your neck. Summer, 1986. Focus on the pellets. Focus on the ghosts.
As you cautiously make your way up a canyon on the outskirts of post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, a red notch appears on your compass, indicating an adversary within range, ten o’clock, beyond the rocky knoll. Your Perception is relatively high for a Level 5 character – 45. High enough to avoid having to Sneak to the crest of that embankment like a weasel? Only time’ll tell. A few steps further and a jolt of adrenaline inspires a downward glance. F5. Quicksave. Insurance. Peace of mind. But something tells you to press on. Not so much a benevolent voice. More like Thanatos whisperin’ again. Or maybe you just enjoy the vitality of the contest. Couple-a animals in this burnt out paradise. Or an animal and a ‘bot. Or are you the clockwork orange? You were shot in the head after all. Buried alive. Dug up by a robot. And survived? Seem likely to you? Over in Washington, goddamned President turned out to be a robot. Why not a courier? Everythin’ else’s topsy-turvy.
Drop to your haunches and start to Sneak. Stop. Is that Police Baton going to save you from a Powder Ganger’s dynamite? Not a chance. One of your legs is already injured after a Bark Scorpion’s sting, and you don’t want to waste a Stimpack fixing it. Damned expensive out here. You could sleep for HP, but not out here in no man’s land. Need to Fast Travel back to that shack you stumbled upon a while back. Wasn’t there a filthy cot in there? Reckon – but was it owned? Number one rule of the apocalypse: don’t sleep in another man’s bed.
You could hoof it back to the friendly town of Goodsprings where you’re sharing a bed with a grizzled old ‘tronics scavenger, occasionally waking up together, rising stiffly, regarding each other in awkward silence before one of you bolts for the door (what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas), but daylight is fading and you want to get through this canyon today; an irrational whim (night passes in moments if you sleep through it) but you’re spurred on by … what exactly? The fish hook of reality which informs the role you play? Or just a plain old desire to see something new after miles of sandy mesas.
You want to jack a decent gun, for starters. Something in plasma, maybe. And some heavy armour, to boot. With these, you wouldn’t be debating life like some kind’ve milquetoast. You’d be living it. Draw your .44. What the hell … Sneer like Eastwood. Creep to the crest and peer over. Yep: Deathclaw. Wait … no (one of those Wasteland surprises): your Pip-Boy indicates a Blind Deathclaw. Blind. Shee-yat. A Blind Deathclaw probably ain’t much different to a blind anything else – other senses compensate. And as this realisation dawns, the beast turns in your direction, its sightless eyes like two tiny suns; fifty paces that you know can be covered in moments. Blind or not, in its bold gaze your ruin is writ large.
You activate a Stealth Boy. Sneak +100. Can’t get more sneaky than that. The creature vagues out. Turns its back and resumes its aimless stalking. Perhaps you can slip by. It’s worth a shot. F5? No. Be a man. Go for a Critical Hit and then leg it in the opposite direction. BOOM! Yes. Now get some distance – hit it again. BOOM! Not enough Action Points to take more than two shots. The clock’s tickin’ on that Stealth Boy. Holster that six-shooter. Grab a ranged weapon. Pff – bolt action it is. Enter V.A.T.S. BOOM! Swing and a miss. BOOM! One in the chest, but barely a scratch. Guns at only +15, and it don’t appear you’ll be talking out this tete-a-tete.
Run for the hills, son! Find the smoothest path. No glitches. Footfalls fade. Turn after fifty paces. Thing ain’t-a followin’. Distance seems to be the buffer. Creep back to the knoll, coward. Got a few landmines in your rucksack. Maybe try to cripple the thing and get past him. But what if there’s another? Meat in the Deathclaw Sandwich. The Blind Deathclaw sandwich. They’ll thrash you good. Check your armour. Ain’t worth a damn. Should’ve stripped that freakshow back in the cave and used his for repairs. Oh well … here goes nothing. Suck it up. Tippy toes. Like Pappy said, “You’re a man, now – things are s’posed to be complicated.”
I have to admit, I find the choices bewildering at times. I’m not sure whether I’m trying to smoke a dude or set my DVR. Even when things work out, I wonder: Did I waste ammo? Did I lose too much HP? How could I have done better? Differently? Did I exploit the situation to its fullest? And when I don’t succeed, even more questions arise: Was my strategy feasible but not implemented well enough? Was it ineffectual against this opponent? How can I be sure?
Being neurotic and competitive, it’s unsurprising strategy games are my catnip. They raise so many questions and possibilities, but don’t always provide clear answers. My competitive urge is of the variety that causes me to want to lose myself in a frenzied array of plot twists and combative possibilities, whilst my neuroticism wants to ensure that I am excelling at navigating my way through them at every turn: a fine recipe for crushing psychological conflict – which might be manageable if it were only the strategy genre that provided such complexities. But I wasn’t kidding when I suggested that the river’s grown wide since Pac-Man.
You simply cannot avoid strategy these days. I played a lot of Gears of War recently, for instance. Having forgotten the level design, and wanting to progress through the first two instalments as quickly as possible (as a foundation for Gears 3) I spent a chunk of that time on tenterhooks, terrified about letting go of the Hammer of Dawn. I’d walk around with the thing in its giant holster, coveting other weapons I could put in that slot whilst cowed by the knowledge that if a Seeder appeared, my ass was grass. I was playing on Casual difficulty. Nothing felt very casual. More like smart-casual – that horrible, ambiguous, contradictory invitation to use your initiative and end up humiliating yourself. I chewed my nails to the quick, worrying that if I couldn’t frag an Emergence Hole closed I’d end up chewing through so much Lancer ammo that I’d run out, and end up having to Doc Holliday my way through the rest of the level. And if that proved to be the case, what terrible strategy. What a failure! And on Casual difficulty, no less. Casual!
I suppose what I’m saying is that seat of the pants pellet-munching really does belong to the annals of history. (Which is not to say Pac-Man didn’t have strategy – it did, but it was far more rote.) Strategy has infiltrated every genre of gaming, right down to the most in ya face bug hunt. The more sophisticated games become, the more permutations and possibilities are available for the player to explore, and the more I’m likely to agonise over every decision. Sometimes I miss those simpler times.
So, where do you stand on strategy? Do you relish the array of tactical choices available in modern games, or do you find they intrude on the action – perhaps tending towards the old school for this reason? What are some games which mix action and strategy particularly well? Which missed the mark? Share your experiences in the comments.
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