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In the Arcade, Everyone Can Hear You Pew-Pew

You take aim at the enemy vessel and fire, but a huge rock, slowly tumbling through space, comes between you and your target. It splits, breaking into smaller chunks, each moving twice as fast as their predecessor. You swear under your breath as you rotate your ship and push the throttle to its maximum... the last thing you needed was another deadly navigational hazard to contend with. Your irritation turns to panic, however, when a alarm starts screaming at you - one of the small, deadly accurate fighters has entered the region and is coming at you fast, guns blazing. Suddenly, one of the small rocks careens directly into your flight path. By the time you've rotated again and hit the thrust, it will be too late. There's only one option, but it's risky: a quick jump into hyperspace will get you out of the way, but there's a good chance you'll break up on re-materialization or come out right on top of an asteroid. You pray to whatever lowly god is watching over this cursed sector and slam your fist onto the button, the instant before a blast from the tiny fighter rips your ship apart...


High above the ground, the alien ship halts its ascent and draws its human captive inside. You've seen this before, but you'll never get used to it. Through some hideous, unknowable process, the two fuse into a single, monstrous hybrid. That's one more human you've failed to protect... you can still recognize their form contained within the nightmarish thing they've become, but there's no time to mourn - it's coming at you with a speed and ferocity unmatched even by the other invaders. You fire, your ship's powerful laser obliterating the abomination before it can take you out, then blast ahead at full acceleration, hoping to come up behind the next of landers before they can reach their victims. Your eyes dart to the scanner when you hear the dreaded zapping sound of another wave of ships arriving. Looks like there's a whole wave coming at you from behind, more than you've ever seen... and a minefield dead ahead. With a resigned grin, you reverse course and launch yourself straight into the horde...


You pull your armored vehicle under the protective shield just before a bomb hits you. Not that you'll get any respite, of course, the shield is breaking down with each impact, and the sky above you is blotted out with rows upon rows of alien ships, each dropping its own destructive ordnance. As soon as one of those suckers lands, you know, it will be all over. You're not completely helpless, though, the gun in your vehicle could destroy any one of those ships with a single shot... as long as you can hit it. They're getting closer, though, right overhead, in fact. Just a few more hits on the shield, and you'll be exposed... but then, you realize, so will they. You take aim at one of the damaged areas and fire. With any luck, you'll be able to take a few out and still get out of the way before an alien gets a lucky shot through the hole you've just made...

Most anyone familiar with the history of electronic games will quickly be able to identify the sources for each of these scenarios: Asteroids (1979), Defender (1980), and, of course, Space Invaders (1978). Quality of the prose aside, these descriptions aren't drawn purely from my own imagination - they're what they games themselves are portraying. It's easy to see the simplicity of early video games as abstraction: a few basic shapes, some minimal controls, and a scenario within a strict set of limitations. But all of these games were telling their own stories and presenting them to players through the tools available. The significance of this might not be immediately apparent. After all, video games have been doing sci-fi since their earliest incarnations, right? The answer is... not quite.

Forty-five years ago, something shifted in the burgeoning realm of electronic gaming. More and more arcade machines were being produced, but, despite the medium’s early connection with the genre, almost none were “space games.” Atari’s Space Race had flopped in 1973, and the company had been leaning in on the success of Pong to focus on sports and racing games. Going by the Killer List of Videogames, they were hardly alone. 1976 saw games with boats and planes (biplanes were particularly popular), tanks and traffic and table tennis… but nary a spaceship in sight. The older style of “arcade” still dominated the designs, with video screens presenting barely-updated versions of slot cars, shooting galleries, and foosball. Starting in 1977, though, that changed, when space games started to pop up on the market. One of the most notable was Cinematronic's Space Wars, an update of the old mainframe game Spacewar!, which used a new style of vector graphics to present crisp, clear lines to create a futuristic look. Atari themselves broke back into the genre with Starship One, an impressive title that (while still openly lifting borrowing heavily from Star Trek in its visual style) offered a first-person perspective and fighter plane-styled control yoke. From there, space games went into hyperdrive, dominating arcades with dozens of titles over the next few years, most notably the smash successes of Space Invaders (1978) and Asteroids (1979)... before long, the genre became synonymous with electronic games (at home and in the arcade) all the way up to the industry crash of 1983.

So, what changed? The most obvious answer, of course, was the original Star Wars, a runaway success that brought space opera into the public consciousness like never before. Video games offered a way to experience some of the thrill first-hand, even in a rather abstracted format. But Star Wars didn’t come out until halfway through 1977, and even the relatively (by today’s standards) simple arcade games took time to design, playtest, and manufacture. Ultimately, it seems to have come down to a bit of dumb luck, a perfect storm that resulted in the right game coming out to the right audience at the right time. Specifically, that game would be the above-mentioned Space Wars, which quickly found its perfect audience when it was released in November 1977. The game was something of a "Hail Mary" pass for Cinematronics, who had taken a chance on an engineer named Larry Rosenthal, who had discovered Spacewar! as an MIT grad student and developed his own vector display to keep playing the game after graduation. He had been shopping his creation to various companies, by no one wanted take him up on his demand to split all proceeds 50-50. Cinematronics, who had only put out a few Pong clones by this point and were about to go under, took him up on it. The game was an instant smash hit with an audience hungry for space games and became the top-earning arcade title of 1977.

If it touched such a nerve, why isn't Space Wars remembered as fondly as some of its immediate successors, particularly Asteroids, which very openly drew inspiration from it? One factor was simply money: once the big boys like Atari got in on the Space Game... Game, there was no way a smaller company like Cinematronics could compete. Now backed by new corporate overlords Warner Communications, Atari could churn out far, far more machines, build them more solidly, and offer quick assistance to units that broke down... and they had developed their own "QuadraScan"vector system with a game (Lunar Lander, one of the very few non-combat space games from this era) on the market a mere seven months after Space Wars launched. Another factor was innovation: inspired by the success of Space Wars, developers looked for new and unique hooks to make their games stand out. Asteroids, released a year after Space Wars, really took things to the next level in a very important way: it could be played by a single player.

Ultimately, I think this gets more to the heart of what makes space games successful. Space Wars was about you and a friend blasting the heck out of each other like the gunfight scene in a Western (which was, in fact, one common form of arcade game before the space explosion). In that kind of fight, which one of you is the "good guy?" Star Wars makes it very clear who the heroes and villains were, and that level of narrative cohesion is something audiences expect within the space opera genre. This means more of an "us against them" kind of approach, and while it would take a while for the "us" part to manifest in cooperative play,  it was on the game itself (and its designers) to provide "them." Even in their competitive two-player modes, the most successful space games were still about fighting the same enemies... just doing a better job at it than the other player - which also fit the feeling of Star Wars ("Great, kid... don't get cocky!") Not that there weren't attempts at truly cooperative play in the early days, of course, but technical limitations meant these could take on some very odd forms. I can only guess how many friendships, marriages, and buisness partnerships were ruined by the "one player moves left, the other player moves right" modes in the Atari 2600 version of Space Invaders.

On the whole, this signaled the approach electronic gaming would take as it moved into more elaborate storytelling: giving audiences just enough specifics for them to fill in the blanks with elements from their own imaginations and borrowed from their favorite genre examples. This is not to denigrate the contribution sports games have made to the medium - if anything, I think those early examples should be celebrated just as much. But those all had real-world examples for the players to draw from, regardless of which team or player they were visualizing (even if it was just themselves). Sci-fi and fantasy had the more difficult task of creating an entirely new world for the player through graphics, sound, gameplay and (particularly important in the early days) console and box art. Even back then, there are examples of people making fun of the difference between the game as presented in advertising art versus what was actually onscreen, but even with some of the egregious examples, there was a feeling conveyed... an attitude. And if there's anything we can learn from the tiny, glowing screen is dark and smoky rooms that lurk in the primordial Id of the medium, it's this: give your audiences just enough... and let them do the rest for you. Regardless of the format, creators build those spaceships... and audiences strap themselves in and blast off to kick some alien butt.

More than anything else, this is why I so love the early days of electronic gaming. The artifice is minimal, closer to shadow puppetry than cinema. And yet we bring our own stories along with us, time and again, completing the missing segments, each in our own way. And sometimes, we all need a reminder of the necessity of this back-and-forth process - that creators were once able to put a few bare lines on a black screen, and let each of us build a universe out of them.

- B

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