Friday, 27 March 2009

Old Blog - Play the Game

Due to lack of anything new to write, and still filtering through ideas for the next chapter of the as-yet-untitled story, here is something I wrote a few months ago that used to reside only on myspace.

After recently purchasing a Playstation 3, I have begun looking through several sites to find the best games for this device. Since these games all seem to be rather expensive, it makes sense to only get the good ones. Unfortunately it seems that no-one can agree on what the best game is.
However, due to some extraordinary reaches of boredom, I have come to a conclusion of what I believe should officially hold the title of "Greatest Game Ever™."* It is challenging, infuriating, replayable and involves numbers.
"What is this exciting, spectacular, magnificent game?" I hear you type in to your comment boxes. Well delete that sentence, because I'll tell you. And when you hear the answer you'll realise how obvious and simple it is.
The game is Minesweeper®.
Normally in something like this I would now have to explain exactly what Minesweeper® is and how you play. But since this game has been readily available on every pc since Windows 95 (and possibly before - this was where I came in to the computing scene) I'm going to assume that everyone knows all this anyway. Instead I shall launch straight in to why Minesweeper® deserves this title.
Minesweeper® depends on strategy. Only novices, idiots and children wildly click on blank spaces hoping to see how long they can last before the yellow face dies. Cunning, clever, practised sweepers will take their time, analyse the possible outcomes of every click and expertly clear a pathway through the hidden bombs. It challenges the mind, and the eyes. Keep playing for more than a few games and you will find your attention begin to dwindle, you will not register some obvious signs and you will make mistakes. And in Minesweeper® mistakes are fatal.
Minesweeper® does not offer you extra lives. Minesweeper® does not give you a second chance. Minesweeper® is brutal. Minesweeper® is ruthless. And Minesweeper® will have no remorse about blowing you up when you only have one goddamn mine left to sweep.

Sometimes custom levels are just cheating...

It's not just about the numbers.

Let's just review what we can deduce as the background information of Minesweeper®. We know that we are given a map, set out as a grid, that can be a range of sizes (based on if you play at "beginner", "intermediate", "expert" or "custom" levels). Within this area are a certain number of mines (again, determined by what level you are playing) which are shown in the counter at the top left corner of the screen. We do not know where the action is taking place, whether it is based on a real scenario or a fictional one, but we do know that we have to find these mines so we can ensure a safe passage through them. We are not even told who it is we are trying to get through. We may assume that we are in charge of an army, finding their way through the minefield to the enemy's camp, and we must guide them their safely without killing them or compromising their position. Or we may be trying to mark out the mines so that innocent civilians from nearby towns may make their way through the minefield to collect water or vegetables or opium. Whatever the case, we have been entrusted with this mission and we must uphold our duty in finding these mines.
Unfortunately, though we are given some helpful technology to ease our job, getting started can be the riskiest part. To begin with we are offered no clues as to where these mines could be, other than the initial number of mines on the map. We are also not given a particularly safe method of clearing these mines, it seems to involve actually jumping on the spaces (or – I suppose – literally sweeping them and hoping a mine isn't under the dust). Now, obviously, we are not doing the jumping (or sweeping) ourselves as we are safely at home/work/Starbucks® controlling all this through our computer. The best assumption is that we are in control of a minesweeping robot that can leap in to the air to land on any space you select within the grid. This robot has been personalised by the round, yellow face you can see at the top of your screen. As you pick the square and the robot jumps, you can actually see its face call out "ooohh" as it takes to the air, not sure if it's going to survive the landing. This robot is then programmed with the ability to scan the 8 squares of the grid around it and, though it is unable to pinpoint where they are, tell you how many mines are in that area. Unfortunately you are only given one of these robots to control and if it is blown up by landing on a mine (displaying a "dead" expression on the yellow face) then all mines will have been replaced and moved by the enemy before another one can be shipped out to you.† You have one chance to sweep these mines, otherwise you have failed your mission.
Success however will reward you by showing you the clearly happy robot who has been given new sunglasses for his hard work in the field. Much like in real army life, you are given a swift (metaphorical) pat on the back for a job well done and, if you have proved yourself worthy by completing your mission faster than any other soldier, your name on the honours bored (otherwise known as the best time list).

Don't think you can just go running off to Solitaire®.

We've established the meaning behind Minesweeper®, as well as explaining that it is a strategy game depending on numbers that offers you only one chance to complete. It is this then that brings in the challenge. You fear landing on a mine because you know that as soon as you do you will be forced to start the whole game again. You know that the game is essentially a simple task, with each square you uncover offering clues as to which of the connecting squares are safe, and so the feeling of ineptitude is overpowering when you lose, forcing you to play again to prove your worth to yourself and the Microsoft© corporation. With every loss you increase your concentration, stare harder at the screen, focus more on each number you are given on every square you have successfully claimed. But this of course is your downfall. After two or three losses you find yourself unable to concentrate as hard, unable to recognise the simplest of traps that you would have laughed at in earlier games. And you will continue to lose. Minesweeper® will play with your fear of failure and taunt you until you fall in to its infinite pit of despair.
And when you win? Your reward is meagre. You don't even get the complimentary pair of fairly unflattering sunglasses, they go to the small yellow face – your solitary companion throughout the challenge. All you have is the knowledge that you either were or were not faster than the previous person to play this game, and if you were you can be sure that it's only a matter of time before someone comes along and robs you of your only prize. With this knowledge, and faced with such an anticlimactic ending to the game, there is only ever one thing you want to do. Play again.
And this is the secret to why Minesweeper® is the best game. Once you start playing, you will keep playing. Whether you win or lose you will keep playing. You will hate the game when you lose, and you will be disappointed by the game when you win. But this is all just Minesweeper® laughing at you.
Minesweeper® understands what drives you. Minesweeper® knows that when you blow up the last mine after meticulously finding the other 98 it is only a matter of time before you return to the game to prove your competence, and it knows that it has given you such an unsatisfactory ending when you complete it that you will simply play again in the hope that a better score will satisfy you more.
Minesweeper® is cruel. Minesweeper® is aware. And Minesweeper is a taunting little bitch that won't let you out of her clutches.
If I could just get it on the PS3…

Minesweeper®'s a bitch.

*Disclaimer: I do not claim to have played every game in the world - far from it - and accept that somewhere they may be a game considered superior to this one that I simply have not yet come across. In this case I ask that you, rather than sending abusive comments, remain calm and buy me this game so I may test it. Any money spent getting this game to me will not be returned.

†There is an alternative explanation for fans of the "army scenario" theory, previously mentioned. If the enemy troops are alerted by the sound of the explosion from a mine, then they know where your soldiers are and you have lost your element of surprise. Since you are obviously nearer their base (as if the mines were yours you would undoubtedly have a map with their locations – unless you're in the American army in which case you've probably lost it) they are likely to have access to more troops and artillery, as well having the high ground, so you are extremely likely to lose this battle. This, again, means you only have one chance at clearing the way and makes your job even more important.

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