The Game Players of Dublin

He waits for the next player. Not another scholar or student, he hopes, but someone who comes for challenge of the game itself.

It has not been a while between players, for there is no time here, but if a state is embedded in another state in a certain relationship that can from at least one perspective be projected into what would be a series of interruptions in a timelike continuum, then we can say, all provisos accepted, that it’s been a while. And it usually is.

He always tries to guess where they will leave. He doesn’t like to think of it as giving up: it seems unfair. The game makes its player, he likes to tell himself. They leave where it is right for them to do so.

Will they be defeated by the arbitrary first level, its sheer surfaces affording none of the usual purchase expected of a traditional game mechanic? Grow as restive as the schoolchildren in the uneventful second? Or will they shy at the irruptions of Aquinas and the unexpected apparition of Blake’s buttocks on the beach in the second? (They will, he knows, very many of them, unless they take it for weird texture and aim for the true targets.)

Once past this introduction, the next three levels are relatively easy going, and he will have the pleasure of feeling the player settle into the familiar primary character, dumpy in his toothbrush moustache, warming up for the day’s obstacles.

Level seven is always a pleasure – the episodic nature, he supposes, gives a sense of reassuring form to the players, and is also a relatively safe arena where they can fool around with some advanced rhetorical weaponry. The practice will come in handy in nine – eight, admittedly, being something of a palate cleanser – when the first really powerful set of antagonists must be dealt with. There is no boss at this stage, but an elaborate melee which can weed out many casual players.

Usually this is when he can spot the remaining students. They panic, turn on the noclip cheat and start whizzing through the walls. (He’s seen it happen too many times to be disappointed.) And the players who remain with him are a joy to watch in the next few levels: the friendly primary is back, hopping between the floating islands of level ten, unlocking the hidden jam session in level eleven, and rounding on the first big boss in twelve.

The shifts of scale in this level are dizzying, and the tone of the game starts to darken, creating a sense of expectation which is deliciously wrong-footed by the sudden shift to the cloyingly moe atmosphere of level thirteen – assuming, of course, that the player hasn’t read any of the controversy about this level on the ‘net. He’s seen all the ways successful players negotiate the stickiness of this level. Most of them make it through by accepting the game logic on its own terms, although it can be played satisfactorily enough in irony mode, or even casting the character as the villain.

The fourteenth level takes 8-bit homage to a new level, beginning by appearing to drop the player out to a character terminal announcing “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” Those patient enough to persist after are treated to a recapitulation of the entire history of adventure gaming, in which interface design and play mechanics vary from minute to minute. Many players will give up in dismay or resort to cheats or walkthroughs, but those who do not can be lost for days as they hunt down allusions and easter eggs, a process which he never finds boring.

The level ends in a simulation of a chaotic MMPORG battle which leaves the player, once again in control of the primary, in the nightmarish, constantly shifting environment of the fifteenth level. The most dedicated players can find this level dull, confronting and repellent by turns, as the character is mocked, distorted, humiliated and degraded, and the use of multiplayer chat can give the level the feel of an unmoderated web forum from Hell.

Those who don’t make it to level sixteen have his sympathies, but he is always engrossed by how the survivors negotiate its elementary but interminable mazes, full of seemingly useless weapons and broken equipment. There are keys and treasures here, he is sure, that will keep the players busy for many years.

In the following level, he is allowed, with joy, to participate, almost to become a character himself, engaged in a grave and courteous duel with the primary and secondary character. This was the designer’s favourite – that other self of his, lost, long sleeping in Zurich.

And he? He is the mechanism of the game itself, an aspect of the designer, but also of all his collaborators, the players: he is the plotfarmer, the voyce. He has watched the primary, moustache abristle, vaulting rolling barrels of porter, countless times, as he and the player ascend the heights of the last chapter, up to the final boss, the great mamamonster, as much a libel of woman as Kong is of ape, to grapple with her great sentences, once more to rescue the princess of her from herself.

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