Was watching Queen’s Gambit today (up to four episodes now), and realized how different the attitude to chess (and perhaps Go too) would’ve been back then.
Today, in a post-Deep Blue, post-Alpha Go, post-<you-know-what> world, we don’t see any mystery about any game of thought.
We simply assume it isn’t even worth trying to get better at it, because why bother — why bother if we can never get as good as machines are?
This earlier time seems so different, because there isn’t a limit perceived to how good someone can be. Contrast this with today, when we are circumscribed somehow, by the knowledge of a “ceiling of competence”. Yes, it’s still a good sport to watch, but it means less, somehow.
What might be the equivalent of this today?
What still counts as an area where humans can compete, where the frontier is open, where we might be surprised at how good one of us is?
Many games have come and gone, and I haven’t actually played anything for about five years now (!), and looking back, I can barely recall most of what I played.
Some names that do stand out though (I’m sure I’m missing atleast one or two big personal time-sinks here), are:
Age of Empires (2)
I was surprised (or perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to find that I wasn’t alone in the specific nostalgia for this game.
Here is a bit of gameplay as an example, though as I looked at it, I found it a bit boring now.
I don’t think it was the mechanics of the game (unique though they felt at the time) that was attractive anyway, but rather (at the risk of being too autobiographically revealing here) the backstory to it.
Update 1: I was able to track down the “Intro movie“, which is … yes, quite un-watchable today — but for some context, this came out in 1999, one year after Dark City, and the year of The Matrix.
It isn’t just the usual post-apocalyptic landscape, with warring “factions” (which feels like elements of Starcraft-like Zerg/Protoss, Star Trek TNG Borg) — the player too is post-human, transformed into a “Synaptic Donor Unit” in order to “play”, giving up their humanity forever.
In return, they get cybernetic command over every deployed piece of military hardware, able to both direct them in the “usual RTS style”, but also enter a given vehicle for a “direct FPS style”.
(Obligatory Wikipedia link for more details on the plot and characters etc)
This isn’t very novel as a general metaphor for gaming — after all, every time you “direct units” in a strategy game, who are you, if not some abstract spirit that controls these people or animals or vehicles or whatever — but it was novel in being so explicit about it.
Within the story of the game, then, you as the player are already “physically dead”, and your outcomes are bleak too: either annihilation at the hands of the enemy, or a victory that preserves the human race (but … leads to you being decommissioned?)
Of course, this backstory is over in a few minutes and the rest of the game can be played and enjoyed in complete ignorance of it too.
Update 2: I found at least one example of fan fiction for it.
“Jan says some hackers are putting together a big war machine. It’s called Synaptic Donor Unit – SDU. Jan says I better lay low at the Arcades, or else Resistance is going to come looking for me. Weird cookbook they’ve got going: Wire together the computers of the free world, add connectivity to all automated armament plants, then upload one human. Sounds like a dream I’ve been having.”