I've been thinking a lot about old games lately. As I write this, we await news about the future of Good Old Games, a digital download service that sells DRM-free games from an impressive back catalog that includes publishers like Activision, Interplay, and Atari.
GOG dropped a bomb when they announced they were "closing down the service," and the entire site suddenly disappeared, save for a simple announcement on the main page. For those of us who've relied on GOG as a legal and inexpensive way to introduce a bygone era of games to students, the news came as quite a blow. Apparently they're coming back with a new business model. We'll soon see. [Update: apparently GOG's announcement was a PR hoax.]
One of my most satisfying moments as a teacher came two years ago when 15 students overcame their resistance and disorientation and embraced the original Fallout. I wrote about that experience, and since then I've continued to challenge my students with games that fall well outside their comfort zones: arcade classics (e.g. Defender); interactive fiction (e.g. Planetfall); and early dungeon-crawlers (e.g. Rogue).
But I've noticed a general downward trajectory forming over the last six years or so. Gradually my students have grown less and less capable of handling one particular assignment: Ultima IV. To be sure, they struggle with a game like Planetfall, but when they finally learn the game's syntax (and heed my advice to map their progress), it's mostly a question of puzzle-solving. Defender knocks them down initially, but they soon apply the quick reflexes they've developed playing modern games, and they're fine.
Ultima IV is another story. Here's a sampling of posts from the forum I set up to facilitate out-of-class discussion of the game:
- I've been very confused throughout the entire experience. I've honestly sat here for hours trying to figure out what to do and it just isn't making much sense to me right now.
- When I start a game I like to do it all on my own, but it's been impossible to do so with Ultima. I've asked friends for help, looked up FAQs/walkthroughs, and even searched for Let's Play Ultima 4 on youtube and am still uncertain as to how to get further in this game.
- Yeah, I still have no idea what the main goal is. I suppose it's to basically find out what the purpose of the Ankh is. But I see no way of furthering that goal.
- I tried for awhile without any walkthroughs to get the full gamer experience sort thing and within the hour I gave up because of a combination of bad controls and a hard to get into story for me at least. It reminded me of a bad runescape.
- i dont quite understand the concept of the game. i believe my main confusion is the controls and how it displays what you have done and how you moved. im not used to rpg's and i dont like them to much. i hope to find out how to move forward,but so far no luck.
- How the hell do I get out of here after I die?
They had five days to play U4, and I asked them to make as much progress as they could in that time. When we gathered to debrief in class, a few students explained how they'd overcome some of their difficulties, but the vast majority was utterly flummoxed by the game. As one of them put it, "I'd say for gamers of our generation, an RPG like Ultima IV is boring and pretty much unplayable." After removing the arrow from my chest, I asked them to explain why.
It mostly came down to issues of user-interface, navigation, combat, and a general lack of clarity about what to do and how to do it. I had supplied them with the Book of Mystic Wisdom and the History of Britannia, both in PDF form, but not a single student bothered to read them. "I thought that was just stuff they put in the box with the game," said one student. "Yes," I replied, "They put it in there because they expected you to read it." "Wow," he responded.
Some of their difficulties must be chalked up to poor teaching. I should have done a better job of preparing them for the assignment. I resisted holding their hands because in the past I've found it useful to plop them down in Britannia and let them struggle. Figure out the systems, grok the mechanics, and go forth. Ultima IV may be a high mountain to climb for a 19-year-old Call of Duty player, but it's well worth the effort.
At least that's what I used to think. Now it seems to me we're facing basic literacy issues. These eager players are willing to try something new, but in the case of a game like Ultima IV, the required skill-set and the basic assumptions the game makes are so foreign to them that the game has indeed become virtually unplayable.
And as much as I hate to say it - even after they learn to craft potions, speak to every villager, and take notes on what they say - it isn't much fun for them. They want a radar in the corner of the screen. They want mission logs. They want fun combat. They want an in-game tutorial. They want a game that doesn't feel like so much work.
I'm pretty sure I'll continue to teach Ultima IV. The series is simply too foundational to overlook, and I can develop new teaching strategies. But I believe we've finally reached the point where the gap separating today's generation of gamers from those of us who once drew maps on grid paper is nearly unbridgeable. These wonderful old games are still valuable, of course, and I don't mean to suggest we should toss them in the dustbin.
But if we're interested in preserving our history and teaching students about why these games matter, a "play this game and sink-or-swim" approach won't work anymore. The question for me at this point is how to balance the process of learning and discovery I want them to have inside the game with their need for basic remedial help.
I love great old games like Ultima IV, but I can no longer assume the game will make its case for greatness all by itself.