Remembered Games: Tyrian

Whether computer games are mesmerizing or dull I can never tell. Sometimes it seems to me it's only the music that mesmerizes. In Star Control II--nostalgia for which I designed a website around--there are long stretches of time traveling between star systems across monotonous expanses of deep red or blinding green, and, of course, repeating music. There's no part of the game that isn't scored, and the sounds of "hyperspace" and "quasispace" are the most mesmeric, and have the least movement. The monotony makes these songs more repeatable. Like a tiling background image, micro-patterns within each tile make the tiles less discernible than macro-patterns. Tiny movements make both the tiling images and the repeating music seem oddly wasteful, as the repeated tiles consist of many almost identical repeating sub-tiles. The perception that the tiles make up something larger than themselves than they are lies in the "almost"--the subtle variations that are not meant to create catharsis so much as enable getting lost in. The lengthy journeys between stars not only confer a sense of the game world's immensity, but put me in a trance. Of course, I took any excuse to space out.

While Star Control II's interludes were basically very monotonous music videos--there was no need for interaction except to avoid an occasional pursuing ship--Tyrian's trances are its gameplay. Does this mean playing it is incredibly dull, or endlessly fascinating? Again, its capacity to mesmerize seems largely due to its music, which is particularly compelling, for computer game music. It even has a separate jukebox program, which plays all of the game's songs in random order. But when I have tried to run this jukebox in the background while occupied with something other than Tyrian, the music gets old very quickly, and I skip half the songs. In the game, a song repeats until the level is completed, and rarely tires.

There is something mesmerizing yet oddly disengaging about playing Tyrian. I wouldn't say there's no tension, but the tension is subsumed into the game's aesthetic principle. Enemies do not come into play wily-nilly or out of view, as they do in first-person shooters, but swoop onto the screen in orderly processions. Rather than the twitchyness required of first-person shooters, your survival here often depends upon your gracefulness. The level I remember best is full of swinging chains (deadly, of course), undulating spikes, and narrow, zigzagging corridors. A successful run scribes a kind of calligraphy. Though perhaps ballet is a better metaphor, as success depends upon synchronicity with all of the other moving bodies on screen.

Caught up--abstracted--in the choreography and visual spectacle, it is easy to let my thoughts wander. It might even be easi_er_. Playing the game becomes a barely cognitive impulse, like driving a car, and the constraint of limited engagement frees up thinking.

Of course, this is only half true; the other half is a wish. I tell myself that I'm thinking when I play Tyrian, because I become so addicted. It is at least a mercifully short game. I've played it through three times, the first more than a decade ago because a friend had it on his computer, and the second two at the bottom of a depression. The game provides the relief of giving up. It's ability to entrance is precious to a restless mind. I stay up late playing it all the way through, letting it suspend me.

Indeed, it seems to require a willingness or need to be subjected to its constraints. I have tried to play it more recently, and it's too pneumatic, too disinterested in the future. Rather than a vastness, it is a surface.

To characterize the game as disinterested in the future is not quite fair. There is an upgrade system. After every level there's a store, with slightly different items to make your ship faster, tougher, or more lethal. But playing the levels is not, as in games like Diablo, drowned in the desire for better stuff. Playing is pleasurable for reasons other than seeing spectacular evidence of your latest upgrade.

The trouble is that having a better ship eventually lessens the need to be acrobatic. If you are capable of destroying almost everything in your path, playing becomes reduced to evading those few indestructible obstacles. As my involvement attenuates, the game stops mesmerizing.

Therefore it's toward the end of the game, when upgrades have been exhausted, that the present gets hollowed out by the future: I play merely to finish the game. And so I always end with the sense that the game is dull.

2 February 2013