Computer games from Z to A

posted: July 4, 2020

tl;dr: From Zork to Animal Crossing: New Horizons, it’s mind blowing to see how far we’ve come...

It took weeks, but our local Target finally had a Nintendo Switch available when my wife went to purchase one. We had been told by our daughters, and other friends and co-workers, that we absolutely had to get one so that we could play the game which is all the rage right now: Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

I was very much into computer games back when I was roughly the age my daughters are now: my teenage years and early twenties. Games are one of the reasons I got into computers in the first place. Some of those games I typed, line by line, from computer magazines into the first computer I owned, a Commodore 64. I played video games in the arcades (Galaga was a favorite), as well as on our family’s Atari 2600.

One genre that I enjoyed was text-based adventure games, in which you get plunked down in a strange environment which you then explore, solving puzzles and mysteries along the way in pursuit of some goal. Nothing much happens in the game unless you take action, and you control the pace of play. I think I played Zork and also a variant of Colossal Cave Adventure, as well as some others.

Intro screen to Adventure, a 1970s-80s vintage text-based adventure game

The user interface for those games was incredibly crude by today’s standards. There were no graphics. All information about the world immediately around you was conveyed in a few lines of text. You typed simple sentence fragments to take action, such as “turn right”, “open door”, “pick up sword”. Just as when reading a book, your imagination provided all the visualizations. You had to remember (or write down) a map of the world in which you found yourself. Because the games did not fully engage the senses (there was no sound that I recall), I never felt as though I had entered an alternate reality. The fun came from solving the puzzles and advancing through the game.

Fast forward more than three decades to Animal Crossing: New Horizons (AC:NH), and it’s mind blowing to see how far games have advanced. In AC:NH you control a character on your own island. This harkens back to a popular graphical adventure game I played in the 1990s on PCs, Myst. But AC:NH goes far beyond the virtual one-player world that Myst created. AC:NH is a fully networked game, so you can play alongside other friends both locally (my wife and I play together using multiple controllers on the same console) as well as remotely via the Internet. You can invite other friends to fly on Dodo Airlines to your island, and once there, you can interact with them and jointly perform activities on your island.

Animal Crossing characters: my daughter, myself, and two of my daughter's friends

It is this aspect of the game that takes AC:NH to the level that Neal Stephenson described in 1992 in his famous science fiction book Snow Crash. The networked world of all players’ AC:NH islands functions as an online virtual reality world of its own. Real world players interact with each other in this virtual world through their online personas, the characters that they create and personalize. You can choose to be someone sort of like yourself, or someone completely different from your real world self. Hierarchy in the online world doesn’t match up with hierarchy in the real world. Time also advances in the online AC:NH world at the same pace as it does in the real world. The sun rises and sets, the seasons change, and the available activities match up with the seasons.

AC:NH is a sweet kids game which can be enjoyed by kids of all ages. The graphics are sharp, the music and sounds are upbeat, the character movements are smooth, and the written text is humorous. The game-generated characters have personality. When players get together, assuming they are also on a conference call together, it truly does convey a sense of interaction among friends. Aside from getting stung by bees once, almost all the activities in the game are constructive as opposed to destructive. The focus is to make your portion of the world, your island, a better place. In that sense it is like another popular game I’ve enjoyed playing, Minecraft.

I can see why AC:NH is such a huge hit. It’s the perfect game for the COVID-19 pandemic. When playing it, especially with friends, it does feel as though you’ve entered an alternate, and better, reality. I lose track of time and everyday concerns while playing it. It’s not until I’m done playing that I remember that I have to return to the real world, where the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still on the loose. I can see why the kids love AC:NH. As The Who said many years ago, the kids are alright.

For those of us who helped, in some small way, to build the Internet, I regard AC:NH as one of our crowning achievements so far (Facebook is much farther down on my list). This is the sort of virtual world and community that we were trying to make possible.