The Quakie and the Nickel
by Deepak Subburam, October 21, 2000
RamFist enters the dark, dingy corridor that leads to the room with the rocket launcher. Only to see Misanthrop exit the room cradling the very weapon he is seeking. RamFist reacts first–letting loose a hail of pellets from his double-barreled shotgun at Misanthrop. The pellets do little damage to Misanthrop as they disperse with distance and only a couple of them actually hit her. Misanthrop next aims at RamFist’s torso and launches a rocket. RamFist deftly sidesteps and the rocket flies by, harmlessly exploding as it impacts with the far wall behind him. Amateur, thinks RamFist–a skilled player would have aimed at RamFist’s feet instead of his torso. Even if RamFist had successfully dodged the rocket itself, the resulting explosion would have caused RamFist at least some splash damage. He decides against fleeing from the encounter and rushes towards Misanthrop, closing the distance that is rendering his shotgun ineffective. Confident of her superior weapon and position, Misanthrop holds her ground and fires rocket after rocket at the walls of the corridor near RamFist, lighting up the dark corridor with rocket trails and buffeting him with the resulting explosions. RamFist swears as he realizes that Misanthrop isn’t quite the amateur he thought her to be. It is too late to turn back. RamFist dodges as well as he can while continuing to close in on Misanthrop, blasting her twice more with his shotgun. He is now close enough to do some real damage to Misanthrop. Misanthrop realizing her danger, fires a rocket at the floor a few feet in front of RamFist, hoping to thwart RamFist’s approach. RamFist rushes forward nonetheless and jumps at the last moment as the rocket explodes right under him. The explosion propels him upward, and while still in midair, he aims down at Misanthrop and delivers a fatal blast of shotgun pellets to her. RamFist then walks over to Misanthrop’s pellet-riddled body and picks up her rocket launcher. His health is down to 12%. Need to play conservative and look for health units, he decides.
Neither the college freshman who controls the RamFist character nor the six other Quake enthusiasts realize that their Internet game is currently under the concerted attention of Chuidge, co-apprentice of the Chief Observer of Earth. Though the Observer ship is on the other side of the planet, one of the four Observer satellites orbiting Earth is in position to detect the signals of the game from the main computer server that is organizing and networking the game. With these signals, Chuidge’s computer recreates the scenes of the match and projects it holographically in 3D – a far cry from the simple 2D monitor display the human players are using. Phuidge, the other co-apprentice, hearing the sounds of the game from his adjoining room, enters.
“What do you think you are doing? This is work time and we are supposed to be Observing. If the Chief hears this racket, he’ll come down and catch you goofing,” says Phuidge.
“The Chief’s too busy investigating ancient Egyptian culture to notice,” replies Chuidge. “Do you know what I am Observing here?”
“You are Observing? A computer game? In which the human players try to kill each other’s computer character that they control with their primitive keyboard/mouse interface? I can not see what value you see in something even the humans themselves believe only for anti-social juveniles.”
“The median age of the Quake player is 27 and there are whole communities, albeit ones in which communication is mostly of electronic form, centered around these first person shooter (FPS) games such as Quake. Hardly juvenile or anti-social. The FPS is a new development in the area of amusement, an area where the humans have been at their creative best and we have had the most to report from.”
“Your FPS is merely a means for humans to derive pleasure from realizing their primal urges to kill, which they have not outgrown quite yet, in a manner acceptable to their society,” says a skeptical Phuidge.
“While the violence and killing that goes on in the game does pander to the primal urges you speak of, they are not what motivate seasoned players. They are just surface effects designed to entertain audiences and attract new players. No seasoned players think about the killing–it is simply a competition to them. The FPS bridges the gaps between art and entertainment; sport and game–comprising a unique blend of these four sources of amusement. Watch.”
RamFist enters a new game in progress–only to get hit almost immediately by several shotgun pellets that come from a shotgun wielded by ShootBack who had joined the game earlier. RamFist returns fire with his pistol, the only weapon in his possession. Knowing that his puny weapon is no match for his opponent’s, RamFist ducks into a corridor with ShootBack in close pursuit. Both the experienced players know the map of the game well and are aware that the corridor they are entering has a dead end but has a hole on the floor near the dead end. This hole drops you down to a parallel corridor in the lower level where a rocket launcher lay – RamFist’s goal. RamFist barely avoids another shotgun blast from ShootBack as he drops through this hole. ShootBack realizes the foolhardiness of following RamFist through the hole as RamFist would surely have armed himself with a rocket launcher by then and be waiting for him to do just that. ShootBack smiles as a thought occurs to him. He switches to his grenade launcher and starts tossing grenades into the hole, hoping to catch RamFist in the corridor if he happened to be loitering around. RamFist, who has indeed been loitering around in the lower level waiting to see if ShootBack was fool enough to follow him through the hole, watches the first grenade land directly beneath the hole. Getting an idea, RamFist times carefully and makes a running jump across the first grenade just as it explodes. The explosion propels him up and through the hole back to the upper level, startling ShootBack, who has just enough time to realize what had happened before RamFist finishes him off with a well aimed rocket. RamFist’s forward momentum from the running jump lands him safely on the edge of the hole in the upper level; just as the other grenades thrown by the now dead ShootBack explode harmlessly in the lower level.
ShootBack ‘respawns’ with full health at a different part of the map, but without any weapons except the pistol, and his human controller types a message: “ramfist: never seen anything like that. r u THE RamFist who won that tournament?”
“With the painstaking attention paid to the architectural details of the ‘maps’ in which the computer characters roam around, the specific characteristics of each item and weapon used in the game to make the gameplay fair and even; even if you refuse to acknowledge the artistic merit of the textures, models and animation that make up the game’s graphics, it is difficult to dismiss the FPS’ claim to be a new art form. At the same time, the gladiatorial thrill that the humans get from participating or even just watching the game gives them pleasure even if they choose not to look for and appreciate these nuances. Thus the FPS is both art and cheap entertainment.
“Also,” Chuidge continues, “while I’ve been referring to the FPS as a game, note its many features more often found in sport. Physical dexterity–necessary for precise and speedy keyboard/mouse control; reaction time–being able to fire the first shot in an encounter or dodge an incoming rocket; acuteness of the senses–to see, hear and interpret accurately the actions of your opponents in the game environment; practice–that which keeps improving your game even as you play for years. The only obvious dissimilarity with sport is that while watching a FPS, the audience does not watch the human player.”
“I now see where you are coming from, Chuidge, but are you sure we are Observing something here that is worth reporting to the Overseers? There are no discernible standards or rules–the adherence to and the deviation from which is the basis of artistic expression and interpretation. It all looks rather arbitrary.”
“Any new game or sport starts with many variations and few established rules. You have to give it some time. An indication of the seriousness of the FPS is that it shares yet another feature with other well developed art forms and sports: highly refined and sensitive instruments or ‘tools of the trade’ that are often a minor engineering marvel for the humans. The serious FPS player, asides from spending as much as he can afford on his computer’s raw processing power, chooses his controls very carefully–just like a champion tennis player chooses his racket. Look at RamFist’s controls for example. An ergonomic keyboard with specially engineered springs that make the keys more responsive. A three-button USB wheelmouse for extra controls and finer sampling rate. Two mouse pads one on top of the other–the one below to give extra resilience to hand pressure and the one above with a special texture to give better traction for the mouse ball.”
“Ha,” Phuidge snickers. “At best all these refinements give a placebo effect. I bet that if we replace his computer’s processor with something significantly inferior, he won’t even notice.”
“I beg to differ. I am quite sure RamFist will notice the most minor tinkering we do to his computer or controls.”
“Why don’t we test him then?” Phuidge then outlines a plan to Chuidge.
“Sounds good to me. However, I am afraid the Chief might catch us intervening without authorization, and it will be too much trouble to apply to the Overseers for that,” Chuidge says.
“The Chief himself has intervened much more often than the three times we have officially sought approval. If he catches us, he will probably be more amused by the aesthetic parallel our test has to a famous human fable. You are just being cowardly, knowing that your pet human will fail the test miserably.”
“Alright then,” Chuidge sighs. “Let’s do it.”
The next day, at the usual time, John, the student who goes by the Quake name of RamFist, starts his game on his computer in his dorm room. His computer then connects to a game server, the host computer that co-ordinates the game by sending and receiving signals through the Internet to and from the various computers of the various players.
M.C.Squared moves to find his favorite weapon, the railgun–a powerful weapon that behaves like a rifle except that the slugs it uses as ammunition leave a streak of light as they pass through air and do enough damage to kill a fully healthy Quake character if he is unarmored. M.C.Squared gets the railgun and leaves the room where he found it. As he traverses the bridge that separates the railgun room from the rest of the map, he spots Asterix toting a hyperblaster at the bridge’s other end. John’s right wrist twitches instinctively and a slug leaves M.C.Squared’s railgun–and misses Asterix. “Heck!” swears John, knowing that he rarely misses such an easy shot. An alerted Asterix starts spraying M.C.Squared with laser bolts. Knowing that the slew of bolts are impossible to dodge while on the bridge and that it will be suicide to wait for his railgun to reload, M.C.Squared jumps off the bridge into the river. Asterix dares not follow, as she knows that M.C.Squared’s railgun would have reloaded by the time she jumps into the water.
“Heck!” swears John again, as M.C.Squared wastes a precious twenty seconds swimming down the river to get back to the building proper where the action lay. For the first time, John feels something amiss with his controls, though he cannot point a finger at the problem. Deciding that it is just his bruised ego for missing that easy shot, John ignores it. Meanwhile, the other players are killing each other and accruing points that would determine their ranking at the end of the game. As M.C.Squared drags himself out of the river onto its eastern bank, a railgun slug whizzes past his left shoulder from behind. Realizing that someone is shooting at him from the western bank of the river, M.C.Squared makes a rapid about turn and fires his railgun at the origin of the streak left behind by the slug that narrowly missed him–and again he misses! Knowing that if his unknown attacker is an amateur he will fire again at him as soon as his weapon reloads, M.C.Squared jumps just as he feels that his enemy’s railgun is ready to fire a second shot–and sure enough a railgun slug streaks through the space that M.C.Squared had just occupied. Once his own railgun is ready, M.C.Squared waits a short while and fires–and misses once more!
John swears again. Knowing that he couldn’t have missed three times in a row without something being the matter, he makes RamFist dive into the river, knowing that others will be unable to see him. John starts checking his mouse . He opens the ball compartment and checks the rollers for dirt or strands of hair. He finds nothing. RamFist, who is holding his breath underwater, starts taking damage from oxygen deficiency. John frantically gets RamFist to kick up to the surface to take in another gulp of air before submerging underwater again. John then checks his upper mouse pad surface for scratches or other damage. The lower mouse pad is next to come under frantic scrutiny. Nothing. Giving up, he puts his mouse together again, turns the upper mouse pad upside down and takes control of RamFist once more. John still feels something amiss as he moves RamFist around in the river. Suddenly, he gets an inspiration. He looks under his lower mouse pad–and finds a nickel!
Laughing out loud, John flicks it away.
The Quakie and the Nickel: Part II by Deepak Subburam November 11, 2000
“Fine, you made your point, Chuidge. The human figured out what we did.”
“Yes, and see what the couple minutes it took him to do so cost him–he ended up in second place for that game, which for a tournament champion is a minor embarrassment. The FPS is, like any other art form or sport, sensitive to its instruments.”
“I still can’t set aside my feeling that the FPS is just a game for juveniles. Just look at the names the human players choose for their FPS characters–from the pseudo-techno-modern RamFist, Tektronix to the egoistic Immortal, EverWinner and the pretentiously classical: Ovid, Pliny. And the character that is just entering the game, ‘Atum’ who is both pretentious and egoistic. Why is this Atum character colored in uniform, bright silver?” asks Phuidge.
“Players can construct their own graphical textures and use them on their computer characters’ skins. Atum’s skin is quite a bad idea as it makes him highly visible to other players. Either his human controller simply doesn’t know better or he is cocky and believes that he needs to give the other players an advantage over him so as to have an interesting game. Either way, RamFist should teach him his error soon.”
The game is taking place on RamFist’s favorite map. The entire map is built upon five platforms falling off of which meant death. Players move from platform to platform via giant trampoline-like jump pads. RamFist makes his way to the smallest and farthest of these platforms that is also the hardest to get to. Once he gets his hands on the railgun on that platform, RamFist puts on his goggles to spy on the other players on the other four platforms. He spots Atum who stands out from the rest due to his shiny ‘skin’ and decides to target him.
RamFist fires, and misses! He now notices that Atum is moving in this jerky, unpredictable way that makes him hard to target. Atum seems not to have noticed RamFist’s shot and heads for the nearby rocket launcher. RamFist realizes Atum’s motive and takes aim with his railgun at the position of the rocket launcher. When Atum is but a yard from the rocket launcher, John’s brain issues the command to get RamFist to fire. A tenth of a second later, RamFist fires. But Atum is not there to receive the railgun slug! He has stopped just short of the launcher, guessing his fate had he not done so.
“Son of a $%#&!” swears John, as Atum picks up the rocket launcher while RamFist looks on helplessly, waiting for his railgun to load. Atum then starts firing rockets, one after another, at RamFist’s platform. From that distance, it takes fully four seconds for the rockets to arrive and RamFist is confident of being able to dodge them. He holds his ground. But as the rockets approach, RamFist realizes that they had been fired at such an angle and distance that they will all hit the floor of his platform at different places but at the same time, so as to cover the entire platform! They are thus impossible to dodge, and it is too late for RamFist to run for the jump pad that would get him off the platform to another. “Son of a $%#&!” swears John again as he watches helplessly as the rockets explode around RamFist, killing him.
“That rocket stunt is quite an impressive feat for a human. Looks like your friend RamFist is finally meeting his match,” says Phuidge.
“Yes. What impresses me even more is that I cannot see any pattern in Atum’s movement, not even the hint of a complex one. I think even we ourselves will have difficulty in hitting Atum with a railgun were we to play against him,” ponders Chuidge.
As RamFist ‘respawns’ with full health, he heads for some armor, determined not to let a single shot from a weapon such as the rocket launcher prove fatal. After getting some weapons, he seeks out Atum, ignoring or dispatching off quickly the other players.
As he is walking, RamFist hears the sound of a rocket being launched directly behind him from a fairly short distance. RamFist quickly deduces that it must be Atum shooting at his back for no other player has the skill to sneak up behind him like that. So he checks his usual response of jumping, and instead executes a quick about turn and fires his shotgun at whatever there might be on his six. Sure enough, Atum is indeed there to receive the blast! And the rocket that Atum had fired whizzes past a foot above RamFist’s head, as Atum had predicted correctly RamFist’s default response to such an attack. Since Atum had just like RamFist stocked up on armor units, he survives the shotgun blast. Then begins an intricate dance of destruction as both players run, stop, turn, jump and duck to avoid each other’s shots. Though no shot lands squarely on either player, both begin taking damage from near misses–RamFist more so than Atum. However RamFist has the upper hand as the initial hit he scored on Atum with his shotgun cost Atum a good chunk of his health. RamFist realizes this and moves to position himself in between Atum and the jump pad that is the only means of escape from the platform.
Atum figures that he is losing. He runs backward to the edge of the platform and jumps backwards right at the edge, simultaneously firing a rocket at the same edge. This explosion propels him further than an ordinary jump and carries him just far enough to reach the edge of the other platform. John’s jaw drops as he sees this incredible stunt that takes Atum to safety.
The time limit for the match expires and a new match on a new map begins. Only Atum and RamFist continue to play on the new map, the other players tiring of the game and calling it quits. As the map loads RamFist types a message to Atum: “who r u?”
Atum replies: “As far as you are concerned, I am Atum. If you manage to kill me before I kill you ten times in succession, I concede defeat in this match. Else, I win. Agree?”
RamFist replies: “sure Mr. Atum … though i think the match will then be quite short…”
And the match begins. The new map is smaller with fewer opportunities for escape. The only quick escape you can make if caught in a duel that you are doing poorly in is to make use of one of the two teleporters present on the map. These two teleporters are located at either end of the map, entering one of which instantaneously teleports you to the other. Atum successfully manages to block RamFist’s approach to these teleporters and kills him repeatedly in just a few minutes, making RamFist’s prediction of a short match seem likely!
“There is something strange going on with Atum,” says Chuidge. “I wonder if he is somehow cheating, though I can’t see any signs of that. I tried to get our sensors to trace the computer signals signaling Atum to find the human player controlling him and was unsuccessful. The other strange feature about Atum’s controller’s connection with the game server is that its Ping is a constant 12 milliseconds. Ping is a measure of the time between submission and receipt of a packet of data to and from the game server and usually varies somewhat with time as the state of Internet traffic varies. I am going to get our computer to trace the speed of Atum’s moves and the damage he takes from RamFist’s shots to see if he is indeed cheating.”
The score becomes 9-0 in Atum’s favor. RamFist hatches a desperate plan. He goes to one end of the map where a rocket launcher and a teleporter are present. He gets the launcher and lies in wait for Atum. Atum enters the scene and the two start exchanging shots. As usual, RamFist starts losing. He then feints for the teleporter that will take him to the other end of the map–and Atum moves to block him. RamFist then flees through the doorway to get to the other end of the map the conventional way. Atum does not follow.
RamFist guesses that Atum would use the teleporter to get to the other end of the map sooner than RamFist does so as to surprise him. RamFist also knows that Atum is too cautious to do so immediately and would wait a while to see if RamFist would come back. Instead of doing that, RamFist sprints his way to the other end of the map–speeding his transit further by a few rocket jumps across some descending staircases so as to reach his goal earlier than Atum’s estimates. RamFist gets to the other end of the map, and Atum has not arrived yet. He quickly positions himself right behind the teleporter just as Atum emerges from it with his back towards RamFist.
As Atum walks away, RamFist fires a rocket straight at Atum. Atum, now alerted, jumps. But the distance is too small and the rocket hits Atum’s lower body. Atum survives the blow, but he does not survive the second rocket RamFist fires at him as he lands from the jump.
“SON OF A $%#&!”
To Chuidge and Phuidge’s amazement, they hear that shrill cry emanating from the Chief’s main cabin.