A Beautiful Game

03 May 2015

If you’ve met me and talked with me for some length of time, you’re probably aware that I really like video games. I don’t just like video games - I specifically enjoy matching up against players of equal skill and playing a thrilling mental battle.

When I was young, I used to butt heads against the world’s best (matter of fact, I was the world’s best in one game).

I am sometimes asked if “that’s it.” So.. you play a video game against people?

The point isn’t the video game. I happen to prefer First Person Shooters - they are raw, real, and in your face. You are against them. Nothing else matters.

What’s lovely about video games is that it’s a very even playing field. There are certain limitations that everyone is limited by - a player model can only move 100 units/second. That applies to everyone. Now, who can do the most damage with that restriction?

What’s especially dynamic about video games is that the code isn’t perfect. Sometimes, as in Quake, you can game the system just a bit. With Quake Live, you can strafe side to side and increase your move speed. Top players glide around the map like flying squirrels from tree to tree.

But - here is a disconnect. The average Quake population has been sharply segmented by this trivia. Are you now a player capable of strafe jumping around the map, or are you slow and frequently dead?

Furthermore, is it even fun for a strafe jumper to play against someone who doesn’t possess that talent? Someone who has put the time in to learn the small subtleties of movement in the Quake universe versus some average joe who can barely walk around the map?

There’s no joy in egregious victory. It serves neither player. The beaten player is so thoroughly beaten that very little can be learned - and the winning player has learned nothing.

"”I am trying to make you understand the game,” he said. “The entire game, not just the fiddling about with stones. The point is not to play as tight as you can. The point is to be bold. To be dangerous. Be elegant.”

It is true that the unskilled player will likely pick up on productive habits of the superior player. He will likely begin to at least understand why he is losing. He may not have the technical or mental ability to counter his opponent, but he can began to fit patterns together. If I got there - I die. He always watches that corner. And aha! - a spark! Maybe I can sneak up behind him when he expects me to turn the corner. And the game commences. Perhaps the superior player sees this gambit coming and tosses it away with ease. Years of playing against tricky minds will do that to you.

Quake duels are a mixture of strategy and raw skill. As skill levels increase, accuracy levels tend to level out. Even the best players are generally going to fall in an average range of accuracy. Top gamers are assumed to have ~48-55% Rail Gun accuracy. The same logic can follow for the Lightning Gun, Rocket Launcher, etc. Again, these are all hard objects - the Rocket Launcher shoots a predictable projectile with a fixed movement speed and a definite termination point. No one has a “better” rocket launcher. No one’s rocket launcher is suffering from mechanical failures. In other words, players are free to compete in a perfectly maintained environment, where the rules are repeatable and sensible. Much like chess, a small pool of objects can result in an enormously complex game. Mechanical motions are generally not the peak of talent in video games. Wisdom, game-sense, plain old “feelings” - these are the tools of the seasoned duelist.

This isn’t a duel, but it’s illustrative. Watch the above clip once or twice. There’s no solid reason I could give you for my decision to shoot towards that door. I, of course, can offer tons of rationalizations and do some calculations that would just assert that yes, I knew that scout was coming because of existing information in my mind.

I know a few things:

The typical move-speed and movement pattern of a scout (including the timing of double jumping).

The aggressive backdooring tendencies of LD50 (medianlethaldose in the video above.) I have played with and against LD50 and was quite familiar with his play-style.

The speed of my shot - taken for granted, but I threw that shot up at the right time because I understood the dynamics of the projectile.

I spot the blue scout leaving the middle point at :07 seconds. My mental timer is primed by him leaving and I keep his presence in the back of my mind, even as I engage other players in combat.

Is the shot lucky? Fuck yeah! But it’s not as lucky as it seems at first. I won’t be the first to belabor this point - luck is when prior preparation meets opportunity.

He tapped the board with two fingers. “Any man that’s half awake can spot a trap that’s laid for him. But to stride in boldly with a plan to turn it on its ear, that is a marvelous thing.” He smiled without any of the grimness leaving his face. “To set a trap and know someone will come in wary, ready with a trick of their own, then beat them. That is twice marvelous.”

Bredon’s expression softened, and his voice became almost like an entreaty. “Tak reflects the subtle turning of the world. It is a mirror we hold to life. No one wins a dance, boy. The point of dancing is the motion that a body makes. A well-played game of tak reveals the moving of a mind. There is a beauty to these things for those with eyes to see it.”

He gestured at the brief and brutal lay of stones between us. “Look at that. Why would I ever want to win a game such as this?”

I looked down at the board. “The point isn’t to win?” I asked.

To play a beautiful game of anything requires a deep comprehension of the subject matter. To fully explore a game, both competitors must be fluent in the subtle nuances of gameplay. They must both have awareness of common strategies, tactics, and tricks. Only then does the sheen of raw skill fall away, and wise talent emerges.

There will always be someone who can outshoot you in a video game. Especially as I age, I notice that I simple cannot keep up with teenagers. They react much more quickly than me and generally have stronger aim. But I can generally dispose of people with superior aim, because I have been playing dueling games since I was a little boy.

I just recently finished reading Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Phaedrus’s eternal struggle with the notion of Quality mirrors my frustration to explain the feeling of game-sense.

What is game sense? It’s not something that can be defined (by me, anyway), but here are some thoughts on the matter.

In a typical game of Quake, the player is placed on a map with lots of power-ups, items, weapons, etc. Some of the power-ups are more valuable than others - these are health or armor pickups (they make the character absorb more damage, increasing your odds of winning a fight).

The player must navigate the map, duel with his enemy, and remember the spawn times of 3-4 different items. Armors spawn in 25 second intervals. Mega-health pickups spawn every 35 seconds. A competitive player will seek to establish a route in which he arrives at armor spawns exactly as they appear. A second or two late, and the enemy will snag it.

A high-level game, then, is dramatically different than any other sort of Quake. It’s as if beginners to Quake are playing by an entirely different set of rules - they engage at random, fighting all over the map. They don’t strafe jump or rocket jump or plasma hop. They don’t time armors, so their health management strategies are haphazard and shoddy. They are, of course, still playing Quake. But not the beautiful game.

Our high-level Quake enthusiasts are simply playing a different game. They swoop and swirl at dizzying speeds across the maps, gracefully skipping over armors and power-ups right when they spawn. They use their weapons as diversions, distractions, buffers. They fire rockets down corridors because they know that an armor is due to spawn in 3 seconds, and the enemy player will perhaps run into that rocket. Or perhaps the enemy player, knowing full well that the armor is up in 3 seconds, diverts to another part of the map in order to avoid confrontation.

This level of decision making can only occur when both parties have a sufficient understanding of the game. Otherwise, one player is moving with purpose and motivation while the other player, ignorant of the game mechanics, shuffles aimlessly around the map.

When a game is tight between two talented players, the feeling is palpable. Players who are being forced to think, to improvise, to change their methods to win - that is a beautiful sight.

And all of this is accomplished by the clacking of a keyboard, a mouse in the palm of a hand, and the brain of a competitor. Such rich, diverse mental battles can be emotionally draining in the same way an argument with your Significant Other leaves you feeling emotionally exhausted.

What even happens in this clip? There’s a lot of information missing, but my subconscious game-sense fills in the blanks for me. Again, I know the speed of a scout. I know that one died at the beginning of the fight. I know that scouts commonly use that window to rush the middle point. I see the enemy demoman in a defensive posture. The only time I play that defensively as demoman is when I’m trying to lure people in. I apply my own knowledge to that situation in a split second and await the trap. I back up and spam a pipe at the window. Now, instead of a scout dropping my head, I have turned the situation around, and end up with a kill.

None of this is tangible. I have no knowledge of the scout truly coming out of there. It’s simply an educated guess - my game sense. It’s an awareness of the battlefield that transcends raw data at hand. It is one of the unique things about humans - we can build very interesting heuristics to govern our behavior. Game sense is a series of heuristics mixed with reasoning, prior observation, and guessing.

A truly beautiful game pits two talented, insightful, and wise players against each other. There is a reason chess has been played throughout history, despite having the exact same pieces - the only limitations of the game are mental, and chess, at it’s very best, is simply a battle between fallible human minds. A beautiful game does not always result my victory - a beautiful game is simply one I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. Sometimes an opponent knows you better than you know yourself. There are Quake rounds where I’ve felt like I’m debating my mother - my opponent always has a snappy retort that leaves me stumbling. The purpose of the beautiful game is not to win. Winning is an afterthought, a result of the action. A beautiful game is independent of outcome or score. It is simply a feeling, an undefinable concept. But if you’ve played one, you know.

“The point,” Bredon said grandly, “is to play a beautiful game.” He lifted his hands and shrugged, his face breaking into a beatific smile. “Why would I want to win anything other than a beautiful game?”

-Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear.