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Descent

I play few computer games and no video games. But when Windows was wondrous, the Internet was a rumor, and time spent with the miracle machine was its own justification, I spent far too much time at it.

I played two more than any others: Civilization and Descent. Civilization was and is a popular game; I have nothing new to say about it. But I cannot assume that anyone remembers Descent. It did have sequels; it was a plausible rival to Doom, making it Lilith to Doom's Eve in the ancestry of first-person shooters. Descent was also an FPS: but an FPS with a difference.

Here is the boilerplate. An all-powerful corporation operates offworld mines crewed with robots. In some of these mines the robots have gone wrong – suffered some infection. They have massacred or imprisoned the human staff. You have a heavily armed one-man ship. In one mine after another you must fight your way to the power core, destroy it, and get out before the mine goes up. If you should rescue any hostages along the way, that would be appreciated, but is not required.

None of this hints how strange and intense playing Descent is.

All your opponents are robots; the hostages wear helmets; except in the cutscenes, nothing like a human face is seen. You are alone from beginning to end.

The mines are not just underground spaces; they are warrens, tangled nests of open and hidden tunnels, labyrinths in three dimensions and zero gravity.

The Wright brothers deserve their fame, not because they were the first to lob a glider into the air with an engine strapped to it, but because they were the first to wrap their heads around the fact that a plane must be controlled in three degrees of freedom – roll, pitch, and yaw. It took about fifty years from the first experiments in powered flight for earthbound minds to make that leap.

In Descent your ship has six degrees of freedom: roll, pitch, yaw, heave, surge, and sway – the combined maneuverability of an airplane, a car, a submarine, and a dream.

This is a puzzle in interface design. Playing Descent with standard gaming equipment is impossible. The default compromise puts two degrees of freedom – pitch and yaw – under the right hand, on the mouse or joystick, and distributes the rest somewhat haphazardly on the keyboard. A good player will change the keybindings to bring all the controls under the left hand, coordinating patterns of motion like musical chords.

(Note that the ship behaves as if it had six separate engines, not one engine with six separate nozzles. With six engines simultaneous motion along multiple axes is a vector sum – which means that to achieve top speed you must move the ship simultaneously along three axes, triangulating your direction. This is called trichording, and mastering it is the only way to actually win the game.)

Just learning to play the game is mind-expanding; but that is not the intense thing about it. The game is claustrophobic. You fly at high speed down tortuous tunnels not much wider than your ship, whirling like a cell in the bloodstream – in a hostile bloodstream. As you thread each level, you map it; but the map must be presented as a model, not a projection – there is no two-dimensional way to make sense of a level in Descent. If you play for more than an hour I guarantee you will dream of those tunnels. You will see them when you shut your eyes.

Descent is unique for good reason. It has the steep learning curve a game could only get away with when there were few other choices. And some people physically cannot play the game; just being in the same room with someone playing Descent can cause motion sickness. (Really, Descent has seven degrees of freedom – roll, pitch, yaw, heave, surge, sway, and puke.)

The question has been raised: “Can video games be art?” Inclusively of video and computer games, I say no. Games can contain art, but the game itself is no more art than a museum is art. Games cannot be art to the satisfaction of genteel tradition. They are not art, but they are something. It is arrogant of me to dictate to a genre I do not participate in, but what I want in a game is not a movie or a novel – old wine in new skins. I want something to rewire my brain; I want something to infest my dreams.