Time Extend: Robotron 2084
The history of gaming is a history of ingratiation. It’s a trend that plays out on a number of fronts. Over three decades, consoles have wheedled their way into our lives and our living rooms, but the real change has taken place in the growing desire of games to win you over. Whether it’s the worlds they take you to visit, the characters they introduce you to or, more recently, the regular showerings of Achievement points just for taking part, in a saturated market where most titles will slip past unnoticed, is it any surprise that games have such a pathological need to be loved?
Furthermore, is it any surprise that ingratiation got confused with immersion somewhere along the line? While it’s always nice to be fussed over, genuine involvement is what gamers really dream about. It’s the promise that’s kept people playing all the way from Spacewar! to Gears Of War, through decades of bruised thumbs, incredulous relatives and joysticks lost to Speedball 2. Laggy servers, interminable cutscenes, Kabuki Warriors – they’re consequences of the unending search for that special title that will pull you through the looking glass, making the rest of the world bleed away and focusing your attention on that single rectangle of light. Whether it’s playing on a 36-inch plasma or a 12-inch black and white CRT, the right game can reach beyond hardware and draw you into its world – pushing you out hours later blinking, confused and late for work. That’s immersion.
And that’s also why Robotron: 2084 remains so refreshing, a quarter of a century after its creation. Eugene Jarvis’ follow-up to Defender is a game that consistently manages to involve players intimately without offering bribes. In fact, it doesn’t seem to offer much at all: it is rudimentary, odd-looking and pedantically difficult – hardly a recipe for success. Robotron doesn’t only succeed in its own right, it’s still spawning imitators, from the Catherine-wheel light displays of Geometry Wars to the uterine aesthetics of Mutant Storm (which looks like Robotron redesigned by the top men at Rowntrees in collaboration with a committee of gynaecologists). Since its inception, Xbox Live Arcade has slowly filled up with twin-stick shooters, all taking their cue from Robotron itself. This begs the questions: how can something so fundamentally limiting weave such a powerful spell? And how can a game that clearly hates its players win so many of them over?
Robotron’s unforgiving design strikes too deeply to be explained away as a product of its time. All early arcade games had to temper their desire to ingratiate with the need to quickly move players on, but even the most hard-hearted of them showed you a little love when they could. Space Invaders may have swamped you with enemies, but it gave you shields to hide behind and at least a fair amount of time before the waves started crashing down on you. Robotron just isn’t interested in that kind of thing. No shields, no smart bombs, no moment of reflection before the enemies attack. For those new to Robotron, their first game may last under 30 seconds. Death seems random, and the player’s starting position in the middle of the screen, vastly outnumbered by enemies, is likely to induce not a sense of energised euphoria, but outright panic.
The story is equally bare, even by the electron-thin standards of the day, when works like ‘a big gorilla stole my girlfriend’ were the equivalent of The Brothers Karamazov. Even though game narratives were in their infancy in 1982, many titles were already starting to use stories to hide the clink of cold hard coinage that lurked beneath the surface. A few simple animations and a fake sense of closure were the best ways to hide a looping level structure that was theoretically infinite. Failing that, you could always just ignore the problem, and hope the player did too. Robotron, instead, embraces the void completely – revelling in the meaningless loop and breaking the cardinal rule of game design by coming pretty close to admitting that you can never win. From the moment you fire your first shot, the robots are practically victorious, and while the game might dutifully suggest that you're Mankind's last hope, with your Elton John glasses and the horribly assymetric warfare you're up against, it's pretty obvious that you're doomed. Robotron doesn’t break the mould because it’s an exercise in futility, but because it can’t wait to tell you all about it.