Thursday, 17 May 2012

Retrospective - 3D Monster Maze (Games, 1981)


With at least one new console set to take the E3 stage in a few weeks, technology will be the word on every gamer's lips. Yet despite the expansive resources available to today's developers, it's surprising how few modern games manage to be genuinely scary. While there are some emotions, like love or to an extent laughter, which the medium's artificial nature might be expected to struggle with, fear is one that games should be capable of producing fairly easily.

Though interactive entertainment lacks film's ability to control how an audience experiences a potentially scary situation, gaming can place its players in uniquely vulnerable positions. The lack of a sense of meaningful death is an obstacle, but not one impossible to overcome: games have been scary, just not very often. In fact, gaming's ability to fray the nerves could be seen as proportional to how limited the technology was at the time.
  
The original Resident Evil did everything it could to make the player open to attack, therefore constantly on edge: ammo always ran low, characters controlled like Boeing 747s trying to navigate a roundabout, fixed camera angles and door opening animations made it impossible to take careful peeks of what was up ahead or where that groan was coming from... the in-built disadvantages for players kept them in a state of permanent anxiety and exacerbated the power of the dimly lit locations and the quietly eerie music.

Eternal Darkness, one of the GameCube's few classic games, pulled off the trick of making players question whether or not what they were watching was true. Not so much in the much-discussed 'insanity' tricks - those were gimmicks, only effective the first few times - but in more subtle environmental disturbances around protagonist Alex as she wandered the Roivas mansion. It wasn't above pulling the occasional moment of outright terror from its bag of tricks either.

The game I remember scaring me more than other, though, was one released long when constructing three-dimensional mansions with bleeding walls or hordes of lumbering undead was beyond even the most ambitious developer's craziest fantasies. 3D Monster Maze was actually the first game to offer anything approaching a three dimensional world, back on the humble ZX81, even though the version I played was a PC port, some fourteen-odd years after the original 1981 release.

As I remember it, I was nine years old at the time and was visiting one of my mum's friends. Wanting to keep me out of the way, I was parked on a PC and told that I would like this game she had as "it has dinosaurs in it". This is perfectly acceptable news to a nine-year-old boy and was perfectly psyched as the intro rolled past my eyes (although I did wonder what 'exhilaration' meant). I then find myself landed in a strange black-and-white environment without much idea of what to do. A message along the bottom of the screen read: "REX LIES IN WAIT." My pre-pubescent brain's reaction to this news was at first 'cooooooooooooooooooool' (don't tell me you never elongated vowels as a child) and then inevitably: 'In wait for what?'

Since no-one had explained to me how to control the game or what I was supposed to be doing, I had just about managed to take my first left turn by the time a new message appeared.

HE IS HUNTING FOR YOU.

Errr... hang on, what?

FOOTSTEPS ARE APPROACHING.

No they're not. Where? What's going on?

RUN! REX HAS SEEN YOU!

Aaaaaargh!
 A screen-filling dinosaur suddenly materialises in front of my innocent eyes, mouth agape in readiness for its me-shaped aperitif. Despite hammering down on every button I remember previously having any sort of effect, the next thing I see are a large set of jaws and the news that I was destined to walk the maze forever.

I quickly bailed from the PC and told my mum that I couldn't play anymore as "I was eaten". She did the usual 'that's OK' schtick before her friend escorted me back to the PC, helpfully telling me that I had to find my way out of the maze before the dinosaur got me again (gulp!) and that I'd get better the more I played. I'm pretty sure she even unleashed that most hated of adult aphorisms, 'Practice Makes Perfect' (did that ever come before anything good?) before telling me to come back when I'd finished the first level.

Destined to walk the maze forever. For what felt like the next few hours, Rex was fed on a never-ending banquet of me. When I finally found the first gate, I was so proud of myself that I went running back to mother to tell her of my glorious achievement in escaping the monster's snare. "Well done," she said, "Now, see if you can beat the second level." Turns out my escape route had taken me straight back into the maze. Or more specifically, the T-Rex's stomach during the time I had been away from the screen.

When it finally came time to leave, I was told to thank my mum's friend for letting me play on her computer, which I did. As soon as we were out of the door, I explicitly informed my mother that I was never going back to her friend's flat again.

Admittedly, the days of 3D Monster Maze being able to turn my brain to panic-mode at its whim are long gone. But as basic and silly as it is, looking back as an adult - well, a larger, hairier and less-easily terrified boy, anyway - it's easy to appreciate how brilliant aspects of the game's design were, even if many of them were probably put in place to accommodate the limited hardware more than anything else. The lack of soundtrack keeps you absolutely focused.

The carefully worded messages at the bottom of the screen became far more imaginatively evocative than graphics could ever be, keeping a permanent sense of dread for the moment the message turned into a warning and then a desperate command to RUN! Technical limitations only made the game scarier as movement was chunky at best (I've since discovered the game ran at a mind-boggling six frames-per-second!), making you feel less in control than you needed to me, while the dinosaur would usually just appear out of thin air. That dino looks hilarious now, but back then little tricks like the game literally showing you the whites of his eyes before he ate you, could instil terror like nothing else.

By any rational standard, 3D Monster Maze is pretty close to unplayable these days without being equipped with heavily tinted nostalgia goggles. But for its time and limited resources, it was a wonderful accomplishment, albeit one which might have scarred me for life. It shows how much can be achieved with very little, especially when compared with the often empty excess that gets poured into many modern games for no better reason than the technology is there: what has been seen of Resident Evil 6 suggests all trace of suspense has been expunged from the series in favour of bland, Call Of Duty-esque spectacle. The early Resis and Eternal Darkness might have put me on edge as I was playing them, but if I'm ever walking down an alleyway in the middle of the night, there's only one thing on my mind as I approach that blind corner.

REX IS HUNTING FOR YOU.

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