Rare is the game that not only is great, not only manages to glow in your memory over fifteen years later, and rarer still is the game that manages to somehow combine all that with a sense of place and a group of people.
However, Descent, Interplay’s mind-breaking 1995 game of zero-g tunnel fighting, is just such a title.
Back in the mid-nineties in the Sydney suburb of Glebe, a net-cafe opened. It was, in fact, one of the first in the country, and it was packed with awesomely powerful PCs all networked together. It also served some pretty tasty cafe food, and the barista at the time was a close friend. My group of game-playing friends had just discovered Descent, and it seemed like a match made in heaven.
First, though, if you don’t remember Descent, or have never heard of it, it probably pays to bring you up to speed. It had a simple premise – you’re sent into a series of zero-g mining complexes to rescue workers and destroy said mine after it’s been taken over by virus-infected robots. You're piloting a small fighter craft. Pretty standard fare, but the game’s kicker was the full six-degrees of motion you could explore.
Combined with some complex levels, the game was mind-bending. A common experience was to find yourself contorting your upper body to match on-screen movement as you flipped upside-down, thrust sideways, fired a missile, then hovered back around a corner and into cover. Arguably the most important control of all was the single-button press that would return you to a level attitude!
However, as engrossing as the singleplayer was (and it looked good, too, with an incredible lighting engine for the time), the game came alive in multiplayer. It followed the standard of the time – arbitrary arenas with scattered weapon upgrades about the joint), but the freedom of motion, and the fact that many of the weapons had considerable flight time, made for some compelling play. And since even though the share house I lived in at the time was highly compute-heavy (it had two Macs and an Amiga), the pull of getting a whole eight players together for epic fragging was irresistible.
Thus, when Well Connected, the aforementioned net cafe opened, it seemed too perfect an opportunity.
So, fuelled by the most wicked quadruple-shot coffees our barista buddy could make (shakes were a common side-effect), we gamed long and hard. Tactics evolved on a near hourly basis – someone would come up with a game-winning strategy, dominate for a time, and then be outstripped by some counter-move. I think I learned more about interactions of zero-g bodies in those gaming sessions than I could from a lifetime of physics study.
But one thing really sticks in my head. One of the people we played with – a flatmate at the time – had a wicked sense of spatial awareness, and a wonderful ability to read another player’s reactions. She simply pwned at that game. She’d fire off a missile at me, then re-position and start shooting at an empty bit of space; in moments, I’d see the missile, react with a dodge, and start to come about for a return shot, only to discover I’d flown right into her fire-arc.
Cackling would follow. If she reads this, I guarantee she’ll be maniacally laughing at my limited grasp of three-dimensional mechanics.
Seriously fun times.
The other day, after wandering down Glebe Pt Rd – which I hadn’t done for a while – I noticed that Well Connected had closed. And man... it made me sad.