In The Zone

A retrospectacle look at achieving that special state of mind.

I was there for the Golden Age of the arcade; bright lights, loud (dedicated) cabinets, learning to smoke and play at the same time. And all those glorious old machines wanted to do was take your money as fast as possible, so if you wanted more than 90 seconds of gameplay for your ten pence, you had to earn it.

You stared blank eyed at the cabinet, but your eyes were far from blank. You were processing. Let’s say it’s the Williams classic, Robotron 2084. One screen, one little Robotron man, one hundred Robotron enemies. All advancing towards wherever you were on screen. One joystick made you move. The other made you fire. So your eyes were tracking enemies, where you wanted to go, what direction you wanted to shoot. There were Spheroids in corners, which if you left them alone for too long would start to generate more, tougher enemies. So you were prioritising targets. And you’d clear the wave, without even understanding HOW you did it.

Because you were “In the Zone”.

You hadn’t time to think, you simply acted. Moved, shot, moved, shot. New Level. More for your 10p. And it was relentless. Perhaps a 4 second pause between levels, then more of the same, only faster and harder.

I still play Robotron today. I even play it almost properly, the original code running in a cabinet with two joysticks. OK, it’s not perfect – it’s a PC running an emulator in the cabinet. Perfect would be an original Williams Robotron 2084 cabinet. And, god help me, I sort of want one because deep down, I think the “fire” joystick on my cabinet lags a little on the diagonal shots.

Now, why should a little, tiny, fraction of a second of practically imperceptible lag make we want to spend probably about a grand on an original?

Because, when a game is all about being in the Zone, a microsecond can make all the difference.

So what’s changed since 2084… from 1984. Why aren’t we in the zone anymore?

The immediate smart arse answer is basically, if I’ve just shelled out £40 for a game, I expect more than 90 seconds of gameplay. You don’t go somewhere to play games anymore; you stay home, in your nice comfy seat, with even perhaps some refreshments beyond a Silk Cut balanced on the edge of the control panel. And in this new, more relaxed environment, you had time to think before you acted. The game already had your cash, so it didn’t need to get rid of you to make way for a new punter as quickly as possible. A great gaming experience didn’t have to be simply reacting to what was happening on screen anymore. You could relax your hands, even blink, without fear of immediately dying.

And with a new location, games got a little more leisurely. They slowly grew from reaction tests and turned into puzzles. The 8 Bit computer era began trying desperately to emulate the arcade. The early days of Rare, back when they were Ultimate Play the Game, was pure 16K arcade. Jet Pac, Cookie, Tranz Am, Psssst – all were reaction based games. Then they made the leap to the unfeasibly large 48K. And you suddenly had to think about their games. Lunar Jetman required strategy. Atic Atac needed a map. So did Sabre Wulf and Underworlde. And then Knight Lore arrived, and it seemed like the arcades were dead, if you could do this at home.

And that transformation of what was probably the leading ZX Spectrum software house happened in less than 4 years. Why copy the arcades when you could create long-term games, with endings, thus reminding punters when it was time to buy their next product?

So will we never step back into the Zone, unless we go unashamedly retro?

Perhaps the future of the Zone lies online, or even in multiplayer. Where once you gambled your 10p against the machine, paying a tiny amount for the chance to play for more than a minute and a half, now you’ve already paid your money, so there’s no gamble, less to “get one over” on. Once you start playing with real people, however, the intensity suddenly takes a leap. You have someone, not just something to beat; a living breathing reacting human who can gloat in victory or curl up with shame – purely as a result of your respective performances.

But while playing games with real people can get you back into the Zone, I think it’s a bit of a cheat. Video games were revolutionary in that you played alone. As an only child (which explains a lot) games offered an experience which required no siblings to enjoy. It was you and the machine, not you and your Unreal Tournament Clan using the machine to play with others.

Indeed, I’d come close to forgetting the Zone altogether, until I bought Amplitude for PS2. Now, I’d only briefly flirted with rhythm style games before, and, not really having many musical bones in my body, I didn’t think they were for me. But I read the reviews, thought it sounded interesting, and took the plunge. (But second hand, so at least I was diving in with metaphorical armbands).

And within twenty minutes of turning it on, I was in the Zone once more. It happened around level 5. The game is about building tracks of music, accomplished by hitting a left, middle or right button as your cursor scrolls over a 3D track. Get all of them right, and that section of the song starts looping – you have tracks for drums, bass, vocals, guitar and keyboards. So the better you play, the more the song grows. Of course, tracks stop looping after a while, and you have to keep the music alive, a little like spinning plates on sticks, but without the shards of crockery slowly digging into your feet.

And it gets pretty fast. Too fast to mentally prepare yourself for a series of “left, left, middle, pause, right-left-middle” to a 140bpm track. Yet to your amazement, you’ve done it. You don’t know how. But you’re happy. You’re back in the Zone.

And it feels like you never left.

You wonder “why can’t all games be like this again? I’m soooo full of endorphins right now.”

And, around twenty minutes later, you find out why games have changed.

See, when we remember back to the golden age of the arcade, we always concentrate on the good times. The joys, the excitement of the new cabinet. We don’t remember the bad. We tend to forget there was a time limit – or rather a cash limit. Eventually the money ran out, and you went home.

But when you’re already AT home, the credits are just the touch of a button away. So you keep playing. Keep having “just one more go”. After all, you’ve already paid. So you stay in the Zone.

And, like me, your eyes end up going screwy. And you get a bad headache. And you have to lie down quietly in a darkened room.

And, if you get the same effect with every new game you buy, you pretty soon stop buying games.
And perhaps move on to cardigans instead. Game Over.