TWO HYPOTHETICAL VIDEO GAMES
It is always the case that objects change us. A man who holds a gun behaves differently than a man who holds a flower, and a woman with a pocketknife will do things a woman with a diamond brooch would never think of. This much is said in the introduction of GreatSword. Whereas in many games, you might control a knight, samurai, or pirate who has in his possession a sword, in GreatSword, you are a magic sword who controls its wielder, whoever that may be.
You begin in the woods, your blade stuck between two moss-covered rocks. Here you must wait until at last you are discovered by a peasant child searching for mushrooms and berries. Once the peasant picks you up, you are able to control him or her (character gender is randomly generated from play to play). In the callused hands of the peasant, you may force the child to run, to walk, to pick up stones or to buy bread from the marketplace.
In time, you may be tempted to allow the peasant to die at the hands of a bandit or vagabond, who can then pick you up and wield you. But remember, players are rewarded by the their record of victories. To be a truly great sword, one must taste defeat only rarely. It is better to force your wielder to drop or trade you rather than sacrifice your victories simply for a new swordsman.
If dropped, it is possible for a hawk or stray dog to find you, and in that case, a player may control the dog as it runs with the sword in its mouth, or the hawk as it flies with you in its talons. (There is a subplot within the game that involves battling the King of the Birds that can only be played as a hawk or falcon.) But it is only possible to beat the game through a human wielder, as swords are things made by people, not birds or beasts, and no sword could reach its highest potential when held by talons or claws.
As a magic sword, you are in possession of a number of gifts. One might Gleam in order to attract the eye of a promising wielder. Or one might Tarnish in order to conceal oneself from unwanted eyes. A Spell of Forgetfulness will allow you to be left in an inn, tavern, or smithy until some pilgrim or wayfarer picks you up.
In addition to the gifts availed to you, you may also force your wielder to bring you to one of the kingdom’s many blacksmiths, where any number of magic gems and talismans may be hammered into your hilt or blade. A magic ruby imbuing the sword with the power to halt the blood pouring from a wound. An enchanted emerald that boosts the wielder’s strength and courage in battle. A rune that, when inscribed upon the blade, wards off all poisons and dark forces.
By the game’s end, you must challenge the greatest sword in the realm, the KingSword, in combat. If you are successful in maneuvering your wielder against your rival and its pawn, you will become a legendary sword, and a small song will play extolling your virtues as achieved throughout the game. If you fall, you will be flung back to the far reaches of the kingdom, where you must await a traveler to find you once again.
In this game, you never die, though you might be left in the dirt, along some forest path or tossed in a rubbish heap, for years and years before a new wielder finds you. Decades might pass, and when at last you are found, you will discover that now the people speak differently, or that the buildings are made of stone and not wood.
In Townie, you play as a teenager in a small, rural community by the name of Elbing. Here, you may walk along the town’s seven streets, make conversation with the townsfolk, or pass a football with a pack of neighborhood kids. The small, blue and white houses that line the streets are exactingly rendered down to their splintering wood and creaking porches. The church in the town’s center has a tall green steeple that can be seen at any other point in Elbing. For a while, it is entertaining enough simply to weave through the houses, or to sit by the window in your room, rooting through books and old toys.
While you explore the town in these early stages, the object of the game remains unclear. With time, however, you will inevitably grow bored with the limitations of the town, having wandered up and down the seven streets countless times, making the same conversations again and again with the townspeople and playing pass with each of the twelve local kids. And so naturally you will navigate the borders of Elbing, seeking whatever else you might find beyond the limits of the township.
At this point the mechanisms of the game reveal themselves. If you wander to the north, past the gravel pits, you will reappear south, by the lumberyard. If you follow the train tracks west, you will find yourself walking through thick fog only to remerge approaching the town from the east, along the very same tracks. Each point in one direction has a corresponding point in the opposite direction, making it impossible to leave on foot.
To get out, you must negotiate with other townsfolk, solving a series of puzzles and riddles. Mowing a sufficient number of lawns will allow you to purchase a bicycle, and with this you may travel an additional three miles in any direction. If you give another local teenager beer from your parent’s refrigerator, he can provide you a ride some five miles farther out, therefore permanently securing you these additional miles each time you test the border. With time, you discover small patches of forest, broad wheat fields, and even teenagers from a rival school who can aid you in your attempts to go farther and farther away from the center of Elbing in their trucks and motorcycles.
A map in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen expands with each sojourn and contracts with your capture, allowing you to keep track as to just how far you are able to travel. A translucent backpack in the upper left corner reveals a shifting inventory of beer, books, money, and cigarettes—all of which can be used to propel you farther from the familiar town.
Each distance brings new hazards. Your parents (typically passive characters) may notice the missing cans of beer. Riding with the other teenager may catch the attention of the Sheriff. Other teenagers, much more vicious than yourself, might steal your bicycle or try to fight you. In any of these circumstances, you may find yourself back in the small house near the center of Elbing with the new distance lost.
The game ends when you escape the town entirely and settle in some other place, either to the city, another small town, or a remote cabin in the wilderness. Once you are settled in a new house or apartment, the credits roll and the game begins again.
It is, however, possible to play the game without leaving the town at all. With one of the other teenagers in Elbing, you are able to occupy another house and work a job at the gravel pits or the lumberyard, and when the two of you have a child together, the credits screen appears exactly as it would had you reached the city, cabin, or neighboring town.
These two pieces are part of a larger series of nonexistent video games. As kids, games are usually among the first things we make up. This is my stab at an old genre.