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The Day I Killed 10,000 Russians

When I was a kid, I loved playing with board games.  Not playing board games, playing with them.  I’d dump all the pieces onto the carpet—usually from more than one game—and play with them elements in new and unintended ways.  My folks didn’t quite understand what I was doing.  “That’s not how you play,” they’d point out after I ran down the black king with the Monopoly car, which is what he gets for building a Scrabble castle on Free Parking.  I didn’t care, because I was entertaining myself.

Turns out there’s a term for what I was doing, and it’s not that uncommon in video games: emergent gameplay.  It’s when players entertain themselves within the game  in ways that have nothing to do with the goals of the level you’re playing.

Bumpy ride ahoy

An example: my favorite racing game that doesn’t have “Kart” in its title is Crazy Taxi.  You race through town at breakneck speeds, pick up fares, and try to drop them at their destinations in insanely short increments of time.  Do it well, you get more time on the clock to break more traffic laws. But I found it much more fun to speed around the waterfront road and knock as many other cars into the ocean as possible.  There was nothing quite as amusing as lurking beneath the water like some great metal crocodile, waiting for an unsuspecting fruit truck to come by, and then slamming down the gas to burst out of the water and knock the unfortunate prey off into the deep blue.

But the undisputed champion game for emergent gameplay was, in my book, Goldeneye for the N64.  In a game where you had automatic weapons, the levels didn’t end if you failed your mission, and everything could explode including office furniture, you can see the potential for entertaining yourself beyond the designers’ intended boundaries.  Like, say, by planting remotely detonated mines in the paths of friendly NPCs, and setting them off to fling them all the way to the ceiling; bonus point if they land on a high balcony (3-pointer!).  Or by enabling the “enemy rockets” cheat (which replaced all your enemies’ regular weapons with rocket launchers) and then playing the silo level with its tight corridors and narrow lines of sight.  I’d duck around the corner into their line of sight—a quick “hey, guys, shoot me!”—and dart back away.  The enemies would fire their rockets—which would inevitably clip the volatile office furniture—and everything in the room would explode in a cascade of escalating detonations, leaving the room a smoking crater peppered with the occasional dropped rocket launcher.

But then there was the beautiful, beautiful slaughterfest at the end of level 2.  That level ends in a chemical weapons factory, the same place I played Corpse Basketball with ledges and mines.  After you watch the Soviets kill your partner, Alec Trevelyan—an important plot point that you can’t prevent—all you have to do to complete the level is walk out the door.  Either door, actually—there’s more than one way out.  And to encourage you to leave, the game sends a fire team of six Soviets into the warehouse to shoot at you. You can’t just kill all six enemies, either—for every one you wax, the game spawns another that runs into the warehouse to snipe at you.  And if even one of the giant gas canisters in the warehouse gets nicked, you’ve got about five seconds to escape the level before the gas kills you.  So everything is pointing towards “get the hell out.”

One day, after mine-bouncing Trevelyan’s cadaver off the ceiling, I figured I’d check out where those spawning Soviets were coming from. I raced back out of the warehouse before the gas canister could get shot, and found the hallway where the unending tide of baddies spawned.  At the end of the hallway, right next to the warehouse, was an empty room with a glass door.  I barricaded myself inside and discovered something beautiful and wicked-smile-inducing.

If I closed the door—the transparent, glass door—the computer enemies read it as a solid, opaque object.  They could not see me through it.  When the player was behind a door, their programming was to run up to said door and try to open it.  But it opened inward, so if I stood in front of it, I could keep it closed.  Even when I shot out the glass, they still couldn’t see me standing there pointing an automatic weapon at them.  So I’d just fire and fire and fire at the unending stream of idiot soldiers, who would run directly into my river of bullets in a doomed attempt to open a door so they could shoot at me.

Eventually I would run out of bullets, and have to open the door to grab more from the mound of dropped Kalashnikovs outside the room.  In those few seconds, the respawned soldiers would finally see me and fire.  I’d take a nick here and there.  So the game became a survival mode, one-man-against-an-army affair; they’d whittle me down eventually, so the challenge was to see how many I could take out before I succumbed to a death by a thousand cuts.  It was emergent gameplay at its finest.

The scene of the crime

Once I even got over a thousand kills.  At the time, that was quite an accomplishment.  Then I unlocked the cheat for the Moonraker lasers—the only weapons in the game that required no ammo.  Suddenly, I didn’t have to open the door anymore to reload.  I raced to my Glass Door of Death and began my epic annihilation of the Soviet army.  But without the danger of them ever firing back, there was no challenge, and I got bored. I aimed the lasers at the point where the soldiers entered the hallway, anchored the fire button down with a rubber band, turned off the TV, and went to class.

Late that night, about twelve hours later, I remembered that I’d left the game going.  When I turned the TV back on, Bond was still mercilessly razing down an endless horde of commie scum.  I abandoned the room and ended the level.  My kill count: 11,720.

There is a point to this post other than just bragging about a pre-achievement era achievement.  Most of the games in my library aren’t just fun to play, but are fun to play in, whether the game I’m playing is one of my own design or the intended one.  Also, if anyone wants to play a round of Corpse Basketball, I’m totally game.

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