Gaming All-Nighters: "The Player of Games" by Iain M. Banks

“All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains make-able, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules. Generally, all the best mechanistic games – those which can be played in any sense “perfectly”, such as a grid, Prallian scope, ‘nkraytle, chess, Farnic dimensions – can be traced to civilisations lacking a realistic view of the universe (let alone the reality). They are also, I might add, invariably pre-machine-sentience societies.”

In “The Player of Games” by Iain M. Banks


“I… exult when I win. It’s better than love, it’s better than sex or any glanding; it’s the only instant when I feel… real.”

In “The Player of Games” by Iain M. Banks
Some of the imagery in Bank’s novel concerning gaming strategies closely remind me of my own: “In all the games he’d played, the fight had always come to Gurgeh, initially. He’d thought of the period before as preparing for battle, but now he saw that if he had been alone on the board he’d have done roughly the same, spreading slowly across the territories, consolidating gradually, calmly, economically … of course it had never happened; he always was attacked, and once the battle was joined he developed that conflict as assiduously and totally as before he’d tried to develop the patterns and potential of unthreatened pieces and undisputed territory.” This means you know you’ll get a biased sort of review. Just so you’re warned.

Back in the day, I eagerly anticipated my game playing binges. The ritual was always the same: I sat down, ready to get in a few minutes of gaming. Hours passed and I’d suddenly become aware that I’d been making ridiculous faces and moving like a contortionist while trying to reach that new high score. Where did the time go? When did I sprain my neck? That happened because I usually reached a critical level of engagement with whatever game I was playing. Often, these types of gaming sessions occurred when I was playing great games. Later, when I went into game design, I always wondered whether it’d be possible to characterize and add design considerations that facilitated these engaged states. The game that got me hooked was Age of Empires (AoE). Before AoE there were a lot of them that I liked to play, but it was AoE that awakened the game geek in me. The culprit was a friend of mine, JohnnyR. At the time, we were both working in a System Administration SAP R/3 ecosystem and the long hours and all-nighters went with the territory. When an all-nighter was in sight we started honing our game skills. While waiting for an Oracle Database reorganizations to finish (or waiting for a huge problem to pop up), we also put in a lot of effort acquiring game time. I was so desperate to play this at home, that I gutted at least 4 PC’s and went foraging around old PC sellers, to custom build a PC that could run the game. It sounds absurd in this day of not-needing-to-build-gaming-PC’s-from-scratch. AoE itself didn’t require a massive PC to play, but at the time there was no such thing as a gaming machines, unless I built one myself. So, I did precisely that, built an extraordinarily powerful gaming PC (for its time) out of bits from other machines (I even got hold of a SCSI disk to give the machine an extra boost). So my first custom built PC was not for a general computing purpose, but for gaming… How did Bank’s book meet my hunger for gaming? I first read this book in 1994, and by that time I hadn’t found AoE yet; that came later. But the time came when the click happened, and that time was 1997. Playing AoE and reading this book made me come to terms with a lot of things. The AoE theoretical meta-game had been nearly perfected even back then, and the random components in game generation did not make a difference to the point of my needing true improvisational play. Later I met a lot of players spending months, if not years, carefully practicing minutely differing iterations of the same game scenarios. I saw professional players end games over early-game mistakes that an intermediate player might not even notice. I considered it a little like chess, in the sense that the meta-game/opening theory was so well explored that the game could rarely be considered improvisational, but was more like a ballet performance: an extremely well-studied routine that had to be executed as perfectly as possible. At the time, I put in a lot of study into the game. The 1997 AoE version had less units than modern games, so every unit was worth more. I remember I could create unlimited number of towers (my favourite strategy was playing tower defense style game-play). There is something almost hypnotic about sitting there late at night with the rest of the household asleep, watching other competitive units moving on the map and manipulating your own to react or to interdict as necessary and to further your own strategic goals. Indeed, many times I woke still in the chair after midnight having dozed off thinking “just one more turn”. It has been a long time since I first read it, and in some ways, this re-read was almost like reading it for the first time. It seemed so fresh, and coming back and savouring it slowly this time around has allowed me to notice how much detailed information it gives us about the nature and practices of the society of the Culture. 


SF = Speculative Fiction.
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4 thoughts on “Gaming All-Nighters: "The Player of Games" by Iain M. Banks

  1. Yep, I'm definitely hooked for the Culture books. Thing is, I'm not going to get to them until late '18. So my big decision is: do I keep the sacred rotation, as ordained by St. Bookstooge, or do I breakaway from the stale rituals and meaningless order imposed from above and become Bookstooge the Heretic, and move them higher in the queue?

    The theological implications for my reading order are just staggering. Man, I think I need to call out from work and tell them I'm having a soul shattering experience and I can't work for the rest of the week. Do you think they'd buy it? *wink*

    Gostar

  2. I wouldn't dream of interfering with St. Bookstooge. Orders “from above” are sacred… (*smile*).

    I'm always in two minds when it comes to recommend an author to someone whose opinions I cherish. There's always the danger that someone (you) won't like it…

    I still remember the first I read “Use of Weapons”. The final page had me siting bolt-upright in bed and emitting a wordless yell of astonished enlightenment as the plot resolved itself: you bloody KNOW he's always throwing you red herrings and doing twisty turny storytelling, but I have never forgotten that Escherlike moment of realising that up is down and left is right, and the bugger had successfully distracted my attention away from the truth throughout the whole damn book. It was glorious.

    Gostar

  3. I totally understand about the recommending to friends thing. The one thing that helps me is that if the other person is even somewhat aware, even bad rec's can help. If I recommend Book X and they love it, and then I recommend Book Y and they hate it, they now have a baseline to judge my future rec's.

    I have had one or two experiences like those you mention and “glorious” is indeed the perfect word for it. Nothing beats it in the book world…

    Gostar

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