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Can we learn anything from strange old adventure games?

My new video series, "Lo Fi Let's Plays," focuses on using a familiar video format to look at unfamiliar or vintage game content. Can we learn from the Apple II era? Who knows, but it's fun!

The "let's play" format is democratic, accessible and familiar. It takes the experience of playing video games and helps make it communal -- in so doing, it's become a sort of narrative form in and of itself. No matter what you think of YouTubers, livestreamers and video game personalities online, they've created a crucial avenue for establishing game vocabulary.

I'm interested in what happens if we apply the format to unexpected titles -- strange old games, or design spaces with defunct or unconventional structures. In doing my new series, Lo-Fi Let's Plays, my major goal is to create a context for these older games not just in history, but in personal memory.

I'm starting by playing about 20 minutes at a time of old-school Apple IIe titles that I remember from childhood, analyzing them from a design perspective, but also having a lot of fun with storytelling, history and participation from others.

It was really neat how following my first installment, on classic Death in the Caribbean, viewers sent in solutions to a cryptoquote -- a puzzle I've kept in mind for over 20 years, now finally solved collaboratively thanks to the beautiful condition of being able to play solitary, broken things in public. The second game I visited was The Quake, a 1982 title with a striking stated purpose: to provide immersive storytelling and "the plot quality of a fine novel." It's interesting to see that the story game designers of old had the same lofty ambitions that lots of today's creators share -- and fascinating to see what that looked like executed in 1982.

This week, I play Dallas Quest for the first time. I had two other "quest" games in my childhood library, The Quest and Ring Quest, and both were made by Dallas Snell (later co-founder of Origin Systems); it makes sense, then, that when I was very small I assumed that Dallas Quest was also made by him, and that it would be some kind of plodding autobiography of the man's own life. Boring, thought little me. 

Dallas, of course, was a TV soap about ... oil barons and cattle ranches, I think, that began in 1978 and ran until 1991, full of cliffhangers, intrigue and family drama. I don't know, because I have never seen it. Dallas Quest is purportedly a licensed tie-in to the show, but is executed with odd brutality. While I found Death in the Caribbean quite spooky to revisit, and The Quake full of fascinating intent and texture, Dallas Quest, made in 1984, is both frustrating and funny:


It's fun to understand the way our grasp on games can evolve over time; how the limited comprehension we have of things as children can create additional mystery and meaning, and retain that lushness even when we're mature enough to play "successfully" or "skillfully". I'm excited about the idea of using the fairly straightforward, universal "let's play" format in a sort of unpolished, intimate way to do new (to me) kinds of game criticism, and new ways of looking at where our experience of play intersects with life.

I'll be publishing a new Lo-Fi Let's Play every Thursday, and I hope my Gamasutra blog becomes a home for further analysis and discussion on the games! Come along!  

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