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Best Games - Descent

At one point 3d graphics were so whiz-bang new that a game could be based entirely around the ability to move in all directions. Soak that in for a second. Moving forward, back, left, right, up, down, and rotating around an axis was so novel that a very successful game used that as it’s selling point.

Descent hangs a very thin story, repetitive mission structure, and combat mechanics as nuanced as a schoolyard snowball fight on the ability to move in any direction without the hassle of pesky things like gravity or realistic inertia. It was amazing, groundbreaking, completely disorienting, and for most people, almost completely unplayable.

It’s not very surprising then, that after Descent, and a few other attempts at this freedom of movement based gameplay, the industry sort of just gave up on it. Our brains are really good at 2d and limited 3d movement. For most of our lives up is up, down is down, and our heads remain consistently level with the horizon. Even when we ride in vehicles that can operate in fluid environments like air and water, we still know that up is up, and down is down. Removing that restriction takes some getting used to.

Descent is more experiment than actual game though. Flight simulators had been around for a good long time before Descent came out, but they all operate on the idea that they are modelling a real physical world that reacts in ways we are accustomed to. Descent is a game of what if. What if gravity was not a factor. What if the horizon is relative to the observer, not a predefined aspect of the physical world. What if your rotation and direction of travel were independent vectors. Of course, all of these what ifs are actual facts of movement in a 3 dimensional universe, but for earthbound mammals like us it can be difficult to shed our preconceptions.

Descent would likely be a strange footnote in the history of video games. One success among dozens of failures. I think maybe it just came out too early.

In an industry driven by novelty, they ability to navigate your environment in ways that are just not normally possible might be the most novel thing of all. Pair that with a unique way to inhabit that environment, like the Oculus Rift, and you have the rebirth of an entire genre of movement based games. Keeping your lunch down might require a more old school solution. What I’m really saying is, maybe now would be a good time to stock up on ginger root.

This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by the author.
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