Thursday, August 28, 2014

Alternative Input: The Devil's Due

I want to talk about something that is not very fun. Pain. Thanks to a life integrated with computers, I have been dealing with chronic wrist, hand, and shoulder pain for the last two years. Some of my friends know about this, but I've never really revealed the extent of how it's affected my lifestyle.  It has affected a lot of things, but it hasn't affected anything like it's affected my gaming habits.  It has affected what I can play, how long I can play it for, and how I can play it.  And it's affected one game more than others…

Let me start by saying that I love the Diablo series of games. I have loved them since the very first game.  I can remember it as one of the first truly addictive experiences that ran on our first family computer, a Pentium 90.  The dark, Gothic aesthetic; the atmosphere drenched with morose and yet slightly folksy music; the writing, which I found to be pretty strong with the original game; just an overall sense of being pitted against a grotesque menagerie of things you could never understand or predict (it was one of the first games I remember playing with random dungeon layouts). And it had some truly memorable enemies.

Still, one of the incredible things about the first Diablo game was that, in multiplayer mode, when you died, your character simply dropped everything on the ground.  It was the original hardcore mode, and while playing this way, it was actually quite easy to lose every single one of your items if you died in the wrong place on a high difficulty setting. I can remember playing as the Warrior getting into a particularly bad situation somewhere in the caves section, the third major environment you encounter.  I believe it started with me walking into a small enclosed cage with a treasure chest inside. I was then murdered by a pack of invisible ghouls.  Coincidentally, these monsters have some great backstory:

But back to the story.  When I died, all of my equipment was dropped inside a small cage filled with murderous invisible ghouls. You can see that this was a problem.  I also wasn't left with very much money. Without a full set of armor, the ghouls would likely kill me in one hit, so it would be pointless to buy a new melee weapon.  If I died again, I probably wouldn't have enough money to buy a single item, and I'd have to start over punching rats on the first floor.  The only thing that seemed useful for purchase in town was a Staff of Firewall.  This is a staff with a limited number of charges of the spell Firewall, which, predictable, creates a wall of fire.  So I spent all my money on the staff and trudged down to the floor I died on for an all-or-nothing charge.

My valiant charge went something like this:
  1. Enter level.
  2. Hear the sound of an invisible ghoul moaning at me.
  3. Panic.
  4. Spam-right-click Firewall on every visible open space, filling the ENTIRE SCREEN with fire.
  5. Hear the sound of dying ghouls.
  6. Wait for the inferno to dissipate, walk out and claim my equipment, then flee.
I can remember many experiences like this. The prospect of losing all of your equipment added something that I had never experienced in gaming - true fear.  We actually played in multi-player mode, even when playing alone, for that feeling.  The adrenaline kept me playing, and my Dad who played alongside me as well, for a very long time. 

When Diablo 2 came out, it was more of the same, with better graphics, more spells, and more items.  You can probably imagine how much time I spent with that game.

Let me take a moment to point something out about the Diablo games. Although they can definitely be challenging, they have extremely simple controls. Left click, move or attack. Right-click, cast a spell.  Some assorted hot keys for other spells (most of which also are mouse targeted). Easy. But when you're facing rooms full of 50 monsters at a time, you end up clicking quite a bit. I would venture to say that there are few games that require you to move the mouse and click as much in the course of playing.  Diablo is a game about slaughtering hordes and hordes and hordes of monsters. And you have to click on each and every one of them.  Not only that, you need to click on every single item you want to pick up, often sorting through piles and piles of trash to find the one good item that dropped.  Lots of clicking.

Now, the first two Diablo games I played back when I was in school and not working so much.  For a moment, consider that activity added on top of an eight-hour workday spent almost entirely using a computer, respond to emails, doing database entry, etc. – basically, clicking and pressing keys tens of thousands of times in a day.  And that sets you up for the dramatic conclusion to this story: the release of Diablo 3.  A Diablo even more fast paced than its predecessors.  A greatly enjoyable game, especially with friends; and, one that I couldn't play for more than an hour without my hands hurting.
It was a hard thing to acknowledge. My body has limits? Surely in avoiding physical sports throughout most of my childhood, that was no way I could hit these kinds of limits!  But as I kept trying to keep up with my friends, it became more and more obvious that I had hit a very firm limit. Diablo was no longer the type of game that I could really play and enjoy. And it was not the last casualty. As I came to acknowledge the price of interacting with physical interfaces all day, and to acknowledge the cost of all that information burning along my wrists and down my fingers and into the keys, it was clear to me that a lot would have to change for me to continue to be able to use a computer in any recreational sense.

So began an era of experimentation with input devices that continues to this day.  I have programmed a WiiMote to control the mouse cursor on my computer using software called GlovePie; I have set a mouse pad on the floor and used the mouse with my foot; I have purchased piles of devices, touchpads, trackballs, foot switches, joysticks, gamepads (many of which I configured with the excellent utility Joy2Key); all eventually winding back to the same point, the point of strain, the point where the game is asking more of me than my body can give it without undergoing stress. 

And that's the reason that I'm typing this post with my voice, and not with my hands. 

It's quite hard to play Diablo with your voice.  I haven't given up on games; I have found that there are still games out there that I can play and enjoy. Games that ask a little less of the player than 100% twitch reflexes, and constant input.  Yet, I can tell that this is not something that's just going to go away. What this has really taught me is that staying healthy for me will require a lifetime commitment to using the resources of my body in moderation.  And, unfortunately, charging into the fray with a Staff of Firewall is probably not on that menu.

Staff of Apocalypse, on the other hand...