Inspired by a particular Tumblr blog, drawing this map has brought back a flood of memories and emotions. Around about 1997, I was hooked on the original Command & Conquer, having first read about it in one of those great 90's UK game magazines (CVG I think it was) and deciding to get it on the Sega Saturn. (As an aside, I used to always hate how reviews of the Saturn version criticised the gamepad controls, especially the inability to assign teams of units to buttons - but you could! It was the PS1 version that didn't have that function!)
After pouring hours into the game, and gaining perhaps far too much satisfaction in slowly building up a ridiculous and unnecessarily large GDI army to crush and torment those enemy NOD bases (I used to have my units wait patiently outside their barracks, annihilating any newly produced men as soon as they walked out), I had finally met my match. I mean, as far as difficulty levels and player feedback went, I'd gotten used to playing all night and failing missions, using that trial-and-error experience and coming back stronger the next time round. But wow...this one stage. It was almost as if there was hidden karmic balance code on the disc, keeping track of the number of enemy soldiers I'd brutally vanquished and just waiting for the right time to punish me for it and striking down with furious anger. And with the debut of the NOD Flame Tank unit, all it took was one, slow-moving, ugly-looking but devastatingly monstrous vehicle to achieve such righteousness.
Replay upon replay, as soon as I copped a single spurt of that damned flame tank, red spears coming out inevitably and without fail from that increasingly annoying fog of war, it burned all my men to a crisp. The level didn't even provide enough time to set up a base, swarming you right from the start regardless of whether you chose the left or right path from the insertion position. I'd attempted everything - building a base immediately, nope. Making a run for it, nope - that just prolonged the torture. All my choices, all those decisions, all the options the game made available to me, completely in vain and resulting in perpetual failure and even humiliation - a lone engineer left after our mobile base had been destroyed, running up to the tank bravely and comically banging it with his wrench for a split second prior to confirmation of mission failure. Again. Looking back, though, and in the full scheme of things as far as my game conscience went, I deserved it.
And so I gave up.
It wasn't until months later during English class that I overheard one of the other kids talking about C&C. It was Bartek, the small kid on the other side of the room with a bowlcut haircut (to be fair, it was the 90s, and we all had one of those), with whom I rarely spoke. In fact, I probably even joined in with some immature teasing along the lines of substituting the first letter of his name with an 'F', which was somehow right up there at the height of comedy during those High School days. I'm embarrassed, really. It was either that or some sort of reference to The Simpsons, which wasn't much of an insult at all.
Fast forward 15 years later, and I can tell you the results. Bart and I became great friends through a common love for games, The Prodigy and the Die Hard films, but have long since lost touch after graduation. We most recently chatted a little awkwardly over the phone just before Christmas, and he's now moved interstate and gotten engaged. We're friends on Facebook and all that, but to be honest, haven't really been friend-friends for years. Which is fine, of course - that's life. I can also report, thankfully, that we both have different hairstyles these days, and appreciate more tolerable forms of humour. I miss our friendship sometimes, but I'm happy to relive how it all started - the Flame Tank stage in C&C, and how he drew the map that I've attempted to recreate here. His instructions were clear as to how to beat that stage, and even though I'm basking in all this adolescent nostalgia, deep down there was an important lesson to be learned that day as well.
Approaching him and asking for hints on that one stage, he knew immediately what I was talking about and invited me to sit next to him as the rest of the class prepared for the Animal Farm discussion. Friendships sure were easy to start back then. Ripping out a page from our dinosaur-patterned Contact-wrapped exercise books, he began scribbling down circles and outlines and arrows. I was instantly impressed, despite those still-lingering doubts in the back of my head that he was a Trekkie (whereas me being a Schwarzenegger enthusiast was somehow 'better'). "Run the gauntlet as quickly as you can past the Flame Tank and the ceaseless attacks", he told me, and "set up your mobile base HERE", he'd assert, marking blunt and heavy targets on the map with his pencil like a true military strategist. What came next, though, was the real killer tactic.
He taught me how to exploit the game's AI by building sandbags in a circle around your base, in order for the enemy units to get stuck and never think of knocking them down to get to you. Piled up and glitching around this fence of safety, their constant presence would also prevent any future waves of enemies from being generated, which meant that you had all the time in the world to harvest that tiberium...which for me meant that I could, once again, digress back and resort to building up that overwhelmingly large army of surplus mockery. Not only was the threat of the Flame Tank quelled, but so too was any remaining challenge the game could have mustered as I finally beat the stage and felt completely hollow with the achievement. And like any corner-cutting techniques you learn in a game (or in life, even), it's difficult to un-know those techniques.
Whenever I was ever in trouble in the game again, out would come that trail of bloody sandbags spanning the length of the Great Wall of China. Sometimes they'd even reach all the way into enemy bases as if I were building an embassy complete with a phone line made of a pair of plastic cups connected with string, blocking the enemy from even breathing or adjusting the creases on their tucked-in shirts while I 'covertly' mounted an offensive the size of a continent. Victory would be achieved over and over all the way to the very end stages of the game, and yet it was all so wrong; Bart's tips had, inadvertently or not, turned me into a cheat. A lonely supervillain with nothing left to do after that superhero nemesis had been defeated through some sheer stroke of dumb luck.
After finishing the game with regret and a dirty feeling, I've since viewed cheats and exploits as almost taboo, going as far as even secretly judging gamer friends in my mind when they tell me about various infinite-XP glitches involving talking to someone or other over and over in Skyrim or New Vegas or Deus Ex: HR, etc etc, and it's only ever really just occurred to me now, drawing that map, of how this anti-cheating snobbery came to be. These days whenever a patch comes out to fix an exploit, I'm practically cheering. Players who clear their caches to revert to pre-patch conditions to take advantage? Ergh.
So thank you, Bart, for your friendship over all those years, and all the best with your marriage. The game was indeed spoiled from that point on, but I'm all the more, well, wholesome as a player now. And of course there's a big difference between single and multiplayer exploits...but still.
I'd like to hear about anyone else's thoughts or experiences with game exploits. Do you ignore them once you know of their existence? Forcibly remove yourself from a title for the sake of integrity? Also, how does game balancing fit in with maintaining a challenge for the player without them resorting to 'other' tactics?
Also posted on personal blog