Thursday, September 20, 2012

Holy Cow!

A sideways glance at the most stellar performances by cows in videogames.

While playing Rockstar's recent classic Red Dead Redemption, I had a cow moment.

Red Dead Redemption is an action adventure game where you play the role of a former outlaw and cowboy on a quest to extract terrible revenge on his former comrades, riding, shooting and badassing your way to victory. Except, along the way, you occasionally stop to herd cows into their pens. Don't ask.

But back on topic - when playing through the segments where you need to ride alongside a herd of nervous bovines and ensure that they don't wander off the path and fall off a cliff (or get stuck in the level geometry. Blasted polygons.), I couldn't help thinking back to the 80s ATARI 2600 game Stampede, and how far videogame cows had come.  The cows in RDR are awesome, as cows should be. Each one is the end result of high-poly modeling, texturing, dynamic lighting and motion captured (you may now take a moment to reflect on the wonders of cow mo-cap, and visualize a cow covered in those mo-cap sensors. But only a moment. Done? Good.), fluid animation that results in absolutely top-end cows. It wasn't always this way.

Stampede, the first game in which I remember seeing cows, and possibly the first game to feature them as a key gameplay element, was a game typical of the 4 bit ATARI era. Its cows, which you, as a gallant and dutiful cowboy, had to lasso and prevent from escaping, were merely a bunch of pixels. It was only by very skilfully stretching your imagination that you could identify them as cows. In fact, by stretching the same imagination in a slightly different way, you could just as well identify them as alien spaceships, or dune buggies, or your grandmother. Pixel art was cool like that. The context of the game (ably assisted by beautiful hand painted box art tat looked nothing like the actual game) provided the guidance so that players could look at horribly pixelated things and relate to them as whatever the game designers intended them to be.

Fast forward to the early 90s, to the era of the resurgence of CRPGs, and specifically to Fallout. Fallout, a game set in a post apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, featured perhaps the most interesing cows in videogame history - the Brahmin, a two-headed mutated species that the characters in the game used as raw material for delicious (though mildly irradiated) steaks. The Brahmin remained popular with Fallout fans, and, when the franchise was revived after a long gap with Fallout 3, they returned. And now, you could sneak up behind them and tip them over. Awesome. In fact, it's so awesome that the publishers decided not to release the game in India, for fear of offending the millions of people here who ostensibly worship mutated post-nuclear cows. Good move.

Perhaps the most famous appearance by cows in videogames is in the Diablo series. The first game, Diablo, featured a lone cow which would just stand idly by in the town - perhaps providing some bovine serenity as a relief from the mayhem that prevailed in the rest of the game. The presence of the cow without any obvious purpose in the game, however, led to the spread of one of the most famous rumours in gaming history. "Is there a secret cow level ?" asked millions of Diablo fans, frantically trying to unlock the fabled dungeon where the player could take a break from fighting demonic forces and fight demonic cows instead. However, they would remain disappointed. There was no secret cow level. At least, until Diablo 2. Blizzard, like only they can, responded to the fans and actually included a secret cow level in the sequel. If you beat the game with a specific weapon (Wirt's leg - a rather grim club, made up of the reains of a character from the previous game. Don't ask) , you would unlock a dungeon where you could battle hordes of bipedal cattle carrying meat cleavers, and finally beat the Cow King (a contradiction, and also a truly 733t end boss). What more could a gamer want?

After a bit of a quiet period (barring some sensational cameos in the Call of Duty series and in Rayman : Raving Rabbids), cows resurfaced in games and emerged stronger than ever before.

And no game has done more for cows than Zynga's monster Facebook hit Farmville. Thanks to Farmville's massive success, more people have been clicking on cows than ever before - and, unlike in Diablo, this time it wasn't with the intention of killing them. Farmville's cutesy cows have pretty much become the mascot of the game, and, arguably, the mascot for all of social gaming.

In fact, cows are so strongly identified with social games that Ian Bogost, noted game journalist, author and developer, created the satirical 'Cow Clicker' - a facebook game intended to poke fun at what Bogost felt were the most cynical and shallow aspects of popular social games like Farmville. In Cow Clicker, all players could do was click on a cow once every few hours. They could invite friends so that they could click more ften, and buy different kinds of cows. That's it. But, much to Bogost's dismay, people actualy began playing Cow Clicker without getting the joke - they were actually enjoying the game! People have debated and discussed this episode to death in the gaming pess and forums - but I think the whole thing just points to the awesomeness of cows. They should teach this at game design colleges : Successful game design 101. Step 1 - Put a cow in it.

In 2012, the presence of cows in videogames promises to show substantial growth. The game that everyone's playing now - The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim, has more than its fair share of cows, and more than its fair share of funny glitches. Thanks to which, on a full moon night in Skyrim, if you chance to clance up at the moon, you just might see a cow flying over it.  Just before it collides with a Dragon. These are the moments that videogame dreams are made of. And these moments wouldn't be possible without cows.

1 comment:

  1. There was no 4 bit era, there were no 4 bit consoles. The Atari 2600 is 8-bit, with an 8-bit 6507 microprocessor and 8-bit system bus.