A few weeks ago when school was canceled by the forecast of a snowstorm that never actually appeared, the boys got a chance to spend a full day at home, unencumbered by homework or the wholesome outdoor distractions that a new snowfall provides.
So I shouldn't have been surprised that afternoon when I got a call at the office and a greeting from Ike, who said, "Guess what, Dad?"
This is one of those opening conversational gambits that gives parents everywhere a tiny thrill of anticipation.
On a good day, it's "Guess what, Dad? I got an A in that chemistry test." On a bad day, it's "Guess what, Dad? You wouldn't believe the black eye I got in wrestling practice."
In this case, Ike had a tale of technical triumph.
"Guess what, Dad? You know that null modem in the bottom drawer? Well, I figured out how to hook up your computer and ours, and Ben and I got that new game running -- Descent. Did you know you can play it on two computers at once? I can shoot at Ben and he can shoot at me. It's awesome."
I should have applauded his achievement. To my knowledge, we had never discussed the null modem, a gadget that connects the output line from the serial port on one computer to the input line on the serial port of another. It's normally used for transferring files between two computers without using a modem and a phone line, hence the name. The fact that the lads had unearthed the obscure device and figured out what to do with it showed a commendable degree of sophistication and initiative.
On the other hand, I installed a pass-through between my office and the rec room where their computer sits so that we could share printers and a modem. I also bought them a computer because I wanted my computer. I didn't do it so my computer could become a terminal in a two-player, 21st-century shoot-em-up.
I'm not alone in my misgivings. Games such as the new Descent and the incredibly popular Doom series have become the bete noir of offices. They're fast, they're addictive, and they can be used with modems or over networks. That means Fred can while away an entire afternoon in his office zapping Bill down the hall while Bill uses his computer to zap Oscar over in accounting.
Better yet (from the game player's standpoint), their publishers market them by giving away sample versions. If you don't like the game, you haven't lost anything but a few hours. If you're hooked, you're happy to pay for the full version. Although the shareware market has operated for years on a try-before-you-buy basis, it took a tiny Texas start-up company called Id Software to crack the big time game business this way with its legendary release of Doom.
Interplay Productions, the publisher of Descent, is one of the first established game publishers to go the shareware route. Since the shareware version of Descent was released in December, the company estimates that 900,000 users have acquired it through on-line services, over the Internet, or for a few bucks from software outlets. That's a huge, built-in market for the full $40 retail game, whose release is scheduled for Friday.
As games go, Descent unabashedly offers no redeeming social value. It's action pure and simple, is in the classic kill-or-be-killed tradition.
Here's the plot (if you can call it that): "You begin deep below the surface of Lunar Base I, where an unknown alien race has taken over the chasm of the Post-Terran Mining Corp. You'll lunge straight down mine shafts, twist around never-ending tunnels and fight your way past robotic menaces the likes of which no one has seen."
What you see on the screen is a gut-wrenching combination of 360-degree roller coaster maze and Star Wars battlefield. There are hundreds of blind alleys, hidden doors and dangerous corners. The deadly little robots you encounter in your mine ship don't stand still while you're trying to zap them and they try to zap you. It's tough out there. The animation and action are smooth and quick, and there are plenty of nuances and hidden tricks. There's also no graphically illustrated personal violence, so you don't have to worry about your kids getting their jollies by ripping out somebody's spleen, a la Mortal Kombat.
If you have a modem (or null modem cable), you can play cooperatively with a friend, which means you both fight robots and try to reclaim the mine. Or, you can go head-to-head and try to stalk each other, which is what most people seem to like. My kids have had a great time, sitting in different rooms, laying traps, hatching strategies and emitting cries of victory and howls of defeat. I'm not exactly thrilled about the setup, but after only a few veiled threats, I'm usually able to persuade the boys to relinquish my computer when I have work to do.
If you're on a network, up to eight people can play at once, which undoubtedly will make network administrators delirious. Some companies have banned the game outright. On the other hand, for all I know, others may encourage it. If you're in the business of corporate takeovers, it's great practice for the real world.
One of Descent's truly charming features is its messaging capability. Players can send little notes to one another as the game progresses.
"That's what I really like about it," said Ike. "When you destroy somebody, you can rub it in their face."
Descent requires an IBM-compatible computer with an 80386DX/33 processor or better and four megabytes of memory. However, Interplay recommends a 486DX/33 with eight megabytes of RAM. From our experience, that's about right. The faster your computer, the better the game looks and feels. The kids also say a faster computer gives you an advantage in head-to-head play, although skill is more important. To play over the phone, you'll need a 9600-bps modem or better.
For information, contact Interplay Productions, 17922 Fitch Ave., Irvine, Calif. 92714, or call 1-800-969-GAME.