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Registered: 07/26/04
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Drugs and Video Games
    #4346395 - 06/28/05 12:20 PM (12 years, 10 months ago)

Where recreational electronics meet recreational chemistry.
June 21, 2005 - 1up.com

Videogames began their life as a pretty square pastime. They were born in crucibles of concentrated geekdom, the university computer labs of the '60s and '70s, where caffeine and cathode rays were the most powerful mind-altering substances available. The creators of games like Spacewar and Zork probably didn't spend too many of their weekends partying.

Times change, though. As games drew a wider audience, not to mention a wider variety of creative talents (some pretty weird stuff reportedly went on at the Atari offices of an evening), they necessarily drew on a wider spectrum of influences and inspirations...some of them chemical in nature. There have been games that were probably made on drugs -- Rez springs to mind, or the Virtual Light Machine -- and even reviewed on drugs, when A.C. Styles dosed the office coffee pot at Die Hard Game Fan.

So where did it all start? When did videogames first "just say yes"? Depending on how you look at it, they didn't stay straight for very long.

Pac-Man - Year: 1980
Effects: Renders the consumer temporarily capable of eating ghosts. Here's an eternal question: are the pellets Pac-Man relentlessly consumes supposed to be drugs or food? The smaller ones are food, maybe, but the power pills off in the corners have such a profound effect on the yellow fellow that it's hard not to wonder about them.

If you define them as drugs, which seems like a pretty safe assumption, this would be the first pioneering appearance of drugs as power-ups in games, a tradition that would be carried on by more titles than can reliably be counted.

Super Mario Brothers - Year: 1985
Effects: Tremendous physical growth agonist; grants resistance to turtle attacks A common urban legend claims that psilocybin mushrooms may be legally purchased and eaten in Japan. In fact, their sale was banned in June 2002 in anticipation of that year's wave of World Cup tourism, but up until that point they were sold across the counter in urban head shops.

Which leads one to wonder if, back in the early '80s, they might have been part of the inspiration behind Super Mario Brothers. The size-altering fungi in the game itself have been officially described as a nod toward Alice in Wonderland ("Drink Me" made Alice smaller, while a potent mushroom grew her to giant size), but that still doesn't explain how the fire-spitting flowers came into being...

Some years later, Mario would star in a game that was about nothing but drugs -- Dr. Mario -- but in that case, of course, he was presumably prescribing them, rather than enjoying them.

NetHack - Year: 1987
Effects: Potent ASCII hallucinogenic The date here is inevitably somewhat imprecise. Version 1.4 of this legendary "roguelike," the first one to be called NetHack, saw release in 1987, but its extensive growth since then is so imprecisely documented that it's hard to tell exactly when the "hallucination" effects were first implemented.

When you consume certain sorts of fungus or a potion of hallucination, a peculiar psychedelic filter falls over NetHack's ASCII dungeons. "Oh, wow, everything seems so cosmic!" proclaims the game, and each turn of movement randomly changes the symbol for each item and each monster into something different. An ordinary grid bug can become a jabberwock or a silver dragon -- in fact, some monster descriptions don't appear unless the player is hallucinating. There is no "flying purple people eater" in the clear-headed bestiary.

Like everything else about NetHack, this particular implementation of a drug trip is just a little bit visually crude. Also like most everything else about NetHack, it's still remarkably clever, and more than a little ahead of its time.

Metal Gear - Year: 1987
Effect: Mild stimulant, carcinogen, reveals tripwires. Plenty of videogame characters have enjoyed a cigarette of an occasion, but gaming's most famous nicotine addict would have to be Solid Snake. The Fox Hound Army commando has, to date, never left on a mission without his pack of cigarettes, although he had to swallow it whole and regurgitate it later to bring it along in 1998's Metal Gear Solid.

The Metal Gear series has always delivered a funny set of mixed messages about tobacco use, though. On the one hand, equipping a smoke gradually lowers Snake's health, which is about as blunt as you can get without slapping a Surgeon General's Warning on the title screen. On the other hand, the cigarettes prove surprisingly useful for sneaking past infrared tripwires. Not a realistic gameplay element, perhaps, but it would come across as a little preachy if there weren't something useful to do with them.

Trivia note: although the labels have been edited out in subsequent ports of the games (like the mobile versions released last year, and probably the versions to be included in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence), the MSX Metal Gears made it fairly obvious that Snake's brand was Lucky Strike.

Police Quest - Year: 1987
Effects: Causes random, nit-pickety death. Ronald and Nancy Reagan advised America to "Just Say No" in the fall of 1986, and it didn't take too long after that for games to draw inspiration from the "war on drugs." Sierra On-Line, then the powerhouse of the adventure gaming market, presented its first straight-faced production the next year, with the release of Police Quest.

Up until this point, Sierra's games were thoroughly tongue-in-cheek. The King's Quest and Space Quest games killed the player at every available opportunity, but they were usually smirking while they did it. Police Quest was dead serious by comparison, with a dramatic storyline pitting the player against an urban drug kingpin and a more realistic style of puzzle design based on input from real-life cops. It's quite the pioneering series in terms of criminal content -- games like Grand Theft Auto and Kingpin wouldn't do their similar things with the other side of the law until a decade later.

True, the bad guy did go by the melodramatic moniker "Death Angel," but seeing as how it was 1987, Sierra was probably allowed a little creative license.

NARC - Year: 1988
Effects: Induces the wearing of identical brown trench-coats. And now, for a rather different portrayal of the war on drugs. Midway's NARC is a pretty fascinating bit of work on multiple levels. Aside from any of the drug-related content involved (like the waves of identical junkie sprites hurling hypodermic needles at the good guys), just its portrayal of law enforcement provides some food for thought. Here is a world where annihilating criminals en masse is the primary goal of its rogue-cop heroes, while collecting evidence is merely good for bonus points after the fact.

?The International Arcade Museum quotes some of the early promotional materials for the game in its NARC entry -- "Cooperative play places both players on the side of justice with a powerful anti-drug theme." You can make up your own punch line for that one. Bonus points for riffing on the clever names of villains like "Joe Rockhead" and "Dr. Spike Rush."

Syndicate - Effects: 1993
Effect: Increases speed, aggressiveness, susceptibility to machine-gunning peons. One of Peter Molyneux's many famous creations from the good old days of Bullfrog Entertainment, Syndicate was perhaps the first game to make drug use and abuse a complex, central gameplay element. Technically, though, the player wasn't doing the drugs, but rather inflicting them on unwitting victims.

Syndicate puts the player in command of four brainwashed corporate dirty-tricks agents, whose combat performance is affected by three different drugs (governing their movement speed, shooting accuracy, and resistance to damage). What's unusual about it is that dosage tolerance is a crucial element of the system -- feeding the agents too much builds up a resistance to future doses, so there's a certain strategy in knowing when to lay off the juice.

Yoshi's Island - Year: 1994
Effects: "Oh wow! Baby Mario looks so cosmic!" Years after Mario popped his first mushroom, his dinosaur sidekick found himself on a more unexpected trip. World 1-7 of the Super Mario World sequel, dubbed "Touch Fuzzy Get Dizzy," is of course home to the Fuzzies, floating buggers that look like big flying dandelion puffs. Unlike real dandelions, though (if rather like the mythically snortable dandelions in the Bloom County comics), they have quite the effect on Yoshi when he bumps into them.

The symptoms of the Fuzzy high are both obvious and subtle. The layers of shifting colors and Mode 7 background-warping effects are certainly impressive, but check out the Yoshi character sprite as well -- his eyes bug out, locked wide open, and his pupils dial down to tiny single pixels. Somebody at Nintendo obviously had a good time designing this particular level, and someone at Nintendo of America was probably chuckling when they named it, too. "Get Dizzy" would have to be considered quite the euphemistic understatement.

N2O: Nitrous Oxide - Year: 1998
Effects: Induces purchasing in susceptible teenagers. The head-trip shooter is a recognizable niche, home to titles as old as Tempest and as cutting-edge as Rez, but games like that haven't usually been explicitly marketed as substitutes for mind-expanding chemicals. The one exception would be N2O (as in "nitrous oxide," as in "laughing gas"), a weird little Tempest sendup made by Loaded developer Gremlin at the height of the PlayStation era.

While it was pretty unremarkable as a game -- decent enough shooter, nifty Crystal Method soundtrack, par for the Tempest-descended course -- it achieved mild notoriety thanks to the ad campaign Fox Interactive cooked up to promote it. "Never Trip Alone! Always Use Two-Player Mode," the print ads proclaimed, which was enough to raise a few objecting eyebrows back in gaming's early adolescence. Given what's hit the market since then, of course, even the mildest reaction to something like that seems downright parochial.

Max Payne - Year: 2001
Effects: Potent analgesic, hard-boiled dialogue agonist. As mentioned in the discussion of Pac-Man, plenty of games have used drugs of all sorts as power-ups. Titles like System Shock and Deus Ex let players shoot themselves full of a whole medicine chest of futuristic cocktails. Max Payne, though, took the odd route of making painkilling drugs the one and only health power-up on offer.

It's true that crunching up a fistful of opiates suits the game's hard-boiled style better than the traditional first-aid kit, but it doesn't do much for suspension of disbelief when you think about it. A shotgun blast probably hurts a bit worse than even Percodan can handle.

Unreal Tournament 2003 - Year: 2002
Effects: Increases speed, mental acuity; induces invisibility. Plenty of first-person shooters have incorporated virtual chemical assistance, going back to the original DOOM. Another eternal question to ponder: is Quake's quad-damage magic or medicine? Either way, though, the game that really expanded the FPS medicine-chest was Epic's Unreal Tournament sequel.

Strictly speaking, there's only one drug in UT2003 -- the somewhat imprecisely labeled "adrenaline" -- but it has an appalling variety of effects on the user/abuser, up to and including rendering him or her invisible. A hell of a drug, as Rick James would have it.

Grand Theft Auto ? Year: 1998-2004
Effects: Strands user in Vice City; inspires aggressiveness, megalomania, munchies. In a way, the GTA series represents the point at which drug-related content in games is no longer an event worthy of note. The anti-heroes and villains in Rockstar's crime adventures use drugs, sell drugs, steal drugs, ship drugs, and otherwise involve themselves in nearly every facet of the alternative pharmaceuticals industry. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City mixes a lot of different rackets into its underground economy, but it begins and remains rooted in the '80s cocaine boom.

GTA gave way to dope-fueled creations like Midway's 3D NARC revival, which probaly runs away with the prize for the widest variety of virtual drug trips ever folded into one package. On the horizon, we've got games like Scarface, where the player becomes a drug dealer and a drug addict all at once (and yet neither fact is really central to his motivations or the surrounding gameplay). For better or for worse, drugs are just another theme in games nowadays -- same as with movies, TV, music, and everyday life besides.

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Re: Drugs and Video Games [Re: veggie]
    #4346504 - 06/28/05 01:13 PM (12 years, 10 months ago)

Great article Veggie, thanks for that! :mrt:

It's Krang, Bitch!  :krang:

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Re: Drugs and Video Games [Re: drtyfrnk]
    #4346917 - 06/28/05 03:44 PM (12 years, 10 months ago)

Yeah, cool :smile: !


Spiritual being, living a human experience ... The Shroomery Mandala

Use, do not abuse; neither abstinence nor excess ever renders man happy.

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Re: Drugs and Video Games [Re: MAIA]
    #4347076 - 06/28/05 04:24 PM (12 years, 10 months ago)

I really love that yoshi's island level with the warping effect after you bump into one of the fuzzy guys.  I kept dying on purpose just so I could replay that level over and over  :grin:

Manoa said:
I need to stop spending all my money on plants and take up a cheaper hobby, like heroin. :lol:

Looking for Rauhocereus riosaniensis seeds or live specimen(s), :pm: me if you have any for trade

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Re: Drugs and Video Games [Re: SuperD]
    #4348748 - 06/29/05 12:51 AM (12 years, 10 months ago)


Snake's brand was Lucky Strike.


mmm luckies

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Re: Drugs and Video Games [Re: SuperD]
    #4348955 - 06/29/05 01:58 AM (12 years, 10 months ago)

I remember loving that Yoshi level even before I ever tripped. I purposely ran into the fuzzies. I wonder if videogames really did influence us as kids?


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Re: Drugs and Video Games [Re: veggie]
    #4349478 - 06/29/05 04:41 AM (12 years, 10 months ago)

Fallout 2 had good ones. Mentats, Jet etc.


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