I recently helped my partner build a gaming PC so she can play Overwatch. She’s hesitant to get into games because she knows how intense she gets when fully immersed. Video-games - especially shooters - are an intense experience. She enjoys the visual style and gameplay of Bioshock, but the constant shrieking voices and sneak attacks emotionally exhaust her within minutes. I knew a kid in grade school who got Half-Life 1 for Christmas, and proceeded to play for 14 consecutive hours, interrupted only by the spontaneous need to vomit. I remember when I’d hit big killstreaks in Dota 2, I’d get tremors in my chest and throat, as if my body could barely contain the visceral thrill of gameplay, walking that razor’s edge between death and glory. But I’ve learned just today that a game’s capacity to overwhelm needn’t come from the sensory overload of real-time violence; I just told myself I had to take a breather from a programming game.

Zachtronics’ TIS-100 is their most thinly-veiled coding simulator to date. While previous releases SpaceChem and Infinifactory had an illustrative layer characterizing the puzzles as something more grand than “mere” programming, TIS-100 is literally a DOS-style text interface, and comes packaged with a PDF reference manual. The experience becomes about as self-reflexive as the very strongest overtures of The Stanley Parable. More than following the game designer’s breadcrumb trail, as we normally do, we follow in his footsteps in TIS-100; there is very little in the game besides it’s hideously exposed underlying mechanics. The game itself is understanding those mechanics and manipulating them in order to create increasingly complex algorithms.

It should be boring as hell - surely anybody with actual programming experience should find this game a chore, a dull joke. But when I understood how to nest conditional command loops within each other - such that my program has one usual thing it does, then another if some condition is met, before returning to the usual thing - I was mentally overwhelmed. The feeling of epiphany flooded my brain and I just had to step away. Suddenly, too many possibilities were available to me and I just couldn’t handle it - like finally understanding why four 2’s make eight. To be fair, I have a bit of a tortured history with programming. Even introductory University courses in simplified languages would have me weeping over my keyboard at 3am trying to generate a damned fractal. I’d get drunk at the campus bar before the handwritten mid-term exams, to calm my nerves. Didn’t do too badly, neither.

To a coder, a joke is nothing but an input.

To a coder, a joke is nothing but an input.

But it’s reassuring, I think, when we can access real excitement through something abstract, something other than Hollywood sight and sound. There are still so many unplumbed depths in the gifts that games can give us!