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Funny To A Point – Ode To Blowing #%$& Up

by Jeff Marchiafava on Sep 23, 2016 at 11:16 AM

In the past few months since I've launched this column, I've poked fun at some games, the haters of other games, the industry, and mostly myself. Today I want to do something a little different by waxing poetic about most one of gaming's most time-tested and artistic expressions: blowing sh-- up.

Perhaps it's because construction workers have spent this week playing with the biggest, coolest toys in the lot across from our office, but lately I've spent an I-swear-I'm-not-crazy amount of time thinking about all the destructive things we do in games. Sure, video games allow us to do a lot of good things: They task us with difficult philosophical choices, help us expand our horizons, and provide new perspectives on life. I appreciate these amazing and positive aspects of gaming, and they deserve all the heaping praise they get. But none of that makes blasting the crap out of things any less fun.

We often think of destruction as a bad thing (kind of like how I just juxtaposed it with gaming's "good" aspects) but it's also instinctual. Ever since my niece was old enough to not choke on the pieces like a dumb baby, I've been building Lego towers with her. By "with her," I mean I build them and she knocks them down while laughing like a pint-sized psychopath. Most of the time it's a grueling test of patience for her, as I frantically build the tower as high as possible before she Godzillas the place up. No one had to teach her how fun it is to smash block towers to pieces (naturally I would have if she couldn't figure it out on her own, but she's a smart one). And even as the underappreciated architect, it's fun for me too – who do you think bought her all the damn Legos in the first place?

The view from my office window. Sadly, no explosions yet.

More than any medium, video games have seized upon our universal appetite for destruction, serving up an endless buffet of calamitous scenarios. And while these virtual acts may focus on destroying things, they've also created a joyous common language that practically every gamer can recognize and enjoy. So, Sound of Music-style, here are a few of my favorite things:

A string of C4 charges strategically set around a building, blinking and beeping a prelude to obliteration. Ever since GoldenEye's Facility level, I've had a fondness for games that let me plant explosives around a room like a deranged demolition expert – though the "expert" is debatable, given how often I go up in flames along with whatever I'm trying to bomb.

A plasma grenade tucked up behind the collar of an opponent, hissing menacingly as they run to their inescapable doom. Or, back in the days of Halo's split-screen multiplayer, square in the face so you can see their view eclipsed by a crackling blue aura.

The sharp, crisp shatter of a glass bottle instantaneously disintegrating. The most common object in any FPS shooting gallery, and yet I can't not shoot them. The sound is so ingrained in my brain I can hear it before I even pull the trigger.

A column of thick black smoke emanating from your car's engine, the ominous countdown to detonation. Once I was driving to my parent's house when my engine started smoking. My instinctual reaction was: MUST JUMP OUT BEFORE CAR EXPLODES. Thankfully, neither of those things ended up happening.

A red drum barrel throbbing with explosive potential. So maybe they aren't actually throbbing, but that's what it seems like because we've been trained like Pavlov's dog to blow them up. I don't know if there's a real-life company that stores flammable materials in red barrels, but if there is, god help them – if I worked there, I'd contemplate driving a forklift into a stack of them on a daily basis.

A meatbag opponent exploding in red, squishy carnage. Commonly referred to as "gibbing" your opponent, which is short for "giblets." I always thought it was a nerdy term, but that's just it – even the smartest nerds appreciate making things go boom.*

A corpse ragdolling through the air, preferably on fire. Even when it's my corpse – nothing mitigates my frustration over dying in a game faster than watching my lifeless character being launched to comical heights.

Frantically running through Bomberman's random labyrinths, being chased by the fiery explosions of your own diarrhea bombs. Alright, this one might not be quite as universal, but if you've ever suffered from Bomberman's dubious power-up, you never forget it.

Video game explosions range from erupting planets all the way down to Hitler's one good nut, and they're all equally enjoyable. However, one game deserves special recognition. Red Faction: Guerrilla featured what is still the most advanced destructible physics system ever created for a game, for the express purpose of running around Mars like a madman and razing buildings to the ground with your trusty sledgehammer. Nothing else even comes close to it. Well, except maybe this guy.

And while I'm handing out special shout-outs, can we all take a moment to recognize the robots? Whether they're our A.I. underlings or overlords, gaming's mechanical murderbots dutifully carry out their feeble programming, just waiting to shower the battlefield with their spark-spewing circuitry. They are an important member in the holy trinity of guilt-free cannon fodder (the other two being zombies and Nazis, naturally), and although we may not think twice about killing them, it doesn't mean we can't appreciate their noble sacrifice.

Usually finding any point of agreement with Dan Ryckert is a terrifying proposition, but I can't even feel bad about our equal love for blowing things up in games. When Dan (I assume drunkenly) spent hours trying to launch a cop car into a helicopter in Saints Row 3 like that scene from the second-worst Die Hard movie, I didn't ask why – because the obvious answer is why wouldn't you? (The fact that he was playing as a human toilet at the time, however, is all Dan.)

Most of my gaming recently has been spent on Three Fields Entertainment's Dangerous Golf. Dangerous Golf is about as niche as game ideas get: Take the sport of golf, movie it indoors, and task players with breaking as much stuff as possible on their way to the hole. It's simple, it makes no sense, and I love it. The fact that its creators also worked on Burnout is both evident and irrelevant; the premise works whether you're driving a souped-up sports car or an atomic golf ball. All it takes to transform ultra-niche into universal is a few thousand explosions.

If you need any more evidence for how unanimously loved blowing stuff up in games is, look no further than SimCity. The city-building simulator is about as serious and technical as games get, and yet even Will Wright couldn't resist throwing in a random monster attack every now and then. You can even trigger the attacks yourself, because the only thing cooler than meticulously building up your own city is watching a gigantic creature tear it all down. I'm sure my niece would approve.

Not that SimCity 2013 needed any more disasters than its launch provided.

So why is breaking crap enjoyable even when we're the ones who built it in the first place? Perhaps Michael Caine was right in that one Batman movie when he said, "Some peepol' jus' wanna watch 'da woild boin." More importantly, is our enjoyment of virtual destruction wrong?

I'll leave the philosophical questions to the philosophizers.** I live my life by the words of the great Dane Cook, who once observed, "Sometimes when you see things go BOOM, your mind goes BOOOOOM, and then the booms set off more booms and you make a boom-boom!"***

What, that's not good enough for you? Fine. How about a quote from the eminent Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky instead?

If it's good enough for Dostoevsky, it's good enough for me!

*Though in Carmack's case it's not always intentional.
**Side note: If someone offering you life advice actually refers to themselves as a philosophizer, stop listening.
***You should really know by now that that's not a real Dane Cook quote. Also, when I wrote "great Dane Cook" in Microsoft Word, it suggested I capitalize the word "great," because even a computer knows how bad he is and assumed I was talking about the dog breed instead.

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