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A Short History of Video Gaming’s Most Gratifying Destruction

From blowing shit up to simply punching it apart, games have addressed cathartic carnage in very different ways over the years.

by Ian Dransfield
26 March 2015, 1:45pm

'Super Street Fighter 4' brought back the car-smashing bonus stage of the second game in the classic series

There are some things we (apparently) can't do without in games, one of the most talked about being the act of killing. But what about killing inanimate objects – like decorative lamps, useful street signage, or entire buildings? Well, no, you can't kill those. But rebadge the act as "destruction" and you've got yourself a key aspect of a hell of a lot of games.

Seriously, go back through the entire history of gaming, all just-a-few-decades of it, and you'll see smashing shit up being an element of almost everything. If we can't shoot a dude in the face, we can sure as hell destroy his house. Even the first game ever made (it wasn't that, but let's just call it that), Spacewar, involved one ship trying to destroy another.

But the need to damage stuff stretched beyond merely wrecking up your opponents (and friends); soon enough it became another one of those wonderful power fantasies we all get so invested in through gaming. When Rampage arrived in 1986, collateral damage became the entire point of the experience.

'Rampage', original arcade gameplay

Catharsis for dummies – it would never win awards for its depth of thinking or the subtlety of its presentation, but Rampage keyed into that base, lizard part of all our brains that makes us want to Banner up and smash the shit out of everything.

Plus, I mean, I could try to bring down a building in real life, but swinging my fists at a brick wall hasn't ever served me well in life. Also writing a sentence like that will get SCO19 on my arse.

But there was a point to these flailing giant monkey limbs – that point being points. As simple and straightforward a reason as you'd expect from a game called Rampage, where you go on a rampage, but a reason nonetheless.

Destruction has evolved in gaming over the years, though. While it always boils down to making shit that was all put together nicely all not-put-together nicely, the ways we've done it – and the reasons it has featured – have always been changing. Well, they've usually been changing.

'SimCity' disasters on the SNES

There might have been games before 1989 that expected you to mitigate and defend against destruction of your house and home, but SimCity – the original, not that tripe from the other year – brought with it a new way of thinking: you had to defend your house and home as well as the houses and homes (and workplaces and stadia and power plants and so on) of an entire city.

This destruction moved the goalposts – it changed your motivation from being one solely focused on the aggressive destruction of others to that of self-preservation. You'd spend hours crafting your perfect, blocky cityscape only to see a monster ravage through it, a blaze break out in the goddamn fire station, or an earthquake rumble into life to royally mess up your day. Oh, and kill people. Mustn't forget.

But once again this symphony of destruction could – and would, given enough time – become a sort of catharsis. Had you been playing SimCity and successfully fending off random disasters, helping your township survive and thrive under the looming gaze of a monster that Definitely Wasn't Godzilla, it might get to a point where you'd choose to instigate disasters yourself.

Then... watch it all burn. Fuck that place, I hated it anyway. Destruction is cleansing. It relieves the pressure. When you want all your buildings to be devastated, SimCity becomes a much more relaxing experience.

Destruction sort of waddled along in a bit of a smashed-up daze for a few years, appearing in any and all games but not really doing much to mess with the idea of what it could be. Destruction Derby made us squeal with glee even when were ruining the engine block of our own cars, while a dozen games came out on the Amiga, PC and anywhere else that handled destruction in a manner very similar to a certain Angry Birds.

But as the technical arms race heated up, so did the need to impress beyond games just featuring "more emotive eyebrows" and "at least three faces" – we needed interactivity; the kind teased by Worms and its ilk, but from a more realistic point of origin. So we got our ass to Mars with Red Faction and its Geo-Mod engine – let's gloss over it and its awful sequel, though, because, well, Red Faction Guerrilla.

Destruction in 'Red Faction Guerrilla'

There's a reason we still aren't seeing destruction of this scale in a lot of games, as the creator of the tech behind those very crumbling building, John Slagel, told me a few years ago: it's fucking hard to do. Alright, they weren't his exact words, but he seemed to know what he was on about so let's pretend they were.

But good god if the payoff isn't worth it. Released in 2009, Red Faction Guerrilla was a mediocre shooter with a god-awful story and largely dull missions. It is almost universally loved. Why? It made blowing shit up an art form. A science.

The technology backing up your blasting session (not a euphemism) had advanced to such a point that you could be methodical in your takedown of the residence of a corrupt government official. As soon as you realised thought could be applied to what was otherwise mindless smashology, it all clicked into place – and became a lot more fun.

Don't get me wrong, just going mental on something like Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (the clue's in the name) is great, but what Red Faction did for the desire to devastate in all of us shouldn't be overlooked. It took a constant side attraction of gaming, put it front and centre and told us all: "Oi, this shit is fun, you should do it more."

And it keeps on coming. Goat Simulator wouldn't have offered even a minute of comedy fun without its rampant destruction. Even Spielberg loves it, designing a couple of games entirely around the theme of disassembling structures by lobbing balls at them (naturally, being a Spielberg creation, Boom Blox was incredible).

'Boom Blox' trailer

While the likes of the recent Battlefield games and the upcoming Next Car Game: Wreckfest are taking up the Red Faction baton and running with it, making technical leaps in how we smash up our surroundings, destruction is also a quick fix for your base-level "pulse-pounding" action.

Name me a Call of Duty or Battlefield game of the past few years that hasn't gone all-out with the destruction in a cutscene. Can't? That's right, because it's too difficult to tell any of them apart. But if you could, you'd see that they all have it – collapsing buildings, fully blown attacks on 'Murica, nuking the site (not) from orbit. It's shorthand for excitement, even if it's being handled in a different way to the interactive destruction that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

It will never end. It will only grow in complexity and, as far as I'm concerned, be more fun as a result. It's unlikely I'll ever smash a car to bits with my fists and feet, so the more realistic a recreation of that we realise in gaming, the better for me. Yes, I am angling for a photorealistic virtual reality version of the car mini-game from Final Fight or Street Fighter II.

Regardless, destruction is one of gaming's true constants. A form of death inflicted on the inanimate object of the world. Delightfully cathartic. And, when done right, enough to elevate a decent game to "great" status – because toppling chimneystacks is bloody good fun.

Special mention to the carpet-bombing in the original Mercenaries, too. That was another middling game saved by some damn fine explodey bangs.



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Ian Dransfield
Red Faction Guerrilla