No stopping the return of the pause button

There's an anecdote floating around the machine-learning world about a program designed to learn how to play games.

At first it's given the original Mario game and guided through the learning process before it quickly becomes capable of exploiting the game in ways humans couldn't imagine repeating.

Once it had made Mario's adventure trivial, the same program was let loose on Tetris. It was starting at square one so it tanked quite a few times.

The program's creator watched one attempt as the tiles began to pile up, closer and closer to the top. In the last moment before defeat, the program did the only thing it could do to avoid losing.

It paused.

It preferred an infinite state of nothingness to losing, and games analysts have spooked each other with the story around campfires ever since.
Multiplayer and online connectivity have come close to killing the pause button but games used to integrate it as a crucial part of winning.

Role-playing games like Baldur's Gate were a prime example. Fights were too complicated for reflexes alone to work, so you had to pause, issue your characters orders, then unpause to watch the results. A second or so later you'd pause and repeat.

Icewind Dale, Planescape Torment, Fallout, Jagged Alliance all used variations on the real-time narrative, pause-and-go combat mix.

I should remember, on more than one occasion I spent north of six hours on a 5-minute fight.

The creators of those games are now using platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo to bring back the pause-heavy style of game for those of us who can't remember how painful it was.

Baldur's Gate has been remade. Divinity: Original Sin is a modern interpretation. Pillars of Eternity is a modern simulacrum. Transistor gives it an artsy, indie edge.

Bringing the humble pause button in as a game mechanic gives players control and deliberateness. That's the official line anyway. Clumsy folk like myself suspect we're just glad some games don't require RSI-inducing twitch reflexes.


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