This Old Game: Glider

A game that feels like a summer day.

Put the word “Macintosh” next to “game” and you’ve got the beginnings of a joke that only a computer gamer would get. Truth is that video games for Macintosh computers are more or less an exercise in futility for the consumer, and underachievement for developers.

The industry, such as it is, consists of the most popular Windows games, but released six months to more than a year later and with often worse performance. For better or for worse, the rest of the computing world has ridiculous processor speeds and horribly overpowered 3D cards. Apple, though it tries hard, doesn’t move at the same pace, mostly because what people buy Macintoshes for isn’t usually called Doom III. So though Macs nowadays do alright at gaming, they’re still a ways from the head of the pack.

On the developer side of things, there are basically a handful of companies that translate popular games from Windows to the Macintosh, and a bunch of small game makers who offer their stuff up as shareware. Oh, and there’s Pangea Software, which makes cutesy games that Apple used to (but I think no longer) include with the purchase of an iMac.

It’s I guess what you would call a cottage industry. The companies who make good games do well enough, but the likes of Ambrosia Software will never get the same publicity as Ion Storm did back when John Romero was marginally cool. And their games will likely never really be revolutionary. Halo was poised to do that, but the company that produced it got snapped up by Microsoft and the game will likely never be seen on a Mac.

It’s sort of sad to think that the high point of Mac gaming may have been Myst.

So as I see it, there are only two kinds of people really into Mac gaming now: people so completely enslaved by a gossamer graphical interface that they can’t give it up in the name of shooting people over the Internet with style and grace, and bored students stuck in computer labs.

Guess which category I fell into?

It was never really clear how the games got into our school in the first place. My high school started off as an occupational school, where would-be auto mechanics, hairdressers, and daycare providers learned their trade. It’s kind of hard to say how any of them would’ve had any interest in putting games on the computers in the labs.

But they were there, squirreled away in odd-named folders (ostensibly to throw any prying teachers off the trail) on the computers’ hard drives. We collected them on the floppy disks we carried in our backpacks with a dedication only high school students can muster. 1.44 megabytes was a lot back then — maybe six or eight games.

The most popular place to play them was Tech Ed class, where the security program (sweetly labeled “At Ease”), put in place to prevent us from doing anything not expressly allowed by the Baltimore County Technology Education curriculum, was easy to get around. In case there are kids still stuck in that world (God help you), here’s the trick:

  1. Hold down the Command key and hit the Power key.
  2. Type “G FINDER” and hit Return.
  3. If nothing cool happens, try “G 0″.

For some reason, this trick didn’t work on all of the computers in the lab, so there was a lot of jockeying for position and totally bogus lore about which ones worked and which didn’t.

The games themselves weren’t all that amazing. But there was one that I grew to love. I still love it now even though I’ve moved on to Linux. The game was called Glider.

I think Glider was the quintessential Macintosh game. There’s nothing about the game that would have made it impossible for it to be ported to Windows — but I don’t think it would’ve felt right anywhere else. It was too much a part of the Mac culture.

Most people don’t really think of computers as possessing culture. It’s true that most computers are made at the lowest price with parts specifically made to be as generic and replaceable as possible. But those boxes possess a culture, too, if you think about it. It’s called utilitarianism.

I can’t really explain what the Macintosh culture is now, because I’m not a part of it anymore. I can only guess at the significance of brushed metal interfaces and super-sleek hardware. But I can give you an idea of what it once was.

I think the best word is friendly. Macintoshes were never the most powerful computers you could buy, but they were the most reassuring. There was never a sense that you could do anything dangerous with them — a sense that you could never completely wreck your system. The messages that popped up in response to your actions (“Are you sure you want to quit?” “Would you like to save the changes you made before you close this document?” “Are you sure you want to throw away these files?”) made it feel as though the computer was looking out for you.

Glider made me feel the same way.

It was a game that went through many versions, but the basic concept remained the same. You control a paper airplane as it flies through a house toward a destination you aren’t quite sure of at first. The furniture of the house serves as obstacles to be maneuvered around; the vents in the floor blast out columns of air that keep your glider in the air.

There are light switches and thermostats that complicate things in the way you might expect, but the one part of the game that defies easy explanation are the clocks scattered around the house. Touching one sitting on the edge of a table gives you a couple hundred extra points … but why a clock?

John Calhoun, the author of the Glider games, explained in an interview many years later that time is the one thing that no one ever has enough of. It’s the most valuable thing in the world.

It’s this kind of reasoning that makes Glider a quintessentially Mac game. This weird combination of being thoughtful and carefree at the same time.

There are bad guys in the Glider universe. There are paper airplanes that fly straight at yours, paper helicopters that descend from the ceiling, and leaking ceilings that drip at seemingly random intervals.

Worst of all is the cat. It’s the last obstacle you face in the original Glider — it sits on the sill of the window that leads to escape, and it seems to know exactly what you’re going to do. The paw that strikes your glider from the air is faster than you’d expect from a household pet.

(What happened if you made it out? Why, you joined a flock of gliders flying through the night sky, of course.)

What’s really remarkable about Glider, though, is that the only thing you could do was learn to avoid these bad guys. In later versions, you can pick up rubber bands and shoot paper airplanes out of the sky, but this just feels like an over-complication of the game design, and in the end, unnecessary. You don’t need weapons in Glider. You just need wits and reflexes.

Consider for a moment the typical video game. Now subtract any way for the hero to fight back against the bad guys. Most games would become nightmares of violence and fear. The only way to play would be to run away as fast as the game would let you.

Yet in Glider, you never feel threatened or anxious. You’re free more or less to take breaks between obstacles. You can go as quickly or as slowly as you want.

You end up filled with a sense that the world is looking out for you a little, though you can’t just sit there and have everything done for you. You have to learn a little, be a little wily, and trust everything will turn out all right.

The enemies will only get you if you let them.



Also: Check out our interview with Glider creator John Calhoun (part 1 and part 2).

Article © 2002 by Chris Klimas