Monday, June 30, 2008

Why We Play

A few weeks ago I was working some pretty long hours compared to what I'm used to, and came home pretty tired and wanting to crash. Like most nights, I wanted to play some games, but I wanted something I could relax with. Looking at my shelf, I found very little that fit that requirement. Most everything I own are action games in one form or another. If I was at an earlier point in Final Fantasy X, I would have chosen that as its random battles are something you can take your time with. However, where I am now, each battle is a nail biting affair where I hope some monster doesn't get lucky and wipes out my whole party in one turn. I wasn't in the mood for a shooter. Burnout Revenge and Burnout Paradise can be somewhat cathartic when you're blazing through the streets at two hundred miles an hour. The problem is that it requires a high level of concentration and reflexes to avoid smashing into the obstacles in your way. I usually can't manage that even at the best of times. I finally settled on Rock Band. I played my favorite songs for a while on medium so the challenge was minimized. This worked admirably to destress me after work. In fact, after a while I bumped up the difficulty to hard and practiced that for a while.

It made me think about the kind of things I generally want from the games I play. I think more than anything, I want a well told story that sucks me in accompanied by gameplay that is addictive, intuitive, and, well, fun. I'm usually stressed out when I'm playing a game. Trying to survive a vicious firefight in Half-Life 2 is an exhilarating experience, and nothing is as thrilling and heartpounding as fighting an epic boss battle and coming out victorious. The key word there is heartpounding. While it may end with a smile on my face, I usually need to take a break and do something else before continuing after an experience like that.

A game like Burnout, Skate, or Rock Band usually has the addictive part down, at least at first. But the difficulty curve steadily (or not so steadily) increases as you progress. Eventually I don't have the patience to spend time getting good enough at the game to keep going, so I put it down and move on. They're fun, but they're not lasting experiences. Rock Band is a bit of an exception because there is a constant supply of new content to try.

I think my favorite games are ones that I don't actually remember playing. By that I mean that the story and characters were so amazing that I don't remember the actual gameplay. The Longest Journey is probably the best example of this. The only puzzles I remember are the incredibly frustrating and illogical ones. For the most part what sticks in my mind are the wonderful writing and characters that moved the plot along. Half Life 2: Episode One is another example of this. Alyx is the only AI companion in a game I've ever been happy to have along with me. In these and other games, I forget I'm playing a game and feel like I'm just along for a wonderful ride.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Successful Experiment is Successful

The Great Game Watching Experiment of 2008 was, I think, mostly successful. We got all the way through Call of Duty 4 on the easiest difficulty. Even on that difficulty, there are parts of the game that were fairly difficult. It's interesting when you compare it to Halo or Half-Life and see the wildly different levels of difficulty that make up the so-called "Easy" setting.

Erin and Dan seemed to have trouble following the plot in certain points. COD4 in particular relies a lot on the loading screen between levels to set up the context for what's about to happen, and if you miss the information presented, either through text or voice overs, the following level won't always make much sense.

It was also interesting for me to replay the game with the intent of giving the other people in the room the best "view" of the action. I was acting as the director in a real sense, so I tried to make sure I was always facing where scripted actions were occurring so they wouldn't miss cool and interesting scenes. Sometimes I was successful, other times I don't think I was.

As I was playing I noticed where the game padded its length to fit more "game" in. I don't mean padded as in it needlessly made its length longer. I mean in the sense that there are sequences where the plot isn't advanced in order for the player to complete certain scenarios that are fun and exciting. Before, when I thought back on the game, I usually remembered the major plot points: the opening assassination, the nuclear blast, the utterly epic slow motion finale. I didn't really think about all the stuff that happened between those moments. COD4 could absolutely be condensed into an awesome action movie, I think. However, sequences like saving the disabled tank, the escape from the farm while calling in air strikes, and possibly the escape and standoff from Chernobyl didn't do much to advance the story. They're exciting to play, but for someone watching me play, it dilutes the main plot of the game and makes it hard to remember what's going on.

We'll be trying The Darkness next. It's got a story with a bit more emotional heft, and tells it a bit more traditionally as far as videogames are concerned. It has five acts, so I'm hoping we can do one act a night until we're finished.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hyrule is Saved! (Again)

Well, I officially beat my first Zelda game tonight. All in all, it was a good time. The things to do were varied and interesting. There were charming characters to interact with and epic bosses to conquer.

Having said that, I do have some complaints. I listed some the other night, but i'll add a few more.

I've heard people say that they really enjoyed the character of Midna. For me, she started out as annoying, then eventually became sympathetic as the story progressed. For me though, the most interesting relationship in the game was between Link and Ilia. Ilia is a teenage girl living in the village with Link. She helps take care of Epona, Link's horse, and seems to be in love with Link. She's eventually kidnapped by monsters, and Link rescues her. However, she's lost her memory. There's not much you can do about it at first, so you continue searching dungeons for various widgets to be used to defeat the evil king from the Twilight Realm.

The nice thing is that Link and Ilia's relationship was fleshed out enough in the beginning of the game that I was genuinely concerned about her when she was kidnapped and subsequently without her memory. Between dungeons and other activities I was constantly checking on her to see if and progress had been made by the local shaman. I was thrilled when I finally was given the set of tasks to restore her memory. While the music left a bit to be desired, the moment when she recognized Link was a memorable one, and made me genuinely happy.

The problem is that after this, she pretty much disappears from the game. You can go see her, sure, but she doesn't have much to say. During the credits, you see her waiting in the village for Link, but you never get to see their reunion. Do they happily wed and pop out a bunch of kids? Are they a cute farming/ranching couple? Does Ilia eventually become tired of hearing of her husband's legendary exploits as the Chosen Hero? Who knows. The game didn't see fit to tell me. After defeating Ganondorf, the game essentially just shows a montage of the characters returning home, but doesn't elaborate on much else. In my mind, I was saving Hyrule so that Ilia would be safe, not because the world itself was in danger. In Wind Waker, your sister is kidnapped in the beginning, which begins your quest. I knew nothing about her though. I felt more connection to my grandmother telling me to rescue her than the sister herself. I really didn't feel much of an impulse to continue Wind Waker once I got stuck, while Ilia in Twilight Princess served as my motivation.

Another part that felt undeveloped were the group of knights or adventurers who appear about halfway through the game. They sort of appear out of nowhere and lead you to the second set of dungeons. They talk about valiantly defending the kingdom and defeating evil, but all they really do is sit around a table in a bar. How are they qualified to help me? In the final dungeon they show up to help in one tiny section, run bravely into the dungeon entrance, and are never seen again. During the fight with Ganondorf, the castle explodes. Does that mean all those adventurers died? I don't recall seeing them in the closing montage, but I may just be forgetting they were there.

Speaking of the exploding castle, it would have been nice if the game had let me return to the world and hear people's reactions. The castle exploded! That's a big event!

Anyway, I DID like the game, I just felt that it didn't live up to all the potential it seemed to have. The idea of a reincarnating hero sent to defeat an undying or reincarnating villain is a cool one. From what I've read on Wikipedia and elsewhere, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are most likely happening in parallel timelines created from the events of Ocarina of Time. I'd love for the next game to somehow bring those timelines together and bring some kind of closure to the seeingly eternal battle between Ganon and Link.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Game Log, and a Multimedia Experiment

Sooo, what've i been playing since last we spoke?

Kameo: Elements of Power
Finally beat this, after buying it with my launch 360 way back in 2005. The graphics are still gorgeous, but the controls and gameplay are just kinda meh all around. Now I know why I gave up on it all those months ago.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Very nearly finished with this. It's been fun, but the dungeons wear me out. Each one can take 3-5 hours to complete, with the climactic boss battle at the end. The battles are epic, but by the time I finally get to the boss, I just want out of the dungeon so I can either save and quite or move the plot along. Also, the contrived nature of the dungeons and how they're designed around the tools you find, along with arbitrary limits on things like the wallet tend to bring me out of the experience and remind me that, yes, I am in fact playing a game. Still, I'm glad to say that I will have finally finished a Zelda game.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Ahh yes, somewhat of an old standby for me. This time I'm playing it on the 360 as opposed to the PC. I miss the mods, especially the interface and texture enhancements, but the underlying game is still as fun and addictive as ever. I did, however, forget how tough the game can be on lower levels. Cyrodil is an enchanting place to spend time in.

Grand Theft Auto IV
Like millions of others, I've been spending lots of time exploring Liberty City and doing my best to disrupt the peace there. Don't have much to add that others haven't said, but the characters are interesting, the story mostly engaging, and the city itself great fun to play in. It can be incredibly frustrating to have to redo a mission for the 4th or 5th time because of shoddy handling of vehicles, but there are so many spontaneous moments that bring a grin to the face. These weren't scripted or programmed events, but just things that randomly occur because of what the designers made available in the world. I always have great stories to exchange with one of my coworkers who's also playing.

I convinced my sister and her husband to let me try a little experiment. There are a few games out there that I think have such good stories and interesting gameplay that I think they would work well as a "movie" or other non-interactive visual entertainment medium. So I thought, why not have someone watch me play the game much like we'd watch a movie or TV show together? A couple of candidates that came to mind were Call of Duty 4, The Darkness, and Shadow of the Colossus. I ended up trying COD4, and the two of them said they enjoyed it. I played on the easiest difficulty to minimize having to replay portions. Unfortunately, there is no invincibility cheat for the game on the 360. This may prove problematic on some of the tougher, later levels. They said they were willing to continue, so hopefully the plot makes up for any rough patches in the game.

That's all for now folks! Next post in... whenever it's posted!
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