Archive for July, 2010


So, I’ve been listening to the Decemberists lately–and by lately I mean “replaying every album they have over and over again for the past four days” and I think it’s making me sick. I’ve stopped eating meat, I’m growing a big bush beard, and I found a scarf in my closet, along with all natural, 100% hemp clothing and…and even right now I feel…pretentious…and…and finicky and…AAARGGGH!

Hello, I’m the MidiMaestro, and I’ve now taken over this insipid video game blog to educate you plebeians about proper culture. None of these blips and bloops, these synthesized pseudo-sound effects to accompany your silly digital simulations–I’m here to talk about REAL culture, REAL music. None of this mind-numbing dreck that takes a sophisticated mind and reduces it to a liquified quivering mess.

Which brings us nicely to the Decemberists. The Decemberists, a Portland-based folk-rock band are, of course, a Bad Band. Now, you insipid sheep who think that Kanye West and My Chemical Romance are the epitome of culture and sophistication may be confused by what this means, because your infantile minds are incapable of grasping the graceful elegance of true culture, so I’ll explain. A Bad Band is a band that fails to do what it should do. The Decemberists are a bad band because they are a fusion of folk and rock who utilize rousing ballads about sailors and whales and an alarming amount of rape to express their sound. With their doughy faces and their big buttons and their heavy coats and their enormous hard-on for any word or phrase that is at least 80 years out of date, they smack of pretentiousness whilst remaining devoid of any real…real…AAARGH!

I can’t do this, I’m not snobbish enough. I love the Decemberists. I love every silly lyric and every rousing sea shanty ballad. I love their ersatz war songs, their twisted love songs, their heavy, intricate and obscure vocabulary. Sure, I can’t disagree with such scathing critiques as this Something Awful article, though I’d say it’s just a little unfair, but y’know what? They sound nice, and sometimes, very rarely, that can be enough for me.

The face of Rock and Roll, ladies and gentleman

Actually, let’s discuss appearances. It’s cripplingly difficult at times to try and justify the artistic merit of video games, mostly because not everyone can agree on what exactly qualifies a particular piece of work as “art”. Everyone’s favorite gaming critic, Yahtzee Croshaw (more famous for those ever-so-entertaining Zero Punctuation videos) remains one of the biggest defenders of gaming’s artistic credibility, assisted by his incredibly broad definition of just what art is. By Yahtzee’s definition, spelled out here, essentially defines Art as anything that inspires an emotional response (emotional attachment, he says). It’s a fair and fine definition, slightly less broad than TVTropes’ “everything ever written, filmed, drawn or shat upon is art and deserves its own page and twenty bazillion examples yes including gay fanfiction”.

The key to Yahtzee’s little article isn’t the definition of art he subscribes to, but rather his statement that art is “subjective” and nobody can agree on what that means. Personally, I think art is something that challenges you to think, that offers valid social critique and commentary, and/or touches you in some way, inspiring a powerful emotional response. See? Yahtzee’s definition is there and I just added to it. Problem is, games are such a new and unique medium, even twenty years later, that we still haven’t quite figured out what to do with them, and how to utilize them in an artful way.

Games are still rigidly trying to recreate movies, trying to make us cry using the same tricks of the trade that films do. This is, of course, changing–Modern Warfare has one of the most heart-wrenching finales I’ve ever seen in a game because it chooses to play out the final, tragic scene not in a non-interactive cutscene, but rather as part of the regular game experience. You get to lay there, paralyzed, able to look around but helpless to stop the horrible things happening around you, but in the end, you are still in control, and the final actions of the game are yours to deliver. To this day, I still hold that the climax of Modern Warfare is one of the finest in gaming, because it does what a game does, but still makes you feel.

But here’s the thing–it isn’t that hard to make a person cry. I mean, I could post a picture of a baby seal getting clubbed and 50% of you would burst into tears. Emotion is pliable, easily manipulated. If inspiring an emotional response is the prerequisite for something to be considered “art”, then I argue that true art has to step beyond that. It can’t simply be trying to make the audience feel–it has to be an expression of the artist’s feelings and, more importantly than that, it has to have a message. Maybe not a moral–but at the end of the experience, you should be able to look back and say “Ah, I see. My actions here have taught me X.”

See? Art! (Note: I do not condone the clubbing of baby seals and oh god I think I'm going to go cry now)

I don’t see that as often as I think we should. It does exist, of course–games like Persona 4, Fallout 3, Phantom Brave (though you may kill yourself out sheer despair before learning this game’s lesson) have morals and messages built into their narratives, and the first two actually tie their message into the gameplay itself, but…well, I guess what I’m getting at is, where are the protest games? Where are the games that make a political statement, that demand revolution and change, that inspire controversy beyond just “oh it is corrupting the children”? Where’s the game where you play a closeted homosexual suffering prejudice and intolerance in a society that claims itself to be a bastion of acceptance and freedom? Where’s the game where you are a poor, uneducated Afghani boy who has to join a sadistic terrorist organization or watch your family die? Where’s the game where you play a corrupt politician who casually subverts the desires of his own constituents whilst crafting broader and better lies to keep them placated?

In 1979, Pink Floyd released the Wall and it blew everyone’s fucking mind. Subversive, intricate, full of social, emotional, and philosophical impact wrapped around trippy melodies and satire-ridden lyrics, the Wall remains in my mind–and the mind of many–as one of the best albums of all time, and certainly one of the best pieces of social commentary ever made. And don’t get me started on Bob Dylan–he managed an entire career of protest songs in just three years, and then found drugs and later Jesus. MY point is, where is video gaming’s “The Wall”? Where’s our Bob Dylan?

The game would force you to eat your meat or you won't get any pudding. Then you have to jump on the Hydra's back.

I’ve seen games that made me cry. I’ve seen games that made me feel. I don’t doubt games can pass as art, but can games inspire revolutions? Can games unify people, bring us out of our apathetic ignorance to raise our skinny arms to the sky and scream for the walls to come tumbling down? Why is it that gaming hasn’t tried to spark a revolution? Maybe it’s because we don’t have as big an indie gaming scene as we should. Maybe games are too expensive to make, and have too much corporate oversight. Maybe because there isn’t a game developer with the balls to actually make a game that isn’t “shoot bad guys til you when”. Maybe because gamers are too finicky to accept anything that challenges them. Maybe we’ve all grown stupid and complacent. Maybe we don’t believe in anything anymore.

I don’t have any answer for it. Twenty years old, gaming is still in its awkward adolescence. It hasn’t found a battle to fight yet, a flag to fly. Maybe it never will–maybe gaming is meant to remain a simple distraction, a means of escaping the doldrums of our lives. Maybe gaming shouldn’t try to tackle real world issues. I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you have any. But for me? I’d like to see it. I’d like to see games that try and confront issues that we refuse to talk about. I’d like a game to force me to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, just to show me what it’s like.

Is that too much to hope for? Well, I suppose I can just keep listening to the Decemberists. They’re playing a song about drowning children now. I don’t know what lesson it teaches, but it sure sounds nice.

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Level Up!

So, I’ve come up with a pretty nifty idea for how to make leveling up your character in RPGs more entertaining.

Ah, of course you know what I’m talking about? Leveling up has become commonplace in just about every genre over the past five years. Even the biggest first person shooter franchise right now, Modern Warfare, features an extensive leveling up system in their multiplayer. What had once been a mechanic limited to–and even indicative of–Role Playing Games (RPGs) has now become widespread over all of gaming. I think the way we do it now is archaic and dull and can be improved.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love being rewarded with big numbers at the end of every major encounter as much as the next nerd. Experience Points–numerical values representing just how much “experience” your character received for any given action, usually winning a fight–have been and may very well continue to be the main impetus for you, the player, to actually participate in a game’s combat scenarios. Harder, rarer fights would reward more points, and the more points you got, the more likely it was that you would “level up”, the primary goal of the exercise.

Leveling up is the only reason people play MMORPGs

Here’s what I’m thinking–leveling up doesn’t have to be just the ever-growing sum of a string of numbers. The contextual reason for leveling up is that the “experience” of your many battles makes you stronger for it. Why not just break up various tasks in the game as “experiences”, and ditch the number system altogether?

You are probably familiar with “grinding”. That is, doing a monotonous activity in a game–running around fighting enemies, playing a couple dozen map using only an obscure weapon set–in order to level up. Grinding is a time-honored tradition, almost as well-known as leveling up itself, and it makes no sense. There’s no impetus for the characters to do it–all it is is glorified practice with live targets, and you are almost always fighting the same targets. Grinding is very rarely ever much fun, though some find it relaxing. It’s an element of gaming that we should have much, much less of. I don’t want to eliminate it entirely, but I do want us to consider alternatives.

Man, this makes me think of Crimson Skies. That was a sweet game.

Imagine this: Setting out into the game at level 1, basic equipment. You fight enemies, but they don’t drop balls of light or produce numbers informing you that they are helping you. However, by the end of the combat tutorial you have killed, say, 25 of them or a 1/3 of the total population, and that’s earned you a thorough understanding of their fighting style and basic behavior. Now you are able to fight against them and creatures similar to them better, your character automatically adjusting to adapt to their attacks, giving the player an easier time while playing. Now, both story and gameplay benefits have been reaped, and experience has been gained. What more, it’s an actual experience, one you felt and one that is unique, at least to that playthrough.

While individual experience events–which can include completing missions or sidequests, finding rare items, learning skills and craftswork, or just exploring an unexplored cavern–grant immediate bonuses, getting enough of them does, indeed, “level up”, which gives your character more health and allows him/her to explore more dangerous areas.

This could be translated into other genres too. Hell, Call of Duty already has a sort of variation on this, where it rewards perks and skills to players who perform certain specific tasks numerous times. The Achievement and Trophy system does this too, in a way. Gamers respond well to their own individual accomplishments within the game being celebrated. Who wouldn’t? It seems logical. It seems a step towards making games more immersive without trying gimmicky controllers or motion capture technology.

Lethargy

It’s been a slow, dull several days. I’m in the midst of packing up my whole apartment, but I’m way ahead of schedule and am just moving at a snail’s pace until the end of the month. Filling in all the empty hours should be the ever comforting bleeps, bloops, and simulated gunfire of my favorite video games, but…

Alas. I’m in a rut. I’ve played all my games, and packed most of them by now, and I crave something new. I just can’t get immersed into anything at the moment. Terrible, isn’t it? I blog about games and I’ve no games to blog about. Well, I’m not going to let it get to me.

I’ve come down with a serious case of lethargy. Lethargy is a sad affliction that affects millions every day. When one is overcome by a listlessness, yet stricken by an absence of energy, drive, or desire to do much of anything but…sit. Lay. Doesn’t make for exciting blogging material.

This isn't me.

I’m thinking of maybe replaying Jade Empire, try to do the Closed Fist route, but that thrills me about as much as a humming bird could thrill a bull elephant. There aren’t a whole lot of “bad guy” mysteries I’d be that interested in following–like with KOTOR, taking the “bad” route just results in less gameplay, or more bland outcomes. Either “everyone dies” or “everyone dies but you have to fight them first” or the even rarer “Nobody dies, you just rob them of their hopes and dreams”–it’s too predictable to engage, and, sure, being an evil bastard has its moments of fun, but much like KOTOR before it, Jade Empire restricts your villainy to the uninspired Skeletor variety–evil for evil’s sake.

I am looking forward to pick up a shiny new DS game, which should make for some inspired blogging, and once I’ve moved you’ll be seeing a lot more updates, including–god willing–some video blogs and packages I’ll be whipping together. We’ll have to see though, things are in a flux.

Apologies for the short update, hopefully next time I’ll have something more interesting to write about.

Mind Games

Man, Jade Empire is like premature ejaculation. Just as you’re starting to enjoy yourself, BAM! It’s all over. At least the credits had some funny bonus dialogue.

So, I saw Inception last night. Great movie, though I shant waste space here doing a review of it. Do check it out though–the premise is kind of like Psychonauts meets Oceans 11. The execution is more akin to Persona 4, and that’s the game I want to talk about.

You'd think the subconscious would have better irrigation...

You’ve heard of Persona 4, haven’t you? The shockingly popular PS2 RPG that proved that not only is the system not dead, but is still releasing games superior in quality to many of the big, next-gen titles in the same genre. Persona 4 ranks among my favorite RPGs–it tells a startlingly good story, has incredibly addictive gameplay, and–as any good sequel should–it takes all of the flaws of the previous game and fixes or removes them. Now, on the surface Persona 4 is a murder mystery RPG, plain and simple–but in case the title didn’t clue you in, the game really has more to do with Jungian Psychology than with murders.

Similarly, Inception has more to do with mind games than with corporate espionage (which is ostensibly the goal of going into people’s minds in the film). Once you’ve broken through the initial set-up, both stories involve a search for truth amidst lies and illusions constructed by the hidden desires of the psyche. They even feature similar themes and elements–Inception has a character who stalks the various protagonists through the mindscape in a murderous frenzy. This character is actually a semi-sentient mental projection that has grown out of Leonardo Di Caprio’s obsession, and only he can reign it in, but is unable to. The concept of facing aspects of yourself that you are afraid of or otherwise do not wish to face is a core conceit of Persona games, especially Persona 4.

Man, I wish my subconscious was this cool

Now, I’m probably going to do an in-depth essay or two about the Persona games, so I won’t spend too much time on Persona 4, though anyone who has played the game will get a double-kick of pleasure out of Inception. Instead, I’d like to talk about the concept that both it and the movie explored–that is, the idea of exploring a person’s mind. It’s a surreal notion, one explored many times in films, television, books and, of course, games. I mentioned Psychonauts before as a good example, but there’s plenty out there to feature delving into people’s unconscious minds. Its really ripe, interesting territory, and I would love to see it explored further.

Let’s have a little mind experiment. Let’s try to imagine what making a video game adaptation of Inception would entail. Now, without spoiling the film, this would be pretty difficult to do if we were just adapting the story of the film into game form. Instead, let’s do the smart thing, and take the premise, world, and setting, and see what we can come up with. Ready? Go!

If I were going to make a game of Inception, I’d do it in the style of the Hitman games. Each level in the game would be one mind, in which you are attempting to locate and acquire information hidden away. The movie demonstrated several ways of finding out where this information is hidden, and that variety would be the core of the gameplay. You’d have several possible routes you could take to acquire your objective–you could be stealthy, and sneak around undetected, ultimately trying to kidnap your target and squeeze the information out of him. You could be more aggressive, outfitting yourself with loads of weaponry and attempting to brute-force your way through a level (though the more destruction you cause, the more difficult it becomes, as more enemies would flood the area, just like in the movie.). Or, you could take the con-man route, and attempting to use charm, wit, and trickery to acquire information you desire.

Now, this is all well and good, but we’ve seen it before. It’s nothing new to be afforded multiple solutions to a single problem. Fortunately, our source material is rich enough to provide for all. In the movie, the Extractors (dream-thieves) don’t just enter a person’s maze–they actually build a labyrinth inside his or her dreams, to confuse their subconscious projections and to make it easier for them to navigate. So, why not make that a core gameplay mechanic? Before every mission, after learning what you are trying to steal, you have to construct the level from the ground up, drawing your own maze–a maze that takes more than a minute to solve. Building the level is almost as important as running through it–you have to account for the possibility of your cover being blown, of something going wrong, of having to pursue your target or avoid pursuers yourself. Later levels will include intense mental security which will require you to build in safe houses as well as environmental hazards to slow down your pursuers.

Then, the time limit. Time is an essential aspect of the movie–mainly, how much or little of it is left. The deeper into a dream you go, the slower time moves. So, levels would operate under a strict time limit. As you progress in the game and have to create more elaborate dreams–dreams within dreams–the time limit will change depending on how deep you are. You’ll have to balance between different characters, different timers, and different layers of security.

Of course, I doubt they’d do anything nearly as clever for a movie tie-in game, which is a shame. The games one can play in the mind are far more engaging than any others. It’s a pity we have yet to truly begin to play.

Jade Update

Hello loyal readers. Right off the bat I should apologize I’ve been lacking in updates for the past few days. I’ve been busy getting resettled into my old house and packing for my move at the end of the month–updates may be slow around the first of August as well. Of course, it doesn’t help that I haven’t gotten a good idea for my next article, but fear not–I’ve got some stuff planned, and some things I’d like to try. This site is in flux at the moment, and there’s gonna be some awesome stuff coming in within the next month or so, so look forward to that.

That out of the way, I won’t leave you without any kind of entertainment. So, let’s talk about Jade Empire.

Yeah! Jade Empire! Anyone else remember this? This game was Knights of the Old Republic developer Bioware’s follow up to their big hit, and I always felt that this game was never as well received as KOTOR was. Jade Empire came amidst a flurry of hype, plenty of build-up and talk in the leading magazines, and I know it sold decently, but it never caught on in the hearts and minds of gamers as KOTOR before it or as Dragon Age or Mass Effect after.

There’s plenty of reasons for this, not the least of which is that the game isn’t all that great. Now, don’t get me wrong, it isn’t bad per se, but considering its pedigree and considering what came before it, the game is oddly…shallow. It is still an open-ended RPG like KOTOR–you create your character, picking from one of three builds–speedy, bulky, or balanced–and one of four initial fighting styles–fast, very fast, balanced, slow–and are unceremoniously dumped in the midst of your idyllic martial arts school that is just begging to be firebombed by the time the tutorial ends.

The game goes through all of KOTOR’s basic motions–you talk to various peoples around town, find out what their problems are, and then you have a choice of being heroic and nice and help them out or the choice of being a colossal asshole and kick sand in their faces. Yes, the moral choice system is back, but instead of “light side/dark side” (or the more clever Renegade/Paragon system of Mass Effect) you have “Open Palm” and “Closed Fist”–to fit into the ancient China motif, I guess. Though the game describes these two philosophies as being more complex than just “good or evil”, in execution it rarely plays out the way they describe.

The Way of the Closed Fist = Bloody Giblets!

Rather, Open Palm people are calm, collected, and totally non-confrontational. They have the power to destroy, but choose only to wield it if necessary. They believe harmony is better than anything else. Closed Fist users are supposed to be “Might makes Right” sort of pseudo-fascists, who believe that only the strong survive and have little sympathy for the weak. If you are enslaved, it is because you were not strong enough to defeat the slavers, etc. Not evil, but a harsh philosophy–right?

Not so much. Jade Empire basically boils your choices down to this: nice guy or bully. You can help an old lady across the street or break both her legs and that’s it. People complain that KOTOR’s Dark Side choices are nothing more than cartoon supervillainy, but Jade Empire’s Closed Fist is just being a schoolyard bully, full stop. While occasionally the actual philosophy behind it is brought out to justify your decision, the game opts early on to ignore any nuance or subtlety to the choices and just make them clean cut, black and white “good” and “bad”.

Combat is a fun change of pace from KOTOR. They ditched the turn-based dice mechanics for a real-time, combo-driven system. It’s tragically simple, meant surely to appeal to those pasty, vein-clogged bloated seals whom all RPG developers feel is their target demographic (I’ll refrain from expressing my own insult at the assumption), but it just translates as dull. Combat isn’t particularly difficult, and no enemy can really throw more than the same two tricks at you time and time again, so the only time you are ever in any danger is if you just get way too cocky and pick a fight with too many foes at once. You can beat the game just by blocking and using your quick hits, and the first two styles you get in the game are more than enough to carry you through.

Oh, yes, let’s talk about the styles, hm? This part I actually like. Instead of managing equipment and armor and a big inventory, just about all of your skills and stat boosts come from styles and tactics you learn from various martial arts masters. Your styles are essentially your weapons, and they come in 4 types–support, magic, weapon, and coconut–I mean, martial. You can have any 4 mapped to the D-pad at any time, and you’ll find that you’ll always have the same three on at any time, so the only main variable is what you put in your fourth one. After getting a third of the way through the game being a heroic kung-fu fighter, I decided to use that slot for the one gun you get in the game, which amounts to a “win” button, as fists < bullets.

Tactics are essentially your armor and accessories. Learning them usually boosts one stat whilst detracting from another. Since there are only three stats, you have to be careful in how you balance yourself, though keeping every stat well-developed isn’t too hard to do. Anyway, it’s a nifty system–a bit shallow, sure, but it does eliminate most of the genre-typical micromanaging and lets you go about murdering things.

I haven’t beaten the game yet, but the storyline is pretty basic–your master is kidnapped, you have to go get him back, and also maybe save the world from a zombie apocalypse. I’m…really not joking that much. Within the first ten minutes, you are informed that there is no room in Hell and the dead are overrunning the living and you are the only person whose fists are strong enough to punch ghosts. Yes, in this game you punch ghosts to death. I give it points, if only for the sheer cheek of it all.

EDIT: The game’s story is actually quite decent, if a bit rushed towards the end. There’s a really cool twist near the end and the characters all shine as much as they can. It’s not stellar, but it’s probably the best part of the game.

If anything radical changes as I get further in it, I’ll post my thoughts, but as it is, the game is an interesting glance back at an older age of RPGs, and for 12 bucks on Xbox Arcade, there’s no reason not to pick it up–though I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. It’s got its big flaws–dull combat and a shallow morality system–and add to this the fact that the developers seemed to run out of ideas for their setting long before they’d run out of gameplay time, and you find yourself with a game that could have been amazing, but is only mediocre at best.

A Winner is You

There’s a lot of reasons why we play games. Some do it for the competition–a game is a contest between two players to determine whose skill is superior. Some do it for the distraction–all they want from a game is a simple amusement, a time-waster. Others still play a game for the immersion–for the ability to enter a virtual world and perform great feats therein.

Most, though, play games to win.

Victory

The carpal tunnel was totally worth this little screen.

This may be a bold statement, but I think that a game is only a game if you can win it. Every game has a goal–from board games to tabletop RPGs. There’s a “victory condition”. The games rules and the manner in which it is played exist to facilitate the fulfillment of this goal, or else increase the difficulty in which the goal can be achieved.

This means, for those paying attention, that I don’t classify Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games as actual, well, games. Yes, the word “game” is there in the title, but they aren’t really games-they are exercises. It’s like playing basketball by yourself–yes, you are “playing” basketball, but without another person it is not a “game”. A game in and of itself indicates a sport, a contest of some kind–either between you and another person or you and a computer. If you can’t “win”, then it isn’t a “game”.

The drive to win is at the very core of gaming. Back before there was any semblance of story, when graphics were poorly rendered, incomprehensible pixels, the only reason any of us had to play games was to win. Sometimes victory meant getting the highest score, sometimes it meant reaching the end of the screen or beating all the bad guys. Then victory meant rescuing the princess, getting the Tri-Force, beating Mother Brain, saving the world.

High Score!

Even now, even as gaming has become ten times more complex, with flashier graphics, intricate storylines, and more varied game modes and characters, oftentimes the basic goal is still the same–win. It’s no longer the only goal–games like Red Dead Redemption and Fallout 3 have victory conditions and end games, yes–but that’s hardly the point. These games exist to provide immersion, to have the player enjoy simply reveling in their virtual world.

The growing complexity of games, and the growth of immersion-based titles has developed a sort of schism between gamers. You have gamers who play games solely for the sake of victory–completionists, high score junkies, leaderboard competitors. Gamers who consider trophies and achievements to be the ultimate reward at the end of a gaming session. On the other end of the spectrum you have gamers who are in it for the escape, for the context–gamers who care why they are running to the left, who the princess at the end of the castle is, and how they got there. They don’t care about getting 100% of the game finished, getting the high score, or min/maxing their character until they’ve completely broken the game engine and can annihilate the final boss in three hits. Like with the Kinsey Scale, most gamers fall somewhere in the middle of these two camps, with different genres appealing to different fans.

In my mind, there’s little better illustration of these two types of gamers than in Gabe and Tycho, the creators/main characters of the popular gaming webcomic Penny Arcade. Gabe is type A–the scorehound, victory-hungry win-at-all costs, while Tycho is the more introspective one, who cares more about context and story and characters and all that–the type B. This is illustrated perfectly in this comic:

Gabe is in the yellow shirt, Tycho in blue

Gaming culture is becoming more and more diversified, yet some things I feel remain cornerstones of the very appeal of games. Even as they grow and develop as an artform, games remain at their core contests–tests of skill, where the player’s primary obligation and only assumed investment is the desire to win. This is why games can be too easy or too hard–both extremes make achieving that victory condition either unsatisfying or near-impossible, thus eliminating the gamer’s investment.

Gameplay and story in video games have long been segregated, initially due to technical limitations, later due to stylistic choice and difficulty in balancing the two. A good game manages to make the actions that the player undertakes–the steps and actual “playing” of the game impact and shape the story, whereas a bad–or perhaps, for lack of a better term, lesser–game offers the player no control at all, making gameplay almost separate from the context and actions in the games narrative. Role Playing Games, especially Japanese RPGs, are especially guilty of this, with most modern ones (like the utterly abysmal Final Fantasy XIII) not even giving the player the ability to give a main character a name.

This segregation mirrors the dichotomy between the two types of gamers–a dichotomy which I feel can and should be bridged. Like any art form, gaming culture is a mirror of its most popular and influential examples. As gameplay enters into a new age, and as we experiment with things like motion controls and cameras in our search for the next big innovation, I think it should be prominent in every game developer’s mind what kind of gamers they are appealing to, and how they can. It may not be possible to please everyone, sure. Yet with a little creativity, a little innovation, we can see games that appeal to both sets of gamers–where the “high score” is the conclusion of the story, where the narrative is the gameplay. We’ve come close, a few times–but we’re still not there yet. But hey–gaming is still a young medium. There’s plenty of time left–and I think gamers everywhere can get behind the idea of a game for everyone, can’t they?

I’m curious to know what you think. Send me a tweet @8bitscholar or an email at 8bitscholar@gmail.com. I’d be curious to know what other types of gamers you think are out there, and what distinguishes them from each other–as well as what kinds of games might have wider appeal to these different groups. I’m eager to hear your thoughts!

Hey kids, let’s talk about Pokemon!

No no, not that Pokemon. While the original TV show remains a nostalgic guilty pleasure that most of us would rather forget, we’re talking about the actual games that started this whole lunatic craze. Pokemon has and probably always will hold a special place in my heart, if only because unlike so many of the big Nintendo franchises–Mario, Zelda, Metroid–Pokemon started and got big during my gaming life–in fact, right at the start. I was 6 years old when Pikachu first reared his adorably marketable head upon the world stage, creating a media sensation on par with Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmo, and–if you ask me–formally starting the invasion of all things Japan into the Western (and especially American) media world.

Looking back, it’s kind of funny how insane us kids went over anything and everything Pokemon. We ate up the trading cards, the action figures, the insipid-yet-strangely-entertaining cartoon, the whole nine yards. Pokemon became the status symbol of the elementary school social circles, and if you weren’t in, you weren’t anybody. But putting aside the possible social, psychological and emotional impact these games had on us, let’s actually talk about the games.

Pika Pika

This is the culmination of centuries upon centuries of successful marketing

Pokemon Versions Red and Blue hit the states in 1998, a full two years after Japan had been growing increasingly obsessed with them. They established the formula that has unerringly continued to this day–you, a young boy (or, in later versions, girl) wake up one morning in your sleepy small town, visit the local scientist, and end up getting sent out on a quest to catalog each and every one of these strange, pseudo-sentient creatures called Pokemon. To do this, you must find and capture them, and then train them to battle other Pokemon, either in the wild or under the commands of rival trainers. Eventually, you end up taking the “Pokemon League Challenge”, where you must prove yourself by beating 8 tough trainers in 8 “gyms” across the land, then challenge the ultimate Pokemon masters at the end. Thus, you have basically two goals–become the Pokemon Champion, and…well…catch ’em all.

The first game had 150 different Pokemon, requiring both versions to get all them. Now, 14 years later, there are about 507, and more on the way, as Pokemon Black and White has been announced, which will expand the Pokedex even further. Pokemon games remain incredibly popular and incredibly successful, though the fervor in the West has died somewhat. Now, as gamers who once played the games when they were six hit adulthood, they have to find more fulfilling reasons to invest their time in these games than they used to.

Nowadays, you check any message board about Pokemon where the average poster is older than 15, and you’ll find that Pokemon has become less a game about catching cute critters and battling with them, and more an absurd mathematical experiment in number crunching as it correlates to the growth of digital monsters. Pokemon’s all about numbers now–you got your IVs, EVs, DVs and STDS. You have websites dedicated to the refining of these values, to the development of perfect movesets catered to each and every Pokemon, and a healthy online battling circuit, complete with tournaments. Pokemon has completely warped an entire generation, and that generation continues to play these games even now, despite–or maybe because–the fact that these games haven’t changed in 14 goddamned years!

I’ve been playing the latest Pokemon remakes, Heart Gold and Soul Silver, and while I am aware that they are shamelessly cashing in on my childhood nostalgia in order to drum up revenue, I cannot deny that Pokemon games remain engaging. The monster-collector genre (or subgenre, if you prefer) is never better represented nor refined than in Pokemon games, with each and every genre taking the basic formula and improving upon it in subtle ways. Fans of the game will take great pains to illustrate to you just how different Pokemon games are from generation to generation, and while they aren’t technically wrong, they are just as full of it as you might think.

Generation 1

Generation 2

Generation 3

Generation 4

Just…just look! Besides the spritework being cleaned up and improved upon, more detail and more effects put in, the games all look alike. There’s common visual style at work, sure…but it remains true that no essential or important aspect of the Pokemon franchise has changed since the series’ inception. Even on a handheld that can easily produce very good-looking 3-D models, Pokemon remains 2-D, handheld and turn-based.

I’ve played every major Pokemon release and some of the spin-off games too (more on those in a sec) and I can tell you what–nothing essential about the experience has changed for me since the beginning. Yes, the games play a lot better now–battles are more streamlined, the options and customization of your various mons have never been broader or deeper, there’s more to the games’ storylines than “catch ’em all and be the best” and the music/graphics have all improved considerably. But the essentially experience of playing a Pokemon game? Unchanged–much like every other Nintendo franchise, Pokemon seems content to do what it does and simply perfect upon it.

It works. It may not be the best use of technology or innovation, but this approach…it works.

Now, whether it works for the best? Well, that’s arguable. Pokemon games sell 50% on nostalgia. The only reason any adult or close-enough-to gamer is picking these games up is because they still remember how much fun they had with them when they were a kid. They want that experience again, and hey–if there’s a bunch of new monsters, new challenges, and if the system is improved, why not go down that memory lane again? Sure, you’re essentially buying the same game over and over again, but if it’s fun, why complain? I mean, eventually the well will run dry, but by then a new generation of kids will be hooked on the mons, and Nintendo will continue to reap the profits.

I admit, Pokemon games don’t enchant me nearly as much as they used to. I still enjoy them–I think my love for the Pokemon universe, the various creatures and their colorful, elaborate designs will never fully fade away. The main Pokemon games retain a child-like innocence in tone and an inviting, relaxing atmosphere that I can just sit down with whatever the latest game is and let all my troubles fade away. I can engross myself in finding new monsters whom I’ve never trained before, leveling them up and discovering their untapped secrets and potential–but with every generation, I love it less and less. I mean, how many times can you play the same game before you get bored of it? Pokemon will probably be the test of that.

There is some hope though–or at least, an alternative. The Pokemon franchise has grown so big that not even a single game series is enough for it. There’s a variety of Pokemon spin-off games, ranging from bland (The various Stadium games) to entertaining, but shallow (Pokemon Colosseum) to surprisingly inventive (The Pokemon Ranger games). There’s even a Pokemon rogue-like dungeon crawler series that’s supposed to be pretty good, though I’ve never tried it. The more I see the Pokemon franchise expand, the more I realize that its growth and development seems isolated to only these spin-off franchises. None of the innovation–be it good or ill–is vested into the main generation games. They remain untouchable, and I think that’s not healthy for the franchise as a whole.

Yeeeeeeeaaaaah!

Seriously, check out the Ranger series. It's childish, but surprisingly fun.

Games have a sad tendency to get stuck in ruts. Due to the high costs of making games, and the fickle nature of the market, most developers will play it safe in order to ensure making ends meet. Pokemon is one franchise that could absolutely get away with experimentation, has a system that lends itself well to branching off and exploring all manners of gameplay and story progression, and has the financial capital of gaming giant Nintendo backing them up, but refuses to do so. Brand loyalty is one thing, but seeing how creative the spin-off games can be, and how much potential remains untapped within the Pokemon world, it comes across as less loyalty and more laziness.

I’d love to see Pokemon shrug off its turn-based shackles and boldly try something new. Even Dragon Quest, a franchise that literally advertises itself as old-school and unchanging, decided to discard series traditions with Dragon Quest IX. Pokemon is just as established and arguably even more popular. Pokemon had such an impact on my childhood because it was something radically different. Yes, monster-raising sims existed before Pikachu was even a twinkle in his Raichu daddy’s eye, but none were so accessible and so mainstream. As times have changed, Pokemon hasn’t, and what is accessible and mainstream today is nothing like what it was when I was young.

If Pokemon wants to regain its former glory, retake the gaming throne once again, it needs to step up and become relevant once again. Challenge us, excite us, give us something we’ve never seen before.

Of course, this is Nintendo we’re talking about. I’m wasting my time, I’m sure. Still…it’s nice to dream, eh? Now, if you excuse me, I’ve got one last Gym Leader to clobber…