Category: Analyses


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.

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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…

Blood in the Sand…box.

Alright, let’s talk about sandbox games.

Sandbox games are pretty self-explanatory. Rather than follow the traditional formula of having the player progress through scripted stages, levels, or areas in a more-or-less linear fashion, sandbox games place your playable character in an open area with a variety of different objectives to be completed and allows you to complete them in any order you can/want.

I’ve been watching a Let’s Play of The Saboteur and it’s gotten me thinking about the genre. Next to first person shooters and sports games, I’d argue that sandbox titles are amongst the most prolific and broadest reaching genres currently in the public’s consciousness. This is all thanks to a little game you may not have heard of called Grand Theft Auto.

GTA

The epic story of an immigrant and his horny cousin

More specifically, Grand Theft Auto 3, a game which brought the sandbox to the 3-D realm and into the popular eye. Grand Theft Auto 3 turned a lot of heads, mostly due to its rather questionable content, most of which revolved around the stealing of cars and the mass-murdering of everyone and anyone you saw. The very definition of a sandbox game, GTA3 allowed players to explore New York, make money, choke bitches, and steal cars. Its sequels, Vice City and San Andreas, continued to expand upon just how lavish, large and explosive its sandbox became, until the game worlds became so big that they imploded upon themselves, swallowed a box of rust and gravel, and became Grand Theft Auto 4.

Now, to get this out of the way, I’ve never really cared much for the GTA series. I found the earlier games bland, and the later games tedious, but despite all that I’d say that GTA: San Andreas is probably one of the greatest sandbox games of all time, because it understood, intrinsically, what a sandbox is for. The entire point of a sandbox game is to give the player as many options to do as many things as possible. A pure sandbox game would present an entire world with a million things to do and let you do it–in otherwords, a MMORPG but without the people.

However, technology, time and imagination make it hard to make a game like that very interesting. Actual sandboxes got real boring real fast because, really, what can you do with sand other than ruin your clothes, get it in your eye, and make soggy-looking castles? San Andreas realized that, as big as it was, there wasn’t a whole lot to DO outside of various missions. Everything revolved around driving places, shooting people, and maybe flying a plane or two. The many missions were varied and interesting, but the world itself–comprised of three entire cities–seemed stretched thin and shallow.

Doesn't it just call to you?

Of course, GTA made massive amounts of money and caused lots of gaming journalists to cream their pants in feverish glee at the prospect of  bigger worlds, faster cars, more hookers and nobody really stopped to point out the obvious flaws. Of course, time forces innovation, whether innovation is wanted or not, and the typical sandbox game is quite a bit different from GTA–and by “quite a bit different” I mean “exactly the same, but with an added gimmick to advertise the game by”.

Just Cause had a grappling hook, The Saboteur had Nazis, and Prototype had the ghoulish abandonment of one’s humanity in pursuit of power and num nums. Of those three, Prototype is the only one I particularly liked, mostly because it wasn’t exactly the same as Grand Theft Auto. Prototype was much like another sort of open-world game, the Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, as both were made by Radical Entertainment, a Canadian company that spends most of the time it isn’t squeezing the blood out of the dead and rotting Crash Bandicoot franchise absolutely not ripping off GTA. It also  makes mediocre racing games and shitty snowboarding games.

Anyway, Prototype tickled my fancy because it had an actually deep and realized combat engine with a focus on chaining combos and switching various power forms in order to take on increasingly more difficult enemies. With a B-movie-style 50’s Science-Fiction/Horror plot and laughably grotesque levels of violence, Prototype proved that you can do more in a sandbox without needing to drive a fucking car and commit crimes. Of course, even Prototype isn’t that original, simply expanding upon what Crackdown had already done some years before, but I reward the effort at least.

Sandbox games have continued to grow and develop beyond the waves of GTA clones. Now we have superhero-style sandbox games, like Prototype and Infamous, western-style sandbox games like Gun and the seminal Red Dead Redemption, but we still haven’t shaken off the lurking shadow of the GTA, as even good sandbox games like Red Dead can be described as “Grand Theft Auto in a ___”. GTA  has become the die-hard of the gaming world, and is increasingly growing just as stale.

Sandbox games aren’t all cars and shooting and crime. We’ve got your FPS sandboxes, like Fallout 3 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., RPG sandboxes like the Elder Scrolls series, and strange sandboxes like Assassin’s Creed, which combines elements of all the above and adds in hilarious anachronisms and stabby stabby murder to the traditional formula.

My problem with sandbox games is and always has been that they give you too much freedom. You’ve got a whole world to explore, but you have no clue where to start, and you eventually start to realize that the world isn’t as big as it seems, since there’s only so much you can do, and the open-ended structure makes it hard for there to be big, ‘memorable’ sequences outside of those you create with happenstance and fuckery. Most sandbox games have loose controls and hilarious levels of gameplay and story segregation, where whatever you do in the sandbox ultimately doesn’t have any lasting impact on the world itself. In San Andreas, you could eventually control the city through a gang war side game that was honestly more interesting than the main story itself, but even that was just a means without an end.

Sandbox games must appeal to folks who treat their games like, well, a game. They just want to pick it up, do some stuff for half an hour, then go about their day. That’s all well and good, but I need more. I need impetus–why I am doing what I’m doing? What will happen to this setting if I do X, Y and Z? The latest generation of sandbox games have been attempting to address this, and I’m genuinely grateful. The Saboteur, although a relatively mediocre game, rewards your destruction and mission completion by making the game…well…visible (or at least removing the god-awful black and white filter). Fallout 3 attempted this and partially succeeded, as news of your exploits are sung on the radio and you have the potential to destroy an entire town pretty early on, but so far, there hasn’t been a sandbox game that’s REALLY made me feel as though I’m an active part of this virtual world.

If I’m in a sandbox, I want to actually build a sand castle, not just play with someone else’s. With the technology available to us, I’d like to see a sandbox game that has a world that constantly shifts and evolves as you go through it. If you start gunning down cops and pedestrians, I want to see less people in the streets, houses being boarded up, armored patrols replacing state troopers. If you start robbing fast food resteraunts over and over again, I want the news to report, and other stores start arming themselves against you.

Fortunately, I think we’re headed in this direction. I think GTA’s grip has lessened on the genre, as more developers start taking original ideas and implementing new ways to run a sandbox. And the old formula wasn’t bad per se. I’m not the biggest GTA4 fan–mostly because I find the controls troublesome and the storyline bland–but my GTA-fan friends love the detail and intricacy of the world and the evolution of old gameplay mechanics.

I just wish it wasn’t such a one-way mirror–we can see this lovely world, but scarcely touch it. I don’t get bored of living in the real world, because there’s always something changing in response to my actions. I shouldn’t be bored in a virtual world for exactly the same reason, and the fact that I am shows that this genre still has a lot of evolving to do.