Friday, November 14, 2014

Assessing The Situation

At this point, Ardent as a blog is a little over three months old.  I've attempted to create a blog about this medium that is of higher quality and deeper thought than your typical video game blog.  I've spent many hours crafting the content that is already here.  I am proud of what I have made up to this point.  It's the kind of blog about video games that I wish someone else would write because I'd love to read it.  Thus far I've done all of this for zero reward.

And I think I'm done.

It'd be different if I got any feedback on what I was writing.  If the few people who did enjoy this blog bothered to tell other people about it to help spread the word.  But people are not like that in general, they'd rather absorb the free entertainment and move on to mooching off the next teat with little afterthought.  Well I'm not writing thought provoking articles just for the hell of it.  Ardent was created in part to generate ad revenue.  If no one is reading this blog, then that's not happening either.

The way things stand, as of today I'm taking leave of Ardent.  If you are reading this and you want me to continue writing articles for this blog, then let me know you're actually reading it.  Tell other people about this blog so that it can actually build a following.  With a proper following I'll continue to add fresh content weekly to Ardent.  But if no one is reading this stuff, what the hell is the point?  Blogger stats and Google analytics and the lack of reader comments makes its apparent there's not an audience for Ardent.

See you on the highscores board,


Monday, November 10, 2014

An odyssey in pain and glory.

Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl is a 3DS remake of the DS RPG Etrian Odyssey.  One important change is the Story mode.  Story mode adds new areas to the original game, along with additional bosses.  To play Story mode is to be further challenged than simply playing the Classic mode.  In Story mode you can not even choose the class of your characters, meaning you're stuck improvising through Grimoire stones.  Together these factors form the hardest Etrian Odyssey experience yet.  This will matter in a bit.

Right now, I have 107 hours invested in Etrian Odyssey Untold for 3DS.  For me, that's a lot of time in a game.  To say I have a love/hate relationship with Untold would not even begin to describe the bittersweet hell it's put me through.  I mean, I thought I was an RPG god yeah, but after being forged in the fires of Untold's fury for over 100 hours... I realize just how weak I was before it.  Sure I've beaten such "tough" classics as Phantasy Star I & II, Vagrant Story, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Valkyrie Profile, and others of their ilk.  But those games are child's play compared to Etrian Odyssey Untold.  I have become a far more potent RPG player due to Untold's challenges.

That is, Etrian Odyssey Untold on Expert.

Yes, I'm playing this game on Expert, and on Story mode to boot.  Now, you might be wondering why I'd play this game on its hardest combination possible.  After all, I could be playing it on Picnic or Standard difficulty.  That is precisely what most people do.  I could have beat this game in 25 hours on Picnic, or 45 hours on Standard.  So why Expert?  The answer to that question is not a simple one.  There are multiple reasons why I'm suffering Etrian Odyssey Untold on its evil Expert difficulty level.

The first reason is one of simple spite.  Last year I was involved with a debate on a forum I won't mention, concerning the concessionary difficulty changes of Etrian Odyssey Untold and Fire Emblem: AwakeningFire Emblem has a long history of being an uncompromising strategy series, with its core feature being that if one of your characters dies in battle, they are dead forever.  Etrian Odyssey's series' core feature is it is designed with oldschool hardcore difficulty in mind.  That means the Etrian games do not hold your hand, and will kill you in a heartbeat with no kid's gloves whatsoever.  These elements gave both Fire Emblem and Etrian Odyssey their core distinction; pure unadulterated challenge.  A series identity.  Easy mode is not an option.

All that changed with the 3DS though.  Fire Emblem: Awakening introduced the option to turn permanent death off.  And Untold introduced the option to change the difficulty to Picnic (press A to win) or Standard (pay attention and press A to win).  In order to play Untold on traditional Etrian Odyssey difficulty, you need to choose Expert.  You can even willy-nilly change the difficulty of Untold at any given time.  That means if you're fighting a boss that is destroying you, instead of having to overcome the challenge through tactical resilience, you simply turn down the challenge.  Likewise instead of playing Awakening more intelligently, just turn off perma-death and you can just resurrect your screw ups.  Challenge be damned, everybody's a winner here!  I for one am not okay with "no gamer left behind".

No gamer left behind.  I said exactly as such on said forum.  And there's where I got in trouble with some of the members.  Everyone started calling me the dreaded E word.  And I don't mean Experienced, or Elucidated, or Erudite even.  Nope, they called me an Elitist.  I was being "elitist" to say that hard games have a right to exist, and that they should not dilute themselves to sell better to the lowest common denominator.  I took great offense to this, because I am not an elitist folks.  I'm a Refinist.

Yes "refinist" is a word I made up.  There may be an existing word to describe this, but we need neologisms from time to time.  What's a refinist then?  Someone who refines themselves of doubt when faced with challenge.  Someone who tenaciously perseveres through strife until they have purified themselves of weakness, and ultimately accomplish the goal they set out to finish.  That's a refinist!  A refinist does not give up.  A refinist rather gets stronger, smarter, and tougher, and gets through adversity without artificial aid.  A refinist is insulted by a game that panders to their initial inability and offers training wheels to finish the race.  If we didn't have refinists?  The Tour de France would be ridden on mopeds.  The Olympics wouldn't exist.  We would not have made it to space.  But not everyone gets to be an astronaut!  It's true.  And not everyone gets to beat an Etrian Odyssey game.

That is, until Untold came out and made it possible for your dog to beat an Etrian Odyssey game.

So why does it piss me off, if I'm not an elitist?  Because I think people are capable of overcoming challenges if they really put their mind to it.  I believe in the inner strength of my fellow gamer.  I won't lie to you, many many times Untold has kicked my teeth in, ever taunting me to lower the difficulty.  I was stuck on one boss for almost a week alone!  But I never lowered it, and I will never lower it.  I will beat Untold on Expert, to prove a point, even if I'm only proving this point to myself.  Even if it takes 200 hours I will do this.  I will not cheat or glitch the game either.  I'll beat it, fair and square.  I will refine myself of weakness and become a strong enough player to pull this off.  There were people on said forum who said not everyone can do this, therefore Picnic mode has a right to exist.  Well I say those less determined people should stick with easy RPGs (dime a dozen) instead, and not encourage Atlus to dilute their original vision due to publisher pressure to sell more copies.

Developers.  Instead of rewarding players of little effort with "Congrats You Win", let's make them face up to true challenges instead.  Let them learn to value the taste of sweet victory after hard fought practice.  There's no Picnic difficulty switch on a guitar.  There's no Standard difficulty escalator on the side of Mount Everest.  We would laugh at such concessions in those instances, and mock their users deservedly so.  Yet it's okay to make traditionally hard video game series easier?  And you're an elitist if you disagree that it's not okay?  That's hypocritical nonsense.  Easy games have a place but so do hard ones.  Hard games build character.  I believe in gamers' character enough to know they can push through the challenges as long as they keep trying.  Spit on the training wheels and forget the floaties.  There's nothing quite like the glowing feeling of beating a truly hard game.  If you think that's not true, it's because you haven't done it yet.

NOTE: I did beat Etrian Odyssey Untold's Story mode on Expert, and it took me 115 hours.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Are Video Games Art?

The painting shown above is known as Red on Maroon Mural Section 3.  It was painted by Mark Rothko in 1959 and it is the greatest painting ever painted.  Now that's in my opinion of course.  To call this particular painting the greatest ever is totally subjective.  I could understand then, why someone might think said painting isn't good at all.  But I would not understand anyone saying it's not even art.  A rational person is not going to point at an obvious artistic painting and say that it is not art, because by very definition that's simply what artistic paintings are.  And yet, we can also recognize when paintings are not obviously artistic...

The painting shown above is called NO PARKING.  And NO PARKING is probably not even meant to be artwork, despite being a painting.  As such, the average person seeing this wall painting would not recognize it as art, but rather as a warning suggesting not to park near it.  Culturally we can accept that paintings can be art, but can also not be art, depending on content and context. The same is true for the audio medium.  Albums can be art, but instructional audio books aren't meant to be.  Motion pictures can be artistic surely, but the medium can also be used for non-artistic means such as the daily news.  What about video games then?  As a medium do they follow the same logic?  Are some games meant to be commercial consumption pieces, while others are meant to be works of actual artistic expression?  Well let's take a minute to think about what goes into a video game first.

The first interesting aspect to consider is that video games contain all forms of common art.  Indeed, they are a melting pot of multiple mediums.  In the average modern game you've got your artwork, your music, your film, and your writing all bundled up into one experience.  That's a veritable gallery of artistic mediums intermingling in an electronic smorgasbord.  And beneath that still, you've even got a new form of art, programming.  (If you think programming is boring and there's no auteurism in the field, you may wish to reconsider.)  And of course there's the art of game design itself.  With so many avenues of artistic delivery in one container, how can one say video games aren't art?  Easily actually.  Let's go back to our melting pot symbolism to understand why.

The problem is that video games as a canvas are really just the melting pot itself, not the ingredients that provide the meal.  Take all the other forms of artistic media out of the video game (ingredients), and you're left with a cold empty pot (video game).  The contents within the pot were the individual pieces of artistic accomplishment.  Combined together, they didn't actually form a new type of art, just a collage of various forms of art.  It's a bit like putting a CD on top of a DVD on top of a book, and binding them together with duct tape.  Does that new pile of disparate mediums equal a new form of art, simply because they are bundled together?  Logically no.  Even if you could read the book, watch the DVD, and listen to the CD all at the same time purposefully, you're still merely experiencing disparate pieces of art simultaneously.  That's not experiencing a new form of art, rather it's simply experiencing multimedia.

Now the mix of multimedia can be convincing.  You might feel like you're really exploring a frozen wasteland in Skyrim.  But calling the artificial reality in a video game the "art" of what a video game is... well, that's the same as calling special effects in a movie the "art" of cinema.  The true artistry of a film is not in its special effects alone, those are just the icing on the movie cake.  Artificial reality in a video game is the same thing; it's just window dressing.  Convincing atmosphere is a means to an end, but not the artistic end in and of itself.  Yes gaming's artificial realities consist of various pieces of art coming together as a believable illusion, but said illusion is not a new art form.  It's a homogenous expression of multimedia.  Melted ingredients in a melting pot.  Lucky for us then that video games offer something very important that melting pots don't; interactive canvases for expression of free will.  And that is where the unique art form a video game offers truly resides.

This means two important things.  Number one, video games cannot become art without a player interactively experiencing them.  And number two, the player in doing so becomes the artist completing the work of art.  (Yes this is not a concept that can only be applied to video games, it's broader than that.)  Depending on how a player interacts with a video game, their experience will differ than that of another player.  This influential malleability of end perception means the player is the final artist completing the art experience started by its developers.  The player imposes their own free will upon the palette of possibility provided by the video game.   In return the video game modifies its expression as a result of this interactivity.  The player is the artist, the controller is the paint brush, and the video game is the canvas.  Is this art?  A new form of art?  I think so.  Now to use a simple analogy consisting of a paint by numbers picture...

A paint by numbers picture is a previously drawn piece of artwork meant to be painted over by the artist.  Normally the picture has suggestions as to which color correlates to which number.  But that does not mean you have to paint number 6 blue just because that's where the water is.  You could paint number 6 red, and that stream of water just became a brook of blood.  This changes the whole meaning of the painting!  Altering it from rote busy work to an actual work of art.  Thus this concept can be extrapolated to video games without much logical abstraction.  For example, you could play Super Mario Bros. in such a way that you never stomp on Koopa turtles.  Now you've just changed the way you interact with the game.  Now you're experiencing this new interaction as a game about how Mario is suddenly a turtle conservationist.  He's trying to rid their environment of other menaces such as Goombas.  See?  The way you play the game changes, and the game changes to you in return.

The true art of video games is not what they are made of, but rather what they offer when played; continuously changing expressionism altered by interactive use of free will.  Each player will walk away with a unique take on their experience differing from another player who's played the same game.  All based on how they alone played it.  That is the art of video games.  It has been said a movie, a book, or an album are artistic due to the ruminations and emotions one has upon experiencing them.  Video games have the exact same capability, doubly so because they can also make the player look inside themselves and question their own motivations.

After all, why did you squash that poor Goomba when you could have let him live?  Was he really trying to kill you, or just walking about his daily routine?  Reload the game, don't squash him this time, and the resulting rumination has changed.  In this manner, video games are the world's most dynamic form of art.  A living digital canvas that is being repainted by every new artist that interacts with it.  Indeed, video games are legitimately art, but only while they are being played.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

King's Field (Japan) Review

When I think back to games I enjoyed in 1994, I fondly recall such releases as Super Metroid, Heretic, and Sonic The Hedgehog 3.  What I do not recall is King's Field.  And I'm not talking about the King's Field released in 1995 in the USA either.  In truth that game was King's Field II renamed, as publishers were so malevolently keen on doing at the time.  Nope, I'm talking about From Software's very first game, from whence eventually their beloved Souls series evolved.  And if you go way back in time to 1994's King's Field you can certainly suss out the initial DNA.  All the same in 1994 as a 15 year old gamer, I had no idea this game even existed.  Perhaps back then I saw it in a brief passing mention in an EGM side article, quickly overlooked as I sought more information on Donkey Kong Country.

Even if I had known about King's Field in 1994, I couldn't have played it back then.  That would have required a Japanese Playstation, importing the game, and knowing how to read Japanese as well.  Those aspects meant I had absolutely no chance of experiencing King's Field during its release year.  Such impediments are nullified nowadays thanks to excellent emulators and fan translation patches.  And thus as it stands twenty years later I was able to play King's Field without hindrance.  But why would someone want to play a two decade old geriatric polygon showcase?  I admit it seems a strange endeavor on the surface.  But with this review I shall explain why King's Field is indeed a kingly game.

I'd love to know what drove From Software to create their very first game as a 3D first person dungeon crawler launch title on an unproven new gaming platform. Especially considering Japan's general dislike of real time first person views. The cards were stacked against From Software, but from what I've read King's Field actually sold quite well upon release.  Enough that From Software eventually created three more sequels to it, along with related offshoots as well.  I think the most impressive aspect for its time, is that as far as I know King's Field was the initial fully polygonal first person dungeon crawler.  As in, it used polygons for every object within the game world.  Other games in this genre before used sprites for enemies or items or furniture, even if the environments were polygonal.  (If someone knows of a preceding fully polygonal dungeon crawler let me know in the comments please.)  I'll be honest and say it was scholarly interest that lead me to trying the original King's Field on a late night whim.  Yet what began as a mere curiosity ended up becoming a wonderful game experience in the end.

King's Field begins with you stepping through a portal and warping into an underground graveyard sanctuary.  The plot involves you being the son of a slain king, a king who was trying to stop an evil sorcerer from resurrecting a great evil locked within said sanctuary.  Now you're out for revenge to kill the sorcerer and purge his curse from the subterranean ossuary before it overtakes the kingdom of Verdite.  There's a helpful earth dragon and a fairy and blah blah.  I'll be straight up with you, the plot is not the point of playing this game.  The inherit tale is laughable and is badly told (to no fault of the excellent fan translation mind).  No, the point of this King's Field is the experience itself, the immersion and gameplay.  You'll find no grandiose prerendered melodramatic CG cutscenes here.  The only notable aspect of King's Field's story is that it shows the creation of the Moonlight Sword, which some may remember from Dark Souls.

It may be an RPG with a plot, but gameplay is king in King's Field.  The primary reason is that this game never holds your hand.  You are given no guidance, no direction, no quarter.  King's Field is entirely ambivalent to whether you live or die, it only offers you its world to explore at will.  I absolutely love a game that respects my intelligence, and judging by the massive sales of the Souls series, so do a lot of other gamers.  In that regard, King's Field is only as difficult as you make it on yourself.  Most of the time this game will be clear with you about your chances of success.  I could understand someone thinking this game is tremendously hard if they tried to rush.  But I only died once while playing it, due to being accidentally knocked off a perilous walkway by a rather rude ghostKing's Field is a game meant to be played methodically and carefully.  This is a tactical action RPG.  I finished this game in 13 hours with no walkthrough or strategy guide, because I understood how to play slow and smart.  I made good use of maps and a compass.  I got by without the need of nanny hand holding and way points guiding your every move.  I'm sure Ardent's readers could do the same, and I bet we all wish more modern games treated us like the capable players we are.

So what is the basic gameplay like then?  You explore a vast underground graveyard dungeon divided into five levels.  The five levels have recursive paths that intertwine one another via portals.  As you unlock these portals the world becomes ever easier to backtrack, and that's good, because you will do a ton of backtracking in this game.  That's not to say King's Field is just a walking simulator.  No, oh no, you will do a tremendous amount of fighting monsters in this game.  Whether it's with steel or magic, you must kill to survive.  You gain levels as you fight, you collect gold to buy things.  You will find all sorts of magical items to aid your quest.  And the more you use one type of weapon, or one type of magic, the stronger your skills in them become.  You'll meet interesting people.  You will solve puzzles, find keys, tip toe pit traps, and avoid deadly machinations.  You will be poisoned, cursed, blinded, and if you're really unlucky you will fall in a bottomless pit and hear your avatar die with a blood curdling agonized scream.  (That's okay if you have prayed at the golden crosses to save your game.)  And if you are like me, you'll love all of this.  But I haven't even got to the best parts yet.

Exploration.  Pure unbridled exploration into the dark unknown, that's my favorite aspect of King's Field.  The environments are huge with no loading times, helping tremendously with maintaining the atmosphere.  I absolutely adored exploring this game's twisty dark paths never knowing what I was going to find.  The only hint at what's ahead sometimes was the growls of beasts in the dark.  Or you might find yourself stepping into a serene area with only a hint of melancholy to provide solace.  The amount of atmosphere From Software managed to pull off with this 1994 launch title is truly laudable.  Just as Silent Hill found a way to use load buffering fog to its advantage, so did King's Field beforehand by turning that fog into an ever present ominous darkness.  Adding ever more to this exploration are copious amounts of hidden doors, sometimes hidden doors within hidden doors. Indeed the five floors of King's Field are vast, and even the most powerful maps in the game don't show all the secrets.  There are plenty of lively tunes to listen to as you traipse about, many with totally killer bass lines and even harpsichord arpeggios.  Lastly, the sound effects in this game are totally 90's IN YO FACE brashness.  This is mostly a good thing.

So what might someone not like about King's Field? Oh, plenty of things.  Howabout the fact that it takes six seconds to do a full 360 turn in this game?  When you hit enemies, there's not necessarily any kind of feedback to let you know you did.  If you're lucky the enemy will howl in pain.  They don't have life bars because in real life creatures don't have life bars I suppose.  It's worth mentioning that doors that aren't even hidden still don't have a door texture.  I guess that means even normal doors are somewhat hidden.  One might be perturbed to realize that weapons and armor do not have any stats whatsoever.  Is that mace stronger than that sword?  Only field testing will prove it, but keep in mind some enemies are weaker to certain types of weapons or spells than others.  You also swing your weapon like a drunken sloth, so tactical combat is the only way to win.  And if you can't keep track of where you are on a map, you will be hopelessly lost.  And since the game starts you off with a toothpick sword and no map, you'll be near death and utterly confused for the first hour guaranteed.  It's a hazing for sure, but it's From Software's way of filtering the men from the boys (King's Field IV did the same thing).  This game is a grower, it starts wonky but gets more and more amazing the longer you play it.

As you can tell, I enjoyed my time with King's Field.  I did not expect this game to offer anything outside of scholarly insight concerning From Software's origins.  To my surprise though, the original King's Field is actually a solid dungeon crawl experience to this day.  It just goes to prove once again that even though technologically impressive graphics dwindle with age, good game design remains eternal.  Is King's Field one of the best games I've ever played?  No, it's not that good.  But it is too good to be as disregarded and under appreciated as it is.  There are plenty of factors as to why King's Field languished in obscurity in the past in the west.  However, these days anyone with a computer and an emulator can get this game going in English.  I can only hope that by writing this review I've encouraged at least a few folks to give this experience a shot.  I'll admit, King's Field is an acquired taste.  But once you acquire it, you'll feast upon a meal fit for a king.

Ardent's Score: 8 hidden doors out of 10

For more information on the King's Field series, check out Chris Wigman's excellent article on HG101.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Bittersweet Backlog

I have a lot of video games.  Well, that's an understatement.  Honestly I probably own more video games than I could even finish before I die.  And yet knowing this, I still collect new games on a weekly basis.  More and more virtual voyages added to the unceasing pile.  With decades behind me of collecting, one could write it off as simply an old habit.  It might be that, but in a positive light one could say this is continuous library building for posterity.  Whether or not it's a good thing, the fact remains I own multitudes of video games I have not played yet.  They sit neatly organized and alphabetically congealed into segregated areas based on their respective platform.  Waiting patiently for their time to shine.  The truth is some of them will never get that chance.

It's not that I don't play, oh I play video games as much as I can.  "Can" being the operative word there based on playing in my free time.  My "free time" being that which I am not spending on my day job, adult responsibilities/chores, family obligations, relationship quality time, additional hobbies and other such necessities.  A mature responsible social adult cannot play video games with the same frequency they did as a carefree teen.  These days I average twelve to fourteen hours a week because of this reality.  I still have to sacrifice plenty of sleep just to pull off that amount.

Due to this situation I am a time traveling gamer.  As in, I play games from all eras of gaming.  This is born from having a backlog spanning decades.  There are still games I haven't played from the 8-bit era that I fully intend to play some day.  Despite their technological obsolescence.  All the same, I also play brand new modern releases.  But what I do not do, is disallow entire eras of gaming just because the next era has begun.  There are some people who do this.  "The PS4 came out?  The PS3 is now dead to me.  And don't even talk about the PS2 or PS1, that's just stone age crap."  To me this sort of thought process is needlessly dismissive, and illogical.  But from a purely technophile point of view, I guess I can understand their side of the argument.  I just don't share it.

An example of this?  Lately I've been playing King's Field (Japan), a game released in 1994.  It is 20 years old currently, but I've only just now gotten around to playing it.  One might wonder why I'd bother playing From Software's first release, when I've got a PS3 and their recent Dark Souls sitting in the same room (which I have not played yet).  I guess part of my reason would be due to scholarly inquisitiveness.  Historically speaking King's Field (Japan) is a significant release.  So to play an old game is to go back in time to a degree.  A larger degree though, is I'm able to disregard the graphical merit of a game, and rather enjoy its core gameplay as a separate entity.  This may have to do with growing up from Atari 2600 graphics.  I came from a time when gameplay sold a game as much (or more than) graphics did.   Having the ability to see beyond graphics is a double edged sword of course.  It means I can't disregard huge swaths of my backlog simply because of their archaic pixels.

Currently my backlog spans from the 1980's to 2014.  That's over thirty years of collecting.  So how does one begin to dig through a backlog that spans so many years?  Trying to prioritize what to play, and realizing one doesn't have time to play it all, can lead to backlog anxiety.  Feelings of shame, remorse, and loathing might manifest as a result.  I've been there!  I understand why folks come up with complex methods of dealing with this.  Some sort of regimen, or algorithm, designed to prioritize the top "must plays" or "most expensive rarities" of their respective backlog.  I am guilty of concocting such stratagem shenanigans myself in the past.   Let me tell you, that's a young man's game.  Age has brought me the realization that backlog anxiety is just silly and ultimately toxic.  The answer? Acceptance is the key.  It's not the same thing as apathy either.

Do I have too many video games?  Yes, and I accept that.  Do I need to stop buying them until I finish what I already have?  That would be financially logical, but psychologically unsatisfying, so no, I won't do that.  My fiance and I created a gaming budget for that instead.  Will I ever finish every video game I have?  Hell no.  I will be dead before that can even happen.  I accept that.  Is there a truly efficient way to choose what to play from one's backlog?  Maybe.  Do I really care?  Not anymore.  I accept that.  Instead I play what my ardent gamer heart yearns for, regardless of genre, release date, or game time length.  Hence I'm playing a Japanese oddity from 1994 right now.  Yes I could handle my backlog in a more efficient and hierarchical manner, I know this.  But I choose not to.  I accept that.

In reality my backlog is a monster.  It's a monster that I cannot slay, and yet I feed it more every week.  Maybe because I am in awe of its size and like to see it grow.  Or maybe my backlog is a well, keeping me hydrated in my unquenchable thirst for new gaming experiences.  And therein lies the two sides of the backlog coin.  Bitter monster, sweet well.  This is true, and I accept it.  But I no longer accept my backlog as a source of anxiety.  The librarian does not rue the library, nor the curator fear the exhibits.  Rather they revel in their potential.  And that is the beauty of a big backlog; pure potential.  That's why a pile of up-to-date-modern-only games can't match my backlog.  My crazy time spanning backlog is a monstrous well of potential.  And from it I can always sip a little joy as life permits.  So I throw a few coins in it every week, making the wish that it never runs dry.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Co-op Couples

Every relationship needs entertainment to combat the boredom lulls.  Couples can only frolic in romance and coitus for so long.  Often this ends in copious amounts of watching television or window shopping.  Initially in my own relationship, my significant other was interested in hiking and playing with our new dog.  Fine endeavors indeed, but I wanted to slay dragons and shoot aliens too.  So one night as she sat next to me in front of the HDTV, I asked if she wanted to play a video game with me.  Her reply was, "I don't play video games, but I'll watch you play them."

This was not an acceptable answer.  I was determined to find a video game my lover would enjoy.  And so I began showing her quite the variety.  Kirby's Epic Yarn made her want to vomit.  Bucky O'Hare arcade version?  Not a fan.  Donkey Kong Country Returns wasn't much fun.  After about a dozen random tries like this, I was nearly ready to give up.  I just couldn't find the gateway game.  So for our last go, I took a wild shot in the dark.  That night's final game was ObsCure: The Aftermath; a very difficult, gory, and brutal co-op survival horror game.  I figured she'd hate it.  I was wrong.  She loved it.  I had found her gateway game.

After we spent a few evenings finishing ObsCure: The Aftermath, she was ready for more.  So over the next few weeks, we took on Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, and Trauma Center: New Blood. We completed them all cooperatively, and she enjoyed every minute.  Turns out I had simply underestimated her tastes.  She didn't hate video games, she just hated cutesy fluffy ones.  She couldn't get enough of the dark and serious stuff though.  By sheer determination and experimentation, I had found a golden compromise.  I was getting more gaming time, and she was getting new experiences in entertainment.  And something even greater was happening beneath the surface. Our relationship was becoming stronger due to the power of cooperative gaming.

This beneficial aspect wasn't something I had consciously realized immediately.  But over time, I had noticed that when we were faced with a mutual real life conundrum, our problem solving skills seemed to occur more smoothly then before.  I couldn't help but wonder if all those virtual hours spent cooperatively solving puzzles and killing monsters had accomplished more than just entertainment.  It seemed that our simultaneous electronic victories somehow translated into real world relational stat bonuses.  If nothing else, instinctively we learned to know when to back off from an issue and let the other handle it.  I have no doubt that cooperative gaming has helped develop that particular sixth sense more strongly for us.

I am not saying that two people in a relationship playing video games together need nothing else to help strengthen their bonds.  Obviously if a marriage is going sour, beating Bubble Bobble together won't replace a counselor's help. I'm only saying that working together to beat a game, mutually overcoming its obstacles together via teamwork, that sort of entertainment has tangible merit.  I refuse to believe sitting around watching reality television has the same sort of teamwork building skills as co-op gaming does.  And I encourage gamers to get their non-gaming partners into playing games with them because of that.  Taking down a huge beast cooperatively in Monster Hunter has got to do more for your relationship than window shopping for new winter coats.

You might be surprised at how many things there are to cooperate on in a video game.  For example, in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, there was an entire economy to mutually endure.  Firstly you had the finite resource of gold pieces to distribute evenly.  Secondly you had random loot drops to dole out fairly.  That dropped flame sword might never appear again, so only one of you gets to have it.  Who?  Which items are worth buying from the shopkeeper, and who gets to keep them?  If the path ahead diverges, which hallway do you two take?  Who makes that decision?  What's the proper strategy to use to kill that boss?  And who gets the killing blow?  There were so many factors to puzzle over, only to be solved together for the greater victory of cooperation.  Surely after doing all of this, divvying up the mundane bills and chores of real life becomes more intuitive.

It stands to reason then, that this same sort of relationship building cooperative gaming magic applies beyond the amorous sphere as well.  I could certainly believe beating games together with a close friend would have tangible offsets.  If nothing else, you'd learn a little more about each others' personal strengths and weaknesses.  (Seriously, if you want to know someone's true personality, play Dokapon Kingdom with them.)  So if your partner doesn't play video games, but you'd like them too, just keep trying.  There's a genre out there for everybody, and chances are it has some co-op titles available within.  Whether you choose to play couch co-op games with your significant other, your friends, or even your children, there are positive results for all involved.

Co-op gaming sites for finding stuff to play:,619/

Monday, September 8, 2014

Don't Scratch On The Story

Here's a story about the importance of stories.

Flashback to the summer of 2007, I had recently suffered the breakdown of a romantic engagement. It turned out that my then-fiance was cheating on me, so I had to put an end to our long relationship. Some guys would have wallowed in alcohol to drown their sorrows, but I chose to bury mine under a mountain of pixels instead. The pixels in turn were coming from an unusual genre, one I had only just begun to explore.

The genre was "billiards simulations", pool games. I had always enjoyed playing pool in real life, even though I wasn't particularly skilled at it. Thus I felt compelled to give pool games a try. They were after all cheaper, more convenient, and less embarrassing than playing badly at an actual pool hall. To my surprise, I had discovered the original PlayStation had more than a few of these titles (about 25 if you count international releases). That was good because I was financially challenged at that time. The only physical console in my living room back then, was actually an original PlayStation.  So for a while it was just myself, an old couch, a small CRT TV, and that beat up old PlayStation. I may not have had love or money, but I had plenty of belated billiards.

In the midst of my broken heart depression, I started scouring pool sims from local discount stores. This was an inexpensive affair, because would you believe the market for vintage billiards games depreciates quickly? Every day I would go to work only to spend my lunch hour finding a new pool game. Then I'd come home and bury my head in angles and trick shots all night.  Yes we do strange things when we have broken hearts.  All the same it helped keep my head from thinking about someone else's cue stick knocking balls into a side pocket that used to be mine.

Eventually this fascination with pool sims started to wind down. But just as I was about to hang up my virtual rack, I came across one game that spoke to my heart instead of my escapism.  This came as quite a surprise.  I'd say if you asked me where I was going to find a story in a video game that would resonate with my then-sadness, the last place I would have guessed would be from a pool simulation. Nonetheless, that's exactly what happened when I played Backstreet Billiards.

Backstreet Billiards was published in the USA in 1998 by Ascii Entertainment. As a pool simulation, it had been left in the dust by far more recent evolutions of the genre on newer more powerful consoles. Its physics model was obsolete and its graphics had aged less than gracefully. After all, this was 2007, Backstreet Billiards was nearly a decade old by then. Who cared about playing pool with a controller when you could push a Wii Remote as a virtual cue?  All the same, one aspect of a video game has the ability to never age, to never become obsolete, for it is immune to hardware obsolescence.  A game's story.

Allow me to give a quick run down of Backstreet Billiards' story. You play as a young man who is seeking his recently deceased famous pool ace father's legendary cue stick. It has been stolen by an unknown thief, thus you begin to search your way through the pool playing underground in hope of reclaiming your lost heritage. When you beat key characters at pool, they reveal to you more clues and leads as to who the unknown thief actually is. Now, Backstreet Billiards' story was not earth shattering, granted.  It did not mire itself in melodrama, pathos, or any grandiose ambition. But it did manage to entice emotion from my recently wounded soul regardless. The key emotion was empathy.  Empathy is why I still remember Backstreet Billiards, while I scarcely remember any of the other pool games I played during that time.

The young man seeking the pool cue was only doing so on the surface. Superficially speaking, he wanted it back for heritage purposes, sure. But on a deeper level, this man unknowingly was trying to get a piece of his father back. If he could just hold that stolen pool cue again, he'd be that much closer to the dad he'd just lost. And that aspect of the story resonated with me. I too had just lost something to a death recently. The death of a relationship, the loss of trust, and the theft of my own sense of self worth. Maybe all those nights playing virtual pool matches I was simply trying to win at something again.  Was I trying to attain small senses of victory to dissuade the pangs of being a loser at love?  It's a feasible possibility. 


Backstreet Billiards, by its simple merit of having a decent story, made something as banal as a pool simulation become so much more. When I realized the power of this, the possibilities seemed limitless for games' emotional potential. You could make a pong game seem meaningful by simply inserting a well written story into it. Indeed with proper cut scenes, you could forge a murder mystery out of Tetris. Ten years from now, you'd still remember how Sergeant Smash lost his leg in the best Minesweeper clone you ever played.  All because of the power of a good story.

Story is what gives meaning to all those pixels on the screen.  And a good story does even more than that, it infuses humanity into what amounts to cold  digital technology without it. There likely will come a day when I can play billiards in virtual reality, with graphics indistinguishable from real life. Yet even then, I would still swear that Backstreet Billiards is the best pool game ever made. All because Backstreet Billiards spoke to my heart, instead of just my eyes.  Truly games that base their sole merit on graphics hang their worth upon an expiration date.

I believe modern video games have astounding graphics, fantastic audio, a plethora of control options, and a healthy variety of genres to choose from.  But I do not believe video games as a holistic medium have enough heart in them.  There are a few titles that stand out (CiNG's stuff for sure), but exceptions don't make the common rule.  I truly hope in the future more game developers come to realize just how important a proper plot truly is. Well designed stories, characters, and dialogue are what make society at large respect books and film as a critical medium.  As a species humans love being told tales.  It's probably genetic.  It stands to reason then, that solid well written plots can excel video games to the culturally exalted status other mediums enjoy.

We have amazing programmers, artists, musicians, and gameplay designers.  What we don't have enough of though, is amazing game writers.  Game studios should strive to always remember the importance of story.  To never forget to infuse some legitimate humanity into the mix of bits and pixels.  If you manage to make your player feel raw emotion, instead of just mechanical reaction, you stand a chance of enticing empathy.  And empathy inevitably makes a person feel closer to something. If that something is a video game, than that player shall cherish and remember said video game possibly the rest of their life.  And when they do, they will remember that game as a life experience unto itself, rather than just an entertaining distraction from other life experiences around them.

Technology always has an expiration date, but a well written story never expires. For now, video game escapism and actual player empathy hit like an 8-ball and a lucky call.  There's just far too many missed shots.  Developers,  it's time to step up your game as a whole.  A good game designer is not necessarily a good game writer.  So it's time to consistently hire actual writers to write the plots of video games.  Or are we all content to let books and films keep hustling games at the table?  A broken heart can fall in love anew, even with a video game.  Let the games love us back more often then, and maybe our wallets won't cheat on them as much.