April's Topic

The topic for this month's round table is on the personal core mineral that you most love or hate in games. My answers here probably won't surprise anyone that even briefly knows me, but I'll try to make the journey interesting. I'll start closer to what I dislike and then work my way from there. Keep in mind that everything is relative and there are no "hard" feelings here.

I've played a lot of games. I've played a very diverse swath of games. I've beta-tested games, I've reviewed games, I've bought more games than a reasonable person might and have a number of crazy opinions about games. I've built crappy little games since High School and I'm currently in what some friends have regarded as "the crazy state of mind" that maybe I want to work for some cool game company or another... [1]

I've learned a lot of things from games. One thing that I've learned from games, for example, is that I suck at playing them. Or at least that's the easiest way to say it in today's vernacular. More apt is the admission that I'm not and have never been a "hardcore" player. In gaming I've tried a wide variety of games and very much am a "jack of all trades, master of none". I've never beaten a Mario game. I can't beat most FPSes without coop help. I managed to snag 100% of the collectibles in Psychonauts on my second play through, but still have yet to best the evil meat circus. I have no qualms about cheating or referring to GameFAQs when I get frustrated and fewer qualms about shutting off a game and switching to a different game when frustration turns to tedium, anger, or boredom.

I have at least a passing love of all genres, that is I can always find something that I love or admire in even the worst game. For instance, I love strategy games for offering such interesting narratives and intrigued by "God/Master/Commander" gameplay, but I've never managed to be very successful at them. I'm not good at micro-managing resources and I can do reasonably well in every guided tutorial that I've seen but generally fail to synthesize the component parts into a smooth enough whole to have much success in the actual game. I played a few hours of Sins of a Solar Empire the other night and it brought me nearly to tears. I thought I was doing reasonably well, taking my time, exploring the nearby planets. Then I was rolled over by pirates and watched it all crumble slowly and relentlessly. Driven back to my home world with just about no ships and the resources to slow disaster but not avert it. I know some of what I did wrong and I could read all the stuff that GameFAQs has to offer, but I know that ultimately I don't think I'll ever be very successful in the game. I appreciate it for lovely panoramas, though.

I have a passing love of all genres, but there is one genre that more often than not leaves me cold and uninterested: the RPG, particularly the JRPG. I find pen and paper RPGs somewhat fascinating (with LARP much more interesting to me), but computer RPGs generally have all of the soul of an Excel spreadsheet and none of the heart (ex: epic VBA macros to fight the tedious hordes of those damned numbers). (I do think that many RPGs would benefit from VBA macros...) I loathe the traditional turn-based tedium that is typical to most RPGs. I hate grinding to level a character. Skill optimization is similar to my lack of skill in strategy game optimization, but less fun failing (nothing like grinding for six levels after selecting a skill only to find out the very next boss is impervious to it). I've level-capped only 2 characters ever in RPGs. The only RPG I've beaten (ever) is Mass Effect and I played it like an FPS with amazingly forgiving aiming. (I put more thought into my equipped plasmids in Bioshock than I did with my skills in Mass Effect...) Then there is the fact that so many RPGs are medieval fantasy and frankly I just find that flat- out boring. The Lord of the Rings is a boring epic of things that I mostly don't care about. [2] The entire width and breadth of fantasy descended from LotR is pretty much in the same basket. I mean, I mostly enjoyed Ocarina of Time's gameplay, but wasn't interested enough in the story to find out how it ends, particularly once the dungeons started feeling too repetitive and the boss battles too over-complicated.

What I think shines through the feelings of what I hate in games stems from my complaints about gameplay in RPGS. RPGs often have very interesting stories, or at least so I'm often told, but most of them I only know from "campfire stories" because I get cock-blocked by the gameplay. In my experiences gameplay in RPGs are more often than not obstacles to the story and not very interesting obstacles at that. For as much as people claim to love the stories in RPGs the designers so often forget to cater them to much more than a select hardcore group that grew up on particular mechanics in the SNES era and never cared to really push beyond that. I'm being overly harsh here, and I know that, but to a certain extent I do think there is a rut that RPGs have found and its hard for them to think outside of it. I'm tempted to pick up Lost Odyssey but "two hours between save points" sounds like something out of one of my nightmares. I don't understand how you can put so much work into a storyline that spans 4 DVDs and have such a player-punishing mechanic. How can you have pride in your story if you can't expect players to finish it? At the very least, why do FPSes often have "godmode" cheats, but there's no such voodoo equivalent for RPGs?

That sort of brings me to my true love in gaming. I love it when a game has enough faith and pride in its story that it is willing to let gameplay precipitate from the storyline. I love it when a game doesn't punish a player from experimenting and trying crazy ideas, instead only gently attempting to lead the player back to story. There is a particularly thin vein of gaming that draws me time and again... If I have a "spiritual home" on the internet, a place I go back to every now and then for renewal, one that in the dawn of time, when dinosaurs roamed the internet I endlessly refreshed, one that has a special place in my feed reader in this moderne era, it would probably be The International House of Mojo. To a certain extent the IHOM, or Mixnmojo as it is more commonly abbreviated, is a central hub in a changing web of alliances and fan sites and side project most of which are themselves somehow tied into this vein of gaming that I have loved for way too many years now. (I've previously rambled about one particular pub in that ever-shifting web of Mixnmojo related sites.) Mixnmojo generally focuses on the LucasArts adventure games (Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, et al) and nowadays the LucasArts alumni out there making similar games (Double Fine, Telltale, August Moon, Crackpot, now Hothead).

There are a number of core components that tie together the games that I consider to be my favorites. There's a general core of humor to them, but I've always felt that to be a bonus. There's a trend more towards pirates than ninjas, but as much fun as that battle continues to be, that's not something that affects my final decision. [3] I think ultimately that my love of this particular sub-sub-genre with no name much better than "LucasArts-style adventure" (and it's a bad name) boils down to the non-punitive philosophies professed by Ron Gilbert. I really do realize how much that I owe to him and I hope that I didn't act too much of a fan-boy in meeting him at the last PAX...

I love a good story, and I love a game that tells me a good story and doesn't block me from seeing it to the end. I love it when gameplay feels like an extension of the story. I don't mind cheating or looking up something in a FAQ when I can't figure something out. I do mind when a game punishes me too much, and I'm relatively quick to switch gears and find a different game when that turns to frustration. I love it when you offer me a bit of voodoo magic should I get frustrated. In the world of Monkey Island there is no permanent death (well, unless you hold your breath for too long, but you were warned). There's voodoo zombies and faked deaths, but nothing that stops you dead in your tracks and blocks you from completing the game. I often think that many games just need a little more voodoo.

[1]This is actually, obviously, a return to that state of mind. I built crappy games in High School and have always wanted to be out there doing it for real... But then reality is pounded down your throat when you start College and you realize that the guys going into Computer Engineering "to make games" are the ones you don't see anymore 6 months down the road. Now that I've returned to that state of mind I have been having difficulties focusing on my MEng stuff, but I've got the BS degree under my belt and the big distraction from my studies is my video game that is well on its way to being "release-able" in some form for beta-testing and with the deadline for the PAX 10 magically coinciding with Spring Projects and Finals season... I'm starting to think that the game is the bigger priority right now and I'm debating just how to properly fail my classes without burning bridges...
[2]This is something that can be hard to admit to as a storyteller, and someone interested in telling stories through games in particular. Fantasy and RPGs have a very big influence on games. So while I liked the world-building components of LotR (linguistics, cartography, even to a certain extent the bad multi-lingual poetry), but I've never felt the appeal for dramas involving elves, orcs, dwarves, etc.. I've always been much more fascinated with robots, aliens, etc.. I also think that most fantasy tends to fall into monochromatic, two-dimensional characterisations. I for one am generally sick of strict dichotomies of good and evil.
[3]To review from other posts: I've long favored Pirates over Ninjas. I read Treasure Island quite young and piratical themes keep reccurring in my own writing. There seems to be a bit of a piratical bias in my family. My youngest sister didn't realize that anyone favored Ninjas over Pirates when we discussed the internet's long fascination with this war after watching the third PotC film and my mentioning disappointment that the Pirates v. Ninjas battle in that film wasn't longer or more definitive a win for the pirates...