What the Best Games Have

My inaugural post to this blog was a short lament about the abysmal state of video/computer games.

Unfortunately, the situation has not improved since that time. If anything, it’s gotten decidedly worse. I love video games; and yet, a truly interesting and enjoyable game comes out around once or twice a year. In that post, written 2½ years ago, I mentioned Shadow of the Colossus as a breath of fresh air. It remains virtually the last game I can think of that was really, truly enjoyable in a significant way. I mean sure, episodes one and two of Half-Life 2 came out since then, but it’s pretty much just mild additional content to Half-Life 2. BioShock and Portal were incredible games, but Portal was too damn short, and I never got around to completing BioShock, for some reason.

Two other games that made solid impressions on me were the independently-released Aquaria by Bit-Blot, and Penny Arcade’s On the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness. Aquaria was particularly good, though there’s a little too much freedom at one point, where you can spend a coupla hours futzing around until you figure out how to make some decent progress. Kinda like Zelda. But anyway, it was incredibly well-written, very engaging, and had an awesome ending. Plus, it’s loaded with a variety of game-play elements.

But anyway, we’re still talking about basically four games that I can remember from the last 2½ years that were decent enough for me to even remember. And two of them play well under ten hours. :\

In the meantime, I just keep on replaying the same favorite, classic, and yes, aging games that I’ve always loved. Every once in a while I’ll break out with Abe’s Oddysee or Syberia. I just spent the last couple of weekends reacquainting myself with some of the great old LucasArts games like The Dig and Day of the Tentacle. Every several months I’ll play through Half-Life 2 or F.E.A.R..

When you come right down to it, I’m definitely an adventure game fan. My favorite genre; though I also enjoy arcade-style gameplay. But adventure games are exceedingly rare these days. RPGs are often similar enough to adventures to be quite enjoyable; but it seems like lately all anyone wants to make are FPS and MMORPG games. I’m not really a “social” gamer; I don’t really enjoy playing my video games with other people, except when they’re people I’m already really good friends with, so I really just don’t get MMOs. As for FPSses, well they’re fine and all, but really, shot one alien while jumping out from behind a wall, shot ’em all. Half-Life 2, F.E.A.R., Bioshock and Portal are exceptions, since the first three are unusually immersive (rather similar to adventure games, really), and Portal introduced radical new gameplay (and was funny as hell. I can’t wait for Portal 2).

At this point, I’ve more-or-less given up on the game industry. I’m not going to spend hundreds of dollars to upgrade my computer to the latest-and-greatest if I’m only going to see four games in the next couple years that I care about playing; that’s just not value. I think my only real hope is for independant game development to rise up and fill the massive gaps that the industry has left. As part of mourning the death of all that I love about video games, though, I thought I’d write a little about what those things are.

Immersion. The moment that the game Myst was released, I knew it was something special. It was such a great experience, so deep and immersive (for the time, anyway). You really felt like you were there, actually exploring this interesting and mysterious island. It had a lot of the things I like about adventure gaming, too: reading, learning, problem-solving, exploring… I’ve loved most of the sequels in that series, too: Riven, Exile, Revelations. I have to admit End of Ages was a little disappointing, and I didn’t really get into their MMO thing, Uru (but then, pretty much no one else did either).

Syberia was another example of a really engaging game. Unique concepts, realistic graphics, a heroine you could identify with, a world that’s interesting and fun to explore.

To me, a large part of the immersion factor is the music and sound. Final Fantasy VIII had a particularly haunting sound track; so did ICO.

Story. I like books. I like video games that are like books (that’s probably another reason I loved Myst: its creators were clearly as enamoured with books as I am). I like it when interesting things happen, and I can’t stop playing because I want to find out what happens next.

I think the most masterful examples of story-telling in games were Final Fantasy games. I mean, for starters, FFVII having one of the main, crucial player characters actually die is of course one of the most famous and best-remembered twists. I think some people may actually have cried there (especially if they spent serious time leveling her up!). Finding out that Cloud’s not entirely in control of himself because he’s been infused with cells from an evil alien. Or that Cloud basically fabricated an entire memory of his life, because it’s what he had wanted for himself (which was a little corny, since it means he was nothing but a poser, rather than the supreme bad-ass he made himself out to be).

Even better is Final Fantasy VIII. Plenty of plot twists there, even if a couple are a little corny (like, finding out that you and several friends you thought you’d just met had actually all grown up together as kids, under the care of the person who’s now your arch-enemy, because she’s been possessed by the Sorceress of Time, but you’d forgotten all about it because using the Guardian Forces erases memories). When Squall’s elite battle-training schoolground suddenly transforms into a kick-ass giant battle-station, or when Rinoa gets possessed by the Sorceress of Time while she’s at the space station… what the hell were they smoking? ‘Coz I want some of it.

Unfortunately, Square-Enix’s recent fare has completely lost me. I no longer trust them to be able to make even a halfway-decent game, let alone a master epic.

The Dig‘s story was great. Finding an alien technology that raises your comrade from the dead. Oh, but it turns out it’s destructively addictive, too. 🙂

Novelty. Portal. I don’t need to say anything more about that.

That was a major draw for Abe’s Oddysee, too. I mean, a wimpy alien who can’t even fight, but can lead his alien friends to freedom, turns into a flock of birds when he dies, and can possess his enemies? Friggin’ awesome. Still one of my all-time favorites.

Variety of gameplay. One thing that some of my favorite games have had is gameplay depth. Aquaria makes a great example of that; it has a story, it has swimming around in a serene sea, it has magic-like abilities controlled by singing specific melodic patterns, it has morphing into kick-ass fireball-weilding maniac, it has a recipe system for creating potent items from ingredients you find around, and it has a pretty kick-ass story. Final Fantasy VII and VIII (especially VII) had  a lot of fun mini-games. And as bizarre as Final Fantasy X-2 was, it was fun, because it was basically just a big collection of mini-games. I could never play it all the way through, though. The Gameboy Color Zelda games did a really good job of this, too.

So, that’s pretty much the list of things that are guaranteed to make me love a game. …Provided, that is, that it doesn’t severely suffer from any of the following flaws…

Pixel-hunting. The infamous flaw of many graphical adventure games. Far too many otherwise fantastic adventures made progress difficult because you had to pretty much sweep the whole screen with your pointer, sometimes over teeny-tiny areas, to find everything there was to be found. No fun.

Cryptic puzzles. I don’t have the patience to spend hours trying to figure out how to progress in a game. I love a challenge, but frustration is definitely not fun. If it’s not something I can figure out in a reasonable amount of time, I’ll flip to the walkthrough so I can move on to the fun part again. And there are plenty of adventure-game puzzles I’ve encountered that I never would have figured out. Shame on them.

Sometimes, puzzles are hard to solve because you never would have believed that the game would have let you do that, in a million years. As much as adventure game advertisements can drone on about a vast world which can be “fully explored”, no game yet is actually as “explorable” to anywhere near the same degree as the real world is. As a gamer, you just get used to the things you’re not going to be able to do, so you stop doing them. Because trying them every time would quickly get really, really tedious. Or, more often than not, the game itself trains you that it doesn’t let you do things like that. But then, suddenly, in one puzzle, you can do it, and it confuses the hell out of you because the game failed to prepare you for an understanding that, just at this one point, you can break the unspoken rules. Or sometimes, it’s something you would never even try in real life, because it’s unrealistic, or silly, or some sort of pun, or…

To be fair, this is a tough thing to avoid when you’re writing an adventure game. You definitely want to challenge the players. But it’s easy to cross the line from challenge to frustrate. There’s an art to providing enough cues so that players begin thinking in the direction they need to. An easier solution is to provide a “help” or “hint” solution. That can be fine if not overdone, but if you can get the clues just right in the first place, it’s a much more satisfying, if significantly more difficult, approach.

Tedium. Some adventure games, some RPGs, a significant portion of the time is spent on getting from point A to point B. Counting that as a part of your “90 hours of gameplay!!!” is criminal, plain and simple. Tedium is not fun. It is therefore not “gameplay”.

When people discuss the MMOs that are popular today, “grinding” sometimes comes up. That’s where you spend hours of game time doing repetitive, boring tasks to level your characters up or whatnot. Fuck that.

A word on realism. Realism is awesome when it’s realistic graphics, or if it’s something you enjoy doing. But, if your character is a farmer by trade, realistic simulation of the tedium of doing farm work, unless something interesting is added to that, is not fun. Please let’s remember that gaming is an escapist activity. We do it to have fun, because we want a break from doing work. Police Quest may have been a relatively “realistic” simulation of what it’s like to be a cop (depending on who you talk to); but Police Quest didn’t have you spending all day filling out reports. :p

Forget realism. We want realism in the fun parts. If we wanted real realism, a single bullet would have a decent chance of ending the entire game when you get hit. And would cause excruciating pain otherwise. And you wouldn’t be able to start the level over or begin a new game, because you’re dead.

RPGs frequently suffer tedium when it comes to battles. Boss battles can be fun, because they’re an opportunity to be forced to switch to a different fighting tactic. But fighting wave after wave of enduring mindless, robotic, random low-level enemy fights is also not fun, and a fairly cheap way to eat up “gameplay hours”.

Anyway, I guess that’s enough of that. I’m pretty much resigned to playing the same great games over and over again, with only the very rare and fleeting breath of fresh air.