Archive for January, 2012
Michael Campagnaro and I sat down to play an hour of X-COM: UFO Defense, the 1994 alien invasion cult classic for PC. The point of it was to kick off a Let’s Try to Understand series with a game that neither of us had played and know little about, but that has many devoted fans. Because X-COM is a unique brand of strategy and because it was designed 18 years ago, it seemed like a good choice. We strapped on our tinfoil hats and settled into our commander’s chairs in an attempt to fumble our way through saving the world, reconvening one hour later to talk out the trauma of intergalactic warfare as conducted by total newcomers.
I’d argue that strategy games appeal to a lot of people for one pretty simple reason: they allow their audience to play god in a way that other genres don’t. Ino-Co Plus, developers of the forthcoming (impenetrably named) Warlock: Master of the Arcane get this. They know that the person sitting at their computer, ordering tiny little armies to wage war and tiny little builders to construct settlements is attempting to exert control over some part of their lives, that their careful forethought and desire for virtual conquest stems from the need to own something, no matter how intangible that something may be.
That, or I just have the pessimistic view that everyone in the world is a megalomaniac.
A Big Thing with videogames these days is difficulty. Difficulty is an especially poorly explored topic, because most videogame critics and designers+ suck at videogames++, and ESPECIALLY at videogames that have Actual Difficulty. Actual Difficulty is a unique beast; it doesn’t rely on memorization, or on setting you back far from where you were+++. It relies on intricate patterns, robust interactions, and strong knowledge of the underlying system mechanics. Actual Difficulty arises solely from strong design, constant testing, and the type of genius that only years of experience can create.
God Hand has more Actual Difficulty in the first level than most designers can fit into their entire game, and all of it comes from constantly varied scenarios that require a mastery of the absurdly robust combat engine Clover Studios birthed.
The Shin Megami Tensei series is unique in that it combines the common tropes of Young Adult literature with something only video games are capable of: it places the player in a situation and asks them what they want to do. Some of the series’ games tend strongly towards the mundane (Persona) while others go off the deep end (Nocturne), but they all feature regular people in insane realities.
Devil Survivor, though, manages to blend the tropes of YA post-apocalyptic literature and the Megami Tensei series’ twisted view of the mundane. You embody a normal high school kid, and the game tells you demons are real, the city of Tokyo is locked down, and you’re going to die tomorrow. It tells you that and watches how you react.
There’s a healthy amount of debate occurring in games criticism right now about how far the concept of gamification* should be implemented into our daily lives. It’s a rich topic that is as much about human psychology as it is about videogame theory — and one that much smarter people than I have already spent a lot of time intelligently discussing.
I’d rather try to look at it in a different way.
Not very long ago, sex was one of the big taboos in mainstream games. Although hyper-violent titles were slapped with an M rating and sent on their way to be readily devoured by audiences, trying to implement sex was frowned upon in general. This isn’t surprising. The North American entertainment model has always been quicker to accept violent content than sexual material, and videogames, a younger medium, have unfortunately followed suit. But as the main demographic of game players has moved away from kids and teenagers to a wider audience made up of varying age groups, the viability of sex as a game element has grown. This is just fine — except, sex in games still isn’t being handled properly.
The general consensus seems to be that Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is a bit of a letdown when compared to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I suppose there’s a whole, gigantic article to be written about why this will always be the case with sequels of sequels (and on and on) but, to be honest, I feel like I’ve been banging on about that kind of thing in a column I write long enough. Instead, I’d rather try to talk a bit about a problem with Uncharted 3 in a a different way.
Ico is a very good game. It is pretty, it is fun, it has a great (and understated) story and is a true artistic statement — a well realized vision that incorporates its theme in a holistic way, from its aesthetic straight on down to its mechanical structure.
It’s also old (almost 11 years old! A junior high student by now!) and was very difficult to find copies of until this fall when a remastered collection of Ico and its spiritual sucessor, Shadow of the Colossus were re-released as a single, lovely PS3 disc. I’ve just finished playing through Ico again thanks to this collection and was surprised to find that the experience held up as well as it did. Nostalgia has a way of colouring things, after all, and more than a decade of time has passed between playthroughs.
Like any good art, Ico also revealed far more of itself on a second time through than it did at first and the message it evokes struck home far more differently to my 25 year-old self than the 15 year-old version of me. Simply enough, going into Ico knowing what to expect (and having my reading coloured, no doubt, by emotional maturation) transformed the game from a lovably surrealist fairy-tale to a strangely impactful exploration of love.