A thoughtful and personal exploration of games

Posts tagged “What makes a great game?

What makes a great game? – Part 10: Familiarity and Belonging

Today’s discussion is about a sense of familiarity and belonging in games. This is something of an extension on the discussion of a sense of home in games, but it’s a more general sensation. Here, let me try to give you a few examples of what I’m going for:

Reading a book you’ve read before

Playing an old game you used to play as a child

Wandering a museum you’ve been to before

Hanging out with old friends

Visiting with family

Hearing a song you used to listen to all the time

These all invoke a sensation of the familiar. A sense of belonging in that time, place, whatever. Some games draw people in because of the inherent familiarity of the surroundings. Some games keep you playing because of a genuine sense of belonging there.

This topic basically struck me as soon as I started playing the Lord of the Rings Online Free-to-Play Beta a few months back. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings once in my life, but it’s something that sticks with you. I’ve read The Hobbit several times though (it’s way shorter and mostly a travelogue). Anyways, when I first set foot into the LOTRO version of Middle-Earth, I felt that I was already familiar with the world. As I made my way through the Bree-Lands, I managed to orient myself and discover those locations in the books that I wanted to see for myself. I’ve been to Weathertop, I’ve wandered the Shire, and I walked some of the same paths that the original 13 dwarves walked with a confused hobbit and a wizard of implied repute. I battled goblins and barrow-wights as I made my way through the world that Tolkien imagined and I never felt that anything was amiss in that.

Another game that gave me the same sense from day one was Star Wars Galaxies. I already knew so much about so many things in the Galaxy Far, Far Away that when I set foot into Galaxies and was shown the waterfalls of Theed or the Lesser Sarlacc of Dathomir, I was amazed. I recall spending several months just as a tourist (of course, I had a 56k modem when I started playing, so that’s all I really could do). I was so familiar with the things in Galaxies and to this day I still say I belong there. Elorfin Thendt, Commando, at your service.

Something that definitely contributes to the sense of belonging in games (especially online ones) is the guild. It may be called by different names (kinships in LOTRO, fleets in Star Trek Online), but guilds are lasting groups of player avatars that allow for a much easier association between players. It encourages trade and group play amongst the guild members and it gives the players something to belong to and work for that is larger than themselves. In Galaxies, I belong to the guild Remnants of Mandalore and whenever I log in (which is less frequently than I’d like) I’m always welcome. I’ve been a member of ROM for almost two years now and I’ve never had a chance to regret it.

I suppose it’s a draw for a game to be set in a familiar world. Where the player is dropped into an existing world that they’ve experienced somehow, somewhere before. I was excited when I heard about Star Trek Online coming out. I wasn’t so much about Tabula Rasa (rest in peace). I’m looking forward to Star Wars: The Old Republic and Stargate Worlds, but not so much The Exiled Realm of Arborea (TERA) or Black Prophecy. That’s not to say I won’t give the ones I’m not exactly looking forward to a try later on, but I suppose I’m just a big fan of the stuff I know already. Games that players get to participate in a familiar setting tend to do a bit better than original settings with no connections to other things. I’ve played several games that define standalone (pretty much every Final Fantasy game fits there, with the only real connection being the title of the game and maybe some of the connected themes like crystals or a guy named Cid who makes airships or a boss named Gilgamesh) but I’ve also played a lot of franchise games. Of course, belonging to a franchise doesn’t mean the game is going to be good (most Star Trek games are way too difficult to be any fun and some Star Wars games are just terrible) but at least they have something going for them to get more copies out to more players.

Still, like picking up a favorite book or listening to a song I used to overplay, some games just have that sense of familiarity and belonging that I love. A warm sensation that says I should stick around a while, pull up a chair, have a drink, and go on another adventure. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.

I recently picked up an old educational game I used to play as a kid: Super Solver’s Midnight Rescue. Holy crap it’s an educational game with playability! Playing it now, I’m fascinated with how simple yet how captivating the game was. It is a SMART game and it is a FUN game even today. I remembered how to play right away and I remembered what I was doing. It was fantastic. I picked this game up after not playing it for something like 20+ years and I did pretty darn well.

Anyways, I’m going to leave you there. I’m intrigued by this Black Prophecy game (plus the trailer they have is cool), so I’m going to check that out (I registered for the Closed Beta while writing this). It’s probably an EVE Online clone, but I’m still interested in seeing what they’ve got going on.

Until next time, cultivate that sense of familiarity!

– Elorfin

P.S. “Familiarity is the thing — the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness” – E.B. White


What makes a great game? – Part 9: Friends

Mostly, this is an addendum to Part 8: Characters, but I felt it warranted its own discussion. I’m linking everyone’s theme songs to their names because their individual themes helped to define their character and the emotions when you encountered them and it’s how I remember them years later.

It’s an interesting thing, considering characters in games your friend. Growing up, I recall playing Chrono Trigger at a friend’s house as well as Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy Tactics. The time spent at my friend’s house was my real introduction to the Japanese RPG and the start of my development into the gamer I am today. The main characters, especially in Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, became my friends. From moment one in Chrono Trigger, I was involved because of the people.

Has it ever happened to you? You’re enjoying the local festival and you bump into this girl with a ponytail. She then decides to tag along as you try out the festival games, praising your competitive nature at the soda drinking competition and your strength at the strongarm game. You stop to check out the supposed “teleportation device” and she, being the lovely lady she is, is asked to get up to try it out. Her pendant glows, and before you can do anything, she is whisked away into some swirling vortex. Being you, you can’t let this slide. You grab the pendant that was left behind and you jump onto the platform and vanish into a similar vortex… only to find yourself 400 years in the past.

That’s the intro to Chrono Trigger. A weird sense of responsibility to a girl you (Chrono) had just met thrusts you into this time-spanning adventure. You come to know the girl you bumped into and you collect an odd array of companions as you go, getting to know each one along the way. They become your friends and after spending hours on end playing the game, I was glad to have them by my side. Dungeons can be mighty lonely after a while and having two more people with me makes things so much better. To this day, I remember fondly my times in the world of Chrono Trigger and even now I still go back there to spend time with my old friends Marle, Lucca, Frog (aka Glenn), Robo, Ayla, and yes, even Magus. In fact, the music of Chrono Trigger has special meaning for me because I experienced every moment of that music in the context of the game and with my good friends. When I hear the music, I remember fondly my times with them and something tugs at me to go relive it.

Something very similar happened to me when I played Final Fantasy VI (which, at the time I knew only as Final Fantasy III). The game starts out with this mystery girl using a suit of MagiTek Armor with a pair of guards similarly equipped (the eponymous Wedge and Biggs, but back then they were Wedge and Vicks). They storm the town of Narshe and encounter a frozen “esper” in a cave which causes the deaths of the guards and knocks the girl unconscious. She awakens in a house and is told to flee before the locals find  her. Well, they find her but she’s rescued by Locke, a “treasure hunter” with a heart of gold. Eventually you come to be introduced to Edgar, Sabin, Celes, Cyan, Shadow, Gau, Mog, Umaro, Relm, Setzer, Strago, and Gogo. Oh, the mystery girl’s name is Terra. Each character had their motivations, their stories, their issues, and their complexities. At one point your entire group gets separated from each other and with Celes as your only character, you set about searching for your friends. By this time, yes, they are my friends. Well, not so much Gogo or Umaro, but it’s hard to be good friends with the mimic and the Sasquatch.

To this day, I can go back and play those games because to me they’re more than just games, they’re ways for me to hang out with my friends again. To relive those adventures with those who stood by my side through every battle and obstacle.

In a way, you can extend this to the MMO genre of games as well. You’re adventuring side-by-side with your friends through the wilderness and dungeons that lay strewn upon your mutual path. Exciting, isn’t it?

Until next time, remember your friends fondly and go back as often as you can to that far off time!

– Elorfin

P.S. This reminds me of a passage from a book…

Old stories told by travelers,
Great songs that bards have sung,
Of Mossflower summers, faded, gone,
When Redwall’s stones were young.
Great Hall fires on winter nights,
The legends, who remembers,
Battles, banquets, comrades, quests,
Recalled midst glowing embers.
Draw close now, little woodlander,
Take this to sleep with you,
My tale of dusty far-off times,
When warrior hearts were true.
Then store it in your memory,
And be the sage who says
To young ones in the years to come:
“Ah yes, those were the days.”

– Brian Jacques, Mariel of Redwall


What makes a great game? – Part 8: Characters

Characters are around us every day. They’re in what we see, what we do, what we hear and watch and read. Have you ever seen the commercials for the USA Network? Yeah, those are characters alright. Characters are how we identify with the story or event. We look at certain characters and think, “Hey, that could be me,” or, sometimes, “I wish that was me.”

Games have developed to the point where you can barely see past the deep and highly developed characters sometimes. Take a look at the latest Splinter Cell game, Conviction. This game is about a man searching for his daughter and anyone who tries to interfere with that will not live to see the next day. The story is full of moments of frustration, of anger, and of a strong desire for revenge. Sitting and watching Sam Fisher go through all these things, the player can feel sympathy and their own desire for revenge on behalf of the main character. Sam isn’t a young character either, as this is the fifth game he’s been the main protagonist. In fact, if you go back to the first game in the Splinter Cell series, there’s very little character development aside from playing a super black ops guy. As the series went on though, you began to wonder about this man you controlled and this last game with its serious story and amazing developments was just inevitable. The game of Splinter Cell: Conviction IS the character of Sam Fisher.

Characters can have a lasting impression on players. From my own experiences, I know that I’ll never forget Captain William Eisen for coming to the rescue on the TCS Mount St. Helens supercarrier when my little Durango-class BWS Intrepid was getting kicked around by the TCS Vesuvius and Admiral Tolwyn. I’ll never forget Winston “Vagabond” Chang and his incredible card playing skills or even Todd “Maniac” Marshall for his insane style of flying. In fact, the TCS Victory (“Better known as Tin Can Sally”) was a character in and of herself. Take a look at the Wing Commander CIC and the Wing Commander series of games for more.

Sometimes the characters don’t have to say a lot for you to even identify with them. Take a look at Chrono Trigger. The main character Chrono only ever says one word and I believe it was “Huh”. In fact, the dialogue in Chrono Trigger wasn’t the best or even particularly revealing of the characters’ natures. For some reason, I know that I kind of clicked with these youths and somehow belonged among them. I suppose this sentiment was common as Chrono Trigger is one of the most popular Japanese RPGs of all time.

I recall reading a book once where there was a secondary character that I was particularly fond of. When he clashed with the main character (as it was inevitable) my favorite secondary character was slain. I was crushed. Similar things happen in games today, like in Mass Effect where you’re forced to choose between Kaidan or Ashley in the later portion of the game and in Mass Effect 2 where if you weren’t thorough enough, you could lose all your friends and could even die because of a lack of support.

Characters help you develop an interest in the game. They pull you in and ask for your help. They give you a reason to come back and keep playing and they give you a sense that they don’t know what they’d do if you hadn’t come along. They become friends, enemies, companions to the end of the adventure. They might not like each other (see Miranda and Jack in Mass Effect 2 for a great example of this) but they’ll push past that if you ask them to (just tread lightly).

Games without a population just feel empty. Games without characters aren’t necessarily bad (see Solitaire or any number of casual games) but if you want a story, you need characters. If you want a GOOD story, you need deep characters. If you want a great game? You’ve got to have great characters.

Until next time, be a great character possessing great character.

– Elorfin

P.S. “A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you, and were helped by you, will remember you when forget-me-nots are withered. Carve your name on hearts and not on marble.” – Charles Spurgeon


What makes a great game? – Part 7: Effect

We all want to feel like we make a difference in the world. Some of us more than others. A great game allows the player to feel like they’ve had an impact or effect on the game world. Decisions that change the world around you slightly and almost imperceptibly happen every day without realization. In games, these decisions are a bit more pronounced, but no less important to the game world.

Older games were static. You shot Badguy A in Room 1 and Badguy B in Room 2 had no idea. As games became more complex, the Badguys would assist each other if they were in close proximity. Just like in the Splinter Cell series or some of the more modern First Person Shooters.

Games like The Sims, Sim City, Civilization, and Black & White are all god games where you’re this overseer in the heavens and the world you play in lives or dies at your whim (in the case of The Sims series, they do rely on you very heavily for survival). That’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is games like Wing Commander where if you win or lose a mission, it changes the story and the experience. I remember dreading getting chewed out by Captain Eisen for accidentally letting a couple of Kilrathi escape in Wing Commander III when my fighter got beat up. We’re also talking about games like Fallout where your decision to hire a water convoy from the Hub can cause the Mutants to discover where your Vault is earlier but can extend the amount of time before the water in the Vault runs out.

These decisions are small versions of the effect I’m getting at. I wish I could cite Dragon’s Age for effects on the game world, but I’ve never played it (my laptop would probably slap me silly if I tried). Games allow us to act out events that have a lasting effect on the world we’re in. If it’s just moving the story along or if it’s actually making a decision that has complex ramifications for the other people near by, it’s meaningful to the players and allows us to become attached to the world we play in. I know that in Chrono Trigger, I became attached to the world and the characters in my party because of the trials we all went through, the decisions we made, and the events we experienced. In so doing, we changed the world forever… at least until the New Game +.

It’s almost similar in a good book or movie. You sit there and become involved in the world put before you and you almost feel like you’re there participating. In the case of games, you’re the catalyst for change. Is it change for good or for evil? That’s up to you. Personally, I’d like to hope it’s for the better.

We all want to cause meaningful change to the world around us. In games, we can do that easily, quickly, and with drastic and dramatic results (which are frequently entertaining). As a small aside, I know that when I play games with a choice network (Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, etc) I take note of the good decisions and wonder what makes them so good. Further, I attempt to comprehend the motives behind what I’m doing. Maybe I’m reading too much into the game, but it helps me identify with the main character more and so I become more immersed in the game and more interested in creating good effects. When passing someone getting a shake down from some thugs in the streets of upper Taris, I’m more likely to intervene and save a life than I am to just walk by. I try to take that lesson from the game into the real world and become a better person for it. Hey, no one said you can’t pick up a thing or two from the games you play, right?

Until next time, choose wisely.

– Elorfin

P.S. “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

P.P.S. “I have gained this by philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law.” – Aristotle


What makes a great game? – Part 6: Immersion

Welcome to part six of my many-part series: What makes a great game? For consideration’s sake, I’ve retitled my article on Home to be part five of this series because I do believe it’s an integral component in the “great game” world. So, for today, we discuss something that has been getting better and better over time: immersion of the player in the game world. By this, I mean… well, it might be easier to give you a few examples…

If it pleases the Court, allow me to introduce example one: movies. Have you ever gone to a movie theater before? Most likely. The experience is all about immersing yourself in the experience provided by the motion picture you’re there to see. In fact, the point of the motion picture (as far as I know and as far as it matters for my point here) was originally to distract the viewers from their daily lives for a little while. Hence, the darkened room, the big screen that dominates the room and demands your attention, the easily available concessions, and the nearby bathrooms. It’s everything necessary to keep you busy for an afternoon, to keep you distracted by something that twangs your emotions, whether it be fear, happiness, sadness, or whatever. Admittedly, this is imperfect. There are crying babies, children (and adults) kicking seats, and wherever there’s close proximity to other people, there’s bound to be the occasional bout of violence/interpersonal issues.

The aside for this example: I remember going to see Air Force One in the theaters. Wow, that was a great flick and I’m a Harrison Ford fan, so the movie was going to be awesome anyways. I remember sitting there with my cousin in the front half of the theater (which was uncrowded) fascinated by the action on the screen. When those American fighters showed up to save Air Force One from the encroaching MiGs… man, I was into it. My cousin leaned away from me as if attempting to display through body language that he didn’t know me. I didn’t care. I still don’t, because that was a moment of success for whoever made that movie. They took me out of my world into their own, where Harrison Ford was a president who managed to hijack his own plane from the hijackers and barely made it out alive. I’d vote for him.

If I may continue, I’d like to direct the Court’s attention to example two: music. In this modern era of iPods and the like, music is very accessible. Have you ever just sat there with a piece of music, headphones or earbuds in, eyes closed, and let the music wash over you? Music has the amazing quality of being able to evoke or shift emotions in a person, if they allow it. Take a sad piece, and you can mellow the mood or stress the sadness of an event. Take a thumping beat and you’ve got a party (or a complaining neighbor). Music sets the mood for a lot of things, but if you just sit and listen and take it in, it’s an immersive experience all its own. Just don’t fall asleep.

The aside for this example: Have you seen some of the behind the scenes stuff for Star Wars? I don’t recall which one it was, but there was a point in the development of the original Star Wars movie released in 1977 where Lucas showed his movie to some friends like Steven Spielberg and the like and they hated it. Then, Lucas brought on John Williams to do the score for the movie and it became an incredible experience almost instantaneously. The version that Lucas had originally shown had no musical score. It’s the music that makes you feel for the characters and associate with them almost as much as the performance provided. It’s the music that sets the mood and let’s you know how to feel and when to feel it. If life had a soundtrack, well, it’d be a lot noisier out.

If it please the Court, I have a third piece of evidence to detail: books. Ah, the wonder of books. The idea that you can sit down with a collection of words and lose all track of time while devouring each one in turn is an attractive one. Many a reader has whiled away the late night hours reading books that captivate the imagination, encourage the intellect, and create a desire to discover a little more by reading just… one… more… chapter! Pick up a novel of daring and adventure and within moments you’ll be spirited away to a world far removed from your own. These worlds don’t just enthrall us, they inspire us to continue on.

The aside for this example: I’ve been reading for most of my life. I have over 100 Star Wars books on my bookshelf and while I haven’t read all of them yet, I’ve read and reread many of them. If you’ve experienced the stories in the Redwall series or the Wing Commander series, you and I have something in common. In High School and often in college, I had a novel on hand to read a bit here and there. The mark of a good book, and I have many good books, is when the pages have run out and the tale is told, you sit for a moment and think and feel just a little sad that it’s over… and sometimes you’ll move right on to the next book in the series or list or whatever, but sometimes you look at that book you just finished and you start it all over again. A good book is not only one that’s hard to put down until you’ve finished it, but it’s hard to look at again without desiring to read it. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “I cannot live without books.”

With these three piece of evidence in hand, I direct the court to my final argument: immersion in games. Games are in a unique position to benefit from the same qualities that movies, music and books have. Allow me a moment to discuss a few small points first. Movies and games are inseparable from music. If you have a terrible score, the movie and the game both suffer. If you have a game without music, it’s probably done intentionally to emphasize the emptiness of the environment (or the game is so old, there was no music). Likewise for movies, sometimes the absence of music is done intentionally to convey the emptiness of the scene or to allow the viewer to focus on a particular item without distraction. Either way, music, it’s constant presence and its occasional absence, is an integral part of both movies and games.

That said, books: not so much. Movies and games are fully capable of existing without books to inspire them or to appear as a derivative. Yes, the ever popular “books based on movies/games” or the “movies/games based on books” frequently attracts the attention of the fan of one side of the equation. I know I was interested when the Wing Commander movie came out and, whereas it was an okay film on its own, it wasn’t what I expected from the game franchise I enjoyed. Of course, Wing Commander is a bit of an oddity. There are books based on the games, a movie based on the series of games, and books based on the movie. As opposed to the other way it could’ve gone with Philip K. Dick’s book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” being made into the Harrison Ford movie Blade Runner, which eventually spawned a computer game called Blade Runner several years later.

Where was I? Oh yes… so, if you grab a game like, oh… Mass Effect 2 (I know I know) you’ll get hit with a lot of stuff at once. Mass Effect 2 possesses the story of a book/movie, with the music of a movie, the entertainment of a game/movie/music/book, and manages to encourage you to come back a couple of times to enjoy it again. Just throwing that out there.

Let me put this another way: when I sit down to play a game, typically it’s a role playing game of some sort. I’m there to enjoy a complex story with antagonists, protagonists, characters I can identify with, characters I love to hate, story elements I’m genuinely interested in and so forth. When I play a game, I sit down with headsets on (if at the computer) and my attention goes into the computer. The music sweeps me away, the cutscenes give me movie-quality immersion, and the background elements are as detailed as a book. I might be an oddity of society, capable of getting into just about anything, but when I sit down to play a game, I’m all in. When I sit down with a book, a movie, a piece of music, I’m there to enjoy it and I’m there. If something ruins my immersion, whether by a slow book, terrible acting, or discordant sounds, or even by just an ugly, non-voice acted game, I have a hard time enjoying myself.

As an aside to this, I was in a conversation last night with a friend and I mentioned how I love playing older games, but if they don’t have voice acting, I have a hard time bringing myself to replay them because I’m so spoiled today by fully cast games. I WANT to play Chrono Cross again, I WANT to play Legend of Dragoon, but I fear I’m too used to modern style games. Septerra Core was an anomaly because it was released in 1999 with a full voice cast. I recall just a couple of years before that with Fallout where a fair portion of the game had voice acting, but if you talked to Killian Darkwater enough, eventually Richard Dean Anderson wouldn’t be saying the lines any more.

As a reward for making it through my discussion on immersion in the arts and entertainment world, I will leave you with a few links to bounce through.

First, to illustrate how motion pictures and music work hand in hand, well, it’s a television show, but Scrubs did this all the time with music and events. Yes, it’s Journey and it’s awesome.

Second, I’d like to direct you to a favorite book website or two. Redwall and well, anything by John Green.

Third, here’s a great piece of piano music by Yiruma called Hope. Pretty much, everything I’ve heard him play is amazing and moving.

Lastly, a couple of examples of video games and music and movies and the like. Oh, that last one might make you cry, fair warning.

Until next time, don’t stop getting involved in your chosen forms of entertainment!

– Elorfin

P.S. “True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read.” – Pliny the Elder


Mass Effect 2 – Impression, Final

Welcome to my first “Final Impression” piece. This means I’ve pretty much nailed what makes this game great and why I like it so much. Honestly, it came to me in the car today while listening to the soundtrack of Mass Effect 2.

First of all, looking back at the articles I’ve already posted here discussing the things that make games great and the things I look for in a great game, I can point out several things that line up properly.

Let’s cite the list thus far: Music, Heroes, Progress, Context, and I’ll throw in Home.

Music: Mass Effect 2 has an absolutely stellar soundtrack. Seriously, it’s some incredible stuff. Unfortunately, it was pulled off of YouTube recently (yay terms of use violations) but it’s fantastic. There are pieces that just excel at conveying the emotion laden environments, the stress of combat pressing down upon you, the danger lurking around every corner. When you listen to the soundtrack by itself, you’re there, experiencing every pulse pounding drum beat, the trumpets blaring as danger approaches, the strings adding tension. It’s a complete orchestral experience from top to bottom. Sometimes it makes me sad, sometimes it makes me determined, and other times it makes me feel complete unadulterated HOPE.

Heroes: You and your crew are heroes. Plain and simple. You fought alongside them, but you also stopped to talk to them and learn about them and help them with their problems, even with the larger issue at hand. As you play, they don’t just become Shepard’s friends, they become YOUR friends. At the end of the game, no matter what happens, you pray that everyone comes out the other end alive. These are friends you come to care about. Together you are all heroes. Some are heroes to each other even. In the company of such people, such great friends, for a moment I become a hero, standing tall amongst my fellows as we stare down the Collector threat. We are the defenders of our people and we will stop at nothing to defeat those that would attempt to destroy them. They are MY heroes and they are MY friends and I would do anything for them.

Progress: As you go through the game, you gain levels and skills, but also as you move through the game, the world opens up to you. Other quests become available. New worlds are brought to your attention for an opportunity at exploration. Not only do you gain the mechanical sense of progress, but your relationships with your fellow crew members develop the longer you play. There are many measures of progress and they each provide a different sense of satisfaction.

Context: You’re out to save humanity from an unknown threat. As the game proceeds, you discover the nature of that threat. No, not JUST the nature of the threat, but the who, the where, the why, and the how. Seriously, the game reveals everything you  might want to know at a very reasonable and digestible pace. Further, everyone has a vested interest in stepping up, whether it be for money or for revenge or just out of loyalty to Shepard. In any case, you have a really good reason for fighting who you fight… the bad guys are really rather bad.

Home: You have the Normandy. It’s your home, it’s where you and your friends really get to know each other, and further, the Normandy’s your baby. You get to upgrade her and take good care of her and when the crap hits the fan, you know you can count on the Normandy to pull you through. See the article I wrote on Homes for more on this.

It’s the combination of these elements and more that makes Mass Effect 2 a fantastic game in my book. I’ve played through it twice now and I’ve got a third run in the works. Out of everything I’ve experienced in the game though, I want to share this; there are two specific cutscenes that send chills up my spine: the first, is near the beginning of the game where you are introduced to the Normandy Reborn. Freaking awesome. The second, well, it’s one of those edge-of-the-seat fist-pumping-awesome cutscenes near the very end when you go through the Omega 4 relay. The combination of the above items and several I haven’t touched on yet provide such an experience that you KNOW you’re a hero, that you’re in the company of heroes, and you’re about to do something completely crazy and awesome and desperate and heroic and NECESSARY. As the main character, you’re NEEDED or there is no game, no story, nothing.

So, to wrap this up I’ll paraphrase Zaeed Massani:

[Let’s go] concentrate on being big goddamn heroes.

– Elorfin


What makes a great game? – Part 5: Home

Home is where the heart is. Home is where you hang your hat.

Cliche, but true. Home is that place we feel safe and secure, where we can rest, recuperate, relax. It’s where we reflect on what we’ve done, what we have yet to do, and for some it’s the only place we call our own. I’m going to touch upon a few of these “homes” I’ve picked up over the years in games (not specifically computer or console games though, as you’ll see shortly). Oh, yes, spoilers ahead. If you haven’t played these games yet, sorry. Deal with it.

One of the more recent (comparatively) homes I’ve picked up is the SR-1 Normandy. The nexus of all the events in the first Mass Effect game for the XBox 360 and PC, the Normandy was where I spent a great deal of time talking to my companions. In the ending of the game, she really shines. For the record, Joker is awesome. Spoiler warning for those who haven’t played the games yet (but if you haven’t, you should get around to it): the SR-1 Normandy meets her demise at the beginning of Mass Effect 2. It doesn’t matter how many times I see it, I will forever feel horror watching her break apart, watching my home get destroyed by some unknown aliens. Pour one out for the SR-1 Normandy, boys.

The SR-2 Normandy managed to be a more than adequate replacement for the original. Just watch the spoiler heavy introduction of the ship here on YouTube. That ship and my crew have been through a lot together. At the end of Mass Effect 2, the ship is really beat up (more or less depending on how much you upgraded her). It doesn’t matter how many times I go through the end-game, I always sit on the edge of my seat as the Normandy takes a beating… but dishes out a more serious one. I feel that the SR-2 was much more of a home than the original mostly because of the random conversations you could hear just walking past people. Further, the interactions between the two engineers are absolutely hilarious as well as the interaction between Joker and EDI. I reiterate that Joker is awesome. Just putting that out there. Both Normandy’s gave me a sense of security, a place to catch my breath, regroup, and get to know my fellow crew members. It’s where romances flourished and moral issues discussed. Where loyalties were secured. The Normandy had better be in Mass Effect 3 or Bioware is in for a world of hurt. I look forward to my next unique trip to this particular home… but in the meantime, a third play through of Mass Effect 2 is in order.

Ahh, the Ebon Hawk. The fastest ship in the galaxy that I happened to “acquire” on Taris about 3996 years before the Battle of Yavin. In Knights of the Old Republic, I battled the Sith while discovering the location of the Star Forge. I built up a group of incredible warriors and lasting friends. In fact, I even benefited from her in Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords when I “inherited” it from the Peragus Mining Outpost shortly before said outposts’ mysterious destruction. Except for a couple of times (invading Sith troopers, little gizka running all over the ship, the occasional Nar Shadda gang member) the Ebon Hawk was my place of refuge. It was where I could get grenades from Zaalbar, computer spikes from T3-M4, security spikes from Mission, or later, it was where I talked galactic economics with G0-T0 and helped Mandalore rebuild the Mandalorian people. The Star Wars universe was and still is a dangerous place and the Ebon Hawk was my one safe place in it. Got to love the Dynamic freighter.

Changing course just a little bit, the capital city of Naboo, Theed, became something of a home to me while playing Star Wars: Galaxies. It was where I got my start in the game and the universe and where I always aspired to hang out when I had a 56k modem. The hospital was always full of players needing wound points removed, the cantina was always full of entertainers and players looking for groups, the palace had quests, the hangar housed my starfighters, and everyone always knew where things were. Today, the legacy quest takes you straight through the city and the experience, while changed, is very similar. No longer is the hospital full of players, but the cantina is a recognizable waypoint on the path to getting the buffs necessary to survive many a quest, and you can still find people clustered out in front of the hangar, preparing to tackle their next space mission. There was a point not too far from the city (in fact, not far from the perspective of the above screen) where I sat and looked upon Theed in wonder. In 2003, the graphics cranked up, I saw a handful of waterfalls and, through the mist, the massive palace and just sat there for a minute going, “Holy crap, I’m there.” Why do I keep going back to play Galaxies every now and again? Because I can go THERE and see things that were once only in the movies or in the books and my imagination. However dangerous the wildlife outside the city of Theed, I always find a moment to look back in wonder whenever I’m there.

Shifting back to space craft for a bit longer, the Mon Calamari MC80 Star Cruiser Liberty was my home for the latter (and larger) portion of X-Wing Alliance. It’s where I spent many hours in the simulator tackling TIE Fighters to see how many I could swat from the sky in 20 minutes (got up to 186 after a lot of practice, with the first three minutes being 10 kills per minute). It was where I could stop, dry my hands, grab a drink, and prepare to dive into the next mission, the next skirmish. It was where I learned to make the X-Wing truly dance and where I learned to appreciate the raw speed of the A-Wing. The last of the Star Wars locations, I promise.

Speaking of flying, I spent a fair amount of time serving in the Confederation. Specifically, the Terran Confederation of Wing Commander. I count as my home every carrier I ever flew off of, especially the TCS Victory and the TCS Intrepid. I will, however, speak a little on each.

The TCS Tiger’s Claw, home for the first installment in the Wing Commander series. I didn’t fly from her until college, but the missions were as important as ever, required as much skill if not more than the later games. Safe speeds in an asteroid field were something I paid a great deal of attention to. I was thrilled to get the upgrade from the Hornet to the Scimitar, and even more so to experience the Rapier.

The TCS Concordia was where I encountered the extremely ornery Tolwyn (which gave context to my experiences in WC 3 and 4). Wing Commander 2 was a thrill to play, especially with all the controversy surrounding the Kilrathi pilot on board by the callsign of Hobbes. Later, when sabotage showed up and when I could finally prove to Tolwyn the existence of the Stealth fighters that trashed the beloved Tiger’s Claw, I experienced an amazingly deep and complex world where my home was constantly threatened by those pesky Cats.

I spent an inordinate amount of time on the TCS Victory. Better known as “Tin Can Sally”, I came to appreciate the varied pilots under my command and the amazing forward firepower of the Thunderbolt VII (with its “Sunday punch” torpedo). When Hobbes betrayed everyone, I was legitimately upset. I came to trust completely in Captain Eisen and reveled in an opportunity to show Flash exactly how we roll on the front lines of the conflict with the Kilrathi. I came to look forward to one day visiting Vaquero’s cantina and I valued the friendship of the cardshark Vagabond. Oh, and Maniac quickly became a favorite annoyance (“I bet you stay up late nights just polishing it huh?” “No, in fact, I get Majors to do that for me.”).

Wing Commander IV was an amazing ride that gave me two carriers to call home. The TCS Lexington wasn’t much of a home, so I’m not going to talk about it… mostly because it was my torpedo that took her out. I felt kind of bad about putting the girl down, but hey, Captain Paulson was a bit of a jerk about replacing Captain Eisen. Now, the BWS Intrepid, that was home for the game. When I wanted a lively discussion, I’d sit in on Panther and Hawk or watch Maniac and Dekker have it out. I loved flying the Banshee (Four lasers… where have I benefited from that array of weapons before?) and the Dragon was like a cheat code unto itself. The final cutscene where I flew into Washington, D.C. itself was incredible and I really felt sad that Tolwyn had fallen so far.

In Wing Commander Prophecy, I found myself calling the new supercarrier, TCS Midway, home. The fact that Maniac was still around was a bit of a plus, and humbling him was a bit of a pleasure. I still feel bad about not being able to save Dallas. This felt less like a home compared to the Victory and the Intrepid because there were only a couple of places to go on the Midway for a mere pilot. Specifically, in Wing Commander, there was the bar, the bunkroom, and the briefing room. Likewise (I think) for Wing Commander 2. Wing Commander 3 had 7 locations on the Victory I could visit (including the briefing room) and Wing Commander 4 had on the Lexington and Intrepid 5 locations each. Hm, I guess now that I think about it, Wing Commanders 3 and 4 were the anomalies. Oh well. By the time I was done with the Nephilim, the Midway and all her crew was home and family.

To round out the space faring ships for this truncated list, I introduce the USS Sovereign from Star Trek: Bridge Commander. The picture is of the Enterprise, but they’re the same class of ship. In Bridge Commander, I was originally in charge of the USS Dauntless, a Galaxy-class vessel similar to the Enterprise-D. After a short while, you’re transferred to the Sovereign and there you stay for the remainder of the game. You really don’t go anywhere in the ship aside from the bridge (a pity) but you come to rely on your crew after a fashion and find that your first officer isn’t so much of a cranky princess after a while. Fighting off the rogue Cardassian threat was an incredible introduction into the post-Next Generation/DS9/Voyager world of Star Trek. At least we didn’t have holodeck problems while we tried to figure out why stars were going nova a bit early.

Continuing on, I’ve included a location that I’ve never spent much time in, but I fought to preserve anyway. I’m referring to Vault 13 from Fallout. You spend the entire damn game trying to ensure the security and health of the members of the vault and in the end? You’re kicked out by the Overseer because you’re “tainted” by the outside world. *rolls eyes* That guy’s a real punk. Oddly enough, Fallout works perfectly on a Vista machine. Works without the CD too if you did a full install. Oh, and by the way, the Mutant threat? Closer to Vault 13 than anything else on the damn world map. *laughs* I remember reading somewhere that it was supposed to be the vault with the extra water chips instead of an extra Garden of Eden Kit. Whoops. By the way, the Vaults? Nothing but a terrible social experiment by the guys who built them. Yikes. Still, it was home back in the late 1990’s.

Another location that was introduced to me around the late 1990’s was Candlekeep. Located on the Sword Coast about halfway between Baldur’s Gate and the northern border of the nation of Amn, Candlekeep is one of the only locations in the Forgotten Realms where entrance can be secured by offering up a rare book. This was where I learned to play the game and I was grateful for the opportunity. This was also where I learned what THAC0 meant, as well as several of the ins and outs of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system. It’s also where my character lost their adoptive father and started on their quest for vengeance and understanding. If you will, this was my actual first introduction to Dungeons & Dragons and today, well, I try to find excuses to visit Candlekeep.

Next on this list is another Forgotten Realms location, Silverymoon. Silverymoon is often dubbed “the Gem of the North”. It is one of the few civilized places in the middle of the rough and untamed wilderness that is the North of Faerun. It has a rich cultural life and is renowned as a meeting place for all races that are morally inclined towards good. Why is this a home for me? My favorite and legendary Dungeons & Dragons character, the Psychic Warrior Juan Moore, lives there. He and his party of adventuring friends settled in Silverymoon and are well renowned for their capabilities. I won’t go on for long on this place, but whereas we don’t spend a lot of time AT home, I don’t think we could’ve picked a better location. All the amenities we need are right there in Silverymoon or just a “short” trip away to Waterdeep in the west.

Lastly, another D&D locale, the city of Stormreach in the setting of Ebberon. In Dungeons & Dragons Online, this is the epicenter for all of your quests and it’s where everyone winds up anyway. Can’t play the game without running through the streets of Stormreach. I’ve been around the Harbor and Marketplace so much, I can probably navigate them in my sleep. Some of the lower level dungeons are ridiculously well known too. *laughs*

These are some of the places I’ve gathered throughout my years of playing games. I’ve spent a great deal of time in each of these locations and I’m attached to some more than others. If I had to pick my favorite Wing Commander carrier though, it’s got to be the TCS Victory. Out of all the others, the Victory is more of a home to me, I know the people, I know the place, I’ll scramble in an Arrow any time to shoot down attacking Kilrathi Paktahn bombers and I’ll be more than happy to take out the offending Skipper missiles. Plus, it’s the only game where I can fly the Thunderbolt… and I love love loved having SIX forward guns.

For our homes, we’ll step up and fight, and nowhere like in these places have I ever been given such an opportunity to protect the home that shelters me… but for the most part, these ships can’t fly themselves. It’s the crew, the merchants, the characters that help the locations have personality and cause the personality of each one to come forth. When Colonel Blair reminded Admiral Tolwyn of this in Wing Commander 4, Tolwyn replied, “Quite, quite right. It is the men, isn’t it?”

Now for a last word on home: “The pleasant converse of the fireside, the simple songs of home, the words of encouragement as I bend over my school tasks, the kiss as I lie down to rest, the patient bearing with the freaks of my restless nature, the gentle counsels mingled with reproofs and approvals, the sympathy that meets and assuages every sorrow, and sweetens every little success — all these return to me amid the responsibilities which press upon me now, and I feel as if I had once lived in heaven, and, straying, had lost my way.” – Josiah Gilbert Holland

Until next time, never be afraid to go home again.

– Elorfin


What makes a great game? – Part 4: Context

In part four of my little series here, I’m going to touch on the thing that really brings us to games: context. It’s the purpose behind the game, the message, the point, the topic, the issues at hand. It’s a major piece in why people play games (especially me).

When I pick up a game, a lot of things go through my mind. What’s it about? What’s the style of play? What’s it look like? Will this be fun? Wait, let’s go back to that first question: What’s it about? Yeah, pretty much every time I look at a game or book or movie or what-have-you, the primary question is something along the lines of “what’s the point of this?” and “what’s it about?”

Why (in part) does a Star Wars game sell so well? Because it’s about Star Wars. Well, maybe that’s a superficial explanation of it, but it serves pretty well. Let’s try a different approach with some of the games I’ve talked about here recently.

X-COM: What’s it about? It’s about defending Earth from invading aliens. The primary goal is to beat the aliens so that they leave us alone. A secondary goal is to justify your continued funding by the governments of the world so you can achieve the primary goal.

Civilization: What’s it about? It’s about building a civilization up from nothing to a world power. The primary goal is to be the best civilization with a secondary goal of achieving milestones (like researching technologies and constructing wonders of the world) before any other civilization does.

Lunar: Silver Star Harmony: What’s it about? It’s about the coming of age of Alex and his discoveries of the world as he attempts to become the next Dragonmaster (you could argue that it’s about Luna, but I’d have to explain why and it’s a massive spoiler, however old the game may be). The primary goal is to win the game with secondary goals being to achieve certain points in the storyline that progress it in chunks.

Take a look at games like Solitaire and Bejeweled and similar browser/casual games and you’ll note that they’re all about just winning the game. There’s never a point where you miss the fact that you’re just playing a game. A truly great game contributes to a sense of immersion via their context. Sure, powerful music, acts of heroism, and a sense of making progress contribute to having a good time, but without a context behind them, it’s just a game as opposed to an EXPERIENCE.

The difference between a game like Solitaire and a game like Mass Effect is really the experience. Solitaire is all about the cards and beating your last high score (I swear I’ll never beat a 735), but Mass Effect is all about taking charge of a bad situation, figuring out what’s going on, stepping up and dealing with it. Is it a game? Yeah. Does it feel like a game when you’re playing it? Sometimes. Would you rather play Solitaire or feel like you made a difference in the futuristic world of Mass Effect? I’d say yes. Swap out the latter game if you say no (for those of you who don’t like Mass Effect for whatever reasons) until you say yes.

To conclude this bit on context, I offer this: I believe the reason the context of a game is so important is because we need to feel like we’re spending our time wisely. Games are an investment in a wide world of entertainment. We are bombarded with a wide variety of choices and I know that I need to feel like I’m doing the right thing by picking one form of entertainment over another (even when none of the answers are more right than any other). Personally, I hate how much time I’ve spent on Solitaire and other context-less games, especially when I have so many games WITH context around.

Ask yourself if you feel like you’re spending your entertainment time wisely during the next game you play. I do it pretty frequently. I believe I might write more on this with something of a breakdown on what gives games context next time.

Until next time, keep on… um… contextualizing? *laughs*

– Elorfin


What makes a great game? – Part 3: Progress

A quick aside before I start this piece: I’ve recently read that a new X-COM game is in the works by 2K Games (the people who made Bioshock). Well, it’s actually called XCOM (no hyphen) and it’s going to be a first-person shooter, so obviously the fans of the original were and are a bit steamed that they’re not getting a dedicated remake of the original. I’m hoping for something cool, but I’m worried I won’t be able to play it due to the motion sickness I tend to get from first-person shooter style games. You can check out their minimal site promoting the game here and the article I read regarding this is here.

Now, the thing that keeps me coming back to games on top of great music and heroism: a sense of progress.

Most games, if not all, give the player a sense that they’re making progress somehow. In a first-person shooter, your progress is typically measured by the number of levels or zones you’ve completed (or the fact that every area behind you is devoid of enemies) and sometimes by the development of a story. In a role-playing game, your progress is typically measured by the progression of the story, but also by the levels/skills/equipment gained by your character or party. In puzzle games, the puzzles get harder to complete. The list goes on. Without this sense of moving towards something, I know that I get very frustrated. Personally I find certain games to be very pointless, but allow me to explain this particular perspective.

When I perceive a game as “pointless” or “a waste of time”, I’m typically referring to the lack of a story or some sort of measurable progress. Solitaire is a great example of an entry into the  “pointless” category. Likewise with a lot of casual/browser games like Bejeweled and so forth. Yeah, I supposed the game sometimes gets more difficult in a fashion or deeper in some way, but how does Bejeweled compare to say Mass Effect or Bioshock or Wing Commander? Well, partly, it doesn’t, but as an expenditure of time, I’d rather spend my time experiencing the full story of Mass Effect as opposed to wasting hours trying to beat my top score of 735 in Solitaire (yeah, I can’t seem to do it). I’m not saying I DON’T waste time playing Solitaire (it keeps me busy while I chat online or watch streaming television programs), but I’d rather spend my time in a more productive fashion (if playing a game can be called “productive”).

Making progress is an everyday thing that kind of occurred to me earlier today while pondering what else I could talk about in this segment. I mean, I measure the progress of reading a book by how much is left to read and how much I’ve already read. I measure the progress of eating food by how much food is left to eat and how full I feel. I measure the progress on this article by seeing if I feel like I’ve said all I want to say at that time (I reserve the right to bounce around and add and edit). So it’s only natural that a very obvious sense of progress is applied to our forms of entertainment.

I really do believe in the “to each their own” perspective with video games (among other things). By that, I mean that everyone has a different preference for gameplay and in styles of progress it’s no different. I prefer having a clearly defined personal progression (levels, experience, skills, so on) and I look forward to character development and storyline progression. I have friends that don’t care so much for the story as for the number of kills they can rack up before it’s time to quit. I have other friends that appreciate the leveling mechanic, but could take it or leave it because they just want to have a good time. However you play it, every game needs some sort of satisfying progression mechanic to make the player feel like he’s doing well or accomplishing something with his time (and money). I know that earlier today I felt great satisfaction reaching level 8 in D&D Online on my new favorite character and that I’m doing pretty well fending off the alien invaders in X-COM Apocalypse when I played on Saturday by how I’ve been aggressively intercepting UFOs before they have a chance to drop their troops in the city. We all want to be successful and an obvious marker of that is a sense of progress.

Of course, you get the occasional spanner in the works there. By that, I’m referring to Wing Commander. The creators put a winning story and a losing story into the game. If you lose a mission, it’s not the end of the world, but you’re put on a slightly different path for a bit. If you lose more than one mission, well, you’ll probably see some cutscenes I’ve never seen except as movie files on the net. This is a type of progress and some people intentionally fail these missions to see the movies for themselves. It’s something they implemented in all five of the primary Wing Commander games (don’t recall if they did it for the expansions, but they probably did). The issue with this winning track/losing track thing is that the game takes a lot of extra development and most developers would rather spend time on ONE story rather than on WINNING STORY vs. LOSING STORY. More’s the pity because that adds a level of complexity to the progression mechanic. In the end though, I can easily say that I get way more satisfaction stopping all the bioweapons in Locanda and being able to save Flint’s home than being forced to protect the evacuation of the system. For more on this story, I’d recommend looking up Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger. I also recommend visiting the game guides for the Wing Commander series because you can actually see the differences in the missions when you win versus lose. Oh, and for more Wing Commander goodness, I recommend my browser homepage.

A great game that displays all three of the components I’ve discussed thus far (Music, Heroism, Progress) is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. In this game you have the epic Star Wars music to back you up, you have incredible moments of heroism and places where you can be that guy or gal who saves the day, and several markers of progress in the levels of your characters, the number of locations you have left to clear out (or the number of places you have cleared), and the story where you can go light side or dark side. It’s a great example of a quality experience, at least according to my own metric that I’m building here. There are other games that have more varied reasons within my current structure (Final Fantasy Tactics, Unreal Tournament, Lunar: Silver Star Harmony, etc) but I’m not going to go through all of them right now. Besides, I think I might have another couple of things to add to my What makes a great game? series.

Until next time, keep moving forward (even if it’s the losing track)!

– Elorfin


What makes a great game? – Part 2: Heroes

So, we’ve discussed a bit on music and today I found myself asking the question: “Why do I play games?” This can extend into why I watch certain television programs or movies or read certain books, but I’ll hold it to games for now. In part, I think I play games to be the hero or at least be a party to something heroic.

This day and age we’re surrounded by “everyday heroes” in our police, firefighters, military, etc. These are all well and good and generally awesome, but I have to ask, are there any classic heroes any more? By classic, I refer to the knight in shining armor stereotype (yes, I know it never really existed, but stay with me on this). How about the Jedi Knight, the superhero (or team of superheroes), the wandering samurai, the battle-hardened special forces team that saves the Earth from certain destruction time and again? These examples all come from the classic heroes of old like Hercules and so forth. So, I suppose the stories have been updated, but why do I want to experience the story of a hero?

It’s possible that living the story of a hero through an interactive and immersive experience allows me to feel like I’m a hero too. That my life is more than just sitting in front of the computer or console. Games allow us to experience fantastic events vicariously. By assuming the role of the hero, we become invested. It’s more or less what I call the “one more turn” syndrome (updated to be the “five more minutes” syndrome).

Heroism gives us hope somehow. I’m not entirely sure about the why’s and wherefore’s but that’s my experience. When I’m witnessing the actions of a hero (either AS the hero in a game or reading about it or watching it in a movie or show) I have a feeling that everything will work out for the better. That somehow, the hero will pull through. In a way, the hero is the safe emotional investment (depending on the hero’s creator, Damn You David Willis!). You can frequently rely on the hero to be there tomorrow and the day after and the day after that. The hero usually grows, overcomes great adversity, and triumphs over an ultimate enemy of sorts. All the while, I remain enraptured. I want to do that. I want to be there.

Let’s look at some of the games I like:

  • X-COM UFO Defense – team of unnamed heroes (well, generic names, but no one stands apart from the others)
  • Final Fantasy VI – team of heroes, each with a special ability that makes them valuable
  • Lunar: Silver Star Harmony – again, a team of heroes, but the story revolves around Alex becoming more and more of a hero as the game progresses
  • Mass Effect – you’re Shepard, the actual shepherd of your flock of teammates and what you says goes where your personal motives and play-style dictate the direction of the game
  • Wing Commander – you are the hero, the pilot that saves your carrier time and again and over time the crew rewards you with trust and a compelling storyline and a reason to continue to protect that beloved carrier
  • The Monkey Island Series – Guybrush is something of an unlikely hero, but when he first arrived, he knew exactly what he wanted: to be a mighty pirate; he got it and THAT is what being a hero is all about
  • Dungeons & Dragons – a place to build up from nothing; going into a hero, D&D is a reflection of work ethic, attention span, and a firm grasp of the rules (aka, the world you work in)

Lastly, I’ll touch on Star Wars. Star Wars as a universe of movies, books, and games, encompasses a wide variety of heroes. You have the vanilla hero (Luke Skywalker) that starts as a nobody, but rises to to occasion and to great heights of heroism. You have the rogue-type hero (Han Solo) that starts out as a mischief-maker and winds up proving himself in the face of real danger and becoming a better person because of it. You have the headstrong princess (Leia, of course), who stays strong the whole time but appears to learn that strength must be tempered with patience and mercy, and of course, the occasional sleight of hand that she picks up from the rogue. Hell, there are degrees of reluctant heroes and anti-heroes and on and on.

I believe games speak to that inner being that so desperately wants to be the hero. No matter how wonderful or terrible your life is, a game can speak to you and bring you to a world where YOU are the hero, YOU are the center of the story, YOU make things happen and YOU are the most important person in the room. For those of us who go through life ignored or trampled, a game can give us the self-esteem and inspiration to push forward in our daily life or give us enough satisfaction with life that we don’t need to push so hard to get what we want on a daily basis. All by letting us play pretend for just a little while.

I’m not sure if this stayed on point the whole time, but essentially, I love to be the hero. I love to ride to the rescue, I love to prove that being prepared solves a ton of problems, I love to vanquish monsters and champion causes. Games let me be the knight in shining armor, the Shepard in N7 armor, and the Jedi in knight’s robes.

To tie this in with the music from Part 1, when the music lends itself to the moment where you show your heroism, where the music starts that crescendo, the trumpets sound,  and you defeat that dragon or Reaper or Sith… well, it’s no wonder I keep going back.

Until next time, keep playing the hero, and maybe it’ll stick!

– Elorfin

P.S. Yes, I know the stories of heroes are tales where the characters and events most likely did not exist. There are no actual fire-breathing dragons in the world and metaphorical dragons, however real and problematic, don’t really measure up to the mythological dragon we fantasize of defeating. Still, when I try to answer the classic question that schools ask schoolchildren (what do you want to be when you grow up?), I hate to say that astronaut, firefighter, or policeman doesn’t cut it any more! *laughs*

P.P.S. On a more psychological note, playing the hero in a game is quite possibly a way of addressing the feeling of unsuccessfulness in some aspect of life. By feeling satisfied in entertainment, one achieves some sort of parity between that and regular life. The more one plays the game and strives to save the day in a fictional setting, the more the player might need something similar in the real world. Just a theory. I know I play games in part as escapism, but also because they’re just plain enjoyable and I love a good soundtrack and a good story and… well, I’ll touch on it more in later posts!


What makes a great game? – Part 1: Music

Hi everyone! This is part one of my 435 part series, Better Know a… wait… wrong! This is the first part of some kind of series that will be however many parts I feel it will be until I’ve nailed down my perspective a bit.

I want to tackle what makes games great for me (specifically) and to touch on what makes them great for everyone else (generally). Obviously, my perspective is limited to what I like and that’s what this little project is all about so, well, deal with it. For context, I’ve provided links to some of the references I make.

Anyways, I was watching some clips on YouTube that contained some orchestrated video game music and I was wondering why I want to see my game music presented in such a fashion and why I enjoy it when it hits the big music halls. I think I might have an answer to that: I want my favorite moments to be presented in a format that is obviously and without question HIGH CLASS. Orchestrated music is always high class to me. The performers take it very seriously and the audience treats whatever they perform as a serious thing. This probably stems from the classical pieces they typically play which are by definition today culturally serious and historically important. Orchestrated music is the highest form of presentation that any music can achieve to be (my opinion, so nyah). The pure music just washing over you, letting it fill the room and flow in and around you, yeah, the orchestra is the best medium for this.

When I experience an event and it has music associated, I find it easier to recall said event. Music is a very powerful device that conveys emotion and thought and when associated with events that are powerful and poignant on their own, well, it’s a complete presentation.

In my past, I’ve played a great number of games. The games that I feel have incredible soundtracks weren’t the games I started on: Sim City, Civilization, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Starflight, Star Fleet, Empire, or any of a dozen other games. The earliest memory of a game with a fantastic soundtrack that still impacts me today comes from (well, there’s two) Final Fantasy VI (it was III back then) and Chrono Trigger, both on the Super Nintendo. When playing those games, I immediately feel the joy inherent in living through something that I experienced positively back then. When listening to the soundtracks, I remember every event that happened. When I want to relive the games without playing them, I listen to the music.

Off the top of my head, if I listen to the Phantom Forest track from Final Fantasy VI, I remember finding my way to the Ghost Train that carries the deceased away from our world to the next and Cyan watching his wife and son leave. If I listen to the Bombing Mission track from Final Fantasy VII, I remember riding on the train at the beginning of the game, wondering who the hell this spiky haired guy was and further wondering what this mission had in store for me (and what in the world was I getting into?). When listening to Frog’s Theme from Chrono Trigger, I see in my mind the mountain opening before Frog as he wields the Masamune and vows to defeat Magus. Music in video games is a powerful device…

…but it’s not restricted to video games. In Star Wars, when I hear the Binary Sunset track, I can envision a young Luke Skywalker standing and watching the suns of Tatoo I and Tatoo II set, wondering where his future is going. In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the Concerning Hobbits piece makes me think of the Hobbits going about their business in preparation of Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday. So, when I want to experience a movie without watching the movie, I listen to the soundtrack.

It’s also not just memories of scenes. It’s the emotional connections that those scenes have for me. When hearing the Battle with Magus Theme from Chrono Trigger, I remember fighting him and feeling like the fight could go either way at any time as I struggled to keep my trio alive through the onslaught of spells Magus frequently dropped. When hearing the piece from Final Fantasy XIII called Blinded by Light, I feel excitement regarding the battle that MUST be going on right now. Every time I hear Chrono Cross’ Scars of Time (aka Time Scar), I remember the investment I made in that game and all the incredible experiences that went along with it as well as the successful strategies and terrible defeats I suffered while playing. For the record, the final boss fight in Chronopolis was a real pain. *shakes fist* Curse you, Miguel!

Growing up, PC games typically didn’t have great soundtracks. X-COM had a decent one that kept me excited or scared depending on what was going on. Wing Commander III was one of my earliest quality PC soundtrack experiences that sticks in my head. I didn’t experience the awesomeness that was The Secret of Monkey Island until later on (but chronologically, that’s years before WCIII), but that soundtrack is awesome and the theme for the game is nearly iconic for adventure games. So, yeah, they were there, but decent PC soundtracks didn’t come along until later (with Warcraft II and such and yes, I acknowledge that my game timeline might be a little off).

I suppose part of my want to hear orchestrated soundtracks of my games stems from a desire to hear my passions and pastimes validated in a public forum where a large number of people voluntarily pay to experience what I once experienced on a much more emotionally invested level. I want people to look at this music and wonder where such notes came from and then to seek out the original source with the curiosity borne of a desire to experience the emotions that the music provokes. When I hear music, it takes me places that I’ve been before. When I hear the Imperial March, I was there with Vader as he condemned the Rebellion. When I hear Forth Eorlingas, I was there as the Rohirrim rode to the rescue. When I hear Clash on the Big Bridge, I was there to fight Gilgamesh! Um, for that last one, yes in Final Fantasy V and later again in Final Fantasy XII when Gilgamesh is an optional hunt (they remixed the original song for the latter one).

I want to go there. I want to be there. Music is my vehicle that takes me where I want to go and helps me feel the emotions tied to those places and doing those things. For the record, Lost Odyssey has an awesome soundtrack, but it’s very sad (especially A Sign of Hope and Parting Forever). The thing is… well, orchestrated music speaks to me WAYYYYY more than the regular stuff we hear on the radio. Songs with words touch me, but not like A Sign of Hope does. The Indiana Jones theme speaks more of adventure to me than any song with lyrics that was in [insert recent action movie here].

A moving and powerful soundtrack is a must for a good game. The longer I play games, the more I find that I love a good soundtrack. When Final Fantasy XIII was still on its way out here in the U.S., I pre-ordered the soundtrack for myself. It’s awesome and the more I play the game, the more the soundtrack gains relevance and power with me. If the music is good, I suppose I’m more tolerant of the shortcomings of the game.

A great piece sends a tingle up my spine. It makes me go “wow” and compels me to listen to it all the way through. It makes me feel like I’m in the presence of something important or powerful or incredible or whatever. When I hear Frog’s Theme (look above for the link) performed amazingly well, it literally sends chills down my spine. THAT is powerful music. I have a theory that it’s the trumpets and/or the entire brass section, but I’m also a fan of the strings… so yeah, I think I’ll just claim it’s the orchestral nature and leave it at that.

Oh, the clips that spawned this link-heavy presentation of mine were of a Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross medley done this past September in Germany. Here’s part one and here’s part two.

Until next time, let the music move you!

– Elorfin

P.S. Because I played the PC version of FFVII, I must admit that I heard/saw the intro far more than the rest of the game while I tried different sound card settings. Eventually I got it right, after experiencing the same intro cutscene at least six times.

P.P.S. A quick timeline of the release dates of the discussed objects in this particular post (this doesn’t mean I saw Star Wars in 1977 since I wasn’t born until several years later):

  • Star Wars – 1977
  • Star Wars Imperial March – 1980
  • Indiana Jones – 1981
  • Star Fleet I: The War Begins – 1985 (DOS)
  • Starflight – 1986 (DOS)
  • Empire: Wargame of the Century – 1987 (DOS)
  • F-19 Stealth Fighter – 1988 (DOS)
  • Sim City – 1989 (DOS)
  • The Secret of Monkey Island – 1990 (DOS)
  • Civilization – 1991 (DOS)
  • Final Fantasy V – 1992 (Japan Only)
  • Final Fantasy VI – 1994 (SNES)
  • Wing Commander III – 1994 (PC)
  • Chrono Trigger – 1995 (SNES)
  • Warcraft II – 1995 (PC)
  • Final Fantasy VII – 1998 (PC)
  • Chrono Cross – 2000 (US Release)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – 2002
  • Final Fantasy XII – 2006 (US Release)
  • Lost Odyssey – 2008 (US Release)
  • Final Fantasy XIII – 2010 (XBOX 360)

P.P.P.S. I forgot to mention Lunar! Gah! I fail!