A thoughtful and personal exploration of games

Posts tagged “Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger

Impression – Privateer

Back in 1993, I was still coming into my own as a gamer. Mostly I played games on a 286 in the guest bedroom. Those games would shape my tastes and perceptions in the decades to come (well… nearly 2 decades now). My first flight sim was on that computer and it was actually Microprose’s F-19 Stealth Fighter. Such an awesome game. When we upgraded (to a 486), I was introduced to CD gaming and with it came a whole slew of other games. Back then we had a multiple boot system (meaning that when the computer was started up, we had to choose the configuration we wanted to continue with) and over time it eventually reached 5 different categories. I recall that category one was DOS games and it was for games that didn’t have CDs (because the configuration file didn’t recognize the CD drive at all). I don’t recall what Category two was, but Category three was Windows (back then 3.11), Category four was Wing Commander III (which came out in 1994 I think) and Category five was originally Privateer (later changed to Warcraft II as it had a very general configuration that allowed for the playing of MOST CD games that weren’t Wing Commander III or IV).

Anyways, both my Dad and I really enjoyed playing Privateer. I remember how my Dad actually made a copy of the system map on four sheets of printer paper and we kept it on hand so we could find our way around without having to actually leave the station we were on.

Fast forward to a few days ago. I’m sitting at my computer and I tell my Dad, “Hey, Privateer is up for digital download through this website for only 6 bucks!” At which point he turned to me and said, “Well, what the hell are you waiting for? Get it! Let me know how it is.” So, I downloaded it and proceeded to remember that I used to be a hell of a lot better at this game… because it is HARD.

Unlike most games today, Privateer doesn’t have a tutorial or a method of changing the controls in-game (or at all actually). The graphics are very low end, but still hold up after all these years. What makes it hard? Well… partly I was trying to remember how to play (READ THE FRICKIN’ MANUAL!) but also, I discovered very quickly that whereas I can handle ONE enemy with varying degrees of ease, handling TWO is like rolling the dice. Two enemies can rip you apart very easily in this game and after my hour or four of playing these last few days, I can tell you that most of the time I come out pretty banged up. Oh, yes, and I hate missiles. Hate them with a passion.

Anyways, this game is great. I just wish I could play for longer without my elbow hurting from using the joystick. That’s the downside of playing old flight sims nearly 20 years later… you have to have a stick (or at least, why would you do it without one since that’s part of the experience) and my elbow isn’t as young as it used to be. Other than that… well… I wish I could afford a better tracking system for my Tarsus because I’ve been spoiled by target leading software.

Aside from a few shortcomings that could only be addressed by rebuilding the game from scratch, it’s just as I remember it, only a bit harder I suppose. The game really does need a tutorial because the learning curve is pretty sharp in comparison to today’s games (compared to the games back in 1993, it was actually rather forgiving, which is shocking). Also, when purchasing things for your ship, there needs to be more details regarding the weapons and shields and so forth. Further, there’s never really any prices given for the other ships you could purchase (I remember growing up never knowing that the Centurion cost 100,000 credits and I would purchase it eventually when I had progressed far enough in the game). Something that Privateer 2 had that Privateer didn’t was the shifting commodities market. When Freelancer came out, they didn’t keep that mechanic (well, it was also made by a different company, but still, spiritual successor and all). Privateer still makes me smile and the only real reason my father and I could play it from the late 90’s until now is that the CD has (we still have it somewhere) a grievous scratch in it from the time the CD tray closed ON the disc. Alas, we hardly knew ye… well, I actually beat that game a lot, so I knew it well.

Go check out Privateer on GOG.com and grab it. It can be played with keyboard, mouse, and joystick (two buttons only though, which makes me look at my 12 button joystick and weep). Give it a try… unless you don’t think you can handle it, in which case, go play your pansy modern games… I hear those come with a tutorial.

Until next time!

– Elorfin

P.S. “Privateer takes you to the seamy side of the Wing Commander universe. In the far reaches of space, you live by no man’s rules but your own. The fringes are populated by a volatile mix of pirates, miners, mercs and Kilrathi, all struggling to make a quick buck. With advanced technology pioneered by Wing Commander and Strike Commander, Privateer gives you the excitement of head-to-head space combat and the challenge of survival in cutthroat trading circles on the frontiers of civilization.” – The Wing Commander: Privateer box.

P.P.S. All pictures stolen from Moby Games. I put the link up there somewhere.


Discussion – The Price of Freedom

There are days where I remember fondly my past gaming experiences. One such favorite memory falls under a single awesome title: Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. Let me tell you a bit about that…

My family and I were poking through a Circuit City in the mid-to-late 90’s and I was browsing computer games. I had already played and beaten Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger and I spied WCIV. I immediately grabbed it and ran to my Dad with a “Hey look! We have to get this!” Forty to sixty dollars and a car ride home later, I had cracked the packaging and laid eyes on the CD book that came with it (SIX DISCS! Two more than WCIII!).

After a bit longer (my Dad had to adjust the config.sys slightly I think), I was finally able to install it and start it up. I remember the intro like it was yesterday… watching that transport blow up… “In two weeks… we shall vote on War or Peace!”… my character appeared and I met up with Maniac… I had a run in with a very dangerous individual… Maniac trumpets a bit and notified me of my reactivation as a Confederation pilot. “Haven’t you heard Maniac? The war is over!”

Seeing Vagabond again… Captain Eisen… it was awesome. Also, oddly, I was feeling much more friendly to Maniac now as opposed to during the war with the Kilrathi. Running from the Lexington with Catscratch in tow was very exciting but nerve wracking. Was I doing the right thing? This new Captain Paulson (from the Third Fleet) had very questionable motives to me… and I didn’t like how Captain Eisen was just shoved aside. When the Captain ran… I had to help him.

I was dismayed upon landing on the Intrepid. She had gotten a beating and I wasn’t sure going toe-to-toe with the Lexington was going to be a good idea… but we did it anyways. It was my torpedo that sank the Lady Lex and I was not thrilled about it either. Life on the run from the Confederation wasn’t easy and I saw a great deal of terrible things (Telamon and Axius really scared me, especially Telamon).

When it was all over and I was on the Senate floor, arguing against recently promoted Space Marshall Tolwyn, it was make-or-break time… I had crushed Seether on my way to Earth (punk never stood a chance) and I crashed his case for going to war with the Border Worlds. How could so brave a man, so brilliant a tactician, have fallen so far since the Behemoth debacle of the Kilrathi war? His crazed eyes as he argued for genetic manipulation and the use of war as a mechanism for “separating the wheat from the chaff” disturbed me.

To this day, the box for WCIV sits on a shelf to my right, holding my memories of those quick two weeks… from the time Tolwyn reactivated me, through my defection to the Border Worlds, up to the final arguments on the Senate floor. I have lived the story time and again over the years… and here it is, 15 years since the release of this game and I’m still remembering the story nearly flawlessly. This is a good game. This is a favorite game… no… it’s a favorite experience and story.

Until next time, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.

– Elorfin

P.S. A favorite quote of mine for today: “Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.” – Dodie Smith

P.P.S. If you want more information, check out the Wing Commander CIC. Also, it’s about 3 hours long, but one guy made a movie out of all the cinematics and such.


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 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 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 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!