Today I was talking to someone at work about how they’re redesigning Batgirl and she’s looking really great (and practically dressed which is a plus with me). Another person mentioned that they thought I was too old for comics and I said something to the effect of “I’m a Toys R Us kid! I’m never growing up!”
Obviously, such a statement, “you’re too old for that,” is thrown around by people who aren’t aware of the breadth and depth of mediums such as comics and even video games. As this is a gaming blog, I’m going to tackle the game portion.
First, let’s look at the games themselves. Do they have an age ceiling? Nope. Do they have a minimum age? Some do. So, some can’t (well, SHOULDN’T) be played too young, but they’re available to anyone over that age up to the limit of our natural lives. Cool.
Although, I’m sure she’s not referring to LEGALLY aging out of them though. How about maturing past the content?
Sure, there are some games that I’m way too old for and I’m definitely not the target market any more. I grew up playing Number Munchers, Mixed-Up Mother Goose Rhymes, Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego? and several others that were obviously designed with children in mind. I don’t really have a desire to play them today and they’re all far too easy for me now. No real challenges there (except maybe Carmen Sandiego). How about the other games I grew up with? Well, Starflight, Civilization, Sim City, X-Wing, and X-COM were all marketed to adults. Starflight was such a massive game, my Dad took a very methodical approach to it, mapping out every wormhole, each special artifact, and more on the map that came with the game. If you ever come across the map we have, you could probably beat the game with it. Civilization and Sim City are powerhouse franchises today, made by and played by people of every age group, but back then they had rather steep learning curves and it took some serious dedication (that children usually don’t come pre-built with) to master. X-Wing was one of several flight sims from the age when you were either in the Star Wars camp or the Wing Commander camp (I didn’t play Wing Commander until WC3 came out and I finally played the first two when I got to college) and there was no guarantee you could get your computer to play them without a potential video or sound card upgrade (which typically required being an adult). X-COM scared the crap out of me as a kid (those damn Chryssalids and their creepy grins) and still spooks me today, but I played that for almost 20 years, and even then, I’m playing the remake which will probably keep me playing another 20 or more years.
I think this issue with being too old for something is more a misperception of the medium in question. Comics have been viewed in the past as only a thing for children, but now the stories are more mature and tackle a wide variety of issues. In fact, they’ve been extremely mature for decades now. Someone saying that you can be too old for comics hasn’t educated themselves enough regarding the material and thus, probably should either be given an opportunity to educate themselves or, failing that, should be left alone in their old-fashioned beliefs. No longer is it just Garfield bemoaning Mondays or Snoopy stealing Linus’ blanket. It’s a young woman being paralyzed by a murderous villain but surviving and becoming a source of inspiration to many. It’s a group of uniquely talented people coming together in adverse conditions to address a threat to society and life as we know it, overcoming their own personal foibles in an effort to do good. It’s a being from another world, or even just someone who’s different somehow, just trying to fit in.
So too it is with video games. They have never been solely a child’s plaything, they have given us incredible mental challenges to overcome, they’ve taxed our resolve, they’ve allowed us to step away from our daily grind and into a fantasy realm that was once only the purview of movies, music, books, and art. While some games attract children for the bright colors and flashy graphics, other games attract older folk for deeper, more nuanced reasons and can be appreciated in a much wider way. I can say with certainty that I have been as equally drawn into a good game as into a good book, a good movie, a good song, a good comic book. There’s that feeling upon finishing such a thing that is nearly indescribable. You know you’ve experienced a significant thing and you’re simultaneously breathless and sad and happy and lost and you don’t know whether or not to restart and try to recapture the experience or to step away and digest.
If growing up means being too old for comics and games, then I’ll never grow up. Of course, it helps I’m a Toys R Us kid.
Until next time!
P.S. This feels appropriate.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Until next time, don’t stop getting involved in your chosen forms of entertainment!
P.S. “True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read.” – Pliny the Elder
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.
I’ve got an idea for a new article to put up here. After seeing the scene from Mass Effect 2 where the Normandy is launched, I’d like to bring up a short list of my “homes” in games. Specifically, I intend to talk a little about the Normandy, the carriers from Wing Commander, and a few other locations that feel like home to me courtesy of the games I’ve played in the past. I’ll throw up a few screenshots too. In the end, it’s that feeling of being home, coming home, leaving home, losing home that I’m trying to tackle.
In the meantime, I’m back from vacation and I’ve been playing Mass Effect 2 (still). This weekend I’ll be playing three incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons (DDO on Friday, 4th edition on Saturday, and 3.5 on Sunday).
Until next time, think of home and what it means to you.
P.S. So far, the list includes: SSV Normandy, SR-2 Normandy, Ebon Hawk, Liberty, Tiger’s Claw, Concordia, Victory, Lexington, Intrepid, Midway, USS Sovereign, Stormreach, Silverymoon, Candlekeep, Vault 13, Theed. The list keeps growing and I keep collecting pictures to go with them.
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)!
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!
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!