A thoughtful and personal exploration of games

Posts tagged “X-COM

Too Old? Never!

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!

– Thomas

P.S. This feels appropriate.



Discussion – The Older Things

Last night I caught The Comedy Awards and was struck by something when David Letterman got on stage to accept the Johnny Carson award: there are people who don’t know who Johnny Carson IS.

Allow me to explain the relevance. I have a young cousin who I love to talk to. She’s really smart and generally awesome. She knows nothing of X-COM, Civilization, Babylon 5, Star Trek, Star Wars, I mean, seriously an empty education. She MIGHT know Firefly, but she only knew of Assassin’s Creed because I told her. She’s grown up never knowing who Princess Leia is or even Queen Amidala. She doesn’t know of Captain Picard or that William Shatner is the original Captain Kirk.

It falls to us, the players of old games and purveyors of older cultural THINGS to pass them on to the younger generations so that they can see the joy inherent in what we love. We need to share our passions with our friends and our children (and our friends children) so that these things will flourish.

I’ve taken it upon myself to start sharing Star Wars with my cousin (among other things) and I’m struggling to do my part. I’m making progress, surely. A friend of mine has started his daughter on Star Wars at the ripe old age of something-under-2.

I think that the real impact that we could have here is that the old is never truly forgotten (unless it really really sucks).

Until next time, spread the good word!

– Elorfin

P.S. “Culture would seem … first and foremost, to be the knowledge of what makes man something other than an accident of the universe be it by deepening his harmony with the world, or by the lucid consciousness of his revolt from it. … Culture is the sum of all the forms of art, of love and of thought, which, in the course of centuries, have enabled man to be less enslaved.” – André Malraux

P.P.S. Oh, yes, also… TAGS!

Discussion – Inventory Maintenance

Hey everyone! As promised, the discussion on Inventory Maintenance in games!

Inventory maintenance in games is essentially the act of messing around in your inventory… from rearranging things so they fit better to just selling off the clutter, this is an integral part of a great many Role-Playing Games, Turn-Based Strategy Games and Action Role-Playing Games. Allow me to demonstrate…

X-COM UFO Defense (all these screens will be 300×200 resolution even though I took them at 1280×800… yay DOSBox?):

Okay X-COM has a rather robust inventory system. Your soldiers carry equipment (armor, weapons, etc), your aircraft carry equipment either for the soldiers to use or for air combat, and your bases hold all that equipment for the soldiers and aircraft to use. The above picture is indicative of the amount of stuff you can put on your soldiers. The armor is equipped on the soldier back at base as one unit, so you never really have to worry about that in the field. If you note, the objects that this soldier happens to have possess specific shapes. This comes into play when you’re juggling grenades (1 square), heavy plasma rifles (2 squares wide by 3 squares tall), magazines (1 square), heavy explosives (2 squares wide by 1 square tall), mind probes (2 squares wide by 2 squares tall), and pistols (1 square wide by 2 squares tall). Personally, I think less is more, hence the Laser Rifle (1 square wide by 3 squares tall) and the Medi-pak (1 square wide by 2 squares tall). At night they get an Electro-flare (1 square).

Next up is the Aircraft/Soldier Inventory. You’re allowed to have a maximum of 80 items on the Aircraft (although it never says the limit unless you hit it). Therefore, you need to consider balancing the desire to have Heavy Plasma weapons on all your soldiers (in a Skyranger, you can have 14 soldiers, so that works out to a Heavy Plasma per soldier plus at least one clip, I prefer two, and that works out to 42 items out of your 80 right there), and the wish to have other equipment. Late in the game one craft can be built called the Avenger. It can hold 26 soldiers and at that point I either start using mixed arms (a smattering of Heavy Plasma and Laser Rifles) or I just go ALL Laser Rifles (yeah, 1 item per person or 3 items per person… when you have an 80 item limit versus 26 people?). In this case, the Tank/Laser Cannon counts as one item that takes up four soldier spots on the transport (it’s a simple way of reducing the number of items per soldier that you need, but tanks can’t gain experience or use equipment at all… oh well, they’re good expendable scouts).

This next screen is here to show you a specific line… Stores. Essentially you need to keep an eye on your population (another inventory subset if you will) as well as your facility usage. You can build General Stores in your base that hold 50 items per. As you can see here, even with 5 General Stores, it’s easy to max out. Here’s where the next screenshot comes in:

This is the result of clicking the Stores button on the previous screen. Here you see that 20 Heavy Plasma’s equal 4 space in your General Stores and so forth (BTW, see that Elerium-115? NEVER SELL IT!… hence the 182 space it takes). Also… what happens if you try to buy more items than you have space? Well, you get this friendly message!

Yeah… and I’ve played this game from 1995 to now. I am well trained in the art of inventory management according to X-COM UFO Defense (it pained me to create this screenshot actually, but it happens if you already have maxed out stores like I showed above).

I’ve got two more examples of inventory management for you in the guise of Star Trek Online and Torchlight. First Star Trek Online (and it’s got a 1280×800 screenshot!):

STO gives you plenty of space as you play. Firstly, as you rank up (going from Lieutenant to Lieutenant Commander to Commander and so on) you gain more personal inventory space and personal bank space (you see the Inventory page on the right there? Yeah, that’s the side effect of being a Vice Admiral). Also, the bigger/better your ship is, the more stuff you can put on it (a Light Cruiser has two forward weapons and one aft whereas I’m rocking four and four). Further, each of your bridge officers can handle one weapon, one suit of armor, and four devices. You can personally handle TWO weapons (that you can switch between), a suit of armor, a special skills kit, and four devices. Every item in this game only takes up one box (unlike in X-COM where things have drastically differing shapes and sizes at the soldier level).

Here’s Torchlight (also at 1280×800):

Here you can also see the now lovely “one item per slot” design that’s become popular since Diablo II (I’ll talk about that in a bit). However, note that space is ALWAYS an issue. The developers of this game did a few neat things that I really liked. First, they added tabs to your personal inventory, so if you picked up spells, they’d go to a separate inventory page (which is awesome and makes finding them way easy). Further…

They gave you a pet. The pet has the same amount of inventory space as YOU do and they let you send it back to town to sell its pack full of crap that you don’t want. Then, the pet returns to gift you with the monetary amount you are owed. Genius.

Now, here’s why I mentioned Diablo II. Diablo II basically DEFINED the term Inventory Maintenance for me. First off, you had very limited personal inventory space and objects frequently took 2×3 parcels of space (Bows, Armor, Longswords, Large Shields, the list goes on). Further, before the expansion showed in 2001, the Stash was about as big as the inventory in Torchlight (only one tab though) and it was pitiful. When the expansion hit, they made your stash huge, but still, you had the same limitations. The Horadric Cube works in a pinch for giving you a 3×4 space that only takes up 2×2 in your inventory, but still… it’s a pain. At least gold didn’t take up inventory space any more like in Diablo. At least I picked up on Spatial Relationships pretty quickly.

Anyways, inventories in all their flawed glory have played an integral part in my gaming experience over the last 15+ years and I have a feeling that I’ll miss it when it gets streamlined down to a ghost of its former self. You can’t get rid of the joy of picking up cool new toys as you go. It’s just too rewarding. Next time you take a look at your inventory screen, wonder… where did this come from and where is it going? It’s fascinating.

Until next time, don’t forget to sell your junk loot!

– Elorfin

P.S. “He who knows he has enough is rich” – Tao Te Ching Chapter 33

P.P.S. “Capitalism tries for a delicate balance: It attempts to work things out so that everyone gets just enough stuff to keep them from getting violent and trying to take other people’s stuff.” – George Carlin

Discussion: Video Game Remakes and Re-releases

I was listening to some video game music on YouTube this morning and I happened to glance down at the comments. There were a couple of people saying how awesome it would be if there was to be a remake of the game to which the music belonged. A few commented that any remake would not be as faithful as we would hope. Mind, that’s just my interpretation of YouTube comments… they’re typically not so verbose or well worded (not to mention improper spelling and grammar).

I’ve been around almost as long as the video game industry. I’ve been playing games for most of my life. Some of the games I grew up on have built up a rather impressive catalog (Civilization just hit its fifth iteration, X-COM is seeing a reboot as a first person shooter without the hyphen, Sim City spawned the incredibly successful Sims series, etc). For the purposes of this discussion, sequels aren’t remakes or reboots, they’re just the logical (sometimes illogical) evolution of a game.

There has been a clamor for remakes and re-releases these days by my generation. We want to see our old games brought back to the fore and given the attention they deserve now in this age of the internet where we can discuss them openly instead of getting a bunch of blank stares from gamers half our age. I’ll get into the age issue later, but for now, let’s take a look at some remakes and re-releases.

In my opinion (and since this is my little site, everything here is my opinion), one of the best remakes/ports has to be the continuing of Lunar: The Silver Star since 1992. I wrote about it earlier here, so I won’t go into too much detail. The original game came out in 1992 on Sega CD (well, the Japanese version; the North American version was 1993), the first remake was Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete for the Sega Saturn in 1996-7, and later released on the Playstation in 1998-9. Further, there was a Game Boy Advance remake in 2002 called Lunar Legend and lastly the Playstation Portable remake in 2009-10 named Lunar: Silver Star Harmony. Each of these remakes showed improvements in the graphics and/or voice acting (especially in the PSP release) and introduced new or different gameplay elements (or in one case, changing the main character’s hobby from playing a harp to playing an ocarina and rewriting the game to reflect that).

In the case of other games (this whole paragraph is now off the top of my head), I own a copy of Final Fantasy III for the Nintendo DS which is a graphical update from the original. I’m not sure about the gameplay or anything else (except to reflect the touch screen and dual screen nature of the console, which I consider an assumed update). Also, there was a release of Final Fantasy I and II for the PSP, Final Fantasy VI for the GBA, Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI on the Playstation, Chrono Trigger for the Playstation (that added animated cutscenes) and later the Nintendo DS (that has additional gameplay). Even more modern games like Disgaea has been rereleased on the PSP and the DS with appropriate gameplay adjustments and the whole Ace Attorney series originally came out on the GBA and was re-released on the DS. Final Fantasy Tactics got an amazing revisit when it was remade for the PSP 10 years after its original Playstation release and it added cell-shaded cutscenes, voice acting, a rewrite of the script to eliminate some of the mistranslated speech, and multiplayer gameplay.

Also, there has been a resurgence of re-releases courtesy of digital download services like Steam and Impulse. I’ve got full access to X-COM UFO Defense on Steam (which experienced a re-release or two) and Master of Orion II on Impulse. These are both mid-1990’s games that I spent a lot of time playing (and if you look at my Steam profile for X-COM, I still do). With access to old games, I’ve noticed something about myself… I’m BETTER at them now than I used to be. Not just through repetition of gameplay (because I stopped playing them when Windows decided to not let me run them ordinarily), but through the fact that I’m a much more experienced gamer today. I was playing Master of Orion II recently and discovered that the easy difficulty setting was too easy, which was odd because it used to be fine for me. I cranked up the difficulty to average and it was STILL too easy. I think I’m going to kick it up to hard next and see what happens.

For someone like me who grew up with these older games, a remake is a mixed bag. Part of the experience of these older games was dealing with the copy protection and the low resolution, DOS command lines and the early generations of sound cards that could only generate 8-bit music (eventually better). However, I would love to see my old games revisited and updated… better graphics, better music, glitches fixed, gameplay streamlined, but I don’t want any significant changes. Often when there’s a remake, the fear is that the developer will change the fundamental aspects of the game. This is partly unfounded as I’ve never seen a remake that drastically changed the way the game played, but I have seen sequels that are nothing like the original (Master of Orion 3 was a disaster).

This leads me to my perspective: I want to see faithful remakes of the games I grew up playing. I want to see graphical, musical, effects upgrades across the board, but I want the gameplay to essentially remain the same. Sure, some of the fan-made projects for X-COM has made playing the game more interesting and convenient (like a map randomizer to mix things up a bit or a mechanism for the game to remember what equipment was on which team members). I feel that these re-releases on Steam and Impulse could be the beginning of something incredible if companies would tackle such things. Admittedly, most companies are more interested in making new or derivative games instead of revisiting older ones for overhauls. Plus, in the case of some games like X-COM Interceptor, the source code has apparently vanished and any fixes or remakes are just not in the cards. Honestly, remakes/re-releases of games like Lunar, Final Fantasy, and Chrono Trigger are thrilling for me and I jump on them when I can. I love having a portable copy of Chrono Trigger and Lunar and Final Fantasy Tactics. I’d love to see a PSP version of X-COM UFO Defense one day, but seeing as they’ve already started pulling away from the UMD hardware (from what I’ve noticed), I doubt I’m going to get my wish.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. There’s something in it that makes us look upon the things we treasured way back when through our rose colored lenses and value the old over the new. Remakes are a kind of compromise and even today, remakes are often derided as worse than the original. A prime example of this is a forum thread I was reading last night regarding Lunar: Silver Star Harmony on the PSP. In it, some posters commented that it was easier than the original, that it was somehow less than the original. This kind of thinking is dangerous for those of us who would love to see our old favorites revisited in the future. I wonder if these people ever considered that because they played the original, they were somehow better at later versions of the same game. I’ve played Lunar in nearly every iteration and to me, it’s the same game every time. Of course, I don’t have the luxury of being able to play the original Sega CD version next to the newer PSP version. This issue occurs with movies too (anyone notice the whole “I hate the new Star Wars trilogy” thing mostly coming from those people who grew up with the original?). The older we get and the more advanced we become with regards to education and technology, the more critical and demanding we become of our forms of entertainment. Why can’t it be like the good old days? Because those days are long gone, but if you open your mind just a bit, you might find that your favorite story has inspired a slew of others just like it… Master of Orion was the original game that inspired the coining of the term 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate) with regards to video game genres and has since inspired games like Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations and many more. Wolfenstein 3D inspired every first person shooter we have today, from Unreal Tournament to Medal of Honor. It’s good to go back to the beginning to see where it all started and awesome if you experienced it as it happened, but take a look outside every now and again and try something new. I promise, you won’t be disappointed (unless you want to be, in which case, that’s your problem).

I suppose my new point is this: don’t rely on the remakes and re-releases, but if they do come along, vote with your money and let the companies know that their effort in revisiting their older games is a welcome diversion. In the mean time, let developers pay tribute to older games by making new ones and vote with your money on those too. Feel free to compare the old and the new, but understand that if that old game were made today, it would be completely different due to the reduced limitations on technology. Apparently Silent Hill was much scarier back when there was a ton of fog (which was implemented since the hardware was limited in what it could show) and now today you can see all the way to the horizon and things aren’t so scary any more. Be understanding.

Until next time, keep on playing the classics you love and give the descendants a chance to become new classics!

– Elorfin

P.S. “Nostalgia, as always, had wiped away bad memories and magnified the good ones.” from Living to Tell the Tale, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

P.P.S. Yes, I want a remake/re-release of Terranigma. I think out of the three Quintet/Enix titles (Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma) the last one is the best and deserves a DS release at the very least.

Hunting the Muse

I’ve been building up the steam necessary to start writing again, but I keep getting side tracked. Lately, it’s been a variety of games and such that have kept me busy.

Star Trek Online: This game is ridiculously awesome and I wish I had the impetus to write a larger piece on it. Here’s the real issues with this game: the game feels small and empty a lot of the time. I could cross the entire universe involved in the game in a few minutes. Further, they have this automatic grouping mechanic for convenience, but no one has to say anything to anyone. There’s no built in voice chat and there’s no intention of including such software since, apparently, the developers believe that there’s enough third party voice chat software out there. Those are really my only gripes.

D&D Online: I’ve been playing this game nearly a year now and I’ve come to a conclusion about it… I know why this game is so much work compared to something like LOTRO or STO. Basically, in DDO, you don’t get experience per kill. You get experience for achieving certain things like finishing quests or reaching 200 kills in an adventure area, but you don’t get a handful of experience per kill. In Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, you get experience per kill. There’s a sense of progress, however small, in those games that is lacking in DDO. Now, I understand why it isn’t there in DDO… they’d have to change the entire balance of the game in order to adapt to such a mechanic. Regular D&D rewards you either after a fight or once you’ve rested (or in some situations, after the Dungeon Master believes you’ve gone far enough). I don’t know, I guess that’s part of why the game has lost some of its luster.

Lord of the Rings Online: This game recently went free-to-play. I haven’t really noticed a massive difference between the beta and the live version, but I played the first portion of the game so many times that I’m kind of bored of it. We’ll see what happens down the road when I get a second wind or something.

Master of Orion II: Impulse recently provided this for sale with the original game all for six bucks. Sweet deal. Anyways, MoO 2 is an amazing game that fits with X-COM and Civilization as some of the best gaming ever. Love the 14 year old gameplay. My first game of this (recently) was beat in the same day… yes, that’s MoO 2 for you, you CAN start and beat a game in the same day. If you know what you’re doing, of course.

Mass Effect 2 DLC: I recently downloaded the Overlord and Lair of the Shadow Broker expansions for Mass Effect 2 and I really enjoyed them. Shadow Broker was fascinating and it encouraged me to start a new game in an effort to see how playing through this particular DLC would effect the rest of the game experience. I still need to look into it more.

In other news, I’ve been catching up on The West Wing since it’s been off the air for a few years and I’ve always thought it was a good show. This is mostly in an effort to buy me some time away from the computer for my mental and ocular health. Anyways, like the title implies, I’m still looking for that muse of mine to come back so I can be my usual verbose self in more detailed articles for your reading pleasure. In the meantime, I’ve got plenty of material that’s bouncing around in my head.

Until next time,

– Elorfin

P.S. “I invented something called The Oxford Muse. The Muses were women in mythology. They did not teach or require to be worshipped, but they were a source of inspiration. They taught you how to cultivate your emotions through the different arts in order to reach a higher plane. What is lacking now, I believe, is somewhere you can get that stimulation (not information, but stimulation) where you can meet just that person, or find just that situation, which will give you the idea of invention, of carrying out some project which interests you, and show how it can become a project of interest to other people.” – Theodore Zeldin

P.P.S. I use the word “recently” way too much.

What makes a great game? – Part 4: Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Elorfin

What makes a great game? – Part 3: Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Elorfin