Friday, December 27, 2013

What Zelda Taught Me About Life

I'm very picky with my Zelda games; I prefer the ones on the Gameboy. I watched my brother play through Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, so I never felt the need to play them. Later in life, I was content to watch my sister beat Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword.

Basically, I only played the Zelda games on Gameboy because it's a very personal, private experience. It was MY adventure the same way the Harry Potter books were.

My first Gameboy Zelda love was called the Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. I look back on the game with glee. I liked everything about it. However, I have a terrible secret.

I only beat the game because I had the guide.

Because of this, I always knew where to go. The strange thing about game guides is that you quickly become completely dependent on them. When I played Seasons at the tender age of twelve (half my life ago), I remember thinking, "I'll try this dungeon without the guide." It never worked. The guide flew open the moment I felt the unpleasant rub of uncertainty.

Fast forward to 2013. Christmas day. A Link Between Worlds sits in my hands. As the game loads, I think, "there will be no guides this time."

My first moments in this new Hyrule are a little scary; I feel like a bird pushed out of its nest. I go where I'm told but I nurse a quiet longing for the comfort a walkthrough provides. Despite this, I soon find myself exploring and enjoying the sense of discovery. I realize that the game is meant to be played this way. Having a huge map of every area with all the secrets exposed isn't fun; it's a chore. This is an adventure game, after all. If you take away the adventure, what the heck is the point?

It's kinda like skipping to the last page of a book.

In many ways, playing the game blind is similar to real life; sometimes I feel that I don't know where I'm going or what I'm supposed to be doing. There's a slight sense of being lost or overwhelmed in life, but learning how to push back against uncertainty is a big part of growing up.

When I was twelve, I craved the omniscient guiding hand of a walkthrough. Now I know that uncertainty, and persevering in spite of it, is what really separates adults from children.

Plus, the game is really fun.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

Over the past few years, I've seen a certain change in my interests. Both in how I spend my time and how I regard life in general. For instance, since summer camp '12, I value time with friends much more highly than I did before that time.

I don't play as many video games as I used to. When I was fifteen, I was playing at least eight hours of WoW every day. These days, I'd often rather be working. Sure, I still play several hours of video games every week (and the fact that I'm counting "per week" should tell you something), but I also value my time spent reading things on the internet. It's not as glamorous, say, as killing Ragnaros, but reading news is just something I enjoy now.

Today I was thinking about RPGs. Since getting Edge of the Empire (and playing it, what, twice?) I've realized the golden age of RPGs in my life has passed. I'll likely never again spend several hours each week planning, discussing and playing RPGs like did in 2009-2011 (or whenever it actually was). These days, my game time is spent playing board games. Rightly so, there are several reasons I enjoy them perhaps more than RPGs.

• I don't have to prep/write anything
• I don't get upset when the week gets cancelled, because it's not a personal blow to my ego
• Other people can bring or play board games, keeping the variety level high
• Board games are games, whereas RPGs are more like a group activity

That last part might be a little contentious. A few years I would have been extremely offended by such a claim. I argue that it's true: RPGs have no winner, no clear goal, no real competition (depending on the system of course). RPGs fail to meet the exact definition of a "game." I'm not suggesting they aren't fun. Oh contraire! Many of my best memories came from playing Savage Worlds. Many in-jokes were created that have lasted to this very day.

There are certain things that can be done with one medium that simply cannot be done in another, but lately we've seen some interesting developments in the world of board gaming that has made them draw ever-closer to the beloved RPG. In fact, video games jumped on that bandwagon years ago. These days you can't shake an AR-15 without hitting a handful of military shooters, racing games or third-person shooters riddled with all manner of RPG mechanisms. Whether it's Call of Duty's amazingly fun ability to level up your soldier, unlocking new guns and perks or The Last Of Us's slow trickle of parts to upgrade your favorite weapons, the systems are here to last. Rightly so, they reward players for continued investment. They get to tweak the game in the direction they want to take it. Go ahead and try to play Unreal Tournament 2004 again, I dare you. Without the ability to level up, the player is left with an overwhelming feeling of "why waste the time?"

Can board games do the same thing? The venerable Hero Quest was Milton Bradley's answer to Dungeons and Dragons, creating a whole new genre of board game: The Dungeon Crawl. Since 1990 that genre has seen notable entries such as Lego's Heroica and Fantasy Flight's Descent, my personal favorite dungeon crawl. These games have variable amounts of customizability and player agency in regard to their character's progression, but it's a very small amount compared to a full-fledged role-playing game.

The real question is, "how much farther can we go?" board games have only really come into popularity in the last ten years or so, due in part to the fact that they've become sophisticated and interesting enough to hold the attention span of young people. For many of my gamer friends, being a gamer extends to games in all mediums, not just ones made of pixels. There is no exclusivity, and no need for it.

What new mechanics could board games borrow from RPGs, or even video games? Games like Risk Legacy introduced the novel concept of permanently changing the game board. Descent has a progressive campaign system that allows players to "level up" their characters between adventures, including purchasing equipment from shops between quests. There's a level of permanence that has previously been unseen in this world of cardboard and paper.

I'm very curious to see where the we can go.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why Theme Matters

For a long time, I wasn't interested in the wild west. Sure, I owned the occasional LEGO set that involved bandits or what have you, but as a setting it didn't hold much interest for me. When it came to entertainment, I was much more of a Batman/Spiderman/Sci-fi kid. In fact, two of those things are still a big part of my life (sorry, Spidey).

Recently I've developed an appreciation for all things Wild West, and I credit all change of mind to 2008's Fallout 3.

Now, if you don't know what Fallout 3 is, here's the brief rundown: It's a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game made by the company who made Oblivion and (later) Skyrim. Fallout 3's world is almost Jetsons-esque, with silly space-cars and funny, clunky computers. It's like the 50's came and never went; when the nukes fell it left a wasteland with all of these weird signs and products that are very old-timey.

For those of you who don't have much interest in post-apoc worlds, here's why it's interesting to me: Short of inventing a time machine, there's no way to experience the past. A time without indoor plumbing or electricity. I've written about why the apocalypse can be appealing and I think it has something to do with changing the status quo. It's appealing because it makes life new and exciting and different, at least on paper. Nevermind the fact most people would die of starvation, radiation or murder in such scenarios. In many ways, it's like communism.

Here's a great matte painting from Fallout 3. You should definitely see the full image.

I digress.

Certain themes excite me more than others. If I were to read a book about a Cherokee tribe migrating from one place to another, I'd be bored. Sure, the book could be very good, but the theme wouldn't interest me enough to ever pick up the book. If you took the exact same book and slapped a sci-fi or fantasy theme on it, suddenly I'm paying attention. Make those Indians into Dwarves or some weird kind of space alien and I'll read the whole thing in a day.

In a way, it's like I'm allowing myself to be manipulated. Conversely, many people are the exact opposite, rejecting anything sci-fi in favor of almost anything else.

The same thing applies to my entertainment; movies or games with fun themes attract me much better than any other. One of my favorite games right now is Wiz War, a game where four wizards fling spells at each other until everyone is dead. If you replaced those wizards with, I don't know, French soldiers, I'd have probably overlooked it. That's why I don't get into wargames more, because I don't care if General Patton took the Hill of Something Something from General So and So. I just don't care. Take that same game and make it Sergeant Ragnar the Crude throwing warbands of Orcs at the Knights of the Lion's Reach and you've got yourself a customer.

These games actually use the same underlying game system.
Which one would YOU play?

Up to this point I've made it sound like theme is an interchangeable tablecloth that can be added or removed at will from any kind of entertainment, but that's wrong. 

Look at the Mass Effect trilogy; the universe is what I call Hard Sci-Fi. It's lore is pervasive and thorough. There are things in the story that don't have a 1:1 translation in every other universe. It's hard to tell the same story the same way without space travel, giant killer space-squids and magical portals that accelerate ships to the speed of light. Sure, you could tell a story with the same highlights and characters, but fundamentally some parts would have to be changed.

The best themes are the ones that aren't interchangeable; the universe informs the story, and vice-versa. It shouldn't be easy to separate; they should be like one single entity.