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.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

How I Got Into Board Games

I don't understand these dice at all
If you've talked to me in the last three years you'll know that I've become something of a board game evangelist. At this point, I've stopped being embarrassed when people curl their lip at me and say, "wait, you play board games?"
"Yes," I reply, "this isn't Monopoly or Risk. In this one we play crime lords fighting for control of an entire city!"
Sometimes that person walks away with disgust. Sometimes they'll actually sit down with the slow caution of a deer who suspects a hunter is watching them from the woods. Other times they'll simply stand nearby and watch, arms crossed in a skeptical fashion.

I was like that too, once.

It was fall 2010. The biggest movie of the year was Toy Story 3. I made friends with a guy named Keith in a college math course because of our common interest in video games. A few weeks into the course, he was invited to game night by one of the girls from our class, and he invited me.

The game nights were held once a week, on Tuesdays. Typically we'd meet up at 9pm, drink coffee and play silly party games like Scattergories or Cranium. It was a nice way to unwind while listening to cable TV radio stations and occasionally playing charades.

One night I was suffering from terrible insomnia and I had a surge of creativity. I started creating a D&D adventure. It involved traveling into a cave and later, slaying a dragon. Since I had never actually played that kind of game before, I designed the adventure literally room by room in my head. Each room had one specific solution to get through it. In many ways it was much like a video game. The next morning I wrote down everything and took the printed adventure to game night that week.

Much to my relief, no demons were spawned during the game.
The results were... unexpected. Nothing went as I had planned, the players made silly characters ranging from a Warrior Assassin based on a Resident Evil character, to something called the Candy Queen. I was not prepared, but we were all entertained.

At that time, I went kind of RPG crazy. I began researching the heck out of “real” dungeon and dragons and designing great adventures to play with Keith and the girls. Sadly the game night group fell apart when the semester ended, so those plans fell through.

A few months later, Keith invites me to another game night. This one is all guys in their early 30's, two of whom are either engineers or engineering students.
Are we going to play D&D?” I asked Keith over the phone.
No,” he said, “we're gonna play a board game that's kinda like D&D.”
Pshaw, I thought. A board game! What was I, ten years old? The last board game I could remember playing was Clue Jr!

...To be fair, Clue Jr. was pretty awesome
But I went anyway. I ducked my head as I entered the tiny apartment. The game was spread out on a table almost too small to hold it. The graphic design was terrible, the cardstock was yellowed with age. The illustrations laughably poor.
“How old is this game?” I asked with the worried expression of a man in over his head.
It's from like, 1989,” said the game's owner around a mouthful of Chinese food, “I've had it since I was little.”

Oh,” was the reply. With colossal apprehension, I took a seat. Keith handed me a deck of Wizard cards and said, “pick your spells.”

It was a watershed moment.

The game was called HeroQuest, and it would ultimately change my life.

The game has each player going around opening rooms, killing monsters and collecting treasure. I had a terrific time.

It was a Grinch heart-growing moment: Maybe board games weren't boring. Maybe RPGs weren't the only way to have fun at a table.

When I got home late that night, I looked online to find the game and found it cost $200. Two hundred. Apparently it was very old, slightly rare and quite popular. I also found out that, holy crap, there was a huge community of people who loved this silly little dungeon game.

Very soon after that, a website started called Shut Up and Sit Down. It was created by two British guys who made quite entertaining videos explaining exactly why you should be excited to play board games. Because of them, I bought my first two games; Citadels and the Resistance. Two very different card games.

I found it was quite easy to talk people into playing card games. Easier than, for instance, RPGs. I still loved playing RPGs, but it was just so much easier to throw a card game out there and play it. I didn't have to prep anything. It was a breath of fresh air.

So RPGs kind of faded away. Another group of friends sprang up and we had a regular board game night, this time with much less focus on RPGs One summer, I was a camp counselor and found out there were lots of people in my church who wanted to play board games. Strangely, they acted like it was some terrible secret, like a dead body in their freezer. So I asked a few people if they wanted to play board games (and later) RPGs. They jumped at the chance.

So here I am, still researching games every day. I've long since moved on from any official Dungeons and Dragons product, but I still enjoy Savage Worlds and more recently, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. When I see people turn up their nose, I know what they're feeling; that familiar dread of being glued to a table, forced to play some boring thing like Candy Land.

Where we're going, we don't need Candy Land.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Life Lessons from LEGO

While visiting Target the other day, I always make an effort to swing by the Lego isle. I took a look at the newest Star Wars stuff, because Star Wars Lego sets were my favorite when I was growing up. This time I noticed the price tag on some of these things. The small sets start at twenty dollars, while the bigger stuff can get as high as seventy to one hundred U.S. dollars. I was floored.

Begone, vile temptress!

When I was a bright-eyed preteen, the sets seemed cheaper. The price of oil (and thus plastic) has gone up, so lets blame it on that. Anyway, I thought to myself, "I owned virtually every Star Wars set that Lego produced from '99 to '01 (minus the Slave 1 and Millenium Falcon, sigh). I could probably dig up the bricks and instructions and build this crap without spending a dime!"
And now it costs $3,100 on Amazon.

The reason I was working so hard to rationalize this to myself just then was because I was very tempted to pick up another X-Wing. They look REALLY good, and Lego has only gotten better at presenting the product on the box. If I were eleven, my wallet wouldn't've stood a chance. Thankfully I've gotten older and more stingy with my money. Just a little.

So I went home. Four days later, I took the plunge and dug out my stuff. Funny enough, my experience building this one little model gave me oodles of life lessons, morals and sage advice to hand out in the form of this blog. Heyo!

I have a lot of Legos. When we changed houses in 2001, most of my stuff was broken down and chucked into random boxes, bits flying at random. I seem to recall piecing everything back together, but it was never the same at this house. I pulled together everything I could from three different drawers in my closet and I still didn't have everything I needed. However, I DID find a thin stack of assembly instructions for some of my favorite models, including the Rock Raiders stuff that I adored. I found the A-Wing guide, but I didn't see more than five red bricks in the drawers, so that was out. I have no idea where my Y-Wing stuff went, so that's out. No X-Wing, no TIE, so it had to be the Snow Speeder.

Life lesson: The things you adore when you're eleven are not the same things you adore in your twenties. Lets see how I feel about video games when I'm forty.

There weren't only Legos on the drawers; there were some old Star Wars action figures, loads of rock-hard modeling clay, a shattered egg shell (my brother or someone owned an old Ostrich egg that didn't survive), and other bits and bobs that make their way into drawers. Before long I pulled out a trash can and threw away things as I went. Hmm.

Life lesson: I'm much more tidy than I was. I can't stand to see such gross disorganization in what's supposed to be a functional drawer. What's worse is some of the stuff is my brother's, which means it can't be thrown away easily (or can it?).

Construction began.

I didn't have all of the parts. I had enough to start a base, but it wasn't close to enough. Before long, I was pulling apart the part of the TIE that had survived and cannibalizing it for parts. Eleven-year-old William would NEVER do such a thing. Before long I had to pull a thirty-gallon tub of bricks from my little brothers' room to get enough. Sorting through that crap took forever. So I dumped it on the floor.

It hurts the knees after a time.

...And there was quite a mess. I was able to pick through the pile like a junkyard hobo, but it was slow going. Before long I realized I didn't have the patience to get the exact color of part, so I started going for Shape Only (and even that was pretty loosely followed). Thanks to both my experience with Legos and my inner crotchety old man, I don't tend to care when pieces don't match the instructions as long as everything fits together.

Life lesson: I'm not as particular as I used to be. I guess that not giving a crap about finicky little things comes with age.

The ship came together in about two hours. It's probably the longest assembly I've ever had in my life, simply because each part was a new journey to the junk heap. I almost gave up a few times but the end result was worth it; a slightly hodge-podge Snow Speeder with asymmetrical colored parts. In fact, I kind of prefer it this way. I've done enough creative writing to quickly justify the color scheme with a story about two Rebel fighters going down behind enemy lines and having to repair their ship with random scrap. I'd read that graphic novel.

Life lesson: The pursuit of perfection is fine when you have the time and inclination. Sometimes doing a lesser job is acceptable if you're happy with it. I'm not worried about other people's opinions of this one Lego thing. It's not a big thing in my life and it pleases me.