Friday, October 05, 2007

Me and video games

I've gone a little overboard with the Nintendo Wii. Sarah beat her first video game ever on it: MySims, a somewhat juvenile and linear version of a much more significant, quirky, funny, and emotionally engaging game, Animal Crossing. We've been trying out things at Hollywood Video to see if there's anything great out there. I have high hopes for our next one, Trauma Center, which turns the Wii remote into a variety of medical tools, with which you perform surgery in the anime version of ER. Operation, eat your heart out.

We are also fond of Rayman Raving Rabbids, where you do a variety of crazy things with and to cartoony, psychotic, screaming, hilarious bunnies. I don't know if I would buy it before it really gets to the bargain bin (it's down to $30 from $50 now) because all that's left now that we've beaten story mode is to play the mini-games repeatedly, like Olympic trials, beating records, trying to throw that cow one last meter farther or keep the teeth of the bunny clean for a fraction of a second longer. There are associated Easter eggs and rewards, but I don't think I'd pay $30 to master the game...

I've been playing the sports game that comes packaged with the system, too. The game that seems to have the greatest staying power is, surprisingly, bowling. I enjoy tennis, too, but I have it pretty well in hand by now. Baseball is too easy, boxing is pretty difficult, and golf is going the way of tennis. But bowling is fickle and realistic, curving the ball and making incredible splits, chasing that immortal 300, knocking down pins. And best, everybody already knows how to do it, even your mom and dad.

My friends at work also got me to try World of Warcraft, which is supposed to be addictive. I could see that, as it's a large system to learn and world to explore, but it's also, in the long run, ridiculously boring. One of my friends says this routinely: "As a game, it's not a very good game." As for paying $15 per month to play it as a glorified chat program, with orcs, I'll pass.

I am somewhat more interested in a sci-fi trading and piracy game called EVE Online, which has a staff economist on retainer, functional markets, and of course, spaceships. Anyone who played Drug War on their calculators in calculus class, you know what I'm talking about.

So Dan, it sounds like you've been playing lots of video games. You don't talk about this much. In fact, I've never seen this side of you before. Care to elaborate?

The story goes like this. In the beginning, there was The Legend of Zelda. And it was very good. Actually, I think the first Nintendo game I ever saw was Kid Icarus, at a birthday party. I remember very early experiences with the light gun, shooting cans up in the air in Hogan's Alley, and of course Duck Hunt. But we didn't get our Nintendo for a while. Finally, our neighbor Jimbo, who played it too much, sold us his Nintendo with 7 games. I don't remember the titles really. I probably could, with a list of NES games and a few hours to puzzle it out. I think we got Tetris then, which is still a mind-blowing game, basically perfect, to this day. I had insomnia with Tetris pieces for a while, carefully sorting them as they fell for hours into lines 9 blocks wide. I still remember playing multiplayer Gameboy Tetris in the back of the bus with Joe Pham (at some math tournament? I think?) when I was a young man (I've known Joe since the fourth grade, I think). Then there was Dragon Warrior, our first RPG, and still a soft spot (they continue on the next-gen systems as the Dragon Quest games). My first diary entry (in history!) is about beating Double Dragon II.

I beat the Legend of Zelda (first quest) more than 20 times. I called my character DANMAN__, where __ equals the number of times I beat the first quest. I still have it pretty memorized, I think. It would all come back quickly.

Eventually, the Super Nintendo came along and I stayed up all night playing SimCity and F-Zero and (of course!) Street Fighter 2 with Paul, Adrian, Ian, and who knows. Then there was Oregon Trail in school. Somewhere in there is Scorched Earth with Brian Koepke. Final Fantasy with Matt Hughes, then with my brother Aaron. Tribes 2. Tekken 3. GTA. The list just goes on and on.

It's been a lifelong love affair, and a lot of you must be thinking, how much time have you wasted with this stuff? How many chances to live an amazing human life have fallen by the wayside?

Rather than indoctrinating you all in the ways of The Next Plastic Art, Interactive Media, I'd just say that there are a lot of reasons games are fun. They are variously challenging, creative, social, exploratory, thought-provoking, emotionally engaging, and so on. Like Bruce Lee says, "Boards... don't hit back." But video games do hit back, and as time goes on, chances are that they will more and more.

A lot of interesting stuff is being done with persistent, systematic worlds that operate realistically even though they are fantasies. They serve as interesting commentary on our world and, at their best, allow us interesting choices that fold into massive systems; they allow us to pretend, not just be ourselves. There can be a power fantasy in jumping on Goombas or saving the princess, but there is also a fantasy of discovery and imagination that we may not be able to exercise otherwise. And it's all connected to the oldest profession, storytelling. Super Noah's Ark 3D, ok, that was pretty dumb (for one thing, it was just a thinly-disguised skin of a game about killing mutant Nazis), but one can imagine games that place you in the role of different people and allow you to experience the world through their eyes, even closer than reading novels...

Also, some people really need to learn how to play again.

One blog covering the ongoing saga of Video Games qua Art is called Grand Text Auto. Another one I find interesting is by Raph Koster, the guy who wrote A Theory of Fun for Game Design and worked on Ultima Online. His blog is not strictly about video games, but it's still interesting.

I also have a PDF version of a book called Game Design: Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III that was meant to be shared, if you're interested, which takes a trip through some of the greatest games and what made them so special, along with other geeky computer game stuff.


Tina - Ladydove said...

I had to laugh a bit when I read your latest blog posting, since it was right after a few hours of J and I playing WoW. WoW is a relatively new (and probably short lived) thing in our lives, we usually play EQ. It is a glorified chat program though for the most part, family and friends that don't live close to us play it and we chat with them while killing a few pirates, large rats, and moss snakes... over and over again. (I'm one of those that love repetition...sort of like that Knit 1, purl 2 for a whole sweater type thing...) Were you actually playing WoW or being dragged around. For the most part I've decided I only like playing WoW when I treat it more like an offline game. Doing every quest that I can to follow the story line, and not jump ahead of it. Sure I could go to better zones to grind xp, but why, when I could do this quest to help this boy return a necklace to his aunt instead, out on a farm. Since few people I know personally play WoW I can treat it more like an offline game, and solo my way through.

Anyway, we've finished season 1 of Buffy and headed into season 2 tonight. So far we are rather enjoying it.

How's the church hunt going?

Robert said...

I miss late nights of Grand Theft Auto 2 Multiplayer!

Dan Lewis said...

For the record, Trauma Center is great, but a bit on the difficult side. I've killed several patients on Normal difficulty. My main problem is wanting to multitask repeatedly. Say I have 4 tissue tears to drain, clamp, and suture. Instead of doing things one at a time, I tend to drain all, clamp all, and by the time I've finished a suture, everything has sprung open again. Verdict, it is totally cool.

Tina, I remember doing the experience grind for years playing Dragon Warrior on Nintendo. The first RPG I remember playing that didn't really make you do this was Final Fantasy VI. But this created problems of its own while you followed the story around the world on train tracks. See also Half-Life.

The Elder Scrolls went back the other way with trying to make things as nonlinear as possible (and of course I should mention Planescape: Torment in this category too), but there is a long way to go for this kind of choice-driven storytelling. A guy named Chris Crawford is trying to create a system to do interactive storytelling that is more sophisticated than the current state of the art. I follow his work with interest.

I was questing in the WarCrack. I think this is one reason the game doesn't appeal to me that much. The aggressively-nonlinear and story-on-rails extremes of RPGs are already done to death (the best balancing act between the two that I am aware of was in Chrono Trigger, which at least had multiple endings). As a game, it's not that great, a bunch of kill and fetch quests so far, and my brother put his account to sleep a while back. Playing with my friends would be fun, but their grind is raids happening at level 70. At my probable rate of play, it would take me 6 months to get there... Now, if my wife were playing it too... hmmm.

Oh, and what server are you guys on?

I'm glad you're liking Buffy. So did you like the puppet episode? I love it, and most of the people I know hate it.

The church hunt is kind of going. We have connected most with the Evangelical Free churches and the independent community churches. There is one called Southern Gables that is catching our interest.

Rob, I miss our manic kill-fests as well. If you can think of some way for us to resume virtually killing each other, I have the broadband connection. I'm not sure if my computer can play Quake Wars, or even Battlefield 2142, but I've been thinking about them lately.

There is a 3d version of scorched earth out there too. It has all the original weapons, in 3d. It has built-in multiplayer. And then there's if you've gotten into Settlers of Catan. There is working multiplayer for Settlers and Seafarers, and Cities and Knights is in beta. Or if you've been playing something else, let me know, because I seem to have time in the evenings to do that kind of thing.