Jackson's Year Of Game: Week One

This was originally written on the old tumblr site, it’s a good piece so I kept it, but I decided not to go ahead with the project – though it’s definitely something I’d love to do in the future when it’s more feasible, presumably with more focus than just “game.”  That said, enjoy this collection of weird short article type things.

My partner in crime (in this metaphor, crime is video game podcasting), Matt, is straight up killing it with all these write ups, my unproductive ass sits tired, watching deliberately awful television in awe. However, I too have played some video games, and if you’ve followed me on twitter recently, you’d know about my 2014 mission to widen my gaming horizons, especially in regards to history. I’ve been sarcastically calling it the Year Of Game, and that’s a fine enough name for now, so we’re going with it, Xbox style.

I even have a quite clearly made in paint banner! I think it’s appropriately silly.

The overall plan is to make weekly posts for whatever I’ve played, and talk about what’s on my mind from that. Matt’s posts are very much succinct analyses that get to the heart of the game in question’s conceit, this’ll be a less precise, “dude plays games and waffles on about them” thing. I’m going to write each week, whether I play an hour or fifty, something about video games and my continuing quest through them. I may even touch on news/events/whatever of the week! It’ll be some paragraphs inspired by what I’ve been playing and thinking about, not a video gamin’ diary. The lack of a hard format is the point, as in 52 weeks this’ll add up to a portrait of not hopefully not what I’ve played this year, but how my thinking about and understanding of video games as a thing develops through taking this here journey.

I say all that, because… It’s an odd first week.


Racing up the Ladder

Burnout Paradise is the best racing game ever made, and the second best is OutRun 2. Gotta get those hearts, son. The reason both these games rank so highly for me is because their handling is the most tight. I don’t play Driving games all that often, but when I do, the reason I do isn’t those shiny new car graphics, it isn’t even track design and opponent AI (though they are all vital in their own way), but that when you’re driving, the mechanics of driving feel good. Games that aren’t fun to beat, but are fun to play.

It’s a dangerous thing to describe and judge, feel, very much a know-it-when-you-see-it element, because it’s not an element. It’s the combined effect of tens, if not hundreds of little decisions made under the hood (ha ha). It’s the timing for when you have to kick out your back wheels in a drift, it’s the the amount you have to nudge the stick to get the car out of the oncoming lane, it’s a minuscule feedback loop that makes every turn, every boost, every single action rewarding in and of itself. When done right, it is 95% of the game done. It doesn’t matter what else you do, it is almost guaranteed to be amazing.

Almost.

Games, as a whole, have struggled with endings. Not in the sense of “oh no, all these AAA games have terrible endings” but on a fundamental level. How do you let the player walk away satisfied that their experience was complete? Do you even bother trying? What even is an ending? It’s a good struggle to have, one that will never be answered, but instead grappled with individually for every game made. It’s due to the contradictory nature of games as systems and games as narratives. You can’t finish a system, but we talk about finishing games all the time. But imagine:

“Craig, I’ve been playing a lot of Chess this week. It’s fun.”
“How many hours of Chess have you played?”
“About seven. I think I’ll have finished Chess soon!”

That’s not to say Chess has no narrative, far from it. There’s the story of that time the King was almost caught, the queen and both rooks captured, but with cunning and clever use of a bishop, you got a pawn to the end of the board. On a larger scale, it has the story of how through beating everyone at chess, you won the chess championship and were thus a chess champion. Go you!

All this is to make the point that there are games we play to experience a narrative, to have a point made to us through the interactive systems. Or games we play to master the system, to get better at the game. These are broad and sweeping categories that aren’t mutually exclusive, but there’s a difference between Gone Home and Dota that’s more fundamental than one being an action game and one being a “walking” game.

And yes, they are both games, let’s oh dear god not go there.
Many games find a balance between the two. For example, an RPG system can have turn based battle mechanics on the small scale, then the large scale can be levelling up your characters for greater effect within those battle systems. The small scale narratives can be whether you lose or win the battle, or what you do when you walk around town, and the larger stuff an overarching story with a final stopping point. You’re playing to have the best party possible, and you’re playing to see the ending. This holds true in most action games, in which you’re playing to be good at shooting/swording/fighting/bayonettaing, and also to see the story through to it’s end.

The effect of this in these genres is the narrative contextualises the action. You want to be good at mastering the systems, because that’s just fun, but without the external narrative, these systems are meaningless. Especially in single player games, where there is not a physical opponent, context is vital. Even Tetris has a context: the time. You get a Tetris because it’s satisfying to, but you’re motivated to because you want to last longer. But let’s be real, Tetris would work without that. Because Tetris is perfect.

To bring this finally back to racing games (and sports games, and fighting games, and in fact most single player approximations of game design based around interpersonal competition), they have two ways of hooking you in. The first, is through mechanics on the small scale. The action is contextualised (win the match, win the fight, win the race), and it’ll hook you in for about 2 races if the mechanics of the game are not completely broken. But more than that, without any single player structure, it almost never works. Your feel has to be good. It has to be Tetris good. Even Burnout Paradise would not survive without wider elements.

By which I mean, the billboards, the gates the way you start races, the way stunt jumps work, the distance between license upgrades, that is one of the few Single Player Racing games designed on a wider scale to encourage play for more than a few hours. Most peter out before long. Because mostly, these games rely on a career mode of sequential tracks, or in sports games, matches after one another, or just a series of unrelated fights. There’s nothing more disappointing when a game with good to great feel comes along, with interesting mechanics that you enjoy interacting with, slapped into a game with 6 hours of “content” for which you must go through tracks upon tracks with no real logical order to unlock better cars and upgrade your drivers.

You never finish this fake story thing they’ve got going on because it’s a flimsy excuse, you never master their systems because the systems are good but not great, the ending of all these games is you walking away disappointed when you’ve had enough. It’s a problem that seems to come from familiarity with mechanics. Just look at Guitar Hero and Rock Band. I love those games, but much like all these other genres, they’re created by taking one experience, breaking it into 3 minute levels, and attempting to come up with some kind of structure to make that fun long term, and it never can be, because of how human beings work.

We may have fived starred every song in Guitar Hero, but barely anyone did in Guitar Hero six.

My wish is that more big games would experiment with their macro structure, would be willing to take crazy risks with their progression, because what else can a racing game do? What else can a fighting game do? What else can a fighting game do? Persona would be boring as sin were it just “collect monsters in dungeons” the game, so the progression and context around it is crazy drenched in narrative context and macro systems like social links and what you can do on each days, and that’s not all that far off the situation these iterative genres are in. The possibilities for this experimentation are all there, and there is little to lose and everything to gain, because it’s not like what the default is sets the world on fire.

Anyway, the point is I played Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed and it had a shitty career ladder so I stopped. Ho-hum.


Burn All The Games

Games cost a lot of money. In return for this, they give you a hopefully enjoyable experience that will last you a good amount of time. When you think about it, this is a terrible transaction, and your end of the stick is short indeed.

Just think, you’re going to die. Really, you’re going to die. It’ll happen. It could even happen tomorrow. I’m going to die! There’s an idea seeded throughout our lives, that which has meaning has permanence, but I don’t have permanence. Nothing does. Is everything meaningless? Am I meaningless? What even is meaning? Do we create our own meaning? Isn’t it technically the most beautiful triumph that life is inherently so meaningless and yet we can fill it with so much? Does that even matter? I’m still going to die. My time on earth will be over before it’s truly begun.

All that considered, spending 40 hours playing Borderlands 2 seems like a waste. And by all that considered, I mean all that. It wasn’t just a paragraph dedicated to “you’re wasting your time playing AAA games,” I’m more talking about Games’ (though really, any art here) role in having something meaningful to say, and how they say it. Many games have little to say, and take far too long to say it. They can be fun distractions, and sometimes you find ones that are so good they make all the crap ones you just played worth it, but for such an investment, they’re not always worth it.

Why would you spend 40 hours playing a game that exists purely to give you something to do for 40 hours, when you can spend 4 minutes playing a game with a clear purpose and something to say? It may be less polished, but it’s infinitely more rewarding.

Hence, Abnormal Mapping have been cleaning up this list.

It’s been extremely fun, just playing these games, all free, mostly short, and many of them very very good. Not every one’s a winner, but the general reaction to this list I’ve had is “why do I spend so much time playing boring games?” There’s so much cool stuff hiding in other places, more personal stuff, more interesting mechanical choices. It doesn’t make sense, as a fan of a medium, to be interested only in the areas of that medium made most for mass market appeal, and yet that is what much of video game culture is. Such is the benefit of the Year Of Game, such is its bounty.

I’ve not played all of them yet, and we’re gonna be talking about them on the episode at the end of the month, but from this week, here are a few personal standouts.

CHOICE STANDOUT: PUNKSNOTDEAD

First things first, PUNKSNOTDEAD may well have the greatest soundtrack of all time. It’s just one song, and it may not surprise you to learn that it is a punk song. The driving bassline is powerful as all get out, as you go about what could only be described as pure catharsis. It’s Hotline Miami purified to its essence, the music plays, and violence ensues. The violence is not challenging, the violence is not bloody, it is abstract and chaotic and all you want to do is follow it to the natural conclusion.

But you rarely do, because it’s brutally hard. And death in this game is it’s strongest point. The song just stops. All that energy just cuts out, before you’ve barely started sticking it to the man. It is not the sensation of you failing a level, of the game besting you, it is not a Binding of Issac run suddenly cut short. No, it is catharsis interrupted and incomplete, it is a moment ruined, with no conclusion, no satisfaction, and no point.

Usually in games, you win by overcoming the obstacle in your way, and failing means you don’t get to win. Here, winning is playing, and failing means you lose it. It’s like crashing in the middle of the best Burnout drift. But with a better song playing.

simian-interface.png

CHOICE STANDOUT: simian.interface

Technically, simian.interface is a pixel hunt game. Find the right pixel, and you shall be victorious. But the visual clues it gives you for what the right pixel is are the right kind of brain bending. It plays with perception, essentially being a series of squares that you need to line up, and takes that concept to the logical, puzzling extremes.

simian.interface succeeds because of how it encourages the player to consider space. Your moving of the mouse causes the objects to move on the screen in a specific, predetermined way, and you have to figure out how to adjust your mouse position based on how each element spatially relates to each other element.

I never knew, at the start of 2014, I’d be enjoying a pixel hunt game.

CHOICE STANDOUT: Ultra Business Tycoon III

With a name like Ultra Business Tycoon III, you’d expect this game to be a satire of Tycoon games, of how capitalism is dumb, and what have you. And I guess it has elements of that, as it takes you through this fake 90s game in which you must acquire 1 million dollars to pass through the golden gates into some crazy capitalist utopian afterlife. But that’s not really the point.

The point is that you play as an unknown character playing the game. Interspersed throughout, in subtle ways at first, are the reactions and thoughts of the “player,” which manage to make genuine emotional connections. What appears (from a very far distance) to be a send up of ridiculous old video games, is a celebration of them, of their ridiculous oldness, and somehow, an emotionally affecting look at growing up.

CHOICE STANDOUT: BUBSY 3D

Art.


The Past, Linked To

The main impetus behind the Year of Game was, as I mentioned in passing up top, to play old games, to play influential games, to get a sense for gaming history. I want to be able to appreciate the ways in which games have changed over the years in a manner that is more than just from second hand talk and the accepted canon that builds through time.

For example, I have never played a Zelda game. Such a fact seems unthinkable, I’ve been playing games forever at this point, and Zelda is just one of those franchises that everyone has played. Like Final Fantasy. (I’ve also never played a Final Fantasy until this year, and that game was XIII which I’m told doesn’t count. Though, really, I’ve played Lost Odyssey and that’s what matters).

This week, I’ve played a little of both A Link To The Past (a Zelda game) and DOOM (not a Zelda game), two seminal and important works of video gamin’ that will be referenced for years to come. Hell, Link to the Past just got a highly acclaimed sequel with nigh on the same basic gameplay, so clearly this is some fine wine shit I’ve got on my hands here. I’ve not played enough of either to go into full, detailed impressions (and we’ll be talking about Zelda later this month), but here’s what my initial reactions are.

DOOM’s fast. It’s very fast. It’s so fast that it scares me. By which I mean, I’m falling off ledges all the damn time, the lava can’t keep me away. The lack of Y axis control on the mouse is odd at first but it’s easy to get used to. It’s surprising how many standards you can just get used to not being there so quickly. You can get used to their absence, though, because they don’t need to be there. Not an input is wasted, you can’t look up because why look up, because get the hell down this hallway and shoot all these aliens. DOOM feels complete, so many years on, there’s nothing in modern game design that can really improve it by addition. It is it’s own thing and will be that thing til the end of time.

Whilst playing LttP for the first time, I was hung up on the unlikely positioning of Link’s house. It is right fucking next to the castle. No one else lives there, the town’s over to the left. The hell is this kid doing right next to the castle?! This is no place to live a life. Who’s this guy’s guardian? Why has he, clearly a trained fighter of some kind, gone out to rescue the princess and failed in the first corridor. As opposed to Link, untrained and who reacts with glee when he dies because sweet sword! My tongue was firmly in my cheek, of course, these things are fun to point out and notice, the odd arbitrary nature of the game’s world, but LttP isn’t focused on being the world’s best and most logical story. The story is there to just give you a reason to go be link. It’s got a map, you’ve got things to get, go and get them. It is a video game. It is the most video game. It is all the video games.

The most surprising thing, of course, is that they’re both actual games you can play. It’s something I try not to be guilty of, but we all are to a certain extent, is remembering no one makes classic games. No one makes classic anything, they just make their thing, whatever it may be. All the legacy, all the acclaim and cultural mythologising that comes along with anything that gets such high praise for so long, comes after the game has been released. It’s an odd form of reverse pre-release hype, in that something talked up so much no longer registers as an actual thing you can play, but purely a cultural reference point.

Breaking down that tendency is goal one of this whole project. And given how both fun and interesting it has been in such a short time, I’m onboard for more. May this bring me much enrichment and fascination and a bunch of classic RPGs.

Seriously, like 99% of the recommended games are 80 hour RPGs.


Wrap Up

This post got out of hand fast. That was the intention, to just let the week coalesce into an amalgamation of thoughts and reactions, to throw my head against the wall and see what stuck (that mixed metaphor was more disturbing than intended), but it’s came out in a surprising way, and I can’t even tell if this is a good piece of writing. But hey, such is the Year Of Game, such is its ways.

I hope people enjoy this whole project, and when we can look back on this week one, we will laugh at the ways in which I am no longer the same person who wrote this, and make japes and drink tea or whatever. It’ll be fun, though! I have no idea what I’m going to write next week, but I can tell you one thing. It sure as hell ain’t gonna be this long.

Log Of Games Played, Week One:

  • Sonic And All Stars Racing: Transformed
  • Nested
  • The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past
  • The Legend Of Zelda
  • DOOM
  • Bubsy 3D
  • PUNKSNOTDEAD
  • Save The Date
  • simian.interface
  • Bokida
  • Experiment 12
  • Ultra Business Tycoon III
  • Sounddodger
  • 400 Years
  • Futuridium EP
  • Superhot
  • TIMEFrame
  • Kingdom