Monday, July 22, 2013

The dreaded backlog (and great games that stay great)

I'm easily distracted. That's really no secret. For someone who can multitask at work I'm horribly inefficient at it when I'm at home. My wife is a superhero. I don't see how she does it. My lack of focus has meant that many games over the years have gone unfinished. Part of that is having more disposable income, and thus more games. As a kid I remember having to save up my allowance for months to get a game. Because of that there was plenty of time between game purchases, which usually meant playing a game until I beat it. I was one of the few among my friends in middle school who finished Double Dragon on the NES for example (not an easy game).

I had finished so many games back then that I had a list. It was just a normal sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 notebook paper. But it was nearly full, front and back, with the games I had finished. I wish I still had it. I can remember the big ones. Zelda. Mega Man. Kid Icarus (I'm not sure if I could beat that today). It was an epic list. I had very little money, but I had loads of time (as most kids do).

Fast forward 25 years. I'm married, have two kids, and a full time job. My list of unfinished games feels like it's as long as that list of completed games I had when I was 12. At the start of this year I was determined to start going through this backlog of games. Nearly every one was amazing. I didn't stop because it sucked or it was too hard. Most of them are highly rated. Some were the game of the year the year they came out. But there were other games that came out within a month (or a few weeks) of it's release. Having more disposable income, I was able to buy it. And my vow to "go back to it after I play this new game" never happened.

I haven't only played games in my unfinished backlog this year. I played through the Mass Effect trilogy in January and February when ME1 finally made it's way to the PS3. I also played Ni No Kuni when it came out. Same with The Last of Us. But I played these games to completion. I didn't let myself get distracted. Once I started them, I played to the end.

So while I've played a few new games this year, my main focus has been on the unfinished games in my collection. The last few I've gone back to play have reminded me that there are some truly great games out there that need to be played by almost everyone. Games that earned awards the years they were released really deserved them. They're just as good now as they were then. When I fired up Red Dead Redemption again, I was stunned (again) at how beautiful and alive the world was. I looked forward to every minute I could spend in that world. I'm still not a huge fan of open world/Grand Theft Auto type games, but the setting can make a world of difference. Riding around on horseback in the wild west and shooting bandits is just great fun.

Next up was Batman: Arkham Asylum. While I may have some issues with choices they made to the story (particularly Bane and Venom), the world was incredible. The Scarecrow scenes were some of the best scenes in the entire game. At one point I thought the game (or my TV) was glitching out on me. I almost powered everything off to fix it. Then I realized it was part of the game.

Currently I'm back to finish Shadow of the Colossus (part of the Ico/SotC HD collection). I had only played up through the first 4 colossi when the game was first released on the PS2. When I got the HD collection I played up through the first 2. There are some control issues, mainly because it's a PS2 era game, but the game itself is one of the best ever made. The HD collection came out in 2011, and minus a brief attempt to get back into it this past April (where I beat the 3rd colossi), I had completely forgotten how great this game is. I started playing it again this past weekend and got up through the 10th colossi (out of 16). I couldn't put it down. Each beast is a puzzle where you have to try and figure out how to bring it down, sometimes using the environment to help. That's the whole game. Just you and this huge open world. There are no other enemies. You ride from the temple to track down each colossus. When you bring one down, you end up back at the temple and do it all over again. It doesn't sound like much, but there's really no other game like it. It was one of the first (and best) examples of "video games as art", and it still holds up.

Red Dead Redemption, Arkham Asylum, and Shadow of the Colossus have showed me that great games stay great. And hopefully I can keep the momentum going this year to finish games I started, and if I start a new game to play it until I finish. I don't want to miss out on great game experiences again.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Emotional storytelling in video games

Having played video games for most of the last 30 years, it never ceases to amaze me to see how they have evolved over that time. Looking back at my earliest gaming memories with simple games like Demon Attack on the Atari 2600, the fact that a game can stir deep emotions in me still blows me away. They've moved beyond the simple "bleep bloop" of those early games. Those kinds of games still exist, and they're still fun (albeit far prettier). Nowadays some games are emotional experiences, like watching your favorite movie or reading a classic book. It's hard to believe it's the same hobby I took up so long ago.

The first game to really move me was Final Fantasy 3 on the SNES (which is actually Final Fantasy 6 in the series). 3/4 of the way through the game a (literal) world shattering event changes the entire landscape of the world, and your entire party is scattered, and a single character wakes up alone on a deserted island. I sat stunned at what had just happened. Even a game of fairly simple sprites had moved me to silence.

Years later, I remember showing off Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation to my parents (who had always seen games as "for kids"). To them video games were Mario. I don't know if seeing MGS in action changed that, but it opened their eyes to see gaming wasn't just moving around a fat plumber and jumping on turtles (although you could still do that). Years later, after I was married and had a kid, I showed them the intro to Uncharted 2. I don't know if they were as blown away as I was, but they definitely seemed surprised that games had come that far.

Recently I played two games that, for me, are the pinnacle of what video games can deliver as a storytelling medium. In The Last of Us you play as Joel. After a very tragic and emotional prologue (which ironically is totally spoiled by the game's box art), the game fast forwards 20 years and we see Joel dealing with life after the apocalypse has wiped out much of humanity. He's clearly been shaped by the events 20 years ago and his life since then. He's not a very nice guy. Eventually he meets Ellie and agrees to take her across the country to a group trying to find a cure. Through the course of their journey together, and after many tense, terrifying, and emotional experiences, their relationship evolves. You don't need to be a parent to be moved by their relationship, but since I am one I couldn't help but be effected by it. I smiled at their banter more times than I can count, and I got angry at Joel when he belittled Ellie or discounted her ability to contribute. This world made Joel a hard man. And seeing Ellie try and break through that was great to witness in a video game. The whole game from beginning to end is one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had, and the story moved me in ways games rarely do.

After finishing The Last of Us I played last year's critically acclaimed series The Walking Dead. Like the TV show, it's based on the popular comic book. It has a cast of new characters (and a few from the comics have cameos), but it's an original story with all new characters. Even the art style has a graphic novel quality that looks amazing. The game spans 5 episodes in season 1 (season 2 is coming out this Fall), with the 400 Days episode, which just came out a few weeks ago, that acts as as a bridge to season 2.

At the start of The Walking Dead, your main character Lee stumbles across 9 year old Clementine, who's parents were out of town when the apocalypse broke out. Clementine had been left with a babysitter (who is now dead), and is all alone to fend for herself. Not wanting to leave her, Lee takes her with him. Over the 10 or so hours of season 1 (which spans a few months in the game world), the relationship between these two characters grows and deepens. Lee doesn't have children, but he tries his best to care for and protect Clem (as he lovingly calls her) the best way he knows how in this violent and deadly new world they live in. Since we're making choices for Lee, like whether to save one person over another, to show mercy to someone else, or to be truthful about Lee's past (or to lie), the relationship dynamics can change dramatically. It's fascinating to see that in a game.

Unlike The Last of Us, the zombies really only play a minor role (although there are plenty). They're more of a backdrop. In the foreground are the characters and how they react to the events around them. Some I was immediately drawn to. Others I was annoyed with and wanted to leave them behind. But even if someone I didn't like was bitten, it was heart-wrenching having to decide what to do. Even more so if it was someone I had grown fond of.

As season 1 was drawing to a close, I had become attached to Lee and Clem. And I had started to become anxious about what was going to happen to them. I hoped for a happy ending, but I feared it would end tragically. I won't say how it ended, but I will say when it ended I was completely satisfied. It was like finishing a good book. As the end credits rolled, I set the controller down, took a deep breath, and marveled at the experience I just had.

Games have come a long way in 30 years. The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are prime examples of how this medium can elicit the same emotional response as any other form of entertainment. And while games about the zombie apocalypse might not be for everyone, these games show what games can be as an art form. With the next generation of systems on the horizon, I think these kinds of experiences are what will set great games apart from mediocre ones. Graphics won't see as big a leap as in previous generations, but I think these games set the bar high for what games can be. I can't wait.