Tell me a story

What do you value over everything else when it comes to video games? For me it’s story, every time.  I don’t care if it’s an old game or if the graphics are just bad, or if the gameplay is a little clunky, or if it’s too long or short of a game.  If it has an original and/or compelling story, there’s a good chance I’ll like it quite a bit.

Recently I’ve been quite into the fantasy/dark fantasy genre, specifically Dark Souls.  Through my experiences with the Souls series, I’ve realized that it’s not only the content of the story that I enjoy, but how it is told and presented to the player.  In many games, the story is basically told to you straightforward, without making the player do a whole lot of work to discover the story.  There may be puzzles or little notes that you find to delve deeper into the story, but it is rare to find a game that just says “Go.”  That’s essentially what the Dark Souls series does to the player.  You begin the first game with a cutscene that means  quite a lot if you are familiar with the series’ lore already, but is quite overwhelming to the novice player. The player is then given a simple instruction to ring two bells and then gets tossed in the (kinda) right direction.  Now this might just seem like a bad game and, based on the evidence I’ve given, that wouldn’t be a terrible first impression.  I promise that’s not the case.

Dark Souls found a way to have a vastly complex world and lore, with interesting characters and history; and the game doesn’t hand any of that information to you.  You have to go out and throw yourself at seemingly impossible levels until you master them or quit.  And bit by bit, the more you explore and the more characters you meet, the more of the story you uncover.  FromSoftware took a gamble with this style of storytelling (which they started with in Demon’s Souls, the spiritual predecessor to Dark Souls).  If you put in the work to find the story and learn what all is going on, Dark Souls will be one of the most satisfying gaming experiences you have.  Because it’s not just about what the story is, it;s about how you tell it.

Coding Literature

Imagine if you could write a book that, when completed, actually contained the universe that you described in it. Instead of reading the book, you would flip it open to find a small window into this world, a snapshot of what you had created. Pressing your hand to the image, you would be flung into it, snapped out of this reality and into one of your own creation.

This is the basis for the lore in the classic desktop game Myst. Released in 1993, it places one of these books into the hands of the player, who uses it to explore various worlds called ages in a haunting, puzzle-based quest.

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Reminded of Myst by our recent playthrough of Gone Home, I thought I’d introduce everyone to the title that likely served as inspiration for the latter game. Myst is only the beginning—after its unexpected success, four more installments in the series were released, in addition to a sidequel. The series’ aesthetic might be best be described as future primitivism, as the D’ni people who craft these books have more advanced technology than we do while the inhabitants of their worlds often live in stone-age architecture.

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Stunning visuals abound.

As a young teenager, I found myself utterly entranced with Myst‘s story. The idea of writing an age combines both literature and computer programming, in a way, as one must have both knowledge of the D’ni language and the creativity to write a book. Furthermore, the concept is somewhat meta, as the game’s creators literally did write the ages that the player journeys through. If you enjoyed Gone Home, I highly recommend checking out the Myst series.

Mindcrafting Minecraft: The Psychology Behind this Open-World Creation Game

Minecraft is huge. And I don’t just mean the open-world environment within the game. According to the gaming website Polygon, as of June 2, 2016, Minecraft has sold 100 million copies. From my eight year old cousin to the older generations who apparently also play, everyone’s playing. Because of its popularity and its social elements, I think it’s appropriate to look at what kind of effects this game has on those who play it.

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Minecraft is unique because it is accessible to all age groups

Dr. Geher wrote on Psychology Today about how Minecraft is able to build social skills. Its common people to join servers with their friends in real life, allowing them to build structures cooperatively or compete with each other in world-building contests. The first benefit is teaching people about the “Tit for Tat” strategy of stealing others resources, such that you seem nice at first and overtime steal more and more so as to get the most resources without provoking retaliation. Furthermore, everyone in a shared server is forced to learn who they can trust and learn how to build trust in others, since while an alliance is helpful, a traitor trying to steal your resources or destroy your caste is worse. Furthermore, it also builds technical skills, which teaches players, especially children, the importance and use of gaining expertise of a craft. Altogether, Minecraft can be a great tool to facilitate social relations and teach important lessons.

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What’s the point of playing cooperatively if you don’t take cool group photos?

While I wish I could also say that Minecraft helps with spatial reasoning, reading, and programming, I don’t think this is accurate. A very convincing article from The Atlantic talks about how the video game itself isn’t a very good tool for teaching children, and I tend to agree. We wouldn’t just give students textbooks or novels and tell them to figure it out the same way we shouldn’t expect Minecraft to teach children. Nonetheless, I think it has great potential to be educational and fun in the right circumstances.

Sources

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/darwins-subterranean-world/201506/how-minecraft-actually-builds-social-skills

https://mojang.com/2016/06/weve-sold-minecraft-many-many-times-look/

An Unlikely Pair

Over the break, we were asked to play Gone Home.  Unfortunately, due to extenuating circumstances, we were unable to talk about it much in class, which is a shame, since this is one of my favorite games that we have played for the class.  One of the things that made me enjoy the game was its unique style.  At first glance, the game appears to be a horror game; your character, Katie, arrives at her family’s new house (dubbed the “Psycho House” in-game) in the dead of night while a storm rages outside.  What’s more, no one is actually in the house besides you, which is both very isolating and dark, as no people means very few lights on in the house.  As you continue, you find creepy hidden passages and even a very small sub-plot involving the alleged ghost of the previous owner of the house, Oscar Masan.  However, these horror elements are not the main focus of the game.

Instead, the focus of the game is on the true protagonist, Sam, and her relationships: to her sister (the character you are playing), to her parents, and most importantly to Lonnie, a girl who Sam eventually enters a romantic relationship with, leaving her homophobic parents’ house to join Lonnie in Salem, Oregon.

These two different types of games-atmospheric horror and character-driven walking simulator-seem somehow at odds at first, since the stereotypical demographic of those two genres are so different.  However, the horror elements of the game actually heighten the player’s experiences with the character-driven portions of the game by providing tension throughout the game.

First of all, the tension the horror provides gives players a reason to be engaged in the game.  Exploring a normal house is boring, but exploring a dark, abandoned house that might be haunted by a sinister being is more compelling.  This is especially important in the early game where the horror is most prevalent, since players have not developed a reason to care about Sam yet.  As the game goes on and it becomes more clear that Gone Home is not actually a horror game, the player’s (theoretical) interest in Sam’s story is enough to carry them through to the end.

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And if you’re not a fan of horror games, don’t worry-there is an option to turn all the lights on from the beginning.

More importantly, however, that tension allows players to get into both Katie’s and Sam’s heads.  For Katie, the reason is simple; imagine you came home to a house you have never been to before late at night.  Your family, who you expected to be waiting for you, is nowhere to be found, it’s storming outside, and the lights in the house keep flickering.  Being slightly scared is expected in that situation.  However, this tension is also mirrored in Sam’s experiences as she writes them down in her journal.  While large parts of Sam’s journey of self-discovery are fun and exciting, she also has to deal with unfamiliar, scary situations-just like you, the player, are dealing with.  Sam has no support system outside of Lonnie since she has just moved to a new school.  She knows her parents will be unsupportive, and her only possible familial help, Katie, is away on a year-long stint in Europe.  Sam is exploring uncharted waters where even usually welcoming sights can be dangerous, just like the player is.  By including these horror elements, the game makers are also including a pathway into Sam’s own experiences.

Going, Going, Gone Home

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One of the many objects you can pick up and interact with in the game

Playing Gone Home this week I was struck by the notion that it seemed like large chunks of the story were either missing or obscured by a false sense of horror. As you explored the house it was easy to follow the story of Sam and Lonnie because it was read out loud in the form of journal entries Sam wrote to you. Each entry was tied to an object or location in the house so that the story naturally unfolded with your exploration and you could hear the inflection in her voice as if she was telling you her story in person. If you were an observant player you could also notice what was going on in the lives of the other family members and the history of the house. However, this part of the story was told entirely through scraps of notes and objects left lying around the house. You could read letters written by various family members and look at your past school projects but it was easy to miss the details of the story when presented with a wall of text. The story was also obscured by the fact that the game insisted on attempting to be creepy when there seemed to be no real reason for it. There was just a constant sense of dread since the lights kept flickering and turning off so you got the sense that something would jump out at you even though it never did. I would have enjoyed the game much more if it didn’t have this false sense of horror and I was able to equally explore each of the characters presented instead of just focusing on one story that was read aloud since I often missed details and had to go back to figure out what was going on with the rest of the family.

The Place of Video Games During Finals Season

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. What should be a wonderful and beautiful time of Christmas music and holiday cheer is spoiled by the crushing realization that we all have a lot of work to do before we can enjoy the seasonal cheer. I find the behavior of many people very interesting during this time of year. Some folks seem to maintain a quasi-cheery attitude, knowing that they’ve done this before and they’ll do it again. To them, worrying only doubles the pain, so what’s the point of getting too wrapped up in your studies? On the other hand, some people are quite open about how much they’re struggling. It’s some kind of odd coping mechanism, I think. This (false) dichotomy, though, has shown me one rather interesting thing about the use of video games during this time of the year.

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A very retro Christmas to all

For the “chiller” group, as I will call them, they keep most of their habits the same, in terms of leisure. Sure, they’ll devote more time than usual to their studies, but they still find time to game, watch some Netflix, or go to the gym. I think this group tends to do better in the long run. Go ahead, search if it’s better to take breaks while studying, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find some good data that suggests we do better sectioning off our work in to chunks, rather than punishing our brain for 8 hours straight. Even my pre-med roommate finds time to play some mobile games in between his intense biology slides. I’m certainly not saying that you should devote this weekend to beating every side quest of Skyrim (ha), but it might not be the worst thing to knock out one.

To all you “thrillers” who lock yourselves in Stevenson for 12 hours on the weekend, only emerging for food and water, take some time during this final season and try out some sort of quick breaks. Even if it’s to check social media or listen to a few songs, try giving your brain a break to synthesize everything that it’s taken in. I was once like you, I had a lot of internal guilt to overcome when I would enjoy some leisure time. I told myself that I was wasting time that I would need to work. Give it a shot, though. I think you’ll be surprised at how much stronger your work will be when your brain isn’t a heaping pile of mush.

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