Why We Cheat: The (perceived) Necessity of Walkthroughs in Modern Gaming Culture

I know it’s a long title, but bear with me.

There’s a phenomenon that has arisen in modern culture of thoroughly dissecting and analyzing storylines and our entertainment options. Whether it’s the hyperprevalence of YouTube videos providing explanations of episodes or theories about the small actions of characters. It has led to the hyperprocessing of most media, and near obsessive attention being paid to the stories, so it feels impossible to surprise someone – what used to be foreshadowing is now obvious telegraphing.

What would otherwise be just attention to detail in costumes turned for some people into an obvious twist in this episode of Game of Thrones.

This culture has extended to video games as well. Not counting the numerous “Best X in Game Y” videos, there are plenty of sites and videos discussing story-affecting (and some not) decisions to the level that every single one can be calculated instead of chosen, and discovering the consequences afterward.

But why? There could be plenty of blame attributed to the increased amount of content that is accessible for gamers. With the invention of YouTube and Twitch, games are much more accessible to people who haven’t purchased the game or are playing it. Exposing gamers to the future or climactic moments in a story is part of the biggest moments in streaming and walkthroughs, so without them the game is showcased less than the streamer/youtuber’s personality. But in this case plot points and decisions are spoiled.

In addition, Wikipedia articles for games are very important and often visited. Whether it’s to tell someone how to access a certain character’s dialogue or even the path to use to escape a map, it is a resource that many players do not waste. But like walkthroughs in puzzle games, how detrimental is this?

There are some benefits to gamers getting super deep into games. While you won’t be able to necessarily get people on critical decisions that have complex repercussions, you get a playerbase that on the whole is much more interested in achieving these end results, and knowing the path are more likely to invest their resources heavily into getting them. Someone who values the best weapon and has done research to know that you’re getting the absolute best weapon if you farm tons and tons of items in Kingdom Hearts is more likely to actually do that content, and possibly see more of the game through that. Similarly, I’m definitely going to be more interested in passing Garrus by in Mass Effect if I am aware that I can, to unlock dialogue scenes in the second which I had never encountered.

Overall, I think the hyperanalyzation of media is a shame, and people are not playing goal-oriented games to enjoy them as much as they could. But there is something to be said that with the growth of the video game industry there are options for the more hardcore and driven gamers as well as those who are casually enjoying them.

Advertisements

The Modern Game Climate: Gimmicks and Quirks

For the past few years, there have been the releases of several games that were very much hyped up and expected to do very well, or sold on one or two interesting points that made the idea of them stand out while the reality of the games were very hollow and unsustainable. There seems to be an increased prevalence of these sorts of game gimmicks, and for whatever reasons developers are opting in to investing heavily into these sorts of games that try to break or expand genres more than games that would be effective within their own genre.

There are loads of recent games that attempt to do this. Destiny, with its half a billion dollar funding, attempted to merge the FPS and MMO genres, and delivered a game with the mechanics of both but less quality aspects of each. Titanfall’s main sell was being a FPS with giant robots, and while it delivered on that and refreshingly added some spice to the shooter formula, it had no single player options and its campaign consisted simply of multiplayer games with some small voiceovers to make the player artificially feel like there was some kind of story occurring. And more recently, the Skyrim Special Edition offers the same game that was released in 2011 plus DLC for the original price, but with the only difference being improved graphics. While it’s not my place to tell the capitalist world how they should develop these games, there are serious flaws with these titles. The idea is what drives them, not the actual content of the game.

I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea to think about your quirky ideas. I’ve used mine to develop some cool short stories, and my sister is still going to become a millionare once she figures out how to pull off her porta potty scheme. But when the only real contribution to the game is the minor theme, not something solid within the game’s foundation, the medium will sometimes not be enough to salvage the game. While there is more leeway in video games for cliche storytelling and underdevelopment, games with weak characters and stories don’t work as well as ones with compelling narratives. 

The original Skyrim had hundreds of quests throughout the world, and part of its appeal was that almost all of these quests had interesting stories and narratives that were strong on their own – add hundreds more to that experience and you have a game that feels impossible to “finish,” and that isn’t a bad thing. But if the only thing you’re contributing to the community is better graphics, how much are you really giving to the community? 

While these sorts of games aren’t going to be sustainable, they certainly can make a lot of money right out the gate. Even though probably a majority of buyers have already played it, the Skyrim Special Edition has sold enough copies to place it at #2 in the UK this week. And hey, if it works, it works, right? But if companies are looking for longer term success, I’d encourage them to look less at the few shiny gems of quirky ideas and more at developing good foundations for the games.

Sunk Cost versus Characterization

There are a lot of good reasons to like a character in a narrative, whether it is a novel, movie or even video game. They can be written well with witty dialogue, have upstanding morals, or even can just be attractive. But there are those characters, who, like in Journey, are likable despite not saying anything or doing anything significant on their own. Now, there are micro-manipulations writers and developers can make to influence the consumer to actually want to like their creations (e.g. their physical mechanics including gracefulness, their coloring, the music that plays when focusing on them), but one possible thing to take into consideration is how much time the player is putting into these characters, and how that interacts with the character’s likability.

There’s a well-known fallacy/concept known as the sunk-cost fallacy, in which a businessman (or investor, etc.) will continue to put resources into something, despite having already put irrecoverable resources into it with no real gain previously, simply because they invested in it (and often heavily). This fallacy mostly is constrained to the world of economics, where it is most relevant, but it may be interesting to investigate its possible interactions with video games.

partiallyclipsresignation_sm
“Failing to Ignore Sunken Costs”

In a lot of video games, especially ones with heavy grinds such as MMO’s, the sunk cost fallacy manifests itself very strongly. Take, for example, the game Runescape, which is essentially one whole time sink machine. For most people, the ultimate goals are to reach the maximum levels in their skills (99 for oldies like me), which involves hundreds of hours of time put into single skills and eventually hours upon hours for single levels. If you’ve already put two hundred hours into reaching the next milestone, you will be much more reluctant to give up your lot and simply stop playing without actually reaching the milestone.

Narratives will have a different interaction with the fallacy than things like Runescape, though. In games like Journey, you’re not spending hundreds of hours trying to reach the end of the game. But you’re still putting in time, guiding this red-robed character with no real unique identification markers across the world to the mountain for the goal of completion. It is hard to say that the player-controlled character has any real markings of characterization – we don’t know its gender, it doesn’t speak, and we certainly don’t know what the exact motives of the character are throughout the story. Part of it might be that we have such a high level of control compared to many other games, where the character is predetermined, but in Journey the player is in charge of everything the character actually does.

Without real characterization, it might be hard to really answer why this character is likable, why we would want to sympathize with this character. I would primarily lay my claim as the idea that, by the time we start really thinking about whether or not we care about the character, we have invested enough time into the game for us to not really care about what’s been given to us about them, just that we’ve spent enough time with the character to want to ride out the rest of the story with them.

Which is certainly not to say that Journey isn’t worth finishing by itself. With such a fantastic soundtrack, interesting mechanics, intriguing and well-built up mystery, and some interesting but not complex landscape puzzles to figure out, the game maintains enough drive for the player to want to see the ascent up to the top of the mountain. While Journey certainly comes lacking in characterization, it is rare to find a game like it that can pull off that kind of experience without needing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allegory, whether you like it or not

quotefancy-226520-3840x2160
From quotefancy

I’m sorry, Tolkien – I love your work and all, but this is happening.

Per the quote above, and the message in the foreword, it’s not incredibly hard to figure that Tolkien was not fond of allegory and especially its application to his work. While the times might indicate that the War of the Ring has some pretty strong parallels to some of the recent events of the time (namely World War II), Tolkien and his followers have strongly protested this idea, and said they had nothing to do with each other. And others have connected his work to religious texts, namely the Bible (Frodo as Jesus, Melkor as Lucifer, etc.), which would (and likely has been refuted by his fans).

Unfortunately for Tolkien and many of his fans, that’s not really the way literary criticism and allegory works. The intent of the author is not necessarily considered when reviewing texts and parallels with other texts. Even if Dante Alighieri had not planned on making his own epic journey through Hell laden with images of his political rivals, the parallels between his depictions of members of society and his expulsion and dissatisfaction with how Florence was conducting itself were not invisible, and connections can be made.

So it is with Tolkien. Allegory doesn’t require the author to have written the text with allegory in mind. And as it is, many writers write things with parallels that are discovered after the fact and that were completely unintentional. Unfortunately for Tolkien, his Catholic upbringing and fellowship with writers like C.S. Lewis allow there to be a solid injection of hidden meanings and ideals thrown into the mix.

While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of religious allegory, the makings are there. As previously mentioned, there are characters who bear resemblances to Biblical figures – Frodo carries the ring (sins of the world) and he alone is capable of making the sacrifice necessary to destroy it; Melkor was an Ainur (essentially angel) and corrupted many Maiar (lesser angels) to follow him, including Sauron and the balrogs; other examples that elude me.

There are plenty of unintentional allegories that exist in the world. You don’t have to look much further than this year: “Warcraft,” the fantasy movie based on the strategy game series, has been linked by some Redditors to the Syrian refugee crisis despite preceding the crisis by decades. And even if Tolkien is sincere in saying no allegory is meant to exist within The Lord of the Rings, it exists.

And even if it can be vehemently ripped apart and destroyed, the story is good enough stand alone; in fact, if the reason Tolkien was and Tolkienites are so vehemently against the trilogy as being described as allegory was/is to establish it as a root text for future allegories, I’ll gladly support it.

 

Pokemon GO(ing down)

This may or may not be another controversial comment on my part. Either way, they’re my opinions on why Pokemon GO has probably peaked and won’t see anywhere near their huge rates of play again.

First, the game was very much a beneficiary of the bandwagon effect. It easily would not have been as popular if it were just based on individuals taking to themselves, but with public spaces with multiple stops having from tens to hundreds of people hanging around, talking in groups about their Pokemon and what they were seeing, and some people getting into it having never played any Pokemon game before because their cousins, siblings, children were. But that’s a scary marker if you’re interested in longevity – crazes end fairly quickly, and Pokemon GO’s certainly has.

Second, the game is having trouble even with users who at least were fairly dedicated previously, as the lack of promised features like tracking make finding rare Pokemon much more difficult. The existence of PokeVision made life easier for a lot of people – they would be able to search their areas for the rare Pokemon they saw on the broken tracking feature, and then go out to find it. Yet Niantic has requested these third party groups to take down websites like these, to “prevent cheating.” Given there is no real high-risk/reward competition in Pokemon GO (the design of gyms causes them to change hands incredibly frequently), cheating is fairly irrelevant in any case.

My last point is that Niantic doesn’t seem as capable to efficiently handle these issues and push past their scheduled releases. The Buddy system was apparently released yesterday (though I don’t seem to have it active on my phone yet), but the majority of users are still without a tracking feature – something that has been an issue since two weeks out of the game’s release. Given that it’s been now two full months and they still haven’t implemented their fix universally, and have had the third party workarounds for it shut down, it almost feels like they don’t care. I won’t say that’s true, but with something that increased so much in size and was instantly profitable, it surprises me that they didn’t allocate more resources to have more timely releases for fixes, etc.

I won’t say that I don’t like the game. I do, and my hours and hours of play time can attest to that. I wouldn’t have gotten all the way to level 22 without enjoying it, but it is frustrating trying to be patient with a game that isn’t necessarily broken but is certainly not complete. When Niantic fixes the game, I’ll probably come back and put many more hours into it, but until then I’ll be another user that’s moving further and further from the game.

A solid break from stress and “Legion”

I think the moment I realized that I had gotten really into the game was when I stepped out of the Towers West Lounge and thought about walking backward to turn back time out of curiosity. That HUNT! puzzle killed me.

I admit that I didn’t spend as much time playing the game as my partner Katherine, but I did sit down and had the great pleasure of trying to wring out puzzle pieces and completion from worlds 4 and 5. The double lever shadow puzzle also killed me.

 

pic755982_lg

I wasn’t particularly gripped with the story. I know the game came out a while ago, but I was dissuaded by the very tell-centric nature of delivering the narrative. I didn’t feel like I was playing through the story as much as just playing a puzzle game and reading about some aspects of the story every new world. As a creative writer and otherwise fiction analyst, I find that, especially with interactive media, it is so very interesting to be able to tell a game’s story through the actual game. Sometimes for games I don’t play, I look at cinematics to learn some parts of the story, and especially for fighting games it’s amazing to me how much story they can fit into fighting sequences. Considering that example is a fairly limited form of the video game medium for show-centric story, it seems almost cheap for a game like this to skimp completely out of showing and just rely on the several books at the beginning of each new world.

Nonetheless, I was thoroughly intrigued by the game, and I was so fascinated by the repetition of puzzles and the way they simply used newer mechanics to make the repeated puzzles less…repetitive. Adding new mechanics was a really fun way of taking puzzles that previously were fairly trivial and making us have to rethink them and really wrack our brains for good solutions. Still looking at you, HUNT!.

More on the mechanics – not a lot of games switch up mechanics midway through the game. Sure, you might be able to acquire new abilities or weapons that supplement the skills you’ve already developed, but I think a major part of the difficulty of Braid was encountering these new mechanics early on and needing to simply engage with them and figure them out as you were solving the puzzles. While the base skills remain the same (sure, the jumping and time rewinding), you fairly rapidly have to be able to integrate these new skills and at least attempt the puzzles with possibly underdeveloped feelings for how the mechanics will work.

One of the biggest preventions of that making me give up on this game experience was the fact that I could go through the game without actually needing to solve all of these crazy puzzles immediately was a major drawing point for me to this game. I’m not a huge platformer guy, and I like puzzle games, but mostly just on mobile devices. Despite all of this, I found Braid incredibly easy to get into and stay into due to my ability to move on from one puzzle to the next if I found myself stuck on one for more than twenty minutes.

Overall, I thought the game was incredibly intuitive and thoroughly enjoyable, through the difficulty. I probably wouldn’t finish the game by myself, but I thought that figuring out the puzzles that I did was particularly rewarding and I enjoyed the experience a lot. Even though I failed several puzzles. And I didn’t realize how to finish the purple lion puzzle. It was late and I had had some champagne, okay?