A Great Experience

When I first signed up for this course, I was just expecting a standard Vanderbilt English course.  You know, the kind of course where your teacher assigns several books or excerpts that relate in some way to the topic you are covering in class, there’s a discussion/lecture during class about the topic, and then a few essays during the year to make sure you’re understanding the material.  I also expected the class to focus mostly upon film, since mediums such as video games and other digital forms are still not very accepted academically.  However, when I saw the syllabus for the first time, like 40 minutes before the first class, I was pleasantly surprised.

My first thought was “Oh wow, this class actually has a focus upon games!” My second thought was, “Wait, this sounds suspiciously similar to that Coursera course I was looking at a few months ago…”  Unsurprisingly, I found out that it was in fact taught by the same professor as that Coursera course and was basically an expanded version of it.  However, I still had my doubts about the class, for the reasons described above.  Then on the first day of class I found out that two vital parts of the class would be playing and examining the game “Lord of the Rings: Online” and then examining how it was remediated with the original Lord of the Rings and also designing a game module for NeverWinter Nights 2 based off “The Faerie Queene.”  So then the class started and I fell in love with the class and all of my doubts were proven to be utterly and completely wrong.

However, I do have to say, the most fulfilling part of this class would have to be the Neverwinter Nights 2 project at the end.  I have dabbled around in making little games in the past, mostly using the program RPG Maker XP.  Yet, I’d never made anything quite on the scale of what the Neverwinter Nights project was.  It was the first “game” I’d helped to make that had ever even been partially a complete project.  But it was really quite a culmination of the class, and it really showed that the class had taught many useful skills.  And no matter how cheesy this sounds, the most important one is that you can accomplish anything if you work at it.  And also Google solves most of your problems

– N. Edwards

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Gone Home

Earlier in class we had to play a game called “Gone Home.”  And it’s a bit of an interesting beast I would like to reflect more upon.  Once again, this is an independent game (I know, I have a bit of an obsession with them, but they always seem to turn out so amazing).  It’s developed by the Fullbright Company.  I would suggest that you play it before you read this blog post.  Seriously, it’s a beautiful, amazing game that deserves praise, and its developers deserve the money for creating this work of art.

SPOILERS BEGIN NOW

The game is a love story.  Simple as that.  It presents itself as a horror story at the beginning.  A hastily scrawled note on the door warning you not to search for your sister, a stormy night, and hints that the house might be haunted by a crazy and/or vengeful ghost.  Lights flicker, televisions are mysteriously turned on, and an intense loneliness permeates every single fiber of your being.  Yet, following your gaming instincts, you examine the first note you can interact with, and a soothing voice-over, that of your little sister, begins to calm you.  You continue to explore the house, following the plot-hook of what happened to your sister, in the hopes that perhaps this story will have a happy ending despite all of your senses yelling at you that “No, this does not have a happy ending!” And how could it?  You find hints that your family has fallen apart.  Your mom appears to be cheating on your father, their marriage seems to be falling apart, your sister is left alone and struggling with her burgeoning attraction to a girl in an age where that was even less accepted than it is today.  You are forced to assume that the worst possible action has occurred in that attic with the “keep out” sign and ominous red lights.  And yet it hasn’t.  Your mom never actually cheated, your parents went on a couple’s retreat to try and repair the divide between them, and your sister ran away with her girlfriend, hopefully finding some form of happy ending.

So what makes this game so great?  I know in my earlier blog post, I argued that gameplay and narrative should intertwine, yet how does it in this game?  This game is literally walking around a house and looking at notes.  Most people would argue that this doesn’t even constitute a game, let alone a great one.  And yet, it manages what most games never can.  It manages to make the player feel like they are living the story.  It allows the player to fully immerse themselves in the protagonist’s life.  You worry about the family as if they were your own, you root for them to overcome their demons, you explore the house hoping to find clues, you feel joy and apprehension when you discover the sister has run away to chase her happiness.  It uses the medium of video games to accomplish something that no other medium can.  No other medium can create the form of immersion that this particular story needs, and that is why video games need to be classified as an art form-  because of games like this; games that use their powers and limitations to do things that no other medium – literature, painting, film- cannot; games that make you feel and think and cry and reflect and hope.

~N. Edwards

Little Inferno, A Fiery Reflection

So, in class we had to do a report over a video.  We were supposed to play the game and analyze it and so on.  I was originally assigned Modern Warfare 2, a first-person shooter game that has done much to categorize an entire genre, and also has some very analysis-worthy moments (The airport section, I’m looking at you).  However, there was a distinct lack of Independent Games, which I felt was a great injustice to what is kind of my favorite group of games to talk about.   For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to assume any readers of this blog will know what an independent game is, or can at least utilize the magical search engine known only as “Google” for finding out.

                So, anyway, I decided to do my report over a wonderful game I had recently acquired. A little gem called “Little Inferno.”  To summarize the game quickly, it’s basically a virtual fireplace simulator.  Yes, a virtual fireplace simulator.  But that description does not do it justice.   Instead, it’s a far more varied piece of work; a piece of art I would even hazard to say. It deals with so many complex themes and ideas in a way that is both entertaining and informative and I just think that is great for a video game to be able to do.  In my presentation, my main argument was that the game is in fact a remediation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  However, which my professor pointed out, in my overzealousness to present the game, I presented what was simply a reading of a game, as an actual fact.  Which is true.  While this game has no actual evidence that points towards its “authorial intent” being an allegory of the cave remediation, it is possible to present a very convincing reading of it being that.  However, what I want to stress in this short blog post is how some of the strongest evidence for this reading comes from the gameplay rather than the overarching narrative.  The gameplay manages to enhance the narrative, rather than being a simple backbone for the narrative to be built upon.  And I think that is how video games should function.  Gameplay and narrative should intertwine rather than one simply existing to act as a simple support structure for the other.

~N. Edwards

No-one has to die: Choice in videogames

Okay, so I know this is slightly off-topic compared to everyone else’s blog posts, but I recently played a game and I really want to talk about it and Professor Clayton said we can write about something else if you want to, so…

Basically, I watch a podcast/video series called “Extra-Credits.”  It’s a series that examines issues, problems, and ideas in the game industry.  They occasionally do a video-series called “Games you Might Not Have Tried,” and they did a special one for Halloween.  One game in the video immediately stood out to me and I had to try it right away and I’m glad I did.

The game is called “No-one Has to Die” and the premise of the game is simple.  You are a person who has access to a security computer for a company.  The building is on fire.  There are four people in the building.  Save them.  However, unlike what the title implies, you have to sacrifice one person per level so the others survive.  But what makes this so great?  Also, I really recommend that you don’t read this until you play the game.  Please.  Please play it now.  I linked to it at the end of this article.  Skip down there and play it.  It really needs to be experienced.

no one

Unlike every other choice system in a video game, this game does not present you with any ulterior motives.  In series such as BioShock or Mass Effect, the choice system is its own metagame.  “If I do this, then it will benefit me in the long run.”  No matter what, you always have a that question in the back of your mind when you play those games.  You can not make an altruistic choice.  However, in this game, it doesn’t present you with any other motives.  It is simply your choice who lives and dies.  In between levels, you talk to the people trapped in the building and you have to make the choice of who lives based off of nothing but these interactions.  Do you save the CEO of the company in hopes of getting more information, do you save the arsonist in order to bring him to justice, do you save the man who shouldn’t even have been there, or do you save the woman because the man begs you to save her instead of him.  Secretly, there is a hidden route that lets you save everyone, but the game gives you no indication that this exists.

gaming_no-one_has_to_die

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that this game does a choice system correctly.  You have no indication of what your choices mean which means that your choices are based entirely upon your emotional connections to the characters.  You feel guilt when you sacrifice someone, and sadness when (in what will probably be your first playthrough) you have to sacrifice either the man or the woman, right after they all but admit their love for each-other.  This is a choice system that more games need to use, because this actually works and I hope to see this in a mainstream game someday.

 

~Nathanial Edwards

All pictures from No-one has to die (seriously, you should play this…)

http://die.clay.io

Lord of the Rings Online- An… Experience

Playing Lord of the Rings Online has been an… interesting experience for me.  I am no stranger to video games and MMO’s, but LOTRO provided an experience that was both new and familiar at the same time.

Starting up the game, I designed a character, a DPS character like usual since that is the build I prefer.  When the game started, I was interested in the tutorial and intro quests.  I hadn’t experienced an MMO that started the player in the game in such a way.  It made the game feel very story-based, filled with narrative and character and plot; a feeling that most MMO’s fail at inspiring.

Unfortunately, once the Tutorial and Intro quests ended, it became an experience far more like those of a traditional MMO, such as WoW.  I was impressed at the recreation of Tolkien’s world.  It felt very solid and complete, like I had actually stepped into Middle Earth.  Unfortunately, the game began to suffer in other ways.  Once reaching Bree, the player is exposed to what I am calling quest-bloat- the experience wherein a large amount of quests become available all at once.  This is an issue I have with many open-world games, and especially MMO’s.  I like to complete every quest I can, or do everything else I can, before continuing the main quest-line.  In this case, this has caused the game to grind to a more-or-less complete and utter halt.

Another issue with LOTRO is the pay-to-play and pay-to-win mechanics.  You have to pay to unlock basic necessities such as extra bag space and other things.  It feels a bit unfair to those who are unable to pay real money and makes the game just a slight bit less fun.

I guess I started out really enjoying the gameplay and ideas that were put into LOTRO and became just a bit disappointed when it started to resemble traditional MMO-fare.

~Nathanial Edwards~

King of Kong-or-An Exercise in Frustration

Coming into this movie, I had high hopes.  It was a movie about competitive video game players.  Heck, it was Donkey Kong!  That’s a great game, right?  Oh how naive I was.  The film, King of Kong- A Fistful of Quarters is your stereotypical underdog story.  An undefeated champion with an entourage of followers and empire built around himself finds his title challenged by an unknown underdog.  The champion tries to sabotage his opponent at every turn, only to finally be bested.  We the audience root for the underdog as we see his struggle develop, despise the champion, and enjoy the underdog’s eventual victory.  It is a tried and true film formula that everyone loves.  All it requires is a good challenge, a good villain, and a good underdog.  Unfortunately, despite all its efforts, this film falls flat in supplying that final ingredient.

The film excels in the first aspect.  Billy Mitchell makes for an excellent villain.  Even if he is a great person in real-life, great care has been spent making him seem like a deplorable human being.  He’s mean, he violates rules that he himself set, he has spies, etc.  But Steve Wiebe, the protagonist, is not given this amount of care.  The film tries so hard to present him as a relatable, likeable human being.  He’s a teacher, he was depressed, his life-long dream of being  a lifer was ruined, he threw out his wrist at the ‘most important’ moment of his life, he’s a father, he’s a husband, etc.  And yet, he comes off as callous and self-absorbed.

Yes, it is good to have a dream.  Yes, it is good to have a hobby. Yes, it is good to have something you are passionate about.  No, it is bad to let that thing consume your life.  No, it is bad to let your small child cry at you to help him, to be a father, and for you to act as though he is nothing more than a nuisance.

Yes, this has been a rant.  It’s just, I came into this movie with rather high expectations.  What I expected was an okay underdog story.  What I got was a movie full of unrelateable and vaguely terrible human beings…  Except Q-bert lady, she seemed pretty awesome.

 

Good on you Q-bert lady.  Good on you.

 

~Nathanial Edwards

Braid- A Perfect Experience.


Braid is an incredibly noteworthy gaming experience. The first thing that you are greeted to when you start the game for the first time is the beautiful water-color title screen- A city bathed in warm-yellow light. This magnificent art style persists throughout the game, but it is not what I will be focusing on within this post. What I would rather focus upon is the blending of rules and narrative the game employs.

In the game, you travel to six different worlds, each one with its own time-related gimmick. The game never explicitly tells you the rules for each world, or even the game really, beyond some basic controls- leaving the player to suss out the mechanics themselves. However, each mechanic is intrinsically tied to Tim’s(the player-character’s) story. Before each world, you enter a region known as “The Clouds,” within which you read books that relay Tim’s story to you. Within each story, the mechanic is presented as a concept- the weight of a ring, feeling as though you’re going in a different path from everyone else, the wish to erase your mistakes. By utilizing this blending of mechanics, Braid is able to create a beautiful and poignant narrative which subverts all of you expectations out of a genre, by having you, the player, be the villain, the monster. (And yes, I realize there is a second ‘true’ ending, but it requires you to absolutely violate the mechanics the game has taught you, and is overall a much less satisfying ending in every way- in fact, there is much to be said about an ending requiring the player to defy the rules set by the game, but I am trying to keep this post short).

Overall, Braid provided a wonderful experience. It blended narrative, rules, and your preconceived notions about how a story should progress to create a beautiful and poignant narrative about time, obsession, and mistakes.

Tim watches over the sleeping Princess

On a less analytical note, my experience playing with my partner, Amanda, was a great experience. Watching her play was fun, and she was very quick to learn (small analysis, this attests to the games strengths). Watching her play let me see the game through a new perspective.

-Nathanial Edwards