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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What Makes a Good Boss Battle?

While preparing for the upcoming presentation, I’ve been asking myself what makes a game good or, at the very least, what makes people enjoy them.  Since I mostly play RPGS, I mostly pulled from my knowledge of those games and thought about what I did and did not enjoy about some of my favorite games.  This brings me to Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game which, while mostly enjoyable, had one of the worst boss battles I have ever played.

The final boss of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Corypheus. Source

In order to figure out what makes a boss battle work well, I want to use what Inquisition did poorly.  By figuring out what Corypheus did poorly, we might be able to figure out what to do well.  NOTE: there will be spoilers ahead for the end of Inquisition.

Continue reading “What Makes a Good Boss Battle?”

Troll Culture

Like most of you, I cannot get this election off of my mind. I have not been able to focus and write these blogs like I usually do without glancing at my social media every five minutes to see if some new, terrible act has been committed in his name. There is also a part of me that still wants to believe that this cannot be happening, and, despite this dread, I cannot help but know that it is insignificant compared to the legitimate fear that is felt by my black, Muslim, LGBTQIA+, immigrant, Latinx, etc. friends. This lack of focus lead me to conclude that I have to write on something related to the election, but also related to video games.

Enter the troll. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, think of I-r0k from Ready, Player One. They are someone who enters the online community and intentionally stirs up trouble or negativity in a variety of ways, only to sit back and enjoy people’s reactions. They can be innocent and fun, like the infamous Ken M. of Facebook. His comments are often briliiant in their stupidity, and, admittedly, it is a little fun to see people fall for the bait and “feed” him, only leading to more laughs.

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However, there are certainly parts of the internet that are less friendly, and, here, there are much worse people with little regard for social customs or common decency. I would rather not include a picture of some of those comments, as they are incredibly hate-filled, ignorant, and generally unfunny. These sorts of trolls either believe in the validity of their racist, homophobic, misogyny, etc., or do not care enough about these issues to see the impact of their words.

Given this election, I expect that the online community is in for an increase in the number of these sorts of trolls. How do we respond? Do we “feed” the troll and oppose their hateful words? As someone of privilege, I see that words have power, and this is the response that I want to take, but online arguments are extremely unproductive. I’m still very much confused, and there are much larger issues ahead as well. Would love to hear y’alls thoughts.

 

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.

Two Eyes are Better Than One

Hi friends, I’ll be posting with the wrong group today, because I 100% forgot that the syllabus was incorrect about which group was up last week.

Since our time exploring different types of virtual reality and with Ready, Player One on the schedule lately, I haven’t been able to get VR off my mind recently.  That had been one of the things I was looking forward to most in this class and I must say, it certainly lived up to the hype, having never used VR before.

I always knew that the Vive, Oculus, etc. would bring the next level of immersion to gaming, but without actually being in one of the headsets, I suppose I never fully grasped what that meant.  And sure it was great having such a large “screen” and essentially using my hands for controllers, but none of that was really what set VR apart from other forms of gaming.  If i had to boil it down to a single feature that really sold the immersion and general feeling of VR, I would say it’s the inclusion of depth perception.  Most of the features of VR can be simulated, if not flat out replicated with other devices;  there are tons of input devices besides a controller/mouse and keyboard and I’ve seen some pretty impressive fields of view with the use of multiple monitors or projectors.  But depth perception is something that has never been possible in gaming before virtual reality machines.  If you’re looking at an object in a game, it doesn’t seem like it’s really there any more than something in a movie feels like it’s in the room with you.  No matter how good the graphics are, no matter how nice a game looks, there’s always the glass in your television separating you from the game.

It’s such a subtle difference, but adding that tiny bit of parallax is, for me, what really makes the difference between gaming on a regular console or pc and gaming with a VR headset.  Once you get the feeling of really being there, there’s no stopping the development of better and better immersion in video games.

I don’t know if VR machines will change the gaming world forever like some say.  In fact, I’m fairly certain they won’t, but I do believe that they will drastically affect the way games are made.  Whether or not we see a vive in every house in however many years, I think the thing that will be changed about gaming will be the level and type of immersion and the attention to detail in more and more regards.