Learning to Play

For full effect, please play this.

A lot of people have games that they consider integral parts of their childhood.  As we have discussed in class, for a lot of people this game was Pokemon.  For others, Super Mario Bros or the Zelda series were the cornerstones in their gaming careers.  For me, that game was Morrowind.

For those who are not familiar with Morrowind, it is the third game in The Elder Scrolls series, and the first that was (and still is) widely discussed online.  The Elder Scrolls games are a set of fantasy RPG’s with immersive lore, a fully fleshed out game world, and multiple races (based on, but not copying, standard RPG races) you could play as.  Released by Bethesda in 2002, Morrowind served as a bridge between the first two games, which were both incredibly hard and not very user friendly, and the last two games, which, while still occasionally challenging, adopted standard RPG aids like a compass and quest markers.  Instead of these, Morrowind had a quest journal the player can consult, but besides that must find their way to quests through good old directions given by NPC’s.  As such, this seems like a very odd game for a young teenager like myself, especially one not well versed in games, to choose.

An example of the stunning graphics Morrowind had to offer.  Source

I think the reason Morrowind, and for that matter gaming in general, ended up being so important to me was because it represented time I got to spend with my father.  My dad was in the military, so he was sometimes deployed for months at a time and frequently called away to meetings for a few days at a time.  As such, I didn’t really get to spend as much time with him as I would have liked.  However, when he was home, one of the things we loved to do together was for him to play a game and for me and my twin sister to watch him play it.  I know it sounds like kind of a weird thing to do, but since he loved lore-heavy RPGs like Morrowind it was kind of like watching a really, really long movie where you could kind of, sort of convince the main character to do what you wanted him to do.

I’m sure we made quite the picture: a gruff army man sitting in his chair, staring intently at the computer he was playing on, with two excitable children bouncing around behind him, telling him to go do this quest or go talk to this person.  Eventually, however, just watching my dad play these games wasn’t really enough for me.  I wanted to play these games for myself.

Ironically, as a kid I wasn’t really allowed to play too many video games, and my parents (mainly my mom) weren’t about to support a possible gaming habit by buying me a console (Luckily, they later changed their minds).  As such, instead of the child-friendly Nintendo games many grew up with, I ended up mostly playing old PC games that my dad was done with on our family computer.  This is where I truly fell in love with Morrowind.

The beautiful character creation screen found in Morrowind. Source

When I first started playing Morrowind, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing.  The good thing was I didn’t need to. Vvardenfell, an island that makes up the majority of the province of Morrowind and the main setting of the game, was so immersive that I was simply content to wander around, talking to literally everyone I saw and generally getting nothing done. In all honesty, I had probably created at least two or three characters, starting over the game each time, before I even left the starting city of Seyda Neen.

Seyda Neen wasn’t exactly a big town… Source

Once I got into it, though, I really got into it.  Because even my tiny child self was a completionist, I tried to get every single side quest in the game done, ignoring the main quest in the process.  I wandered from town to town, joining all of the guilds and collecting all of the quests, dying frequently and leveling up in a way that hardcore gamers would probably have cringed at.  I never did finish the main quest line, but that didn’t really matter to me.  What mattered was that my character, and by extension me, really felt like a part of that world, a world that was shared by both me and my father.

Morrowind is still one of my favorite games, and I feel like I would not have developed as much as a love for RPG’s as I have without it.  In all honesty, writing this while listening to its awesome soundtrack has made me really want to play it again, but this time actually try to beat it.  What about you guys-what games would you consider to be an integral part of your childhood?  Why do you think that is?  Thank you for reading and I look forward to reading your comments below!

Cavafy’s “Ithaca” and The Video Game Arms Race

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Don’t get caught up in this damn World of Warcraft arms race,” he told me. “You’ll only lose sight of why you enjoy the game in the first place.”

He was referring to the fact that in World of Warcraft, a game that we played together when I was younger, the developers constantly released new, awesome material that required your constant attention and dedication in order to master. A lot of this came in the form of high end “gear,” or equipment that would grant bonuses to a player’s abilities. Once you got towards the end of the new content, you might get diminishing returns on your investment in terms of stats, but it was still noticeable, and a lot of players still grind out countless hours for the sake of becoming a tiny bit stronger. I was one of those players.

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Though my old account has long since been deleted, this is some of the stuff I was working with. You tend to have a lot of free time when you get grounded as a teenager, and oh lord could WoW use every bit of it. There was a never-ending stream of items, equipment, skills and mounts to obtain and master. I’d spend a lot of time going through the same dungeons and events over and over in the hopes of getting some gear that I hadn’t gotten yet, half for my own abilities in the game and half for pride.

My dad would notice my reaction when I’d lose some sort of achievement that I wanted, and he’d usually get on me for not enjoying the game itself. You know, cuz that’s kinda the point of a game. I’d spend most of the time that I played with my dad looking forward to simply getting loot, losing track of what was most valuable about that time with my dad.

One of our favorite dungeons was called Karazhan; it was an old castle filled with all sorts of magic creatures and haunting spirits who held strong items and fun challenges.

This is but one of them, as our heroes attempt to defeat the actors in the play. The play changes between three random options, and in this one they try to defeat the Big Bad Wolf as he spontaneously chases random members of their party, who are designated as “Little Red Riding Hood,” all the while screaming “Come here little girl!”

Totally fun, right? I missed out on a lot of the pure enjoyment of the game because I was too concerned with the end result. Another good example comes from the final boss of Ulduar, an ancient Dwarven city dedicated to the mystical Titans who created this world.

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Besides the innovative combat, the stunning location and graphics, and the numerous challenges present for players, Ulduar offers some of the most expansive and immersive lore that I’ve ever encountered as a gamer. Hours of gameplay must be dedicated to reach this point, and we are given a lot of incredible story line along the way that culminates in our showdown with Yogg-Saron. This encounter is both extremely challenging and totally fun, but I spent most of this time worrying about what loot he was going to drop.

Had I not, I might have enjoyed the game as it was meant to be played. I couldn’t tell you now all the stuff that my characters possessed in this game, or even how much time I spent acquiring it. However, I can’t describe the nostalgia that I got when looking up videos to put in this blog. Each of them brought back individual memories with my dad, or they reminded me of how much fun I had immersing myself in one of the great games of our time.

This is all to say that we should take the message of Cavafy’s “Ithaca” to heart, especially in gaming. If we start to stress too much about the end goals of the game, or keep chasing minor achievements and a minuscule leg up on other players, then we start to lose the reason that we play games like this in the first place.

Silumni, Easily Lost

A lot of my fellow posters have been talking about Braid, which is a fantastic puzzle-platformer that absolutely deserves to be talked about.  However, I thought that I should change it up a bit and instead talk about the other game that we’ve played in this class so far: LOTRO, or Lord of the Rings Online.

LOTRO is an MMORPG, or a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.  As such, many (but not all) see role-playing as an important component of playing these types of games.  While I don’t necessarily get into the social aspect of role-playing (as can be seen most commonly on the role-playing required servers of LOTRO), I do think that creating a character who is an interesting, complete individual in and of themselves is an integral part of enjoying RPGs.  Therefore, as a thought exercise, I would like to introduce all of you to my Elven Loremaster, Silumni.

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Here she is.  Isn’t she great?

In all seriousness, creating a complete character in LOTRO is a bit harder to do than in other RPGs that I have played, such as Bioware’s Dragon Age series or even Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, simply because those games gave me dialogue choices that help me cement my character’s personality traits and even parts of their backstories without me having to really devote time outside of the game to thinking about my character, something that LOTRO does not do.  This doesn’t necessarily make LOTRO bad for role-playing; it just means that creating a whole character is a bit more front-heavy.  I can’t just figure it out as I go.

Because of this, a lot of the character choices I made for Silumni were made in the character starting screen.  For example, her name is not actually related to Tolkien’s works at all (mostly because any interesting Tolkien-related names have already been used by the thousands of players who have come before me).  Instead, “Silumni” is the Sylvan word for animal-according to one site on the internet, at least.  Since I knew I wanted Silumni to be a pet-based Loremaster, this seemed fitting for her character. I also chose to have her be from Rivendell, which is surrounded by nature.  This helped me create a character who loved nature and the animals found within it more than even Radagast the Brown, if such a thing were even possible.

I from this point on, I tried to make my in-game choices show Silumni’s love of nature.  For example, the Elven hair choices in this game are surprisingly varied, given how long this game has been out.  I purposely avoided the more “cultivated” hair options-the ones that included hair decorations or intricate braiding.  Instead, I gave her the roughest-looking hair I could find, since she would be almost exclusively hanging around animals who wouldn’t really care about the state of her hair.  I also made her an “Explorer,” a crafting vocation focused on going out into nature to find natural resources.  This also allowed me to craft the absolutely beautiful armor you can see on her in the picture.

Honestly, that’s about all I have when it comes to Silumni’s character.  I still need to give her an interesting personality, even if I won’t necessarily use it when questing.  I know that her character isn’t totally loyal to Tolkien’s works, but I really wanted to give her a unique personality, and I didn’t want to be limited to the fairly strict limitations Tolkien puts on his elves.  What do you guys think? Do you have any helpful comments on where I should take her personality, or is there any constructive commentary you could offer me?  Thanks for reading!

Limitations of Genre in “King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters”

I read some critique of the King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters. Although the film grossed over $700,000 globally (not bad for small-budget documentaries) and achieved critical acclaim (Rolling Stone calling it “roaringly funny”) others had their concerns. After some poking around, most critique falls into one of two categories:

1. Subject matter: many critics disliked the movie because they found the topic of video games inaccessible. Ann Hornaday, a film critic for the Washington Post, opens her critique with the question “what is more tiresome than watching somebody play video games?” This type of critique has nothing to do with director Seth Gordon’s movie making ability or the strengths/weaknesses of storytelling, but dismisses the film for its subject matter alone. While I don’t think this is a very salient argument, Hornaday does have a point: King of Kong will most likely not attract non-gamers, regardless of the actual mechanics of the story or art of the film.

2. Unoriginal themes and “lack of depth:” Hornaday criticizes Gordon’s “all too familiar formula” and says that the film’s “structure … has become increasingly hackneyed with the glut of competition documentaries” (She cites Mad Hot Ballroom and Spellbound as probable inspiration for Gordon.) Other critics think the film relies on stock characters and overused themes which make the film one dimensional and unoriginal. Blogger Paul Dean agrees that the story is a simple “story about good pitted against evil.” However, Dean doesn’t think this is necessarily negative, but rather essential to writing a compelling story about video gamers, which most of the world is unfamiliar with.

These types of critiques struck me because they were extremely similar to the type of critique that Lord of the Rings (and the fantasy genre) typically receives: either people can’t connect with the subject matter, or they find the themes elementary. I had not thought of King of Kong as a “fantasy” because of its documentary quality, but now I’m not so sure. Examined under the same critique of fantasy, it appears that Gordon does prey on elements of fantasy storytelling to create his film: he sets up an unfamiliar world, describes the rules of that world, and forces the audience to connect with the characters despite their unique reality. King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters is not a fantasy film, but it invites the audience into a sort of virtual world. To do this successfully, the filmmakers used techniques of fantasy storytelling, and thus are met with similar criticisms. For me, this was an awesome exercise in the possibilities and limitations of genre (documentary, fantasy) and I’m curious to see how some of these critiques are either dodged or manifested in other mediums (film, written narrative, video games) as we move through the course.

-Emma Baker 

 

Form and Function

Admittedly, I am a total newbie when it comes to gaming. Seriously.. I’m the kind of person whose experience with games stops with Mario cart and scoops for my iPhone. So when I jettisoned myself out of reality and into the world of gaming by downloading the game Braid, I was skeptical as to if I would have even the minimal amount of fine motor control to successfully play the game, let alone be able to enjoy it.

 

Luckily for me, Braid is the kind of game that is totally transformative. I found myself lost in the aesthetic beauty that appeared on the screen as it whisked the hero, Tim, and me to a fictional and imaginative land. It is the very visual appeal of this game that makes all the difference, as well as works in conjunction with the fiction of the game to elevate and transform the narrative.

 

The backdrop of the game is striking. It’s like being inside one of Monet’s masterpieces. The highly impressionistic setting is important because it lends itself to the creating the element imagination that so many gamers enjoy. I am personally in the camp with the game theorists that believe that the fiction and landscape of the game space are more than just decoration to the game’s rules, but rather are a part of entire gaming experience where form and function come together and help inform one another. I’d like to think that the creator, Jonathan Blow, is too. The game creates a cohesive theme of two-dimensionality within the landscape and the rules of the game that I assume help to enhance the narrative, but I’m not really sure yet. Don’t worry, guys, no spoilers here: it took me many hours and lots of help just to figure out the basics of how to play the game, and I still can’t figure out how to properly utilize the monsters to get more height… However, I assume that when I finally get to the end and have the whole story figured out (I can’t bring myself to read ahead on Wikipedia), this theme of two-dimensionality is going to tie-in some how.

 

Now, while the visual background to the game is exceedingly exquisite, I can’t get over Tim’s chic and streamlined menswear look. I love how his conservative and prep school-ish ensemble stands in direct opposition of his environment. Where a normal game maker might design a charter’s wardrobe to fit the theme of his surroundings, Tim’s outfit stands in stark contrast of it. However, his navy blazer and khakis don’t pull me out of the game, but rather help me to relate to Tim because he looks just as lost in this game as I feel. But actually, Tim’s outfit gives an ironic sense of realism to a game that plays with the concept of time and looks more like a painting than reality. And with class just starting back, the timing of discovering Tim’s outfit couldn’t be more perfect! With his navy blazer and khakis, he looks so ready to hit the books.

 

Here, I’ve made this ensemble more ladylike by incorporating my favorite brown leather Christian Louboutin wedges to keep the outfit from looking too masculine. This Brooks Brothers navy wool blazer and white (wrinkle-resistant!) button down and J Crew tailored khakis keep the look true to Tim. Of course, I had to include a braid as a tribute to the game itself. Now that I look the part, maybe I can figure out how to actually win!

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-Sparling Wilson

Braid: The convenient platformer

In most video games, especially platformers, the player’s character is able to be killed in some manner and then respawns at the beginning of the level. This requires the player to start the level over and do everything correctly in a single run in order to progress. In contrast, Braid incorporates a type of “rewind” mechanic that allows the player to rewind time. For example, if a player accidentally falls off a ledge to their death, they can conveniently “rewind” to the point right before they jumped off and choose a different path.

This rewind mechanic is in stark contrast to most video game mechanics and everyday life. For example, In Super Mario Bros., we are unable to rewind up to the point where we die to Bowser. We have to re-do much of the level. In everyday life, we unable to rewind and perhaps not say what we just said or do what we just did. Braid is a sort-of escape from the norm – a fantasy world (the aesthetics demonstrate this as well) where we can undo our previous mistakes and finish the level in “one” go.

Another interesting corollary to Braid’s rewind mechanic is that some things in the game world do not rewind with time. Their state persists, or they keep moving as if they are unaffected by time. This made me reflect on things in our life that are not affected by time or, in a fantasy world, “re-dos”. Even if we could rewind real life and undo our actions, what things would persist? Our temperament, personality, our genes – the very essence of who we are – would be unaffected by re-dos. No matter how often we would rewind time (if we could) we would still be the same person. This is the main take-away for me, personally. Sure, I may change what I like or where I live or who I call friends, but who I am will  persist throughout my time. I can’t change who I am (not that I want to, but if I did, I couldn’t). I must live with it and embrace it.

-Thomas

You can be a Titan but not an orc: My friend’s attitudes about gaming.

After a long week of school, my friends and I would find ourselves at one of our houses and we would turn on the ps3 (or xbox or wii) and play some madden. We would take turns playing each other, one vs. one, the spectator’s yelling what they would have done differently, their approval, their disappointment.  When asked Saturday night what we did Friday after school, we would say “we just chilled—played madden.” This was regular. This was cool.

But if one Friday, like usual, my friends and I were at one of our houses and instead of turning on the ps3 (or xbox or wii) I said “lets play World of Warcraft today instead.” I would have received blank stares from half of my friends pretending not to know what WOW was, and “what are we, losers?” from the other half.

There is a unexplained social stigma in my group of friends (and many 19 year olds that I know) of MMORPG’s (massively multiplayer online role playing games.) The spectrum of video games and their “social standing” within my group of friends, with sports and console first person shooters on one end, and MMORPG games on the other, looks like this:

There is an association of MMORPG games and what is considered uncool, or nerdy. I’ve heard comments describing WOW ranging from “only losers play” to “why don’t they want to play in the real world” and “Its the game with magic, right? Are they seven?”

And I always have to wonder what is so different about sport games and FPS games? How many GTA players have ever killed someone and stolen a car? How many Madden players will play in the NFL? How many Halo players will become a cyborg and fight aliens?

There is a trend in the spectrum: as games incorporate more fantasy elements with larger multiplayer options, they slowly creep from the cool end of the spectrum to the nerdy end of the spectrum.

However, not is all lost for us fantasy enthusiasts. More fantasy based movies, novels and games are attracting larger audiences: the Lord of The Rings movie trilogy grossed $2.9 billion world wide, George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire book series was given an “A-” by Entertainment Weekly (very mainstream), has an HBO show based off of it named after the first book, A Game of Thrones, and is sold in the prestigious Rand Bookstore, and World of Warcraft has over 11 million users. Fantasy as a genre is slowly becoming more mainstream and therefore accepted. As this happens, the stigma of MMORPG games will fade and all their players can “just chill” as well.

 

GreenEggsAndSam