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.

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.

Pokemon GO! The Ethics of Augmented Reality

Pokemon Go is the new gaming phenomenon of the year. Revisiting the old fashioned Nintendo Pokemon games, Pokemon Go takes that same experience up a level by adding the features of Augmented Reality. Allowing people to walk around the planet with their phones and search for Pokemon, the game has added a new dimension to gaming. And along with that, one of the main selling points of the game is their focus on fitness. A recent statistic stated that since the game released earlier this year, people playing the game have walked about 4.6 billion kilometers. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the distance from the Sun to Neptune and more than the distance NASA’s Voyager 1 has travelled in the past 12 years!

However, this achievement does not come without problems. While the game has several positive aspects – people are being more active and have started going out more (even though they are still looking into their screens), and meeting new people (I myself have made a couple of friends while playing the game), there have been quite a few concerns regarding trespassing. People have often been reported to walk into peoples private residences, trying to catch a particular Pokemon. While Niantic, the developers of the game are completely on the legal side of this issue, questions about the company’s responsibility for the actions of their consumers have started emerging. The popularity of the game has pushed the company into new ethical and legal issues that have never been dealt with before; and with the fast developing world of augmented reality, such issues are going to become more frequent as new games implementing this technology are released. While some people say that the players are completely responsible for their actions and how they play the game, many suggest that the game in some ways is encouraging players to trespass into restricted areas, or at restricted times through where the PokeStops are located and where many Pokemon are found.

Public places like monuments or parks are the ideal location to play games such as these, so often Niantic focuses on such areas by providing more Gyms and PokeStops, in a way encouraging their players to come to that location more often. Niantic has received requests from several organizations to remove PokeStops from near their establishments, and so far, Niantic has complied. But the question of whether Niantic is responsible or not is still unanswered.

In my opinion, both parties in question are to an extent to blame for this. Neither are completely wrong in doing this, but since this is a new field of ethical gaming and technology we are dealing with, new rules must be put into play. So far, there are no limitations to where one can place digital markers in the real world, but now as augmented reality is becoming a… reality, we need to make some new laws or rules to govern this. The lack of limitations on where Niantic has put their Gym’s and PokeStops often leads people into unknown territory. As far as the players are concerned, ideally they should be paying more attention to where they are walking and should be more receptive of their surroundings, but the fact that to play the game you must always be looking at the screen of your phone is not really helpful. Niantic has made some efforts to reduce the amount of time that people spend looking at their screens by introducing apps for wearable devices such as the Apple Watch, but this is still not the complete solution. I’m sure that as more game developers start implementing VR into their games, new laws governing the use of digital space will emerge, but until then all we can do is make sure to be more receptive to our surroundings while playing until we are offered a satisfying solution.

 

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!

Fiction and Reality

Starting off with Braid, we are faced with a very familiar looking platform game. While in the beginning, the game seems to be a take on the Super Mario Brothers game, as we delve deeper, we see that Jonathan Blow has used the seemingly simple platform to tell a far more modern and complex story. As with any platform game, the player goes through a series of levels to complete challenging puzzles. However, Blow’s placement of books at the beginning of each ‘world’ offer a much more exciting gameplay narrative, which gets increasingly complicated and ambiguous as the game progresses. The plot follows the story of Tim, who seems to have made a mistake regarding the princess and is trying to get her back. Each world gives us some hints as to what had happened. As I was reading through the description of the game, I was very surprised to see that they called it a “non-linear” game. This came as a big surprise as platform games, by nature, are linear. But as I played through the first couple of worlds, the presence of the books and the ambiguity present in the narrative of the game clearly pointed to a non-linear plot.

While being a story very similar to that of Super Mario Brothers, the game has a very self-reflective nature. Several themes of forgiveness, frustration and regret are scattered throughout the plot of the game creating some tension between reality and fiction. One thing related to this I found very striking was the fact that Tim seemed very out of place in the setting of the game. While the game is set in a place with castles and magic, Tim is dressed in a suit. At several points in the game, it felt as if the game was a way for Tim to escape the tragic reality and trauma of what he has gone through, especially when the different powers he gets aid him to redo many of his steps. I thought this was very point as often gamers play games to escape reality and the fact that the protagonist of the game is doing the same made for a very interesting experience.

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.

 

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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?