Heroes: A thing of the Past, or of the Imagination?


Storytellers struggle to make whimsical what the world makes dull. We foster deeper understanding by exaggeration, by parable and metaphor, or by creating what we wish were happening when it really is not.

When renowned English texts like “Ulysses” by Lord Tennyson and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begin with lamentations of the lost grand empires of heroism, I have to stop and think for a second…

Alice In Wonderland Confused animated GIF

Oh, that’s right! Storytellers…generally don’t care for reality. As a matter of fact, we generally don’t know what we’re talking about. The trick of our craft is to pretend that we do.

alice in wonderland animated GIF

Great storytellers exist because they are excellent observers, synthesizers and masters of their chosen method. Accuracy doesn’t fall into one of those requirements. Therefore, we can make an educated guess that epic storytellers like Homer of The Iliad weren’t on any battle fields whatsoever. So when we interpret Lord Tennyson’s poetry as commentary on how heroic lifestyle has disappeared in the Victorian era and been replaced by a more docile life, well…there were plenty of wars in Tennyson’s time to choose from. But because in real life there’s no Achilles waiting in his ship to take the Trojans down single-handedly, real wars always seem a little less awesome. In real life, men die without favor, without magic powers, and without luck. In real life, no one has the right to say that the man who died just wasn’t heroic enough.

The storytellers sitting behind computer screens are kind of in the same boat as the Homers. Though I recognize the extent to which storytellers go to experiment and experience the stories they create, sometimes we’re just full of it. So when we then sit before our digital playthings to exit our lackluster lives and take up the rifle of the bludgeoning Master Chief, update our Champion’s reputation in Middle Earth, or chase our interstellar Destiny, maybe the desire to be heroes comes from our pure lust for fantasy rather than nostalgia for the heroism of the past.

The real Pocahontas wasn’t this “grown and sexy” when she saved John Smith.

Games like Halo and Destiny put an interesting twist on this theory because they take place in futuristic settings. It creates a discourse with heroic civilizations of the past, posing a “heroes yet to come” question. However, it still leaves us sandwiched in the middle, as if we’re all just weaklings living safely in our double lives. Yet when we place the “glory days” in actual historical context, we find that those who lived in those eras would have rolled their eyes at our perceptions of grandeur. In my Classical Literature class we watched “Medieval Lives” where Terry Jones informed us that the great chivalric code of heroic knights was really just an attempt of the authorities to control what became a steel-clad blood-thirsty army. So NOT heroic.

Just as authorities struggle to implement decrees to improve our current state of life, so do storytellers implement dreams that attempt to surpass our current state of living. I wonder what the 41st century will come up with once they begin to confuse our dreams  with our reality.

Spartan 004, report for duty.

Everyone knows the place to be is somewhere like Reach. Imaging walking around in your two ton slab of steel riddled with the most advanced technology known to human-kind. No damage, no fear. Everything about that life sounds appealing. Imagine the adrenaline filled battles and the victorious triumph of slaying hordes of aliens. This life is particularly appealing to me because I grew up in a family that values honor. Come on, who wouldn’t want to carry have the strength and speed of a spartan tearing into Elites? Not only that, but you are feared by the enemy and revered by your fellow comrades. Of course there would be the threat of danger everywhere you went, but what’s life without a little bit of uncertainty? The top secret missions and access to top notch military technology. 

This live action teaser trailer was definitely the most epic thing that I have ever seen for a videogame. If the actual story and world of Halo hadn’t enticed me enough, this trailer definitely launched it higher. Living in the Halo universe could quite possibly be the greatest thing ever, provided it were possible. Who knows? Maybe the future holds a similar outcome for my own wishes.


Gaming or Playing?

How many people do you know that consider themselves to be hardcore gamers?  Maybe 5? 10? Any more than that and you’re in a pretty big gaming club, or you’re just a very social MMORPG player. But now consider how many people you know that play video games, even if only a few times a year. That’s a lot more people, isn’t it?

So what is really the difference between the hardcore gamer and the once-a-month player? I will argue that, other than the obvious inequalities in the amount of time spent and likely the skill level (and the severity of Vitamin D deficiency), there is not much difference at all.

When someone turns on a video game, they might play “just for fun” or to “kill some time” or whatever else they can come up with. But once they start playing, they want to win: to get to the next level, to beat the current high score, or to improve their online rankings or develop a new, more effective strategy. In essence, no one continues to play a game only “to play.” They want to win, whether they play once a month or 7 hours a day.

To me, this is the difference between gaming and playing: working toward a goal. As long as someone picks up a controller or stares down a computer screen with the intent of beating some challenge or goal, they are gaming. They are trying to win, to be successful. If they were merely playing, this attempt to beat something would not be present. It would be like playing Call of Duty and not keeping the score in an online match. Players would simply repeat the same tasks over and over again with no goal or challenge in mind, like children playing with sparklers on the 4th of July. There is no goal to watching something give off sparks, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

To sum it all up, gamers play to win and players play to be entertained. So the next time you’re crushing your buddy in HALO, and he says something to the tune of “I’m just playing, don’t be so serious” or whatever lame excuse he comes up with, remind him that if he wasn’t trying to beat you, he wouldn’t care that he was being beat.

Game on, gamers.

Ignorance is bliss

I have been playing video games all my life. I have slaughtered animated birds in Duck Hunter, jumped through paintings in Super Mario 64, and have destroyed cities as a monster in Rampage. Yet, despite all my gaming, I always saw playing video games as a mindless task to pass the time with family and friends as an opportunity to do something together that we would all enjoy. I would find myself restless and red-eyed after an hour and would often abandon the game to go do something else. My friends and brothers always poked fun at me for my inability to sit still and would make ADD jokes to further hammer home the point. Was I a loser for wanting to actually play sports rather than manipulate a two-dimensional athlete with a joystick? For years I perceived gamers as dweebs who could only be themselves through fictional characters on the television screen. This was my perception until one unfortunate day in November of 2001.

My brother returned home with a copy of this new game that everyone was raving about called Halo. I brushed it off figuring that it was just another average shooter which i would grow tired of quickly. Little did I know that this game would consume my life for the next 6 months. I started playing with my brother online and somehow this game felt different. I truly cared about master chief and his missions to preserve his planet from intruding aliens. I would find myself lost in the progressive story of the campaign mode; beating the game then immediately restarting on a higher level. The burn in my eyes no longer caused me to stop playing and i soon found myself cutting away from my other activities. Had i become a gamer? Was I spending my time the same way as those that I labeled losers? It took me months to come to the realization that I was addicted and to come to an ever deeper realization about gamers. Gamers are passionate about games just like athletes are passionate about sports and one is not better than the other. After 6 months of intense gaming, I realized I needed a break. I stopped playing Halo cold turkey and resumed my old life but with a new mindset. I had a new appreciation for gaming and a new respect for others even if their interests differed from mine.


Story vs. Gameplay

When talking about the role of story in a video game, I think it just depends on the type of person you are. For example, many people just play Halo for the shooting and killing. While this is the primary and most fun part of the game, there is a lot more to the game than that. I actually do sometimes stop and look at the “beautifully-rendered trees” and the wide variety of expansive environments. The story is also a lot more complex and interesting than most other games, but it is up to the gamer how much they want to know about it. For example, in Halo 3 there are numerous hidden “terminals” that the gamer can find. These terminals reveal a lot about what happened before the games, especially about the war between the ancient Forerunners and the Flood parasite thousands of years ago. There are also dozens of Halo books that further explicate the history and legend of Halo. It is not necessary to find these terminals, and many people just skip the terminals and cutscenes to just concentrate on the combat. If a player chooses to ignore the story, the game is just an action-packed alien-killing shooting rampage.

Someone in class also said that “no one plays Grand Theft Auto for the missions”, which I completely disagree with. When I first got Grand Theft Auto IV, the first thing I did was go through the missions, because I was interested in what the protagonist, Niko Bellic, would be like. The evolution of Niko’s character really interested me, along with all the shooting, stealing, and car chases the missions involve. I was emotionally invested in his story, and towards the end of the game, I really wanted him to get revenge on Dmitri. After I had completed all of the missions, killing people just wasn’t as fun anymore. Niko was just killing people because he was bored, not because an Italian mob boss was paying him to do it (as in the missions). Sure, it can be fun to drive expensive cars at over 100 mph while running over the pedestrians, but there aren’t really any repercussions to it, and gets boring after while if it doesn’t advance the story. Although gameplay is important, the story is what sets a game apart from others.

– Kashyap Saxena

The Wimpy Gamer’s Response to Video Games (Narrative vs. Combat)

Growing up with an older brother, I was fated to experience firsthand one of the most disturbing cultural phenomena of our time: The “Halo Party.”

Whenever I heard a series of loud, barbaric shouts emanating up from the basement, I could immediately infer what was going on down there and knew that it was in my best interest to stay away at all costs. There were a few hapless occasions, however, when necessity required me to venture into the basement’s uncertain depths, straight into the war zone itself.

On these occasions, as soon as I creaked open the basement door, a sharp, pungent stench—cheap cologne mingled with body odor—would immediately clog my nostrils. Silently, warily, I would tiptoe down the stairs, plunging ever deeper into darkness.

When I reached the bottom of the stairs, the image before me was like a sort of sick, twisted camping trip. Huddled around the glow of the television screen in a semicircle, my older brother and several of his friends were frantically jostling their video game controls, engaged in an intense game of Halo™. Judging from their sweat-stained shirts, their gaming efforts must have been causing them a great deal of exertion. Whenever a character died, they would emit inhuman, animal yells of frustration. Quickly, trying to remain unnoticed, I grabbed whatever it was I needed from the basement and clambered back upstairs, into safety.

I probably wasn’t the only little sister in America forced to endure the infamous testosterone-fest known as the Halo Party. After all, the game was—and still is—tremendously popular, not just among sweaty preteen boys, but also among a more sophisticated adult crowd (my high school German teacher, a self-proclaimed gamer, was conveniently “sick” on the day Halo 3 was released. Hmmm…).

It makes sense why Halo has amassed such a devoted following.  To be sure, the game boasts impressive graphics and a fairly engrossing narrative; but, as Matt Thumser so aptly put it, people don’t play Halo to admire the beautifully-rendered trees or to ponder the avant-garde extraterrestrial architecture. Rather, Halo’s biggest allure is that it is thrilling, suspenseful. The epitome of a perfect first-person shooter game, it provides harrowing and challenging objectives for the player to conquer. Gunning down machines, slaughtering aliens, operating heavy artillery—indeed, Halo beckons to the trigger-happy masses itching to blow things up. It is also highly competitive, which is why it lends itself so well to large-group social gatherings.

Perhaps I might mention that I am not the biggest game enthusiast the world has ever seen. In fact, aside from dabbling (rather unsuccessfully, might I add) with LOTRO, my knowledge of video games is mainly confined to older, outdated breeds dating back to the N-64 days—games such as Zelda, Mario Kart, and Super Mash Bros. In my novice opinion, however, I prefer video games that craft a rich, vivid story. This could be because I am a nervous sort of gamer, becoming all jumpy and panicky whenever I am faced with the prospect of attack, so I find it infinitely more enjoyable to stroll around, admiring the scenery, than to subject my poor avatar to humiliation. But I do think that a meaningful, engrossing storyline—especially when coupled with a series of interactive objectives—goes a long way towards immersing the gamer.

This is what makes LOTRO the ideal game: it seamlessly incorporates both of these aspects to form one comprehensive, all-encompassing video game. With its abundance of quests and battles, it would undoubtedly appeal to the legion of Halo enthusiasts, who seek the thrill of challenging combat; but it also provides an intricate, magical world and a captivating storyline to intrigue the less-competitive, more story-based breed of gamers. For someone who—to put it bluntly—sucks at video games, LOTRO offers more than pure combat to keep me engaged. Perhaps in Halo I couldn’t stop to muse at the beautiful landscape without being annihilated by a friendly alien; but in LOTRO, at least, I can take a few moments and explore Tolkien’s fantastical realm.

Anna Dickens

Arcade to Console: A Shift in the Nature of Games

by Theo Dentchev

“There’ll always be the argument that video games are meant to be played for fun. Believe me, some of it’s a lot of fun. Video games are meant to be played at home, relaxing, on a couch, amongst friends…and they are, and that’s fun. But competitive gaming, when you want to attach your name to a world record, when you want your name written into history, you have to pay the price.”

– Billy Mitchell, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

In the above quote arcade game legend Billy Mitchell speaks to the difference between competitive gaming and what might be called “casual” gaming. But at the same time, in a way he’s comparing modern gaming to classic arcade gaming. “[Modern] [v]ideo games are meant to be played at home…on a couch,” and one might add with a gaming console, on a TV, whereas classic arcade games are played standing up in front of the arcade machine, usually in an arcade. Those superficial differences in location and method of playing are representative of a broader shift in gaming from the arcade era in the 80s to the console era of today, from more competitive to more casual, from a narrow to a broad appeal, and from more rule oriented games to games which utilize fiction much more heavily.

The underlying goal of classic arcade games is to get as far as you could, to achieve as high a score as possible without dying (and if you are good enough, to hopefully get your name on the high scores list), and thus they are inherently competitive. Arcade games also require great hand-eye and hand-thought coordination, as Twin Galaxies founder and referee Walter Day tells us in King of Kong. Someone playing an arcade game has to be literally thinking on their feet. The person has to be on edge, attentive, and motivated to keep standing there and competing at that game. This is in stark contrast to video games today, which are meant to be enjoyed while sitting back, sinking into your couch cushions, without needing to exert a great deal of mental or physical effort. Today’s games try to be friendly and open to new or “casual” gamers. They are much, much more forgiving than the arcade games of the past and no longer restrict players to going as far as their skills allow them; now even the least able gamer  can fully experience (and beat) most games. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still games being made which are or can be competitive out there, it just means the landscape has shifted.

Accompanying this shift is gaming becoming more mainstream. Whether the increased public interest in gaming is due to the increasingly casual nature of games, or whether companies are making more casual games to please the public, I don’t know. I figure it’s a combination of both. Most people don’t find the intensely challenging, and often frustrating nature of arcade games to be “fun.” They are more attracted to games whose rules present some sort of challenge, yet not one which is too difficult to overcome. But people also like flashy graphics, rich soundtracks, and complex stories. Arcade gaming did not have that. They didn’t have the greatest graphics (it was the 80s,still early in the development of video games), and while they had some catchy themes the music was pretty simple. As for story, sure, Mario (Jumpman) was trying to save Pauline (Lady) from Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong, but that’s about as deep as that story gets, and there’s really no resolution of the conflict (ending). And what about Pac-Man? What was he eating all those dots for anyway? Arcade games focused mostly on a set of rules, without much fiction. Modern games still have rules which the player must follow, but have added great amounts of fiction, mainly in the form of narratives and accompanying music, to the point that some games are considered more film than game (e.g. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots). That in turn has attracted a great deal of people to the gaming world, swelling its ranks with new, casual gamers.

Video games in the 80s were generally viewed in a negative light, with mostly “losers” or “nerds,” supposed rejects of society, congregating in dimly lit arcades, almost cult-like. Perhaps this was because games were still a new and relatively foreign medium. Or maybe the “price” needed to be paid that Billy Mitchell alludes to, not in quarters, but in time, dedication, and repeated frustration resulting from the difficulty of arcade games was too high for the average person to pay. Or was it because arcade games were too simple, only about rules and competition? Whatever the case may be, since video games have started heavily incorporating fiction and lowering the challenge the rules present, changing the nature of the games from competitive to casual, they have been propelled in a relatively short amount of time into mainstream recognition and acceptance. People find today’s games to be more “fun.” It’s not only nerds who play video games now, and although competitive gaming may still be discredited, even that is changing as people begin to play games like Halo for a living.

Or maybe it’s all because of Madden.

– TD

Risk over Halo anyday

By Aneel Henry

8 cans of Red Bull, 10 cookies, 6 treaties and 2 broken friendships later the game of risk ends in world domination. The winner runs around the table in a sort of victory ritual, hooting in excitement and beating his hands on his chest to clearly display his newly earned alpha male status.

I’m sure that most who have ever played an extended board game (like Risk or Monopoly) have witnessed a natural phenomenon much like the one I just described. The victory against the opponent, the conquering of the planet, and the complete and utter genocide committed upon all who stand in the victors way culminate in an immense rush of accomplishment and ecstasy for the victor. This degree of emotional investment is critical in creating a successful game. It is not the map design, or the quality of the pieces, or the rolling of die that makes board games like Risk fun. It is the intense competition that springs from direct person-to-person relations that make Risk and Monopoly universally appealing.

Unlike board games, console and online games are not direct interactions with other human beings but interpersonal competition reproduced through a medium (the TV or computer screen). Although this competition can be just as intense, it is much harder for a video game to produce the level of personal interaction achieved while playing a board game. Many companies have tried and succeeded in stimulating personalized competition with inventions like Xbox live, and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG). These games link each unique avatar directly to a person, thereby stimulating intense competition that admittedly has the capacity to equal or surpass that of board games.

Despite attempts at recreating the intimacy of board games, I feel video games have not captured the universal human spirit of competition. Although many love video games, there is a large percentage of the population that finds the medium through which the competition is stimulated (TV, PC, etc) too confusing or not engaging enough to capture their attention. There is no equivalent to a board game. In a video game, it is impossible to fully personalize an opponent to the degree a board game achieves. There is nothing like watching the excitement melt off of your opponents face as your army wipes him off the map. Or just watching a player truly debate over the best strategy to win, concentrating so hard that you can practically see the gears turning in his/her head. Although video games, to some extent, have captured the competitive spirit of a select group of people, they have not been able to emotionally engage the player as board games have successfully done.