Player death is not a gameplay element. It’s a design failure. I know this is heresy among gamers with fond memories of Rogue and similar games, and for modern gamers who soiled themselves with glee over Dark Souls, but it’s the truth.
This mechanic may work in some puzzle games, such as Limbo, which incorporated character death into a puzzle format and narrative structure that made sense. But that’s an exception. The problem is this: With an adventure, role-playing, or action game, the gamer becomes the character. He identifies with it. He’s developed it. And that’s the point of the game: Take one person, see him through various trials, gather what needs to be gathered (experience, weapons, objects), and then use that accumulated knowledge to win.
Note: This column was featured in the Holiday 2012 issue of the magazine.
It’s wonderful that even after 30-odd years as a gamer, there are still gaming moments that can surprise and delight me. Assassin’s Creed II (finally available for PC this month) absolutely knocked me cold within the first few minutes of the Florentine sequences.
It wasn’t the gameplay. Although the movement and combat are certainly strong (and a clear improvement over the original), we should expect that. It’s 2010: We’ve had so many quality exemplars of stealth and fighting systems that a developer has no excuse not to do it right.
It wasn’t the premise, which is dumber than a contestant on Conveyer Belt of Love. All the memories of all my ancestors are encoded in my DNA? Really? Right there between eye color and height is a base pair of nucleotides recording my 24th great-granduncle’s encounter with a hooker on January 24, 1472? And Veronica Mars is capable of extracting that memory and feeding it back into my brain as a simulation? That’s your premise?
The older I get, the more I appreciate elegance, simplicity, and concision in game design. Sure, there are still times I want a game that piles on the detail like a rococo basilica. It’s possible to just fall into a giant hunk of gaming like Hearts of Iron III or Fallout 3 and roll around like a pig in… well, you know.
But a game that takes the most appealing bits and distills them to their essence has a powerful draw. This is what’s so wonderful about Torchlight, which boils the Diablo experience down to its essentials and skims off all the fat. This is a brisk and entertaining bit of action RPG, with a light touch and a set of simple game mechanics that conceal hidden depths.
For a $20 title, the skill of the design is almost shocking, at least until you check the credits. Designer Travis Baldee gave us the strikingly similar Fate series, and codesigners Max and Erich Schaefer gave us… Diablo.
Do you want to know how long I’ve been doing this? So damn long that I covered the original Monkey Island games. Friends, back in my day, we had only two colors (black and not-black—and black’s not even a color!), and we liked it!
Actually, it kind of sucked, and one of the pleasures of covering games throughout the 1990s was watching sound and image improve to the point that spectacular graphics barely warrant a mention. If you can’t make a game look and sound good in 2009, you really should be making something other than games. Burgers, perhaps.
It’s illuminating to be able to play something you remember fondly from ye olde days, only with the ability to hotkey back and forth between the old game and a shiny new version. The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is a gorgeous hand-painted version of the original game, with a slightly “improved” interface. This has been laid right on top of the old game, and the most fascinating thing is the ability to hotkey 19 years into the past with each new screen.
Facebook is the answer to a question no one asked: “How can I waste more of my time?” Compared to social network gaming, however, Facebook itself is as useful an invention as the cell phone.
Actually, I do like Facebook. I’ve used it to reconnect with dozens of people I used to know. Two of them are even people I like. A year after I first joined Facebook for the sole purpose of sharing pictures of a new puppy, I find myself updating my status, making comments, and listing things like the “Five TV Characters I Wish Were Real So We Could Hang.” (Dr. McCoy, Emma Peel, Hurley Reyes, Simon Templar, and Gomez Addams: another answer to a question no one ever asked sober or outside of a college dorm.)
I used Facebook for a year before I caved in and tried any social gaming. It held no appeal at all. I ignored the messages from friends asking me to join their Mafia, become part of their vampire clan, move in next door to their rutabaga farm, or contribute to efforts to elect Ron Paul president. (Oh, you mean they were serious about the Ron Paul thing?)
One thing I learned while attending art school was that anyone who thinks he or she is an Artist-with-a-capital-A, isn’t. Anyone who tries to produce Art—complete with layers of meaning and a message and prepackaged interpretations that they are just dying for some sensitive soul to uncover, is inevitably going to produce self-conscious garbage. It will probably be boring, almost certainly ugly, and without question, philosophically tendentious.
In any art, pure technique (honed by hard work and diligent practice) and pure instinct (some mystical combination of observation, perception, and interpretation, most of it subconscious) mingle to create something that speaks as “art.” You can’t fake it.
Thus, when I boot a pretentious art-house game like The Path, I know I’m in for instant seating at the crap buffet, complete with a tepid chaser of trite, high-school-level philosophy about MEANINGFUL THINGS. The Path is… words fail me.
Two years after dismissing, and even mocking, the Wii Remote, Microsoft has had a change of heart about motion control. Project Natal is an attempt to get rid of the controller altogether, replacing it with a tool that combines an “RGB camera, depth sensor, multi-array microphone, and custom processor running proprietary software.”
All of this provides full-body 3D motion capture, facial recognition, and voice recognition, then converts that information into real-time game control. The figures onscreen respond to your movements and even react to emotions based on facial expressions.
You know Microsoft is serious when it wheels out the big guns to deliver the overstatement. Such as when Steven Spielberg was asked for his thoughts on Project Natal at this year’s E3: “This is a pivotal moment that will carry with it a wave of change, the ripples of which will reach far beyond video games.”
Long ago, I came to the conclusion that The Sims was designed for Someone Else. I don’t know who. Hottentots, perhaps.
I played through The Sims 3 with awe, respect…and profound boredom. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and if God is kind I’ll never have to play it again this side of Purgatory.
Meanwhile, I’ve been returning to Prototype. I like Prototype. I also liked it when it was called Spider-Man 2 and Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. If a game is worth playing once, it’s worth playing two more times with different character models.
Games are all about wish-fulfillment and power fantasies. Some people are content to wield their mighty power to get three gems in a row. Others would prefer to jump 10 stories in the air and punch a helicopter out of the sky. If you have the opportunity to do the latter, I have no idea why you’d choose to do the former, but people are strange.
Some gamers treat the mere idea of microtransactions with contempt.
“Pshaw!” they snort, “like I’d pay real money to buy horse armor in Oblivion….” And then they usually trail off into a semi-coherent rant about their rights as gamers and greedy corporate pigs.
But microtransactions—which allow you to spend a few dollars on things to enhance a game, such as extra weapons or spells—are here to stay, and gamers just need to come to terms with that.
My little epiphany came when I took my son to the local Games Workshop store for some Warhammer love. There, spread out before me on shelves crammed with figures, books, paints, and all the rest of the paraphernalia of the hobby, was the world of microtransactions writ large.
Empire: Total War and Stormrise are two radically different games with a common core. Developed by Creative Assembly, they give us a rare opportunity to see the stark contrast between what PC and console strategy games can and cannot do.
Empire is a refinement of a revered brand, featuring new elements set within a familiar context. Despite the bugs, it’s still a deep, detailed, and beautiful strategy game with a different texture from any other Total War game.
Stormrise severs the 3D tactical element from the Total War series and reconfigures it as a third-person real-time strategy game. The ground-level FPS/RTS hybrid is not the huge innovation trumpeted by Sega. Pandemic’s Battlezone II: Combat Commander attempted a similar RTS/FPS mélange 10 years ago, with pretty solid results. But memories are short and hype is powerful in the game world, allowing Stormrise to position itself as “The First Truly 3D RTS Game.”