How Video Games Grew Up When I Wasn’t Looking

There was a time when I loved video games.  I subscribed to EGM and EGM2.  I trolled the nascent World Wide Web looking for video game news.  I read IGN religiously.  The most powerful systems out there were the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation.  Then I discovered girls and dropped the subscriptions.  Most of the video games of that time period were still very arcade-y in nature.  Or they were platformers like Mario or Tomb Raider that had the flimsiest excuse for a plot.  Yo, the princess got kidnapped again.  Run through a bunch of levels to get to her.  No exposition or reason for anything going on.  You just needed to complete these tasks to unlock the final boss fight.  Of course, games were starting to have cut scenes between levels to keep the narrative going.  And I remember the great FMV flame wars that caused.  Were you just working to unlock expository videos?  This was better than the Mario case, but there was still just a small correlation between what you were doing to get through the level and what was going on in the story.  The biggest exception was the movie tie-in game, but those tended to have gameplay elements that were full of suck.

I knew that real time strategy games, simulation games, and turn-based strategy games were fun, so I kept up with those, which were primarily played on the computer.  And I never got into the first person shooter genre, so I was living in a bubble.  When we got to college, I convinced the girlfriend (who became the wife) to get a gamecube so we could play Mario Kart Double Dash (after she’d gotten hooked on the N64 version via emulators).  And I tried out Mario Sunshine and hated it.  Then we got into what would eventually be called casual games – Mario Party, Harvest Moon, etc.  And, as far as I knew, Square’s Final Fantasy series was still the place to go for deep video games.  I bought a Playstation used and then got a Playstation 2 from my future brother-in-law.  And I bought all of the Final Fantasy games, although school kept me from playing most of them until graduation.

And even after graduation I continued to stick to the Civilization and Age of Empire series.  I bought a Wii when it came out and it appeared that video games still had not evolved.  Mario was still Mario.  And most games seemed to be casual games.  I didn’t see the point in having an Xbox or Playstation 3 unless I wanted to play Rock Band or Guitar Hero.  Then, something changed.

First, Dan gifted me Portal on this new thing called Steam. This game was a strange mashup of the puzzle games I enjoyed (I never tire of Tetris) and an FPS.  And it had a story, an incredible story.  Then, somehow – I can’t remember anymore, Dan got me to listen to the podcast.  For the first month or so of listening to it, I was wondering why I was doing this.  Just like when I used to subscribe to EGM, I couldn’t afford to buy all the games they mentioned nor did I care about them most of the time.  But one of the hosts was determined to make sure Little Big Planet was a hit game.  And so I bought a Playstation 3 simply to play Little Big Planet and Fat Princess, which I’d heard about from one of Danielle’s coworkers.  Little Big Planet is very innovative in bringing realistic physics to platformers, but it’s fundamentally not too different from the original Mario.  And Fat Princess only has a story as an excuse as to why you’re force-feeding some princesses and trying to kidnap them from each other.  But I bought my Playstation at Costco, so it came with another game: Uncharted.

On a whim (actually a LOT of “encouragement” from Dan), I decided to check out Uncharted.  The first thing I noticed was that video games had finally advanced to the point where FMVs were no longer needed.  Cut scenes used the game assets and often moved seamlessly in and out of gameplay.  This helped me not get pulled out of the game when it was time for exposition.  And the game actually had a story that evolved as the game went on.  And the levels didn’t feel like pointless platforming.  In other words, the world was real and consistent.  Bad guys didn’t just walk back and forth waiting randomly and every place I could jump to made sense.  There weren’t just floating sections of floor for me to walk on.  And the playing the game feels like it’s walking right on the line between movies and games.  Then I borrowed Arkham Assylum, which was perfect at doing one of the things video games are supposed to do (at least certain genres): make me feel that I was Batman.  And it wasn’t contrived like the games of the Super Nintendo age.  I swear our kids will think we were on crack when they see the types of games we played back them.

Then came the Assassin’s Creed series.  Again, I only checked this game out because a podcast kept talking it up.  This game is the pinnacle of current game evolution.  While there will always be a place for “gamey” games like Tetris, Mario, etc, sometimes I want a more complex experience.  Assassin’s Creed essentially does away with all the gamey elements of games.  In the old days, you have a series of bad guys to fight or step on as you make your way to the level “boss”.  In Assassin’s Creed, the world is, well, The World.  So most of the inhabitants don’t give a crap about you unless you mess around with them.  In fact, I often made it to the target without killing any guards or interacting with anyone else.  And, not only does it have great gameplay, but it also has a compelling story.  I want to know what happens to Mr Miles and what happened to his ancestors.

And I recently started Mass Effect.  It’s too early for me to assess exactly how well this game performs, but I can already tell there’s a rich fiction for the universe the game inhabits.  The Codex is full of “historical” data that fills in in the background and it’s clear this universe is as real as the Star Wars or Star Trek Extended Universes.  And I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by just how far games had come.  They’d gone from mindless entertainment where you didn’t care about the characters to works of fiction just as engaging as any novel or movie; where I cared about characters and felt happiness, sadness, and anger over how they were treated in the game.  At this point it’s clear to me that anyone who doesn’t see individual video games as capable of being art on the same level as other works of fiction is either: a) trolling or b) An old guy who wants this newfangled art off his lawn.  (In the same way that artists of the time refused to acknowledge photography as art when it was first introduced)

80s Games vs Today’s Games

My Pac-Man Cake

During Giant Bomb’s Game of the Year deliberations, one of the panelists was talking about how the difference between Pacman and Pacman Championship Edition DX reflects the difference in video game design over the past thirty years.  The original Pacman is a stress-enducing game while Pacman CE DX is an empowering experience.  Pacman punishes you for the smallest mistake, only gives you four power pellets per maze, and gets more punishing the further you go.  By contrast, Pacman CE DX uses a bullet-time effect to give you a chance to turn past ghosts you might otherwise have crashed into, the power pellet regenerate, and the game becomes generally more fun the faster and more frenetic it gets.  The ghosts, save one or two, follow you around and aren’t much of a menace unless you come back around to your tail as in the game snake or need to exit through a hole where a sleeping ghost waits.  And this wasn’t limited to Pacman, tvtropes has a whole trope dedicated to this called Nintendo hard.  Why has this change come about?

Like nearly everything else in life, it mostly has to do with economics and changes in the market.  I grew up with this second wave of video games launched by the Nintendo Entertainment System in the 80s.  I never beat any game I had for the NES.  I’ve beat nearly every game I’ve played since the Nintendo 64.  What changed?  Arcades lost relevance.  I was a little too young to have been an arcade rat, but I do remember going to them as a kid and loving playing them.  For one thing, the newest arcade machines were always better than whatever you could get on your console.  (This changed with the Nintendo 64 – this is key)

Despite the limited capabilities of our console hardware in those days, the majority of the good quality games to appear on the systems were ports of arcade games.  Why?  Economics.  There were a lot of weird games back then.  How did you know which ones would be successful ahead of time?  Well, if the kids loved playing the games at the arcades, they’d surely love those same games at home.  Success stories included Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, NBA Jams, and a bunch of other Midway titles.  And, in general, if the games weren’t made by Nintendo themselves, the only good ones WERE the arcade ports.  And the game designers and publishers didn’t have to worry about cannibalizing their arcade profits because the console versions were always sub-par due to console limitations.

How did this affect how hard games were?  Again, economics.  If you design arcade games you have one simple goal – get as many quarters as you can from your customers.  This allows the owner of the arcade cabinet to recoup the cost of the hardware.  So you needed your game to be as hard as possible so that the user would have to keep adding quarters.  Additionally, you didn’t want one player monopolizing the machine.  You wanted the best to be good enough to impress others and get them to try and best him (hence the introduction of scores and high score tables), but not bore them by lasting forever.  Of course, when the programmers were porting these games to the Nintendo and Sega systems, they weren’t going to waste money changing the games to reflect the fact that console users didn’t have to input quarters.  They were just going to do just enough code to get the code to compile for this new system.

Then something happened in the mid-1990s.  The Nintendo 64 came out.  That year the only difference between the arcade version and the home console version of Cruisin’ USAis that you didn’t sit in a chair with pedals and a wheel.  (And those accessories could be bought for a price)  I’m not saying the Nintendo 64 single-handedly killed the arcade.  I haven’t done enough research to know if there were other more powerful factors.  But it certainly made a difference.  Except maybe once, I never put any money into a Cruisin’ USA arcade machine.  I could essentially get the same experience all weekend long by spending $4 at Blockbuster.  And with the Playstation launching soon after that with a CD-ROM to hold up to 650 MB of data, there almost wasn’t a reason to play a game at the arcade.  The port would no longer be a poor imitation.  It would essentially be the same thing.

Of course, it took video game designers a little while to catch up, but you started to see cracks in the armor around that time.  None of Nintendo’s first party games had really been hard since the SNES.  In the N64 era they just got even easier.  They also mostly got rid of timers and scores.  Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, released about half a decade later, didn’t even bother with punishing you for death.  Whenever you died, you were told that it was a story-telling error and you backed up (using the sand of time) to before you died.

Freed of the need to punish the user, video game designers began working in the opposite direction – empowering users.  Games became about an escape from life.  Before they were no different than playing a game of tic tac toe; they gave stress release but you were still playing a game.  But now you became a Marine or Space Marine or medieval Assassin.  And if you’re a member of an elite squad of some elite special forces, it doesn’t make sense for things to be hard for you and for you to always be dying.  It makes sense for the situation to challenge you, but not to dominate you.  (And you often hear criticisms nowadays when this is the case)

In fact, the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that some games have begun to challenge our ability to suspend our disbelief.  A great example is the Uncharted series.  In Uncharted, the only thing fatal to Nathan Drake is a long fall.  Any other wounds are healed through time.  And not in the Final Fantasy sense of staying at an Inn overnight.  Just find a place with good cover and you can survive being shot with an uzi.  The first Assassin’s Creed game was similar.  The next two have been *slightly* more realistic with the hero needing to take medicine.

And so we end up with this extremely satisfying new Pacman.  They don’t need to get your quarters anymore.  They just want you to enjoy eating dots and ghosts.  And, while I think Pacman CE DX can be enjoyed by anyone, those of us who grew up on original Pacman get the extra cathartic vengeance on those ghosts who were so unbeatable before.


Assassin’s Creed vs Assassin’s Creed II

Because I rarely play games when they first come out, I had the occasion to play Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II back-to-back.  As I’ve mentioned before ( near the end of the post ) getting to experience sequels one after another can yield some benefits over waiting years in between.  (Plus, in the case of stuff like Harry Potter (which I haven’t read yet) you don’t have the tension between books)  In this case, it was interesting to see how much had changed while keeping the core game the same.  There may be some very mild spoilers below, but I’m trying to keep it so that you can read it even if you intend to play the games.

In Assassin’s Creed, you play as Altair, an arab assassin during the time of the Crusades.  While a lot of the enjoyment of the game comes from the joy of assassinating enemies in the most clandestine way possible, I found a lot of enjoyment in the story.  As someone who enjoys historical fiction (as well as non-fiction historical study) it was also a lot of fun that many of the characters, including your master, were real people.  The way the game explains why you don’t have all your abilities at the beginning works well within the frame of the game – for reasons I’d rather not spoil, you’re stripped of your rank as top assassin and have to earn your way back up the ranks by assassinating some targets that your master assigns you.  Anyone else you kill is up to you.  In fact, I think that because of my gameplay style I didn’t play the game “correctly”.  I was often told that I needed to clear the area of guards before going to my target and I rarely did that.  Somehow I almost always got to my target without doing that.  There were a bunch of side missions, but I never did them.  For the most part all they led to was to have an area in the city where citizens would help you block the guards.  This never seemed to help, so I didn’t worry too much about it at all.  Some people criticized the fact that your main targets would have long monologues before dying, but I think this really advanced the story very well and people with lots of media experience (movies, books, video games) can probably start to predict the upcoming plot revelation.

Assassin’s Creed II takes place in Italy with the player taking control of Ezio, a member of a prominent family in Florence in the 1400s.  On the Giant Bombcast, they’ve advocated just playing Assassin’s Creed II because the story from part one is not needed.  They’re partially right in that there’s a bit of a recap in the beginning of the game, but I think it actually helped me really get deeper into the story in ACII to have played the first game.  More on that in a bit.

When I first started playing Assassin’s Creed II, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first one.  For starters, you aren’t an assassin at first.  Because of the part of the game that takes place in the modern time (technically 2012), you know that Ezio is an ancestor of your main character as Altair was.  But Ezio has no idea.  So the game starts off with you working a gopher for your father.  It’s a lot more boring in this mode.  The game really does not baby you as much as the first one did, so if you never played Assassin’s Creed, you’ll probably be a little lost on the button combinations and the interface.  Eventually the Ezio becomes an assassin and the game really gets going.

Unlike the first game, you don’t have a master giving you targets and they don’t monologue nearly as much.  Again, this really reduced my enjoyment at first.  I felt that the story was way too loose.  But as it progressed and I started to get into the subtleties of the new game they’d built, I started to enjoy it a lot more.  One thing that’s quite different about the narrative is the time that lapses as you play the game.  Assassin’s Creed seemed to take place over a few days or a few weeks at most.  I’m not yet done with Assassin’s Creed II and something like 8 or 10 years have passed since the game started.  (Technically a lot more, but I don’t want to spoil the absolute beginning).  This doesn’t appear to have any practical effects on the game other than the narrative.  As least for me, as I’ve been taking note of the years, I’ve noticed that this has been a very long road for Ezio to achieve what he started.  (Again, don’t want to spoil)

The game has also taken the series into a bit of a move towards an RPG.  While money played no part in the first game, it plays a huge part in this one.  Story-wise, it makes sense for this mechanic to come into the game because Italy’s city-states were a huge part of how finance got restarted in the Renaissance.  And so they added money into the game which also allows them to have armor and weapon upgrades in the game.  So I have spent some more time on side missions to earn more money for those.

Additionally, the game added the idea of codex pages.  These are pages from Altair’s diary that, for some reason, the Templars have gotten a hold of.  (Although some are found from friendly sources)  So I have spent a lot of time getting to the top of watch towers to find all the codex pages.  They only play a very minor role in the game, so if I hadn’t played the first one, I wouldn’t care.  But, since I did play the first one and love games with a rich fiction, I collect them to read what Altair wrote and to flesh out the game’s universe.  Additionally there are glyphs that allow the player to play a mini-game to unlock some video sequences.  The framing story about how the glyphs got there and the thing you’re looking for in the mini-games would not make ANY sense whatsoever if you hadn’t beaten the first game.

Another mechanic they added in this game, but which had some origins in the first game is the concept of fast travel.  It’s also another reason to collect money.  Basically, it’s a huge hassle/waste of time to travel around by horse everywhere you go.  Perhaps you like it – you got addicted to video game horseback riding in Zelda on the Nintendo 64.  I prefer not to waste the time (not to mention risking pissing off the guards by running over pedestrians) so I just visit fast travel stations to get between any cities you’ve visited before.  This becomes important if you get into renovating Ezio’s ancestral castle.  The town merchants pay you rent and this can add up to a lot of money.  I ended up really getting into this, taking some time out of the game to fix up the entire castle.  But once the box in the castle fills with money, they won’t earn anymore.  Also, you need to visit the house to withdraw money from the box to go buy armor and other stuff.  So without fast travel that’d be very annoying.  I

Yet another change that really benefits the game is the ability to buy medicine.  In the first game there were tons of battle sequences that I would fail as I got to the last guy because I sucked at the fighting mechanic until near the end of the game.  Thanks to medicine, I can heal while in the middle of a fight and keep going.

One of the more fun additions to Assassin’s Creed II that I didn’t take advantage of until about 10 hours in was the ability to hire people.  There are thieves, hookers, and fighters all over town waiting for you to hire them.  In this game there are armored guards that can take a long time to fight, so sometimes it’s just worth it to hire these people to distract the guards so you can walk right past them and get on to the more fun parts of the game.

Before, it could be annoying to go all the prep work you needed before you unlocked the main assassination.  Those missions have been eliminated in favor of walking missions.  Here you follow some guy or girl around and they talk about the upcoming mission and get you around the map.  I’m not sure if this is a huge improvement.  Sometimes the other missions could be much quicker.

You also spend less time outside the Animus, which is definitely a good thing.  (Although I understand why they did it for story reasons in the first game)
Finally, one of the reasons for doing more side missions is that Assassin’s Creed II actually has achievements/trophies.  I’m definitely not going to go for 100%, but it has motivated me to take on a few side missions when I just had one or two more items to acquire to get the achievement.

In the end, Assassin’s Creed II is a great evolution of the series.  It did get rid of some of the things I really liked.  The plot is not as intricate and it seems to focus more on the economic and RPG side of things.  But, on balance, the game is a great improvement over its predecessor.  I’m definitely curious to see where the game goes in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, although I understand that game is not meant to be a sequel, but rather an expansion on Ezio’s story.  (Or at least his universe)  I hope they finish off the trilogy soon.  (At least, I think it’s supposed to be a trilogy)

2010 Game of the Year

I played a lot of games this year.  Perhaps more than in any previous year since leaving high school.  Since I usually don’t buy games when they first come out, the winner will not necessarily be a game that came out this year.  I went to my raptr page and took a look at all the games I played this year.  Following is a list of the games and a little about what I thought of them.  At the end will be my pick for 2010.

I started off the year continuing my indie game trend.  These were small downloadable games that were quick to get a game or two out of.

Zuma:  Another pop the bubbles by matching colours type of game.  This game is a lot of fun and overall, I spent 13 hours playing it.  The use of achievements kept me hooked a little longer than I might have been otherwise.

Fat Princess:  I played a total of 19 hours of Fat Princess (probably some of that in 2009).  It’s a really fun game.  It’s chaotic, has a great sense of humor, and you can finish a game in 15 to 30 minutes.  I haven’t played it since the beginning of the year because I’ve been so busy with other games.  Every once in a while, I think about playing, but I just have too many uncompleted games and hobbies for that.

Beatles Rock Band: Played 15 hours (some of which may have been in 2009).  See my review here.

Worms (PSN): I’ve always loved Worms on computer.  Played 8 hours.  I really like this game a lot, but it’s not fun without others.  I tried playing with random people and it just wasn’t as much fun as playing with friends/family.

Batman: Arkham Assylum:  I borrowed this game and beat it in 14 hours.  The game was a lot of fun and it reinvigorated my desire to beat Uncharted.  Basically, it was the game that showed me that I could play third person games.  I had been frustrated ever since the Nintendo 64 as games had become too complicated for me.  However, my love of the Batman franchise caused me to soldier on.  I mastered it and then went on the play and beat Uncharted.  And, without this confidence boost, I would have never gotten into the Assassin’s Creed series.

Valkyria Chronicles:  I played this game for 3 hours and realized it wasn’t for me.  The story seemed interesting and the idea of an anime-style 3D game was interesting, but I found it boring and tedious.

Colonization:  This was an update of a game I LOVED as a kid.  I sunk 16 hours into it.  Most of that was spent playing “play by email” game with Dan.  It was a pretty good game, but lacked polish in enough places that I ended up never playing it again, nor having the desire to.

Civilization IV:  I’ve said a lot about it and I’ve played hundreds of hours.  It’s a great game.

Peggle/Peggle Nights:  Great innovation on the Breakout/Brick Breaker style of games.  I have really enjoyed playing them.  They’re more fun with others and, unfortunately, the challenges don’t hold my attention that well – even with Playstation trophies to earn.

Little Big Planet: I bought this game when I got my Playstation as it was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to buy a PS3.  But after playing a bit of the story mode and a bit of the online content, I regretted wasting my money.  However, in a bid to play all my games before buying new ones, I gave it a chance.  I really ended up loving the story mode.  The soundtrack was especially great.  I still am not that impressed with MOST of the online content.

Super Mario Galaxy 2: Spent 11 hours playing this game.  I didn’t beat it.  I really, really enjoyed it, but I feel like this is the first Mario game in a LONG time where you can’t be sure you’ll beat the whole game.  I basically got stuck unable to earn any more stars.  I got all the standard ones and, to me, that should be enough to advance (even if you don’t get the best ending).  Right now I’m stuck with some of the bonus challenges as the only way to get stars and I can’t beat any of them.  It’ll be the first Mario game I couldn’t beat since Mario 3.

Pixel Junk Shooter:  This game is fun.  But it just didn’t pull me in like it did for Dan.

Bejeweled 2:  It’s Bejeweled.

Starcraft:  Started playing this game so I could get up on the story as well as the experience before playing Starcraft II.  The game hasn’t aged well.

Puzzle Quest:  Bejeweled meets RPG.  Fun concept.  I’d probably play a bit more in 2011.  Nothing to really pull me back in, though.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune:  Started this game in Dec of 2009.  Finished most of it mid-2010.  I really enjoyed the game and the story, once I got my third person video game “sea legs”

Diner Dash:  A fun little game where you are a waitress/enterprenuer and have to earn money to improve your restaurant.  It is a great concept, but it could have used a bit more Theme Hospital-like depth

Plants vs Zombies: Awesome game about keeping zombies off your lawn.  Sunk many an hour into this game.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Bought this game because my brothers really loved it.  Love the Monty Python-esque humor.  Realized I hated how hard all these old point and click adventures were.  Played for 1hour. I’ll probably get back to it when I’m done with everything else – with a FAQ/Walkthrough

Civilization V: Amazing followup to Civ IV.  Covered extensively on here.  Played for 46 hours.  Haven’t played much since the week it came out, but that’s typical for me and Civ.  I’ll probably be back to it for another straight week or so sometime this year.

Pac-man Championship Edition DX:  I didn’t think this game would be as exciting as I’d heard from the Giant Bomb guys, but bought it on a lark.  It is pure joy.  If you ever loved Pac-Man, you will love this game.  It is impossible to describe the sheer joy of munching on a row of ghosts.  You either get it or you don’t.

Assassin’s Creed/Assassin’s Creed II:  Got Assassin’s Creed because the Giant Bomb guys kept talking up Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and I wanted to start the story from the beginning.  I’m not going to get into these games too much because I’m planning on writing up a blog post comparing and contrasting  the different styles of gameplay in these two games.

My pick for game of 2010:  Batman: Arkham Assylum for it’s great gameplay and for getting me into 3rd person games and opening up 3 other games to me.  Read my review of Batman: Arkham Assylum.