Category Archives: Setting

Videogames are beautiful

My old friend Cyrille is quite possibly the most dedicated, passionate retro-gamer I will ever know. Before he made his ultimate dream come true – moving to Japan, that mother of artsy videogames, manga and anime, and falling desperately in love with a girl there who is now mother of his son – we grew up together for a time. Cy was a PC Engine (aka Turbo Duo) worshipper down to the bone, with presently 688 out of a total of 735 games owned, and I don’t think he ever eyed any game past the 32bit era with anything but disdain, which made for both entertaining and infuriating discussions sometime. “Video games are works of art” he used to tell me, anything less was not worth his time. He wanted to see love and great care put into them by developers, love for a synthesis between story, graphics, soundtrack and theme, care for the little details that stick in our minds forever. We would watch game intros in solemn awe together or listen to wacky game midis as if they were Beethoven’s Fifth. Truth be told, my cellphone’s ringtone and sounds are still SNES midis – there’s a lot of nostalgia involved.

Why do people play video games? Plenty of reasons there: entertainment, challenge, competition, winding down, the social / cooperative factor, escapism, yadda yadda. Most of these things can also be found while having drinks in a bar or playing poker with friends though. Being into video games goes a bit deeper in my mind, although I am aware not everyone shares the same interest as me. But it’s always annoyed me how anyone into literature, painting or music is automatically a fine “art and culture” lover, while being a gamer gets little to no such credit. Video games are two steps away from movies and TV, with a big fat label saying “passive and unproductive” on the package. Being into teh arts however, is enough to make you seem distinguished and productive. You might not play any instrument yourself or ever have held a brush in your life, still: you = creative!

Well, I have some news: video games are works of art. Video games are beautiful. They’re not just moving pictures stirring behavioural principles to enslave people into passivity forever; they’re the joint product of a hundred art departments come together. Years of meticulous planning and execution, a delightful composition of graphic, music, story, coding and heart. The work of outstanding artists, visionaries and dreamers, appealing to several of our senses simultaneously. If you have a good look at some MMO and general game sites, forums and blog discussions these days, you get the impression that many gamers have forgotten what  they are dealing with. Debates on subscription models and numbers, launch dates, developer vs. publisher wars, playtime, class balances, server and credit card crashes, bargains on collector’s editions. Very little on the art that is games. Very little delight about the concept art, story or music involved.

Has the audience gone numb, deaf and blind or are today’s games simply such cheap creations off the same careless, fast-producing clay, that no appreciation for more artistic aspects is possible? Or is there an ongoing trend in the videogame industry to get closer and closer to movie making, as this author states in his lenghty but interesting article?

When games are works of art

On my recent search for more old-school adventure games, I’ve stumbled into a world that I had not visited for a long time. I’ve asked around for recommendations quite a bit, not just on my blog, but some game forums where I have been resident for many years and people know my tastes quite well. I knew Monkey Island and Siberia were a good starting point – point&click and puzzle adventures in general, as long as they emphasize story and setting over tedious, endless riddle guessing (which I hate) and jumpy acrobatics. I excluded MUDs because I am still looking for the video in game (still, thanks to Jaedia for this recommendation!).

What do you know, I got a lot more feedback than expected. And not just that: I got my finer senses back for what I truly appreciate in games – the scary, the hilarious, the atmosphere. It’s true, a lot of today’s videogames have dropped off the same bandwagon and they are not meant to last; but there are the daring and different still.

One such game that I need to highlight is Limbo (XBOX live arcade, 2010) which has been the biggest surprise to me of the suggested lot – being completely without music (there are sounds though) and text. It is the most unsettling, creepy yet beautiful game I have encountered in years. A boy lost in an deep forest where death is as imminent as the sky and yet as quiet as the wind whispering among the trees. If you hold any love for dark fairy tales and a fascination for the subtly macabre (hello Neil Gaiman readers), Limbo is an absolute delicacy on grounds of imagery and atmosphere alone. It is such a breath of fresh air to find such indie projects still being produced, but judge for yourself.

Videogames are an art form made up of visuals, sound, and a mysterious little something we call gameplay. Limbo is the perfect example of these three crafts working together in harmony to create something astounding. With no text, no dialogue, and no explanation, it manages to communicate circumstance and causality to the player more simply than most games. This 2D puzzle platformer in a film noir style is one of the best games you’ll play this year on any platform. (IGN.com)

Often compared to Braid, I’ve not found the second, very jumpy puzzle game nearly as compelling in terms of atmosphere or gameplay (also, I find the protagonist Tim annoying). Braid has won awards for beautiful artwork and innovative design though and is clearly another pearl in that corner of the genre.

Parallel to Limbo, I have engaged in Monkey Island, re-mastered. After only the first chapters (and some awkward sparring rounds at the weapon master), I noticed my saved gamedata at 40%. I had to smile at this: yes, games used to be this short. Of a great adventure like Monkey Island, you could expect a run of 5 hours max. Today, you can hear people complain if a videogame “only offers 30 hours of gameplay”. But on to some more pearls…

As I hadn’t specified platform, only excluding handhelds (mostly because I have played all the good ones on DS already), I was surprised to get some flash-/browser games on my list. They’re full of love for detail, featuring beautiful tunes and engaging gameplay:

If Samorost’s style rings any bells for you, the games are in fact by Amanita Design, the studio behind the delightful Machinarium for PC, PS3 and Wii. A demo for the game can be found here.

Realizing I am now completely leaving the world of adventures, I still like to mention an old, secret fandom of mine, the Orisinal mini-games by Ferry Halim. The page has been there forever and is not being updated very often, but each game is a little wonder of its own (I particularly like the star girl and dragon flies).

Further Reading

Shinies and oddballs aside, my list of more classic text adventures has grown too. To name a few that I intend to look into: Indiana Jones, Broken Sword (1-3), Discworld, the King’s Quest series, Lost Horizon, Zak McKracken and Gray Matter. For some reason I couldn’t help but feel reminded of the upcoming MMO, the Secret World, when checking out that last title.

I have also been informed that there’s a rather in-depth guide to classic adventure games available on Amazon; I’m sure that to sworn genre cracks such an encyclopaedia provides a great read. Also, unrelated to the topic of adventures, I found this article on artful videogames well worth reading. I can only second the sentiment on Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

I shall be entertained by this list of adventure games for some time to come, methinks – enjoying their stories, music and world. I dare say, it’s quite the rest and relaxation compared to what’s going on in other corners of the world of games right now.

The beast that wrecked wonderland. Or: Oh noes, I’m an RPer?

The blogosphere is loaded on fundamental design questions and debates lately and it’s not just events like Blizzard’s most recent Call to Arms announcement that make us wonder about where the future of MMOs lies. The more I’m reading, the more I realize how conservative I am – and how I really hopped off the bandwagon somewhere around the Burning Crusade. Very few game design changes have actually appealed to me since then. Maybe I’m just not the average MMO gamer anymore. Maybe I have become too “oldschool” for this genre.

Scrap that “maybe”.

I’ve tried to put a finger on this sentiment lately, but I couldn’t quite find the right word. This recent post by Green Armadillo is a great example of the overall problem though: I really do resent the fact that dungeons have become a synonym for lootbags in MMOs. That is SO far apart from what dungeons used to stand for, game designers might as well stop putting any effort into dungeon design if drops are all that matters. And now, as if loot, gold and tokens weren’t enough, you even have to bribe people further to play cooperatively in there. Sic transit gloria mundi?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg which fast-food, drive-thru MMOs are developing into, with their dungeon finders, achievement points, welfare loot and in-built quest helpers. Big fat red arrows across your fantasy world. Flashy text hovering over your stupid head. Min-maxing guides for teh win.

All the things I want are almost completely opposed to the current trend: no quest helper, no maps, no fast leveling, no soloing major content, no anonymous grouping, no welfare loot, no cookie-cutters, no bottomless bags, no epeen titles and silly achievement points. Instead, more need to cooperate. More need to play intelligently. More consequences when not playing cooperatively or intelligently. More customization. Lore rather than loot. More need to travel without an instant map. More wetting your pants on the way. Proper outdoor PvP. Less linearity and more player-generated content. Player housing. More campfires. A bag-pack with bandages you actually use.

And then it dawns on me, the inevitable conclusion: my wish-list strongly resembles the 100+ pages long RPer’s wishlist that was up on Blizzard’s official RP forums a few years ago, a collection on how to improve the game for roleplaying (unfortunately that topic is long gone). Is to wish for these things, to be an RPer in today’s post-WoW MMO world?

I’m not an RPer in the strict sense. I do play role-playing games, but I’ve always played on PVE servers. I cringe a little at the whole “in character”-stuff some people really take to extremes on dedicated servers. On the other hand, I’ve absolutely no problem with players who enjoy their MMOs that way, it’s just not my cup of coffee to make up a past history for my character, attend ingame weddings or talk in Shakespearean English. But when it comes to everything else that adds atmosphere to fantasy worlds, yes I do want that. It’s been there before.

So, am I an RPer now? A traditionalist? How do you call MMO players like me today? And is it really me who needs a new name?

But finally, I realized what this whole mess is called that’s currently happening to the genre (thank you Spinks): the beast that’s wrecking wonderland is called “Gamification”. It’s been going on a lot more rapidly on consoles ever since the XBOX went live and now it’s made its way into PC MMOs too. And I really shouldn’t be surprised: just the way traditional RPGs have become a rarity on console ever since, the classic MMORPG is doomed to disappear. I never realized the parallels in such clarity. MMOs might be part of the world of games, but they never played by the same rules, their virtues were always of a different kind. They were virtual worlds; not linear, scripted scenarios with the goal of instant gratification, stilling players’ achievement hunger and collection drive whenever they please. Those games were about setting, narrative, simulation and cooperative longterm goals. But there’s a whole new mentality out there today, a new type of gamer walking down my virtual streets. A gamer with different values than me.

And I’m fine with it, really – you can collect achievements ’til kingdom come for all I care. But if game studios start developing more and more MMOs for you rather than me, then I have a problem.

And no, I don’t want to start playing MUDs or write fanfiction.

Gilneas is my hometown!

Ever since Blizzard released the first snapshots of Gilneas, home of the new worgen race in Cataclysm, I have been a little enamored with the place. Shady, dark and spooky, with rooftops looming over the lantern-lit cobblestone streets, Gilneas looks like the proper medieval Jack-the Ripper setting to me, very atmospheric and also very very Fable:

Streets of Gilneas
Fable II Town

I’ve been considering to roll a worgen for fun in the expansion just so I get to see the starting quests in the area. I don’t exactly like the female worgen models though (wtb facial diversity), so I cannot quite make my mind up about what to do!

Then last night while looking for new screenshots, I came across a picture on MMO Champion I had never seen before….

…and it struck me like a bolt of lightning: Oh my God, Gilneas IS my hometown!! That’s why the place feels so strangely familiar and “cosy” to me, it looks exactly like the place I grew up in! And before you roll your eyes thinking “yeah riiiight”, here’s the proof:

Syl’s hometown

How creepy is that?! =O *shudder*

Have a good weekend everybody!

Elwynn, my lovely

Between Cataclysm preview posts and debates on female gamers (a topic which I am bound to take up sooner or later), I have decided to make my first topic an entirely different one. I am a big sucker for atmosphere in games and I have always loved the world maps, soundtrack and the overall graphical style and level of detail in WoW. It was a big part of playing the game for me in the first place and with a new expansion at our doorsteps I like to look forward by looking back and getting a little mushy (don’t get used to it ;D).

Of all the wonderful maps WoW has to offer Elwynn Forest will always hold a special place in my heart. No doubt Outland introduced some of the most nicely designed areas in all of WoW back in TBC – Zangarmarsh or Nagrand being two of the most popular maps at the time. Later on WotLK graced us with the snowy mountains of Storm Peaks and the woodland beauty of Grizzly Hills. But as wicked as glowing mushroom thickets and flying islands might be, as much as I loved the nordic idyll of the current expansion’s maps: there is no place to me like Elwynn Forest. Elwynn with its light, peaceful tune, its soft river banks and silver ponds, Elwynn with Goldshire at its center from where all paths lead to greater adventures. Elwynn where I stationed my quest giver ‘NPC’ for Adrenaline’s 1st Guild Anniversary.

How many times have I taken the Dalaran portal to Stormwind late at night (when raids were over and you weren’t doing anything really but chatting in guildchat or talking to friends on Ventrilo) and parked my character somewhere in the middle of Elwynn Forest. Every now and then a lowlevel player would pass me by, finding that priest geared in ICC epics sitting alone on a grassy hill, and wonder slightly what she was doing. She was taking a break.

I’m sure that we all have a special place in WoW that is ladden with memories and nostalgia. Often players will talk that way of their starting area because it’s there where their first memories of the game were shaped. It’s there where they cast their first spell, handed in their first quest, got lost for the first time (of many more times to come) and had their very first corpserun. And there is only one first time to all things.

Having leveled a human priest when the game was still young, Northshire Abbey, Goldshire and the whole of WoW from there have created my first impressions of the game. I have picked my first peacebloom in Elwynn Forest, bought my first vanity pet from the Crazy Cat Lady (those 40 silver hurt sooo much!), slain my first notorious villain, the ferocious Hogger – though I admit he killed me first. It is also where I formed my first friendships with other players. Whenever I go back there I am instantly cast back into my noobie days and there is a deep longing in me.

I think that’s why many of us look forward to expansions: we look foward to be an explorer again, to be a noob that doesn’t know what to expect around the next corner with the odd ‘whoa!’ and ‘ooops!’ – feelings ever so often. I am sure many are looking at the Cataclysm beta screenshots right now and hoping that the expansion will give them something back of the thrill and excitement of doing something for the very first time, walking down untrodden roads into unexplored maps.

May it all hold true for Catacylsm, may it fill you with wonder and bring back some of those rookie feelings that are so overdue after a long wait. But as wonderful as new places may be, I will never stop returning to my starting area from time to time. There’s no place like home.

Where’s yours?