02 October, 2006

What I Like About You

This was the second Armchair Arcade post I wrote. It's the closest thing I've got to a unified theory of fun. :)

Obviously, I like games. But in the interest of clear communications and fair warning, you should probably also be aware of my prejudices. The activities I enjoy in games feel like very primal ones to me, far below the lofty concerns of narrative cohesion, human intimacy potential, and other things the designer folk talk about.

Come and join my monkey dance!

At the most basic level, I love interaction. Push a button; the little man jumps. What child wouldn't love that. And unlike mommy and daddy he never gets fed up and sends you for a time out. :)

One level up from that, I like excitement. Most games play on mortal fear. Dodge that fireball! Jump that gap! Shoot that bad guy! The immediacy of danger all around, combined with the tools to narrowly escape it is intoxicating stuff.

One level up from that, I like style. Sure, cheating death is cool, but if I can do it with dastardly cunning (Thief) or flourish and grace (Devil May Cry) or ridiculous overkill (Hulk: Ultimate Destruction) or capering sillyness (Joint Ops), that's a huge bonus.
Just to be clear, I'm mostly talking about action, platforming, shooting, and fast puzzle games here. These are my genres of choice. You'd think I'd like fighting games, but the amount of specialized knowledge (combos, throws, special moves, attack speeds, ranges, and priorities) required to play them well leaves me completely cold. Nope, I like games that are quick to pick up and too engrossing to put down. Once in a while, though, a game can be engrossing without being a reflex tester.

One way is through atmosphere. Some games are simply entertaining to experience, regardless of whether there's really much of a "game" there at all. The first examples that spring to mind are always old LucasArts games. I played through Day of the Tentacle again a while back, and Sam and Max Hit the Road a while before that. I'll probably play through Full Throttle or a Monkey Island game next. Some of the jokes go stale, but for the most part, those games are still very funny. On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, I enjoy a good horror game from time to time as well, despite the fact that most of them are just action games with bad controls and shambling opponents. Music games (like Parappa, Amplitude, and Guitar Hero) also fall partly into this category and partly into the next.

Other games touch my creative side. I don't know if it's a needed catharsis after all the destruction of my action games or some other impulse, but once in a while it feels good to build stuff. Sometimes that's a music game or karaoke. Sometimes it's actually making music. Sometimes it's building something fun (Roller Coaster Tycoon) or something enduring (Pharaoh), but it's nice to just tinker once in a great while.

Then it's back to throwing feces and blowing stuff up. :)

System History

Here's the first blog entry I wrote for Armchair Arcade. It's a brief rundown of my history with different gaming systems. I say brief because I only mention a few games from each generation. Maybe someday I'll write up the exhaustive "every game I can remember playing" version. Yes, dammit, my life is that boring.

1978 - Mmm. Coding basic text games on our Apple II+. Plus I could make a cool string of wine goblets run up the side of the screen.

10 PRINT "Y"
20 PRINT "I"
30 GOTO 10

1980 - The folks bring home an Atari 2600. Love blooms. The games I remember most from this time are Pac Man, Space Invaders, Berzerk, Swordquest: Earthworld, and Combat. Like many people I've talked to, you always had to have one friend with an Intellivision and one with a ColecoVision so that everyone could play every system. :)

1987 - The family moved to Hawaii for a bit. I played the games that came with our Tandy over and over again. The version of nethack we had could evaporate days in what felt like seconds. I think the slowness of the disk drive slowed the game just enough that you didn't notice how much time was passing. I also had a friend with a Commodore 64, and got a little exposure to some of it's games (although Bruce Lee is the only one I really remember). We used to walk down the hill and jump on the trampoline next to the house of the guy who wrote Alternate Reality.

1989 - NES. Rentals for days. Super Mario 2, Ninja Gaiden (the first game I didn't manage to beat before it had to go back. Stupid last boss), and River City Ransom were definite highlights. Ooh, and Megaman 2. And I always thought Strider for the NES was good too. Oh yeah, and Bionic Commando.

1992(?) - Genesis. Sonic and Gunstar Heroes are standouts. I actually didn't really care for a lot of Genesis games. Sometimes my friends and I had fun with the system in spite of itself, with our crazy Bonanza Bros. banter and sitting around in a huge group marking down every missed bad guy in Night Trap (that one time we rented a Sega CD).

1994 - DooM. Yeah. DooM. My computer was a crappy 25 megaherts hand me down. I got to the point where I could flick and take down an enemy by sound alone. Luckily my friends usually had a better computer for me to play on. With Ben Morris' DCK and DooM 2, a love affair began that will never truly end. My friend Chris and I (eventually) composed enough DM levels for our own megawad, inspired by greats like Bob Boyer, Brian Vannatta, Brian Weldon, and Marin Gazzari. They're the Godless series and should be available at finer mirrors everywhere. :)

1998 - PC's heyday (for me). While DooM is omnipresent, lots of other games keep my mousing hand busy. Blood (greatest of the Build Engine games), System Shock (once I finally had a PC that could play it), Warcraft 2, and Starcraft were certainly standouts.

2000 - The collecting begins. Finally having a real job, I start picking up some things I missed out on. PS1, SNES, N64, and the Dreamcast. Mostly I just pick up the old Nintendo games so that I can play them on an emulator and not be a criminal (in my own eyes, at least). Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is an obvious favorite, almost as obvious as Mario 64. :) Final Fantasy IX (the only one I ever finished) was this generation as well. Soul Reaver for the Dreamcast helped me discover a deep love of melodrama. To this day just the sound of Simon Templeman's voice makes me happy. We miss you Tony Jay!
The PC certainly didn't go unused at this point. Half-Life (and eventually the magnificent Heart of Evil mod) were great. Say what you will about Paul Steed, but Quake 3 finally got 3D to the point where I didn't miss sprites.

2002 - PS2 and Gamecube. Devil May Cry. That was THE game of the generation for me. I picked it up for $15 used. I picked up DMC 3 for full price just as a way of paying back Capcom for this game. I've beaten DMC 1 on normal using only the starting weapons (Force Edge and Pistols). Then I went back with all the weapons and cakewalked it. I spent months with this game. It had style. Stopping after a fight and watching Dante spin his pistols back into their holsters was always cool. Taunting enemies was great fun. And discovering how to dominate the shadow cats was a epiphany in elegance. I enjoyed a lot of other games this generation: Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Ratchet & Clank (hands down my favorite series of the generation), Grand Theft Auto, DDR.

2004 - Community begins. At some point I'm forced to admit that my friends just aren't gamers like I am. My PS1 multi-tap got used maybe half a dozen times. But through Kingdom of Loathing and the Penny Arcade Expo, I get the feeling that there's a (largely violent and purile) culture that I belong to. I learn the lyrics to many MC Frontalot songs. :)

2005 - My year off. After getting laid off, I minimize expenses and play like there's no tomorrow, even signing up for a subscription service or two, playing them dry in a month and moving on. It's like the NES rental days writ large. I finally burn out on games. Not that I don't play them anymore, I just don't care for anything but the finest. Thief: Deadly Shadows was the only game I played by subscription and subsequently bought. Life is too short to play games that compromise on the fun. This coincides with the complete disappointments that are the Star Wars prequels and Matrix sequels. Lego Star Wars is the only redeeming feature of these disappointments.

2006 - At the ripe old age of 32, I am now officially a bitter old man. Nothing will surpass DooM. Nothing will surpass the old 2D mario games. Nothing will surpass MegaMan 2. Nothing will surpass Warcraft 2. Nothing will surpass Out of this World or Heart of Darkness. That kind of pure joy is almost impossible to find any more. (Yay, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and Lego Star Wars!) The intense assclownery of Joint Operations with my friend Mike is one of the few things I still enjoy consistently, finding new ways to exploit the ridiculous bugs in the game to do the dumbest things and laughing hysterically into the night. (See http://blainsgaminglife.blogspot.com/ to see some of our illustrated exploits. (Ha! Punny!) )

And there you have it. Even as I type these words, I realize that there are many games (and even whole genres) omitted here. But if you read this far, you deserve a break... and maybe some candy. Enjoy! :P