Tag Archives: Video Games

The Joy of Exploring

I continue to be endlessly fascinated by Breath of The Wild’s open world. Since the last time I talked about the game I’ve taken on one more Divine Beast, but I still spend so much of my time exploring Hyrule and trying to find everything.

Which of course makes me wonder why I find this wandering so satisfying. I have a completionist streak in me, a part of me that wants to finish everything. Get all the dang feathers in Assassin’s Creed II, unlock every character in LEGO Avengers, get the Platinum Trophy in Burnout Paradise. Open world games are thus a scary beast for me; sure, it’s fun to explore and stuff, but I also want to Do All The Things. I’m terrified of missing something, of there being some little nugget of fun that I glossed over.

In many ways, I’m very grateful for the map and its icons in Spider-Man. One glance and I know if there’s still stuff to do in any given neighborhood, I know if I’m missing anything. There’s a bit of a freeing feeling when you have that reassurance that you’ll be able to get to it later and there’s no harm in running up the Empire State Building again. Since it’s so clear what I ‘have’ to do in the game, the potential shenanigans are too.

Conversely, Breath of The Wild is absolutely taciturn with its goals. Sure, there’s a quest tracker, but beyond that you’re in the wind. The map is barebones, displaying only region names and the occasional marker for towns once you discover them. Those shrines and Korok scattered everywhere? Yeah, they’re only added after you find them. Massive monsters, treasure, and all those other little secrets will forever remain unmarked, unless you manually add a note to the map.

Hyrule is yours to explore, there’s very little in the way of guides to where things are or even how many of something there is (how many Shrines are there? I haven’t a darn clue). It’s kinda terrifying, there’s So Much to this world, and no way to know how much there is — unless I break out a guide or something.

Yet I’ve made peace with knowing that I might not be able to find Every Last Thing. Wandering Hyrule and discovering its secrets is fun enough in and of itself, plus there’s usually one of those Koroks hiding on the top of that really-hard-to-reach pillar. In Breath of The Wild I’m enjoying the journey.

Maybe this is because the Switch doesn’t have Trophies, and I know that it won’t make a difference if I’m missing one or two shrines in the run of it. I don’t have the pressure of a checklist of things to do while I play. Now, I do like Trophies; I like challenges to do on the side as I play the game. But the lack of them in Wild means I can really do whatever I want and not have some background concern that I’m not doing everything as it should be.

There’s also not really too much of an overbearing narrative in Breath of The Wild. Sure, there is the whole assemble the Divine Beasts and fight Ganon thing; but there’s little pressure beyond that. Link doesn’t say to himself “Hm, I oughta get to saving Hyrule.” In practice, doing whatever you want may as well be the story as it happens, and it’s so much better for that.

Hyrule is a world for you, as Link, to explore as you please. It’s baked into its DNA in a way that no number of expertly crafted side quests could ever muster.

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Exploring Worlds

I have a complex relationship with open-world games. On the one hand, it’s real neat to get to go explore a big world and do stuff. On the other, I really like the more catered, narrative experience offered by more linear games. On the other other hand, open-worlds are kinda the genre du jour for single-player video games, so I’m gonna end up playing them no matter what.

But first, a definition of open-world games. The idea here is that rather than having a series of levels or stages to play through, open-world games offer players a big map to run rampant around, with various missions/quests scattered about. In between missions, players have the opportunity to explore the world, usually leading to power-ups or fun narrative diversions.

My feelings probably stem from the fact that most open-world games tend to fall into one of two problems. Either the worlds, for all their massive play space, end up being kinda brining and repetitive, without too much variation in quests or landscape; or they end up with too darn much to do. I approached Metal Gear Solid V with some trepidation, given that this was a series known for excelling in linear games. I was pleasantly surprised to find a gorgeous world to explore, and missions that put the sandbox of the world to great use. There’s a multitude of different ways to achieve your goal (Sneak in? Gallop in on horseback, grab the target, and escape? Roar in, guns blazing, in a massive tank?), and so much to be found in the world that it’s overwhelming. I finished the story, and eventually had to make the decision that I was ‘done’ with the game and to stop trying to check every darn box. There was just so much.

I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild for a few weeks now, and I have no idea how far I am into the game. I think I’m still relatively early narrative-wise, but that’s probably because I’m having so much fun exploring Hyrule.

Breath of The Wild’s Hyrule is gorgeous, evoking memories of Horizon Zero Dawn’s post-post-apocalyptic Colorado. Which makes sense, Wild is set a century after a massive cataclysm; ruins dot the world alongside the husks of ancient war machines. It’s a desolate world, rendered in a wondrous stylized palette. It’s a beautiful world to explore, devoid of the heavy bleakness that’s made some others laborious.

It helps that Hyrule is brimming with things to explore. Shrines all over the map hold puzzles and challenges that yield power ups (and are also just plain fun in and of themselves). Creatures called Koroks can be found under rocks, up trees, and, amongst others, by throwing rocks in ponds. These guys offer you seeds which in turn can be used for — you guessed it — power-ups. There’s always something new to be found, maybe just over that ridge. It could be a Korok or a shrine; maybe that group of monsters down there have a new weapon you can use.

Once, while exploring, I saw a huge dragon flying in the distance. Some time later, I was exploring a region to the north and, lo and behold, there was that dragon again. I eventually got close enough to see it barreling towards me in all its fire-enshrouded majesty. And then it was gone, flying up away. The game told me very little about this dragon; the in-game encyclopedia just telling me Dinraal, the dragon, was thought to be a myth and bore no ill-will. Later, I used a scale from it for a side-quest, but there was still that awe of the sublime that finding the dragon gave me.

It’s neat because that experience is almost entirely my own. It wasn’t scripted by the game, it just happened because of how and where I was exploring. Breath of The Wild is a game that invites exploration. Not just because it benefits your in-game character, but because there’s so much wonder to be found.

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Play Together

Easily the highlight of my time playing Destiny was Vault of Glass. It’s a raid, that is a really difficult mission that requires serious teamwork and a pretty major time investment. It took work to even find a group to play with: I play on the PS4 and didn’t know anyone else who played Destiny. So I had to the internet to find a group who wanted to run Vault of Glass and were okay with bringing someone along who hadn’t done it before (me).

It took us around five hours.

Destiny’s raids are notoriously Big Deals. There are enemies to fight you won’t find anywhere else in the game, some fights necessitate really specific strategies to get through, and the final boss is really, really hard. It’s also the most fun thing in the game. The five others and I were all mic’d up, coming up with plans on the fly and, y’know, teamworking our way through it. Lots of calling out plans, asking for help (or telling the other to not help us as it was a lot cause), and so on. There was also a great deal of banter; complimenting each other’s work and comparing gear. Part of the fun was certainly the challenge of it, but much of it came from the camaraderie of spending that much time working together.

Teamwork is an aspect of multiplayer games that often gets downplayed in favor of competition. A game like Battlefront II isn’t so much about working as a cohesive unit as it is about beating the other faction and, ideally, playing the objective. Super Smash Bros. is all about beating each other up. There’s a bit of a reason for this; pitting human players against other human players allows for more complex games. There are things that AI is simply not good at doing in games, whether it’s balancing objective completion with combat or the on-the-fly countering that Smash lends itself to. It’s one reason why I gravitate towards games like Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime or Overcooked; yes, I love on-the-couch multiplayer, but I also enjoy having to figure out how to work together to do something.

Overcooked is frustratingly hectic, as everyone’s running around the virtual kitchen trying to serve up orders while not falling off the iceberg the kitchen happens to be on (or dealing with ghosts moving kitchenware about, or not letting rats steal your ingredients). Maybe this means assigning people roles or just constantly yelling about what needs doing and all, but most times we’ve managed to get all three stars on a particularly hard challenge was when we somehow started to really gel as a team.

My brother’s been playing Destiny since the game came out in 2014. But since he had an XBox, we couldn’t play together as there’s no cross-platform multiplayer. Courtesy of a recent sale, though, he picked up his own PS4 and with it, of course Destiny. Because now, after four years, he and I can finally play the game together.

And it’s like Vault of Glass all over. Granted, he’s still early on in the game and I’m piggybacking along while he gets back in the realm of where he was on his old account, but there’s still those elements of teamwork (“Let me know when your Super’s charged and we’ll tag-team them”) and plenty of banter — I’ve lost count of the amount of times one of us has yelled “Yoink!” into the mic upon stealing the other’s kill.

Destiny, despite all its narrative foibles, is a really fun game. One of my biggest disappointments is how, up to now, I’ve essentially been playing it alone. Now that I’m not, I’m reminded of how much darn fun the game is — especially when sharing it with another person. It’s an annoying amount of hoops to have to jump through, but now that I’m here, yeah, it’s pretty great.

Which means I’ll have to grab Destiny 2 at some point in the future to continue these adventures.

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The Mythics of Mega Man

I cut my teeth on the Mega Man series of video games. Legendary for their difficulty, mastery of the games comes from getting a handle on their mechanics and memorizing stage layouts and the patterns of boss fights. They’re tough, and oh I love them so. Getting through each stage is such a magnificent moment of catharsis; and the good entries in the series are so well designed that victory isn’t because of a lucky break but from actually skill.

They’re also fantastic examples of some elements of the Hero’s Journey.

All stories follow specific beats; there will be a moment when the hero is chosen, the hero will be tested, the hero will face a (maybe metaphorical) death. They’re vague moments, but appear in everything from adventure stories to a romcom. Call it structure, call it motifs, these elements are a part of stories.

And, like I said, video games. The structure of Mega Man, at its most basic, is the same throughout all entries in the Classic series. The hero, Mega Man, shows up in a place, fights eight Robot Masters, then lays siege to Wiley’s Castle which inevitably includes a rematch with all those prior Robot Masters before fighting Wiley himself. The X series is essentially the same, just swap Mega Man out with X or Zero, Robot Masters with Mavericks, and Dr. Wiley with Sigma. The actual ‘stories’ depend on the game, from the very barebones of Mega Man 2 to the much more grandiose Mega Man X5, but that structure remains essentially the same.

Two of the games’ trademarks are being able to tackle the stages/bosses in any order and getting a bosses’ ability upon defeating them, which in turn is the weakness of another boss. The weapon you get from defeating Magma Dragoon in Mega Man X4 does a chunk of damage to Frost Walrus. It’s like rock-paper-scissors, but with spiffy robot weapons.

A vital part of the Hero’s Journey, as emphasized by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, is the Threshold Guardian. The idea is that every time a hero moves forward into a new space, there is someone guarding the way. To meet Old Ben, Luke Skywalker must first confront the Tusken Raiders. Lara Jean has to talk to Lucas about the letter she wrote him. In many situations, the hero will assimilate attributes of the encounter into themselves. The run in with the Tusken Raiders brings Luke closer to Ben. Talking with Lucas gives Lara Jean a new ally in her quest to restore some normalcy to the chaos that her life has become.

In Mega Man? The hero gets an ability from the boss which is then useful against another boss. In other words, Mega Man’s fight against a Robot Master makes him stronger and more able to take on the next challenge. It’s a learning curve too for you, the player; just because you’ve a boss’ weakness doesn’t mean the fight will be a walk in the park. But by the time the big rematch happens in Wiley/Sigma’s castle, going through all eight fights again will be a comparative breeze because not only is Mega Man stronger, but you’ve overcome a series of challenges to get to this point, enough challenges that fighting these guys again isn’t all that hard anymore. You’ve figured out their weaknesses and have mastered the techniques needed to dodge their attacks. And now you’re ready for the Final Boss, who you will inevitably lose to several times before finally, finally, emerging victorious.

The narrative of the game would hardly work near as well without those bosses. Going straight to the final castle and all the dangers that lurk within would not just be ridiculously difficult, but would also be too much too soon. As a player, you relish that feeling of accomplishment that comes from getting better and being able to take on harder challenge. Story-wise, even if the story is as barebones as some of the Mega Man games, there’s that need for a rising action (as Freytag paced is out. Beginning slow makes the final climax all the more exciting.

The Mega Man games are, in my opinion, definitely worthy of being among the canon of video games. They’re exemplary platformers, but also present a particularly fun twist to their gameplay via a probably-subconscious application of mythic structure. If you care for that, anyway; I won’t judge you for just really enjoying the games.

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Mary Jane Watson

One thing I love so much about Spider-Man is how so much of the narrative can be stripped down to its archetypes. Peter Parker is an unlucky kid who’s suddenly had this great power thrust upon him. Otto Octavius is a genius scientist doomed for tragedy. And Mary Jane Watson is the girl next door.

A lot of the fun of the various incarnations of Spidey, be it different adaptations or reimaginings across the multiverse (see: Spider-Punk or Spider-Ham), is seeing how the play with the familiar narrative. Spider-Man is so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness that it’s a barrel of fun seeing what each new story will do.

All this to say I absolutely love Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man in the eponymous video game. Peter is a wisecracking twenty-something who always seems at the very end of his rope. Octavius is a down-on-his-luck scientist who genuinely wants to make the world a better place. And Mary Jane, well she’s a particularly great part.

The classic Spider-Man mythos is has a bit of a problem with its women. Gwen Stacy was, up until recently, best known for getting fridged by a death that haunts Pete. Mary Jane’s primary feature is that she’s the hot girl Peter has longed for for ages. This has been rectified a bit recently: an alternate universe Gwen Stacy was the one who got bitten by a radioactive spider and, upon finding out about the main universe’s Gwen’s fate, outright expresses disgust at being, and I quote, “fridged off a bridge.” The Spider-Gwen comics also had her confronting the fact that so many versions of Gwen Stacy die falling from a bridge and reclaiming that aspect of her character’s history. It’s all really cool and Spider-Gwen has long been one of the comics I most look forwards to.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man does work to make MJ more of an interesting character (though not to the extent that Spider-Gwen remains instructs Gwen Stacy). In this story, she’s not a model or actress, but rather an investigative journalist for the Daily Bugle. She’s someone who’s decidedly good at what she does, and her job gives her opportunity to get up close with the action.

In fact, it’s some such investigation into the rise of a new gang in the city that leads to her and Peter running into each other again. You, as player, are also given the opportunity to play as Mary Jane as she sneaks around. So not only is she given a more active role in the narrative, but the mechanics of the game are used to put MJ front and center. In games like Spider-Man playing as ay character is an important thing. Strong characterization is mixed with the immersive nature of games; the goals and fragility of the character become your own (consider how powerful it is in The Last of Us to play as Sarah during the opening).

Gameplay-wise, the MJ segments aren’t perfect. Compared to webzipping Spidey, MJ’s sneaking and waiting varies a lot in how good it is. Much of the action is very scripted, with there usually being one way to get through the stage which leaves little room for player creativity or choice. But they are heavy in atmosphere and shine the spotlight on MJ who, as it happens, is quite wonderful.

Her journalistic chops and contacts make her a valuable ally of Peter’s (she knows he’s Spider-Man in this one, which also means for a complex and interesting dynamic). She’s a bold character, someone who willingly sticks her nose in trouble, even when it’s inarguably a bad idea. Her relationship with Peter is a complex one; they were together for a while and have been broken up for a while when the game begins. What’s real neat though, is that even still there’s a mutual attraction; MJ isn’t some unattainable goal for Peter, they’re both really into each other and things just didn’t work out last time. This distinction is important: MJ’s not the prize for Peter being good at Spider-Man and/or life, she doesn’t date him because he does x-y-z to impress her; she’s into him, she likes him for, well, him. Their whole chemistry is very mutual. All in all, she’s an interesting character and is a delightful reimagining of her.

It’s always interesting to see how stories reinvent themselves. You’ve the retcon of how Captain Marvel got her powers from a few weeks ago that was really cool, for example. And Insomniac’s Spider-Man puts a spin on Mary Jane that made her into one of my favorite characters in the game. Her and Spider-Man’s friend in the NYPD, Yuri Watanabe. Also Aunt May’s really cool in the game too.

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Poking Around

Games have rules and expectations. If you’re playing a first-person shooter, violence is the expected solution to most problems. A puzzle encountered in an RPG is going to have a solution, though it may be one you need to progress a little further in another direction to be able to solve. The rule of thumb in point-and-click adventures is that everything you can click on and inspect is gonna hold something of interest.

Say you’re playing Monkey Island and you’re stuck in a room. Somewhere in there is the key to your freedom. So you’re gonna click on everything you can to try and find the right stuff so you can say the right things in a conversation and get on with it. It’s the way it works, check all the things for things to use to advance.

Now, One Night Stand is usually classified as a dating sim, what with it dealing with the aftermath of a one night stand and having lots of conversations with choices for you to make that will net you one of several endings. Though there are strong elements of point-and-click adventures in it, as you are frequently given opportunities to poke around in the room you wake up in, and what you inspect can then unlock new dialogue options.

It’s a short game, and so befitting many playthroughs. The basic premise is you wake up in bed with someone after a drunken one night stand with no memories of the night before and have to figure out what to do. Do you just leave? Do you try to piece together what happened and play it off? Or are you forthright with her and admit you don’t remember anything? What’s gonna get you the ‘best’ ending?

Here’s the thing, although taking on the guise of an adventure game or dating sim, One Night Stand isn’t quite either. Sure, it’s got the mechanics of them, but the contract between the game and the player isn’t nearly the same.

One Nigh Stand has a decided rhythm. The girl leaves the room for some reason, you look around the room, she returns, you two talk. Repeat. You can only inspect so many objects while she’s out of the room, and they range from grabbing your clothes to leafing through her wallet to try and figure out her name. You have to choose what to prioritize in order to create the most meaningful interactions.

As I played the game it became apparent that there seemed to be a lot under the surface. One time I sneaked out of the house and saw her crouched over a toilet, throwing up. I figured that there had to be a way for me to help her out next time since that’s a rotten position to be in. On her bedside table are some earrings in a box, which she’s cagey about when asked. Same with the pills there. She has an interest in writing (as you can tell if you look at her notebook underneath the book she’s reading) but she doesn’t really engage if you ask her about it. Which, okay, got it, clearly I’ve gotta say the right things to get us close so she’ll feel comfortable talking about these things. Presumably then I’ll be able to get the Best Ending which, also presumably, would be a romantic one.

Yeah, no.

I played through the game being completely honest and was awarded with an ending where we parted ways as friends. But no matter how I played my cards I couldn’t get her to open up about her writing or earrings — in fact she would get straight up mad if I kept asking about it to the point where she’d throw me out. This threw me for a loop: those things are there, they’re meant to be investigated, why am I being punished for poking around? Why won’t she tell me what’s going on? I did the thing you do in these sort of games, so where’s my reward? They’re right there on her nightstand, why’s she made at me for looking through her personal stuff—

Ah. Right. It’s rude to go poking around like that in a relative stranger’s room. One Night Stand isn’t interested in creating some wild romantic fantasy, rather it lets you experience an awkward situation and the best result is for you to not be a jerk. You’re not gonna get brownie points for snooping, nor will gaming the system and faking a memory of the night before yield any outstanding results. Rather, being honest about not remembering the night before, getting dressed, and leaving as friends (without any romantic subtext) nets you the ‘best’ ending.

I think this is why I’m so charmed by One Night Stand. It subverts much of what you’d expect from a dating sim or a point-and-click adventure in lieu of letting you inhabit that awkward space — the game discards fantasy for quiet discomfort. The girl is not a prize for playing well; pretending to know more than you do won’t get you points. The point of the game isn’t to ‘win,’ but rather to be there and try and make do. It’s a unique experience, the sort you can really only get from a video game.

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Spidey’s New York

Narratives are a two way street. What you bring to them is what you get out of them.

So let’s talk Spider-Man, the video game (again).

Spider-Man, of course, takes place in New York. Because, well, duh. Now, I happen to live in New York and have lived here for most of the past six years. I went to college at NYU Gallatin down in the Village and lived in a semi-crappy apartment (okay, pretty crappy, it was a six floor walkup and there was no sink in the bathroom, but, hey, roof access!) on 14th for a couple years and have called Astoria, Queens home for over a year now (this apartment has a sink in the bathroom, but no roof access — the tradeoffs you make). Needless to say, I have a bit of a soft spot for New York.

That Spider-Man offers up an open world with a terrific approximation of Manhattan is an absolute delight. It mayn’t be a 1:1 recreation, but it captures the idea of the island well enough that that I instinctively know my way around and get momentarily lost when things aren’t quite where they should be (the distance in between Union Square and Stuy Town is a touch too long). As such, right off the bat, I feel a personal connection with the virtual city, thereby creating a bit of an emotional narrative to my swinging around the city.

When I go through Washington Square Park I’m also going through a park where I’ve worked on homework and had snowball fights. I instinctively recoil when I realize I’m going through Times Square; Lincoln Center is where I graduated from college. In many ways, this open world is loaded, I’m not just exploring and beating up bad guys in 80s Afghanistan or a post-apocalyptic Colorado, I’m in the place I’ve lived and worked. Alongside that, I’m in a place that Peter Parker himself loves.

Though I will wax poetic about how wonderful Spider-Man’s open world is, it’s no real slouch in the narrative department either. Throughout the game it’s reinforced how much Pete loves the city; yes, he bears a burden to protect it — a burden that often interferes with his personal life — but it’s also a city he protects out of love. This can be small things like the quips he makes when taking photos of certain landmarks (Empire State University — the game’s ersatz NYU — is home to some of the best years of his life… and loans), or his dialogue while crimefighting. As players, we come to love the city because Pete loves it. There’s also the experiential nature of video games. Because you spend so much of the game swinging through Manhattan, you come to get to know the city and take a modicum of ownership over it (you chased out the Kingpin’s goons!). So when villains start trouble, they’re threatening your city. You get invested in the place, simply by being there.

That said, this is a place I know, and because I bring my own New York-related baggage to the game, it all takes on another level of import to me. Characters walking along the Highline isn’t just window dressing, it’s something I’ve done and so has personal meaning. Consider a tv show like Stranger Things; though it’s science fiction and something of a period piece, someone who’s lived in small town America will relate to a bunch of kids navigating the world; anyone who’s spent too-many-hours on an RPG campaign will immediately latch onto the kids with their all-day D&D campaigns. These little bits of projection/empathy aren’t necessary to enjoy the story, but they add another layer of depth to the story that, often times, makes it a little more personal.

I adore Spider-Man’s open world in a way I don’t usually. Part of that is probably due to how well crafted it is; but most of it is definitely because, hey, I’m exploring my city. I’ve talked with some friends who also have the game, and we’ve spent as much time nerding out about getting to explore the city we know as we have the more game-y side of it. My often lament about open world games is how they don’t really end, how there’s always something more to do and completion is less narrative closure and more 100% and a Platinum Trophy; but as I watch my completion percentage in Spider-Man steadily rise (I just passed 90%) I’m starting to dread the game ending. I want to spend more time in this virtual New York.

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