Tag Archives: Video Games

Choice

Sid Meir, the guy behind Civilization, famously described a game as being “a series of interesting choices.” The idea here is that a good game has you making decisions that have some weight to them, that is, decisions that though not necessarily wrong, could have repercussions. In Civilization, it can manifest from whether you plan on pursuing diplomacy or warfare, or whether you’re playing as the Aztecs or the English. Decisions.

By this metric, Candyland is a really crappy game with no real decision making, though this is arguably excusable as it functions as a method of introducing young children to the way board games work. Monopoly doesn’t really fare much better, as it really all comes down to the roll of the dice with the illusion of more — deciding whether or not to buy a property you land isn’t much of a decision because the answer is “duh.” If you play with trades, and players who are willing to trade, the game can get much more interesting, but that’s a big old if. Of course, Monopoly was originally intended, as The Landlord’s Game, to be an indictment against rampant capitalism and its lack of choice in the matter does underscore it; though I feel like the subtext was lost when Parker Brothers ‘borrowed’ the game from Lizzie Magie.

Anyway. Interesting choices.

Sid Meir’s a video game designer, so it makes sense to turn his lens to look at video games. The Sims is a game rife with choices: What job will your Sim have? What kind of stove will they buy? Should they or should they not date Santa Claus? There are a lotta choices you can make, which, given that the game’s a life simulator, makes sense. Interestingly, there aren’t really drawbacks between choosing to be a Super Spy of Master Criminal, it’s all part of whatever sort of narrative you’re constructing for your Sims. The choices remain interesting because it’s totally up to you.

The Last of Us has one of my favorite choices. It’s a small one, built into the gameplay’s crafting system. In the post-apocalyptic world, resources are scarce and much has to be made by hand. Alcohol and Cloth can be used to make Health Kits; they can also be used to make Molotov Cocktails. One of them heals you, the other can be used to fight Hunters and Infected. You have to choose which one to craft at any given moment, and given that you can only carry so much at a time, you’ll end up having to make something not knowing when you’ll get more. It compounds the game’s question of survival, forcing you to choose between attacking and saving yourself on a small scale.

Consequences are something that can make choices interesting — otherwise, it’s not more of a deal than picking the red or blue token. XCOM 2 gives your decision making weight. Are you gonna research armor or weapons first? Are you going to collect intel or supplies? Are you going to wait before launching that attack? The constant ticking time bomb of the aliens’ progress on the Avatar Project makes the time crunch real; you can’t spend all your time shoring up your forces or you lose. Periodic battles also make it hard to just wait around, as you will have to send your soldiers out on missions, and chances are, they will get injured.

That’s all big picture. When you get down to the minutiae of actual combat, the decisions compound. One strategic mistake in the tactical game could leave you with your best soldier in the infirmary for weeks — or killed outright, forcing any plans you had for a later raid out the window. If only you’d played that mission a little more

There’s a theory that storytelling was born out of the human/tribal need to simulate experiences for people who hadn’t yet experienced them. Maybe games are in some ways an extension of that, a sort of failure space for you to make choices and let them play out without real-world ramifications. Or maybe it’s just part of what makes them fun. Either way, they’re a great way to spend quarantine.

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XCOM-munication

I am so sorry about that pun*.

I recently got an email from Steam letting me know that XCOM 2 was on sale. It’s been on my wishlist since it came out, and I never took it off after I got it for the PS4. There was also an expansion pack for it released some time back, and I found that I could get XCOM 2 plus all the expansions for $30. Which, y’know, given that I’ve got very little to do these quarantine days, seems like a great deal.

Around six or seven years ago, I got super into XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s a strategy/tactics game wherein you take the role of a commander leading Earth’s defense against an alien incursion. It’s pretty great; you’ve gotta manage your squad’s strengths and weaknesses while accounting for any actions your opponents will take. There’s a tension to it, since one wrong move could mean multiple aliens getting the jump on you, and a wounded soldier will need time to heal — and a killed one is permanently out of the game. The cost of error is high.

I bounced around the idea of getting XCOM 2 when it came out, then pulled the trigger when it was one of the free PS4 games two years back. It’s more of the same; lots of strategizing, lots of planning, lots of figuring out back-up plans as plans A through E go sideways. It’s a game that became one I played with my girlfriend, in that we would spend ages agonizing over decisions and strategy, then watching in anticipation as our plan played out. So much fun.

Here’s the thing about XCOM though: I don’t really remember the plot. I mean, I get it, aliens invading Earth (or in 2, they’ve set up a puppet government and we’re the resistance) and you gotta fight back. There are more details to it, but really, I don’t remember it at all.

But what I do remember are my soldiers.

XCOM is a game that uses my Mostest Favoritst Trope: Ragtag Multinational Team Doing Badass Stuff. In this game, it’s not just AMERICA saving the world; your squad is comprised of people from all over the world. They’ve got their flag on the back of their combat vests and, in the second one, you can have some of them speak in their native language. This is awesome and kicks all the ass, because, well, again, it’s my Mostest Favoritist Trope. You also get to give them codenames, which just adds to the fun.

It’s been years since I played the first XCOM, but I still remember some of my soldiers: Roadblock, my Nigerian Support who wouldn’t let anyone past, Seraphim, the Israeli Sniper, and Samurai, the Japanese Assault. I don’t remember much of the story, but I do remember having Roadblock and Seraphim provide cover for Samurai to get in there and do her thing.

Same with the second one. Adele Mercier, aka Crevé, was my French Sharpshooter who went on almost every mission I had and racked up an impressive number of kills. Jane Kelly, aka Snake Eater, was an Irish Ranger who got her nickname not just because I like Metal Gear Solid 3 but because she made a name for herself hunting the serpentine Viper aliens (with a sword!). Then there was Astrid Johansson, aka Viking, a Norwegian Ranger who was really getting a lot of good experience and poised to become one of my mains when she was killed in action. That was a huge bummer.

XCOM lends itself well to narrative creation. There’s a clear conflict baked in, and your soldiers have just enough character for you to make up your own stories about the characters (I seem to recall the girlfriend and I claiming that Snake Eater and Crevé had a bit of a rivalry going on). The story I remember is one that was my own, and I guess that’s what made it all the more special.

Anyway. The XCOM 2 Collection is bought and downloaded, so, that’s the next chunk of quarantine sorted.

*Actually, no, I’m not. I regret nothing.

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More Thoughts on The Sims

If you’re wondering what I’ve been doing during quarantine, the answer is still playing The Sims. Along with games like Death Stranding (terrific, prescient, heartbreaking) and Jedi Outcast (gotta love old school LucasArts), watching Kim’s Convenience (so good!) and  trying to build a Singaporean kopitiam with LEGO bricks.

And cooking, because, of course, but not baking because ovens are unknowable creations that worry me and lack the finer control offered by a stovetop.

Anyway.

The Sims.

After learning last week to slow down and enjoy the process of the game, I thought I’d try and wonder why this game is so darn engrossing. It’s a game about nothing, insofar as everyday life is about nothing. There’s no real goal. Which, isn’t that unusual these days. A lot of big games have the postgame: After you finish the game you can still wander around the world and do any side-quests you’ve left. In Death Stranding this has me running around completing deliveries and trying to max everything out (and also build a network of ziplines for maximum effectiveness). I’ve beat the game and all, but there’s still more open-ended fun to get done. In Pokémon, I’ve spent untold hours catching ’em all and cultivating the perfect team to take on my brother. It’s plenty of fun to one around Venus in Destiny shooting Fallen with a friend. In all these cases, the game is effectively done, but you’re still free to mess around.

The Sims is like that from the get-go, with any and all goals being of your own devising. You can do whatever you want, tell whatever story you want with them. It’s a game I’ve been playing for over seventeen years, and somehow it still hasn’t gotten old. Why?

I suppose on one level there is the fantasy element of the game. When you’re a kid, getting to engage in a simulacrum of adult life, having a job and earning money and falling in love and going on vacations and the like. Plus you get to design houses and furnish it with whatever you want or can afford (and if you can’t afford it, a cheat code can take care of that). As an adult, there’s still a level of wish-fulfillment. Having a career where you can get promoted and owning your own house sounds like sheer fantasy to this Millennial living though his second ‘once-in-a-generation’ economic crash. There’s a very mundane gratification to picking out a job for a Sim and then completing simple self-improvement tasks to get promoted. Then get money and use that money to build a sprawling underground complex beneath an unassuming house.

Maybe some parts are more fantastical than others.

But I think that therein lies much of what makes it work so well. The Sims offers a mechanism for you to set your own goal and then, later, achieve it. The game is an avenue for a sense of accomplishment, of having done something. It’s like doing a Strike in Destiny or polishing off a side quest in Assassin’s Creed, except this go ’round it’s whatever I want it to be. Perhaps it’s the illusion of control that’s so attractive, of living a life where whatever you want to happen can happen. And then when it does, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

It helps that these sorts of things tend to be awfully fun. Like befriending the Grim Reaper. Or building underground bunkers.

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Life Sped Up

So a bunch of The Sims 4’s expansion packs are on sale right now, and with not much else to do, I figured I might as well jump back into one of my favorite computer games.

I’ve been playing The Sims for over eighteen years now, making it easily one of the longest-running and consistent franchises in my stable (The Legend of Zelda came and went, and I got into Final Fantasy late). So what is it about this game that’s able to hold my attention through my preteen years to my late-twenties?

The Sims is an unusual game in that there is no real goal. There is no win state, nor is there a lose state. You can’t beat the simulation of everyday life, nor can you really lose it. Sure, you can have a super-successful, happy Sim with a great job, lots of money, and string of lovers; but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won. Nor does a completely miserable Sim who starves do death describe a loss. The thing about the game is you can do whatever you want in it: live out a fantasy of life on a beach, or embody a malevolent deity who exists only to punish those miserable creatures.

The game’s a sandbox, one that invites you to do whatever you want.

It’s also something I think I may have started playing wrong.

Which sounds like a paradox — how can a game with no rules be one you play wrong?

I’ve set my own goal (I’m going for the Black Widow achievement: have a Sim outlive five spouses) after which I’m going to continue the multigenerational dynasty and stuff. So it’s not the most sketched out plan, but it’s one nonetheless. In the process of chasing it, however, I feel like I’m missing the ride for the destination.

The Sims has a speed setting that lets you hasten time along so you’re not waiting ages for your Sim to get back from work, or wake up, or finish cooking. It’s useful, since some things take a while and the ability to abbreviate them leaves more time for the more interesting stuff, which is whatever you want it to be. Thing is, I, of late, have found myself playing the game almost always at the highest speed, rushing things along to get my Sims to the point where I wanted them to get.

Then I left it at normal speed while I grabbed something from across the room, and quickly realized I’d been missing out on the silly minutiae of The Sims that makes the game so charming. Things like Sims babbling in Simlish, or watching them try and fail at basic tasks, or even one of the Sim’s odd habit of taking naps in the hot tub when there’s a comfy bed right there. There’s entertainment to be had from achieving the goals you’ve set in your mind for these Sims, but then there’s also the fun of just watching them go about their lives, kinda like an ant farm but with more cooking accidents.

I’ve a lot of time on my hands these days, what with the whole quarantine thing still being in effect. Maybe it’s about time I slowed down The Sims and enjoyed the process of playing it a bit more. There’s a nugget in there about living life, I’m sure, but hey.

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Alone Together

I’m a big fan of escapism. Not the sort where you bury your head in the sand and ignore the world around you; the sort where you pay attention to what’s going on then seek out solace in entertainment. Call it self-care, call it recharging; but I believe that part of being an informed member of society is knowing when to disengage for a bit.

So it’s times like this that I really enjoy a good video game, in this case, Death Stranding. Because what better way to escape the current headlines than by playing a video game in which communities are isolated and it’s up to you, Sam Porter Bridges, to bring necessary supplies to these holdouts and help reconnect them to the greater world. In a world where no one’s going outside for fear of what it portends; you’re the one who can help bring everyone together.

It’s a lonely game too. Sam’s out there in the American wilds by himself. Most of the people he makes deliveries too he talks to via hologram, even though they’re sharing the same space they aren’t really there. The only people Sam actually comes into contact are the hostile MULEs, who  you have to fight, and the enigmatic Fragile, with whom Sam isn’t willing to get too close to. You’re alone out there.

Except, you’re not.

Death Stranding is actually a multiplayer game. You don’t interact with other people directly as in other games; you don’t pass someone else running deliveries out there. The multiplayer aspect in Death Stranding is very passive, and also very wonderful and tied into the way the game works.

Transporting cargo is difficult. The terrain is unforgiving, with rivers and cliffs impeding progress at every turn. There are ways to get around this; a well-placed ladder can help you ford a river, a climbing anchor makes it safer to descend from a cliff’s edge. You can carry a PCC with you that can be used to build structures, like generators to recharge vehicles’ batteries, bridges to get those vehicles over rivers, or shelters to wait out the dangerous Timefall and repair damaged cargo.

What’s cool is that these structures aren’t limited to your own game state. Ladders you place and bridges you build are shared among other players, meaning that CoffeeMan69’s ladder could make your trip that much easier. You can also upgrade and repair others’ structures, so if ol’ Coffee’s bridge is falling apart you can contribute materials to repair it. Roads that scatter the terrain require a lot of materials to be built, and constructing an entire network usually means a few people coming together to get it done.

It’s such a terrifically subtle form of multiplayer that has you really appreciating the other people playing the game. I’ll never see CapnCasper in the game, but I’ll be eternally grateful for the bike they left behind that made my delivery that much easier. Though there’s a small gameplay benefit to helping others out, it’s mostly to better the community as a whole. That bridge you build won’t just help you, but any other player who comes across it. You should help build that road ‘cuz it will make everyone’s life that much easier.

Death Stranding is a game that’s, in part, about being stranded from society, about being alone but still doing what you can. You, the player, though, aren’t alone. You’re part of a community of other players all working towards the same goal. It’s a reminder that even if you’re stranded alone out there, you’re not really alone when you’re at it alongside someone else.

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Just Quadrilaterals

Thomas Was Alone is a game about rectangles. Okay, there are some squares, but all the characters in the game are basic colored quadrilateral polygons. The story of theses characters is one that will make you feel things you wouldn’t expect a story about colored quadrilateral polygons to make you feel.

Gameplay-wise, Thomas is a fairly straightforward platformer. You, as Thomas or another one of the shapes, jump and maneuver your way upwards and to the right. Like any platformer, really. Mario, MegaMan, Sonic; you’re almost always moving to the right. Nothing special there. Where Thomas Was Alone shines is in its narrative cladding. Chapters are given a small preamble that reads like developer’s notes on a project or excerpts from a later book on the events of the game. They’re snippets of flavor text that set the game in a bigger scale, they tell of the kindling of true Artificial Intelligence and of selflessness. But that’s not where the meat of the story comes in.


It’s the narration, presented clear and wry by Danny Wallace, that really communicates the story. In each level, the narrator tells us what the characters are thinking (“Thomas was alone. What a weird first thought to have.”) as they move through the level. Now, the old adage does say to show, not tell, and Thomas Was Alone does a fair amount of telling, in that it’s through the narration that we find out that Thomas is an inquisitive rectangle who makes notes of his observations, or that Claire wants to be a superhero, or that Chris and Laura are falling for each other. The narrator tells this, and so we ascribe these emotions and intentions to the plain rectangles doing the most basic of platforming.

As humans, we intrinsically interpret events as stories and narratives. Not just in our own lives, but in what we see happening. In 1944 Marianne Simmel and Fritz Heider published An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior wherein the showed a simple animation of a bunch of shapes moving about the screen and had observers describe what happened. Despite the animation being crude and, uh, just shapes, stories were described of violence and heartbreak; shapes were described as being mean or scared.

Again, this is all just shapes.

But we as people have a tendency to not just tell stories, but to anthropomorphize the world around us. When we see a big triangle closing in on a small circle, we ascribe motivations to those actions and shapes, just attribution theory says we do it to people. We find a narrative, we find a story.

While the narration of Thomas Was Alone does much of the narrative legwork, the gameplay serves to reinforce it. In the beginning, Thomas is alone, but when he meets the other characters, the platforming gets a little more tricky. The shapes need to work together to keep going upwards and to the right; maybe John needs to jump on Thomas to reach a switch so that Chris can get to the end; maybe everyone needs to balance on Sarah to make it across the toxic water. The gameplay reinforces the narrative idea that the shapes need each other because you need each one to be able to beat each level. Also, the personalities that the narrator prescribes to each shape stick, not just because of our human need to anthropomorphize, but because each shape has a different color and shape, behaves differently, and makes a different noise when they jump. Thomas and Sarah feel different when you’re controlling them, and so they feel like individuals. It all works together.

That Thomas Was Alone is able to tell a genuinely moving story through shapes and basic platforming a testament to both Mike Bithell’s game design and the human capacity for empathy and storytelling. We like stories, we like being moved. And that’s even if it’s just colored quadrilaterals.

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Walking Game

I’ve finally started playing Death Stranding and it is delightful and weird and everything I want it to be. Basically, you play as a Porter, bringing things from A to B, by walking and sometimes balancing your load. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic America after the Death Stranding put a hold to civilization and isolated everyone. It’s up to Sam (you) to reconnect the United Cities of America by visiting various outposts and connecting each Strand and Knot together (get it?). There’s also the mysterious Timefall, a rain that speeds up time on all it touches, a consistent danger in the world that’s heralded by an inverted rainbow. Also, BTs, which are, um, ghosts(?) that follow you by your breathing. And a fetus strapped to his chest that helps you sense those BTs but also has memories of its own. And if a BT grabs hold of a living person they can create a massive explosion that obliterates everything around it. But not Sam, since he’s a repatriate and able to come back to life.

Like I said, the game’s fricking weird.

And oh how I love it.

I’m only a few hours in, but I know I’m in for a ride. In part because director/writer/producer/auteur Hideo Kojima proved in the Metal Gear Solid games that he is a man with a vision. That vision may be totally bonkers and nuts, but he knows what he’s doing and you’re just along for the ride. I’ve been looking forward to Death Standing for years, so my personal hype makes sense, but I’m just so darn delighted by how completely devoted to its weird idiosyncrasies it is.

Perhaps it helps, then, that gameplay is so basic. You’re walking. Amidst all these complex themes (seriously, I found myself looking up chirality and knot theory on Wikipedia during my commute because of this game), the core mechanic is just going from A to B, traversing ridges and fording rivers and using a ladder to get a little higher. You’ve gotta load your gear just right so you don’t topple over, and toppling over is bad because you don’t want to damage whatever it is you’re transporting.

It’s simple.

But I know it’s gonna get more complex. Not just because I’ve seen trailers for the game that involve doing more than I’m doing now, but because that’s how video games work. You start off simple, with the basic mechanics of the game (in Death Stranding, it’s walking and balancing; in Super Mario Bros., that’s jumping and squashing goombas; in Breath of the Wild, it’s walking around and hitting things with sticks) and as the game goes on things get more complex (Wild gives you a hang glider, Mario has you swimming sometimes, Death Stranding, well, I’m not there yet).

A neat part of a well-made game is how the game gets more complex as it goes. It takes time, sure, but by the endgame, you’re managing a variety of systems and mechanics that would have been overwhelming at the get-go. Metal Gear Solid V starts you off with only a couple guns and a horse. Over time you’re able to deploy decoys, call in helicopters, have a sniper buddy, drive a tank, and play music on a Walkman. It’d be a lot to drop on you at once, so instead, the game paces it out, introduces you to things as they happen. The MegaMan games are like this too; with the platforming starting off simple and later stages throwing more curveballs at you and mixing things up as you go on, so by the time you reach the final stages you’re acing all that came before.

As of now, Death Stranding is a simple game with a lot of crazy ideas, and I know that simplicity is foundation for more interesting stuff later on. In the meantime, it’s a really weird game about walking and I am so here for it.

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