Tag Archives: Video Games

Stranded Solace

I find Death Stranding’s postgame to be wonderfully meditative. I realize that the tranquility I suggest sounds quite incongruous with the game, one that I’ve said before manages to capture the terrible wonder of the sublime. But when you’ve finished the main story, uncovered the central mystery, and become quite adept at avoiding the ghostly BTs, the game is all about taking a hike.

In my continuing effort to get every trophy for the game, I’ve been hunting Memory Chips. They’re little collectibles with data from before the Death Stranding, taking the form of pictures of motorbikes, figurines, music albums, and movie posters (like Dr. Strangelove!). I used guides online to point me in the right direction so I’m not searching in vain, but I don’t look up the exact location so there’s still some exploring to be had.

So I climbed a mountain southeast of the Timefall Farm. I charted my path and slowly made my way up.

At this point, scaling mountainsides has become a somewhat mundane affair. Put a ladder here, climb there, don’t fall down. The America of Death Stranding is one ravaged by time and isolation, the only signs of humanity are the ruins of the old world and survivor’s bunkers, alongside the few Knot Cities and constructions by other players. It’s a very lonely game, but beautiful in its isolation. It’s just you and the wilderness, figuring out how to ford rivers and scale cliffs, avoid terrorists and navigate crags. There’s little more important than getting from A to B. The real goal is the journey you had along the way. 

As I neared the summit — and the purported memory chip — I noticed something artificial at the top of the mountain. Not something built by another player, but something intended to be part of the world. I crested the mountain and found a torii, a Shinto gate.

I crossed the threshold, and a song started up. Now, there are a lot of songs in Death Stranding, they usually play on a cue prompted by setting out on a special delivery or when first reaching some narratively important place. It’s always a beautiful moment; the other sounds of the world fade away and the song’s info is overlaid on the screen. It invites contemplation and slowing down for a minute, taking in it all.

It wasn’t the first time Silent Poets’ “Asylums for The Feeling” played in the game; it’d played before much earlier during my approach to Port Knot City. Yet the song, which like many of those featured in Death Stranding, is a melancholic tune, the sort that so wonderfully encapsulates the mood of the game. From this mountain, just past the gate, I could see the ocean stretching off towards the horizon. Behind me I saw the Farm and other mountains I’d climbed before and, not far past them, the towering incinerator. I could see before me the world I’d been crisscrossing for months. I turned around, and past me was the a world, and an ocean beyond. The totality of it all hit me there, a sensation of being very small, and very accomplished.

There’s little in the game pointing you in that direction, besides the presence of a totally optional Memory Chip. The peak doesn’t stand between two destinations, nor is there any delivery that takes you there. It’s something you essentially find for yourself, another part of the game that’s more about the journey than the destination. Death Stranding is a walking simulator, sure, but it’s a game that makes that walking wonderful. Sometimes you need to be able to slow down and just take in the world.

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I started playing Death Stranding again last night. I wanna Platinum it, that is get all the trophies in the game and really finish it. Also, I was watching The Great British Bake Off with the girlfriend, and the game seemed a nice match.

Which, I realize, sounds kinda odd. Bake Off is a super-chill, slightly-competitive show about baking filled with wonderful people and truly encouraging hosts. Death Stranding is a game about a porter making deliveries across an isolated, post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a rain that speeds up time. Also, you’ve got a fetus in a tank that helps you detect ghostly beings from beyond the realm of the living. Were there a scale of the ordinary, Bake Off would sit comfortably with Norman Rockwell paintings, while Death Stranding would be far, far away.

I have never seen Law & Order, but I’m told it’s quite ordinary.

But both share a similar sense of optimism about the world. Bake Off isn’t nearly as cutthroat as other reality tv shows and there’s a delightful sense of camaraderie between the bakers. Though, as a competition, it is ostensibly about finding the best baker, it’s far more about having fun with the bake and displaying creativity and technical excellence. It’s just really nice. Meanwhile, for all of its horroresque elements, Death Stranding is actually a game about reconnecting. Everyone may be stranded from one another, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create strands between each other (seriously, that’s how the game frames it). Over the course of the narrative, you reconnect lovers, siblings, parents and children, and friends to each other. In a broken world, there is hope, and that hope comes in reaching out to each other.

They’re also really great companions in this seventh month of quarantine. Bake Off has a wonderful warmth to it, where people genuinely like each other; Death Stranding finds solace in solitude, where having only the wilderness (and your fetus buddy) for company is enough. That and getting to go outside.

This pandemic has been stressful. I’ve made a decided choice to maintain operating under quarantine rules — not eating in restaurants, not visiting friends, avoiding social groups — because it’s the best way to keep myself and the people I care about safe. It’s tiring, man. I miss going for walks without a mask on, I miss hanging out in bars, I miss being places that aren’t my apartment. Plus the whole, y’know, existential doom of living in a global pandemic. I’m trying to find ways to help myself chill out, an endeavor that’s not always that easy. I find that there’s something quite comforting in playing Death Stranding, particularly now that I’ve beaten the game. I know how to avoid the antagonistic MULEs and the creepy BTs, plus I’ve built enough infrastructure that making deliveries is a matter of driving along roads and zip-lining across mountains. It’s peaceful, almost meditative, and my deliveries are met with thanks by their recipients. Being aided by other players who’ve left vehicles and ladders behind along the way only makes my life easier — and serves as a reminder that, hey, people are pretty good when given the chance.

I think the relief that comes from games like Death Stranding’s postgameand a show like The Great British Bake Off stems from their inherent senses of hope. The world of Death Stranding may be desolate and empty, but there are still people trying to do their best out there — you’re not really alone. This season of Bake Off takes place during a pandemic, something that even the calm of the Tent can’t quite keep the world at bay, but the show’s still a reminder about the best of people. Ultimately, right now (and honestly, in general), that’s what I wanna enjoy. Stories of hope, ones that eschew that atmosphere of grimdark that’s all too prevalent in reality for something a little nicer.

Also, I can’t bake, so Bake Off is really quite a fantasy world for me.

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Feeling Like A Starfighter Pilot

Like any kid obsessed with Star Wars, I daydreamed about hopping in an X-wing and flying around doing cool stuff. Battlefront II, from way back in ’05, scratched some of that itch. The newer Battlefront II did too, although its starfighter mode got precious little attention. I’ve toyed with checking out the X-wing games from the 90s, but never got around to doing so. The Star Wars Squadrons was announced over the summer and I got really excited: here was this game all about piloting space ships and getting in dogfights. It promised an immersive experience, one that involved managing power while darting around debris; a game where an X-wing, Y-wing, and A-wing all handled differently. Anyway. Game came out yesterday, and let me tell you, the game feels so darn good.

Game feel is that secret spice of game design. It’s not always easy to quantify, but it’s absolutely intrinsic to any action-based game. It’s not going to be much fun if the simple act of moving your digital avatar through space is a slog. One reason I stand by Balloon Fight as being a quintessential game is that it’s odd flight mechanic (tapping A bobs you a little in the air, controlling your altitude is a matter of directing your falling) is so well executed that just bopping around the map is a simple pleasure. It feels good to play.

Gamasutra has a really good article about game feel, and what components usually make it up. Super Mario 64 is held up as one of the best feeling games to play. Moving Mario around the world is inherently fun, owing in a large part to how seamlessly the players’ controller inputs translate to action on screen. Jumping doesn’t feel like a gamble every time you hit the button, rather you know how far he’ll jump when you hold down the button a certain amount of time.

Interestingly, the design process for Super Mario 64 involved creating a small ‘garden’ where Shigeru Miyamoto and the team fine-tuned Mario’s controls. They hadn’t made any levels yet, because most important was getting Mario right. And not just the controls either: part of good game feel involves making sure all parts of the game line up. It’s not just that the avatar on the screen moves in relation, but that the noises the game makes as Mario jumps around and the animation of movement all fits together. Going back to Balloon Fight for a moment, the character’s arm-waving and bloop sound matches tapping A perfectly. One reason game feel is so hard to pin down sometimes is because it’s a culmination of every system coming together.

Star Wars Squadrons capitalizes on game feel. It’s entirely in first person, with most of the game information being given to you not through a HUD, but via the instruments in the cockpit. I’m still getting the hang of flying and fighting, which is a delicate ballet involving shifting between to engines, weapons, and shields all while weaving through space trying to get a bead on that enemy fighter ahead of you. Each ship handles differently, a TIE Interceptor isn’t just faster than a standard TIE Fighter, it’s also much more delicate. A Y-wing can soak up more damage than an X-wing, but it’s not as useful in a head-on dogfight. More than anything, though, the game just feels so right. Staring out the octagonal window of a TIE an upping the throttle, hearing the telltale whine around you and then the lasers firing. 

It’s clear that so much work went into making the starfighters feel right, into making sure that they flew the way you expected them. Sure, Star Wars is fiction so it’s not like we’re trying to mimic the handling of an F-15, but trying to match a collective imagination created by a multitude of movies, tv shows, and books. Star Wars Squadrons delivers, and it’s a game I’m slowly getting a hang on even if I keep getting outmaneuvered in online play. Maybe one day I’ll be really good at it, maybe I won’t. But hey, in the meantime, I get to be a starfighter pilot.

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A Civilized History

History, owing to the fact that it’s primarily written by white men, tends to be very white and very male. History is, ultimately, a narrative with facts chosen and framed to fit that narrative. Disagree? Look at how the Civil War is taught and remembered in the American South; it was firmly impressed upon me while living there that slavery had nothing to do with it and it was all about state rights. Those writing history have an agenda, and when the writers are white and male, there is an attempt — knowing or not — to maintain a status quo in which history and the narrative are controlled by white men.

So when we (and that we is a general we, including myself, probably you, and the general cultural awareness that exists) think of the Really Big Important People of History, chances are we’re gonna settle on a bunch of white guys. Napoleon, Lincoln, Socrates. Hitler, Edison, Caesar. The big historical stuff, for good or for ill, was mostly done by people who were white and/or male, at least until this whole newfangled thing called ‘diversity’ showed up recently.

Following this logic, if you’re gonna make a game about, say, the rise (and fall) of civilizations over the millennia, you’ll want the iconic leaders that your payers will have some frame of reference for, and the civilizations that gave rise to them too. So: white guys.

Fortunately, the Civilization games do not follow this logic.

A scroll through the list of leaders and civilizations available for play in Civilization VI reveals an eclectic selection of nations that go beyond a collection of Western superpowers, with an effort made to have as varied a selection of leaders as possible. Of course, you’ve got the United States, led by Teddy Roosevelt, Germany as led by Frederick Barbarossa, and the Roman Empire led by Trajan. But France is helmed not by Napoleon, but by Catherine de Medici, who led France as Queen Mother for thirty years. The Greeks are present, but you can choose to have Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, as your leader instead of Pericles. It is Cleopatra who leads the Egyptian Empire.

The Civ games have been doing this for a while. Civ V featured the Zulus amongst mainstays like India and the Aztecs. England’s most always led by Victoria or Elizabeth I. The Chinese, Japanese, and Arabians have been in most of the games too, a staunch reminder that not all culture comes from the West. Civilization II notably had a male and female leader for each civilization, although some of them were apocryphal, the idea that not all world leaders are men has been present for a long time.

What’s notable in VI is the extent to which the development team has gone to find these lesser-known leaders. I had not heard of the Scythians until I played this game, let alone their leader Tomyris. Turns out, they were a nomadic people who lived in the Central Asian steppes, and though not much is known about them, they did briefly have a queen named Tomyris. Firaxis highlighting this in their game, by making Tomyris one of the leaders, is a pleasant reminder that there’s a lot more to history than the common narrative we’re taught (contrary to popular belief, the history of modernity is not a straight line from Greece to the founding of the US) and that there’s always gonna be more to learn.

I do appreciate learning stuff, always have (see: my biggest issue with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey), and learning about, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mvemba a Nzinga of Kongo, or Kristina of Sweden is a real plus.

Look, my High School history class skipped over the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires chapters of the history book, so I know I have some gaps to learn. Why not do so while engaging in some world domination?

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Playing Pretend

Like many people my age, I grew up playing video games. Many of those games have gone on to be considered classics, like Crash Bandicoot or Pokémon. There’s a lot of their DNA in modern games, like how Dark Souls’ cycle of learning how to counter enemy’s moves by repeatedly dying is very reminiscent of Mega Man’s game loop that has you effectively memorize stages and boss patterns (nearly twenty years since I first played it, I can still get through much of Mega Man X5 on muscle memory).

Then some games were much more of a flash in the pan than others. I remember a motocross game being fun enough (some googling tells me it’s Jeremy McGrath Supercross 2000), but it’s hardly remembered these days, nor one you’d cite as being particularly influential. Bomberman Party Edition is a ridiculous amount of fun, but sadly, it’s not one that’s particularly easy to get a hold of these days.

One particular genre I enjoyed was the multiplayer arcade beat-em-up. They were the sort of games you played on the couch with your little brother and fought bad guys. I fondly recall sinking hours into games like Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue and Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles. I don’t really remember how good the games were, and I recall Jedi Power Battles being unreasonably hard, but the best part about them was getting to be a Power Ranger or a Jedi and fighting bad guys. 

Theming was everything for these games, and, if memory serves, they did a good job of letting two brothers pretend to be Power Rangers and Jedi. There’s that part of video games that’s all about playing pretend, an experience heightened when it taps into the consciousness of pop-culture. I’m not sure either Lightspeed Rescue or Jedi Power Battles would have grabbed my imagination nearly so much were it not for their licenses. Really, all those games had to do was capitalize on that.

Over time, couch multiplayer became less common, as too did the beat-em-up in favor of shooters and the like. There were exceptions, like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Spider-Man, but in many ways, these exceptions proved the rule: These games were quite out of vogue.

Along comes Marvel’s Avengers and the game’s a delight. It’s not as polished as Spider-Man nor, is its combat system as deep and complex as Arkham Asylum. But it doesn’t really have to be. Taking a cue from Traveler’s Tales’ LEGO games, the characters operate within archetypes (Thor and Iron Man fly similarly; Black Widow and Ms. Marvel can both swing from ledges, Widow with a grapple, Ms. Marvel with her stretchy arms) that are then individualized through their own attacks and abilities. It’s not overly complicated and, honestly, could be described as being quite shallow.

But boy is it fun. Some of the moves are ripped from the movies and comics and are instantly recognizable. Beating up bad guys as Black Widow feels like you’re actually Black Widow, which in turn feels different from when you’re playing as Hulk, who’s different from Thor. There’s just enough tuning that each character feels unique, and then you get to run around fighting bad guys as them.

I like games. But it’s not often I’m openly grinning like an idiot while playing them. Avengers feels otherwise. It doesn’t seem to be drawing on the ‘modern’ action-beat-em-up like Arkham and Spider-Man so much as going back to those games from ’99 and ’00 and infusing them with more modern sensibilities. The games is rough and a little buggy in places, but the focus is so much more on the fun of it than anything else. Punches feel right, and beating up AIM robots as Iron Man scratches a particular childhood itch I didn’t know was there. Complex systems and polished graphics be damned, the game’s fun, and really, isn’t that what’s really important?

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Board games aren’t realistic. Monopoly doesn’t look like any metropolis and the geography in Settlers of Catan makes Giant’s Causeway look conventional. The diseases in Pandemic are translucent cubes instead of microscopic blobs.

This all makes sense, of course. Board games are an abstraction of reality, paring down big concepts into statistics. This can be super simple, like chess as a simulation of warfare tactics, or super complex, like H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, an early war game that used dice and probability to recreate battles. Even Little Wars, for all its realism, required a measure of imagination — these weren’t real cavalry and cannons.

Realism’s not the point, though. Games are meant to scratch a specific itch that hovers somewhere between problem solving and diplomacy, depending on the sort of game (Uno has both at high speeds). Many of them make an effort to simulate something found in the real world, and sometimes they succeed — Pandemic Legacy feels remarkably realistic in times of Covid, what with talking about quarantine zones and finding ways to contain the spread as best we can. The goal in designing the game probably wasn’t to create a one-to-one representation of what handling a pandemic would be like, but rather to take the elements that make that course of action unique and translate it into game mechanics. You have to cooperate with one another and balance finding cures with containment while keeping in mind that the same routes that you take to go from city to city are vectors for the virus. Do I think that being halfway decent at Pandemic gives me the skills to take on an actual real-life pandemic? Oh, heck no. But it’s certainly a fun abstraction of the real thing.

I saw someone, somewhere described Civilization VI as the ultimate board game despite it being, well, a computer game. It very much feels like a board game though, with its hexagonal playing field and turn-based gameplay. Where it differs is with its plethora of interlocking systems, ones that make the Game of Thrones board game seem simple. You have to manage various economies (Gold, Faith, Science, Culture, Food, and Production) while making sure to get Strategic Resources (and maybe Bonus and Luxury) ones too, all while competing with however many other players are in the game to win. There isn’t a simple ‘win’ condition either, you can achieve victory through Domination, Tourism, Religion, Diplomacy, Science, or just run out the clock and win with Score. There’s a lot going on.

Though Civilization does a lot to simulate ruling a civilization over 6000-odd years, there’s little attempt to make things look super realistic. The tiles of the game look like a high-definition Settlers of Catan and cities and developments are far, far from scale (that, or most people in this game are the size of buildings). There’s no clear sense of size, either, as a single hex is only big enough for one thing, be it a farm, the Eiffel Tower, a city square, or the Great Pyramids. Hexes don’t translate to kilometers at all, and there’s no expectation for them to match anything. It’s an abstraction (again, not unlike a board game) that’s part of the whole empire management aspect of the game. A more ‘realistic’  version, with civilizations a ‘proper’ distance apart and everything to scale would, arguably, be too complicated to be as accessible as it is.

I don’t think games like Civ or Pandemic are particularly realistic. I also don’t think they need to be realistic. The abstraction is why it’s fun; boiling reality down to mechanics is how the games are interesting. Spreading religion and culture doesn’t work in real life quite the same way, so gamifying it is what makes it work. All this to say, yeah, Civilization isn’t too realistic. But I still really enjoy it. And that’s okay.

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One More Turn

The first time I played Civilization V on my computer I ended up pulling an all-nighter. While in college. When I didn’t have homework. It was not the best of life choices.

But it was a lot of fun.

I dug into Civilization VI last night, not heeding the various other games I’ve been meaning to play, and very nearly stayed up all night again, but, as I have grown as a person, I did not. Game’s a lotta fun though.

Through it all, though, I kept telling myself “just one more turn,” which is the mantra of all who have fallen prey to Civilization’s siren song. Naturally, I found myself asking why.

The central tenet of Civilization is this: You have a civilization (based on real ones in history, like the Kongo, Sumerians, and French), and, starting from the Ancient Era, you slowly build it into a magnificent empire. You can befriend or betray rival factions, build up your cities, and try for one of a few different forms of victory (domination, cultural, science, or religious). Naturally, your plans will have plans if you want to be able to succeed; ensuring a science victory may require some mild warmongering along the way.

All of this takes time. It takes turns to produce builders or soldiers, turns to produce wonders of the world, and turns to improve your cities. More likely than not, you’re gonna have several balls in the air, with ships being built at Uruk while the Colossus is under construction at Bergen; all while you wait for your missionaries to start exerting some influence on the city-state of Valetta. What this means in practice, is that one turn you’ll finish a project, start a new one, and two turns later the next one will come to fruition.

Just gotta hang on for one more turn.

The particular genius of this is that your plan keeps changing, depending on how things work, and you want to keep that Plan going. Interrupting it would be such a shame.

Unlike many other games, there’s not much in the way of natural stopping points. There are no big boss fights or chapter ends, just a long steady slog towards victory, which in this game can easily take hundreds upon hundreds of turns. Stopping the game means interrupting, more so than in The Sims where the lack of goal allows for a more freeform style. In Civ there is a goal to all that you do, and you’re working towards it at all times. You don’t want to lose track of where you are on in your machinations. There’s also the sunk-cost fallacy, where I’ve already spent as long as I have working towards my goal, might as well stick it out to see where it goes.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. Civilization is a great game that’s hard to put down because of how all its mechanics all come together into a unified whole. And I really want to win this game, so, less time blog posting, more time civilizing.

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Reading the Wikipedia summary of a book or tv show is not the same as reading or watching it. A movie’s script is an inherently unfinished product until it is produced and brought to its fullest form. It makes a certain amount of sense; you want the full experience of Ulysses? Read the book itself, not the CliffNotes. Inception is a trip, but it’s a trip that works best when you’re watching it in full. The reasoning behind this seems quite obvious: for something written, there’s a particularity given to the prose that the writer uses to evoke whatever it is they’re going for; visual media like television and film use the camera to draw the viewer’s attention to certain places, with every aspect of the story tailored to the audience’s experience.

Things get weird when media gets more interactive.

In a book, things are written to be read a certain way, and unless you’re reading it, uh, backwards, you’re experiencing it the way it was extended. Sitting in a theater, you’re watching a movie as it’s meant to be, from start to finish, no distractions, and with the audio and the visuals just right.

But what about when you’re watching a play? Sure, you’re supposed to be watching the stage, but where on the stage? If it’s in the round you’re seeing a completely different point of view as someone on the other side! And what if they decide to interact with the audience? Furthermore, there are elements of stagecraft that draw the audience in, things that are designed to be seen, and experienced, in person. There’s no way a description of the furniture disappearing into the stage in Fun Home can compare to watching it happen in front of you. It’s arguable that the audience’s own ability to view the stage through their own eyes (and not that of the director’s camera or writer’s prose) is part of the narrative work of a stage performance. The liminal space occupied by the actors and the audience becomes a magic circle during the performance.

Being there, having to turn your head to follow the action, is a part of watching a play that a recording doesn’t quite capture, filtered as it is through a camera crew. It’s a small thing, but not having to physically turn your head to see what’s going on removes a small part of the interaction that’s part of the medium.

Kinda like not playing a video game.

In the same way that a well-made play uses that stage to its fullest, so too does a video game. Video games with a focus on narrative tell stories not just through non-interactive cutscenes, but by making players actually play the story. The effect of this, when well executed, isn’t found in other media. The Last of Us and BioShock both take place in the aftermath of cataclysmic disasters, and you, the player explore the spaces left behind. There you’ll find notes and audio recordings that slowly paint a narrative of the people who lived in the place you’re exploring, leaving you to piece together a story about what happened. It’s completely optional, you don’t have to pick up any of the notes and can quite easily go through the whole game without collecting any if you choose. But by interacting with you’re given some background that sits in the back of your mind.

Then, of course, there is making you play through the story. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has you building a team of mercenaries and staffing them at your base. You might not remember them all by name, but you, the player, recruit them all and put them where they go. They’re your staff. When a late plot development has a number of your soldiers turn against you, you, the player, must kill them before they can do more damage. It is an… unpleasant experience. Not all of them are hostile, many of them are accepting, and you are tasked with shooting them in cold blood. The player is not allowed a passive position in the development, they have to take part in the carnage. The guilt that weighs on Venom Snake weighs too on the player. Sure, you can watch a play-through of the game, or even read a rundown on the plot, but not actively taking part in the action removes a level of immersion intended by the designers. Like watching a play on screen, passively watching a video game doesn’t confer the experience in full.

At the end of the day, something that’s created to exist in a specific medium ought to be experienced in that medium. But in doing so, it does become something else, doesn’t it (compare a stage production to a movie adaptation)? Different stories work different ways, but to experience them at all is a joy.

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Are We Having Fun Yet?

This week, I finally replayed The Last of Us in full or the first time since it came out seven years ago. It’s not an easy game to play, and one I’ve put off for a long time. But The Last of Us Part Two came out on Friday and I figured I oughta finally replay the first one that I love so much (and cited on my university rationale, so, y’know). I’ve started Part Two and, man, it’s striking how far video games have come in seven years.

But this post isn’t about that.

This one’s about fun.

Fun is weird. Play is odd. There are people who try and figure out how to describe it, people like John Huizinga and Bernard Suits and many others. It’s elusive, something I’ve discussed on this blog before, and much of that is due to how we use language to describe ‘fun.’ Something being fun can be described as entertaining, and you could also see it as being joyful. This would rule out a lot of heavy non-fiction and ‘serious’ movies; we aren’t really ‘playing’ when we’re watching Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man, are we? For the sake of simplifying a complex argument, maybe let’s just focus on games, since those necessitate an active role by the participant — and are also things that one stops if they aren’t having fun.

While talking about The Last of Us Part Two with a friend of mine, and he said a review had described it as a ‘misery simulator.’ Please understand that this is amidst a conversation about how we’re looking forward to the game, and in this context ‘misery simulator’ is a good thing.

So, uh, why?

I’d argue that one reason why games are fun is because they are mechanically satisfying, that is there is pleasure to be had from using the rules of the game well. Board games like Scythe or Game of Thrones are fun because, even though they’re really hardcore with interlaced systems and require thinking several turns in advance, throughout all that strategic stress there is that satisfaction that comes from things working out. You’ve been given a puzzle consisting of the game’s rules and the other people and your job is to solve it. The better your solutions, the better the game.

Schoolyard tag is fun not just because you get to run around, but you’re running with a purpose. Figuring out how to avoid who’s It so you that become It yourself, the mechanics of the game is a very simple puzzle played out by reflex.

Expounding on that, a video game is ‘fun’ in some ways because of the mechanics. Borderlands has a really satisfying gameplay loop of shooting bad guys and getting loop and it’s fun to do. The Sims’ sandbox for you to play out lives is designed in such a way for gameplay to be smooth and rewarding. The Last of Us, even as gutwrenching as the story is, is still ‘fun’ in that there’s a delight to be had when you manage to sneak past a group of Infected or getting out of a particularly hairy encounter. Even if it’s thematically crushing at times, it’s still gratifying to play because the game lets you be good at it.

I’m only a few hours in The Last of Us Part Two, I’ve been taking my time and making sure to really enjoy it. Thus far, it’s terrific, and exploration has been a lot of, yes, fun. I know the game is going to take a dark turn (but I don’t know when, where, or how), but I know I’ll probably keep playing because, well, I wanna know what happens, but also because, yeah, the game’s fun to play. In that even if things get really rough, it’s still immensely gratifying to play.

So yeah, I guess I am having fun.


Remember: Black Lives Matter. Please take a minute and help.

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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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