My own perspective on gaming, in reply to my best friend.

Howdy folks. This post will be a bit unusual. It’s a response to a post written by my friend Josh over at jdhjanus.wordpress.com in which he outlines his perspective on gaming and why he likes the things he does. So before continuing any further with reading this, I invite you to read his post first, otherwise this probably won’t make a whole lot of sense.

All good? Kay. Welcome back. Let’s do this.

I think Josh makes a very key mistake in his opening premise, that American (and most Japanese) gamers don’t share his mindset of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. That mindset, I find, gets thrown about a lot by people in life and work by people where it’s not true. It may very well be the case that something isn’t broken and works just fine. But there’s absolutely no reason why it can’t be improved and made even better. Did the older games work? Absolutely. But they also represent the best that could be done with the technology at the time. We’ve improved on that tech tremendously. To not iterate and improve on what you can do with gaming would be a waste.

Now let’s look at each of his individual points, and I’ll provide a sort of rebuttal to it based on my own experience.

 

1.  Traditional Gameplay

In a lot of areas of life, I’m like Josh in that I stick with tried and true and don’t experiment much. You ask me to cook; I’m going to ask where the directions are. Ask me to do the laundry, I’ll ask for directions on what should be done normal, what on permanent press, and so on. I’ll read directions on how to assemble, use, or repair stuff.  I’m not really the type who will just “wing it” and see what happens, because if it doesn’t work, then I’ve wasted materials, time, or both, and that’s not something I’m terribly fond of doing. Actually, it outright scares me.  For a long time, I had that approach about gaming as well. It’s only been more recently that I’ve been able to branch out and try new things, and I’ve had an absolutely amazing time playing some truly fantastic games as a result.

To Josh’s point where he says that storyline is a very important part of a game for him, that I can and will heavily agree with. But I do not agree that gameplay should fall as far short below on the priority list as I think he’s making it out to be.

Josh, I direct this quesiton to you. You say that you don’t want to spend a ton of time learning a new gameplay system because sometimes the battles or other gameplay detract from the story. I have to ask then: why are you actually playing a game at all? It sounds to me as though you would much rather be watching or reading the story rather than interacting with it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, I just wonder if perhaps you are looking for what you really want in the wrong art form entirely.

Video games are, by nature, an interactive medium. We take on the role of someone or something and take a journey with/as them. The experience of that journey is just as important as our capability to interact with the world of this journey. If you aren’t excelling at both, then in my mind, your game is not complete.

And yes, at the time, with the limits of the technology being what they were, the original turn-based RPG systems and point and click adventure titles were absolutely great. They were a natual evolution from the tabletop RPG games and text-based games that pre-dated them.  Why should the evolution stop there? Why get to one point in the design spectrum and say “Yeah, this is good enough for every single thing that will come after this”.  Sure, we absolutely will see some mistakes along the way (Final Fantasy 8’s magic/leveling system was gawdawful), but just because we might have some stinkers doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and we, as gamers, should NEVER be afraid to try something new that’s been shown to us. If we don’t try the new, we’ll never know what we might be missing out on.

I will definitely agree with Josh that we don’t necessarily NEED revolutionary innovation with every game release, and I definitely think there’s a place in the market for an old-school RPG that has a defined class system and turn-based combat. Like he said, it definitely works well and will appeal to some segment of the gamer population (myself included). But we should not leave games at the point they were 10-20 years ago, by no means. Those gameplay systems were a product of the technology of their time. The technology of today allows us to do much, much more.

 

2. The focus on Action Elements

Again, let me preface this by saying that, like Josh, I don’t “like” to make decisions quickly. I like to consider various options, weigh pros and cons, and decide based on that. Sometimes I can be impulsive with purchasing decisions, and I would say approximately 50% of the time I end up regretting not having “done the research” and found something more to my liking. This goes back to my earlier dislike/fear of “wasting” things, in this case, money.

But that’s something that has a real-world consquence. In videogaming, you (usually) don’t have that issue to worry about. If you make a bad call, you can work to amend it or try again on the next go-around, depending on what you’re playing.  So, unlike Josh, I have no issue with it and in many cases, I actually prefer it.

One of the biggest draws of gaming is to immerse yourself in situations that you likely would never encounter in real life, be they playing in “the big game”, mowing down hordes of zombies, exploring the far reaches of space, or exploring life with superpowers, either as yourself or as a part of someone else’s story. The repeated term I just used there is “you”. You might be playing someone else’s role, the role of you in this situation, or a completely different role that you choose, but the point is, it’s you, somehow or some way.  You’re having this experience that you (probably) can’t have in the real world, thanks to the medium of video games.

Of course, it’s impossible (for now) to completely translate the experience of taking cover, popping out, and unleashing torrents of gunfire against invading aliens. You’re divorced from most of the physical requirements of such situations, as well as most of the fear, because your own life isn’t on the line. But as technology has advanced, games can give us incredibly realistic environments, AI programming that not only has gotten smarter but now adapts to your actions, and the capability to have our avatars do things that were previously not possible, allowing us to develop different strategies beyond “watch for patterns and attack the weak spot”.

And that sort of realism, to me, is so much more satisfying to play through. You not only have to rely on your own ability to strategize, but also to think on your feet and adapt as the situation changes, just like you would in reality. Of course, you could always make the wrong decision. That’s the risk. But the consequences? Not terribly severe. You can simply try again, and this time you’re armed with the experience of your previous attempt. You don’t really die, and the world isn’t really overrun with zombies, killer robots, or shambling horrors that defy all attempts to even comprehend their biology. Your brain is even better for it, because the more you force yourself to think quickly and respond to new situations, the better it will be for other situations where you need to do so in the future.

So, my dear friend Josh, I challenge you to not only find a game with a fantastic storyline and action sequences, but devote yourself to completing it and make your brain work better! I’ve got some recommendations for you, too. We’ll talk 😉

 

3. Preference of linear and straightforward plots

Josh builds his arguments around 2 points here that I have to disagree with

  1.        Western RPGs are filled with nameless characters that have no personality compared to their Japanese counterparts
  2.        Said games do not have a strong linear plot and are instead open worlds full of sidequests where the plot takes a backburner.

For point 1, I would point you at pretty much any RPG that BioWare has made just as a single example from my own perspective. If someone is going to sit there and try to tell me that the characters (including the player ones) from the Dragon Age series or the Mass Effect series do not just as much personality development as anything in a Japanese RPG, then I just have to walk away and let them wallow in their own ignorance. Yes, you do customize part of that character, but said character has a defined voice, personality (though you can alter it with your choices in these cases), and personal story. And I’m certain that there are numerous examples that I simply don’t know about because I haven’t played them.

With regards to point 2, I have to take issue with his dismissal of side quests. I have played a not-insignificant number of eastern RPGs in the past, and I remember all too well a common element to all of them: grinding. Whether you needed to grind out some levels to be up to par with where you were supposed to be, or you had to grind out some cash to be able to buy a new set of gear from the nearby town’s armor shops, or grinding away whatever other arbitrary points the game had to boost your abilities, at some point you were wandering around waiting for that little flash or change in music that meant a random encounter had just happened and it’s time to fade to the battle screen!

Side quests are that, but with additional little nuggets of story to go with them.

Instead of mindless monster killing and boring wandering around, you have a clear objective, a little piece of story, and you get to explore certain areas while you do it. And what’s even better, in many modern cases, they’re completely optional. I invite you to go play the most recent single-player RPG in the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim, and ignore every single sidequest you pick up. Just do the main storyline quest chain. You totally can.  It’s an amazing story, too. You’re a prophesied hero, and you traverse a massive world to battle an evil that wants to obliterate creations. And you never have to touch a single sidequest to do it. Of course, you’ll have a much stronger and richer game experience if you do.

This goes back to what I mentioned earlier with regards to realism: Having the freedom to choose what you do makes games a more satisfying experience. If I choose to put a hold on my quest to save all creation to help a little girl deal with a bully, doggone it, I like that I can do just that. And in many cases, optional side quests are just that: optional. I don’t particularly see what the difference is between getting them early on or only having them available at the end of the game. Either way, I can choose to do them or not.

Quick sidenote: I recognize there are games where sidequests are pretty much not optional, and you practically have to do them to keep up with the game’s story. A lot of MMORPGs are guilty of this, the most notable example that I’ve recently played being Star Wars: The Old Republic. That’s a design style I do not particularly enjoy. Old Republic gives you an absolutely fantastic personal storyline that’s incredible and epic. Unfortunately, the leveling experience comes incredibly slow, forcing you to do side quests and the side planet storyline to keep up. That is one thing I will fault most MMORPGs for. World of Warcraft, in my opinion, got this one very much right with the Cataclysm expansion’s revamp of the original game leveling experinece. Each zone is a self-contained storyline on its own with minimal side questing that is usually related to the main plot you’re playing through anyway, and especially in later expansions, the zones tie together into an overall plot that you explore once you reach the level cap.

 

4.  The preference of 2D worldviews

I can get Josh’s desire to see everything around him. It’s why in a lot of games, if given the option, I will switch from a first-person perspective to a third-person one. I did this in Skyrim, I did this for most of the Jedi Knight series, and most of the MMOs I play tend to default to this setting anyway.

And by no means is the classic 2D worldview completely and utterly dead: I mean just look at the number of indie titles out there making fantastic use of it. Mark of the Ninja is a fantastic 2D stealth game. There have been new classic Megaman titles in recent release. It’s still out there and still being used. But It’s not the future.

This goes back to my earlier point about advancing technology triggering the evolution of games. The 2D experience was great when it was the limit of what we could do. Why in the world would we want to just stop there when new tech allows us to do so much more? We can build entire worlds to interact with in incredible detail

I have to direct another question to Josh here: Josh, is it possible that you had one bad experience with Ocarina of Time and it’s completely scarred you from 3D games entirely? It sounds to me like that’s the case. I think you’re letting generations of fantastic games with incredible experiences waiting for you pass you buy because of this fear, and as your friend I don’t think that’s a good thing. I think its time to jump back into the fray and conquer them and see all the awesomeness you’ve been missing. Your preferred old-school 2D games are awesome, and that isn’t going to change, but that in no way means that new 3D titles are thus inherently bad.

 

Hopefully in reading my responses to Josh’s point you got a good sense for how I feel about gaming. I look forward to what the future offers and can’t wait to try it out. While I do have my own genre preferences (such as not touching sports titles with a 10-foot pole), I’m also much less afraid to jump in and try something new than I used to be.

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  1. Reblogged this on Josh's List of Lists and commented:
    A much more well-thought out and balanced perspective on gaming from my best friend, Brandon, in response to my own post.

  2. Wow. Okay. You make excellent points. And your responses were exactly what I was hoping for, in providing a well-thought out and oustandingly balanced response. To answer your direct questions to me:

    1. I do play games almost solely for storyline. I mean, I do enjoy fun gameplay, but to me the meat of the game is exploration and storyline. I like having the ability to wander and explore, but still have a very concrete idea of what I’m supposed to be doing and where I’m supposed to be going. I don’t mind learning new things, but it seems to me that a lot of JRPGs (Square-Enix is particularly horrid at doing this) tries to completely overhaul the battle system for their games WITH EVERY GAME. Is that absolutely necessary? No, even you pointed that out. There’s no problem with trying new things, but can’t we let players even get used to a gameplay system before we make them learn a whole new one?

    2. I get extremely emotionally involved in games. Just watch me play Mario with the boys for a while, and put me on a particularly challenging stage. I will get extremely frustrated if I can’t get past a certain part, or if I get distracted and die. I’m a perfectionist. I strive for 100% completion the whole way through the first time. Yes, it’s a character flaw, one that I’m quite aware of, but it overflows into my gaming and at times I have to walk away to prevent myself from getting unnecessarily frustrated.

    As far as realism goes, I want games to be an escape from the real world, where I don’t have to worry about actually having to deal with realistic things. There’s nothing so frustrating as fighting a 15 minute boss fight, being so close to beating that boss, and then getting hit by a powerful attack at the end because I didn’t have time to heal before the boss launched the attack. And then, I have to sit through the 10 minute cut scene that preceded the boss battle all over again, fight the boss for another 15 minutes, only to be killed again. Or, even worse, have a dungeon where there’s no save before the boss, so I have to fight through the ENTIRE dungeon all over again just because I have horrid eye/hand coordination and I’m not good at thinking quickly on my feet. Even in real life this happens. When I’m scared or freaked out, I freeze. I don’t fight or flight. I FRIGHT (in other words, I literally just stop thinking and shut down). It happens in games. If I don’t have time to think, I just end up dying, which just causes me to get frustrated, and returns to the first paragraph of this point.

    3. I’d like to point out that I didn’t say that ALL Western RPGs were mindless story-less boring dungeon crawlers, but rather that they were moreso influenced by that style of gameplay. I’ve heard amazing things about the Mass Effect series, as well as BioWare’s other RPGs, and you’ll notice I purposefully did not mention those as examples of this point because of that. As time has gone on, many more Western RPGs have had much stronger storylines and character development then in the early days of Wizardry and Ultima. But at the same time, I feel like there is still a heavy emphasis on open-ended, non-linear gameplay. That’s why MMORPGs are so popular here, as they are the ultimate in open-ended, non-linear gameplay (yes, they have storylines, and yes, you can just do that, but you can also spend all of your time raiding dungeons again and again and never advance the storyline if you don’t want to). I suppose you theoretically could do that with Eastern RPGs as well, but I feel like there’s a much more linear progression to the story. You get to a certain part of the world, and you usually can’t get back to where you came from until towards the end of the game when you have an airship or something that allows you to travel the world freely. And I actually HATE grinding, and tend to avoid Eastern RPGs that require it.

    4. Ocarina of Time is not the only 3D game I’ve played. Heck, I’ve even played Halo with you! 😛 But it is the first example of that style of gameplay, and I could give you plenty of other examples from Halo, Okami, Final Fantasy XII, and even Kingdom Hearts where I would be attacked by someone/something from behind/above/below me and freak out. Why? Again, I get really into games when I play them. Plus, I startle really easily (which, again, you are aware of). I don’t like startling easily, because then I freak out, and, as mentioned above, freeze up, and inevitably, my character gets massively injured or dies, which requires me to start up from the last save, which inevitably involves me trecking through half the dungeon I’ve already completed because that’s the last opportunity I had to save in this horrid, awful place.

    Again, I know these thoughts are solely my own perspectives, and I don’t expect to convince or change anyone’s mind. Your perspective is way more balanced than mine is, and hopefully, I will come to appreciate gaming at the level that you do. 🙂

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