Monthly Archives: August 2012

Why Do We Play Games? Part 1: Introduction

The chances are that if you’re reading this blog, you regard games as something more than just a teenage hobby. Most of us will have played video games to varying degrees as we grew up, and the number of gamers is growing ever larger thanks to the recent foray into the casual gaming market by companies like Nintendo, Apple and Facebook. For many people, their exposure to gaming will begin and end with the odd bout of Angry Birds while waiting for a train, but for an awful lot of people, myself included, gaming develops into a lifelong obsession.

So why do we play games? And in particular, how and why does something that many people regard as a meaningless hobby engender so much passion, anger and devotion in so many people?

It’s a question I often ask myself, and it’s something I’ve tried in vain to explain to many people along the way. Often when I tell someone I’m a gamer they’ll regard me with the same sort of suspicion they might reserve for a creepy old man in a toy shop; perhaps their own gaming experience began and ended with the 16-bit consoles, and they find it hard to understand why someone my age would still be occupied with something they regard as ‘childish’. But of course, gaming has moved on in unrecognisible ways since those early days: it’s like comparing the slapstick silent comedies of the 1920s with Citizen Kane from 20 years later – the two bear little resemblance to each other. The sheer breadth and complexity of modern gaming experiences is truly staggering, offering everything from casual platformers to genuinely disturbing and moving masterpieces.

Is this art?

It’s misleading to compare video games and films of course – the two are entirely different mediums that really have little resemblance to each other – and I’m certainly not saying that games developers have “produced a Citizen Kane“, although I have absolutely no idea what the gaming equivalent of that would be anyway. In fact, I’m not even going to get started on the “are video games art?” question, which seems like an utterly pointless exercise. The film critic Roger Ebert famously claimed that video games can never be art, which prompted an enormous backlash from gamers, but people have been asking “is X art?” for centuries and just tying themselves up in knots trying to find the answer. A famous example is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – a signed urinal – which caused uproar at the time and led to lots of hand-wringing over what constitutes art. Of course, the simple answer is that some things are art to some people but not to others, and the same thing could be said about video games (and indeed, not all video games could be considered as art). I will say one thing to Mr Ebert though: it’s advisable to actually play a video game before you dismiss the entire medium. Can you imagine if he was an art critic who dismissed film as “not art” without having seen a single film? This is a point he willingly conceded in a later post after receiving over 4,500 comments responding to his intended slight against gaming, although he amusingly admits he has “no desire to spend 20 to 40 hours (or less) playing a video game”.

Is playing video games less worthwhile than watching football?

Putting the art question to one side, I suppose the point of this is that an awful lot of people feel very strongly about video games. But why? What makes people like me happily spend “20 to 40 hours (or less) playing a video game” when other people, like Ebert, see the whole medium as little more than a waste of time? And what makes playing video games a “waste of time”? Perhaps if I’d told the person I met in paragraph 3 that I was into watching soap operas or football matches, they might nod in recognition rather than narrow their eyes in suspicion and glance around for someone else to talk to. But what makes playing video games a “waste of time” and watching football a worthwhile pursuit? Gaming can easily match the excitement and drama of watching football, not to mention the huge community following, but with the added bonus of complicated narratives and open-ended interactivity.

Attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. Nowadays I’m more inclined to shout about my passion for gaming rather than sheepishly admit to it like a dirty secret. And more and more often the people I meet will react to the news that I’m a gamer with an excited monologue about how they’ve just finished the latest Zelda game or a fond anecdote about the time they stayed up all night playing Plants Vs. Zombies. Gaming is misunderstood by many at the same time as being incredibly important for an ever-growing community, so now seems like as good a time as any to analyse why games mean so much.

Over the next few weeks I’ll attempt to dissect gaming down into its component parts in an attempt to work out exactly why they inspire such passion and devotion, and I’d be grateful for your own perspectives along the way.

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A world without Mega Man

Today was a sad day.  It marked the first time I had ever met someone who simply had never heard of Mega Man.  Not ‘hadn’t ever played a Mega Man game’ or ‘had only played Mega Man ZX games’, but someone who if a picture of a Mega Man game was showed to him, couldn’t tell you that it wasn’t Adventure Island (I didn’t ask him if he knew what that was).

To embarrass him further  he thought that Mega Man was Astro Boy.  But I digress.

The sad part is that, while Mega Man hasn’t been as relevant as it perhaps was in the 8 and 16 bit generations, Mega Man (and variations of said Man) has had more than a handful of praiseworthy entries in the enduring series.  In the last five or so years we’ve had a couple of retro Mega Man sequels in the form of Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10, a collection of incredibly polished and punishing games that formed the Mega Man Zero series on the Game Boy Advance, and even a couple of DS games that while not soaring to the heights of the GBA games were still solid games in their own right.  In short, Mega Man has been almost as active in recent times as he was at the peak of his popularity.  Unfortunately many of the punters haven’t been paying attention.  And that’s a real shame.

I can understand why the Man in Blue and his Zero friend aren’t matching it pound for pound with the likes of Marcus and Dom from Gears of War – the barrier to entry is high and the game style unabashedly retro, not to mention the games being mostly confined to handheld systems for the best part of a decade.  But I simply can’t imagine a world without at the very least being exposed to one of the most iconic video game series’ of all time.  Perhaps a sign of the time, mascots and franchises at some point become irrelevant, that is a fact that is inevitable.  Thankfully the platforming genre, the very genre that Mega Man pioneered, is one that has had a revival by way of smaller game studios including the indie game space.  So at the very least games like Super Meat Boy and Prinny: Can I Really be the Hero are keeping the spirt of Mega  Man alive, even if the faces are different.

So spare a thought for those mascots that have been and gone, and if you’d be so kind, perhaps go and try a game genre you’re not familiar with.  It may not be to your taste, but then again you may find your next favourite game.  If not of course, I’ll be lamenting all the hairs I pulled out playing the games while you young punks enjoy young luscious flowing locks playing your soft modern video games.  I kid.  My hair is amazingly plentiful.

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Murder as an Artform – Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

It’s been just over a year since my inaugural review on A Most Agreeable Pastime, in which I heaped praise upon the doorstep of Assassin’s Creed II. It seems fitting then that this week’s review is of its sequel, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which I’ve just finished playing and very much enjoyed. Look out for a review of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations this time next year as I maintain my reputation for steadfastly remaining a good couple of years behind the rest of the gaming community – we may not be timely here on A Most Agreeable Pastime, but you could never accuse us of jumping on every fad gamewagon that rolls into town. Although I might buy a Wii U in November.

The start of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is pretty bewildering, even for someone who’s played the two previous games – I can’t imagine how confusing it would be for someone who’s new to the series. (Tip: if you are new to the series, start with Assassin’s Creed II, it’s much better than the first game in every respect.) In terms of plot, Brotherhood picks up directly where the previous game left off, and in the usual manner of sequels, all of your good work from the previous game is quickly undone within the first five minutes. Like that careless Samus Aran in the Metroid games, you manage to lose all of the precious stuff you spent the previous 20-odd hours gathering up, leaving you to start from scratch again – it’s a gaming tradition as old as time itself. Well, at least 1986 anyway.

Spot the assassin.

Brotherhood kicks off with one of those tedious modern day sections that blight the series – as I said in my review of Assassin’s Creed II, the series could easily do without all of the modern day sections and not suffer in the slightest. In fact, it would be better if the hokey sci-fi plot and the clunky ‘modern’ sections were expunged entirely – I actually sighed when I realised another tedious segment with dull ol’ Desmond Miles was coming up. Thankfully, the designers seem to have got  the message that these sections are all but redundant – the game is bookended by two such chapters, but otherwise you remain in Renaissance Italy for the entire time, although with the option to leave the Animus at any point. Not that you’d want to.

Once you’re thrown into the game proper though, the sheer number of innovations thrust upon you quickly becomes overwhelming. Assassin’s Creed II did a good job of expanding the gameplay by ushering in various new ways to complete missions, such as hiring courtesans to distract guards or using poison to discreetly dispatch your target, but Brotherhood takes the number of options to a whole new level. As well as various new weapons, such as a crossbow and poison darts, you can now use parachutes, summon horses and even command your own squad of assassins. There’s also the option to buy up and repair buildings across Rome and install factions of various guilds in certain buildings, and to be honest, it’s all a little overwhelming at first, even for someone who’s played through the previous games – god knows what someone who’s new to the series would make of it.

The impressive Colosseum.

Still, once you get the hang of things it gets thoroughly absorbing, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about watching your influence gradually spread across the map as you defeat Borgia captains and buy up property across Roma. And speaking of Rome, the scale of the city is mightily impressive – this time around, rather than spread the game across three mid-sized cities, the designers have chosen to concentrate on one enormous city, and it’s a decision that pays off well as you get to know the various districts and streets of the capital, gradually pushing further and further out from the centre. Initially I was a little disappointed with the actual look of the city – in terms of prettiness, Rome isn’t a patch on the beautiful Florence of the previous game – but on the other hand it’s an incredibly faithful reproduction of the city, right down to the half-finished dome of St Peter’s Basilica and the impressively enormous ruins of the Colosseum.

By far my favourite addition in this game is the ability to summon your own team of assassins at any time – select your target and a quick tap of the bumper will cause a flurry of assassins to emerge from the shadows and eliminate your enemy. It’s a brilliant mechanic that never gets old, and the ability to level up your assassins by sending them away on missions brings a welcome RPG-style touch to the proceedings. Another RPG-like addition is the various goods that can be looted from treasure chests and messengers and then sold to merchants – this makes treasure hunting a much more interesting pastime than in the previous game, although I would have liked to see this idea expanded on a bit more – once you’ve completed the limited shop quests on offer, there’s not a lot you can do with your ‘treasure’.

A quick hand gesture from Ezio (on the right) unleashes assassin vengeance. This never gets boring.

Overall then, Brotherhood is a fine improvement on the previous entry in the series, although as ever that slightly embarrassing sci-fi hokum storyline casts its pall over an otherwise intriguing historical adventure. See you this time next year for a review of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.

[As belatedly reviewed by Lucius Merriweather. Another game falls from The Mantelpiece…]

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Pottering Around With Professor Layton

True to form, I’ve arrived at this particular gaming party long after the other guests have left. Five years after it was first released, and four (count ’em!) sequels down the line, I’ve finally, FINALLY, got round to playing a Professor Layton game. And it was … well … all right.

If, like me until very recently, you’ve never played a Professor Layton game, they’re basically a series of puzzles like you’d find in the back end of a Sunday newspaper, but somehow the designers have contrived to fit them into a quaint adventure story featuring a plummy English professor and his … err … young chum Luke. Actually, I was a bit confused about the relationship between those two, it all seemed a bit odd to me. I’m guessing Luke is his grandson or something, right? Right?

Anyway, in Professor Layton and The Curious Village, the professor and his (… er ward? Let’s go with ward…) ward rock up to the decidedly curious village of St Mystere, which is shrouded in … you guessed it … mystery. Bizarrely, every person they meet is all too eager to thrust one of the aforementioned Sunday newspaper puzzles into their hands to solve, which seems decidedly at odds with the main thrust of the plot, which begins as a treasure hunt and quickly becomes a murder investigation. Yet still those villagers keep demanding to know “which is the odd card out?” and “which matchstick should I move to make the dog lie down?”. It’s all a bit bizarre really, like they decided to make a puzzle game and then tacked on an adventure story that just plays out in the background (you have no real impact on what happens, besides solving the requisite number of puzzles).

“Luke, cover your eyes.”

Despite the odd juxtaposition though, it sort of works purely because the characters and artwork are so charming. The art style is gorgeous – sort of Belgian comic book meets animé – and there’s a real imagination to the character designs as well. Special mention has to go to the voicework for Professor Layton too, which I thought was excellent, although Luke’s voice began to grate after a short while. In fact, Luke’s unspecified presence was an annoyance throughout – I’m surprised the Professor bothered to bring him along for all the good he does throughout the adventure. His main contribution seemed to be an unsuccessful attempt to speak to a cat.

And while we’re on the subject of annoyances, the main ‘mystery’ of the village became painfully obvious less than halfway through the game, which rather spoiled it somewhat – like working out who the killer is halfway through an episode of Miss Marple, which gives the rest of your time spent watching it a certain weight of inevitability. I suppose they made it so obvious because the game is aimed at children, which seems apparent from the Saturday-morning-cartoonness of it all, but on the other hand the central puzzle element seems to appeal more to adults. It’s an odd mix: too kiddy for adults and too adult for kids.

Ah, the wolf/chick/river/raft puzzle – a classic. Trust me though, after you’ve done a hundred or so of these, they start to get a bit dull.

I quite enjoyed playing through The Curious Village, but I’ll admit that by the end I’d more than had my fill of brain teasers – I don’t think I’ll be returning for one of the many sequels. The characters and artwork are top notch, but all those maths and playing card puzzles… it brought back memories of being stuck in a caravan on a rainy family holiday to Swanage with no entertainment save for a copy of Take A Break’s Puzzle Selection and a pack of crayons. Thank god they invented video games.

[As puzzled over by Lucius Merriweather. See The Mantelpiece for more of Lucius’s backlog of games.]

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