Friday, 1 February 2013

Replay Value in Videogames

by Ben Winterton

One of the (many) unique features of videogames, compared to other forms of popular culture, is how we measure value for money. If a video game is only a few hours long, and it’s not “Portal”, people are generally less willing to buy it; whereas, a game with a huge and sprawling 30 hour-plus campaign just screams value for money. Unless, of course, that game is “Final FantasyXIII”.

Conversely, if I see a 1000-page novel in a book shop, I’m not immediately tempted just because I get a better words-to-pounds ratio, nor am I immediately drawn to any 4-hour long films. Why do we deem lifespan to be so important in video games? In my experience, many numerical game reviews put lifespan as one of the key ways in which a video game should be measured.

You haven't sat through this. I have.

I believe this is partly down to the relatively unimportant role that narrative, sadly, still plays in video games. Whilst there are some notable exceptions, people are more than happy to play games with literally the same story, such as “Zelda” or “Mario” games, provided they get the opportunity for more of the same gameplay.

And it was this line of thought that got me thinking, which is more important: lifespan or replayability? Would I rather have a game that you can basically play forever, such as “Skyrim”, or a game that I can play through over and over again?

This is a more complicated question than it first appears. To refer to one of my favourite examples, the “Mass Effect” series, I found my level of emotional engagement growing as the three games progressed. Moreover, even though I found the second game to be the best, I still felt the ante was increasingly being upped. On the downside, games this big are something of a turn-off when it comes to replaying. Even games as good and diverse as “Mass Effect” invariably feel slow and dull at the beginning, since you have already experienced the thrills of the last hurrah.

Remember this shit?
This is where playing short but sweet games repeatedly triumphs. I honestly cannot tell you how many times I have played through “Banjo Kazooie” or “Portal”, but damn it I never get sick of them. These games, as well as several other favourites of mine, just seem to ooze charm and, quite frankly, fun for me. Every time I replay “Portal” I notice another clever little touch, and every time I play “Banjo Kazooie” I notice that bloody-hell-this-may-be-the-best-game-ever.

My conclusion? Well, firstly, that I have used too many rhetorical questions as awkward signposts in this article. Also, that, given the choice, I think I would choose something that has lifespan through my happily playing it 5 times in a row, rather than something that never ends. Hence why I have now decided to only play “Human Revolution” and “Mystical Ninja”, and watch my Gamerscore stagnate.

Disagree? I am more than happy to be swayed over which is more important by heated debates on the comments. I declare open season.

The Water Temple made me quit.

by Peter Smith

So…I’ve never completed Ocarina Of Time. Apparently in the video game world this is a, quote-unquote, ‘big deal’, because apparently in some gaming circles you can’t get a sense of bloody perspective when you buy a game, and I doubt it will be made available as DLC anytime soon.

I’ve played it mind you, I downloaded a reputable N64 emulator and it was the first game I got. And for 12 hours I definitely had a fun ole’ time; albeit a somewhat muted experience due to the format in which I was playing it. Alone in my university room on a laptop, as opposed to a cartridge in a glorious piece of plastic the size of a coffee table.

And then I stopped playing. I was done with it. I didn't want anymore. It had exasperated me to the point where I’d punctuate sentences in chunks. Like this. 

It was The Water Temple that made me realise it wasn't worth my time, and that I’d been far too lenient on the game as I spent the hours navigating it. It baffles me how people are willing to gloss over that aspect of the game, or merely refer to it in a slightly annoyed aside. 

If somebody said ‘the movie was terrific, apart from the 15 minutes of intense static and piercing white noise’ you’d think they were a bit deluded. A game cannot get a free pass because 95% of it is fantastic, there’s still that 5% to contend with. 

I remember reading some reviews of God Of War when it came out on PS2, and quite a few gave the game just shy of a perfect score because of how frustrating they found the wall climbing segment in the Erebus (Greek legends' term for 'Hell') section.

This bit here. Except in motion.

Why do some games bend to this ‘sum of all parts’ style of reviewing, yet others are given a free pass? Is it based on company or series legacy, or something else entire?

I know people who, without a guide, spent months trying to navigate The Water Temple. Months. Let that sink in. Sixty odd days trying to complete one portion of the game, with 90% of those days amounting to fruitless travelling and nothing gained.

I personally don’t recall the game being that incredulously perfect that I’d spend months trying to get past a poorly designed gaming experience. I used a guide when I did it, and at times it felt as if I was trying to disarm a warhead using post it notes and a taped over VHS. I felt as if I was in an experience tantamount to having 10 hours of a rigorously structured, accessible and entertaining game and I was suddenly being asked to solve the mystery of the Antikythera Mechanism.

Quicktime events won’t help you now. 
Hand holding in games is something that relates entirely to the enjoyment of the game involved. I've no problem a game gently nudging me in the right direction like a doe eyed mother wolf nudging her young towards a fresh kill (X-COM Enemy Unknown having the most enjoyable tutorial I've played this side of Metal Gear Solid’s VR missions), and I've no problem with an obsidian black void that consists entirely of your character and a pause menu. Case in point, Dark Souls: Prepare to Die edition, a game that I'm currently 50 hours into the new game + part of, yet has caused me to exhaust every blood vessel I've got in my big stupid face.

Unless I'm at a spawn point, at which time I propose to fires.

But I kept playing, regardless of me yelling variations of the word ‘fuck’ at my friend’s TV screen during boss fights. I kept playing because every challenge was met by an unyielding sense of achievement and satisfaction, along with in game currency to level up or new areas. 

After The Water Temple the only satisfaction I got was from myself. The fulfilment of finally overcoming something mentally straining and structurally flawed, with little reward on the game’s part isn't a hugely positive gaming experience. It was the expected sense of accomplishment you’d get from something immensely frustrating, the scenario overshadowing the achievement itself.

I imagine I’d feel more relief pulling a bullet out of my gut or drinking my own piss to survive.
As it stands, after spending roughly 4 hours on this area, following a guide to the letter, I ended up realising I hadn't even played the game at all. I’d been a glorified garbage boy, following instructions with the hope I could get to the end and continue playing and ironically, that’s why I stopped playing.

I remember an hour afterwards, running across Hyrule field and merely going ‘Why am I even doing this?’ The temple had drained all enthusiasm and energy from me; I’d hardly be surprised if the final boss had actually been Mola Ram.

‘Now to burn your remaining 4 hearts!’
I was sure that by terminating my adventure there and then that I was missing out on a terrific experience, but I frankly didn't care. And I still don’t. I put up with that section, and it was so unenjoyable that I don’t think the game deserved me finishing it.

Even Nintendo has qualms, altering the layout and design for the 3DSconversion, so clearly this post isn't an over-reaction on my behalf. The disapproving reception was high enough that they altered the game because of it.

The Water Temple was an unenjoyable gaming experience even with a guide, and was enough to put me off the rest of the game. I honestly don’t believe it deserves to get off as lightly as it does, and it’s such a shame it belongs in a game with terrific gameplay, a beautiful soundtrack and an engaging atmosphere.

But fuck it to a dry, unforgotten, abyss.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Who are they?

by Dave Lamb

Something occurred to me on my recent play through of Skyward Sword. Ever since I first played Ocarina of Time I always name my character in Zelda games Link but in other games I’m perfectly happy to refer to the character as my own name, Dave. I find it interesting how we sometimes consider the character in game as an extension of ourselves and other times we don’t. For example, I normally input my own name when playing Pokemon or Skyrim but then always call the character in Zelda Link. 

8 bits of pure ambiguity.

Here’s my reasons. The first Zelda game I ever played was Ocarina of Time (Sorry Nintendo guys I had a Megadrive) I input my name at the file creation screen and off I went. As the game progressed I realised other characters were referring to the Hero as Dave, when in my head I knew he was called Link. I never really considered this character as a representation of myself and let’s face it everyone knows it’s Link setting out to save the princess Zelda. From then on my Link was always Link. I guess the idea with Zelda is that the character is the “Hero of Time” rather than any predefined protagonist. 

When it comes to Pokemon however I was always straight in there with my own name and never considered entering Ash. This may be because when I first played Pokemon Red at the age of nine I always fantasised about what it would be like if Pokemon were real. Those were the days. I remember ordering it through a mail order company from the U.S as it wasn’t released in the EU till a whole year later. 

Thankfully the regional releases are a little saner nowadays unless you’re a JRPG fan in North America. I did have one or two friends who called the protagonist Ash and I can see why. It does feature characters from the TV series. You meet Professor Oak at the start of the game and you have a single parent mother but never mention or explain your father’s whereabouts. At the time however I liked to imagine myself as the Hero in that story, exploring the world and capturing Pokemon.

Fun fact: Calling yourself ZELDA in the original NES game automatically starts the second quest.

There is of course a whole other group of people we haven’t discussed yet. It’s the people who called their character a stupid name for the cheap laughs whenever an NPC refers to you as Fagery Daggery-do. Or perhaps naming your rival in Pokemon AssFace as some way of sticking it to him and getting one over. I have never been a huge fan of this but I can kind of see the appeal.  As you can probably guess I was never one for changing the names of my Pokemon either.

When it comes to games like Skyrim and Fallout the developers have never put out any name for their protagonists so it really is up to you. There is also the problem nowadays with voice acting in that NPC’s obviously can’t pronounce your name, although I’m sure there will be some clever way of doing it in a generation or two.

This also becomes a whole other kettle of fish when you enter the realm of online gaming. People begin to Judge you based on your name. You can’t blame them when the only information they have is a name and a handful of colourful pixels on the screen. I just wouldn’t team up with a guy called AssFace, I imagine him messing around then laughing when he somehow manages to get me killed. However if DragonMaster was to roll up, that’s a guy who sounds like he takes things seriously, maybe even too seriously. 

Now I know AssFace wouldn’t be allowed over on Guild Wars 2 and anything even slightly offensive results in an instaban. I, however, remember the days of the old-school MMO Legend of Mir 2 where anything went as long as you didn’t get reported and even if you did all you got was a stern warning but anyway you get my drift on the whole idea.

 There's a wedding going on in this screen shot. Weddings weren't even a feature of Mir, people just acted them out...

There’s probably more reasons I haven’t discussed for calling characters different names. Maybe you’re a Link guy or maybe you’re more of a Faggery Daggery-do guy. Sign off in the comments below and let us know what you think.