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Gaming within our culture over the years

2012/05/09

This is a guest-post from my brother, James. You can see his blog here.

Video games have been a big part of our culture for over 30 years. It is an art form, and art is crucial to cultural development. Therefore, it saddens me how it has declined over the years. Like arcades, whatever happened to them? They pretty much died out to make way for the popular console titles. But I truly think it is sad to see them go, because they were a local gathering place within small communities, it was a social practice to compete for the best score that was displayed where everyone could see it. They also allowed for games to be more diverse with their controls, you could make whatever controls you wanted for an arcade game whereas you had to stick to the uniform control layout for consoles because it would be impractical to have a completely unique control set that only one game used. But since arcade games only contain that one game, it doesn’t matter how un-uniform it is. Sure you can look at scores online now, but it just isn’t the same, neither is online multiplayer.

Many people are against video games, thinking them to be poison of the brain or something. In some ways they’re right (but video games are no more harmful than anything on TV or in movies, or books for that matter), but in most ways, they’re dead wrong. Video games serve many useful purposes, they are not mere entertainment for making money. Some video games improve reflexes and sense of timing (there’s even an article I found where they compared the skills of surgeons who are gamers, and non-gaming surgeons, the gaming surgeons actually had a higher success rate, meaning they made many fewer mistakes and had better precision), others teach problem-solving skills (and/or exercise your creativity and uniquity, and then there’s mental test games like big brain accacdemy), some are like movies you can interact with (heavily storyline based). But, like with movies and other medias, with quantity comes decline in quality. There are games that just try to be something to occupy your time for a while and be moderately entertaining, totally missing the point.

In a number of ways though, video games have improved over the years. Like controller layout for example. Now there are more buttons per controller and they are shaped in such a way that you can hold them for hours on end without your hands hurting. Controllers come in various shapes and sizes, which is good for the individual player’s gaming style and for the style of game that you are playing. But I’m sad to see that when a new controller is released that the old ones are done away with, and when some becomes popular, everyone jumps on it and abandons their unique qualities, making everything more uniform. For example: the Gamecube, Playstation 2, and Xbox controllers. They all have very similar layouts: two analog joysticks and a directional pad meant to be controlled with the thumbs (left one usually moving the character with the directional pad also on the left and sometimes used as an alternative to the joystick, and the right one usually adjusting the camera viewing angle), 4 buttons arranged cardinally on the right side of the controller (also meant to be hit by thumbs, bottom button being used most often, followed by left one, though the Gamecube wasn’t quite arranged cardinally), and shoulder buttons on the left and right sides meant to be hit with middle and index fingers (two sets of shoulder buttons with the exception of the Gamecube which only had one left shoulder button, which was rarely used). I understand that this is one of the most practical layouts, but I would still like to see variety between consoles.

Motion control has become popular in more recent years. There are both gyroscopic/ accelerometric controllers and motion-capturing interactive cameras. If everything is controlled by buttons, then there would have to either be a lot of buttons cluttering up the controller which one a few games would make much use of, or really complicated button/ joystick movement combinations that would difficult to execute. Therefore, they had to play around with alternate command control options. This also opened up a new market, as it had a more physical demand than just thumb twiddling, allowing an array of fitness-based games that people who normally weren’t gamers could join in on. And although I’m glad for additional playing options, we aren’t exactly getting additional playing options, we’re essentially getting replacements. I hope for a day when all the controlling options can be combined into some games, like a motion-capturing camera combined with a gyroscopic/accelerometric controller being held (with a significant amount of buttons and made good use of both hands), while standing on a weight-sensing platform that measured where you were standing upon it (which would make some difference), and how you were positioned (such as if you were leaning more to one side than the other and what direction your feet were pointing). This would make for an interesting game with a wide variety of controls for a very involved experience.

Anyway, back on topic, I hate how games have lost their individual unique qualities. Now it’s just genres. First-person shooters all try to be like each other with the exception of unique weapons. Many games are exactly like each other with the exception of storyline, and others use the same storylines over and over again to the point that they are just cliché now. Mario games are by far one of the most popular franchises, though they have NEVER been strong on storyline. All of the storylines pretty much consist of: bad guy captures peach or otherwise threatens the mushroom kingdom, Mario and possibly some addition people (such as Yoshi and Luigi) try to resolve said issue with Mario’s super athletic abilities, temporary power-ups (such as the wing-cap) and some key item or ability he might have in the game (such as a hammer from Bowser’s inside story, the spin move from Galaxy, the dimension-flip from super paper Mario, or FLUDD in Sunshine). Mario (as well as a number of other popular first-party Nintendo games) is quite well known for its memorable musical numbers. Music is an underrated part of game-making in my opinion, except with first-party Nintendo games which intentionally makes that a high priority.

I also like how some games try to focus on some of the things about gaming there are frequent (but no absolute) complaints about. For example, in Halo, they have a recharging feature in the game that allows for more continuous play without as much worry about dying and having to start over. And the anniversary edition of pac-man being more structured for scoring rather than maneuvering the ghosts. Plus there’s speed run challenges where you beat the game as quickly as you can, with multiple categories: ones that use cheatcodes, ones that exploit glitches/bugs, without 100% clearance, with 100% clearance. And then there’s games like Dragonquest 9 that made a game you could beat, but not be finished with immediately by having downloadable quests for a whole year after release. I like how gaming has all these features and options and culture that we didn’t have in previous decades, but I also miss the stuff from the old decades that have left.

Here are the things I don’t like about games. I hate how people use cheatcodes and guidebooks/walkthroughs to make the game easier. I understand that there’s some parts of some games that are almost impossible, I use cheatcodes myself in some such cases, but I prefer to avoid doing so if I can, but there are extents where people go way too far with cheatcodes. I have a friend that refuses to play some games without half a dozen cheatcodes in effect. In Batman Vengeance, I think it’s okay to use the infinite handcuff cheat, being able to handcuff villains isn’t a major part of the game and can make some ordinarily very difficult rooms somewhat more playable with the absence of the bad guys you already beat up repeatedly getting back up. Using the infinite batarang cheat is less okay, because you can cheaply beat bad guys from a distance, but they don’t do much damage to some enemies and most enemies come running up to you anyway, plus your default batarang supply is reasonable to begin with, but it’s still kind of pushing it with cheats. The infinite health cheat is very NOT okay, it is totally cheating, being unable to get hurt at all. Anyone who uses the infinite health cheat doesn’t deserve to play the game in my opinion. But then there’s easter egg cheats, those are a-okay. These such cheats can include alternate outfits for a character, distorting some feature about them like giving them an oversized head, or something to such effects. I also somewhat dislike linear games with only one way to do anything and you have to do them that exact way in that exact order. I prefer games with some flexibility, ones that have alternate ways to get past something, one’s that allow the player’s creativity to shine, ones with optional features or quests, ones where being an exceptionally skilled gamer isn’t a requirement, but there are still options to test/exercise skilled gamer’s abilities. And the Sims series. I get that it allows you to create an alternate world to fulfill fantasies, but you do everything you could normally do in real life if you weren’t playing video games. I think it kind of defeats the purpose of gaming and is an insult to the RPG genre.

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One Comment
  1. Daniel permalink

    I still think that Monkey Island had the best response to the common cheat code.

    Press CTRL-ALT-W at any point.

    A dialog pop-up is displayed: Congratulations, you’ve won the game!

    => Cut to credits

    It really made the point that, if you were going to use a cheat code, you missed out on the intended content and were only selling yourself short.

    But then again, I can see the other part too. If what you enjoy is running around invincibly and one-shotting your opponents, then… Fine, I guess. Go for it. For me, that would ultimately be less fun. But other people should be allowed to go knock themselves out.

    One thing your brother didn’t mention was how much easier games have gotten over the years. Which in a way is fine, I understand the need to open games up to a wider audience (and therefore, market). But I do get annoyed when games aren’t designed to be challenging. Often the ‘hard mode’ is a cakewalk. Even if the ‘hard mode’ is actually hard, the difficulty is gained by just buffing up the enemies with additional health and damage. The gameplay itself isn’t designed to be more or less challenging – the numbers just get bigger, which means it isn’t harder, but rather it just takes longer.

    Some good exceptions to this exist, of course.

    Halo was great in that the opponent AI would improve with level to include different tactics. I still remember making the jump to hard mode in Halo I and getting extremely frustrated with how deftly the enemy Sangheili warriors would side-step my grenades or pop in-and-out of cover in organized groups. It was tactically very challenging to find an angle where I could pick enough of the pack off without dying such that I could just charge in and mop up the survivors. Good stuff.

    Diablo 3 looks like it will have a similar philosophy in that the Harder modes unlock new unique abilities for the champion and boss level monsters, not all of which are damage related. One video I saw of Inferno-level difficulty had the champion monsters erecting walls to block the route of escape – a game-changing tactic that isn’t related to actual damage? Wonderful!

    I’m sure there’s a few other examples – but the dominant problem is otherwise wall to wall. Dragon Age was an otherwise decent RPG that was ruined for me because the easy and normal modes were too easy and therefore boring, and the hard and nightmare modes were the same amount of boring only for longer because the enemies had more health and damage, so I had to invest more killing-the-nasty-men-in-interesting-ways resources into survivability. Which is fine as far as it goes – but it’s not exactly tactics. If the opponents got smarter as levels went up and did different things, requiring more advanced tactics? Would have been gold. But they couldn’t do that, because having stupid opponents that could be controlled through primitive threat management was the tactical gameplay.

    So disappointing. The actual implementation of Dragon Age was solid gold, it was gorgeous, the swing and cut and thrust of battle felt slick and believable. But it was a slow chore. If I wanted to grind NPC mobs that can be trivially threat-managed into behaving stupidly, I’d go back to playing WoW and SWTOR. I’ve tried playing through the game several times, and I always get bored and clock out just after winning my first contract. I expected more from Dragon Age. 😦

    But enough of that. Your brother also makes good points. My strongest agreement is with his lamentation over the generefication and samey-ness of a lot of games in the market at the moment.

    For example, I’m in total agreement with Yahtzee over at Zero Punctuation that it’s long past time that first person shooters evolved beyond running around brown/grey environments and shooting at things behind walls. If you don’t follow Zero Punctuation already – start doing so. Yahtzee is hilarious.

    Another example of this is that I very recently started playing EVE Online, which as far as MMO’s go couldn’t really be more unlike WoW if it tried. And it shows. I’ve been haunting the rookie help channels for a while now, and I keep getting people coming in asking questions that reveal ingrained WoW-esque expectations. Such as: ‘So where do I go to add talents to my skill trees?’ or ‘What do you mean, there’s no EXP? How can there be no EXP? What’s the reward for fighting NPC mobs if there’s no EXP? (Answer: Fun and profit.)

    Mind you, not all genrefication is bad. I wish that Neverwinter Nights 2 had been sensible enough to steal the WoW camera control and ability utilization default keybindings. One of the strengths of the genrefication is that, if one of the games does test, re-test, and then test some more, and then finally come up with a quick and intuitive control scheme, then if everyone else copies that scheme then virtually anyone can sit down on a new game and slot straight into the controls. For me, that was one of the strengths of SWTOR (although they did change a few things that shouldn’t have been changed, but that’s secondary).

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