Friday, July 30, 2010

Dragon Quest IX - Final Review

I had the same problem writing about Dragon Quest IX that I had playing Dragon Quest IX. I was in too big a hurry. I had too many other things on my mind. As the cliche goes, I had a hard time stopping to smell this game's roses.

Birthday season approaches. From September until the end of the year, it is nothing but birthdays and holidays, just about one event a week. Ben and I take birthday/holiday season very seriously. We start celebration plans and gift lists months ahead. This year, my best friend's wedding is thrown into the mix and I have become a frenzied and obsessive toast-writing, dress-shopping, perfect-gift-finding, and budget-bludgeoning madwoman. My Dragon Quest IX mission to kill the Wight Knight has not been of the utmost concern to me. But in this time of impending nuptials and birthdays, my sappy side is oozing. Even Dragon Quest IX made me sentimental.

I went through most of this game like a lonely tired soldier. The game moved forward like a dutiful trudge. The fat strategy guide sat limp in my lap; it helped me go through the motions. I played sleepy-eyed and dreary, only perked up by the occasional skirmish with a Teeny Sanguini or Cruelcumber. I progressed, but the journey meant nothing to me.

I played through Angel Falls by myself and, although I didn't hate playing it, I didn't care about playing it which might even be worse. I didn't know why I was playing it besides completing the mission I had set out for myself.

Then one night Ben sat down next to me and watched me play. We started discussing the game and what I should do next. He showed me things I could do that I had never noticed before. We laughed at my poor sense of direction. He encouraged me to slow down and pay attention. Most importantly, he showed me how to recruit a party, meaning I could make new characters that would play with me and fight with me and go with me wherever I went.

Jhonen was sitting on the bed with us and I asked him what I should name my first character. He looked at me, thought about it for a second and then said, “Jhonen?” I laughed and almost cried a little because it was such a sweet response. “Yes! That's the perfect name!” So I made a little martial artist named Jhonen with some awesome green hair. Then I created another character, a mage, and asked Ben what I should name him. He said, “Beans.” Perfect. I made my mage tall with no hair and amazing healing abilities. Then I made a tiny girl warrior with pink pigtails named Leelot. My family was complete. Suddenly I was having fun! I felt connected to the Dragon Quest world. I felt like I could successfully fight that Knight. And seeing that adorable foursome walk around together while my real family foursome lazed around together made me so happy.

I feel very fortunate that I haven't endured many truly lonely times in my life, but I do remember how those times felt. Loneliness makes you feel disconnected from the world, it makes you go through the motions to reach goals you don't care much about. I remember that detached, hopeless feeling and it sucks. I know that weddings are often flashy displays of canned phrases, cheesy music, bad banquet food, and outrageous expense, but they are also one of the few times when people come together to celebrate love and commitment and devotion and hope for the future. Weddings are an opportunity for two people to say to the world, “This is who we are, this is what we've decided for ourselves, and we are thankful that you are here to support us in that decision.” I have trouble with the idea of people being "blessed." I have trouble with the concept of having a "soul mate." I have trouble believing in angels. But I do believe that committing your life to loving other people based on knowing them so completely that you love them despite (and sometimes because of) their faults can save you from the dreaded loneliness - the kind of loneliness that makes you trudge through life like it's a duty instead of a joy. Strangely, Dragon Quest IX reminded me of that and I'm grateful it did.

Dragon Quest IX also showed me that I can play and might even enjoy playing RPGs, I just don't like to play them alone. Ben and I are thinking about playing through Final Fantasy XIII together, only instead of him playing while I watch, I'll play and he'll watch. The man doesn't always have to wear the pants in the video game playing family. Right, ladies? Speaking of ladies in pants, my next game assignment is Bayonetta for PS3 – a game that features a hot lady in hot black leather pants. Watch out, boys. I'm gonna kick serious butt in seriously high heels....heels that shoot bullets.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies for NDS - First Impressions

If we lived in an actual puzzle game and your character needed to put my character to sleep to, I don't know, steal my car keys or grab the bag of Cape Cod Sea Salt and Vinegar Kettle Chips from my clutched fist or something, there are four ways your character could do it.

1. Wait until around 12:45 am and then come into my bedroom and rant about video games. Take your pick from the following tried and true options. You could discuss the history of any video game developer and its current financial status. You could recount the back story of any game franchise's major character. You could go to our video game shelves and find both the English and Japanese versions of a game, then come in and compare box art.

2. Put any of the following on television: The Hudsucker Proxy, History Channel, anime that is not in some way overly-adorable, any made-for-TV movie.

3. Give me, on average, two and a half glasses of red wine, any type will do.

4. Make me play Dragon Quest IX.

All of these methods have been tested and are proven to put me to sleep in no time. Just ask my husband.

I've managed to eke out about an hour of game play thus far. It has taken me four sessions. It seems about 15 minutes of playing Dragon Quest IX is all I need to prepare me for a big ole nap.

I'm not sure yet why that is. Maybe it's because I have been a little extra busy lately. I haven't been able to find the time to actually start playing until late at night, so maybe I have gone into the game already sleepy. I'll try and remedy this Dragon Quest apathy a bit in the next few days. Since this seems to be slacker week, though, I thought I'd write the rest of this review using as few full sentences as possible and mostly just post pictures.

Why to play Dragon Quest IX:


These guys! Could I possibly want to start fights just to see these amazing creations?

Dragon Quest IX

Dragon Quest IX

Dragon Quest IX

The music! (May be the very first non-music game I've played that I've actually wanted to turn UP the volume).

Maps! They look cool and aren't so big that I get lost.

Dragon Quest IX

Why not to play Dragon Quest IX:

Sort of awkward religious stuff!

Dragon Quest IX

Dragon Quest IX

Creepy old farmers!

Dragon Quest IX

The game's sleep-inducing nature! (Don't have a picture or video of that because I can't take pictures or videos while sleeping and because I haven't figured out what it is about this game that makes me so sleepy). Maybe the wandering about and chattering endlessly with neighbors? Maybe trying to figure out which staircase will actually lead me back to that darn magical tree? Maybe the lack of cute new outfits to select for my (Victoria's Secret) angel, Jexxy? Maybe picking up piles of sparkling cow manure to earn Evanescence....wait, that's a sort of mediocre band I don't care for....I mean, to earn Benevolessence?

I'm not sure yet. In any case, I think Ben loves me just a bit less this week. Especially when he watched me try to get Jexxy to walk on a curving path. My new goal for this game is to figure out how to get my angel to walk at an angle since I don't have the use of an analog stick.

What has my life become?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge on PC

I have been familiar with Monkey Island games since Ben and I met in college. Secret of Monkey Island was the one game, besides Mr. Driller (love!) that I remember watching him play and thinking maybe it's ok that he plays video games. I had never encountered a game that made me laugh (later I had a similar experience with Sam and Max games). I never felt particularly inclined to play Monkey Island, myself, but he would often play PC games on his laptop in bed or at his dorm room desk and I would overhear the plot and it would make me laugh. When I'd look over to see the game, I'd find it to look cute, too. A cute, funny pirate adventure story with voodoo and treasure and romance and humor? That can't be bad! Going into this assignment I was at least excited to actually pay attention to the story rather than simply overhear it in the background while trying to get through my college History of the Novel assignment, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I have now played Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, the sequel to The Secret of Monkey Island, for two hours and am 26% of the way through the game. With those two hours of game play under my belt, I'd like to offer up a few alternative subtitles to Lucasarts, the developers behind this witty and whimsical game title:

Monkey Island 2: Would Play More If It Weren't Installed On Hubby's Computer

Monkey Island 2: Talk About Stuff, Talk To Stuff, Pick Up Stuff Then Use Stuff On Stuff

Monkey Island 2: Puzzles are like WHA?!?

Monkey Island 2: Makes Me A Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eater

I haven't played a computer game that wasn't Bejeweled since my days on elementary school computers playing Number Munchers and Oregon Trail. OK, that's not true...I just remember my shortlived World of Warcraft experience....well, anyways....those four games pretty much sum up my experience with computer gaming. There's something a lot more geeky about playing games on the computer than on a console. Is that true or is that a strange prejudice? Why do I have that impression? Is it because most popular computer game titles end in the word “craft” and feature shaman and elves while popular console games tend to feature sports cars and boobs? In any case, I felt a little extra geeky going to the PC to play Monkey Island, though I felt like I had to kick Ben off his computer in order to play, which helped me stall a bit, since he is almost always sitting there when he's not at work. Now that he has an extra large desk next to his extra large television set with his extra large PS3, he is at his extra comfortable computer chair extra much these days. (By the way, those dang consoles get bigger and bigger and then the next version they put out they make “slim.” What's up with that? Just make the console slim to begin with, people! This original PS3 is so tall it's blocking the remote control sensor!) He says he's not, but he is. I mean, sure, he says hello when he walks in the door. He gets up to come eat dinner. Just kidding. It's not that bad, but I am very familiar with the squish sound the computer chair makes when it is sat upon.

I felt a little self-conscious sitting at his computer. Our computers are sort of sacred personal spaces....probably the only truly private zones in the house besides the bathroom when the door is closed....and I felt like I was impinging on his Man Cave as I played a game on his computer in his comfy office chair. Now I play with Jhonen during the day while Ben's at work. Jhonen sits in the secondary, much-less-comfortable office chair usually reserved for me while I sit in the captain's chair. Jhonen says, “Monkey I-Yand, Monkey I-Yand” and then points out the game's trees and clouds to me as I play.

Ben's first piece of advice to me regarding Monkey Island: 2 (MI:2) was to investigate everything, talk to everyone, and remember everything you see and everything they say. Wise words. That is pretty much all there is to do in the game. There is no possibility of death. There is no fear in this game but the fear of getting stuck. Basically, you just click on every item you come across, be it a ball of string, a pile of blank papers or a one-eyed cartographer. If you can pick the item up, do it. If you can ask a question, you ask it. Every cheese squiggle, alligator, and box may (and most likely, WILL) be useful to you as your character, Guybrush Threepwood, strives to find the treasure, Big Whoop, reunite with his love, Elaine, and put an end to the evil LeChuck once and for all.

(This video is a little sample of what the game's like. Go find someone to talk to. Ask whatever questions you want to ask them. Listen to their responses and try to figure out what you're supposed to do next. Important items are labeled for you, like the coffin you use as a boat to travel across the swamp).

Playing MI:2 is much like spending a weekend with my mother. She is Guybrush Threepwood. She walks around my house exactly like I have to make Guybrush Threepwood walk around the swamp or the inn or Mad Marty's Laundry Stand. First, she'll walk into our house and notice everything that has changed since the last time she was here. She remembers everything.

“That rug was there before, wasn't it? Why'd you move it?”
“I don't know. I just like it better here.”
“Oh. I guess I do, too. It helps brighten up this dark corner a bit. Have you ever tried it in that corner?”
“Just wondering. Is that a new picture?”

She picks up stacks of pictures and rifles through them, stopping periodically to ask me about where I was in that shot or why Jhonen is making a certain facial expression in another, She reads my grocery list on the kitchen white board and asks me about my menu plan for the week. She peruses my bookshelves, picking up a book here or there to ask if she can borrow it or to read the synopsis. One might call her behavior nosiness. She proudly refers to her behavior as curiosity. In Monkey Island: 2, this behavior is completely necessary.

You absolutely must ask every single possible question and scour every inch of every surface of every ship and beach and swamp, pick up everything you can possibly pick up, and use your items on other items you cannot ever hope to progress. Guybrush Threepwood is plopped on this island with nothing but his witty dialogue and your ability to figure out what he's supposed to do. And I thought A Boy and his Blob's puzzles were tricky. Wait. Is this Mission Impossible: 2 or Monkey Island: 2?

Don't believe me? You think I'm dumb? Here is an example of what Guybrush Threepwood had to do to get a little extra money so he can charter a boat to get off the island (excerpt taken from someone's game walk-through on

Go to the swamp and enter the voodoo hut. Get the string beside the skull on the small table. Now leave. Go to the beach and pick up the stick laying on the ground. Go back to Woodtick and head to the Inn. Look at Pegbiter's bowl and then pick up the Cheese Squiggles. Now, head to Mad Marty's. Walk up to the box and open it. Now use the stick with the box, then use the string with the stick. Use the Cheese Squiggles in the box and walk a short distance away. If you're far enough away, the rat will go to the box and nibble on the Squiggles. Deftly pull the string and the rat will be captured. Now open the box and pick up the rat. Head into the bar kitchen and plop the rat into the pot. Now, go out through the window and enter the bar proper. Ask about the stew, and Bernard will soon get fired and you get a job.


Wow. This raises puzzle games to an almost hilariously impossible level.

Which is what ultimately turned me into a big ole cheater-face. I almost always hate myself for doing it, but any time answers to trivia or crossword puzzles or word searches are printed within view of the questions or puzzles, I must sneak a peek. I always begin the puzzle with a hopeful heart and a fool's optimism. I proclaim to myself that this time I won't peek. This time I will solve the puzzle for myself. Using my brain. And I do try to do that for a while, but then five or ten minutes, I mean, hours, pass and I find that I have somehow turned the page upside down and accidentally saw the answer. Oops! In Monkey Island's case, I sort of “accidentally” found myself alt-tabbing to and those handy-dandy walk-throughs written by either robots or very hairy people who type from under mountains of empty Mountain Dew cans and beef jerky wrappers who possess way bigger brains, a lot more patience and even more acne than I have. God bless these people for being able to solve these puzzles and then for taking the time to write out exactly what they did so that cheater cheater pumpkin eaters like me can get 26% of her way through the game!

Ben's assignment was to play until I had to receive help five times. Turns out, I didn't really understand the assignment. I thought he meant that I should play until I required help from him.

I innocently bat my eyelashes at him.
“You mean I was supposed to refer to only on the rare occasion that I'd need a helping hand? You mean I wasn't supposed to read through each paragraph and do what it said? You mean it is actually possible to figure out that the way to get an article of Largo's clothing needed to make his voodoo doll was to go get a bucket I never noticed at all and then take it across the map to the swamp I didn't know was there and then fill the bucket with mud and then bring it back to Largo's room and “use” it on the door and then I should know to hide behind his dressing room curtain and wait for Largo to come in so the mud falls on his head and dirties his clothing? Of course! How stupid of me!”

I have mixed feelings about and cheater codes and even receiving help from Ben. I hate to do it! I really do. I don't like asking for help. If I need to lift a crazily heavy box I actually prefer to just do it myself than ask someone to help me. I know my limits. This game surpasses them. Luckily, the game is quirky and fun and laugh out loud funny (really!).

(Check out the questions you can choose to ask this fat governor dude. This game is silly in a really great way).
Monkey Island 2

What's the alternative? Not play the game? Get stuck and give up? That's what would normally happen. After I finished the first section of MI:2, I did vow to try harder to only refer to when I really, really needed it. That worked for a while. I almost figured out how to get myself out of a locked jail cell by myself. I used a stick (which I cleverly found in my cell by pushing my mattress aside) on everything and nothing worked! After a brief peek at I discovered that I hadn't quite tried to use my stick on everything. Silly me didn't think using a stick on a bone would result in anything! However, I did take notice of the bone before I peeked at the website, so I am making progress. I may play a couple more hours of this game, with a little help from my imaginary, pimply, caffeinated walk-through writer friend, because I care about the story! Yay! Thank you, Monkey Island, for having a compelling story with great dialogue, funny voice acting, and clever writing. You did more for me than the author of Tristram Shandy. Even CliffsNotes couldn't help me cheat my way through that one.

Will I continue playing Monkey Island 2 or shall I start my next game assignment: play Dragon Quest IX (NDS) until I have defeated the Wight (sic) Knight. All I know about Dragon Quest games is they are extremely popular in Japan and they feature blue slimes shaped like chocolate chips. I will learn more soon enough. Until then, I have a Dragon Quest IX Game Manual, some, and a little eighteenth century literature to read.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Deathsmiles for XBox 360: Final Review

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

Sometimes I just need to shut my mouth. Like when I argumentatively accuse someone of something and their response makes me feel like an idiot because I know they are right and I am wrong. I open my mouth to spit out a snappy comeback,then realize that I had better just shut my mouth before I say something even more stupid than I'd already said.

I've had several of those moments this past week. A few examples:

I complained to Ben that I never get a chance to work on my projects because I always need to have an eye on Jhonen. Ben said “what about this morning when you put your pictures in frames while I worked with Jhonen on his train set?” Oh yeah. Shoot! That made me shut my mouth. Then I complained because we didn't have any weekend plans and Ben said, “Well, tomorrow we're going to the mall and out to dinner and the next day we're going to the zoo. What else do you want to do?” Oh yeah. Dangit. I had to shut my mouth. Then I wrote a long blog post about how I don't like video games because of bad storytelling and irrelevant gameplay. Then I finally played Deathsmiles, a game I'd been hesitant to play for a over a week, and the stupid game made me shut my mouth, too!

I will explain with this brief digression:

This video game project is like eggs. I never really liked eggs much. I'd eat them occasionally, say, when I was at my friend's house to be polite or because I was really hungry and there wasn't much else to eat. As an adult I'd never make eggs at home. At restaurants I'd eat eggs, but only if they were in omelet form. I hated all other eggs, especially the runny yolk kind that sits on the plate like an angry cyclops. Then I decide one day that I need to experience all sorts of egg preparations out of fairness to myself and the wide variety of egg cooks in the world. Plus, my husband really likes eggs, so we could eat lots of eggs together. It could be fun! So I try eggs sunny-side-up and over-easy, poached and hard-boiled. I like some of them a little better than others, but still feel that the only egg-featured menu item I'd order would be an omelet. I begin to justify my lack of egg satisfaction by complaining about eggs and the people who cook them. I generalize that the reason I don't like eggs is because they aren't cooked masterfully enough. Eggs just haven't reached their full potential, I lecture with certainty. The next day, though, I go to a Waffle House where I am told to eat scrambled eggs draped in orange cheese. I dread the first bite, sure that I'll hate it. Then, with surprise and a bit of embarrassment, I realize that I like them. In fact, I would order those eggs again. They are Waffle House eggs! They don't exactly meet the criteria I had set forth in my previous lectures. They were greasy and salty, cooked by a man who looked a bit like an angry old cyclops, himself. Yet, I liked them! Those stupid Waffle House eggs made me shut my mouth.

is Waffle House eggs.

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

Actually, it's a side-scrolling shooter game featuring french-maid costumed anime girls trapped in a gothic castl-y underworld. The girls must stop Sakura's father who is determined to get back to the “real world” through a portal he's found. Unfortunately, each time he opens this portal, demons are unleashed into this otherworld, making these girl's lives very stressful. You pick a girl to fight the crazy demons. I first chose Windia, a “wind user” and then Follett, a “fire user,” though I didn't notice much difference between their abilities. The girl, with a little help from her respective animal companion, shoots bullet streams and bombs at demon enemies who shoot their own bullet streams and bombs right back. Their bullet streams are much cooler than yours, but your bombs are much stronger than theirs.

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

You move through stages fighting various types of demons – from big green or burgundy eyeball monsters to lizard beasts to my all-time favorite game enemy of all time, a giant, demonic, nose-ringed cow named Mary. Even though the game is side-scrolling, enemies approach from both the left and right and you can shoot both directions by pushing “A” to shoot left or “B” to shoot right-a feature I'd never seen in a shooting game before. You also have the ability to target enemies specifically by pushing “A” and “B” together, but I didn't really get into that. I played the game on Ben's arcade stick and found that fun. Somehow playing on an arcade stick made the experience seem more special.

You can choose between several difficulty levels and you can push start to continue the game if you die, a feature I took full advantage of which seemed to disappoint my husband. Ben says that die-hard players will start over rather than continue through the level, but I am no die-hard. I thoroughly enjoyed the stress-free shooting experience. If I had been playing in an arcade, I would have lost several rolls of quarters on this assignment. I pushed the continue button about once a level.

The game isn't ugly and it isn't beautiful (there are a few exceptions on both counts...there were some pretty scenes of castles, forests, and a Haunted Mansion-esque ballroom and there was one hideous scar-face demon). There is a story, but it's really limited, and only comes to fruition at the very end, though I will say the game's endings were satisfying to me.

Other game highlights were the ingenious and strangely beautiful bullet patterns. They were pretty difficult to navigate, but in a fun and challenging rather than completely frustrating way. At times, lines of bullets obstructed my path, but one well-timed bomb button-press and I was good to go. If I couldn't continue through the game despite my deaths I would have probably grown frustrated, but after an hour I found that I died less frequently, which makes me think this game helps your skills improve with time. I played on the easiest level and was able to beat the game in about half an hour. Ben required me to play for a full hour so I decided to play through the game as another character to see how the story and gameplay differed. I also played in a different mode the second time....the mode was called something ridiculous like Black Mega Label or something. Either the Black Mega Label was easier than the other mode or I got better, because I had to push continue fewer times and got higher points the second time around. When I play again, I think I'll either try to play through Level 1 without ever pushing Continue like the die-hards Ben described or I will try out Level 2 to see how much more difficult it is.

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

Deathsmiles, a dialogue:

Ben: “ I think you are actually having fun right now!”
Me: “Yes! I actually am having fun. I think I like this game!”
Me: “Uh oh, I think I just like games that are easy and straight-forward, don't I? That is my problem with other games, isn't it?”
Ben: “Yep, that's the problem.”
Me: “I suck.”

Turns out, the real problem wasn't who prepared the eggs, although I still believe there are cooks whose eggs could be tastier if they paid more attention to the details and presentation. The problem is that I don't like eggs that are good for me. I like my eggs fattening and full of sodium. The greasy salty eggs go down just fine, but put chopped boiled egg in my Cobb Salad and I'm going to complain. I wanted to love A Boy and His Blob because it's adorable and charming and has a story that's much more “me” than demons unleashed in goth anime land or half-naked hoochie mamas playing volleyball. So what is wrong with me?

The answer:

Puzzles. Puzzles are wrong with me. And working hard while still losing. There's a confession for you. I hate puzzles. I hate working hard. I hate losing.

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

I want a game to make me feel good. I don't want to leave a game feeling worse about myself than when I started. That's why I like games that ease me into difficulty slowly, like entering a cold swimming pool. I prefer to wade in slowly and carefully, letting each body part get used to the cold before I move on to the next. I don't like to jump into the deep end. I know this game could get really, really hard. But unlike a puzzle game, shooting games can more easily provide varying levels of difficulty and I need that. If I'm being honest with myself about what I really want I'd say that I want a game to make me feel consistently mildly challenged. I don't want to feel like it's impossible for me to progress and would rather a game err on the easy side. I want to slowly and steadily improve my skills until I magically discover that I am able to play at a higher level of difficulty. This game is good at that. The game eased me into their frigid waters and now that my skin is used to the temperature, I think I will stay a while and enjoy myself! The game could even slowly make the water colder and I may not even notice.

Perhaps even more importantly, Deathsmiles didn't make me figure out where to go or how to get there. It was straightforward. There was an end in sight and a clear path to get there. When I reached the end (I LOVE to reach ends!) I was given the ending to the story and it actually made me feel something! When you defeat Sakura's father and one more giant demon thing,you get to decide if your girl goes through the portal, returning to her family or stays in that gothic world with her new friends. Choose your own story ending? I love that, too! I decided that Windia should go back to her family and the game shows you the happy family reunion. At some point the narrator questions whether Windia's trip to the underworld was worth it since she found herself right back where she was before while leaving her friends behind. Turns out, before Windia's trip to Demon Town, she was a sensitive girl, full of self-doubt who cried easily. Her battle and ultimate victory helped her feel strong and confident. I wasn't expecting to learn anything about Windia and was pleasantly surprised that the game bothered to give me that resolution.

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

Looks like my high-fallutin' mumbo jumbo writing talk from last week was a bit overstated. Turns out I really do appreciate excellence in storytelling, art, and game design, but when push comes to shove, I really just want in and out. I want my story in half hour increments, hold the puzzles, please. I should have loved A Boy and His Blob, that pretty, subtle, coddled egg sitting in its delicate little white ramekin. I expected to like it. I appreciated the look of it. Being pretty wasn't enough, though. I left the game still hungry. So I went to Waffle House and got me some scrambled eggs with cheese. I honestly liked Deathsmiles because it didn't have puzzles. It didn't make me feel like a failure, a quitter, or an idiot. I learned a lesson about myself this week and it was a hard (boiled-egg) lesson to swallow. I learned that my desire to win fast and feel good about myself sometimes takes precedence over having to work and think hard.

Ben has decided to test this new theory that I only like video games that are easy and straightforward with next week's assignment which is exactly the opposite - difficult and full of puzzles. My next game will be Monkey Island 2 for the PC. I have seen Ben play a Monkey Island game before and it is one of the few games I can say has a fun, well-written and laugh-out-loud funny story. In that respect, Monkey Island 2 should be a good test to see whether or not a good story can make up for difficult puzzles. If not, I'll not only have to shut my mouth. I'll have to eat my words, too.

Monday, July 5, 2010

More thoughts...

I have three more thoughts to share related to my previous A Boy and His Blob post.

1. This weekend I watched one of my favorite shows, Sunday Morning. One segment discussed Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' love of Norman Rockwell. Two men who have successfully brought stories to life in a way that made their viewer's emotionally connect to their characters both admired Norman Rockwell, and rightfully so. Last year, the Orlando Museum of Art hosted an exhibition of Norman Rockwell's art. I worked as a docent for the exhibition and also came to appreciate Norman Rockwell's art. I discussed in my post, and some of you referenced in your comments, the difficult job game designers have of telling an interesting story while creating game play that integrates into the story that is somehow the perfect difficulty level - not too difficult, not too easy. I agree. That's not easy. After watching that segment on Sunday Morning about Norman Rockwell, though, I remembered talking about his artwork with kids. I remember how there were an almost infinite number of significant details in all of his paintings that helped tell a story. He had just one magazine cover, one page, in order to tell a story and encourage people to purchase the Saturday Evening Post. He had one week to come up with a concept and paint his cover and these were large oil paintings! Each painting tells a story. Every character has a vibrant and sometimes complicated personality. These characters don't move. People don't have to benefit of playing as these characters or hearing these characters speak. But if you look at one of Norman Rockwell's paintings, these characters are REAL and his stories are heartwarming, dramatic, funny, and engaging. If he can manage to tell a poignant story in one picture, a video game ought to be able to tell a poignant story in its 50 hours.

2. Ben's Dad borrowed a copy of Up and I thought again about the experience of watching that movie and I thought about Pixar and just how incredible those artists and writers are. There are many computer animated movies out there, but what separates Pixar movies from the rest is not the beauty or technical mastery of their animation, but the characters they create and the way they tell their stories. Their movies have arguably the best writing being done in Hollywood today and Up has moved me more than any other movie I've ever watched in my life. Pixar realized the importance of quality storytelling and it has paid off. Animated "kid stuff" can be more emotionally engaging - simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting -and Up is proof. If I were going to make a video game adaptation of Up, I would be able to play as any of the characters and they would complete missions that were true to them or that helped retell the story. Fill in the blanks of the original - have my old man character blow up the balloons and tie them to the house. Let me fly the house. Give me flashbacks to the amusememnt park where I used to work as a balloon salesman and let me show Ellie around the amusement park. Let me become these characters and feel what they feel and do what they do. Put as much artistry and detail and sensitivity into the game as Pixar does in their movies.

3. Hot Tub Time Machine - Ben's July 4th plan was to sit around watching Hot Tub Time Machine and then light some sparklers in the backyard. My 4th of July plan was to create a culinary tour of America with party decorations and a nighttime fireworks spectacular with a picnic and dessert afterwards. So we did all of it (except Ben was spared the fireworks spectacular because of rain). I fell asleep halfway through Hot Tub Time Machine, after the part where four dumb, unfunny characters ended up in a dodgy ski resort's hot tub, all of them drunk, one of them threw up and they end up transported back to the 80's when they were young and having a lot of sex. I mention this movie to acknowledge the fact that there are movies with worse writing than most video games.

I'm certainly not saying I could write/design video games better. You don't see me trying to do it myself. But the industry as a whole, I think, could do with better writing and storytelling and maybe more creativity. Shooty-shoot and jumpy-jump games make sense in a Gallaga and Qbert world. Now that we're into film adaptations and 50 hour games, maybe it's time to adapt and invent completely new game play to suit those sorts of games?

Friday, July 2, 2010

A boy and his blob for Wii: Final Review

A boy and his blob

I vaguely remember what it was like to learn to read. Reading came pretty easily for me, but I remember the way it felt to pick up a new book and try to read it for the first time. It was exciting, but challenging, since each new book presented a new set of vocabulary words, words I had never read before, words I had never even heard before. Playing video games evokes the same exact feeling for me and that got me thinking. Imagine if every time you pick up a new book, you had to learn how to read it first. That's how video games are to me. Is that how video games are to everyone or am I just not familiar enough with the vocabulary of video games to be able to pick one up and play it comfortably, the way I would pick up and read a book?

I find myself bringing up books a lot on this blog, which could be because I like to read and write so much and books are special to me. It could be because I have a bit of snobbishness about books in comparison to video games which is one of the main reasons why I started this project in the first place. I wanted to explore where that snobbery originates and whether or not it is fair. A Boy and His Blob, more than any other game I've played, kept making me think about books and I wondered why.. After a a lot of thought I find myself with much to discuss on the subject.

If Dead or Alive:Xtreme 2 were a book, it would be a trashy romance novel you read through while locked in your bedroom under covers where no one can see you reading it. If God of War were a book it would be a really bad novel adaptation of a cheesy 300-style Greek god action movie. Flowers would be read in a college fiction class as an example of what makes a great short story. A Boy and His Blob would be a Caldecott Award winning children's picture book. I couldn't get that out of my head while playing this game. Playing through this game was like playing in a beautiful children's picture book.

A disclaimer. I love reading books. I do not love playing video games. I am clearly biased, but I am trying to have a positive attitude while playing through these games and to be fair-minded while writing about them.

With that stated, books have elements that make them easily comparable to many, if not most, video games. Both books and video games introduce character, setting, and plot. They both often use dialogue, description, and narration to tell a story. They have protagonists and antagonists. They have drama, adventure, and humor. They have a beginning, middle, and end. Video games take an extra step, though, to include the reader in physical involvement in the story beyond reading, thought and imagination. Video games require the “reader” to become physically involved in the storytelling, which is what I love most about video games and what I hate most about them.

I love that I can make that little boy character hug his blob. I love that I can make him roam through the beautiful caves with their rays of light and trickling waterfalls. I love that I can choose to transform the blob into a trampoline to help the little boy soar into the sky or into a bouncy ball he can use to hop across water or into a parachute he can use to float in a colorful sunset. I love that the player of the game becomes the main character in a game. There is so much potential in that! I love the creative potential inherent in open-ended action and involvement.

One of my favorite books I owned as a kid was a choose-your-own adventure story. At the bottom of each page I could choose what the characters should do and the book had page numbers to flip to depending on my choice. I found it empowering to direct the story's plot and the character's actions and I thought it was amazing that the author could organize a book in a way that made choice possible. Video games have the potential to always give you, the “reader,” that feeling and that power, an ability that books can't generally provide. While books rely on a reader's imagination to make the story come to life, games have the gift of actual player participation. The game can show you the setting, the characters ,and the plot and the player actually enters into it. That ability is the ultimate in storytelling potential.

I love that this game takes advantage of that by using subtle details that help the story unravel and help you get to know the least a little bit. For example, the few words heard in the game are the boy's commands to his blob which is interesting because it calls attention to the importance of the boy's command over the blob and the blob's willingness to rush to the boy's commands. The lighting in the game helps tell you, the player, where to go. In one level, the blob is your light and you have to have him close to you so you can see. That detail subtly speaks to the fact that the boy may control the blob, but he also depends on it. When given charming and adorable characters, beautiful and interesting places to explore and a story about a blob who has landed on Earth and needs your help, who wouldn't want to actively, actually experience the world of A Boy and His Blob?

Video games have the power to engage so many more senses in a more physical way that books, but books have the power of a reader's imagination. For example, the reader can imagine how a character's voice sounds so there's not a danger of bad voice acting ruining the experience. In some ways, a reader's imagination is as freeing and empowering as a video game's ability to include the player in the story's action. Video games' greatest strength is also it's greatest weakness. I haven't played a lot of games, but from what I've seen, games and story don't coexist well; one always seems to get in the way of the other. They trip over each other, creating a lurchy, strangely paced experience for the gamer. A boy and his blob has all the elements of a great book and if I saw this children's book on the bookshelf, I would immediately pick it up to read it. I want to know the story! I want to get into this little boy's head and I want to befriend his blob right along with him. I am dying to travel wherever those maps lead. I want to investigate the boy's tree house and see what his house looks like. I want to ramble in the forests and jump up into the sky and fall down under the ground. I yearn to know why this blob is on Earth and whether it will find it's way back to Blobolonia. Even the black blob frog and bull villains are intriguing. All the elements for an unforgettable story are in place, but they don't seem to come together because the game's puzzles get in the way! I want to be compelled to keep playing just like any reader wants to be compelled to turn the page, but I'm not and that mystifies and frustrates me.

Part of me feels like A Boy and His Blob is successful as a puzzle game since the puzzles allow you to explore the world. For example, I have to figure out how to go down a hole but there are sticks blocking the path so I have to turn the blob into an anvil (which I called a power drill and Ben will forever tease me about that). Then I have to push the anvil down the hole, breaking the sticks. Then I discover that I must turn the blob into a parachute so I can float down the hole slowly and safely, careful to avoid the flying black blobs on the way. It's fun to figure out ways to utilize the blob to get where I want to go while getting to see this world. It reminds me of being a kid and having to be resourceful to get what I want. As a kid, a tree trunk becomes a table and a pile of leaves becomes a bed.. Then the other part of me is frustrated by the puzzles. Here's an analogy. It feels like I'm trying to read a book that requires me to complete a crossword puzzles before I'm allowed to turn the page. Sure, maybe the crossword puzzles have something to do with the story, but they aren't necessary to understanding the story and they slow down my reading of the story. They get in the way. Not to mention the fact that they're hard, sometimes so hard that I just want to quit reading, Why do I have to work so hard for my story? If I'm going to have to work hard for awhile, at least give me rewards for my effort along the way, because if I'm not going to be rewarded, then I'd rather just read a children's picture book version A Boy and His Blob. I'm sure I'd love it.

I only played through one and a quarter maps for about three hours and in that time I learned next to nothing new about the characters except that my blob could change into a wide variety of useful objects. The setting changed a bit, but not significantly. I learned nothing more about the plot. I was solving the puzzles just to get to another area that looks a bit like the area before it. That isn't good enough. That doesn't make a reader turn the page and it doesn't make me keep playing. If I'm going to work for it, I want something in return. I appreciate the details that I mentioned before. I am intrigued by the subtlety of the storytelling, but it might be too subtle.

Or maybe this is all my fault. Maybe I just play too slowly. If I played faster and solved the puzzles faster, then I could have probably gotten twice as far into the game and maybe I'd reach the rewards I'm looking for. I know that just when I was ready to quit playing Ben told me I had to play the next level because my blob is about to eat me to become a ball I then ride and that ball can go really fast. I was surprised to hear that news, because there was no hint that something new was about to happen and there hadn't been anything like that in my previous three hours of playing, but I turned the game back on and he was right. It was really fun! It was a bit of the reward I'd been looking for! So maybe my attention span is just too short. Maybe I got bored with the puzzles too fast. I don't know. I just think, if I read a book and I know nothing about the characters, or their setting or their story or why I'm reading about them within the first three hours of reading, I'm not going to keep reading. I don't think that's uncommon for a reader. Why is that uncommon for a video gamer?

Do I expect too much? Maybe I shouldn't expect to feel emotionally attached to my characters. Maybe I shouldn't expect well-written, compelling story lines. These are supposed to be games, right? I don't go into a board game expecting to be moved by the experience. I should just want to keep playing for competition's sake or for the sake of reaching the goal and enjoying the little challenges and tasks set before me. Maybe game designers are just trying to find new ways to make old tricks continually interesting by introducing beautiful settings and interesting stories. The game could just be a bunch of puzzles in a sterile environment, but these game designers bothered to create a great world for the puzzles to inhabit and charming characters to use to solve the puzzles. Maybe I shouldn't be complaining. Maybe I should be grateful!

I just feel gypped when I know that great storytelling in video games is possible and it isn't delivered. If you're going to provide me with a story, make it a good one. If you're going to add in characters, make them round characters that are interesting. If you're going to plop me into a world, give me a reason why I'm there and make the world believable. Why is that rare? Do video gamers really like killing things or solving puzzles or jumping so much that they can overlook bad voice acting, contrived plot lines and game play that has nothing to do with forwarding the presented story? Again, ir seems that when story and game play coexist, one always gets in the way of the other. Uncharted is the only game I've ever seen that has successfully reconciled the two. The game made the player part of the story while the story supported and gave the game play relevance and purpose. That's what I'm looking for.

Are these the rants of an ignorant gamer newbie? If so, let me know. I want to be wrong (just tell me I'm wrong nicely, please). I want to see games that are compelling because of great writing, believable characters, and great game design. In my college writing classes, my favorite writing professor taught his students there was not good or bad writing, only writing that is successful at what it set out to do or not successful. If I were to look back at the games I've played so far during this project, I would honestly have to say that Dead or Alive: Extreme 2 might actually be the most successful game of the bunch! The game's goal was to give me a bunch of bitchy girls with big boobs who play beach games. The setting, the characters, and the game play all worked to that aim and, honestly, all three elements were done well! And because it was a ridiculous, silly game, anything silly or ridiculous about the characters, setting, and game play worked!

I'm speaking like a judge on a dance competition TV show. The judges are always most critical of the most talented dancers who show the most potential. The judges are easy on the so-so break dancer with no formal training attempting to do a Cha-Cha, especially if the dancer manages to exceed the judges' already low expectations. It's the good dancers who suffer the harshest criticism. This game is a victim of it's own greatness. Of all the games I've played, A Boy and His Blob probably has the most potential to be a truly beloved, memorable, touching game and that makes me extra critical of it. Like I said, the game is charming and beautiful and nostalgic and subtle and something really special. I just can't say that it is everything it has the potential to be.

Let me exist in the story of the boy and his blob and make me compelled to keep playing it. Make me emotionally involved. Make me cry. That shouldn't be difficult. Even car commercials can make me cry. I know this boy and his adorable blob could, too. I really wish they would.

My next game might make me cry. With a name like Deathsmiles, I want to cry just thinking about having to play it. To be fair, I know absolutely nothing about this game except that Japanese anime French maid type girls grace the cover. Ben has told me that it is a side scrolling shooter for the XBox 360. Who knows? I mean, I just admitted that Dead or Alive:Xtreme 2 was the most successful game I've played so far. This project continues to shock me. Perhaps this Deathsmiles game will, too.