Glutted on Games: How Many is Too Many?

I have a backlog problem. This is not unique. It’s so not unique it’s a cliche. My excuse is like many excuses: I grew up fascinated with games, but didn’t have the money to actually have any until after college. And suppose your salary grows some at about the time bundles and deep sales become a thing, and it’s very easy to end up with hundreds of games, many of which are only of marginal interest, most of which you will never finish.

On the one hand, I find it easy to feel guilty about this, all this extra money I could have used for something else (realistically: more take-out and books). On the other hand, I can get this idea that having all of this will do for me what working as a video store clerk did for Quentin Tarantino: Make me just that super literate in games.

The truth is, guilt probably isn’t that reasonable of a response, and the other truth is, I don’t know how educational it really is to have a copy of Tobe’s Vertical Adventure, since I’m not really sure what it is. What I do know is that finishing isn’t all that important, and that’s even assuming a game has a win state. I have these early game memories of playing Tie Fighter at my grandparents’ house, or watching a friend play Ocarina of Time, or using the fail states of Red Baron and Oregon Trail 2 to draft stories, sometimes actually written. And these are valuable memories, even though, in many cases, I never did more than sample. I have a copy of Red Baron today. I could play it at any time. But firing small red dots into vague grey shapes on the horizon won’t ever be quite the same. It isn’t about graphics moving, it’s about the whens and whys you experienced something. Context changes. Old haunts can be comfortable, but there may be nothing left to explore.

Exploration is my thing, discovery. I’m greedy and value games that are generous. Not always with length, but difference. Some difference. Anywhere. There’s a line, of course, between having a balanced collection that offers some of everything and a lot of a favored type (RPGs), and having a collection for distractable people, and I leap back and forth over that line. Worse, I can also have this tendency to feel like I ought to finish something I don’t love at all, and that’s not always rational. Merited. Do I need to play WizOrb because I own it, like a hundred or so other games that filled out bundles, but don’t interest me? There could be wonders inside WizOrb, but probably not my wonders. Games are my favorite medium, but it’s story I’m hungry for. It doesn’t have to be spelled out. Just give me a frame or few and I’ll fill in the rest.

At the same time, I’m more impatient and less willing to meet a game halfway than I was when I was a young teenager. I’m spoiled. I can still appreciate the treasure in a clumsy, ugly, and wildly ambitious novelty like Deadly Premonition. I can call it a good game hiding in the skin of a bad one and getting some mileage out of how it’s dressed, rather than “so bad it’s good.” But it is ambitious. It does a lot of the work for me. I am spoiled on density. Something like King of Dragon Pass or Academagia or even a Grand Theft Auto take some of their quality from close readings. From time spent. I completely understand why Rockstar comes under fire for its depictions of women, but I can’t shake a phrase from a radio commercial in Grand Theft Auto V about “It’s masculine posturing, just like everything else you do.” Is a game a power fantasy if it also hates you?

Thing is, I wanted to be literate, but each year, I also grow more specialized, more demanding. I grow less likely to play large percentages of what I already have. My bundle buying has left me with too many competent games that just don’t stand out otherwise. If Crusader Kings 2 and Alpha Centauri provide strategy and amusing disaster with excellent atmosphere and enough narrative to build war stories on, why should I bother getting any strategy games that lack those elements? Why should I bother playing strategy games that are less than completely excellent in every way. If I can have, and do have, five billion Heroes and Might and Magic-likes, why should I ever get another game about gathering an army and fighting turn-based battles? I run into the same problem I run into with books and increasingly film: your ability to enjoy any given piece is blunted the more you’ve seen it before.

I want to spend at least 10 minutes with everything I have. Eventually. It’ll take a while. I want to make sure there’s something I’m not writing off because of lack of polish, or because of less than stellar presentation on the store page. I’m still convinced Consortium will be special once I get it working: I’m not so convinced of Telltale’s Back to the Future games, or 1C’s Elven Legacy. But I haven’t really given them a chance. If I give it a chance, like Sacred Citadel, and find nothing personally worth pursuing, well, that’s another thing entirely.

But I buy fewer and fewer bundles. You want to take a chance on everything, when you’re in it for a dollar, when you’re in it for free, and isn’t it fantastically privileged to have that option, that “problem.” It’s almost like a public library for my favorite medium. But I let myself go wild enough that I don’t even know what I have. I can’t be grateful. It’s like checking out every book in the library and hoarding it in your closet. You look back and go “oh,” but you still reach for the titles that are more familiar. More abundance seems less attractive than finding something special, finding the best and nurturing it and sharing it and understanding what makes it beautiful. And that means I need to slow down. In everything, really. Rush to finish, rush to beat, rush to have, rush to be, rush to eat everything in front of me, and hope that the barrage of detail and minutiae turns me wise, turns me powerful.

It doesn’t. I can do more with less. I am privileged and fortunate in many ways (self-eating and wounded in others, but this is how it’s been), but I have not always had the luxury of more. I may not have it in the future. When I was young, I savored everything, because I did not have the power of having new things whenever I wanted them. Everything was precious, even planes that stalled out if you turned the nose up too quick, and enemies that were nothing but pale blocks against the horizon.

You grow older and everything is less likely to strike you as NEW. But every moment is precious. It is perhaps not right to sanctify some moments and not others, to call time spent playing video games wasted (or to call time serving someone else’s needs for money wasted, at that). Perhaps you remember an article, some years ago, that the time spent mastering Dark Souls would be better spent reading War and Peace.

Well, I’ve read it. It’s worth it. Dark Souls is also worth the time, if you wish to give it. We must all give back to the world, we all must balance those we love with what we want and need, we all need to survive where we can, and how we spend our time is perhaps not what we do, but how we do it and how we share it. These are old platitudes. But I need the reminder sometimes.

2014 could be spectacular, if I give it the chance.

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Gotta Design the Right Protagonist

Okay, so you’ve got a game. Maybe it’s got a scrap of story, maybe it doesn’t, but if you’ve got a something that can maneuver around a screen and do crap, that’s a protagonist. Far as video games go, anyway.

A few types, and I’m just riffing on a few of the few.

The Blank

We know what Gordon Freeman looks like because everyone does, but you play a Half-Life, and you’re mostly well-acquainted with the gravity gun and a crow bar. That’s what matters, what’s in your hands. Motivation, who needs it? There’s those nasty skittering head-crabs jumping right in your face. Doesn’t mean the world isn’t deep or there can’t be a few scraps of backstory, but what’s important is where you’re going to walk and what you’re going to shoot. You’re sitting in Freeman’s brainpan. It’s cool he has glasses, but it’s not important. Not all these protagonists are in first person shooters, either. What does PacMan want. Why is he haunted. Does it matter?

The Customizable Blank

Lot of stuff falls in here, and we’re usually talking about stuff that’s third person or that you can switch to third person, because what’s the point of a chargen if you never see yourself and what. You see a ton of this in RPGs, and not just in your Bethesdas, but in your Fallouts, your Might and Magics, your anything with a scenario and some droog who’s dropped into the middle of it all. For the purpose of this arbitrary categorization, I’m not counting protagonists with a lot of voice acting, because “lots of voice acting” tends toward “establishing a character as a specific kind of person.” Some chargen systems are more granular than others, and some games offer much more “figure out who you are and what your karma does” than others, but protagonists in this category are largely who you want them to be.

The Silent Hero

Somewhere between or beyond The Blank or the Customizable Blank, but related, is the hero who has a little back story, who has a little motivation, a few shreds of unavoidable personality, a distinctive appearance. He or she may not have much to say, but you can tell by the slump of their shoulders, their fastidiousness of dress, the way every rare dialogue option tends a certain direction, that if you were to make a movie of the game, you’d cast so-and-so. Their development and/or story trends fairly linear, but may not be explicitly spelled out. You get some JRPGs here, heck, some adventure games (Amanita’s adventures, anyone?). We might stick Journey here. The silent hero can’t coexist with extensive voice acting. It’s like trying to film Drive, but having Ryan Gosling talk out all his feelings.

The Choose Your Own Adventure Hero

Now we can have voice-acting. The Choose Your Own Adventure Hero can be a pretty specific person. He can be the Witcher, she can be Commander Shepherd, he can be Lee from the Walking Dead. Yes, you can choose the gender / appearance / back story of Shepherd, but there are pretty distinct limits to your character. There can be choice and consequences and blocked off content all over the place, like in Witcher 2, but Geralt is still more or less a Geralt. If you try to play him as a celibate monk, the game narrative is not really going to support that. There are choices, routes, and different textures you can give to your protagonist’s actions, but blank slate, this isn’t.

The Novel Hero

Commentary, commentary, commentary. Many adventure game protagonists, for example, will provide descriptions of what they’re seeing. Everything they’re seeing. The feedback is continual and more or less verbal / written. Every piece of the game is delivered through a particular voice or voices. You play Monkey Island and you know what Guybrush Threepwood is like. It’s unavoidable. You know what he thinks about everything and everyone, because you went and clicked on all of it. The pace is more likely to be rather sedate, at least, compared to the Movie Hero games below.

The Movie Hero

Sometimes similar to the novel hero in that there may be running commentary, but you’re more likely to see cutscenes, here, and lots of them. Taken to its extreme, you may in fact be watching a movie with occasional gameplay bits, but it needn’t be an extreme to qualify. Anything by Naughty Dog is absolutely here, but so is anything by Rockstar. These heroes are very defined, the action is cinematic, you could run all the cutscenes together and have something fairly coherent. There may be differences in density, for certain — the gameplay in Uncharted exists to link story bit to story bit, while the gameplay in Grand Theft Auto is more robust, and allows for intertextual elements — but we’re talking protagonists, here.

Hybrids

Well, tons of these. I just classed a GTA protagonist as a “Movie Hero,” but when you’re actually playing him, fft, it doesn’t matter what he’s doing in the cutscenes, does it? Open-ended gameplay of any sort can muddy the waters a bit. Player freedom of any sort will always toss ’em into the protagonist seat and let them decide who they really want to play. That can mean you end up playing two games, and that’s where people like tossing around “ludonarrative dissonance,” but eh, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a game straddling two lines. In fact, please give me an Oregon Trail create-your-party-like with over-the-top space marine cutscenes. Bob the Doctor sheds his armor to cradle his love, dying, dying of alkali poisoning. Or whatever. There are no rules.