Distilled to a purer substance

Have you ever played a game where the minigames or secondary goals were more exciting and compelling than the rest of the entire game?

It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Through extensive research (asking my friends), I’ve found that this varies in a highly personal way. I had a friend in high school who could never get enough of KOTOR’s Pazaak, which I hated. Whenever I played that minigame I was just dicking around with extra credits, but he had a real strategy and everything! Gosh! And while I absolutely adored the underground mining game in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, I know a number of people who thought it was incredibly stupid. Kent loves scanning planets in Mass Effect 2; I’ve only done it for maybe twenty minutes, and I find it dull. On the other hand, I found hunting for arrowheads in Psychonauts to be pretty entertaining—I mean, I spent as long a time amassing a grossly enormous fortune in that game as I spent trying to beat the Meat Circus level. And Meat Circus is a crazy.

Why do we do this? I suppose if the satisfaction we get from doing ‘trivial’ and secondary tasks in games is high enough, and if the effort it would take to ‘play the game properly’ is too excessive, we’ll all just sit around and do the trivial stuff instead.  Which sounds a bit cold and mathematical, but there you go. It’s not too much of a mystery why these things happen. I could wax philosophical about the nature of these appealing little secondary games, but they’re not really so mysterious either: they’ve got highly appealing sunk effort/returned reward ratios. And all that jazz.

I think the real question is: why don’t we have games for these trivial things, if we enjoy them so much? Why do they need to be secondary? I mean, narrative, pretty pictures, and man-shooting are clearly no longer the hallowed characteristics of ‘real successful games.’ What if we could take these big-name games and reduce them down to their secondary objectives– what if my friend could have a game of just Pazaak? What if I could take all the games where I’ve ever been distracted by a crazy secondary objective and imagine new, ridiculous games out of them?

Er, I can imagine that. Here they go.

Oblivion becomes: Herbalist Adventure

The most compelling thing about Oblivion is the alchemy.

Yes. I actually believe this. Out of the nearly 100 hours I have spent playing Oblivion in the past year, about 50 of those must have been spent entirely on collecting and combining plants, herbs, fruits, and bits of dead foes into potions. I don’t think I’ve ever gone past the bit in the story where you’re on the snowy mountain where the Blades are at. I did that part only once. All the rest of my characters are soft, pasty fellows with ridiculously good alchemy levels and backpacks full to bursting with every possible kind of plant. I once camped out in the basement of a townhouse, hidden in the shadows while the occupants ate dinner mere inches from my face, waiting for them to leave so I could steal their potatoes and make potions of shield out of them. It was my most epic heist ever, even beyond the Thieves’ guild!

Furthermore, I don’t even use the potions I make: I just carry them around. There’s a character from a famous Jack London short story who hoards insane quantities of food: he basically sleeps on a mattress of biscuits. See, I imagine my Oblivion characters sleeping in glass nests made up of glimmering bottles. The moonlight on the bottles, the strange cordials and elixirs sloshing about with the tiny movements of sleep, and all that. I mean, he’s got to protect them somehow. And it’s picturesque, no?

Herbalist Adventure would be my favorite game of all time. You’d be practically helpless: a weakling lost in a VAST world (let’s make it much bigger than Oblivion; make this a Just Cause-sized world, a huge thing with a million different kinds of plants). Your only skill: the ability to turn flowers into juices. All combat—what little of it there’d actually be—would be enabled by the crazy cocktail of stimulants and steroids you’d chug before every encounter. See a kobold? DRINK THAT POTION OF STRENGTH! DRINK TWELVE! While you’re at it, drink fifteen potions of shield, a potion of accuracy, a potion of Learn to Swordfight, and a Potion That Gives You a Magic Sword. Boom. All ready to go. You’d spend most of the time just skulking around in the bushes, gathering plants, admiring the scenery, researching and cooking up batches of Magical Buff Stew whenever you find a safe place. You’d cook amazing potions—potions that let you fly or run at a million miles per hour or clone yourself or breathe in lava or eat whole trees or tame bears or summon Panzer tanks or talking whales. But mostly it would be beautiful and calming—mostly it would be zen, my friends. It would be gorgeous.

Pokemon Diamond and Pearl become: Magic Dwarf Crystal Garden Tales

I already mentioned that I adore that mining minigame. I also adore Dwarf Fortress. I also adore Minecraft. It all makes sense: I must secretly want to play a game where you adventure in tunnels and grow crystal gardens. Yes. But not like those silly crystal gardens we used to have in the nineties: those are shit. I mean: great caverns of dagger-sharp gems! You’d have to travel around and water them with magic chemicals or whatever and harvest them later. Like Farmville with its guaranteed success, I suppose—but I wouldn’t have any of that schedule-your-life-to-the-game nonsense.

No, I’d have giant cave spiders or sand worms or goblins instead. So: the Pokemon mining game mixed with survival horror. Occasionally, you’d have to craft weapons out of the gems and protect your farms from the invaders with cunning traps and desperate barricades. Multiplayer play could be a Garden Siege Mode, or something: people would try to invade each other’s magic underground wonderlands with some kind of stealth mechanic.

Yes. Just take the whole Pokemon overworld away. I want my gem gardens and I want my secret bases and I want my capture-the-flag games. I want my silly underground time-wastey tomfoolery, please, but more awesome. Can that happen?

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 become: My Alien Girlfriend 1 and 2

Okay, I don’t actually want to play this game. But I know people who would! I remember when ME2 came out, all sorts of people were twittering things like “JUST NAILED ALL THESE ALIEN LADIES, WOOO” and I kept thinking things like “Oh my god, Bioware are such a horrible bunch of dicks! They’ve destroyed love! With a video game!”

But it’s not true. They haven’t. The universe continues to be not such a terrible place after all. What it needs, though, is a game where this absurd repressed sexual tension can be truly exploited.

What we need is a game where the whole point is for Man-Shepherd to have sex with alien chicks. Apparently, for maximum success, it must actually be Man-Shepherd in the title role. Not a new IP! Either that, or we need a spinoff of Fable 2 where the whole point is to marry people and then have sex with them. Admit it: you have a lady/man/both in every town in that game, don’t you? I’m under the impression that most people do. Is it too tempting? Is that what the deal is? Anyway, clearly we need a western game specifically for this kind of stuff. The Japanese have already got this shit figured out, guys.

Team Fortress 2 becomes: My Hometown Haberdasher

Hats. Whole game is: receiving hats. You run around in a big room with every other online player and trade hats with each other. You can hang out with guys who have the same hats as you. Or maybe you can do a fashion show while wearing a neat hat, or design your own hat? I don’t know. Just hats.

Hats. Whole game is wearing silly hats.

Alternately, we could be talking about a game I suggested in the comments to my last post: a game where you simply customize characters. Like the Spore Creature Creator, the whole point would be to give you extensive control over the appearance of some in-game avatar. People love messing around with that stuff: I hear stories from friends who take forever to design the perfect Sim, or the perfect Fallout character, and so on. Clearly, we need more games which make this obsession with avatar appearance more central– games which transform it from petty fiddling into an actual game mechanic. I remember that a young friend of my family’s used to be hugely into Gaia online, and from what I saw of it, that game seemed to tap into this customization desire pretty well: the whole point was to get points to buy clothes with, I think. So: games like that, but not totally stupid. A MMO character creator crossed with Spore? Can it happen? I think so.

The mechanics of this imaginary game would revolve around this appearance: you’d have to manipulate it to defeat your enemies. The game I suggested in the post comments was a professional wrestling game where the point was to design a stage presence that would resonate with fans. Best resonance would make your agent cast you as the winner in the staged fight: the better you fine-tuned your look and style to your target demographic, the more often you’d be the winner. Look terrible, and you’d be the heel. You’d spend hours in the editor before every match, fiddling with hair and clothes and catch-phrases and things like that. There could be epic campaign modes, people.

Or could we have something like that with just hats, though? Please?

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  1. Cian

     /  May 10, 2010

    As soon as I read the first line I immediately thought “Man, I would love a game of Somnium”. Elegantly designed, and blessed of beautiful art it’s a rather simple card game that can be played for diplomatic advantage or, more often, as a respite from pressing affairs of state in the CivIV mod Fall From Heaven II. Part of it’s whole appeal is it’s jacking into the mythos of that game, and for providing entertainment whilst still allowing you thinking space to ponder over your next strategic move.

    Tom Chick has a bit more to say on the matter;

    • lauramichet

       /  May 10, 2010

      I’m downloading Fall from Heaven II right now. I’ve meant to do it for a few weeks down, and I’ve been even more serious about doing it since I heard it’s going standalone, but your comment has convinced me that I need to get on that right away. That article is excellent, by the way.

  2. Haha!

    The ultimate minigame-over-game for me was always Oregon Trail. They had this game at the library when I was growing up, and every single kid who played it did so for one reason: the hunting minigame.

    When the game starts, you have to buy supplies in the initial town, and we would invariably gut everything but the absolute bare necessities, and then spend all the rest of our money on bullets. We headed out from Independance Missouri looking like a family of crazed mountain-men, driving stripped down and gutted wagons with guns poking out of every available space like grandfathers of the Michigan militia. Our hair was wild and beards unkempt, the children were naked and draped in bandoliers. You could only carry 100 pounds of food with you, so we left a trail of dead buffalo, dear and grizzly bears behind us as we traveled. We rarely ever made it to Oregon before illness or wagon failure killed us off due to our lack of any kind of supplies for the trip, but we made sure that wherever we did go there wasn’t a single animal left to hop across the screen.

    • This is EXACTLY how I played Oregon Trail.

      • lauramichet

         /  May 10, 2010

        ME TOO

        I learned about the buffalo overhunting in like 5th grade and had a total crisis of conscience remembering WHAT I’D DONE

        I played it in a library too; and also in a day care, actually, or some kind of afterschool program? I would sneak into the older kids’ room and play it on the computer in there, I recall.

      • The other fun thing was naming the people in my trip after my friends and then laughing at them when they died of cholera.

    • Great site, thgouh I would love to see some more media! – Great post anyway, Cheers!

  3. Gets me every damn time – collecting shit in GTA* or [insert sandbox game here]. I get to about 90% of the shiny shit collected and then I cry a lot as I’ve no idea what dark crevice the other 10% has been stuffed into.

    After which point I throw the game in the trunk and push the car into a lake and deny I ever knew her when the police come around. Game, I mean.

    • lauramichet

       /  May 10, 2010

      Have you played Psychonauts? about 99% of that entire game is collecting stuff. It is one of my favorite games ever, incidentally.

      • I bought Psychonauts two years ago because Yahtzee said I said should.

        Yep. That digital download is still shrink-wrapped after all this time.

  4. theprettiestboyontheplanet

     /  May 10, 2010

    The more we can explore alternatives to bog-standard shooting dudes in the face the better, I say. Just like the Japanese have perfected the art of creepy romance games, us Westerners are already plenty good at making things dead.

    Magic Dwarf Crystal Garden Tales sounds like it might be a spiritual successor to Chaos Seed for the Super Famicom. It’s never been released in English, but it seems to be all about building a magical grotto, gathering crystals, recruiting adorable animal buddies, and defending against invading demons. It’s existence only strengthens my convictions that awesome, gemstone-laden cave sims need to be explored further, right now.

    Hometown Haberdasher sort of sounds like Animal Crossing for hats.

    Your Pazaak-playing friend might want to look into the various forms of the Final Fantasy 8 card game, Triple Triad, which have sprung up online. Fans of the minigame have spent what looks to be an awful lot of time recreating the ruleset and cards present in the original, as well as crafting their own expansions.

    Burnout’s crash mode, the gravity boot segments and hacking puzzles in the early Ratchet games, and Ape Escape 2’s Monkey Climber (seriously, it’s brilliant) are all great minigame takeovers as well. That said, the greatest secondary play mechanic in games is undoubtedly Rayman 2’s rocket riding. After corralling yourself an explosive steed, you gain the ability to run across walls and ceilings at face melting fixed speed, with reckless disregard for real-world gravity. Rockets later in the game can also fly, and in both cases running into the tiniest of obstacles blows you to tiny pieces. It’s like playing through the end of Dr. Strangelove, except even better.

    • Good question.. the thing is any game could beocme an idol or something really bad.. aslong as you dont praise the game or start going deep and try to find religious reason to play the game. my parents wouldn’t let me play the game so i simply didn’t out of respect for my parents. the bible says honor thy father and thy mother.. so if thats the case then dont play it. Other than that you should be fine

  5. Oh, so many games I want to talk about. Where to begin…

    Oblivion has claimed more hours of my life than any game ever has, or will (unless I take up WoW against my better judgment). And through all of the many characters I played as, I was never the least bit interested in alchemy. And yet your idea for Herbalist Adventure sounds like a genuinely excellent one–it’s a completely unique take on gameplay, and promises limitless potential for customization and weirdness. Seriously, go make this game. I’ll buy it.

    Dragon Age rather brilliantly released the character creator shortly before the game itself, which meant that for a short period of time everyone was already playing a stripped-down version of Hometown Haberdasher. This creator didn’t even let you change your character’s height, build, or wardrobe, and yet it still kept me enthralled for a solid week.

    Mass Effect does an excellent job of weaving romance, character development, MichaelBaysplosions, and Jennifer Hale into an intricately-laid out plot. To isolate any one of these elements–no matter how excellent it was in context–would completely ruin the experience. I’m sure you were kidding about giving this a Japanese dating sim treatment, but I’d rather just abandon the idea altogether. Also, Mark Meer can’t act; Shepard is a woman in my world.

    Oregon Trail taught me everything I needed to know about dysentery. That is all.

    • lauramichet

       /  May 11, 2010

      You’re absolutely right about Dragon Age’s character creator– I should have remembered that! For some reason it ran absurdly on my old laptop and I kept getting black patches on the screen, so I didn’t play with it very much, but I remember being pretty gripped by it the first few times I used it.

      I AM kidding about Mass Effect… but I don’t need to kid about Fable 2! Ha, ha. No, that game is seriously expert at delivering the secondary goals. Kent told me about how he grinded blacksmithing when he first started the game until he could buy a vast house. I, on the other hand, made my character have sex with huge numbers of people until they acquired an STD, just to see if it would have an effect on their appearance. I am dismayed that it did not!

      I would totally make Herbalist Adventure. It would be like Scribblenauts for potions.

  6. fleshBasedProcessor

     /  May 18, 2010

    Congratulations on getting syndicated to kotaku. I just finished skimming your archives and I like your writing. I find it interesting that in the middle there you mention Minecraft, one of my favorite games, as if it is common knowledge but don’t even have any posts on it yet! You should get on that, try and get it syndicated to kotaku also!

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  8. This is a topic that is near to my heart… Take care!

    Exactly where are your contact details though?

  1. Game Retail Store » This Week In Video Game Criticism: The Chaos Of The Digital/Real Photo Rings

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