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?

Pokemon is a sport game

Earlier this week, while speaking to a group of game-savvy people, I declared rather incoherently that Pokemon was a sports game.

Everyone laughed at me. There were some games-studies people in there, and they all said “Arrr, noooo, me hearty, games can only be sports games if they’re about simulating real-world sports, and if they address the problem of physical embodiment in a digital space, arrr.” Which is pretty much true, yeah, if you think about all the games that get sold as sports games, and also if you are a crusty old academic.

Some of them thought that Pokemon couldn’t be a sports game because it uses RPG mechanics and involves travel across an overworld. I dismissed this, too. “I’m talking about general categories of games, not about actual commercial genres or genres of mechanics,” I said. “Pokemon is about sports in the same way that a game about fox-hunting, cockfighting, or bearbaiting would be about sports.” Actually, I didn’t say that. I was being incoherent and frustrated and didn’t bother to explain myself properly. But I’m writing this now, so I’m editing my stupidity out of the conversation.

Anyway, here is why Pokemon is a sports game. And, at the end, I propose a redefinition of the concept of ‘sports games.’ Wooooo!

It’s about a competition.

Aren’t a lot of games about competition? Well, yeah. Lots are, and many of those have nothing to do with ‘sports.’ Simply including competition doesn’t make a game be ‘about sports.’ But Pokemon, like many conventional sports games, is about structured, rulebound competition. A specific kind of competition. It’s a game which contains a game, and the game is Pokemon Battling. Pokemon Battling exists separately from Pokemon the Nintendo game in the same way that American Football exists separately from Madden 2010. It’s not real, but we know its rules and can imagine it on its own, in television shows, card games, and in video games developed for other platforms.

Within the world of Pokemon, Pokemon Battling is a sport.

It has regulations, leagues, tournaments, rulebooks, referees, ladders, matches, arenas, qualification tournies, and all the other superficial surface-elements we associate with real-world sports. We’d be forced to consider it a sport if it existed on this side of the screen. Much of the story energy that goes into Pokemon is directed at convincing us that we’re taking part in an exciting, new kind of sport.

Mechanics do not a sports game make.

Madden’s mechanics, where you control the actual players on a team and execute actions contained within the game of American Football, are not “the” sports-game mechanics. Plenty of games which are widely accepted as sports games do not contain that kind of control system or play style, and many contain lots of mechanics in addition to these ones. Football Manager games are a great example of sports games which aren’t solely about playing the actual sport itself. And remember Cycling Manager? Steam insists that it’s a sports game, and I think you’d be unable to find people who disagree who aren’t already crazy people. Furthermore, sports games have been including RPG-ish mechanics—where the players get better the more they play, and can upgrade different abilities—for years. These days, as everyone says, there’s a bit of RPG in everything. Anyway, in Pokemon, plenty of things occur that aren’t about actually playing the actual sport, but many of those things are presented as directly effecting sport performance. We travel the overworld to seek new team members and to test ourselves against opponents; even the underground digging game in Diamond and Pearl could produce items useful to the sport. Just because alternate mechanics and goals were there doesn’t mean that the game itself wasn’t ‘about the sport.’

Related news: it has story

Some suggested to me that having a story rules Pokemon out of the ‘sports’ category. Well, true: commercial sports games, as a rule, don’t have scripted stories. But this doesn’t mean that they should or could never have one. I’m being creative here, people. I’m suggesting that the ‘sport-ness’ of sports games is totally independent of story. In fact, I’m challenging someone to make a soccer game where you fight evil soccer mafias and save the world from an evil soccer manager intent on destroying the universe with a mutant soccer player named BeckhamTwo. Do it.

I know that it’s not commercially useful to think of Pokemon as a sports game. I’m suggesting that there are commonalities between Pokemon and traditional sports games which are useful when it comes to analyzing them. I think that there’s something about the structure of traditional sports games– the reward structure, the illusion of progression and growth, of competitive achievement, of being the best and winning vetted awards from imaginary masters and experts– which has much in common with some aspects of Pokemon’s structure. I’m sure that part of the reason why Pokemon and, say Madden are so successful is that they’ve mastered this elusive element. Pokemon isn’t all about collecting them all– it’s also about defeating your friends, defeating the Elite Four three times in a row, being tougher and smarter than everyone else, knowing your strategy, being so good at your game that your game stands for goodness and purity and can actually defeat evil— it’s about Sport, ‘sport’ in the ancient meaning of the word, in the sense that includes grit and stiff jaws and firm handshakes in the arena. “Sport” in the nineteenth-century sense.

At any rate, I think that I could convince those nutty academic types to accept my comparison by merely changing the name of the ‘genre’ slightly. If I’d said “Sport Games” instead of “Sports Games”—‘sport’ in the ancient sense that would include cockfighting and all the rest of those bloodsports I mentioned at the top of this post—I would have been more persuasive. The problem with proposing weird ideas is that the associative power of our language can confuse your audience if you don’t manipulate it properly, particularly if your audience is ultra-semantics-sensitive. Pokemon is “sport.” In the traditional sense, it isn’t “SPORTS,” it isn’t Gatorade and sweaty dudes and drooling self-insertion in Superstar Mode, but it’s ‘sport.’

I rest my case.