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?


CAGE MATCH: PART TWO: Indigo Retrospective*

I haven’t played Heavy Rain, as I don’t own a PS3, but I have played the hell out of Indigo Prophecy, David Cage’s prior attempt at the interactive-story genre. When I picked it up, I’d just returned from an exhausting term abroad, and I wanted to sit back and enjoy a reactive game, something without statistics or strategy—basically, anything that wasn’t Dragon Age. So: Indigo Prophecy. I finished it in under two days. Then, like Jane Goodall emerging from the sweaty depths of the forest, I reemerged into society, slightly the worse for wear. Like Jane Goodall, I’d made important discoveries about the animal kingdom. Namely, I had discovered that David Cage is an absurd beast with a humorlessly bad taste in pulp fiction.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Indigo Prophecy. I thought it was an absolute riot. But the story was awful, and the controls were absurd, and I never knew exactly what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing, which was also pretty unpleasant. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoy bad community theater: it was comfortable, not too taxing, and charming in an embarassing kind of way. Whenever I see bad community theater, I want to leap up onstage and protect all those terrible little actors from the criticism of the outside world, and I felt the same way about Prophecy. I didn’t want to compliment David Cage myself, but I wanted him to receive comments, abstractly, from somewhere: I wanted him to feel good about himself, even though he’d made a pretty questionable game.

What makes it so terrible? The controls are, in fact, awful. The disconnect between what you are doing with your hands (infamously, of course, playing Simon Says) and what your characters are doing on the screen is occasionally so unreasonable that it bears no excuse. So much has been written about this. I find it unnecessary to add anything.

According to Me, reader of this many books, the plot is also horrifically bad. I can’t justify turning this into an outright spoilerfest, but those who haven’t played it should know that they may understand only around 60% of the plot. It is a mélange of unrelated science fiction and horror tropes, cobbled together in the least convincing way. The final hour of the game consists of a showdown between, basically, two opposing tropes: teams of secret soldiers who represent different science fiction clichés actually fight and kill each other with guns. I found this hilariously symbolic. Furthermore, that final hour develops jarringly: a very filmic ‘cliffhanger’ signals a kind of act-switch, and most of the player choice that took place in the beginning is rendered meaningless afterwards. The tropes move in and take over, the illusion of agency dissolves, and the player is left wondering how the hell the plot got where it seems to have arrived. Game suffers to story here in a big way, yeah, but story suffers too, in that it’s a bad story.

But: independence? Uniqueness? Yes. The game has it.

I played Prophecy off a 10-day Dragon Age high, and I was sick of the kind of choice-making that characterizes DA. The choices in Bioware games are simply too present. Will making this decision cut me off from awesome content? Will I lose a chance at a cool party member? There’s so much content and so much choice in these games that the player can actually reign with a crazy tyranny over the plot, doing whatever he or she pleases to see whatever content he or she wants. Mass Effect, with its stupid achievements for playing through with different party members, actually encourages this kind of illusion-breaking manipulation. Now, I know that you don’t have to play a Bioware game this way, but the temptation for me is overwhelming. I want my party members. I want my absurd dialog options. If they’re there, I’m going to game the system until I get them.

Prophecy eschews this kind of analytical, manipulative play. Stuff happens, fast. You don’t have time to think about it. In order to enjoy this game, you have to give in to the writers and just let their silly story play itself out.  And when you do that, it’s fun! Nonsense occurs, and you react! You punch those fucking buttons! Snap at your boss? Yes, please! Today we’re angry! Comfort your brother? Totally. No time to think. No matter what you impulsively choose to say, characterization stays pretty solid throughout, and even when the player makes discordant decisions—decisions along the lines of the much-maligned Heavy Rain sex scene—those crazy lines are delivered with conviction by the darling cardboard cast. It’s diverting, in the Jane Austen sense of the word. It doesn’t need to be anything more. It’s the weirdest thing ever, and it’s got a confidence and a ballsy drive to be unique that more than makes up for the fact that its foundational element—its story—is a load of steaming bullcrap.

I hope Cage wasn’t too set on changing lives when he made Prophecy. It doesn’t. I think people are nervous about Heavy Rain because Cage wants it to change your life, to change the way you perceive games in general. And it seems to be actually working as a challenge to the industry, a cannon-shot over the bows, so to speak. Prophecy was more like a challenge fired out of a potato-gun. But if Heavy Rain were about nonsense science fiction instead of serial child-killers, if its emotional plot was mostly-shallow twenty-something romance instead of nervous broken-dad misery, people wouldn’t feel so challenged. David Cage figured out that battling giant green Aztec beetles was less than emotionally-compelling, so he refocused: when he says that he’s working along the same tradition as the rest of his previous work, he’s wrong. There’s something pathetic and nonthreatening about Prophecy, but Heavy Rain’s been doing a whole lot of threatening. I’m pretty sure Cage figured out that the best way to hit people emotionally was to drop the canned sci-fi chatter and go for situations that were (marginally) more-relatable.

*AW YEAH. I just typed that.