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?

That Badass Portal ARG

So, you’ve probably heard about the glut of crazy Valve news that’s popped up in the past week: Portal 2, Steam for Mac, all that jazz. When the alternatereality game announcing Portal 2 came up, I heard about it within half an hour or so and spent the whole night camping out on the Steam forums, watching people with actual tech skills solve it while I pretended to do homework. Fantastic times. Later, when I had the chance to describe the scope of the ARG to a few of my friends, I found time to reflect on what Valve actually did with that stuff. And it was still pretty astonishing to me, even after seeing it all come out.

Change the ending to a game you released three years ago to build hype on a sequel? If they’d done it badly, people would have been pissed, but since Valve are digital wizards whose fantastic PR and mastery of our fanboy/girl brains amounts to some kind of crazy blood magic, and because they’re effin brilliant, everyone was excited about it. It’s a new kind of game marketing. How often does that happen? Some people in the Valve forums were suggesting that Valve’s hiring of super-skilled MINERVA: Metastasis creator Adam Foster, who used to like to do his releases and updates in the style of ARGs, had something to do with this. Even if they hired him just for his crazy-good map design, they would have been justified; hiring a smart-as-hell mod designer for his self-promotion techniques is a bit more than that. It’s yet another example of how much Valve know what they’re doing.

Apparently some people hate ARGs. But I am not these people, and I have never met any of them. I actually prefer it. Television advertising for games is usually a bit condescending, when you think about it: all that prerendered video, all the absurdly-brief in-game footage, clipped down to just the finishing moves and the glitter, as if they’re trying to hide something. And the enormous quantity of advertising they do on game review sites, which are ostensibly there to provide consumers with unbiased opinions, can actually be unethical.

But stuff like the Portal ARG is special. It treats consumers with a certain amount of praise and consideration that traditional marketing techniques don’t: it’s an intelligence-stimulating, community-flattering kind of thing. If Valve thought we were all dumb as bricks, it would never have decided to do the release as an ARG. If Valve didn’t give a shit about its community, it wouldn’t have done an ARG. The other kinds of hilarious advertising they do, like the TF2 updates, are drenched with an exuberant irony that also grants intelligence to the consumer, but without being exclusive, or telling jokes meant to leave anyone confused. It doesn’t take much brainpower to appreciate the Saxton Hale comic, but it’s dumb in a current, conscious kind of way. AN APE WILL DIE ON EVERY PAGEThere are plenty of cultural references in there, such as the fake comic covers, for anyone who has the context to understand them. It speaks of extraordinary care on Valve’s part. But this is what we’ve come to expect from Valve, so even though we’re excited, surprised, and appreciative, we’re not as surprised as we would have been if, say, Ubisoft pulled this.

But if this kind of thing catches on elsewhere, what could happen? Will it become typical for game studios to produce, say, mid-season DLC designed to link games with their sequels? That would be cool, but it would be coolest if the DLC was free. Will more companies start putting the attention and care into their fanbases that Valve already has? I bet a lot are trying, but they don’t have Steam, so it’s harder for them. Or is this a sign that games as products could become more fluid, that auto-updates to official game plot could become a typical phenomenon? Maybe, but there’s a lot of danger in that: mishandling such a thing could be seen as an invasion of player experience, a breach of trust. Or will this inject more energy into PC gaming as a platform experience—the only platform where games and the internet lie so close together? PC games have always been particularly creative in comparison to console games, and today we’ve got an indie community with a lot of energy and innovation—a community Valve draws from. It would be nice to see more developers get excited about PC gaming again because of that innovation, but we’re always going to have to deal with the hobbling millstone of piracy, too, won’t we?

Ambiguous situations and troubling questions aside, I see the ARG as a good sign for PC gaming. People still care, guys. There are a million bajillion of us out there, and not everybody thinks we’re idiots. It’s awesome.