Friday, September 23, 2005

From Recreation to Chore-- A Rare Window into Jordan

Note: Although this post is definitely about video games, it's much more about me, and I've written it so that in-depth video game knowledge isn't really necessary.

I've always loved RPGs. I still remember my first love-- Phantasy Star for the Sega Master System. As I child, whenever we visited our family in Chipman, I used to run over and wake my cousin Shane earlier than he probably would have liked and make him play it in front of me. I don't even think that I had the skills/skillz to play it at the time, but I could have watched him play for hours, absorbed in the sci-fi/fantasy world that the game presented, so different from the contentless platformers like Mario that I had been exposed to before then.

From there, I spent some quality time with various Ultima games for Commodore 64, which were very punishing, and not nearly as pretty (black and white first-person wireframe dungeons), and it always degenerated into trying to steal all the best equipment from a store and getting slaughtered by the town guards in the attempt.

But my first real affair of substance was with Dragon Warrior for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I bought it second-hand from a friend in Oromocto (getting video games was much harder back then, and usually required ordering from a Consumers Distributing catalogue and waiting for weeks for the game to arrive-- in addition to that, many games came out in Canada years after the US, and sometimes not at all, requiring trips across the border to buy them-- my mother got both Final Fantasy III and Secret of Mana for me in this way), and I (not to mention my cousin John and even his sister, in what was probably her first and last RPG) played the hell out of it. Like most RPGs at the time, it was long, difficult, and required mind-numbing level/money raising through repeated random encounters (I still fondly remember killing slimes with a bamboo pole in hopes of raising funds for a copper sword, or killing gold golems later in the games to collect their bounty), and this was compounded by my own unreasonable thoroughness and caution (two traits that I still bring to my RPGs today, although I become less cautious with each passing year). This was only the first of countless RPGs that John watched me play for hours from our childhood all of the way through until high school-- I'd have gone crazy long ago in his place. I'd feel worse if I hadn't lost hours of my own life watching him destroy his controller during repeated attempts to put Ninja Gaidens 1-3 in their place.

While Dragon Warrior was fun, it was but a tryst when compared to my love affair with the masterpiece that was Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV in Japan) for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. That game grabbed ahold and never let go. It looked beautiful, and had a large and unique cast of playable characters that rotated in and out of the party as dictated by the twists and turns of the story (something that I wish more modern RPGs did). The plot seems both cliche and convoluted now, but at the time I was spellbound at every turn: from the game's start, when you, the dark knight, steal a magical crystal from a village of mystics and then are duped into (or tasked with in the original Japanese) burning down a village of innocent people; through amnesia, betrayal (just who's side is Kain on, anyway?), and death (god bless that crazy Tellah and his spoony curses); through your own redemption, as the village from which you stole the crystal at the game's beginning helps you to leave your history as a dark knight behind and you become a paladin; and up until your final confrontation in the bowels of the moon with the man who turns out to be your brother, and the 1/2 hour long ending that follows. God dammit, I want to play that game again now. You know what, I think I will. Even though I've already beaten the thing a dozen times, which is unprecedented for me, since I rarely have time to play the same game twice, and especially one with as little replay value as that one. When people ask me what my favorite video game ever is, I've got to remember to stop saying Symphony of the Night and start saying Final Fantasy II.

To get back on topic: from these humble beginnings, my RPG obsession grew. It's pretty much dictated my entire life since. It taught me to read, developed my imagination, and developed my problem-solving and organizational skills. Hell, I remember that when I needed to tell left from right as I child, I used to close my eyes, mentally turn myself around and picture myself in front of my upstairs television, and remember the fact that Erdrick's token from Dragon Warrior was in the right half of the swamp. It was the genesis of my love of science fiction (Phantasy Star) and fantasy (pretty much everything else), which dominates my bookshelves. It was the genesis of my love of video games themselves, since I was never as enamoured before finding out the kind of storytelling that they were capable of. It was the genesis of my career path, since a love of video games grew into a love of PCs (and countless hours wasted on text-based Multi-User Dungeons, or "MUDs"), and a half abandoned dream of making video games led to UNB Computer Science. The art style, which I could not recognize for what it was at the time, was the genesis of my love of Japanese animation, and ultimately all aspects of Japanese culture. So, yeah, I'm not exaggerating when I say this-- pretty much everything that I am and that I do owes itself to RPGs.

But good lord do I want to stop playing them. What used to be magical and wonderful has become boring, punishing, time-consuming, and ultimately unrewarding. RPGs just keep getting longer, prettier, shallower, and, most importantly, more numerous with each passing year. I just don't have time for it anymore, especially given that I don't enjoy it anymore. My primary time-sink and supposed recreational activity has become a chore, as I slog through game after mind-numbing game, intent on finding every goddamn last bell and whistle along the way. Every month or so, when I finish one, I do genuinely enjoy starting the next one, since it's fresh and exciting. That excitement is short-lived, though, and long gone when I'm still playing the same fucking game a month later because they're all too goddamn long.

Also, every now and then, I actually let myself play something short and fun that's not an RPG. I can't describe how good that feels, to actually play a video game and enjoy it-- I feel like a kid again. The last such game was Katamri Damashii-- simple, crazy, distinctly Japanese, and pure unadulterated amusement. It was such a breath of fresh air. I'm trying to allow myself diversions like this more often-- I'm planning on picking up both Indigo Prophecy and Shadow of the Colossus over the next month, both of which are by all accounts very innovative and artful. And I'm hoping I might get Ico from Stefan for my upcoming birthday or for Christmas *wink*, the previous game from the Shadow of the Colossus team that I got to play but never got the chance to spend quality time with.

But I just keep buying RPGs. If I were to stop buying video games altogether right now and just play the ones I have, it would take me two or more years to finish them all, and that's if I spent the entirety of those two years without a job. This is not an exaggeration. It is physically impossible for me to ever catch up with my video game buying. My queue just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and I keep getting more and more frustrated with the industry and with myself. But I can't stop. I'm a stubborn man, a man who hates change, and I just can't bring myself to abandon my first love, a love that has been so instrumental in making me the man I am today, for better or for worse. At least I can take solace in the fact that the single-player RPG will probably cease to exist altogether in a few years as multiplayer RPGs (which I don't play) replace them entirely.


Anonymous N. O. Scott said...

I doubt they'll disappear entirely.

Anyway, I think the key mental shift to make here is noting at how much MORE there is of this stuff now than when we were younger. Before, there was always the "newest" one out to sit through and thoroughly master before the next one came out.

Now, though, there appears to be oodles of them out at regular intervals, and they are all much longer and more detailed than they used to be. So the trick is to stop thinking about them the way you did as a kid, as in "I like RPGS and I must play them all." Start thinking about them like say, novels or something. "I like fantasy novels, and I must read all the ones by my favourite authors/the ones that everyone say are especially good/the ones that my friends recommend."

Fantasy novels are a particularly apt analogy: there are shit-tons of them, and a lot of them are dreck filled with magic spells and dragons and swords and cleavage. But there ARE the people who buy all of it and read all of it, or try to, because, well they dig "that sort of stuff" and are pretty easily lured in by the dragons and the like. They are a sucker for it, in other words, and "labour through" a lot of stuff they think is trash, but still desire more.

This is (it appears) you with RPGs: Anything with an inventory, fiddly number stats, dialogue and a turn based combat engine, and you are a sucker for it even if you think in the long haul it's just not gonna be fun enough for the effort involved. So my recommendation is to become a more discerning reader/gamer. You don't go out and buy every book off the shelf, you buy the ones by authors you like, the ones that you've heard are good, or, VERY occasionally, something that just looks interesting. Get out of the mindset that every single story needs to be heard; if it's good enough, you will hear about it through the appropriate channels.

Saturday, September 24, 2005 4:47:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I'm actually quite convinced that they will in fact disappear entirely, but not as an intentional decision but rather the end product of an organic process. More and more games these days are single-player with online options/components/modes, and so far these online bits tend to be lacklustre efforts. However, I see a slow progression over time, with RPGs having slicker and slicker online bits, and with the single-player portions becoming lower-quality at the same rate, until they become little more than an afterthought and are finally phased out altogether.

And in regards to making informed purchases, I rarely purchase a game before I've read a review or at least buzz about it, but my standards are lower for RPGs, and as long as the review is in the 60+ range I'll still generally be sold.

And I do try to limit my purchases to franchises with which I have experience, but the problem is that most RPGs belong to a series these days, and since I've been doing this for years I've played almost all of them. The only prominent series I can think of that I've managed to resist entirely is XenoGears/Saga. Also, another problem is that I don't find these things fresh any more, and staying within existing franchises means I likely won't find fresh play experiences (like Radiata Stories' new kick-everything system).

Also: You were right, Indigo Prophecy is out, and I now own it.

Sunday, September 25, 2005 1:00:00 PM  
Anonymous N. O. Scott said...

Right, er, well I guess the "franchise" thing is more applicable to books, since usually there is some sort of continuous story which (we hope) will eventually *end*. As opposed to Final Fantasy 8823 or Dragon Quest 900 or whatever, where it's really just a branding and some common themes or whatever. (I'm totally making it up w.r.t. Dragon Quest however, only ever played the first two and I guess they were sort-of continuous.)

I was thinking more along the lines of specific designers/design teams. Hard to do with RPGs I guess... I couldn't really say for console RPGS. But, in my own case, I'll probably buy every game Sid Meier puts his name on until he gets to the point where it's just a rubber stamp. Likewise, I'll probably try out any CRPGs by Black Isle or Bioware or Obsidian or whoever the heck they are (I get them all confused now) who have a streak of good titles like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment (although I didn't really like Neverwinter Nights.) I will buy the next game by the Max Payne team without even knowing what it is.

Another good example would be RTS games. There is undoubtedly a TON of crap out there. But one would probably be doing pretty good by picking up whatever Blizzard puts out, whatever the Age of Empires people put out, this Total Annihilation pseudo-sequel people have been buzzing about... and ignoring everything else unless it comes out with 9s across the board.

You mentioned the "60s" as your cutoff. If you think about it, even assuming a uniform distribution of review scores (a terrible assumption, as you're no doubt aware), you'll be playing close to half of the RPGs that come out. Imagine reading half of the fantasy novels that come out...

Seriously, I think your problem can potentially be solved by raising your personal bar. You'll have fewer games to play, and they will probably be better ones, which means you'll enjoy them more.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005 4:25:00 PM  

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