Losing is a part of life. This is not being in second place, either. This is last-place, giving-up-your-dreams, never-going-to-play-professional-sports kind of losing. For every person born on third base (and thinks they hit a triple), there are eight guys at bat who strike out and ten bench warmers. Being a Pittsburgh Pirates fan taught me that, among other things.
Those lovable losers (who are, incidentally, NOT-so-lovable losers; this will come back later) also taught me some other things. It’s the persistence, the journey, and the experience that matter. If you deal with the losses, it makes the victories all that much more precious. “Character” is real. Know all those assholes who can’t handle life without an umbrella? They’re the ones who had everything handed to them and can’t handle a little bit of rain.
Right. Everybody happy? Great. Because here’s a bombshell (note the sarcasm). It’s also nice to win.
Bill Watterson is akin to a cartooning god for many people of my generation. His comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes, is justifiably considered one of the greatest achievements in his medium. It had wit, a deft touch of whimsy, and social commentary that still rings true to this day. It also mechanically changed how a Sunday comic strip could be drawn/displayed. The hermit-like artist, through his comic strip, sparked the imaginations of a generation of kids while indirectly making himself an anchor for Generation Y’s youth.
He was also wrong about a lot of things. Comic books can be stupid, but that doesn’t mean he’s not hypocritical for disparaging an entire medium (which is more a less a brother to his own) by blaming the content for the delivery mechanism. It’s also naive to want one’s art to reach as broad an audience as possible while remaining anonymous. This is no knock against his creation, of course, but rather a reminder to my fellows that Watterson was a man rather than a prophet
One of the most interesting aspects of art is how it can serve as commentary “after the fact.” That is, it can speak for itself at the time and then gain additional meaning as the context of its place in history becomes fixed. Casablanca is a great film not just because it had a great script, but because it is a film about Nazis produced and released before the climax of World War II. It’s easy for us to look back and see how Rick and Ilsa will probably survive the conflict, but imagine the true anxiety that audiences must have felt on their behalf with VE Day still over two years away. The film, like so many others in so many other contexts, survives because it has resisted any possible attempt to pigeonhole it. Its meaning changes every year and for everyone who watches it.
The same can be said for Dragon’s Lair. Though Dirk the Daring’s quest to rescue Daphne from the clutches of the dragon, Singe, seems rather quaint compared to the hundred-hour epics of today, it is impossible to overstate its importance to the growth of its medium. One could write a book on all of its pros and cons, but I’ll stick with just three for now…
Gaming is flush with titles that are impossible to beat. I don’t mean so-hard-that-they-appear-impossible, or games with glitches that prevent anyone from seeing an endscreen (if there ever was one). I mean games that are ACTUALLY impossible to beat: they are/were designed so that nobody could truly defeat them.
Every game is about choice, but some games are more about choice than others. BioWare, among other developers, has built their reputation on allowing gamers to (somewhat) choose the path to follow throughout their titles. Other games, even as simple as the most basic of edutational titles, put the gamer in the driver’s seat. It’s the principal difference between video games and other methods of narrative: technology allows for interactivity in narrative.
“Edutational” games tend to come in two categories.
The “game” that is really just a badly strung together lesson, complete with exhortations to do one’s best with shoddy gameplay that would make most gamers roll their eyes in disgust, if not for the parent looking over their shoulder. Yeah, okay, they’re better than doing real homework, but not by much, particularly with Earthbound calling from the side cabinet.
The edutational product that’s barely edutational: it’s a game that passes itself off as “fun in education” with more emphasis on the former and little on the latter. I still love these games, but let’s be real. Most of the educational dynamics (planning, decision-making, economics, resource management) are really just gameplay dynamics found (beefed up) in other titles.
Guess which one kids prefer. Guess which one parents prefer.
I’m going to take a different take here than what a writer would normally tackle when discussing Super Mario Bros. 3. This isn’t going to be about the platforming, the game’s place in history, how it did/did not catapult Mario (and Nintendo) into the stratosphere. What I’m here to do is talk about the music in the title and how it links us to our childhood.
Video games are about abstraction. The gamer takes a controller or keyboard and mouse and is suddenly put into the role of a superhero, soldier, or plumber downing mushrooms to grow big enough to take down a princess-stealing dinosaur. One can travel to distant galaxies or stick around at home, making life more comfortable for simulated humans with consumer products and love. There is a literal fourth wall—the screen between TV/Monitor—with a game on one side and a player on the other.
This is why controls are so important to a title. Good controls remove one more barrier between a player and the gaming world. Bad controls take a player out of a game, like seeing a boom shadow in a film. The illusion is shattered. Frustration replaces aspiration. It takes time to learn the controls of a game, of course, but if the design sensibility matches the learning curve, the transition becomes seamless.
SimCity came about in a rather roundabout way. Will Wright, working on a completely different title, discovered that he had much more fun developing the level editors for the game than the game itself. Believing (rightly so, as it turns out) that others might share his interest in civic management, he eventually created a game that, though puny by today’s standards, is the grandfather of all city-simulation titles.
Thus, a franchise and a genre were born. Soon, gamers would be harnessing all kinds of zones, ordinances, and utilities to create masterpieces of design. Theme parks followed, as did hospitals, ski resorts, prisons, and even schools. The classic top-down look has been little changed since then, but other forms of expression changed the flow to keep things from getting stale. Where would we be without the disaster button, filling us with the power of Old Gods to rain down our displeasure on the unwary Sims of the cyber world?
This essay has a spoiler for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I shouldn’t need to give anyone a warning about that, but just in case, here it is. In addition, one could probably infer a spoiler or two from my description of Mass Effect 3 if you put your thinking caps on. You have been warned.
With the way that fans reacted to Mass Effect 3’s ending, you’d have thought that its developer, BioWare, implanted a virus that destroyed a console’s hard drive and replaced it with child pornography. The internet exploded into a frenzy of wrath within days of release, once the hardest of hardcore gamers got to the ending and then—armed with tar, pitchforks, and Professor Lawrence’s Home Exorcism Kit—vented their wrath upon all manner of forums, social networking sites, and petitions. Creators engaged them on the front lines before eventually issuing a retraction (of sorts). All was right with the world… or would be, once the creators released the patch.