Wednesday, July 18, 2012

True Story: Video Games Used to Terrify Me

So I wasn't able to post a video this weekend and I feel pretty bad about that. Unfortunately time slipped away and there turned out to be not enough hours in the weekend so I called it and decided that no video would probably be better than a crappy little one rushed out at the last minute. For those of you familiar with the term, this project is now officially running on Valve Time. Ideally though I will start recording this upcoming weekend's episode tomorrow which means maybe hopefully I can make it a bit longer to try and make up some time. For anyone who's weekend was adversely affected by this, you have my sincerest apologies. To make up for it, here's an awesome picture I found.

Yes, that is a penguin with a penguin backpack. I am obligated to tell you that I can confirm the backpack is full of fish.  I count this as proof of a loving God.
Outside of that, I don't really have any news to share with you guys other than MovieBob over at the Escapist has done a pretty interesting pre-DKR release retrospective on Batman movies which you can start here. He's pretty good at making this sort of thing interesting and I refer to him often when trying to form my own opinion about such things.

Right then, assume the position.

True Story: Video Games Used to Terrify Me

So I don't know if any of you have noticed, but the Steam Summer Sale has been going on which is really all it takes these days to make me giddy/broke. I picked up Legend of Grimrock on one of the first days and loved everything I played, though I died horribly relatively early on. I want to play more, but Arkham City has been eating up a lot of my time because goddamn, I love Batman. This has been minimizing the amount of time I've been able to devote to the Minecraft server (which still isn't live yet. Yes, I know. We're working on it) but that might just have to wait because I also got Knights of the Old Republic and I've been dying to replay/relove that. 

What I'm getting at here is that I kinda like video games. I love them as pulse-heightening experiences, I love them as storytelling engines, I love them as social lubricant and brain-benders, and I'm interested in their development as an expressive medium enough that I've devoted the focus of my education to them. More or less; this has always been the case; I have gone through periods where I didn't play much either through necessity or sheer ennui from what was available to me at the time. I always came back though, without fail. I'd see an ad or an article that'd get me tingling in all the appropriate places and I'd just dive back in like nothing had changed. 

These days, I know I'm not going to finish every game I play; it's just a fact. Sometimes it's because I don't have time to master the skills necessary to complete it, sometimes it's because the game simply isn't designed well enough to keep me on board or else it's outside of my purview of taste to keep me enthralled. Sometimes, more often than you'd think, it's because the game doesn't actually have a distinct end and so I simply stop when I feel like I've done all I wanted to do. That said; I do try to complete most games I play just like most people try to finish most books they read. To that end I've even started a list of games I need to play and hopefully finish; sometimes for fun, sometimes for study, ideally both. Generally I'll play a game, get to the point where it's time to put it down, and occasionally, if I liked it enough, come back in a few years to relive the memories. Very very occasionally a game will grab me to the point where I'll never make it to the "Put it down stage" Team Fortress 2 is one of those games and it's looking like Minecraft may also be one.

Seriously, I've been playing this game since like 2007
You may be surprised, even appalled to hear, however, that I wasn't always the Video Game savant that I am today. In fact, not only was my appreciation of them at near-philistine levels, they used to utterly terrify me. Like, serious anxiety. I was lucky to make it past the first level on some games.

Let me explain.

The first game I ever owned was Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo. I'm pretty sure it was a birthday present but my memory's not exactly stellar as I was like five and hey man, you try remembering fine details like that when you were already born with an old man brain. Having no understanding of quality or value (not to imply that the game didn't have those, just that I didn't understand them) I was ecstatic because here was a thing, that was mine, and I could do things with it. Exciting! I immediately had the system plugged in, the game booted up and....I froze. It was at this point I realized that I didn't have a single goddamn clue what I was doing.  

DK Stood at the top of his tree house with his good buddy (presumably; I didn't know what the hell was going on.) Diddy just sort of...standing there. After an arguable amount of time watching them cycle through their idle animations, I tried to do stuff via a methodology I observe to this day; pressing buttons at random. One button made him jump, one made him duck, another made He was sort of dancing and slapping his hands against the ground. I guess that might have been dancing? Eventually I figured out the left-right mechanic and employed it...right off of my tree house and OH MY GOD THERE'S A BEAVER. HE'S WALKING TOWARDS ME. IS HE A BAD GUY? I DON'T KNOW! RUUUUUUUUUUN!

Source: Python Group
Thus began my life as an exceptionally long Python sketch. 
And run I did, in the opposite direction, accidentally into a cave. In this cave was some bananas. No, wait, no bananas. Banana peels. The cave was totally devoid of bananas, in fact, but there were the remnants of such Also a sign. "DK's Banana Hoard" Being five, I had no idea what that meant so I gave my mom a minor panic attack when I asked her what a hoar was because again; five. Verbal articulation wasn't all there, yet. This cave made DK very sad and after some vernacular was clarified on both sides, I realized why; DK's Bananas had been stolen. Was it the beaver? Did he do it? Was this my fault? Did the beaver steal DK's Bananas because I didn't kill the beaver first? Thus began the vicious cycle of taking personal responsibility for the problems of fictional video game characters. 

I left the cave and saw the beaver again. "Fuck you, beaver" I thought to myself in the untranslatable rage that only five year olds know. "You stole DK's Bananas and it's all my fault" And so I walked up to his stupid grinning face and jumped right on top of his buck-toothed ass. I should make a note that I have no idea where I learned to do this. It could be that I had previously played or seen played a game where that was the primary method for enemy disposal or that it had been suggested to me by a parent, but I don't really remember any of that happening so it's just as likely that it simply occurred naturally to me, in which case, that's pretty cool because it means jumping on stuff as a form of murder is in our genes and an army of gravity-defying plumbers could be in our future in mere generations.

I'm getting off-topic though. My immediate area now freshly de-beavered (Go ahead and laugh. I did, too.) I followed the eternal mandate and proceeded to the right side of the screen. I would eventually finish the level, though not before some similarly harrowing encounters with new enemies, a few restarts, and I'm pretty sure I made it an embarrassingly far way into the whole thing before I realized you could switch between DK and Diddy on the fly. 

Level completed, I returned to the level select screen. From there I considered my options. The game had automatically moved the icon representing my characters across to the next level and was patiently awaiting my confirming button press but it wasn't coming. My experience with the first level had been nothing less than heart-stopping and emotionally trying, did I really want to do that all over again? Hell no, that shit's scary. Tom doesn't do scary shit. 

At least not until he realizes he can impress other people with it.
So I went back and replayed the first level. I knew what to expect there and how to overcome it. I was comfortable there. When I beat it a second time, I again ignored the game's suggestion and went' back to play the first level again. I did this over and over and over until I decided to go to something else and would repeat this process many many times. Eventually I would venture out beyond that and even made it to the second half of world one but never very far beyond that, if at all, and even then, I mostly only dabbled in those other levels. It was the first one I kept coming back to because it was the first one where I could feel safe. I played that level so many times that I would wager that if you put the controller back in my hands, I could still remember where most of the secrets were, even to this day. They're ingrained into my memory not unlike the rhymes that pervaded schoolyards and the lessons your teacher had you repeat aloud.

Eventually my library would expand, albeit slowly at the time. I really really liked video games, despite my cowardice, but my parents weren't exactly all on board with the idea of buying me every game I ever asked for; I'm pretty sure they were still hoping I'd get into sports or something, like a normal boy. Plus there was no way they could have possibly known they'd stick as hard as they did. Still though, with every new game the same pattern emerged. I'd play the first level, maybe the first few levels, and then never beyond that. When my mom would occasionally drop me off at a daycare place it was like coming home; now not only would I not be judged for exploring more than a little of each game; it was expected as I only had precious few hours to do so, mere minutes if other kids were waiting. Here I also learned the joys of vicarious game playing namely; watching someone else do all the hard work. I can still pretty clearly remember everyone crowding around these two kids as they busted their way through Double Dragon II. Let's Plays and Live Streams were a far cry from being a thing at this point but looking back, it's not hard to see why they're such a big deal today. 

This behavior went on for many years and while I wasn't playing games for all of it, every time I returned, it was the same old song and dance. There are games in my collection that I'm not even totally sure what they're about; all I did was run around in the first little sliver of the world provided until I'd ran out of things to do. While the evolution to my current iteration was very gradual, changing little by little with each new game I tried out, I can condense it into about three major shifts because I realize you're running on a schedule and a detailed (Probably inaccurate) account of how I grew up would be only mildly interesting to exactly one person and her name begins with an M and sounds like "Tom"

Looking back, I've already used this photo and I'm a little surprised I haven't used  it more.
The first one was Pokemon. Now, I've already talked, at length, about my continued love of Pokemon and if you would like to know why a grown man still enjoys such things, you can read all about that here but for everyone else, I'll spare you the repeat. Structurally though, Pokemon was different than anything I'd played thus far. Firstly, it had completely gotten rid of the level/world structure. It was all one world and in effect, it only had one level. One really big level. This meant that the psychological barrier to entry had been eliminated. I could proceed forward because the perceived dangers of what lie beyond had been all but left behind. 

Of course, it was a game and it did have escalating difficulty, but that's where another structural change came in; if an area was too hard for me, I could always just go back, train up, and return with a team of super badasses. It was the first game I'd ever played where you could get noticeably stronger and that strength was given to me in clear metrics. Throw in the fact that battles were turn-based and you've got a game that made sure I never, ever felt overwhelmed. Well, except for fucking Zubat. Ugh. Pokemon was the first game I ever completed, start to finish, and it was all because its overworld focused on exploration while combat was almost treated as an entirely different game. 

Another game which bucked this trend was Animal Crossing. Some of you might be unfamiliar with Animal Crossing and that's perfectly find because it's not exactly triple-A. It was actually a game that was designed for the N64 but got ported over to the Gamecube resulting in some notably dated graphics which, at the time, were kind of unfortunate but now have become a staple of the series (which is comprised of sequels functionally identical to the original). Arguably, it's not even a game so much as it's a toy, the point of such being to interact with your neighbors, pay off your mortgage, shake trees, and generally just goof the hell off. So's your life, as played by a kid with a pair of unexplained horns.

Seriously, I have never heard a satisfactory explanation as to why I had horns.
The thing about Animal Crossing though was that it didn't end. There wasn't any true goal and certainly what goals there were weren't very pressing. You could pay off your house, do all the holiday events, find all the fossils and fish and bugs and whatever, cultivate the perfect town, and get all the golden tools, but the game still wouldn't be over; there simply wasn't a win condition. While the thought of playing another Animal Crossing game fills me with not a little bit of meh, a game with no pressing needs from me, barring some light upkeep (weeds would grow and neighbors would move away if you didn't play for too long) was exactly what appealed to me at the time. While Pokemon gave me the A-OK to explore in a relatively consequence-free environment, Animal Crossing taught me how to gain a sense of investiture over my games. How to get involved without necessarily freaking out because I lost a life and DK DIED AND IT'S ALL MY FAULT I'M SO SORRY DK. No, I had moved beyond that and the character on the screen was finally analogous to myself, rather than an independent entity I was responsible for and that was a nice feeling. Just me and my animal buddies chillin' out, trading furniture tips and talking about what a scamming douche Tom Nook was. 

The third game in this trifecta was Zelda. Specifically it was The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. This time though, it was less about what the game had to teach me and more putting what I had learned so far to the test. I had dabbled in such games before to greater and lesser success, though generally they had all followed the same pattern of wandering around the opening area and never so much as attempting a dungeon. The action was still actiony, the dungeons were still scary, and I could still die horribly at the hands of any number of monsters. With Wind Waker though, I had a few things going for me that I hadn't had before. First of all; Wind Waker is known as one of the most accessible Zelda games ever made. It's not that it was easy, necessarily, it was mechanically almost identical to Ocarina of Time, just generally designed in a way where it wasn't as difficult to pick concepts and puzzles clues up. Secondly; I had a strategy guide. Call it cheap if you like, but being able to flip forward to see what I was going to have to stare down went a long way towards comforting the inner wuss. Plus I was pretty awful at reading maps, so it didn't help as much as you'd think anyways. 

Yet another point on the long list of manly skills I was not imbued with.
Strategy guide in hand, I attacked the game dungeon by dungeon, challenge by challenge, heart piece by heart piece, and although I didn't realize it until well after the fact, it was somewhere probably about halfway through the Forbidden Forest that I stopped worrying about what was in the next room. By this point I'd cut down dozens of lower enemies and at least one giant lava scorpion and after that you really don't feel like there's much that can surprise you. Of course there is, that's what makes it such a good game, but it's that feeling of preparedness, that you can take whatever comes at you that makes adventure games like that feel so...adventurous. Pokemon was the first game I ever finished and likewise, Wind Waker was the first action game I ever finished; plunging the Master Sword into Gannon's head marked the true beginning of my journey as a gamer, just as it marked the ending of Link's. At least, that incarnation of Link. Don't ask, it's very complicated. 

Source: Nintendo
I don't even understand it and I'm the one with the chart...
To date, I still haven't finished those stupid Donkey Kong games, though they are on my list. I'm not sure if I was the only kid who was afraid of death in video games, but I find it comforting that I've made my brain-home in a medium large enough that anyone, even the people who seem to be completely unsuited for such things, can find a niche to settle into. These days I continue to broaden my horizons with gaming and I've discovered some pretty weird stuff. Maybe one day I'll share some of the stranger things with you guys but that is another post for another day.

Thank you, Goodnight.

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