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Video games

Let’s play together

As I write this the sound in our gaming space is punctuated with the fire of gunshot. It takes me out of my train of thought for a moment but it’s suitably apt. When did the term “multiplayer gaming” become so synonymous with first person shooters and MMOs?

It’s fantastic that we can so easily play games with others online, and it’s a key part of life as a gamer now. I just wish we all had more opportunities to play with others together – in the same room. It’s my de-facto gaming experience, and here’s why.

A good atmosphere

Playing games with others takes me back to my very first experiences of gaming. As a young gamer I used to experiment with games that I found difficult by playing them co-op with my friends. We used to pass the controller back and forth as we each struggled with moments that we found difficult. It’s a beautiful metaphor for local co-op games. There’s an indescribable pleasure in co-op gaming, you’re sharing a pastime that you adore directly with another, and they are often with the people closest to you. You talk, share ideas, and enjoy the game together.

As annoying as games without online co-op play are. I can’t help but be a little bit gleeful when games are made with no online support. Take Scott Pilgrim (pictured) as an example. It’s a vibrant, action-packed, scrolling beat-em-up. Which can only be played with others when done in the same room. It makes the chances you do get to play all the more special. No matter how inconvenient finding someone to play with might be, I can’t help but agree a little bit with the decision. Seeking out someone who’ll try a particular game with you, and finding the time to do so regularly can be the making of a game.

This “intended” method of play can become crucial to a games sense of magic, with every session as anticipated and exciting as the last. The electricity of play isn’t just on the screen, but it spills around the room too. It’s a neat way to include people that may not always play video games. Your confidence as a gamer can often get non-gamers involved and serves as a backup to those who need a bit of extra help and guidance.

Longevity

I love playing video games with other people. I think it’s the main aspiration I have for my game-playing time. I enjoy gaming a great deal, but there’s something even more wonderful about playing games with another person. The experience becomes as much about the atmosphere in the room, the company of the person or people that you’re spending your gaming time with and the banter you share as you play. Other people are an important sounding board for difficulty, as you can battle on together to solve a problem, rather than struggling alone.

This is backed up by my extensive list of favourite games. (Of which Phantasy Star Online and Monster Hunter are but two). So many of the games I could continue playing forever are cooperative experiences. That said, while I enjoyed playing PSO online a great deal, I enjoyed the experience of playing it split-screen far more, but as a general point I can think of a great many games that come into their own when played with others.

Online play

To me the primary benefit of gaming is how inclusive it is. Many of us enjoy playing games with someone else in the room, but how often do we get a chance to do so? The added convenience of online play seems to have diminished the need for local co-op. As superb as online gaming is, I can’t help but think it’s diluted our need to play gaming in it’s most natural state. Games like Rock Band can be played online, but overall you get a better experience (and something closer to the one the developers imagined) from encouraging three others to play with you in person. A great deal of that is due to the pleasure of using the instruments, watching others using them, and the particular sense you experience by having people over to play in your band, but the same principle applies for many multiplayer games.

Video games can be quite complex upon occasion. In the process of playing a new game you learn how to control the game, how to navigate the menus and find the information you need. You also embark on a series of objectives whether explained literally, or understood over the course of the narrative. It’s a slow process that we as gamers do almost naturally. Multiplayer games are a great way to balance the complexity of games against their inherent sense of fun. You muddle through a game together, talking through approaches, and experimenting with a friend or friends.

Let’s make the time to play together more often, we’ll only get better and more frequent co-op experiences if we demand them (and use them).

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Video games

Comparing gaming to social drinking

I often get asked why I enjoy playing games in my adulthood. I’m tired of that question, but let’s try a less-trodden idea. Gaming isn’t that different to social drinking if you really think about it. Consumption of alcohol is normal in most societies, and it’s done for a wide variety of purposes, such as to share news, meet up with friends, and celebrate.

It’s a good example to use for the normality, sociability (and downsides) of video games.

An idea

Many people find drinking liberating, to free up their concerns and inhibitions, helping them relax with others. Interestingly most people I know who play video games do so for many of the same reasons – to experience a life slightly outside of “themselves” and to explore ideas they wouldn’t normally. To experiment with behaviour in a similar way to how people who drink can pin their “out of sorts” self to the booze rather than their own behaviour.

Both gaming and drinking can be an excuse for people to act in ways they society would not normally let them – to say things that would be otherwise out of order. This is shown in our experience of games day in day out, but is perhaps best shown by the growing bravado that seems to come with playing games online, where people say and do things safe in the relative anonymity of the internet.

It can also be as simple as acting out scenarios in games that we would not normally find ourselves doing. We make decisions far from our own moral compass, killing people (as an extreme example) leading people along with a lie, or simply stating things in another way to how we would in real life.

One of the only differences between the two pastimes is that social drinking is often perceived as an adequate use of time – where as gaming is not. This is primarily because drinking is a historical sociable pastime, whereas games are still struggling with its less than social reputation.

My experience

To put it another way – gaming is another form of social lubricant, I have met most of the people I am close to through video games and games continue to be important for most gamers, as another way to interact with our social circles.

Playing games are not yet part of social normality, but I think gaming does perform many of the same tasks as social drinking in situations where lots of people are involved – the influx of party games, phone games and the proliferation of console gaming in homes are good examples of this and inspire those who may not have considered games before to give it a go collaboratively.

I suspect one of the few differences is that gaming is too young to have become as much of a social norm as drinking. Despite this most of our gaming experiences now are with others – even if they’re not played collaboratively they become talking points that we can elaborate on, as we share things between ourselves.

This is because despite widespread perceptions of our hobby, video games are inclusive – allowing everyone to have a go, and there isn’t much of the historical peer pressure associated with drinking. Culturally video games are my preferable replacement to drinking, because they’re not a social norm yet, I feel that responsible gamers have to be ambassadors for our pastime – proving that we’re normal, well-rounded members of society, just like most drinkers are.

Possible problems

Like any pastime or joy things can be taken to the extremes. Many more people have an over-reliance on drink than they’d care to admit. We have a particular problem with binge-drinking in the UK, both gaming and drinking have had their fair share of national and international public outcry.

No one is denying that both gaming and drinking can have adverse effects, but in my experience it is usually a minority of the people partaking in both things that take them to the extreme. A small percentage of the British public are problem drinkers, but there are an even larger portion of the population drinking more than the recommended weekly amount of units, (not to mention the fact that binge drinking costs the UK economy about £20 billion a year). People are doing this for a variety of reasons – to cope with stress, to relax or to socialise with others, and that’s an extremely familiar concept.

Most of the time both of these pastimes are a way to relax and enjoy the company of others, just occasionally though they can also be about having a coping mechanism, and there is definitely more appreciation and consideration given to those who drink to relax compared to those that do other things. Bad behaviour when drinking is pinned on the playfulness of drink, minor indiscretions that are “harmless” and can be ignored. Bad behaviour as a result of gaming is supposedly because games provoke violent tendencies, addiction and social ineptness and this perception needs to change. It’s quite a double-standard.

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Video games

How far do you follow a gaming series?

Somewhere along the course of our gaming lives we settle upon our preferred genre or type of games – usually through years of experimentation and trial and error.

An endless line of sequels can take their toll on a series though, as developers begin to struggle with the finite balance between introducing enough new concepts without alienating the original fans – how far would you follow your favourite gaming series?

Saying goodbye to an old friend

I’ve talked about my history with the Sonic series before. I was raised with Sega games and continue to take a decent albeit passive interest in the latest Sonic games. Sonic Generations provided an interesting challenge to the old-school Sega acolyte in me – as I had all but given up on the series if I am perfectly honest, I did not expect Generations to amount to much, I certainly did not expect it to be the first new Sonic game I have enjoyed immensely in nearly 10 years. This was in part due its carefully crafted experience, appealing to the Sonic fan of all with illustrious recreations of classic Sonic levels, but also with breathtaking orchestral renditions of retro Sonic tunes.

What is telling however is that as enjoyable as Sonic Generations is, I feel it is the perfect moment for me to outgrow Sonic, to enjoy the company of the series one final time and bow out on a high. While Sonic Generations is obviously enjoyable, it is a momentary sidestep – and perhaps not completely indicative of the direction Sonic (and friends) will take now. That said it is a journey I no longer feel I have to be a part of, I finally appreciate that I am no longer the target audience for Sonic’s Adventures. Most of the pleasure of its gameplay and experience come from looking back and not forward, and nostalgia will only coast a series so far – no matter how gracefully done.

I am however eternally grateful to Sega for giving me one last chance to put my affinity with the Sonic series in order before they turn to the next page in his story.

A step back and a step forward

If Sonic was the game of my childhood, then series such as Final Fantasy were the gaming backbone of my adolescence. Final Fantasy 7 was a defining moment in my gaming life – proving that video games was something that was going to serve me long term. Later on in the franchise – by about entry 10, I started to doubt that Final Fantasy was still for me. This was confirmed to me by the production of Final Fantasy 13, it was no longer about the games “becoming worse” or moving in a slightly different direction, and more about the genre as a whole no longer tapping into my ever burgeoning tastes.

I had over a great many years of play decided upon the genres and gameplay elements that I preferred, falling out of love with Final Fantasy was less about that game serving my interests and more about another set of games – namely Western, and other action RPGs (such as Demon’s Souls) becoming my preferred way to play.

I don’t think we ever fall out of fancy with a particular franchise, there’s a decent correlation between our age, the growing audience of the series and our interests diverging elsewhere. Another more frequent complaint about a gaming series is that is no longer attempts to revolutionise in the same way it once did. Zelda is a great example of this (and I am often guilty of the same complaints!). The Zelda games that I have enjoyed and in turn have challenged me the most (Wind Waker and Majora’s Mask) have arguably also taken the most risks with their creative design.

A new disciple

Ten years was a long period to wait for my Sonic conclusion. While I end one affiliation with a series, I am happy to admit that there are many more new franchises who have sprouted into the space that Sonic once occupied. Funnily enough I find myself more willing to experiment with games as I get older, retrying series that I once avoided, or dabbling with new things. This it how I fell into the Monster Hunter series. The “difficult” persona of the game had previously put me off in the past, but when I was bereaved a couple of years back I found myself wanting a really engaging challenge to fill up my mind and take it away from the present. I did not expect to still be playing the game nearly three years later – happily for completely different reasons. It served its immediate purpose and quickly created another one.

My gamble had started a new fascination, this is my favourite way into a new series.

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Video games

The first attempt is easier

When it comes to difficult moments in games I always seem to do better the first time. There are of course a notable moments where I have preserved and won, but I did so with a sense that my first attempt was my best.

Why is it that when we get stuck on a boss or tricky moment on a game it becomes as much about the psychology of the moment as well as the difficulty?

Getting stuck

Looking back on every moment of a game I’ve been stuck on for a significant amount of time, there is a particular amount of dread I associate with returning to it. It’s not a fear of failure but more about the fact that the game has stopped being fun, because I had become fixated with getting past a particular section and couldn’t.

The first time you try a difficult part you’re full of vigour and confidence – that’s all stripped away by the 100th attempt at the same section. Having to repeat a hated video game boss or level bruises your self-worth, chipping away at all the expertise that you thought you had developed while playing up until that moment.

You’ve memorised the music, the sound effects, the quickest route to the boss, the optimum path to repeating said boss, dabbled with various strategies for progressing, maybe even looked up what to do, but there’s no escaping from the fact that we can sometimes dread repeating or returning to a bit we’re stuck on.

The first attempt(s) at a boss you’re playing without thinking, you play with skill and instinct, using what you’ve learnt to play innately. When you repeat these attempts ad-nauseum it starts to make you doubt what you really learnt or even makes you re-evaluate if you want to keep playing.

I think it’s something that developers are realising too, with the all too apparent simplification of certain genres and gameplay methods that we would simply have been expected to persevere with twenty or more so years previous.

Pushing on

Funnily enough despite my negative experiences of hard levels and bosses, I think these sorts of difficult moments can be player defining. The experience of overcoming such adversity can really empower the player once they’ve mastered the moment, but it can also totally sour the experience, and it’s a benchmark of a great game, how carefully it balances the mood of the player with the appropriate challenge to their skills.

Odd part of the psyche of play that we often beat the boss when we’re confident we can do it, when we are past the moment of it feeling impossible. It’s a magnificent feeling to feel back in control of a game, to get past that point where it can seem like the game is starting to affect you more than it should.

It’s a gaming curio that I recognise all the time though, both through my own play and through observing others. It happens to the best of us, and there’s no escaping from the paranoia of repeating that dreaded part. My years of gaming experience and the lessons I’ve learned through thousands of hours worth of trial and error doesn’t make this simple fact any easier to digest though.

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Video games

Xenoblade: A God as a gameworld

An enormous part of Xenoblade Chronicles beguiling power is it’s fascinating premise – the entire world is set literally on the body and limbs of a massive benevolent creature known as the Bionis. In doing so it manages to ably sidestep one of the most tired conventions in JRPGs – the staleness of divinity and its impact on the game world.

And therein lies the fascinating concept of Xenoblade – the movement between the very very large, and the very very small.

The Bionis and Mechonis

Xenoblade boasts a massive world with the entire spectrum of nature on display; massive waterfalls, valleys, mountains and civilisations – all working in paradox with the core idea behind the world. The first (enormous) city you explore is undermined almost immediately by several views later on, one of the most powerful of which is the whole circumference of the first (enormous) city explored clearly visible below you on the ankle of the creature you are currently standing on.

Each new area you stumble across is introduced by indicating whereabouts on the Bionis you are, and this is the idea that both mystifies and bothers me – as the game progresses the gameworld (and in turn the giant that houses it) becomes more tangible. It is often shocking to realise where you’re standing on this creature. It is for me equal parts horrific and awe inspiring.

Here’s a short video that puts the unique geography of the world into perspective.

This unique view of a universe is at the center of Xenoblade’s narrative. The Bionis is not the only giant in this strange universe, it’s rival world – the Mechonis (the colossus that appears on the boxart) – looms over many of the starting areas, blocking out much of the sky above your characters as you explore.

The renewal of the Bionis and Mechonis from former gods into the physical basis of a world is such a potent idea. It doesn’t surprise me at all that it was this central idea that entirely inspired both the story and setting of Xenoblade (as discussed here in a fascinating Iwata asks which focuses on Xenoblade’s design decisions).

It’s a very interesting take on spirituality in a genre that frequently overuses ancient powers.

Divinity at the heart of the game

The ideas at play here allude to our own ancient understanding of the universe. The game literally plays with the idea of a creator that sustains life forming the body of the world. As such each step on the Bionis haunts me, it feels as though I am looking at the physical presence of something that I simply shouldn’t be able to. By playing the game I am encouraged to literally walk on the back of a God-like creature, it feels like one massive (but beautiful) taboo.

That’s without discussing some of the games incredible world physics – the examination of which would spoil some of the later games more mind-blowing moments, where you literally spot something far above, or far below you and your mind whirrs as you attempt to process what you are seeing. It goes without saying that the rules and boundaries of our universe do not apply.

And yet it feels so natural. The story of the Bionis and Mechonis is ancient story passed down from one generation to the next. The Bionis becomes the life-giving creature that battled the Homs (essentially humans) ancient arch enemy. Both Gods now stand slumbering, pinned together in a vast, unseen ocean. The proof of the legend is in the sky, therefore the giant haunting their horizon is not something to be feared as they stand on an equal power.

But I still find the paradoxical idea of the gameworld troubling me as I attempt to explore it further, it makes me ponder what lives outside of the Bionis’ and Mechonis’ vast horizon. The Bionis is a world without a map, judged not on the continents that are amassed on a sphere, but the steeper or lower points on a enormous creature paused in a moment of battle.

It’s troubling to see such peaceful (and beautiful) lands nestled in such a way, but I cannot help but admit that Xenoblade’s universe could well be one of the most compelling game worlds that I have ever had the pleasure (and occasional discomfort) of exploring.

Micro decisions in a delicately designed universe

As such Xenoblade has a carefully choreographed atmosphere. You’re tasked with not only exploring the massive god-like Bionis but also to really get to know and influence it’s inhabitants. There are numerous characters in every area that follow their own routines and have their own problems to attend to. As your understanding of one area of the world improves.

Think about the relationships that Link attempted to influence in Majora’s Mask and you’re halfway there – except on a much larger scale. Every single dot in this picture is a person I have actively sought out and slowly gotten to know, this chart also indicates how each of the character I have met relate to one another.

Some of the relationships made in the game in the affinity chart.

Every named NPC in the game has a particular routine to their day, appearing at a certain point (and in a certain place) during the day night cycle. As you progress you connect more individuals together. As you play more, you find yourself genuinely starting to understand and appreciate the inner workings of the communities in each area. This makes the motivation to be complete rewards less about crossing something off a list and more about putting the player in the mindset of the Bionis’ citizens.

All characters are grateful for their world – evidently proud and respectful out of reverence for the sacrifice two Gods have made. The giants in the sky do not scare, but comfort them.

And in my view Xenoblade presents one of the rare applications of in-game divinity that I can understand. The Gods of this game are tangible, impressive, protective and powerful all at once. Not just from being huge, or mighty, but for literally sustaining life quietly and silently until you take a moment to stop, and look up again at their massive, frozen forms.