I played a lot of video games last year. I finished almost none of them.
I already had a habit of not finishing games – but before this year it wasn’t really a problem. It stemmed from living in a household with two dedicated gamers (me and my husband). After watching the end levels of games get played before I had the chance to get to them, I often had all the closure I needed.
I’m not at all a competitive type, so the actual act of completing something myself was never all that important to me (which will probably explain a lot about my taste in games – no online multi-player for me). I don’t care much about ending, or winning things. The fun is in the experience itself for me. It’s the getting there (which will probably explain a lot about me in general).
My life intersected with games in a rather epic way this year. By that I mean, of course, that I went from consuming them to making them. That on it’s own is a major upheaval of my entire sense of self. Add in the fact that what forced me into the creator role is the fact that nothing, nothing I did this year went as expected, and that once in the role of creator of games, my life continued to go off the rails.
I reached a point where I played nothing – not even board games – for a few months. I wanted nothing to do with forcing my brain through hoops. My brain was already vaulting through enough hoops. I wanted no games near my life. Then when I did pick them back up, things were different…
It’s now my job to play them. To see what else is out there and experience it for myself. To use what I learned in my own future practice.
Between all these thing, these upheavals, I stopped finishing things.
Thankfully, I managed to somehow end up playing games that reward meandering towards no particular end.
I started out this year playing Dragon Quest 9 for the DS. If you know that game at all, you’d know it’s essentially impossible to finish. I sunk my entire holiday into it, and ended up on the other end with 60 hours of Gameplay, and no real completion. It’s the first real JRPG I’ve ever played and I loved it’s poignant little story, and crafting my own little band of travelers.
But I hate, hate, hate turn based combat. Even though DQ9 allows you to automate that combat, I found that a supremely ridiculous solution to the problem of a game mechanic that just isn’t any good in the first place. So at a certain point (where I realized there were dozens of endlessly boring dungeons to complete in order to see the real endings) I quit.
Then there was Bulletstorm. It perhaps seems an odd choice for me – I likely seem fairly girly to those who don’t know me well – a game where you can explode your enemie’s butts may not seem up my alley – but I found the unique systems of the game incredibly satisfying.
In Bulletstorm, you don’t just head-shot enemies, you find creative ways of dispatching them to the underworld, and are rewarded for your initiative (usually by bigger and better weapons). There’s something incredibly rewarding about that, and I found myself actually quite willing to replay the same level, over and over trying to find more outrageous ways of disposing my mutant foes. The story is also far more entertaining than the game’s crude marketing package would have you believe. Somehow, despite some of the most juvenile language ever found in a video game – and that’s saying something – I found myself drawn in to the world. Which is also saying something about how polished a game Bulletstorm was. Despite this, I never finished it.
I also played Bastion this year. Bastion is a lovely game, but I think in the long run had more style than substance, and so did not lend itself to long-term, repeat play. I loved the art style – a sort of oil painted cartoon, a combination of patina and nostalgia with a good dose of adorable Miyazki-ish whimsy. There is also the gruff voiced Ron Perlman impersonator who narrates your every move in the world – dynamically! That on it’s own makes it a “new thing,” an innovator, and a charming one at that. In the long run, however, it is just a basic beat-em-up RPG-ish game. I loved inhabiting Bastion’s world, but I didn’t much like playing it. So I didn’t finish it.
Another game it may surprise you to hear I enjoy, is Gears of War. I chalk my interest in it up to it being a good stress reliever. I really felt the need to kill some things the year I planned my wedding, so the lambent hordes seemed a good place to start. I remain convinced that if women only picked up Xbox controllers more often there would be far less Bridezillas in the world.
So, of course, when GoW3 came out this fall, it found it’s way into my home rather swiftly.
I would argue that the storytelling in those games is far stronger than people give it credit for. On the other hand no one would argue with me that the Gears games do not have some of the most polished, intuitive, game play around, when it comes to “killing stuff.”
This, I think is why playing through it is so relaxing. It’s a breeze. It envelops the player, and adapts to them, rather than (like many shooting/killing type games) the opposite way around. It’s not just a well oiled machine, it’s a well designed one, and that sometimes is more important.
Of course, for some reason, I have yet to finish Gears of War 3. I think part of me is saving it for a time and a place when I need it, when I really need to kill more things. I’m sure that day will come, and I will be thankful to have it around.
I picked up Aquaria when it got ported to the iPad. It is the first game that makes me feel like real, non-casual, hardcore gaming can truly happen on the iOS platform.
It’s a adventure RPG in the vein of Zelda – You explore a beautiful fantasy world collecting and combining items and battling enemies. The game changer: instead of taking place in a cliched, high fantasy setting, you are exploring a gorgeously hand-painted, jewel-toned, underwater world unlike any I’ve ever explored in a game.
I found myself spending hours and hours simply exploring the nooks and crannies of Aquaria, farming the various foods you can collect, combining them into various yummy sounding recipes that lead to higher and higher level power-ups, as well as searching for collectibles that would decorate either my home base, or myself. There is also a slow burn of a story that is incredibly unique and rewarding.
Aquaria’s downfall, I think, is in not knowing it’s own strength. It, being a “video game,” felt the need to shove some “gamey” elements into it so that the player knows it’s playing “a game.”
Cue the Zelda-esque boss levels that can only be won with a combination of rote practice (timing and patterns) and plenty of extra power-ups. While the boss fights may heighten tension and emotion, I think they’re a cheap way of doing so and distract from the Aquaria’s strengths – it’s system of exploration, discovery and reward and it’s unique way of telling stories using those elements.
So I would find myself coming up against a boss fight, losing interest and taking a break. Those breaks became longer and longer, and I have still not finished it.
Lastly, right before the holidays, I decided to purchase Cave Story (one of Steam’s amazing sales made this an easy choice). It’s often called the originator of both indie games, and of the resurgence of pixel art. Since I make both of those things now, I thought I should probably give it a try.
I do love Cave Story, despite itself. It’s obscure and obtuse and self referential, in the worse kind of Japanese way, but it is also adorable in it’s art style, and fascinating in it’s structure. It has that strange tension of dark and light elements that the Japanese seem to do best, that sometimes makes things more strange than they need to be, but also often make them better.
That idea of contrast, of purposeful anachronisms is something that has long fascinated me, and to see such complexity come out such simple art and game play certainly challenges your ideas of what games are and what they can be.
At the same time, it’s needlessly opaque and difficult at times, and… Japanese? Did I mention that? I often find myself bumping up against things in Japanese games that I’m sure are references to stuff that would make sense to me if I were, say, Japanese… but I am not, so I just don’t “get” it. This is what drives some types to watch far too much anime, learn the language, move to Japan to teach English and generally become a cliche (and a sketch on SNL).
I, on the other hand, just don’t care. So I’ve gotten myself to a particularly weird and tricky part of Cave Story, and kind of just stopped playing it. Ooops.
So that was my year of not finishing things. I would hope that 2012 brings me more closure than 2011 did, but I will make no resolutions to that end. If that closure comes in my games, rather than my life, that’s ok, because my gaming experiences this year were some of the best I had. Either way I remain convinced that just as much satisfaction can come from the meandering journey, rather than the journey’s end.