Tag Archives: Video Games

Why Video Games Can be Addictive

There has always been a certain addictive quality to video games.  After all, the industry began as a scheme to get kids into arcades and empty their pockets.  Getting the high score in Pac-Man or Space Invaders was enough to sustain coin-operated games until home consoles and PC’s slowly made them obsolete, save for the occasional Dave and Buster’s.

Arcade games weren’t necessarily all that addictive.  Once you ran out of quarters you were kind of done with them.  It wasn’t like a slot machine at a casino, offering potential monetary rewards.  Instead, it was merely a way to pass the time until you ran out of money.

Once games moved from arcades into the living room, the “beat the high score” motivation became essentially meaningless.  Sure games like the Super Mario Brothers series still had “scores,” but no one cared because you weren’t playing against dozens of other opponents drawn from members of the public.  Instead it became about “beating” the game, or “beating” an opponent sitting next to you.

Early 8 or 16 bit games couldn’t handle a lot of complexity, so beating the game usually meant finishing a set of progressively difficult levels or puzzles.  Sports games employed “rubber-band AI,” which caused the computer to essentially cheat if you got too good against it.

This basic paradigm of gaming continued for quite some time.  The biggest problem was that if the game got too hard, a lot of players would simply give up on it.  I never beat the majority of my NES games because I just stopped trying.  If the top levels got too hard, it was frustrating to continue.

There were two exceptions to this – sports games and role-playing games.  Once NES games like Tecmo Super Bowl licensed the names and trademarks of real players and teams, the allure of sports games increased.  It no longer meant just playing against friends and siblings, it meant playing as the real players in a sort of fantasy world where you could win games 63-0 (at least until the rubber-band AI caught up to you).

Early RPG’s like The Legend of Zelda and Crystalis weren’t nearly as difficult as the average NES platformers.  However, the story and the ability to “level” up your character kept you engaged.  Often the two were intertwined.  For example, I would spend hours leveling up on Crystalis just to be able to get to the next part of the story.

That gives us five elements of an addictive game:

  1. Progressively difficult, but not insurmountable, obstacles.
  2. Fulfilling a common fantasy.
  3. Engaging with human players.
  4. A reward system, such as leveling up.
  5. A compelling story.

Not all addictive games have all of these elements, but all addictive games have at least one of them.  Arguably, MMORPG’s such as World of Warcraft have all five elements.  Likewise, popular cell phone games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga may only have #1 and/or #4.  Therefore, a video game can become addictive if it has multiple elements, or if it masters one or two.

Anyway, the next time you wonder why you got sucked into a video game, that’s why.  Several decades of game evolution landed on some pretty straightforward rules to keep you playing.  Understanding those rules may help you pull yourself away.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

 

Video Game Movies are Unnecessary

It escapes me to name one movie based on a video game that hasn’t been critically panned.  Most have failed miserably at the box office to boot.  I haven’t seen the Assassin’s Creed movie yet, but judging by its current, very very “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and its disappointing box office haul, I don’t foresee it breaking the cycle.

So what gives?  Hollywood has seemingly tried everything to make video game adaptations work.  Acclaimed directors like Duncan Jones and Mike Newell and acclaimed actors like Angelina Jolie and Michael Fassbender have given it the old college try.  There have even been some good innovations, like the animation style in 2001’s Final Fantasy movie.  But nothing, except the occasional cult classic like Mortal Kombat (1995) or Resident Evil (2002) seems to stick.

I propose that there are two reasons for this problem.  First, many great video games don’t have inherent stories.  Second, video games with inherent stories typically aren’t original or coherent enough to carry themselves when separated from the interactive experience.

1. Category One – Video Games without an Inherent Story

The video game to movie adaptation concept got off to a bad start.  Let’s face it, making a live action version of Super Mario Brothers is about as bad of an idea as remaking Ghost in the Shell (1995) as live action film with a blonde, American actress starring as the Major (coming soon in 2017!).  The Mario games are fun because of their easy to understand design, not because there’s anything particularly interesting about the backstory.  Especially not when the backstory is expanded to include some convoluted nonsense about dinosaurs and parallel universes.

Fighting games were next on the list.  Street Fighter (1994) might be one of the worst films ever made, starring a coked up Jean-Claude van Damme. At least the late Raul Julia did a good job as the villain, despite slowly dying of cancer during the entire course of principal photography.

Mortal Kombat (1995) came next. The worst thing one can say about it is that it’s a below average martial arts movie – which puts it in the running for best video game adaptation of all time.

There were a couple more attempts to shoehorn storyless video games into film format, like Doom (2005) and the Angry Birds Movie (2016).  The Angry Birds Movie made a few dollars at the Box Office, but so far I’ve seen it on quite a few year-end “worst of 2016” lists.

Doom is essentially the “Man with a Movie Camera (1929)” of video games.  It has no backstory, and that’s the point.  You’re told you’re something called a “space marine,” you’re dropped into a maze, and you shoot bad guys.  For this emphasis on game design and the introduction of multiplayer, it’s a legendary game.  I have no idea what they were thinking when they greenlit a movie version.  Oh wait, yes I do – Hollywood is lazy and thinks they can always make money on an existing property.

2. Category Two – Video Games with a Story

Then there are video games with rich backstories and cutscenes.  You’d think these would translate better to the screen than the tale of jumping on turtles and mushrooms, but you’d be wrong.  Let me use a few examples to explain why.

The Wing Commander series was one of the most popular PC game series of the 1990’s – World War II style fighter pilot war, but in space!  The games were able to attract legitimate Hollywood talent  (Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davies, Tom Wilson,  John Spencer) to video games, a feat previously unheard of.  So naturally, when they made a movie version in 1999, it stunk on ice.

Here’s the problem with Wing Commander – the story is only fun because you are in it.  When stripped of its interactive elements, it’s nothing but cheesy science fiction clichés.  A similar thing would happen if they ever made a Grand Theft Auto movie – the GTA series is fun because you’re in a clichéd gangster movie, but if you’re not in it, it would just be a clichéd gangster movie.

Assassin’s Creed has a similar issue.  Even though its worldbuilding is far more original and less derivative than GTA or Wing Commander, that doesn’t automatically make it good.  I find the “animus,” ancient Greek gods, and budget Dan Brown nonsense to be an unnecessary distraction from jumping off rooftops and stabbing bad guys, so much so that I’ve written about it before.

This is the same basic problem with adaptations of World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and about a half-dozen horror games.  These are great games because of the game design, not because they have compelling or original stories.  Removing the gameplay aspects from the story does nothing in these instances except reveal flaws in the story.

Even if there were a strong story to adapt aside from the gameplay aspects (think “The Last of Us”), the way the stories are adapted are often lacking.   Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) is a modern classic partially because it would work as a self-contained entity if the theme park ride did not exist.  Video game adaptations, however, never seem to forget that they are adapting a video game, and try to retain too many elements from the games, like boss fights.

Conclusion

All that being said, I think a good video game adaptation is possible.  First, a game must have a story worth adapting.  Second, that story needs to be good enough that it can stand on its own without interactive elements.  Finally, a strong adaptation would not include reminders of “hey everyone, we’re adapting a video game here.”  I guess all of that is easier said than done.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

The Assassin’s Creed Series (Wherein I Can’t be the Only One Who Thinks this Way)

By D.G. McCabe

I like the Assassin’s Creed series.  Sure, the first one had some repetition issues, and I hear that Unity had some pretty major bugs upon release, but Assassin’s Creed II and IV are fantastic games, and IV is near perfect.

Let’s use Assassin’s Creed IV as an example.  You’re sailing the high seas taking ships from the Spanish and British navies.  Or you’re embarking on exciting missions of stealth and/or action.  There are buried treasures to find and sharks to harpoon.

Then, all of a sudden it stops.  You’re back in the present day.  Exciting pirate action has been put on hold for the time being, and you have another exciting task.  Walk around an office building!  Attend boring meetings!  Read boring documents on computer screens!  Hear eight different bosses drone on about a convoluted story that doesn’t make sense!

Jarring, isn’t it?  One minute you’re sailing the high seas doing all sorts of pirating.  The next minute you’re having all the fun of a particularly boring day at work.  Unfortunately this isn’t a problem specific to Assassin’s Creed IV – every game in the series has some version of this.

You’re living it up in the exciting past, then all of a sudden you’re in the near future because you’ve really been in something called an “animus” essentially dreaming this up.  Well it’s worse than that actually, you’re experiencing the “genetic memories” of your ancestors, which makes absolutely no sense when you stop and think about it, but hey, time travel!

Oh, and it turns out the Greek gods were real and they want to destroy us.  Also the Knights Templar secretly control the world.  And some other pointless blah blah blah can’t I go back to being a pirate?

If I wanted to walk around an office building, attending boring meetings and hearing people drone on about things I don’t care about, I would just go to work.  Oh I’m sorry, I actually like my job for the most part.  The near future backstory of Assassin’s Creed is like working at f’n Initech and having Bill Lumbergh ask you to come in on Sunday.

The near future backstory of every Assassin’s Creed game is annoying at best, but usually just ridiculously convoluted and frustrating, inserted into the games at the worst possible times.  Can Ubisoft just get rid of it?  Please?

I can’t be the only one who feels this way.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Video Game Preservation Week – Sequels

One thing that video games do not have in common with movies is that sequels are usually better than the original.  Video game sequels tend to build on the concepts that make the original game successful while discarding the failures that annoyed players.

Unfortunately this does not always hold true for subsequent sequels (the III’s and IV’s of the gaming world), especially when migrating a franchise to a new operating system.  There is far too great a temptation on the part of developers to utilize the bells and whistles of the new systems while forgetting important aspects such as enjoyable gameplay.

Here are my five favorite, and five most disappointing, sequels:

Favorite Sequels:

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

With the exception of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, every Legend of Zelda sequel has been a phenomenal success both critically and commercially.  N64’s Ocarina of Time is considered by many critics to be the best of the series (and by some, the best video game of all time), but Game Boy’s Link’s Awakening is my personal favorite.

Super Mario Brothers 3

3D graphics, cinematic storytelling, and online multiplayer still have nothing on the third Super Mario game.   As a pure gameplay experience, it might be the masterpiece of the NES.  It still holds up over twenty years later.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

GTA: SA took all of the elements that made classic gangster films like Casino and Goodfellas great, added them to what worked in GTA III and GTA: Vice City, and created what is still the pinnacle of sandbox games.  I recently re-played this one all the way through, and it’s still a lot of fun.

Assassin’s Creed II

The original Assassin’s Creed had a lot going for it, but the fighting mechanics, repetitive street missions, and the impossible end missions sucked the life out of the game for me.  Fortunately Assassin’s Creed II took the best parts of the original and updated the worst parts to make a nearly perfect game.

Wing Commander II

Boy was this an upgrade.  The characters were deeper, the gameplay was smoother, and the story was more compelling than the original.  It did everything the first Wing Commander did well and took it to the next level.  I spent days playing this game in the 90’s.

Most Disappointing Sequels

Civilization V

I love this game – now.  The problem was when it was shipped it was buggy, incomplete, and way too easy.  After dozens of tweaks, updates, and expansion packs we now have a game worthy of its predecessors.  My point in listing it here is that it should have came shipped that way instead of making the consumer essentially beta test it.

Grand Theft Auto IV

I’ve already written extensively about this miserable failure of a game.

Madden ’06

The 2004 and 2005 versions of Madden may still be the finest versions of the game.  So for 2006 they decided to add the worst feature of any sports game ever – the passing cone.  Thankfully you could disable it.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Here.  Let’s take everything you loved about the first game, and throw it out in favor of making a half-ass game that can’t decide if it’s a repetitive platform game or a cheesy RPG.  The worst part is that this would be an average, forgettable NES game if it weren’t part of most successful console adventure series of all time.

Sim City 4

I should like this game.  I’ve tried to like this game.  I’ve given it multiple chances.  Theoretically it’s an improvement on Sim City 3, with more diverse features and deeper gameplay.  So why is it that every time I play it I feel like I’m pushing a rock up a hill?

What are some of your sequel experiences?

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Video Game Preservation Week Survey – Golden Era

Video game history is tinted by nostalgia.  There also isn’t very much of it.  As an experiment for Video Game Preservation week, I’m going to ask the following question in a survey – what do you think is the golden era of video games?  Placing the cutoff at the release of the PS3 in 2006 (since it’s too early to judge), the candidates are:

1. Pre-Crash Era (Before 1983)

Notable Games:

  • Pac-Man (Atari)
  • Pong (Arcade)
  • Oregon Trail (Apple II)
  • Missile Command (Atari)
  • Space Invaders (Arcade)

2. The NES Era (1985-1992)

Notable Games:

  • Final Fantasy (NES)
  • The Legend of Zelda (NES)
  • Super Mario Brothers 3 (NES)
  • Wing Commander II (DOS)
  • Wolfenstein, 3D (DOS)

3. The SNES and Genesis Era (1992-1996)

Notable Games

  • Alone in the Dark (DOS)
  • Doom (DOS)
  • Mortal Kombat (SNES/Genesis)
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)
  • Starfox (SNES)

4. The Early 3D Era (1996-2001)

Notable Games

  • Civilization II (Windows)
  • Goldeneye (N64)
  • Gran Turismo (PS1)
  • Quake (DOS/Windows)
  • Resident Evil (PS1)

5. The Second 3D Era (2001-2006)

Notable Games

  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)
  • In the Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)
  • Halo (XBox)
  • Madden 2005 (PS2/XBox)
  • World of Warcraft (Windows)

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Video Game Preservation Week – Computer Games

I was a PC gamer for a long time.  I got an NES in 1992, a PC in 1994, and then a Playstation 2 in 2005.  That’s eleven years of primarily playing games on PC.  Other than the Civilization series, I switched back to consoles for two reasons.  First, PC games require incessant, often expensive, hardware upgrades.  Second, other than a handful of RPG’s and strategy games, the gaming experience in almost all genres is now better on consoles than on PC’s.

The hardware issues with PC games has always been with us, but the second factor – gaming experience – wasn’t always so clear cut.  Until recently PC games were always a generation ahead of their console brethren.  When there was NES, PC’s had 16 bit games.  During the SNES/Genesis wars, PC’s were up to 32 and 64 bits.  Really until the PS3/XBox 360/Wii era, PC’s were always one generation ahead.

Let’s review some of the more important computer games:

1. Oregon Trail

Once in a while someone may have had an Atari at home, but we were always envious of the copies of Oregon Trail in the school computer lab.  When most video games were of the classic arcade style (Space Invaders, Missile Command, etc.), here was a strategy game where we could make dozens of choices and be creative.  Never has dysentery been so hilarious.

2. Civilization and Civilization II

The Civ series is the most successful turn-based strategy series of all time.  The scope of these games is no less than the entire written history of humankind.  Civilization was a great game, but Civilization II was the most advanced one for its time.  Just one more turn…

3. Wing Commander II

Space sims, and flight sims in general, have gone out of fashion.  Wing Commander II, however, was more than a space sim in that it was the first video game to take its story seriously.  It set the bar for the three interactive movie sequels, and every game that we have today with any cutscenes whatsoever.

4. Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake

The first person shooter genre, complete with online multiplayer, was being developed on PC when consoles still relied on platform games.  Wolfenstein brought us the concept, Doom expanded it to include multiplayer, and Quake arguably set the standard for every first person shooter that came after it.

5. World of Warcraft

No discussion of computer games would be complete without a mention of World of Warcraft.  It wasn’t the first MMORPG, but it was by far the most successful.  At a time when console hardware had finally caught up to computers, World of Warcraft demonstrated that there was still a place for computer games, mainly RPG and strategy games.

What are some of your favorite PC games?

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Video Game Preservation Week – NES Games

And so it’s come to this – Video Game Preservation week.  Video games have come a long way throughout their history and now run the gamut from mildly amusing time wasters (see Saga, Candy Crush) to epic visual experiences with the production values of Hollywood movies.

Are video games an artform worthy of preservation?  For the next seven days, I’ll be publishing articles that justify a resounding “yes” as an answer to that question.  Today, we’re going to start with this:

The beloved Nintendo Entertainment System.  Behold its glory.  Many of us have fond memories of spending hours of our youth playing video games on this guy, but were those games art worthy of preservation?  Yes they are – and here are five reasons why:

1)The NES and the Video Game Renaissance

The NES saved the very concept of video games from oblivion.

In the 1970’s, video game consoles first found their way into our living rooms.  There wasn’t a lot you could do with the technology at the time, but Missile Command, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and other arcade favorites were there.  Unfortunately, so were hundreds of awful games.  The final nail in the coffin of this era of gaming was the ET game for Atari 2600 in 1982 – millions of which were buried in the middle of the desert (or so the legends say).

Nintendo saved video games by maintaining strict quality controls, pioneering character based gaming, and marketing itself, at least at first, as an “entertainment system” and not as a “video game console.”  Operating in a commercial vacuum didn’t hurt either.

Now that we made the case for the machine, let’s look at some of the games:

2) Storytelling – The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Crystalis

We have started to expect plot and character development in our video games, but when we first experienced these concepts, it was absolutely incredible.  The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy have become video game phenomenon with every additional version, but I think it was little-known Crystalis that may have had the best story of any NES game.

3) Social Experiences – Blades of Steel, Tecmo Super Bowl, Super Mario Brothers 3

Early video games had two player modes, but they were too limited and repetitive to provide much re-play value after a few sittings.  Several NES games changed this dynamic.  I think the best part about Super Mario 3 was the cooperative two player mode, and Tecmo Super Bowl allowed us to play through a real NFL season for the first time.  Blades of Steel wasn’t as complex as those games, but it was just as much fun.

4) Insane Difficulty – Mega Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Contra

We’ve gotten away from intense and unfair difficulty in video games, but this makes these old NES games all the more interesting to me.  I’m not saying we should bring back ridiculously hard obstacles (the TMNT water level, having to fight Elec Man for the second time, or having to use the Konami Code just to get to level 2), but these games have their own special place in video game history.

5)  Creativity – Metroid, Punch-Out, Kirby’s Adventure

More quality control meant that the NES could push the envelope on creativity, as developers were no longer encourages to just churn out crap.  Metroid could have been a lot less interesting, Punch-Out a lot less colorful, and Kirby’s Adventure could have phoned it in as one of the last games on the NES.  Fortunately, none of these things happened.

There are dozens of classic games that I didn’t mention here, all worthy of preservation for their own reasons.  What do you think?

(c) 2014 D. G. McCabe