This Magic Moment

When I was writing my top 20 list for this site, I was constantly wavering between games that I thought were objectively great and games that I had a special, personal experience with. I struggle with that every time I make a list or share my favorite video game/movie/book with people, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I make my way through Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.

Syndicate

So far, Syndicate is as good as I’ve come to expect from an Assassin’s Creed game. The graphics and dedication to environmental detail is superb, the controls are fluid and intuitive, and the combat feels like a well-choreographed dance (when I get in the groove, anyway). With two years and as many AC games between it and Black Flag, it should be a better game. It is, arguably. The graphics are a bit better, the interface is slightly improved, there are some new features. It’s not hitting me as hard as Black Flag, though. I can play Syndicate for a couple of hours and be satisfied with putting the controller down. With Black Flag, I didn’t want to stop playing. Like, ever. I would play for hours, convincing myself I needed to sleep and maybe shower before jumping right back to my swashbuckling adventures. I thought about playing it when I wasn’t playing it. I dreamed about it. I was legitimately sad when I approached 100% completion.

So what is it that’s so different? Black Flag does have the advantage when it comes to setting. As gorgeously rendered as Syndicate’s Victorian London is, it’s, well, Victorian London. Dim, dirty, and drearily urban. Black Flag had some urban areas, but it was the vast, bright, sparkling Caribbean seas and islands that I most vividly remember. I could do all of the same building hopping and street stalking I can do in Syndicate, but then I could hop on my very own pirate ship and sail into the eye of a vicious tropical storm.

AC Black Flag

But can setting really impact my experience with a game that much? It could also have been when I played Black Flag, which was the winter break just after buying my PS4 at launch. So it was an exciting time, because I had time to devote to games and Black Flag was one of my first of the new generation of consoles. Sometimes I can feel pressure to rush through as many games as I can during the breaks between semesters, but I only had a few PS4 games so I gave myself plenty of time to dedicate to playing them. How much does this ‘right place, right time’ factor affect my reception of games? A lot, I would venture to guess. When I reflect on games that I’ve had a strong reaction to (Dragon Quest VIIIFallout 3Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), I remember the actual act of playing them in addition to the games themselves. The time surrounding their playing seems special in some way. There was a sense of freedom and excitement, despite what my life was like surrounding the game. If I had played any of them, or Black Flag, at a different time, with different expectations/priorities/distractions, would I have become as invested? It seems impossible to know, but the logical part of my brain says that I probably wouldn’t have been ‘pulled in’ or immersed as deeply in some situations. I probably would have liked them, sure, but if I hadn’t had hours to spend playing Dragon Quest VIII while I was on leave, or Fallout 3 when I was job hunting, or Black Flag when I was on break, I probably would not have become as obsessed and overwhelmed by the worlds they presented me with.

Much of this is pointless, I understand that. Who really cares what makes a game a favorite? But it’s interesting to think about, and I do so pretty often, especially as I age and talk with younger gamers about experiences they might not be able to fully appreciate (the transition from 2D to 3D games, for instance). Someone could play Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart: Double Dash back to back and make the obvious judgement that Double Dash is a better game. It’s a much smoother experience, thanks to improved frame rate, the graphics are much improved, there is more diversity in the gameplay, etc. And I would agree with them. Double Dash is a better game. But there is too much magic surrounding the time I spent with Mario Kart 64 for it to be that simple. I liked Mario Kart 64 more in the moment. If I hadn’t played it when it came out and played it just before I tried Double Dash, I’m sure I would had a completely different opinion of it.

Mario Kart 64

I don’t have a point that I’m working toward here, I’m just sort of talking (or, uh, typing) to myself. The question that often spawns these types of thoughts for me is “what is your favorite game of all time?” Will any game ever unseat my current favorite, Chrono Trigger? I have played better games, probably. I will play better games. But time and nostalgia and that nameless sense of timeless magic will likely prevent me from ever ‘liking’ a game more.

 

The Little Things

I’m not quite as old as dirt, but sometimes it feels like it. In my thirty or so years of playing games, I’ve built up a cache of experiences that I draw from every time I play a new game. It’s not a conscious or purposeful thing. I don’t play games to snidely compare them to others like them. It just happens. Sometimes it’s inescapable comparisons of ‘big’ things, like gameplay, mission structure, or premise (think Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, or BioWare and Bethesda games).

Sometimes, though, it’s the little things, and these are the things that catch me off guard and make me think about how far games have come in terms of graphics, design, and narrative. Given the casual, personal nature of this site, I want to write about some of these moments as they happen. I don’t feel like they warrant much attention, but as the whippersnappers say, ‘I do what I want.’ So this will be the first in a series of such observations and commentary.

Having said that, I’ve been playing a lot of Dying Light lately, and I’m enjoying it pretty thoroughly. I’m a fan of Dead Island, though, and this is basically Dead Mainland, so it’s no wonder I took to it so easily. Early in the game I was running around, bashing zombies repeatedly in the head with underpowered melee weapons in the bleak urban setting, when I decided to cut across one of the few grassy areas on the map. As much as the game is designed to encourage constant movement, I had to pause at the top of the hill to admire the grass and other plants.

Dying Light Field
Dying Light – Field

I don’t know if Dying Light has the most beautiful digital greenage ever, but it’s pretty dang pretty. There is a diversity in terms of size, color, and type, and the placement makes it feel like it’s fairly realistically wild, with clumps and gaps placed where it seems they should be. A static image like this does it little justice, though, as the movement of the plants as they sway adds a lot to their realism. It’s oddly calming to behold, despite leaving you utterly vulnerable to the zombies ambling around you.

After admiring the lively field for a few moments, I moved on, but my mind kept working it over. One of my first thoughts was how, as beautiful as it was, it was still far from where it would need to be to exist as a realistic simulation in terms of an immersive virtual experience. I’m hoping that the new wave of virtual reality ‘experiences’ takes off and ushers in a new era of gaming (and general entertainment), but how long will it be before I can bend over and handle a single blade of grass, pulling and tearing it realistically, zooming in to observe individual cells? How long before leaves bounce and twist according to actual laws of physics and the variable wind patterns instead of pre-programmed swaying motions? When will I be able to pluck an apple from a tree, extract the seeds and plant them in fertile soil to grow a new tree that looks different than the last, all in a virtual world where this isn’t some core piece of gameplay? To create a truly realistic virtual reality, it’s these kinds of details that would have to be addressed. But that seems so far away, right?

At this point I was back to hacking at zombie faces in the game, but the thread of thought continued. How far we’ve come. My first memory of an open field in a 3D game was my first steps on Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule Field.

Ocarina of Time Hyrule Field
Ocarina of Time – Hyrule Field

Stepping out into this field felt magical at the time. A real world in three dimensions. Grass, trees, mountains over the horizon. When compared to recent games, of course, it’s bland and bare, closer to the wastelands of a Fallout game than a lush and realistic field. The ‘grass’ is blurry dabs of color stretched over a flat canvas, and trees are likewise flat images pasted together to give the appearance of branches and leaves.

Hey, I’m not griping. At the time this was breathtaking, and some of gaming’s top designers worked on this. But we really have come a long way in terms of not only graphical capability, but artistic cohesion when it comes to piecing graphical elements together to make a realistic world for players to traverse. If we’ve come this far in twenty years, what will another twenty do? Maybe, just maybe, I’ll live to see a virtual world where I can pull those individual blades of grass or plants those apple seeds that I got from crushing a newly plucked apple from a tree. That would be pretty neat.

 

Welcome! Kinda…

Let me start by saying that I am transferring over my blogs from another site, so this first wave of posts will have their original publication dates on them. Like this one, my welcome blog (kinda) from my other site:

(May 29th, 2016)

Okay, here’s the deal: I set this site up for selfish reasons. I wanted a place to write about games. A place where I can muse about gaming news, games I’ve been playing, rusty old gaming memories, research related to my academic work with gaming, and other odds and ends. To be frank, most of the people I’m connected to through social media don’t care what I think about most of that stuff. Which is understandable, since I usually find myself annoyed by people who post very frequently about a single topic, even if I’m somewhat interested in it.

video-games-1136042_960_720

So I wanted a place where I could vent freely about this hobby which I love so much, where I wouldn’t intrude on anyone’s already lengthy feed. I don’t expect anyone to read what I write, and I don’t mean that in some kind of hipster, too-cool-to-care way. I don’t want the pressures of writing for an audience, so I’m not going to worry too much about it. If you read my stuff, cool. Thanks. If not, cool. Thanks (well, not really, but it sounded cool to mirror the other phrase). I put immense pressure on myself when I consider the various audiences that may be reading my work, so I won’t be doing that here. Which means, if you should choose to stick around, you can expect plenty of semi-coherent tangents, rants, and pointless mental wanderings. These aren’t essays. They’re not even editorials. They’re just logs of my thoughts, on the web. You might call them web logs or, you know what, just call them blogs, for short. I should copyright that. I’m sure no one is using it.

I also have little intention to keep to a very strict publishing schedule, especially once the fall semester starts back up and I’m buried in research, reading, paper grading, etc. I have plenty I’d like to write about, though, so I’ll probably be posting fairly regularly. Keep an eye out, audience-that-I’m-pretending-doesn’t-exist.

Some topics I’m already considering: “Wow, ______ is a cool game”; “Wow, _______ is NOT a cool game”; “I am old and I never have time to play games, please pity me”; “E3”; “There aren’t enough boobs in video games”; “There are too many boobs in video games”; “Just kidding, I won’t be writing about either of those two last things”; and much, much more.

As you can see, I have so much to contribute, but don’t look forward to it too much because I don’t want to imagine that anyone cares about any of this because then I will freak out and just shut down with crippling writer’s anxiety.

Thanks,

Joey