Getting Emotional

I'm making my way through the documentary series 'Rise of the Videogame', and having just come off the second episode I'm a little wound up about a topic that often grates with me; the notion that the ultimate goal of videogames is to become like movies. That and the hoary old chestnut of whether a videogame can make you cry.

Gaming in general has a chip on its shoulder about squaring up to its rivals in entertainment. Films, music and literature are all comfortably considered art forms, and have proven themselves perfectly capable of eliciting a wide range of emotions in their audiences. For some reason a large chunk of the videogame industry, its commentators and consumers believe that gaming is a lesser entity for so far lacking the kind of narrative and characterization that we take for granted in a well-made film. I think this is a gross misjudgement of the true strengths of videogaming. For me its strengths lie in the fact that videogames can be something completely different in presentation and experience and goals. Beating highscores, solving puzzles, strategic planning, reflex and hand-to-eye co-ordination challenges... these are the things that videogames can provide in a completely unique fashion. These are the reasons I play videogames.

More than anything I need the challenge and satisfaction of playing. I don't see a game without a story as a negative thing at all, because a good one will stand on its own merits as offering a particular interactive experience. The background narrative and drip-fed storyline of Braid is completely disposable to me, but the thrill and sense of achievement on solving each puzzle is something that no other medium can bring me. Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 has no story or characters, unless you count the base levels of 'shape must destroy other shapes', yet it's the best game I've played all year and is a huge critical success. People still want games like that if they're good.

This is not to say that there's no place at all for stories in videogames. I like a good story as much as anyone, and in an adventure game I like to have characters I can empathise with and care about. I can enjoy an action adventure like Mass Effect a great deal, and I can be drawn into the world and characters of Final Fantasy XII. These things are fine in their own ways, I just don't think they make the games any more worthwhile than, say, Pac-Man, and I don't think they should be held up as the one true evolution of the medium. I hate the notion of equating an abstract arcade game as somehow a relic of a best-forgotten past. I think if we do that we move further and further away from the greatest strengths and possibilities of videogames.

That really would make me cry.

Space Firebird

Last night I stumbled upon something in MAME that gave me a true warm and fuzzy feeling and a powerful blast of nostalgia.

Whenever anyone would ask what the first videogame I played was, I'd cast my mind back to hazy memories of an arcade cabinet in the chip shop at the end of my street. Looking back all I ever remembered was that it was a colourful Galaxians-style effort, and put it down to being either Galaxians itself, or one of the multitude of clones and similar efforts in that style.

Usually when I fire up MAME I rattle through a well-worn roster of favourites, but recently I've been randomly delving into all kinds of things. With Galaga Legions turning up on Live Arcade I was in the mood for some very old-school shooting. From the moment I loaded up Space Firebird I was overcome with a wave of recognition. It was the sound effects that did it. This is the game I messed about with so many times back when I was 5 or 6 years old. It's a standard of the day; ship at the bottom of the screen, enemy formations flying around and divebombing. You have a shield - activated once per life - that lets you fly up the screen invulnerable, wrapping round to the bottom, and the base line curves upwards towards the edges.

I spent quite some time with it, and I'm happy to report that it still plays a very decent game.

Phases of interest

Hmm. A lot came out of E3 that I didn't write about yet, and a couple of games came out that I've been spending a lot of time with.

Tomb Raider Underworld was nicely revealed in some gameplay footage and a prerendered trailer. My appetite for it continues healthily, I'm just hoping it will hit the more solitary exploration aspect of the series rather than the more action-focused stuff. I enjoyed Legend a great deal, but a large factor was specifically the parts where Lara was on her own in the depths of some ancient cave or ruin. Popping back into civilization kind of breaks the atmosphere for me.

Dark Void came out of nowhere and looks wonderful. A real Rocketeer vibe, lovely designs and palette. It's highly doubtful I'll be able to play it, being a very Gears of War inspired action game. As always though, I will give it a shot.

Dragon Age satisfied on all counts. Not the least of which was the revelation that the camera is entirely controllable, and the whole game can be played top-down, and can be paused at any time. Just how RPGs should be!

Enough future stuff though. Right now I'm playing a whole load of Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2. It's everything the first game was but more, and better in every way. Really a perfect sequel. I mean, I'm a built-in audience for this kind of thing anyway. Twin-stick shooter with glowing vector graphics? Right there you have a textbook description of what I think a videogame should be. My favourite modes are easily Pacifism and King, while Waves is an exercise in addictive frustration. You know a game is doing all kinds of things right when upon losing you curse only yourself, and instead of reaching for the power button you dive straight back in.

GWRE2 kickstarted me back into arcade game mode, and I got back into Super Stardust HD, Everyday Shooter, my old MAME favourites, and I bought Soul Calibur 4. Time spent in SC4 customizing characters is significantly larger than time spent actually playing. I've realised I don't like the game that much, I'm just fuelled by great memories of its dreamcast ancestor.

Braid came out on XBLA today, and while I've been following its development since the early whispers by the time it got here I wasn't even sure I was interested - in the sense that I didn't feel I was in arty platformer mode. A few minutes with the trial version put that to rest and I wasted no time in buying the full game. I'll refrain from weighing in with tiresome Games Are Art commentary and just say that it's an absolutely wonderful piece of work, one that takes a core idea and runs further and more imaginitively with it than anything else has. It has the purest sense of satisfaction from videogame puzzle solving. Not stumbling upon the answer by trial and error, but reading the screen layout, thinking about the relationships and behaviours of everything, and having that moment of realisation.

All that brings me to my main topic; my ever-shifting focus of videogaming interests. I go through chunks of time that can span from a week or so to many months where I'm only interested in playing particular types of games. A few years back I spent a couple of years playing pretty much nothing but scrolling shoot 'em ups. The first half of this year I spent deeply entrenched in computer RPGs.

The thing is, I never seem to be able to mix it up. I completely lose interest in one genre when I'm playing another. As I said above, GW put me back into the mindset of wanting to play fast, short, highscore-centric games. Not neccessarily just shoot 'em ups, but platformers, beat 'em ups, racers... anything that can be done in a quick session, or played over and over again in a session. After a solid week of GW2 and Soul Calibur 4 I tried to go back and make further progress in Neverwinter Nights 2, and found myself immediately bored and disinterested. This is a game I was overwhelmingly enthusiastic about not two weeks ago. I'm looking at the collection of vintage RPGs I've been collecting and thinking I'm wasted a great deal of money.

Luckily, I know from experience that I'll cycle back round to them eventually, and they'll be there waiting when I do. I just find it odd how my mindset so completely changes on these things. Part of it is me feeling generally listless at the moment. I don't feel too motivated or interested in anything (I still have not seen The Dark Knight for example). I want videogames to be something I pick up and play for a few minutes occasionally, not something I have to dedicate vast amounts of time to. I'm very much drawn back to XBLA and PSN stuff, and the indie scene. I think it might have been Mass Effect that pulled me out of that last year, so I guess the thing to do it this time will be Dragon Age. Too Human - although a cinematic action RPG experience - is much more on the side of arcade action than an epic undertaking. in my current frame of mind about gaming it sounds just about perfect.