Saturday, December 12, 2009

Favorite Games, Part One

Since I've broached the topic a couple of times now, I want to write a brief overview of some of my favorite computer and video games.* I won't make this a “top 10” list or anything, because I find it hard to rank and compare the gaming experience in that way. Some of my very favorite games are in disparate genres, or from different eras, and therefore cannot really be pitted against each other. Since we all love categories, I will try to give each game a fancy and meaningless award to each one. That's a blog-ish thing to do, right?

* A word on vocabulary. The distinction between “computer game” and “video game” is a point of much wrangling in the gaming world. Generally speaking, computer gaming is a narrower term, referring specifically to games made for and played on the computer. Video games, on the other hand, usually refers to console or arcade games, though can also mean computer games. Many computer gamers tend towards an elitism. Computers, in addition to being more expensive than consoles like the Playstation, also tend to have better hardware and, of course, a hard drive capable of running the game without a disc. While consoles have certainly moved in that direction. The PS3, for example, can connect to the Internet, play DVDs, and do all kinds of fancy stuff formerly reserved for computers.

For my own part, while I prefer the power and usability of the computer (it's hard to beat the mouse and keyboard as an input mechanism), I don't think it's something at all worth being snobbish about. A good game is a good game, whether made for the Wii, the PC, or for miniatures, pencils, and dice.

Increasingly video games are moving away from the place where they merely recreate the board game experience (only faster and “real time”). Early computer games were largely influenced by the board game experience. Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs) especially were and still are usually based on Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Classic games like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and even Knight's of the Old Republic* were based on the D&D system of (usually 20-sided) dice rolls to determine attack success, skill use, and damage. Likewise, even many early arcade games were based on table-top games of one kind or another. Pong is table tennis, for example. Many Real Time Strategies (RTS) are essentially derivatives of the board game Risk in real time.

The point being, over time games have gotten more ambitious and more groundbreaking, to the point where some are actually starting to be meaningful works of culture and art. While there were, for example, many early movies that were important, few are remembered as “great” (though by all means some are). While a great many modern movies are glitzy and shallow, the best of movies have been accepted as legitimate pieces of serious writing and art. I would argue that Pan's Labyrinth, for example, is on the level of the canonical plays of the past.

The same could be said of video games. The game-playing experience is different than the movie experience to be sure, but that does not mean it is fundamentally devoid of artistry. Indeed, that games are played and not merely watched means that games have the potential to be much more immersive and engaging than movies. But, like movies, a great many games are glitzy, shallow messes produced for an uncritical horde of consumers happy with little more than blowing things up. That said, there is a higher degree of competitiveness and, I would argue, a higher average quality to games because games do not have the cultural and, what amounts to the same thing, marketing purchase that movies do. Merely having Ben Stiller in a movie – no matter how bad that movie is – guarantees a sizable viewership. The loyalties of gamers are more fleeting, because the space is so much more competitive.

I doubt I can convince the most ardently anti-gaming types that games are not only acceptable, but perhaps even culturally and artistically meaningful. Nevertheless, I offer the following examples of games that I love in part because I believe they are more than merely games. The games listed here I have played and, in some cases, replayed, and have enjoyed as much as many of the books and movies and musical compositions that I find great. I do not know that a “great” game has yet been made, but certainly good ones have. So without further ado...

Award: The Puck* Award for Extreme Cleverness
Game: Portal
Genre: Platform / Puzzle

* Not Wolfgang. I mean the Puck from
Midsummer Night's Dream.

is a short game, but a brilliant one. Played from the first-person, Portal requires the player to use a “portal gun” to navigate through otherwise impossible to escape rooms. Basically, in every room the player can place an entrance and an exit “portal” on walls or ceilings or floors. Indeed, a portal on the ceiling and a portal under it on the floor can and does lead – if you try it – to falling ever-faster through the same 20 feet. Needless to say, the potential of this design is great, and the developers use it well.

What makes Portal truly remarkable, however, is that on top of a wonderful concept there is tremendous suspense, humor, and voice acting. Without going into too much depth on the back-story – after all, figuring out what's going on is half the fun of the game – eventually you make it through a series of tests and are pitted in a battle of wits again a smooth talking and hilarious supercomputer. The reward for victory is an award-winning song, and/or cake. Take from that what you will.

The Odo* Award for Customizability

Out of the Park Baseball

* The unrepentant nerd in me is unafraid of naming an award after a
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine character. For those unaware, Odo is a shapeshifter. Hence customizability.

Out of the Park
, or OOTP (pronounced “oot-pee,” I'm told) has been the gold standard in text-based sports simulation for around a decade now. Europeans might tell you that Sports Interactive's Football Manager (football as in soccer) series is superior, but while it has fancier graphics and represents, all told, a far more popular sport, each addition is stuck replicating the upcoming and subsequent seasons. OOTP, by contrast, allows you to easily set up a fictional baseball league with just about any settings you desire. Want to simulate the history of American baseball with real players? Do it. Same thing but with fake players? Go ahead. Want to simulate an international league? That's easy. How about a league with 50 teams, a mix of fictional, modern, and historical players, with no free agency, and inflated power numbers? Done.

OOTP, beyond the extreme customizability also offers great depth. The entirety of the baseball world is simulated, if you want it to be, and as a Commissioner, General Manager, and/or Manager you have the opportunity to micromanage as much of it as you want. That can be daunting, of course, because it's a lot of work to make sure your AA catcher who can't field but hits a ton still gets at bats, but fortunately much of it can be automated as well. The result of all of that – along with statistical revolutions in baseball – is a unparalleled realism, making for an awesome playground for any baseball fan.

The Just One More Turn Award

Civilization IV – Fall From Heaven

Turn Based Strategy / Mod

The base game here is worth mention just on its own. Civilization II was one of the most successful and influential games ever made, but it was ultimately hamstrung by a weak AI and graphics that were dated even at the time of production. The sequel Alpha Centauri was a much better game, with unmatched strategic depth and personality, and might very well have warranted its own entry here if not for the stunning success of Civ IV. But what makes the latest Civilization really go – and it is still popular years after its release – is the modability. Firaxis made transforming game files incredibly easy in Civ IV, which has spurred an explosion of mods ranging from alternative and expanded versions of the original to complete remakes of the base engine.

Fall From Heaven
is one such remake. Stories abound of gamers purchasing the official expansion packs to Civilization IV for the sole purpose of being able to play the latest version of FFH. In short, FFH takes the Civilization engine and changes just about everything. Instead of recreating history, FFH operates in a fantasy world, complete with around 20 unique civilizations (and I mean unique; playing each is different), 7 religions, and a vast and complicated magic system. FFH games often turn into epic battles between good and evil, and it's unleash the apocalypse (or prevent it). The real value of FFH, though, is in the imagination it inspires. Most strategy games end up being about how to win. FFH is all about how you, as a player, ought to play. Since the civilizations involved have so much personality, it's hard not to role play, and that's exactly the point.

All told, FFH is an example of the wonderful power of people. The community is so large that there are not only mod-mods for FFH, but a number of mod-mod-mods and even mod-mod-mod-mods. The best of these, of course, get folded into the core game, which rivals and, frankly, surpasses most commercial games.

At their hearts, FFH and Civ IV share one fundamental quality. You always want to play just one more turn before you take a break, and the next thing you know, it's 3 in the morning. The why, however, is not mere addiction, it's the depth and challenge of a well-made game.

To be continued...

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