Thursday, 7 November 2013

On The Believer's Journey...

   "That depends on what you are threatening. Killing him would just wake him up... but pain? Pain is in the mind"
   Most of you probably remember this quote. It's taken out of a great film, one that the superb Christopher Nolan directed in 2010 and that's called "Inception". Mal speaks those words to Cobb in the beggining of the feature, holding a gun to his partener's face. A movie that mostly takes place in a dream-space, in which the death of one's avatar would just result in them waking up... not in the most gentle of manners but that would be it. The feelings felt in there however would be as powerful and real as any expressed or felt in our reality. The event might always be around us... but the experience is in the mind.
   I think after years of studying, thinking and trying to understand why people all around me are so ill-pre-desposed concerning the gaming industry I've funally managed to conclude that their idea's roots are not that deep. I've always known that the less one understands about something the more they tend to loathe, fear or misunderstand it but in this case, it's all rather simple... and simple is the perfect word to describe it. That's what most of those snobs think: That gaming is a simple proceedure, involving mostly the wasting of time, dulling of senses and lack of social interaction (like THEY all lead very interesting lives, them TV-consuming, coach-potatoes... but I won't go there. It's beneath me). Summing all those adjectives together, it's easy to rationalize why they misunderstand so much. You see, a phenomenon witnessed in most lowly-educated societies captures the core of the problem and it has to do with the fact that a person with no SPECIFIC interests never endeavours in expanding their horizons. When all you do with your every day life is work, watch trash on TV, have the occasional coffee break with another person just to find time to "discuss" how bored and disheartened you are about the course your life has taken, well... there's really not much to look forward to. And who has time to TRY and find something interesting to do these days?! Right...? So, along with most of the not-100-years old things that our grandmothers didn't see fit to teach our parents who then, in turn, didn't see fit to introduce to us, gaming fell into the cracks. And what a shame that is...
   You probably know this already but most mediums these days are sterile beyond most hope of repair. For every Dexter, The Walking Dead and Fringe you get 1000 cases of Sex & The City, Desperate Housewives and so on. Series about people who have managed to turn their lives into every-day marathons against boredom, personal failures and lack of focus. There's no empowering factor here, nothing to move you forward or make you question what you would have done if things went sour or how you can improve in the here and now (unless you consider tactics of getting new boy/girlfriends every couple of weeks the way to awesomeness). So living in this era of mediocrity whilst being bombarded by the socially-accepted standard of "coming short" who has time for bloody Adam Jansen fighting against the dominance of misleading media in a destopic world? Who cares about Old Snakes making one last stand for a free society? For armour-clad soldiers without names, without a home to go back to, who've lost everything having nothing to gain, throwing themselves into the fire for the survival of an entire race, and then some? No point in that of course. It's just non-existent people, in non-existent - but oh, so close to our own - realities fighting non-existent battles. There's really not much to it now is there? Is there?
   Sad truth is, people who interprit all information around them in simple terms will always diminish the worth of new things, the worth of creations that require you to look at the details, the worth of work that calls out to you to think differently, dream bigger, feel larger, go further. Humanity has always been able to move itself from place to place, the perpetual nomads in a world that called out for us to step on new grounds and draw new blood. The location of the corporeal flesh has always been the final frontier, at least for the average man. For every Karpyshyn, Kojima and Nylund there are THOUSANDS of "news-watchers" and "bored-out-of-their-minds" consumers. Their escapade from the bog of inactivity, mayhap, has always been at the tips of their fingers: In the pages of a good book, in the frames that comprise a movie... and now, after just a few decades of experimentation, in gaming titles with enough mental nutrients in them to make us think, lose sleep over, get troubled and RECONSIDER.
   Reality can only take us so far, the glorious aspects of our world sometimes out of reach, sometimes mundane, sometimes conquered. The physical realm, finite as it is, might very well kill the joy of exploration and longing that we might have felt whilst growing up. But The Journey Beyond... The Journey is in the mind.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

On What Truly Remains...

   I remember it was a night like every other. I was at home, waiting for that special other person to be done with her work, enjoying a series of matches on Halo 4 multiplayer, chatting with some friends. The mood was good, the games were going well and the thought that each passing second brought me closer to my beloved (we were fresh into the whole "lovebirds" vibe back in the day, and I am proud and happy to state, we still are) made the occasion all the merrier. I remember it was "Ragnarok" - one of the oldest maps in the game, known in older iterations as "Valhalla" - and I had left my Sniper's Perch for a more direct approach on the action. The tool I had acquired was none other than the revered Rocket Launcher and I was charging uphill, towards the center of the map, confident that the weapon would keep me safe enough. When I was about half-way to the top I heard a sound: The unmistakable humming of a Warthog, roaming about. I caught the trademark vehicle out of the corner of my eye, driver behind the wheel and a sole gunner manning the .50 cal. It was a moment of zen, I might say, one of these special instances in life when time slows to a crawl and everything fall in place at the edge of one's perception. I spun around, let out a sly breath and pulled the trigger. The rocket flew in the distance, reaching for the trajectory of the approaching 'Hog. After a few seconds I witnessed the blossoming of a flower quite common in titles revolving around people shooting at each other: One comprised of vibrant colors, reds, oranges and yellows. An explosion. The rocket had traveled out of the barrel, towards the horizon to meet a target that was still ways off their meeting point. But the shot was true, the split-second calculations correct and the result, in its simplicity and booming beauty, perfect. Now, the math required to pull off something like that is quite complex, but this is not a reference to the grandeur of the accomplishment. It's something quite different...
   It's about those moments, set in stone in one's mind. I believe it's a common occurrence, for people to keep mementos of specific occasions, of times they treasure. But why? What is the reason for keeping said pieces of our past in some form other than that of foggy thoughts? What moves us and what is the actual benefit?
   Throughout a person's life, one comes to experience various feelings, encounters and situations. We move through them, some time oblivious to the outcome, sometimes in total control. We keep and conserve those most dear and let go of the rest. These "keepsakes" come in many forms: A page in a book, describing some epic event in a tale. A movie scene, a tune whilst having a glass of wine, a simple kiss by someone we love. Just moments. They come, pass and then they are gone forever.

   You are probably wondering what the blasting of a Warthog in a Halo 4 match has to do with any of this. Maybe you've gotten wind of what I am trying to say already...
   We do things everyday in order to enrich and improve our lives. Every action stems from the need to achieve something and more often than not, the subliminal reason is the preservation of the moment itself. We are defined by our actions and our course... it marks who we are. It is the same thing with games of course. There are moments in there as well, in the countless sessions and endless hours when everything falls into place, when time slows to a crawl and you feel that you are in total control. And the feeling pays of, creating moments of magnificence, moments worth remembering... Memories. With each one added we have more to show for ourselves, we draw another line in our cave's stone-age drawing. We have more to cling on, to rejoice for.
   It is never about the fun itself. It's not about the magnitude of the achievement. It's about all the Memories. The people that are close when something happens and share that moment with us, the ones we describe them to and have a laugh whilst doing so. For in the end, we are little more than the sum of our experiences and of what we do with them. We are time made flesh, given shape... and enriching that time in any way possible - even by blowing up a Warthog in a generic Halo 4 match in some spectacular fashion - is a worthy endeavor.

Monday, 13 August 2012

On Dark Souls: After The Dust Has Settled...

    So, here I am again, inspired by a presence I could not perceive, to write in this cathartic for my mind and soul blog once again. This time, I want to tell you a story. It's a magnificent one, filled with intrigue and mystery. Such is the complexity of its eminence that it would require whole days for me to put it down on "paper". So I am just going to relay one chapter of my adventure, a short but very important one. It is a small venture of sorts... a trip down a wide, stony staircase...

    It has been a while since I finished Dark Souls for the first time. Back in the day things in my life were quite different. My social priorities were much more specific and simple, my free time somewhat diminished. I'd try to steal every possible moment to enjoy this bleak endeavor and each time, after the latest of the day's hours had past and the end of each sessions had reared its ugly head, I'd be left awestruck and mesmerized. The universe of this masterpiece... simply inspiring.

    You must understand dear reader, I am a very dedicated gamer. I enjoy my moments under the best possible circumstances attainable, low lights and the silence of the night being key among them. Even now, as I sit down invoking the feelings I experienced back then I listen to this, recalling the shivers on my skin as a silent tribute. The atmosphere is once again the same in the core of my mind and I labor to keep the bluntness of the world around me at bay. But on that fateful day, mere minutes before the end of my journey, I was robbed of all such novelties. I was expecting a visitor. A very important one in that time. It had to be done then and there. The story had to come to a close. I once again stood before the vessel, key to the great gate. The interaction prompt called out to me. It had done so many times before. This time its call would not go unanswered.

    They say that beauty is horrific in its own right. And oh, they are so correct. The staircase that stood before me was unlike anything I had expected. Its form simple, minimalistic. Yet the figures that inhabited it... indescribable. Prithee, it's not like I didn't KNOW what they were... or once had been. It's the essence of their presence what drives the wedge deep into the mind's eyes, invoking a sense of loneliness and... wonder. After the majestic leap in the hear of darkness you are finally standing before the final stretch. And it all seems so unbelievably surprising, so... different. I stood there, motionless. I started walking down, slowly as if I was about to be beset by something unknown and formless. Each step another moment of clarity, of recollection and a sense of accomplishment. Venturing through that final cavern was as magnificent a voyage as the rest of my experience combined. Suddenly I knew what the feeling was all about: I shall see the end. It will be years before the next trip. The moment before me will mark the finale.

    I reach for the fog... it's white and shuddering like all the others before it. But this one is unique. This is the LAST one. I pass through and my senses heighten, the finality of that which lies before me makes my heart pump faster. It is the apex, the absolution and primordial sin. I am there to finish... it. But do I have to. Do I NEED to?

    After a little while it is done. I make a choice of grand importance and sit back, watching the credits roll as I try to realize the magnitude of this offering's greatness. I am motionless. Breathing slowly, drenched in serenity.

    So much time has passed, and as I stare at the empty cell in which I am drown once again beginning anew a thought crosses my mind...

    I had been expecting someone that evening...

Saturday, 7 April 2012

On The End of Mass Effect 3 - An early retrospective...

    So here I am... still trying to wrap my head around what happened, what I witnessed at the end of my five-years-long journey and what led to it - what went wrong. For me, Mass Effect has always been one of the greatest endeavors in creating noteworthy, engaging and enthralling science fiction. It wrestled with all of the genre's cliches, inconsistencies and stagnation and came out - via force or wit - victorious. The starting point of this epic drama was not it's strongest part, far from it. But in each chapter the people behind the mythos added to it, nurtured and enriched it. After reading books, comics, bits and pieces it all becomes and amalgam of different cultures, historic facts and information. It seems complete. It's real. It's a living entity.

    The least you can expect from it is to offer some closure. To the player, to the leading character, but most importantly - to ITSELF. Mass Effect as an entity was entitled to grandeur, to present such a catharsis that future generation of gamers - and art-lovers in general - would remember and treasure. Expectations where high, a situation totally understandable after the magnificent second part - but we had FAITH in the people making it, birthing it. They would lead us, and through the eyes of Shepard take us on a trip through fire and pain, baptize us in fire and drag us - or what would be left of us - to the other side of the blackness. As Jacob Taylor stated while being on board the Normandy SR-2 "we're going to lose people, no way around it". We were ready to feel loss. Just not of this kind.

    That loss, that disappointment, came in the form of losing Mass Effect entirely. After the supposed, botched, marketie and underwhelming "end" all I am left with from my beloved universe is a taste of non-existence. Like, by being led to a curtain-fall like this they totally ruined the entity as a whole. I grab the controller to restart, to see the alternatives and discover a total lack of motivation. The magic is gone. It's lost...


    Whilst listening to the soundtrack, reminiscing on the events experienced I feel a sense of healing. The darkness comes back to haunt my thoughts, to shut out the music. But this... this is stronger than the darkness.
    It is the essence of it, the very core. The reason why I respect and love Mass Effect. It is the sheer genius and ability of all the people that came together to take me away from this tiresome place, during nights of serenity and wonder, on a journey through the stars, into the cosmos. Because it is the people, their stories and the feelings that bind them together that form the singularity into which we were drawn in 2007. A singularity that pulled us back some months ago, and up to the last five minutes, those agonizing FIVE MINUTES, had left us awed and speechless.

    I am still betrayed. But before betraying me, Mass Effect gave me so much more than most other, sincere even, offerings would or could have. It made me dream, long and wait. While driving the knife in my back, I caught in it a glimpse of regret. Like wanting to set things right.

    Maybe it will.

    The knife is still there. But as I am left waiting for the darkness of disappointment to clear, my love for it is not bleeding out. And as I reach out to place the disk in the drive once more, I feel the scar. I am wounded. But still hoping...

    Still smiling.


Tuesday, 19 July 2011

On why free-ware is not necessarily a good thing...

    So here I am, an average, annoyingly hot summer morning. I sit in front of the PC, a glass of icy frappe coffee in hand. It is a little too humid for my liking so hardcore gaming is out of the question for the next few hours. I keep listening to music and then a thought crosses my mind: "Why not play some League of Legends?" Of course I KNOW it's gonna end badly. It ALWAYS does. Oblivious to my mind's warning I start the client. After a few minutes I am in a game with some unknown foreigners.
    The score is 1/4. No, that's not K/D or Turret take-downs. It's the number of uneducated, no-life idiots versus the number of normal people who want to have a match while behaving like homo-sapiens. After some bitching and showcasing how large one's penis can be - I am fairly sure that the guy has never been laid without paying for it - we win the game. The nightmare is over.
    Of course it is the nature of such games to make you come back for more. I sit there for a second, again sweating to Hell, thinking "I can play another. The last one did not go so bad" I start a new match.
    This time not only are the opponents some sort of molested-by-dad-while-mom-was-taking-pics kind of being by my teammates are a true and tried institution for retarded a-holes as well. Suffice to say, it was not fun. What strikes me as odd is that even the n00best of players has something to say about his opponent or partner. They ALL seem to think that they know better than the next man... poor kids.
    Anyway, the point I want to make is this: It cannot be a crazy coincidence that most games sporting free clients (LoL, HoN, CS, Lineage) seem to gather the worst kind of brainless poop. The reason, I suppose, is quite obvious: Since there is no money spending involved every anti-social goo-pot out there thinks it's a good idea to contribute its idiocity to the ever growing pool of demented individuals. "1tz d@ fr33z d00t s0 wa n00t!?!" Thus, the "Laidless Community" was born.
    It goes without question that I wholeheartedly support free-ware and what it represents in our Society of Information. The problem is not the software itself - it's the people. All those complexized, low-IQ individuals who were so picked off by bullies at school that they never had a chance to form a solid, healthy personality. 
    If you have ever found yourself trolling for no apparent reason, bitching about someone's mettle while you suck yourself or seem to enjoy the occasional tee-bag here is a train of thought you can board: Maybe YOU are a little problematic yourself. Sure, some might consider the whole procedure a chance to "blow some steam" but trust me, not everyone shares this view. "Civilization" is free these days. Why not use some?


Tuesday, 31 May 2011

On over-socializing...

    XBOX Live chat-rooms, PSN text messaging, various gaming clients on the PC... applications and services aimed at making our gaming experiences more social and involving. They serve a plethora of purposes, spending some time with friends online is easier than ever, grinding for that time-consuming achievement/ trophy has become so much more pleasant and finding out what others are playing in order to join them is finally a breeze. All in all, the once theoretical term of "social gaming" has become reality... or rather, routine.
    There is, of course, nothing wrong with having your pal available for a little chat at the press of a button. We are, after all, social creatures by nature. Unless we count ourselves as some kind of lonely hermits interacting with others is a very logical process. But what about those games, deeply invested in their story-lines and atmosphere, who actually REQUIRE our complete and undivided attention to offer us all they have to give? What happens when we play Dead Space, Dragon Age or The Witcher while someone's voice keeps booming in our ear about "that headshot" or "where I was last night". It is clear as day that the mood is bound to get spoiled. Funny thing, we don't even notice. The reasons are very specific.
    We enjoy the socialization. Playing alone seems like a bit of a drag when we can do it with some company. Why waste time in contemplating silence when we can have our mates throwing the occasional one-liner in the mix, lifting our spirits? So we go from the "The atmosphere and story is important here" idea to that of "let's just spend some time gaming". It surely does not seem problematic by default... but the damage to the experience itself is very real. In the end, we might find that a supposedly horror-related game was not as spooky as we had thought. We might think that the scenario of an RPG was lacking, because we missed something during the "lulz". The emotional spike at the end of that very intricate moment in Mass Effect came out like an odd joke. All in all, the game expects you to play in an invested enviroment... sadly, in many cases, this is not the case.

     The beginning of Mass Effect 2 boasts one of the most dramatic events in gaming history. It's not so much about heroic acts and self-sacrifice as it is about loss and desperation. Seeing the things that you became accustomed and attached to during the course of a 50-hours-long storyline during the original being taken away in 5-minutes-long event is a very drastic, very powerful procedure. Watched under specific circumstances this can create some pretty powerful emotions. Watching it while you are chatting with seven other people via XBOX Live chat makes it look... "cool"? You are still going to enjoy the eye candy no matter what but the sentiment will be lost unless the scene is treated with some respect. I mean, is chatting about unrelated things all the time worth losing this splendid moment?

     Some might think that I am making a very big deal out of this. Maybe in the eyes of the casual, cut-scene-skipping player I do. But really, as a person who considers gaming an art form I have to pay some mind to what the creators of a title wanted to give me. Surely, all the gorgeous music, the fantastic environments and complex characters were not meant to be experienced while holding a controller in one hand and a tortilla in the other. Since I've been relatively young I've been following a specific code of conduct concerning the way I invest my time in various activities: If you do not respect what you are spending your precious time on, you probably do not respect yourself. Now, you don't have to agree with me dear reader but consider this, as a piece of friendly advice: Making the most out of everything is something that instinctively resides in every person. So try doing yourself a favor and invest some time into absorbing all that the developers intended to give you. You are going to spend the chunk of time and you've already paid for it. Now I believe it's a good idea to reap as many of the benefits of that labor as possible.
     Many people believe that silence and contemplation are closely related to philosophy. I tend to agree. After all, few came to a deeper understanding of themselves while throwing back shots during a night in some club - not that I have anything against such things, being the booze hound that I am - don't you think? Let's offer ourselves a moment of concentration, when the chance arises and let's give these works the time they deserve. Some might even surprise us.
     After all, there is always the chance for another playthrough with our pals, throwing around the occasional joke.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

On "Difficult" and "Cheap"... (Part 3)

    In my last entry I tried to backup my statements about what makes a game difficult or cheap by giving a specific example from the realm of action games: The 3D Ninja Gaiden games. In this one I will try to complete my analysis on the matter at hand by presenting another specimen, this time taken from the genre of Western RPGs. Steel yourselves for the last section of my three-part and lets take a trip into the insanity of imba in the land of Thedas... time to sink our teeth in...

    Dragon Age...

    To be fair and accurate, there are not many issues of the kind related to the first game in the series, Dragon Age: Origins. The game was fairly balanced on all difficulty settings, offering ample challenge without sacrificing "fairness" towards the user or rewards/ demand. From beginning to end, even on "Nightmare," the player was faced with a plethora of tough combat scenarios but most of them required more thinking and strategy than brawn and stat abuse. It was exhilarating to get past these enemies and in the end of the session there was a sense of accomplishment to be found. One would have managed to get past something seemingly impossible by being a better tactician. It FELT right.

    Of course it was not all rainbows and lilies. In true "old-school" fashion the game would divide its enemies into categories: Normal, Lieutenants, Bosses and Elite Bosses. No matter the class of the enemy, since it was included in one of the above categories it would assimilate its characteristics - Boss Mages would have the HP of 100 Warriors combined and Normal Reavers (a specific, very resilient kind of fighter) would fall like paper towers. It was a situation of pure "this is the tough guy and these are the creeps" likeness that seemed totally obsolete and stupid in 2009... and only looks more morbid in 2011. It is old and tired. Baldur's Gate II did it the right way in 1998. Surely the company behind Mass Effect 2 can do better.

    But, for all its small setbacks DA:O was still a balanced, enjoyable title no matter which setting one was using. It left a sweet taste in the mouth after most encounters and backed-up its thesis about "making it hard without making it cheap" that was present in the options menu. We had to wait two years to get our hands on the sequel and, well, let's just say that two more would have been fine...

    It becomes painfully apparent from the get-go: Numerous enemies, of little individual worth, reinforced every 20" out of nowhere while the player is stripped of most useful tools and abilities. I have NOTHING against making the game more direct and fluid but in this case I felt like I had to fight an Ogre with nothing but a simple fireball spell and a cheap sword... wait, I actually HAD to!

    The message is still there, of course, taunting us. The developers claim the "Nightmare""  is not aimed at making the experience un-bearable, it's simply there to test the mettle of the best tactician. Yeah, right. I can name numerous occasions in which the player is simply overpowered, outmanned and faced with the grim reality of MORE ninja reinforcements. And when I say "ninja" I more or less mean it: Thugs and Templars jumping off the bloody roofs! I mean, is that even possible for a person wearing 50-60 kilos of solid steel armor?

    No, I did not forget, my dear reader of similar experiences. Of course I did not forget about the various Assassins, Hunters and what-ifs. Out of nowhere, on various occasions, some lout will cloak in plain sight, following the GENIUS plan by backstabbing a party member and causing tremendous damage (this is a reference to Hard and Nightmare, the "Diablo-clone" Normal mode is of no substance). In most cases this will mean instant death for most Rogues and Mages. It is imbalanced, infuriating and without real counter. The game states that an area attack will de-cloak any such enemies but in most cases this simply doesn't work, not to mention the fact that on Nightmare even melee skills will damage your own characters. Add to this mess the fact that the smallest, most insubstantial of foes sports more HP than your most hardened Warrior, and that simple prodding by any Archer in melee is enough to stagger you most resilient of combatants and you have in your hands a fine example of irredeemable, imbalanced and total FUBAR situation. No, I will not elaborate on what FUBAR means. Google it. 

    It is a cluster-phail of proportions epic enough to fit right next the game's excellent and original story. A real shame considering how the botched combat really takes most pleasure out of it on the higher levels. It is a simple test of patience until you grow too tired and decide that the best option is simply waiting for the next balancing patch that comes along. If ever...

This magnificent dragon looks like a foe worth combating. After all, the game is called Dragon Age, isn't it? A shame then that the ONLY available High Dragon is one summoning dozens of reinforcements, like any other lowly poop, making the battle drag on and on until you either tackle it successfully or come crushing down to the realization that you have to repeat the 20' encounter all over again. It gets old, really, REALLY fast...

    It is to go without saying that you do not have to agree with me. I believe though that I have delivered a solid argument, proving that cheap gameplay can fit in all genres and pollute even the most epic of experiences. At some point developers will have to realize that when a game is shipped, every and each of its aspects has to be balanced. A higher difficulty setting does not have to mean more HP for the enemies or handicapped player-characters. It should be more about tactics, patience and skill. Why do we have to empty whole clips on a single Locust Drone, repeatedly pummel a single Darkspawn or melee a lone Elite fifteen times when a single headshot should always do the trick, one petrified enemy should logically get smashed by a single blow? I mean, it happens to OUR characters, does it not? 
    The average player expects balance from his or her games. A dedicated one demands it. If it is impossible for the average developer to include balanced setting into their games it's better if there are none to be found at all. I will always remember the titles that offered fine-tuned experiences no matter the picked options with a smile. As for games like those mentioned in this article... I'd rather wait for some patch.