The History of a Recovering FAQ Addict

The water temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time became the first time that the puzzle-solving trio of my two brothers and I hit a wall we could not climb. Having looked at the problem of lowering and raising the water level to advance from every possible angle with little success, we decided that we needed outside help, something that we'd never done before; if one of us had a boss or puzzle we couldn't overcome, we could usually call the others for help and collectively figure out the solution to the problem.

Not knowing about or having access to the wide array of online guides, we ordered the "Perfect Guide" for the game over the phone. 10-14 business days later, the guide arrived while we began a new game, afraid to tackle the water temple again for fear of mucking things up even worse than we had before. Using the guide, we got past the temple, and subsequently, the rest of the game. From then on, we religiously followed the word of guides, making them mandatory purchases along with every game we could buy one for. Of course, once we established a competent internet connection, this bled over to online FAQs, which were both more accessible and free.

This adhering to walkthroughs continued for the better part of a decade, and I consider it both a good and bad thing. For one, it allowed me to suck literally every ounce of entertainment from my games, which meant I could buy one game every three or four months and be satiated. Finding every single collectible or easter egg in a game was extremely fun for me, and added to my appreciation of almost every game I played. On the other hand, it rendered the challenge of almost every boss or puzzle null, as long as there wasn't too much dexterity involved. There were games that I didn't a FAQ for, but most anything that one could possibly need a guide for, we used one.

Ironically, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass was the first game that I decided I would absolutely refuse to use a FAQ on. The moments of frustration with not knowing how to get past a certain part of a game are more than made up for by the moment you solve a puzzle or beat a boss by yourself. In a way, I feel like I've just now entered the "legitimate" world of gaming, where I only use a FAQ when I'm actually stuck. I've just now (since 2007) gotten used to the language games use to convey the solutions to puzzle, so I feel like I'm starting out fresh in certain kinds of games, even though I still have some knowledge embedded from the days before Ocarina of Time. This is an oddly refreshing feeling; going back to games I'd beaten before and learning that they're much harder than I thought they were is a unique experience. And hopefully one you guys won't hold against me when I'm reviewing games.

Disproving Stereotypes, Only One at a Time.

First, let me start by saying that I understand the point of Grand Theft Auto; separate from all the gameplay, whether emergent or story-based, is satire. Satire of the American way of life, as well as common notions people carry about other people even today, when racism is thought to be almost non-existent. Political radio shows demonstrate the unnatural ability with which news anchor fear-monger, and the commercials are exceptionally keen jabs at America's unique brand of commercialism. Even though the series has moved into a new direction with Grand Theft Auto IV and its expansions, there's still a slyness to all of the branding and parodies that show that Rockstar still has a smirk on its face regarding the humor of their franchise. And the most important part of satire is exaggeration.

Second, Gay Tony is an excellent character. He still carries some of the stereotypical stigmas typically associated with gay culture, but he offers a much more complex character. Though it is technically the word used to describe him, "Gay" does not adequately sum up his person. He's a pill addict and is aware that he is in an abusive relationship, but refuses to leave his boyfriend, even going as far as to say that he enjoys abusive guys. He goes from being a complete screw-up regarding his business to master strategist when contemplating how to evade his debtors. His relationship with Luis Lopez, the protagonist of The Ballad of Gay Tony, can't simply be summed up by a master-and-apprentice relationship or by a clandestine attraction; their friendship is fueled by equal parts contempt and kinship.

But here's the problem. Though Rockstar has made good (not great) strides towards overthrowing some of the stereotypes surrounding certain cultures and races, they severely lack in other places. It always seems as though Rockstar is at once attempting to shatter preconceived notions and perpetuate them. While I'm wrapped up in Tony's self-destructive downward spiral, I'm forced to fly a helicopter for Yusuf, an Arab who misuses his fortune and spouts outdated hip-hop lingo.

It would be one thing if Rockstar had chosen to parody every one of the common stereotypes for this effect. But because they're attempting to create characters that are more than stereotypes, the characters that play like tired cliché's are much more jarring and off-putting. The women still seem to play extremely minor roles --  Elizabeta and Luis' mother, the only female quest-givers in the entirety of the DLC, are nothing more than uninteresting background characters compared to some of the other characters in the game. 

The Episodes From Liberty City expansions could've been a great test to see if fans of the series would connect with a female protagonist, but it was an opportunity that was wasted. Both pieces of DLC are great, but I see several missed opportunities, both from a story and gameplay perspective. All three of the playable characters in GTA IV are more or less the same person; someone who wants to rise above their current status and are forced to kill entire neighborhoods, but still come off as "good people".

What I'm getting at is that Rockstar seems afraid to truly break its own mold, even though it clearly has the desire to do so. Because of their gigantic fan base, it's possible that Rockstar doesn't want to head in a direction too foreign for fans of the previous games in the series; there was already enough controversy regarding GTA IV's more serious tone. 

The wacky and over-the-top characters just don't work with the new formula; Rockstar must create the characters to match its new direction. If every character were as realistic or non-stereotypical as Gay Tony, the new approach would work a much greater level. Recent characters show that Rockstar is at least trying their hand at maturity, and though the results of said maturity vary depending on who you talk to, it's exactly what I want to see from the series -- crazy rampages across open-world areas I can get in plenty of other places now.    

Complexity Vs. Simplicity: Two Approaches to Strategy

Because I don't work at gaming website or magazine, I pick and choose what games I want to review, as opposed to being assigned games for review. The benefits of this approach are many; I don't have to force myself to play through awful games if I don't want to, and I review games that I think I'll actually be able to write something interesting about, rather than re-hashing graphical assessments and "fun factors".

Recently, however, I've tried to reach out of my comfort zone, and try games that normally wouldn't appeal to me. Both Greed Corp and Napoleon: Total War fit this criteria quite nicely. My experience in the strategy genre has been limited to StarCraft and the Advance Wars series, both games I love, so I thought exploring the deeper recesses of the genre would produce satisfying results. Greed Corp appealed to me because it was lighthearted take on turn-based strategy, much like Advance Wars is; Napoleon offered an encompassing realism that would test me.

Though I ended up not reviewing them, I still played them (and am still playing them now), simply because they stimulated the same part of my brain; the part that loves working around rules. What's even more interesting, however, is that these two games go about doing that in completely different ways.

Greed Corp takes the simplest approach possible. It's a quasi-board game, with a hexagonal board, but what differentiates it from other such games is the fact that it favors an aggressive approach. Gathering a single resource with Harversters sucks the land dry, and as a result lowers, cracks, and eventually destroys the tiles around he Harvester. Because of this, you're constantly forced to march on towards the enemy, because not doing so means suicide or losing due to lack of resources. The endgame will usually involve a handful of small islands attacking each other through either cannons or air drops, which both require large amounts of money to operate.

Napoleon, on the other hand, is much more methodical. Every move must be calculated, and executed over a number of turns; gathering armies, building relationships with other countries, and managing your own territories are only a few of the things that any aspiring emperor must commit to over a number of turns. Some of these things can be auto-managed and forgotten about, but even without the more complex aspects, everything must at some point be managed. Battles within the campaign -- a turn-based economy metagame separate from the actual battles -- are also a case of slow execution. You can fast-forward actual movement, but both the circumstances that lead to a battle and foresight will ultimately decide the winner of a battle.

Napoleon also is also a game made up of many small factors that add up. In battle, everything from the orientation of your troops and kind of ammo you're using to the wind speed and weather conditions can affect the flow of battle. Likewise, the amount of cash you rake in during turn in the campaign depends on what trade routes you have control over as well as what towns you have lordship over. There are simply so many things to worry about that managing the smaller facets is as much of an obstacle as the actual "game" is. These sorts of intricacies are why certain people are attracted to games with such complexity; to them, managing these things is as fun as actual going toe-to-toe with England time and again.

Greed Corp, on the other hand, casts out many of these complications for the sake of keeping the gameplay simple. You have single unit, a single building to make those units, a stationary cannon, a carrier for long-range air drops, and harvestors. For a strategy game, that's incredibly simple. Instead, you must focus on marking your territory and attacking the enemy with your Walkers, with battles being a greater than or equal to affair. Missions are quick, even if for the simple fact that you only have 60 seconds to perform your turn.

This doesn't mean that Greed Corp lacks the strategic and management aspects that Napoleon players hold so dear. You must carefully allocate your resource between building units, arming cannons, and building the one-use carrier that will be a necessity once the land battlefield is naught but towering islands. You can also perform some fairly strategic maneuvers, such as dropping a Harvester on a small series of adjoining tiles, dooming them to a slow a profitable death

I love both Greed Corp and Napoleon: Total War. It's interesting, however, how two games with two completely approaches can in equal amounts tense and rewarding. More than any survival-horror game or movie, Greed Corp made me afraid to play it and tense throughout. With no option to save during battles, winning is an all or nothing affair. Likewise, the stakes were so high in Napoleon that I couldn't withstand losing a battle, accessible save system and all. These two games are a great example of how it's possible for the video game industry to give the same sort of pleasure to people of all kinds of disciplines without dumbing down the best aspects of a genre. The "Casual" and "Hardcore" crowds don't exists, in my opinion: there are only varying degrees of desired complexity.


This Or That -- Devil May Cry Vs. Ninja Gaiden

The character-action genre isn't one that's particularly new, but one that has evolved in the new millennium. Much faster than the typical third-person fare and more flexible than the fighting games they try to mimic at times, this new breed of action game has defined a large part of the past two generations. The genre's focus on lightning-fast reflexes excites fighting game fans, and the stylish precision appeals to most everyone else. Constantly outnumbered but rarely outmatched, the player can decimate groups of enemies in a variety of ways, and look good doing it.

I've never been that much of a fan of God of War, so it's automatically disqualified; while the spectacle is certainly there -- more so than either of my two contenders -- but I've always felt that God of War lacked substance. The combat just isn't as varied, as far as I'm concerned. I can get behind a bloody mess or two, but the simplistic combat never did it for me, no matter how many legendary creatures I beheaded. I've also only beaten the first game, so trying to officially qualify it one way or another would be disingenuous.

Devil May Cry, being the first of the two to enter the character-action genre -- either having invented or popularizing it, depending on the people and level of semantics involved -- has a had quite a storied history, considering its recency. Its eight-year history has allowed it ample time to evolve and refine its execution, its characters, and most importantly, its combat.

Devil May Cry's flashy combat is augmented by its gunplay, which serves as a support levy for the melee combat. Dual handguns can keep enemies at bay while you approach them for a sword combo, keep them in the air while you wait for the next enemy to approach, and whittle down enemies' health. Some of the more powerful guns can flow into melee attacks, and they're always good for picking off enemies before they can get near you.

One other aspect of Devil May Cry that differentiates it is its tone of perpetual evaluation. Every time you begin a combo, you're given a letter rank, from D to the absurd SSS, and keeping a combo from dying will give you further points. Because it's something you're always aware of, you're constantly encouraged to do better, which can lead to a more motivated assault than previously thought possible.

Better than most other games in its genre, Devil May Cry is great making what you're doing look crazy onscreen.

Ninja Gaiden, on the other hand, focuses on the more technical aspects of combat. Rather than rewarding each button press with a flashy move, Ninja Gaiden makes you earn each combo. Each move on its own does not inspire the same awe that Devil May Cry's moves do; you have to link several of them in a row to accomplish anything worthy of a youtube video.

But this increased focus on mechanics gives the combat a much larger variety. Looking at a moves list for Ninja Gaiden isn't too different from looking up a Soulcalibur character move list, which is fitting, since the main character, Ryu Hayabusa, is a recurring character in the Dead of Alive series. You can combo anything into anything, and if you know what you're doing, no two combos are the same. There's also nothing more satisfying than working your way up to the devastating Izuna Drop.

You could also argue that Ninja Gaiden's "flash" is gore, but that isn't that interesting of an aspect to me. The Flying Swallow is always fun to execute, but not because it beheads the enemy, but because it's an intimidating introduction to a battle.

Ninja Gaiden hasn't had as much time to develop its combat, especially if we disregard to older, more pixelated entries in the series. On top of that, Ninja Gaiden 2 was a shadow of the first, which was brilliantly designed. Ninja Gaiden only nailed it once, but that one entry was all that I needed to get hooked on the rest of the franchise. Ninja Gaiden 2 was still enjoyable, but just not as methodical as the first.

Still, I ultimately side with Ninja Gaiden on this important issue. Devil May Cry's flash makes it feel as though it lacks substance, even when it doesn't. Because you have to earn every great combo, it makes the accomplishment that much greater, that much more real. It's the best kind of character combat period, even if it is the least forgiving.


A D-Pad Kid in an Arcade Stick World.

 The local arcade of the small Mexican pueblo of San Ignacio Cerro Gordo was a frequent hang-out spot for a four-year-old me, as well as many of my brothers and cousins, who at the time were more or less my only friends. The dark walls of the arcade were lit only by monitors, and much of the chattering one heard was drowned out by frequent video game sound effects and dialogue. There were many kinds of games available, but the most frequent, by far, were the kinds of games that thrived on human interaction: fighting games. The dialogue heard was hardly coherent; it consisted of yells of ridiculous moves and long-winded death cries. The lighting-fast nature of their competition made fighting games the clear favorite at my local arcade. When one person challenged another, it would be over within 99 seconds, and the victor would move on to next opponent; a mandatory pace when there was always a few quarters or personal items on or next to the machine indicating the next person in line.

There was another element that made fighting games superior to the driving sims and gimmick light-gun games: the arcade stick. The six-button layout and bat or lollipop-shaped joysticks were mashed and jostled constantly from the opening to closing of the arcade. The buttons were responsive, and the stick reacted as fast as the hand that twirled it, or so it seemed. Players would make due with broken parts, which were rarely considered a handicap; if you couldn't move in a certain direction of use a certain move, it was your fault, though it didn't stop many a player from whining. The controllers were always perfect, and failing to use them effectively, flaws or not, was considered user error.

I was never old enough to effectively use these awe-inspiring machines. I watched people's hands move about the buttons and sticks frantically, and would try to emulate those gestures when someone begrudgingly gave me, the youngest person in the group, my turn. My spastic flailing at the machine never won me any matches, though it did get some laughs from the older kids. What I never learned back then was that there was a method to these people's madness; between all of the fancy arm positions -- crossing one's hands so that the right hand was using the stick and the left hand the buttons, holding a slightly clenched hand right above the buttons for supposedly faster reaction times -- people knew what they were doing. I could only admire their performance art from afar, and worship at the altar of the mighty arcade cabinet.

I've never owned a arcade stick. When Street Fighter II Turbo arrived in our family's home -- through the purchase of a cartridge at a flea market that actually had a Mortal Kombat II label on it -- we had to settle for the D-pad and stick buttons of our Super Nintendo controllers. This is where I learned to play fighting games, and how I still play them today. Street Fighter 4 caused my forgotten appreciation of the arcade stick to return, and I almost bought one, but I knew that I would only hinder myself. I'm a native D-pad player; I know how to perform most of the combos possible with arcade stick as quickly with a PS3 controller.

Many people's fondness for arcade sticks comes from the fact that to them, it's the only way to play fighting games. Though I'll likely never share in such a culture, I can still appreciate the role of such a controller in fighting game culture -- it makes the fighting genre seem like the field of the specialist simply through the interface, though this appreciation never helps when everyone has tournaments using the 360 version of a game, which is no way to fight.


Retro Vs. Remake: Appreciating Old Games

 I have a horribly embarrassing confession to make: I've never played a Half-Life game. Not the original game, not its sequel, and certainly not most of its offspring, save for Portal and Team Fortress 2. I'm aware of this horrendous gap in my gaming portfolio, but I can't bring myself to rectify it. I think my biggest reason for having not played Half-Life 2, which I have not only in the 360 version of The Orange Box but also my Steam profile, is that I want to play the original Half-Life first. People tell me I don't have to play the first to enjoy the second, but I know that if I skip it before then, I'll never go back to it.

So why not just play Half-Life? I feel like I'm setting myself up for disappointment; I just don't think I can appreciate it like so many people did back in '98. Not only are the graphics dated, but it's just a different monster from the first-person shooters of today. Hearing superlatives about its storytelling and its influence on the game industry, I don't feel as though I'll be able to appreciate it as I should. Since I can't revert my mind to the state it should be in to appreciate the game to its fullest, I don't feel like playing it at all, and would rather take people's word when they say it's the greatest game ever made.

So how do we appreciate the classics of our medium? The obvious answer is "Just play it as it the developers intended and stop whining," and I realize that I sound shallow, but some games are unbearably old. This isn't usually a problem in the 2D space, since the pixelated art style has become a mainstay of the industry. But in 3D, things can get ugly. Someone once told me that The Legend of Dragoon is amazing game, and I believe them, but I can't standing looking at those horrible polygons for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

But there's perhaps a shred of hope in Black Mesa, a total conversion mod for Half-Life 2 that essentially remakes Half-Life. It'd get rid of my polygonal problem, and would allow me to enjoy the story of the game in manner that could possibly replicate the magic of the original. Unfortunately, the release date for the mod is vague at best, and waiting to play a game that came out over ten years ago is...odd. There's also the fact that technically speaking, I'm not playing Half-Life anymore, or at least not the Half-Life as Valve intended. Valve itself attempted to remake Half-Life with Half-Life: Source, but it met with middling reviews.

Using a remake as a way to enjoy a game for the first time might sound like heresy to the hardcore gamers of the world, but it's a valid avenue. I enjoyed the Gamecube remake of the first Resident Evil much more than I did the original, and it's the base of my love for the franchise. Many people believe BioShock to be a remake of System Shock 2 in a different setting, and if those people are right, then BioShock the greatest remake I've ever played, and one that may have surpassed its inspiration.

Were you to ask a movie buff about my issue, he'd clearly go with the retro route, since remakes of classic movies are generally never as good as their often black-and-white counterparts. But movies don't age as badly as games do; aside from making the grave error of avoiding a movie simply because of a lack of color, movies more or less look the same, save for a few filters. A music buff would similarly dismiss this question; covers of songs vary in quality, but most would agree that having a different artist perform a song changes it entirely.

Perhaps I should bring that reasoning into Half-Life. Black Mesa may end up being a great remake, or even a better game than the original 1998 release, but it won't be the same one. It won't be the game that changed the way first-person shooters told a story. I'll just have to buck up and enjoy those low-res bobbling heads.


Foes We Fear: Can Videogames Recreate Genocide?

Watching the movie Hotel Rwanda in my AP English class over the last couple of days, I began to take an interest in the Interahamwe Hutu tribe soldiers over the Tutsi refugees inside the hotel they were attempting to kill. I wasn't immune to the plight of the Tutsi nor was I siding with the Hutu, I just had a morbid curiosity into the convictions of these soldiers, and what sort of conditions could lead to the genocide of over 100,000 people.

As many of you likely know, the reasons for the genocide are complex, and best not covered in detail here. What's important for the sake of this article – and how it relates to videogames – is how the Interahamwe themselves serve as the enemy in Hotel Rwanda ; they, in many respects, are an enemy more dangerous and unnerving than many of the zombies, armored soldiers, or monsters that serve as fodder for the common videogame player.

Perhaps the most scary thing about them is our inability to relate to them in any way. With Nazis, for example, you're at least slightly aware that though their leaders were horribly corrupt and demented individuals, the particular people you're fighting are usually only following orders, and that it's usually not a personal matter.

With monsters, we know their line of reasoning: instinct. Whether they're animals who are simply trying to feed themselves or genetically engineered monsters who are designed to kill, enemies without rational thought scare because as much as we like to think we've come closer to understanding animals, we simply cannot to relate to their thought process. Shawn Elliott wrote a blog discussing just this sort of thing. Zombies, he states, “are superficial humans who've lost their human essence,” and that's why they're one step above animals on the horror spectrum; not only do we feel righteous in killing these empty shells – ordinarily, we cannot easily justify the death of a human who doesn't know any better – we cannot understand what being a zombie would be like, and we fear being like them.

The Interahamwe soldiers that massacred their fellow countrymen fall completely outside either of these classifications. Most were eager participants in the slaughter (though many Hutus were forced into committing murder), and they are completely aware of their actions. This is the crucial difference that disables us from relating to them, and thus makes them much more of an eerie foe. Most of us simply cannot understand why people would ruthlessly murder their own kind en masse.

How can videogames create such powerfully moving enemies? Inherently, they can't; much of the fear they create is undoubtedly related to the fact that they are real groups committing these crimes, much like terrorist organizations the world over. No matter what we do within the confines of a fictional world, we know that at the end of the day that none of it is real. Fiction is certainly capable of carrying the heavy emotional weight of genocide, but no matter the feelings a story can elicit, it can't come close to actually being a part of en event.

Nazis fall under this category as well, though by now they've worn out their welcome in the gaming world, regardless of the holocaust they committed, which games have poorly portrayed anyway.

A problem specific to videogames is the aspect of failure. No matter how powerful a scene in a game is, it loses some if its impact if you have to retry the sequence again and again. Assuming that a videogame about the Rawandan genocide was made – and that it could somehow pay the subject matter the appropriate amount of respect – the people you would be fighting or feeling from would eventually lose their ferocity.

Perhaps the closest videogames have gotten to mimicking the situation of Hotel Rwanda has been Resident Evil 5, the supposed racial aspects of which were its most maligned feature.

How can games create enemies as fearsome as the real world has? I don't think they can, honestly. The hordes of Nazis we fight will always be scarier to our in-game avatars than they are to us


First-Person Writing -- Mass Effect 2 (spoilers)

This was an entry for writing prompt over at  

 Warning: This article contains spoilers for the ending of Mass Effect 2.

I have 625 achievement points out of the full thousand for Mass Effect 2, and my entire team needs to survive in order for me to get another 300. I'm pretty sure I've talked to everyone in my crew about every topic possible (though not every topic I'd like to), but I distinctly remember not being able to buy a ship upgrade due to lack of resources. I should have gone back to my ship to check in with everyone before activating the Omega 4 Relay, from which I cannot return. Did I remember to come back and talk to Jack? I don't like her, but I hope I did.

As soon as I enter eerie spaceship-littered home of the collectors, Seth Green almost clashes into some debris, but I'm not sure if that's affected by my choice of upgrades. It could just be that he's Seth Green. I quickly learn, however, that the game is going to explicitly tell me what upgrades I did and did not buy, which is going to make that much more heart-wrenching when I realize which piece I missed. I've kept only one save, so I can't go back. I know it seems like a pointless thing to worry about something as menial as points in a game like Mass Effect 2, but I just can't help myself.

Luckily for me, the new plating for the ship holds up and I've upgraded its kinetic barriers. There's an intrusion in the cargo hold, but Shepard's got it. As I continue my assault on the Collector base/ship, they prepare the weapon that destroyed the last ship I was on, but my main guns fire first, decimating the opposing spacecraft. Still, I hit a rough spot towards the end, and my ship crash-lands near an entrance, but no one is killed. By the time I exit the ship, I'm certain that this crash was unavoidable. Still, I blame Seth Green.

But as soon as I enter the actual location of the so-called "Suicide Mission", I realize that my trial has only begun. I have to send someone into the duct system to hack... something, I didn't pay too much attention. I also need to build two teams. I send Legion into the vent because he's a robot; if he can't hack a computer, it's probably furniture. Next, I choose Mordin and Grunt to join my squad, because Grunt's a tank, and Mordin because he breaks shields like Grunt breaks faces. For my secondary team, I choose Garrus as leader, because that dude knows his shit. Miranda joins him because she's loyal, and Jack because she's crazy and loyal, and crazy is usually a sign of power. I disable the valves in Legion's way as I make my own way into the base without incident. There's a point where Mordin is downed, but I hope that doesn't affect the achievement and move on.

Next, I have to choose someone to raise I biotic (read: magic) shield for me to cross a swarm of seekers. Jack seems like the likely choice, but I choose Samara because I don't want to go anywhere near Jack. I also need a diversion team, which retains the same members as the secondary team. This walk inside a shield, too, finishes without incident. No one's died yet. Unfortunately, someone have to escort my defenseless crew back to the ship, and I chose Grunt because of his tank-like quality, and replace him with Tali, because... well, I chose Tali.

After successfully escorting Samara and crew to the next area, I have to choose to rush ahead or have everyone else hold the doors and keep the Collectors at bay while I move on to the final battle. This is where it takes me while to decide... should I risk rushing ahead, or risk someone dying while stemming the tide. Eventually I take Garrus and Mordin, and leave everyone else to defend the doors. My team members die several times on our way to the final battle, but I don't think that this will affect my ending.

As we reach the end and the game reveals the Human Reaper as the last boss, I sigh in disappointment and take him down about 4 or 5 minutes in. More pressing is the issue of an explosion that I'm not sure everyone has recovered from. After my team recovers, I rush back to the ship as the one I'm currently on is about to explode. As I approach the Normandy, Seth Green covering my ass as my teammates board the ship, I have to make that final jump. After almost sliding off, Mordin helps me up, and we fly off. Fly off into victory.

Blee-Bloop! Victory and 300 points, that is. 

Following the Rules: The Thrill of Intricate Design.

In December of 2009, Steve Horvath, VP of Marketing and Communications for Board and Card game publisher Fantasy Flight Games, announced that the company would no longer continue to support The Universal Fighting System (UFS), a card game based on fighting-game franchises such as Street Fighter, Soulcalibur, and Tekken. A huge fan of the game though I had stopped playing in May of last year, I decided to revisit what cards I had left and try to make some decks to mess around with. I quit the game because of the money-sink that any Collectible Card Game eventually becomes, not because I had fallen out of love with it.

UFS was complex even by card game standards. Like many card games, UFS was governed by a set of rules that define how the game is played, but its design was based directly on fighting games, and as such, players controlled one character, performed and blocked attacks through control checks, there were symbols and card difficulties to abide by, and effects and phases that took place in set orders* -- all things that made that intimidated casual players.

But it was these sorts of intricacies that made the game fun. Along with building your deck to counter your opponent's cards, using the correct cards in a given situation is what makes you feel accomplished in any card game. Though this level of complexity is usually the realm of Warhammer and its peers, in almost any video game, you are immediately constricted by a certain amount of rules, even when they're not overt; in a first-person shooter, for example, it's a given that if you are shot a certain amount of times, you will die.

But the rules become more important the more numerous they are. To me, Advance Wars isn't fun because of the way it's like real warfare, it's fun because of the ways that it's not; warring sides don't take turns to attack each other on a gird, but it's more strategic to move each of your units one at a time. Valkyria Chronicles is great because of the way it works direct control of a character into the byzantine design of turn-based strategy, not because it just lets you move an avatar around the battlefield.

A recent mantra of many game designers and publishers today is that simpler is better, that complexity is off-putting to key demographics who just want to enjoy a game. It's certainly easy to connect complexity with difficulty, because having more limits can seem restrictive, and therefore harder to manage. But like harder games, the sense of accomplishment that comes from achieving victory under restrictions and obstacles can be far more enjoyable than a game without any sort of limits or rules.

It isn't just about games where there are many small idiosyncrasies to learn either. Games like Starcraft and Street Fighter are easy to pick up play, because the principles of hitting an opponent or guiding a unit to a destination are simple in nature. Once you learn the fundamentals, however, the metagame the forms around reading your opponent and and playing mind games with them can be just as difficult to learn as an board or card game. Once you learn about a game's hidden depth, it becomes that much more fun to play, because it can often feel like you're playing a completely new game. Victory comes with a unique sense of accomplishment that comes not only from having defeated your opponent, but from understanding the systems under which you did so.

Simple games have their place, and fun without adulteration and forced restrictions is rewarding in its own right. But something like UFS still has a place**, and games that force you to learn systems within systems can be fun in their own right. Perhaps this why my government class excites me so much; what can I say, checks and balances are enticing.

*A pdf of the official tournament rules for UFS as of April 21st, 2009 can be found here.
** On XBLA or PSN one day, I hope.


Agree to Disagree: A Call for More Open Debate in Podcasts.

When I'm listening to a podcast, I usually imagine myself in the room with the participants, conversing with them in my head; I take their viewpoints and compare them with my own, arriving at a conclusion not unlike that which you might have with real life group of people.  I don't agree with everyone's point of view, but that's only to be expected. I usually have a better time when I'm debating with someone's points than I do when I agree with them.
This metaphysical experience works best when the breadth of perspectives that a podcast can provide creates genuine discussion on a topic, and when those opinions are as varied as possible. What I've found is that variety of expressed opinions on a podcast is in fact the exception, when it should be the norm.

I won't go so far as to say that most people on podcasts all come from similar podcasts or share the same opinions on everything, because it's not true. The problem comes from the confrontation that comes with disagreement; if someone has something to say that disagrees with the rest of the group, they'd better be able to back it up right then and there. Contrast this with writing, where you have all the time in the world to compose your argument. Though many people share different opinions on many topics, if you fail at verbalizing your point of view effectively, you might end up looking foolish.

But when debate works, it benefits everyone. The 1UP Yours podcast was at its best when Luke Smith and Shane Bettenhausen bickered at length over Sony and Microsoft's strategy for the current generation. Though the arguments tended to get very juvenile at times, it was worth the gripes to listen to both sides of an argument rather than a boring consensus. My favorite episode of the Giant Bombcast is the 2008 Game of the Year episode, in which the bashed heads in order to decide what game was most worthy of the title. Though I didn't necessarily agree with their final decision, the logical discussion that lead up to the result was enabled me to accept their choice.

It's difficult to force people into discussion they'd rather not venture into, especially when the people you're podcasting with are close friends. The arguments you have in a recording booth undoubtedly spill over outside. But this type of discussion is valuable to both the people in the discussion and the listener. For the listener, it allows them to "participate" in the conversation vicariously through a person whose opinion on the matter they share. When everyone is in strict agreement without much debate, those who don't agree feel "left out" of the conversation because they can't relate.

Providing a wider range of opinions -- whether they agree or not -- lets more people feel like they're in the conversation. If a listener feels as though the podcast never ever shares their opinion, they're less likely to listen to that podcast regularly. It's fun to disagree with someone every once in a while, but when you simply can't see where a particular group is coming from, it's difficult to debate futilely for a long time. If you can manage having members who appeal to several audiences, you have a greater chance of having more people listen to what you have to say as an individual and as a group.

It's a difficult problem to address, honestly. If your podcast lacks variety, should you just have someone on because they're likely to disagree with you? Perhaps, but it's runs the risk of coming as though you're only having that person on to boost ratings. Discussions have to flow naturally, and if you can manage honest debate about a topic that can provide new insight to both the listeners and the participants, it ends up being better entertainment for everyone.

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