What makes a game better than the rest?

My delightful Return to Night Springs with Alan Wake's American Nightmare

I really enjoyed my first trip with Alan Wake in Bright Falls. I had heard a lot of buzz leading up to the games release, and was completely engaged in the television style storytelling and Stephen King-esque narrative when I finally got my hands on it. To me it was greater than the sum of it's parts. I was sincerely invested in who Alan Wake was, and the strangely humorous yet fascinating world he was discovering with me in the passenger seat. Playing Alan Wake recalled feelings of when I first played Grand Theft Auto III, Bioshock, and Half Life 2. Discovering the world and characters of those games was as much fun as playing the game itself, and it's what I remember the most. When Alan Wake's American Nightmare was announced, I wasn't interested in what new weapons or enemies were added, or game modes, or anything game play specific, really. I just heard the name Alan Wake and was eager to once again journey with him in his world.

Unfortunately that eagerness was overshadowed by other aspects of my life, gaming and non gaming related. Also I have a self imposed rule to not buy games at full price; especially digital downloads. This rule helps me keep my impulse video game purchases at bay, and allows me to play my large backlog, while I wait for a drop in price of games on my wish list. When it went on sale and after I finally got around to recently playing it, I figured the distance between when I played the original would hinder my ability to quickly jump back into that world. But, much like any good memory that lasts, it didn't. Alan Wake was back, and it was like he never left.

The Business of Playing a Game

I realize that Alan Wake's American Nightmare isn't as revered as the games I mentioned above, or a lot of the major games that were released in 2012 for that matter. Critics seemed to either dismiss it for not being as lengthy or compelling as the original, or give it more thought beyond an average review score. I think the reason Alan Wake isn't a super mega blockbuster franchise is because it really is one of those games that you have to play it to see if you like it. I can't blindly recommend it like a Portal or Red Dead Redemption or Batman: Arkham City. Those are games that target specific genres at the same time crossing the bridge into many others. They have a lot of universal elements that can make a lot of people happy they are playing them. Franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Mario, etc. all have something for everyone and are easy to recommend and sing the praises of night in and night out from one video game blog to the next. But not Alan Wake. When I talk about how much I love it, and in hopes that it grows into a large franchise, I always say it with a disclaimer, "But that's how I feel, you might not enjoy it as much."

The hope is that the person will. But why do I feel the need to add a disclaimer to a game I feel passionately about? is it because it hasn't receive similar praises elsewhere? Am I afraid that they will Google the top ten games of 2012 and maybe only see Alan Wake's name once, compared to the overflowing nominations of Walking Dead or X-Com or Mass Effect 3. But can't my disclaimer be said for all games? Let's examine the game of the year discussions: Walking Dead, Journey, X-Com, etc, etc. It's an endless repetition of this game is great because it has this many stars or 9's out of 10's and this best of year list matters because it's another one person's opinion. Or decided on by a committee whose declaration is born from not because it was enjoyed the most by everyone but for meeting a very specific criteria relative only to the people involved, or the website/blog/organization they represent. Does that take away the merit of any of these games? No, and it shouldn't. But I think what it does take away from, is why we play games. Why we get excited for games. Why we want other people to play games. Why we want games to be considered it's own and not be held in the same category of art/entertainment as movies, t.v., and literature.

I feel it also takes away from what makes a game unique. We shouldn't sit around and talk about why Journey should be game of the year over Walking Dead and vice versa. We shouldn't try and put a 1 next to X-Com and 2 next to Black Ops. We can't take what makes one game special and expect it to compete over another game's individuality. We celebrate the New Year because of what we have accomplished in the past, and what we look forward to accomplishing in the future. We should celebrate the games we enjoy the most, and not try to compare them against other's. We shouldn't weigh our lists against others and establish points to games that get voted the most and create a whole due process as to why a game needs to be heralded as Game of The Year. We should try to encourage other's to play the games we love, so that they can share in our experience, not to promote the best of the best.

All There Is To Do Is Play The Game

What happens to a game that "wins" a game of the year, or makes a best of the year list? When I look at those lists, I either recognize games I've played or didn't play. Does it make me view those games differently? No. If you call Walking Dead game of the year, do I look back on my experience with it and does that change it? No. I can't change how I felt. We also can't change how someone will react. If I tell someone to play Walking Dead, and they tell me they didn't like it, by me adding, "But it won game of the year!" won't make them say, "Oh, really? Well, in that case, I did like it." In the end we are going to enjoy what we like. I think people try to use game of the year lists to publicize games that may be their favorite or games they think everyone should be playing, but it doesn't change anyone's perception when they actually pick up and play the game. It's an exhausting, end of the year battle of emotions that in the end is pointless. Until we are able to convey why a game is worth playing without star rankings or letter grades or it's number on a list, only then will we able to convince someone to play something we enjoy. We will have made it personal to ourselves, and hopefully that connects with the other person on their own level that gets them to pick up the controller and play.

When I turn on a game like American Nightmare, I'm not thinking "Game of the Year" or "Is this better than Walking Dead?" or "Would I rather play this or Resident Evil 4?" I'm thinking about the story of Alan Wake. The craziness of Mr. Scratch. The puzzling yet compelling narrative. The colorful yet flawed archetypes that make Night Springs charming and unique. I'm thinking about an experience that I can't find in other games, because Night Springs doesn't exist anywhere else, except in the first Alan Wake. I'm thinking about what makes it unique, and how that doesn't make it better than the rest. I'm thinking how much fun I'm having and how do I express it the next time someone asks "Have you ever played Alan Wake's American Nightmare? Is it good? Should I play it?"

I think it's good. But you shouldn't play it unless you've played the first one.

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How To Be A Better Gamer: Finish Your Games

95% of the games I own I have yet to finish.

They're just waiting around to be played with like Woody and the gang from Toy Story 3. That number is an educated guess, and I am in the process of figuring out the real percentage of unfinished games I own, but fearfully I know that's probably going to be close to what it is. I can honestly say this is a problem I've always had. I buy way more games than I have the time to play them, and what happens a lot of the time is I end up selling or trading those games I barely touched. Worse than that, some stay among my collection as a reminder of my horrible habit. I need to remedy this problem.

The problem I thought was the source of my obssesive purchasing was that I considered myself a completionist. I would spend a lot of time on one game trying to 100% it, and let all other games fall to the wayside. In retrospect, the completionist mentality I have wasn't the problem. In fact, I think it's completely healthy to want to play a game all the way through, and to have a sense of closure with it, if that means obtaining 100%. But while seeking that closure, I was still buying other games, sometimes at release, only to go back to that game I was trying to complete. That inability to finish what I started without starting a new task: that is the problem. And it's not only effecting my gaming.

The more I realize that I love to start games but never finish them, the more I see that my real life projects suffer the same fate. It's a very upsetting thought, and it makes me question why I play video games. I know I am very passionate about video games, and it is my favorite hobby hands down. Most of the time, all I would want to do is play games than do anything else. Yet I think I've reached a point in my life as a gamer that I've become saturated with the wealth of gaming possiblities around me that I need to regain control of my passion.

When I was a kid I didn't have this problem, because I could only play the games my parents bought for me. I had the luxury to focus on one game because chances are it would be months before I received my next one. Sometimes I got really lucky and would get two, maybe three games for Christmas! In the past six months I've downloaded probably three times that from XBLA alone. When I was responsible enough to afford my own games my purchases became out of control, and no matter how many times I tried purging my library of unplayed games, it would build up again.

I fear that the future of gaming poses a real threat in exploiting my weakness in controlling my purchases. Games are going digital. They have been for a few years now, and will continue to do so. I fully embrace the movement; I love having all my games in a digital form than physical. It's simple and easy to purchase a game and to start playing right away. It's also very satisfying for me in not having to worry about the space a my collection of games takes up. But then there are all these attractive sales that happen on XBLA and Steam, and week by week I will purchase a game and instead of it sitting physically on a shelf my games suffer a similar fate digitally, which somehow seems more tragic. It's almost as if it helps keep my problem hidden because I can't see all the moeny I've spent on games I've played once or twice staring back at my constantly. Plus, I can never resell any of these purchases; they are now with me for life.

The prospect of my games being more of a negative financial impact on my life than a positive one is the big indicator that I need to change things around. I tried over a year ago to remedy this, vowing I would complete my unfinished games. Sadly it was a failed experiment. But I want to turn over a new leaf. If I can have a sense of maddening persistence in some the games that I play in unlocking an achievement or secret, I need to incorporate that into my real life and behavior. If I can be so passionate about games, than I owe it to myself as a gamer to give each one I purchase the time it deserves. Lately I've been feeling games are a negative in my life, and I need to make them positive again.

I used to think being a completionist was a negative habit to have...but not anymore. I admire people who set out to complete games because they have an enjoyment in that experience that I strive to have. The games that I've 100% completed in my lifetime have always stayed with me more so than the games I just beat once. I was replaying Gears of War recently, a game in which I use to own and only beat once. I was amazed as to how little I remembered: I barely remembered some of the missions or characters, and even the controls felt foreign to me. Yet when I purchased Super Mario World on the Virtual Console, a game I had 100% in my childhood, it was like riding a bike. I remembered pretty much everything, and after a few minutes it felt like I had never stop playing. There are a few games I have that experience with, and it is a joy that overwhems me because that is why I play games.

I want to complete the games I have, but I don't want to make it a burden. I don't want to challenge or limit myself to this goal feeling pressured that if I don't accomplish this, I have failed. This time, as I set about completing my games, I'm going to have fun. It's not a race to the finish line, it's simply me reconnecting to why I play games in the first place. I also have to start letting go of the need to play other games because honestly, they aren't going anywhere. It's going to be all about focus. If I can do that, I can be a better gamer.

Do you struggle with this issue, or something similiar? How are you trying to resolve it? I would love to hear some advice. Thanks for reading.

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Everything New Is Old Again

Over a year and a half ago I created a challenge for myself and I failed.

I created a challenge for myself and I failed. The challenge was to play all the video games I owned until completion and blog* about my experiences. I imposed strict rules on myself about not buying new video games, getting perfect gamerscores, taking lots of pretty pictures, etc. I was really focused and committed to this goal...for about a month. I like to say, "then life got in the way" and to an extent it did: I moved from my hometown, had to find a new job, and had a daughter to raise. Any one of these things could distract anyone from achieving some lofty goals, and I was dealing with it all at once. But now I look back at it and realize... I could have been more focused. I could have found some time to do something related to my goal. Anything. I certainly found the time to break all the rules I created for myself. I purchased plenty of new games, some that I did play to completion. I even sold a lot of games that I vowed I would finally finish. And I wasn't writing which was the real reason I endeavored such a task. Looking back at it all, I realized I failed not because of the activity that was surrounding my life. I failed because I did not fully commit myself to the project.

So...can I do it again? I want to try. This time I would like to approach it differently. I actually haven't really nailed down my "ultimate goal" yet. I'm beginning to realize maybe it shouldn't be one goal I should limit myself to, but instead tackle my gaming lifestyle as a whole. I want to be more productive as a gamer. Not only in how I spend my time but: I want to spend my money more wisely, enjoy my games more fully, and experience the gaming culture in a more positive way than I am now. I also want to embrace my passion I have for video gaming and manifest that in some creative form.

I want this to be the next phase of my life as a gamer. I've been playing games for a long time, but now I think it's time to get a little more serious about what they mean to me, and how I can make them more meaningful in my life.

I will consider this my opening statement; it's a little vague and not fully realized like my upcoming plans are, and I like that. If I don't limit myself, at least for right now in this beginning phase, I have more freedom to explore exactly what it is I need from my games and what I want to do. Hopefully this won't be the last blog for another year and a half, like the one below.

And if you've been reading this, I have a question for you that I would love to hear a response for: Have you ever created a personal goal for yourself involving video games that you failed at? Do you regret it? Would you ever try restarting it again?

Thanks for reading.

*This is the blog I created so that you may say the fruits of my labor. I recently changed the name of my blog's url to more reflect my current goals, and hopefully I'll start updating that blog regularly too, along with blogging on this site.

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My "Common Xbox 360 Achievements" Challenge

123. 
That is the amount of "common" achievements I have yet to obtain in my 360 games.  If you are like me, then you love collecting achievements. I think they are great; they give me incentive to play games in ways I would never imagine playing. They also give me a chance to test my skill with my games. Some are really hard. Some are really easy. Those green achievements I see here on Giantbomb, I like to call those the "easy" achievements. Giantbomb lists them as common because, well, everybody has them. You're nothing special if you have those achievements. In fact, you're less than special if you don't have them. 
So in my endless quest of achievement hunting, I will go after all of the common achievements I don't have.  Here are the games, and the number of "easy" achievements I've failed to get:
 
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (41) 
Street Fighter IV (8) 
Green Day Rock Band (8) 
Rock Band (1) 
Guitar hero II (5) 
LEGO Rock Band (7) 
Mass Effect (4) 
Geometry Wars 2 (10) 
The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (6) 
Sonic the Hedgehog (3) 
Castlevania SOTN (2) 
Defense Grid (2) 
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (4) 
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (12) 
Sonic & Knuckles (10) 
  
123. That's a pretty intimidating number. Something tells me, this probably won't be so easy...     
 
What do you think? Care to join me on this challenge and go after your own common 'chievos?  

Already got them all, and looking to get those uncommon and rare ones out of the way?  

Any other achievement challenge ideas you can come up with? Share them with me!  

Think I'm crazy? Aren't we all? ;-)

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My experience with "Silent Hill: Shattered Memories"

I recently rented Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii from Gamefly. I've never been a fan of the series, as I've never played a single entry in the franchise. But my fiance was a big fan of the original and she was really interested in this re-imagining of the first. So I added it to my que, as I enjoy it when she watches me play games. She gets really excited, and scared, if they are horror games.  
Silent Hill did indeed start out pretty scary. Even though I've never played a single game of Silent Hill before, just knowing about the franchise was enough to get me anxious in the opening moments of the game. It was dark, eerily quiet, and all I had was a flashlight. Then the first chase sequence came, and we were both a little on the edge of our seats. As the game went on, there weren't any monsters chasing us beyond those sequences, but that was ok because what was more disturbing was the phone messages and the stories we were uncovering. All this was very different from what we expected, and we were definitely along for the ride... until about the third chase.  
Then it started to get frustrating. Suddenly, the chase wasn't as straight forward as the first two, and I had to rely on the map. Unfortunately, the map is completely useless in this game. I barely knew where I was, or how to get to where I was going. Also, I needed to be isolated from those creatures chasing me because I had to stop running to take out my map. And if I wanted to use my map as I went forward, I could only walk and not run. This made things very difficult and annoying.
As the chase sequences became more and more frustrating and less fun, so too did everything that happened in between. Sure there were a few neat puzzle moments, like in the art room, but a lot of what happened in between wasn't very rewarding. It became quite clear that the formula was: walk around, possibly encounter an NPC, look for stuff, then get chased. We were not looking forward to the getting chased part therefore we were losing interest in wanting to complete the puzzles that progressed the plot. 
As for the plot, it started off ok like the rest of the game, but it too became confusing, dull, and frustrating. More questions than answers were piling up, and the lack of believable responses form the protagonist was unnerving, and we didn't know if he was seeing what we were seeing. We were completely lost, and as I went on, we both felt no desire to continue. 
Yet when it seemed like things couldn't get any worse, the game ended with it's "twist". I won't spoil it, but it made the both of us very upset. Again it left us with more questions about the events of the game than answers. The most important one being, "What was the point of playing this story?" 
It was the first rental from Gamelfy I felt disappointed in getting. What felt like an eternity of suffering through pointless plot, bad dialogue, annoying chase sequences, and an overall disappointing gaming experience, ended up being only 7 hours and 3 disc starts (as my Wii says). This was another disappointing feature; being so short a game. On the bright side if it was any longer, I'd probably go insane too. 
At least I didn't pay for it. And even if you are a fan of the seres, I recommended you don't either. 

 Make sure you got a good map, and run as fast as you can from this game.
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Where Do I Begin? (Or, How GameFly Will Change My Life)

My daddy's day gift was a 2 - game plan membership to Gamefly. I have a very special lady if she gets me a gift that is guaranteed to increase my playing video games when I should instead be, oh I don't know, taking care of our kid. This is one of the best gifts I have ever received, and it was something I was looking forward to ever since Gamefly first appeared on the scene. Why? The obvious answer is that I love games, and I can't afford all of them therefore I miss out on a lot of games. The less obvious answer is: having a gamefly account is the answer to all my gaming problems. 
I started a blog at the beginning of the year on 1up.com, and my goal for that was to play only the games that I owned for all of 2010, nothing else. See I have close to 50 games that I haven't either finished, 100%, or even touched, and it was starting to really get to me. Every time I would buy a new game, I'd feel bad because I knew that there were games I already owned that I haven't even played, good games too (i.e.: I bought Twilight Princess on release, but never played more than an hour on it). I would overload on my game purchases and buy games in bulk like I was shopping at Sam's Club yet I wasn't getting my money's worth. Yeah I owned all these games, but what's the point if I didn't play them. 
So for the first half of the year I did pretty well. I completed a bunch of Xbox Live arcade games, racked up on achievements, and I was gaining a much larger appreciation for the games I owned and really feeling these past purchases were worth it. I was doing well on my blog too: writing constantly, gaining fans and support, and finally feeling I was putting my passion for video games to good use. But then, I had to move... 
Moving was very stressful for my wife and I as we grew tired of living in NYC, and decided we needed a change of pace. So we got out of the city, and moved upstate. Yes it may not be as exciting, but I realized I prefer peace and quiet than excitement. During the move I got really out of touch with my blog and it was hard getting back into it again. When I received GameFly, I was excited but knew that my goal was going to be over, because there was no way I was going to pass up on Gamefly. 
But now I've decided that I'm going to make it a very productive membership. Remember the problems I mentioned earlier? Well my gaming problems are: money, "completing" a game, and purpose. Gamefly is one of the best deals in gaming right now. Sure you don't get to keep the game, but maybe, and this is an idea I've only come to realize with age, maybe I don't need to own games anymore.  
I first realized this during Batman Arkham Asylum. I wanted it so bad when it first came out, but I had no money. I hadn't purchased a new game in a while but the demo confirmed that I had to get that game. My friend told me he got it day one, and a couple of days later, he let me know he had already beat it, and was thinking of trading it in. But before he did, he asked if I wanted to borrow it. "Of course!" And I loved it. It was fantastic and anyone whose played it knows this. But I beat it rather quickly too, maybe a little too quickly. So to get more out of it I went after the achievements...which didn't take long either. Huh. Here I was, sitting with a 1000 gamerscore, within two weeks of the games release, with only 5 days of actually playing the game, and I had did it all. Like I said, I loved the game, but there was a part of me that said, "Glad, I didn't buy this right away." It was a new part of me that realized, I would've spent 60 dollars on a game for a few days of enjoyment, and then it would sit back in my collector's pile, maybe to never be played again? Suddenly, I realized that my passion for gaming had a dark side. 
Yes I know gamefly will help me save money, but I'm going to track all the games I rent, for my first year of gamefly, and see how much money I actually save. I'm going to track when I received a game, how long it takes me to beat it, complete it, and return it. If possible, I'm going to track the hours I spent on the game too. Also, on the day I received the game, I'm going to search and see the best price I would pay for that game if I were to buy it on that day. At the end of the year I will look at all the time I spent on the game's, and the money I would have spent compared with the cost of the membership for the year. 
Hopefully this will put into perspective why I play video games. Now, I won't get to own the games I play, but I think there is a positive side to that. I think I take for granted that I own so many games and many of them I've never played. I always say to myself, "I'll get to them eventually" but that rarely happens. With gamefly, I won't return a game until I'm completely done with it. With Xbox 360 games that means 100% gamerscore and in certain cases, %100 game completion. For my Wii games unlocking everything and beating games on the highest difficulty. Only when I feel I've finished a game according to my OCD standards, will I send it back, because I know I will never get to play that game again. 
Having that knowledge, helps me appreciate the time I spend playing the game. It forces me not to rush either; all my attention will be focus on what I'm playing. It'll keep me from getting ahead of myself, and play games in ways I've never played them before. And this relates to purpose, or why I play video games. I know why I do: because they are a part of my being. I am passionate about games in a way I don't think many people are, and loving them so makes me who I am. In the past couple of years, only hoarding games so I can collect them all and have these ultimate collections have disconnected me with why I play in the first place. It's to have fun, to challenge myself, to learn new things, to interact with others, to improve my gaming skill, to stimulate my imagination and creativity, and to discuss games as an art form. That is why i'm a gamer, not to collect and have them all on my shelf but to play  them. 
i think I will be more successful in accomplishing this goal, and I will definitely be shocked at the results. But in the meantime, I know that I will be doing the one doing I love to do: play games.

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Keeping Promises is Hard

I started a blog on 1up.com on how I was going to only play my current collection of games and nothing else for the year of 2010. That meant no new purchases, vintage purchases, or even going within 50 feet on a game I never played before, until I "completed" all the unfinished games in my collection; which is a lot (around 50). 
 
Then came Father's Day and my gift: a Gamefly account. And not only the one game at a time rental but two! My fiance knew of my quest, why she tempted me to break it with Gamefly I will never know. My streak is now broken. I managed to make it almost half a year playing only games I owned. I had a great time doing it, but now I have a much greater purpose. Since I technically won't be spending money on any new games I play (one of the reasons for such an arduous task was to save money by not purchasing anything new) the Gamefly catalog is my oyster. So I devised not one but several new challenges for myself for the rest of the year. Hopefully, I'll keep these new promises much better than my old one. 
 
Stay tuned, as I will blog about my new adventures in the world of gaming.

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