As Good As It Got: The Longest Journey

As Good As It Got is a blog series I post whenever the fancy strikes me, revisiting some of my favourite moments in video gaming history. While I don't try to address the question of whether video games are art (something I suspect we'll only be able to settle in retrospect some time in the future - the scene is still developing very quickly and its hard to know where it will go), I do cast a critical eye on the status the games in question are supposed to have as aesthetic experiences. The line I push is that there is some really interesting things happening on the level of art and aesthetics in some video games, even at the best the history of video games is a series of qualified successes.

The Longest Journey is one of the last and best-loved products of the boom in serious-minded adventure games in the late 90s. It is especially well regarded for the depth of its protagonist, April Ryan, one of the few well-rounded female characters in the industry, how developed the setting is, and its thoughtful art direction with visuals, sound design and environments that exude character. While this is all true, I don't quite share this high opinion of the game - to put it bluntly, the ending to the game is an unmitigated and frustrating disaster. The climax is where the writers quite nakedly try to cash in on the emotional connection they have hoped you have made with the character. The result is a trite family issues play. That would not have been too bad (not every story can be A Doll's House ), except that almost without exception every other character and plotline is simply thrown under the bus. Only the couple of people the game has killed off and Mr MacGuffin get an ending of any sort (this list pointedly does not include April Ryan herself - she's as much left in the wilds as everybody else). There is simply no mention of what has happened to April's relationships and commitments - it just doesn't get mentioned. Wasn't I supposed to care about those things?! The result is a series of loose ends fluttering around with all the dignity of a sackful of shopping receipts, but you're supposed to ignore that because of feelings. This indicates a game that is somewhat too taken with itself and the message it was hoping to convey, which lead to a predictably disastrous sequel.

But, despite this rather spiteful start to my post, I'm not here to complain. The Longest Journey is at its best when it is allowing its setting to reveal itself to you as you simply play, and in this regard it is occasionally remarkably successful. There is one particular moment in it which is an especially good example this, making use of the interactivity of video games in order to best develop the narrative world (something which I also discussed in my post about Psychonauts). Somewhere in the middle of the game you are in a police station doing adventure-game stuff, which includes checking every clickable item in the environment. You need to break into the archives of the station to find out more about the conspiracy you find yourself caught up in - an stressful task in an oppressive environment. It can then be nothing except a surprise when, clicking on the phone booth inside the police station, April decides to phone home. This is all the more significant because she effectively is a runaway and hasn't spoken to her parents since sneaking away when she reached majority. Her mother's face appears on the video screen, she is amazed to see April, asks how she's doing, pleads with April to go back home, at which point April ends the call, realising it was a mistake. This is, for me, far and away the most poignant part of the game, and a real highlight of my time in this hobby.

The public telephone from where April calls home.

There are two reasons why this works. The first is that the introduction of this insight into April's personal life is handled with some excellent writing. April is in an unfamiliar environment caught up in issues she doesn't understand but which she knows are deeply dangerous. She has been dumped first into the colourful and alien Arcadia and then back the familiar but forbidding Stark, which no longer is her home in any real sense. In such a situation, it's easy to see why a glimpse of her family might be something April might want: troubled as her childhood is hinted to have been, there are times that it's better to have the devil that you know, and family is family. But also, tying into the line I'm trying to push here, is the fact that this little episode does not happen unprompted - it happens because of what you, the player did. It is entirely possible to finish the game without seeing this sequence (though smart design makes this unlikely). If this sequence were to happen in a film, it would almost certainly feel contrived, because it is such a deliberate side-step from the action of the plot and one that would be hard to motivate. The good writing I mention above can only go so far. But in the game, you are making April run her hands over most every item in the environment, poking at it, seeing if she can use it with something she's carrying. This is exactly the type of pacing a film, or any other non-interactive medium doesn't have - action at the audience's prompt. The abruptness of the moment is mitigated and put into a context by the fact that it happened on my instigation. What else did I expect to happen? I was clicking around without any clear purpose, prodding the game world to see how it would respond. And, in a significant and touching moment, the game world prodded back.

I believe that if games are to really make an impression on the wider world, there needs to be more examples of them using their most distinctive feature, their interactivity, in striking ways. In this way it will become less a hobby and more the cultural artefact which every aspect of the medium demands they should be (as Mike Krahulik put it once, they are "art piled on top of more art"). I think their problem now is more one of image and recognition - we can wax lyrical about the merits of, say, films and novels, because we have stores of successful examples to point at (giving a look to the standing of novels in the history of the art-world .is an illuminating example, I think - a centuries-long struggle for recognition, hampered by most of its examples being silly, stupid or demagoguery). Though The Longest Journey falls far short of being a paradigm of what a worthwhile and significant game might be like, moments like that phone call in the police station give a suggestive glimpse of what it is our past-time might offer to the world.

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As Good As It Got: Psychonauts

As Good As It Got is a blog series I post whenever the fancy strikes me, revisiting some of my favourite moments in video gaming history. While I don't try to address the question of whether video games are art (something I suspect we'll only be able to settle in retrospect some time in the future - the scene is still developing very quickly and its hard to know where it will go), I do cast a critical eye on the status the games in question are supposed to have as aesthetic experiences. The line I push is that there is some really interesting things happening on the level of art and aesthetics in some video games, even at the best the history of video games is a series of qualified successes.

Psychonauts was Double Fine's first release, and Tim Schafer's first project after leaving LucasArts when they closed their adventure game division. His swan song for LucasArts was Grim Fandango, a masterpiece and perhaps my favourite game, but which garnered unremarkable sales. LucasArts saw its investment in the genre starting to give harshly diminishing returns, and decided to get out of the game. The experience probably left a mark on Schafer, who hasn't made an adventure game since despite having made nothing else before. Psychonauts is a 3D puzzle platformer, complete with an explorable hub world, hidden areas and collectibles. The gameplay is rather conventional, on the gentle end of the platform experience with not-too-menacing opponents peppering rather-quite-benign environments closed off by altogether-non-fiendish puzzles. The player-character gets by through running and jumping and a steadily-increasing range of psychic powers. They aren't terribly original or special either, covering the usual range of attacking, defensive and movement powers. While you're expected to occasionally use these powers in somewhat creative ways to the end of solving some puzzle, the real focus in Psychonauts certainly isn't on its gameplay mechanics.

No, the real focus here is on the setting. Psychonauts takes place in a summer camp for psychics, a way for talented children to eventually join the corps of psychic agents who run the camp and act as its instructors. The protagonist, Razputin, runs away from home and gatecrashes said summer camp in the hope of receiving the same training and himself becoming a psychonaut. The camp and its environs are a mix of the mundane and the extraordinary: the children who stand around are doing the things bored children do, but while levitating and setting things on fire with their mind. The wild animals that come out at night are not just cougars and bears, but a bear that uses telekinesis to hold you in place as it lumbers over the slap you in the face, while the cougars that ambush you with pyrotechnics. The same old man shows up covering all the various tasks needed to maintain the camp (groundsman, janitor, ranger, cook, lifeguard, and, it quickly transpires, head of the agency) but with a different persona each time in a particularly schizoid version of the Everyman. This same well-realised atmosphere carries over to the later stages of the game, exploring the abandoned mental asylum, which is crumbling at improbable angles and is home to a series of long-neglected weirdos. All of this is happening just in the hub world, and it helps to set the tone for the experience: friendly, quirky and charismatic.

Some of the children spending their summer at Whispering Rock Summer Camp for Psychics

It's possible the characters have received even more love and attention than the environment they inhabit. Each of the children at the camp, of whom there are well over a dozen, have clear and distinct personalities, with cliques, crushes (unrequited and unrealised alike), and visible but never-discussed issues in the way kids have -- in short, well-rounded psychologies, not just involving how they see and communicate themselves, but also in how they relate to other characters. The level of detail and thought invested in even the most inconsequential character lends a real weight to what they do and the world they inhabit. This is the type of feature which made Jane Austen such a great novelist, and here it is in a video game, available from a button prompt.

To put it simply, this is an astonishing thing to see, especially since this has no effect whatsoever on the gameplay. None of the other children play any role at all in the moment-to-moment running of the game (there's the girl Raz gets a crush on, but she's more of a feature of the cutscenes than of the gameplay). At most it can give the game character, but no matter how much character a game might have, it still needs to be a game. Here I think we come to an issue which helps hide the artistry in games: their best qualities are often things which would seem to work as well or better in other mediums (especially film, from where games obviously take most of their cues). Psychonauts however gives us as clear idea of how video games might make use of their distinct qualities to make a case of their own. What games uniquely offer is a solid way to interact with the setting. A movie could deliver the same characters with the same lines of dialogue. But in Psychonauts, when you climb to the top of the store to see the two unhappy children despondently contemplating the world, you know how far they've gone to be alone, because you've gone that far as well. It is painfully clear that you are intruding. Not only does this communicate on its own, but when the children absently talk to you in a way easily decoded as waiting for you to leave so they can say what they really want to, their tangible isolation helps to make their intention clearer. This isn't a feature you're likely to see on the back of a box, but we need to pay attention, because this is someone making use of the unique features of video games in order to do something you can't do any other way.

A glimpse of the Milkman Conspiracy environment.

This obvious care and thoughtfulness is of course apparent in the major actors and environments as well: when you enter the playing levels proper (projections inside the minds of those around the camp) you can see their filled-out personalities on display, poke at it, and be amazed at what you discover. This could have had a tedious inevitability, just as films and books often do (whenever you turn to page 72, the hero's deepest fears are there in back and white), but the interactivity of the game means that it feels more like a genuine process of discovery. Given that Psychonauts's central conceit is that Raz enters the minds of the a range of characters in order to piece together the story arc, this process of scratching the surface is what keeps the game moving. Once you move towards the asylum, the minds of those you encounter are warped in astonishing ways, reminding you that psychoses are the inspiration for grandiose and pathetic visions. Setting aside to what degree Psychonauts is intended to be an investigation of the depths of human fantasies (probably no more than the movie Fantasia is), this offers some astonishing and deeply memorable environments to run around. It helps that the art direction is excellent throughout: the levels are not only well-conceived, but are rounded out with confident expertise and a series of masterful touches. If you haven't played the game, you really should: there's been nothing like these levels before or since. Also, like all Tim Schafer games, Psychonauts is very, very funny. The writing is best in class, and the vocal performances are excellent.

This is a game environment. You play in it. Why don't you own this game?

The game unfortunately has its flaws. The gameplay, as I mentioned, isn't very original: it is, in fact, quite uninspiring. The two weakest parts are the two levels which are there for gameplay's sake: the tutorial and the finale, the latter of which has a sudden jump in difficulty which throws many players off and serves no ultimate purpose. Double Fine seems to have discovered a way to make gameplay be an excellent aid to the storytelling, but not to be interesting in its own right. I suspect the game would have been better served by not ever making the player's skill be the focus, and instead simply kept itself at the very gentle pace it had set throughout. It would then have been a very easy game (it still isn't really challenging at all), but I don't keep going back to Psychonauts for the thrills of nailing pixel-perfect jumps. The only problem here is that moment-to-moment gameplay never goes away, and the game keeps you at it for ten hours or more (if you play with the same explorer's spirit as it eagerly encourages you to). That's a lot of hours of ho-hum gameplay. This is an issue I don't think Double Fine, or anybody for that matter, has really mastered, with Double Fine games still not setting anybody's thumbs ablaze, whereas elsewhere the pendulum has swung the other way to sequences scripted as tightly as any movie. But Psychonauts deserves you attention and admiration: it is as good as it got.

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Terraria: Forget Minecraft, this is a Roguelike

Nearly every mention of Terraria (including this one) compares it to Minecraft, but that isn't the most appropriate comparison to make. Some people have made the link to the Metroidvania style with its exploration of a vast world, as you slowly build up your character's abilities to open new areas (a similar point could be made by pointing towards The Legend of Zelda, from where Terraria undoubtedly gets a lot of its aesthetic). This gets closer to the truth, but the world in Metroidvania games is static, and the ways in which you interact with it very limited. In Terraria, the world is procedurally generated to start off with, meaning that every game is different as various bits of the experience becomes more or less accessible depending on the whims of the Random Number God. Most importantly, as you carve away at the landscape, expand your home base, and tame the underground, the character of the world changes in very meaningful ways. No, the most important comparison to be made is with the roguelikes: Nethack, Angband, Ancient Domains of Mystery, and especially more polished ones like Pokémon Mystery Dungeon.

The process where you slowly collect a range of items in preparation for endgame play, where tools are at least as important as weapons and armour, reminds me of nothing as much as compiling an Ascension Kit in Nethack. Of course, Terraria isn't anywhere near as dense (it's a side-scroller instead of a pile of large top-down layers) and is far more forgiving (in a classic rogue-like, death is permanent, in Terraria, you drop half of your cash and respawn after a few seconds), and it works in real-time. But, in classic style, your progress is measured by how deep you've gotten and how many of the necessary tools you've collected. It even references that grand old master of rogue-like off-shoots, Diablo, by having loot colour-coded for rarity. I don't hesitate to call this is a friendly real-time side-scrolling rogue-like with a Minecraft-like crafting mechanic added.

Ultimately, the game Terraria is closest to is Dwarf Fortress, which is a roguelike-turned-city-builder. One important difference - looking past the obvious ones that in Dwarf Fortress you rarely control a single character, and that Terraria has graphics and music - is that Dwarf Fortress is extreme in its detail and challenge, whereas Terraria is easy-going and cheerful. It can't compare to the depth of Dwarf Fortress - nothing can, it is possibly the deepest game ever made, and it's still only at version 0.31.25 - but Dwarf Fortress is uncompromising, and each of its dozens of game features means there's a new way for everything to go wrong. Not for nothing is the Dwarf Fortress motto "Losing is Fun". Whereas in Terraria, as in Minecraft, building is fun, and Terraria does an excellent job of combining that motivation to keep going with that most classic gameplay arc: go further, get more stuff, hit bigger enemies with your new stuff, repeat. This helps account for the fact that the game's creators refers to it as an action-adventure game, though the combat is very rudimentary and the aspect everybody has latched on is its similarity to the decidedly non-action-driven Minecraft.

On the action side of things, Terraria can't compete with the complexity of Nethack, with its hundreds of different monsters and dozens of magical status effects, or even with less intimidating fare like Diablo or any of its clones. But the crafting here is much more intricate and rewarding, and that comes straight out of Minecraft. That is what Terraria uses to set itself aside from the pack, making use of the valuable lesson Minecraft has taught us that it is one humdinger of a motivation to play a game when you are able to meaningfully shape the world through your own work. And it's a great game. I've put in over 20 hours in a small world, and have yet to open the two deepest environments. For a small downloadable game to offer this much is quite an achievement, and I heartily recommend it to all comers. The only criticism I can offer is the issue which besets many games of the sandbox type: the experience can be very undirected, and once you're about halfway in it can become hard to stay focussed, or to know what you should be doing. This very much comes with the territory, but it's a testament to Terraria how long it manages to stave off this particular worry, and how rewarding it is to keep playing. Every time thus far my interest has started to flag, I discovered something new: a floating island high in the sky, or the entrance to a dungeon eerily suggestive of what your own handiwork would end up like if, instead of you clearing the world, the world were to get rid of you. It's in the Dungeon that the comparison with Dwarf Fortress becomes the easiest to make. Terraria is in spirit a very different type of game to the roguelikes which undoubtedly influenced it, having re-packaged their ever-deeper-into-the-darkness gameplay in an inviting and cheerful manner, but it benefits from their depth, and presents it in a way that is undoubtedly fun. You should try it out.

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Baldur's Gate I playthrough: 1

Rocking it old-school! 
 
I've created a WinXP virtual machine on my 64bit Win7 install, and into that install I put that wonderful, wonderful fan creation, Tutu ( http://www.usoutpost31.com/easytutu/  ). TuTu allows you to play BG1 on the BG2 engine, which is mostly the same but with two major improvements: firstly, a higher resolution allows you to see more of the map at the glance; secondly, a bunch of UI improvements, like revealing all containers and doorways with the 'Tab' key. Using Tutu also spruces up the graphics a bit, but if you're playing Baldur's Gate I, you're quite likely to not be the type of gamer who is too worried about that. 
 
Baldur's Gate is also home to a burgeoning mod scene (well, burgeoned...). I installed the BG1NPC pack ( http://www.gibberlings3.net/bg1npc/ ) which tries to make up for BG1's real shortcoming compared to BG2: the relative lack of NPC interaction. It includes everything from random banter to intra-party conflict to romances. I'll report back on how good/bad/embarrassingly the fan-created content is, but  I can already vouch that everything is super-polished.
 
I rolled a single-class thief, because BG doesn't really have a thief NPC for you. Also, rogues are my favourite classes, and I'm one of those people that loves to backstab. I'm also playing evil for the first time. Face it, the alignment that most closely matched RPG playing is evil, what with all the merciless pursuit of one's own benefit, ransacking homes, hoarding all the wealth that's available, and cutting a bloody swathe of destruction through the world. Also, it's possible to make a classic DnD party in Bg2 with Korgan, Viconia and Edwin (the best fighter, cleric and mage NPCs, respectively) if you provide the thief. They just happen to be evil. Yes, I'm playing this with the long haul in mind. In BG1 Kagain the Amazing Regenerating Meat-Shield and Shar-Teel have to play the role of fighter. 
 
I haven't cleared the Nashkel mines yet, and already I'm reminded of just how enormous, wide-ranging and deep this game is. Definitely one to play with the FAQ open in the window next to you, to make sure you don't miss anything.

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