My Grips on Reality and Virtual Reality

You did it. Game over. Mission accomplished. You beat the final boss. You reached 100% completion. Platinum trophy to you, get paid 1000 gamerpoints. So let me ask you this: Why did you do it? Was it fun? Did your OCD tell you that you had to collect everything? I believe that everyone has deep reasons why they deeply involve themselves in any gaming title. Specifically, there’s a darker tone to the motivations of many gamers in the world. At the risk of making this post sound like a brief autobiography, I’d like to discuss my motivations for spending 30+ hours on a single game: my attempt to control something.

I’ve spent almost of my cognitive life playing video games. My first console was the Super Nintendo, and I collected games like trading cards. To me, the gaming thing was a hobby that up until now, I thought was just something I did, along with playing with toys. I never really noticed why I was playing so many games. I was a kid.

Hop forward to now. I’m starting to really come to terms and recognize my issues with anxiety and depression. The world feels out of sync. I’ve made choices that have hurt my future so much. The struggle to breathe during episodes of panic have set in. At 25, my emotions are more off centered than they were during my teenage angst years. It’s so crazy, how life never throws you what you expect.

Because of this, I’ve been really evaluating what my coping techniques are in life, and gaming keeps popping up as the one thing I do in order to escape and focus on something I can work with. As a child, I was a quiet kid. Only child, and one best friend that I hung out with. I wasn’t popular, and I didn’t get out much. Games really became something of a vacation for me everyday. I would jump in and play for hours. Now that I think about it, maybe I was setting habits for dealing with my issues of not really making lots of friends or feeling like I had any say in life.

Think about the games we have now. “Mass Effect” has taken hundreds of hours of my life in the name of saving the galaxy. So have other RPGs. I sneak around as Solid Snake or an Assassin, learning as they learn and wishing I could have their convictions and morals. Soaking in every graphical aspect of “The Last of Us”. It’s sad to say, there is way more interest in a world that has been created for me than there is in my own life. Sometimes. Don’t call anyone to lock me up in an asylum.

I think me, like thousands of gamers, do what we do because we don’t feel in control in our own lives. Consider what an average human has to go through. Financial woes, working a job that they’re not completely happy with, relationships falling apart. These things make us feel so lost in the world, and not all of us are strong enough to just pick up and find opportunity in struggle. I know I’m definitely not that strong. So, while some may turn to religion to cast their worries about lack of control, others pick up a controller and get to playing.

What’s important to remember is that gaming cannot be a complete replacement for treatment on these issues. No matter how long I game, I have to turn the console off and cope with whatever is off the TV, and I can definitely admit that I hate it. I know why, too. It’s because of the fact that subconsciously, I understand that there are no real world ramifications for my choices in “The Walking Dead.” As a people, we have to realize the difference between what is real and what isn’t. We also need to know the time to escape and the time to stand strong in our own lives. So, I challenge you to continue shaping the gaming experiences you love, and I urge you to approach your own life in the same objective fashion. Life isn’t a game, but it is your own.

On To The Next One: The Value of Sequels

A few examples of sequel makers

A few examples of sequel makers

We always want more. More food, more time, more money. We always want more of our favorite characters and stories, as well. Especially if we spend many hours of effort building a world and a life. There’s always another story that can be told, another villain to fight or world to save. But, is there such a thing as fleshing out a story too long? I think that in a business world, sequels can be very profitable, but from a gamer’s perspective, one can drag out a series too far before it becomes a little long-winded. How many is too many?

A sequel has several things that make it fun, exciting and entertaining. For one, as mentioned before, a gamer has a chance to take another step in the shoes of their loved protagonist. Also, it gives developers the chance to revisit their product to make improvements and explore new opportunities with the mechanics and story. Many developers intentionally set up their games to lead into sequels, creating a sort of future-proof product for years to come. Finally, sequels carry on the value that their predecessors created, like a proven sports star stepping into the new season. These aspects allow for gamers to continually be satisfied by their favorite titles.

Yet, these do not come without some downfalls. Let’s look at the Assassin’s Creed series, for example. Gamers have come to expect a

The many assassins of Assassin's Creed

The many assassins of Assassin’s Creed

new AC every year around October. Each one of these games builds on the mechanics of the one before, all the while taking the story and lore one step further. But, I’m afraid that this series will become a tunnel without a light, at some point. Developer Ubisoft has stated that it will continue giving gamers a title every year until they stop wanting one. I think though that if that continues to happen, the story will suffer for it. Another example would be the Resident Evil titles. Analysts would agree that these Capcom titles have suffered over time from a lot of story without much innovation. Perhaps the developers rested on their laurels a bit, letting their success drive them, instead of the other way around. Games are not soap operas, continually being fleshed out for the entertainment of the viewers. But, I’m sure other gamers would disagree with me.

This time around, we kill 500 instead of 400

This time around, we kill 500 instead of 400

Another type of sequel I’ve noticed is the one that repeats itself over and over again with little innovation. The Madden football series is an annual tradition among sports gamers, though I can admit that their developer EA takes efforts to improve or change the gameplay when possible. A lesser known repeating title is Dynasty Warriors. From my understanding, there is little more to this game than charging through hordes of enemies, slashing and hacking until you get to the boss character, who you then slash and hack and kill. There are 8 of these games, and they all do the same. I liken this to a food product; something that someone has created, discovered that it tastes good, and continues making the same thing over and over again. Does this work? Maybe it depends on the value a gamer places on it.

So what does a sequel to the gamer? Personally, I’m a little bit on the OCD side of things. I like my games like I like my movies, in threes. After three, it gets to be a little much, unless you continue to give me a reason to come back. I haven’t found many games that can do that. With Assassin’s Creed, I still find myself playing each major title that comes out, regardless of how long the series has existed. I also enjoy the Grand Theft Auto series, just because they’re not true sequels but rather new stories in a familiar world. The same can be said of Final Fantasy, a game that has certainly not lived up to its title but has been entertaining for years. In the end, it all comes down to how much of a good thing you want. Or rather, do you believe in there being too much of a good thing.

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A Thinker’s Guide to Metal Gear Part 8: Ground Zeroes

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Have you ever heard of the Geneva Conventions? According to the Peace Pledge Union Project website, the conventions are rules and guidelines governing medical and humane treatment of soldiers during battle. Looking specifically at the third convention, relating to how prisoners of war should be treated, one would think that war could be painted with a decent color. But think about it: if you’re in a war, and you capture someone ripe with information and value, would you really treat them decently to get what you need? Do those laws, made by men a long time ago and far away, really matter in the face of what you feel needs to be done? A player can answer that question for themselves after playing Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Hideo Kojima takes a dark turn down the road of the non-fighting side of war in his prologue to the next great tale of Big Boss. (Don’t read any further if you want to avoid spoilers, please.)

In Ground Zeroes, the player picks up where we last left Big Boss, dealing with the repercussions of starting his own militarized state and having a spy within his midst. After receiving intel that this spy, Paz, has turned up alive in an American-owned top secret site in Cuba, Big Boss goes in to retrieve her, with the hope of gaining knowledge on the doings of the mysterious Cipher, who MGS fans know to be a familiar character. What Big Boss finds in this camp is the harsh mistreatment, torture and emotional damage of prisoners both known and unknown, and the game serves as a fitting prologue to what could be Kojima’s best work yet.

prisonersTaking a walk through the camp, the player finds all sorts of disturbing things. First, the whole base is not officially owned by Cuba nor America, so the soldiers only follow orders from whoever is talking in the camp, so it seems. The view of the prisoners are much worse. Men in cages like dogs, sitting in the pouring rain with black bags over their heads. A boy lies in the mud, steel bolts driven through his Achilles heels to prevent him from walking. Prisoners crying, begging to be taken away or killed. That’s just what we see. Audio tapes picked up during the campaign tell even worse stories of rape and torture, rare territory that few games step foot in. In such a small map, so many dishonorable things happen that can disturb a tenured soul.

When it comes to prisoner camps in the real world, one of the well-known locations is the now ceased Guantanamo Bay. President Obama shut down the camp within his first term, and the news storm was strong and thorough. Many people wanted answers for how prisoners of the Iraq War were treated in the camp. One of the main concerns people had was that if prisoners were treated bad on American soil, how were they treated across the ocean, away from committees and prying eyes. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to know exactly what goes on during a gitmowar, and we may never want to truly know. I think that the public can only take so much truth before it becomes too foggy to bear.

Kojima uses this game to set us up for what is proving to be a disturbing new chapter for Big Boss. His upcoming game, The Phantom Pain, is slated to show players about the losses war causes and the reconciliations and revenge soldiers face after battle. With Ground Zeroes, players see the action itself. It’s pretty gruesome, and makes one wonder what goes on behind the fences of camps around the world. It’s up to each person to decide on their own whether or not they need, or want, to know what’s really going on. Some people feel the public needs to know. Others feel like it’s not necessary for us to know everything. Think about what you want to know. Decide what’s best.

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Moving Power of Music

So often, we get caught up in the story and mechanics of a game that we forget another member of the complete family: music. Sometimes, the right melody can seal a memorable experience. I truly believe that music is an important part of any good game as it can hit your senses in a whole new manner. Without it, you get a game that may not be the full meal you’re looking for.

Is it over yet?

Is it over yet?

Now, at this point, I’d normally talk about my go-to game for all things amazing, Metal Gear. Especially when it comes to talking about music. But I won’t. There are many other examples of music enhancing the gameplay experience. One series that stands out to me is the Modern Warfare titles of Call of Duty. Specifically, the certain times when you’re in a hopeless situation, surrounded by so many bad guys and running out of ammo. I remember there always being a solemn track playing in the background that made me feel like I wasn’t getting out of this one. Not sure if this happened to other gamers, but hearing that music in the situation just clicked a switch for me, making me actually not worry about dying so much and just getting it done. It was these times that made me appreciate the campaign much more.

In college, I worked toward getting my minor in dance. My last year in school, I participated in a student-choreographed concert, and I created a piece based off of music from Mass Effect 3. I think if you’ve played the game, you’ll remember the emotionally touching ending theme, after you make Shepard’s final choice. Yep, that’s the one I used. Without going into detail about how the piece worked, I was able to find inspiration out of the song, without even having the game in front of me. That’s a testament to how powerful music is, when you can hear it outside of the medium it’s from and have it still affect the heart.

That hard choice

That hard choice

Even when I was a kid, music held a special place for me, and one of those prime examples was from Final Fantasy VIII. My first real experience with the series, VIII introduced me to amazing fantasy scenes with a touching orchestra behind them. Even with the stop and go action of the classic RPG gameplay, I still felt like I was accomplishing something special. I think that that’s one reason why that title was my favorite; that one and Final Fantasy X, of course. Both enhance the story with their musical accompaniment.

I think that with these examples, I’ve brought up two good points about what music can do. First, it allows for stories to have deeper meaning. I’m sure everyone has examples of a good score in a story. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have been as scared of Outlast as I was if the music was super creepy, so thanks to developer Red Barrels for that. The other point I’ve made is that the music can actually drive performance in a game. Dubstep and rock have always been my friends during some of my best Battlefield matches. Just like athletes pre-game with their favorite tracks, many gamers pump up their adrenaline and focus with all kinds of music. It certainly has a motivating effect.

It sounds scarier than it looks.

It sounds scarier than it looks.

Before I end this, I have one more thought. So far we’ve discussed the effect of music. But, what happens in the absence of music during crucial moments? Does that make scene better? Normally, I would say no. But I do remember several times during The Last of Us when I was completely absorbed in the task at the time, and there was no music involved, or needed. Creeping around the infected and hearing their breathing and screeches was enough to show what the developers were wanting you to experience. I think that it’s really a case by case basis on that front.

So, the next time you play something, take a second to just listen. Does the music make sense? How does it hit you? I’m all for exploring the lesser seen aspects of any game, and music is one of those that affect the overall gameplay for me. It’s my hope that you’ll start listening more and figure out ways that the music helps or hinders your time with the characters.

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What Now?

The next step

The next step

You did it. You spent many hours, and probably a few curse words, getting to the end of the journey. But what now? I’ve found that I ask myself that a lot at the end of some of the best games I’ve played. One gets so involved in the universe of a title that being removed at the end feels like that first move away from home. Therefore, the idea of replayability is an alluring trip back into what you already know. Months ago, I wrote an article about aspects I consider important in a game, with the ability to be rewarded by playing again a strong element. I think that if a developer offers incentives for returning to a game, then that doubles the value of that game.

The most prominent kind of replayable element is downloadable content, or DLC. Players play their favorite games, then they get to see a new chapter, a continuation of the story, or something new altogether a few months after release. From a business perspective, DLC is a smart idea. Announcing DLC for a title before that title is even released ensures added value into the game. Also, the developer ensures additional income for a product already sold. Some consider this greedy, but I believe in the basic principle of business: maximize income while minimizing cost. If I can build something, sell it, then make more money after the  initial transaction, I certainly will, and I think that’s what many developers are realizing is a good idea. Another perk is that DLC gives developers time to create more ideas or add more wiggle room for their current ideas. Finally, it builds a sort of anticipation after the credits roll. If you know something is coming after the end, there is a possibility you’ll want to see it like a sequel to a blockbuster movie. DLC is the obvious choice for replayability these days.

However, the basic issue still remains: Should gamers have to pay for more to the game? Why don’t the developers include everything in one

The things Snake can do in two hours

The things Snake can do in two hours

big bundle? Well, that’s an interesting discussion. I’ve already laid out the business perks of doing DLC. But I can also admit that having that immediate gratification of instantly being able to start over for more rewards is enticing as well. Take Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, for instance. Beating the main game unlocks side missions that add just enough diversity in the gameplay to make them just as interesting as the main story. Personally, I think that this was a very smart move on director Hideo Kojima’s part, considering that the main mission is two hours long on a slow playthrough. Adding more for the player to do helps distract the gamer from remembering that they just paid $30 for a two hour test game. Good business sense and focus on the players.

Other games do this same thing. One of the popular things to do, especially with games that use a leveling up mechanic, is to start the story over with what you’ve earned the previous time. Batman: Arkham City was a good example of this. The developer, Rocksteady, allows the player to start the game over, in a harder setting but with all the tools that Batman earned the previous time. This lets a gamer try new ideas and prove to themselves that they are Batman.

Be the Batman.

Be the Batman.

One of the last things to mention about replayability reasons is actually one of the most simplest ones: the experience. Some games are just so good that you have to play them again. And again. And again. This is exhibited by my third playthrough of the whole Mass Effect series. In my experience, if it touches you in your emotions, you should pick up the controller again. The action of playing a game again is the cheapest satisfaction of replayability available. It certainly is something I’ve done plenty of times.

With the economy still somewhat on the mend, gamers need strong, convincing reasons why they should buy, and keep, a game. This has been my course of action for a while: a short game with a short shelf life deserves nothing more than a Redbox rental. I do my research and figure out the most cost-efficient way to play it. I see replayability as important, even more so than other elements of a game. If you feel the same, let me know what kind of games were your favorite to play again.

Is The Future Made Yet?

Technology is an ever-changing commodity, and the video game industry always proves to be at the forefront of this change. Over thirty years ago, gaming consisted of countable bits on a screen and a little entertainment. Now, we play AAA titles that reach past our hand-eye coordination and touch our minds and soul. I’m a strong believer in the influential power of strong storytelling, but we cannot discount the hardware and gaming mechanics that go into a gameplay experience. And with the recent innovations into virtual reality headsets and gaming, an observer of trends in gaming has to wonder just where all this is going. Are we on the cusp of a gaming revolution shown in older ’90s movies such as The Lawnmower Man and Hackers?

Call of Duty: Ghosts

Call of Duty: Ghosts

Let’s start with what we already know. For the most part, first-person titles such as Call of Duty and Left for Dead are more interactive than third-person games. It’s that point of view that allows the player to see the world as they would see it. Of course, this is not to say that third-person games are not interactive as well. Look at The Last of Us, nominated by so many magazines and companies as Game of the Year. These kinds of games are just as good. However, gamers seem to enjoy the FP games because of the connection they can make with their character. Not seeing who you’re playing as for most of the game can help immerse you in the environment around you, at least in my experience. Even if the playable character has a face and form, the psychology of the situation shows that the player sees their own self in that character. Think of it like a long episode of Quantum Leap, if you’re old enough to know what that show is. If you’re not, feel free to stop reading and do a little research. I won’t mind.

 

The game doesn’t even have to be a shooter to be completely immersive, though that sometimes seems to be the go-to game for people looking for a good time in gaming. My example for this would be Outlast, truly one of the scariest games I have ever played. In case you’re unfamiliar

Something very creepy to look at.

Something very creepy to look at.

with it, Outlast is a horror FP title in which you’re a journalist investigating a shady mental asylum, armed with nothing but your video Something very creepy tocamera and a decent amount of cardio fitness. Couple this incredibly frightening run from the evil guys action with a gaming headset to put the disturbing sounds right in your ear, and you’ve got yourself a hell that you’re trying to complete just to escape from. No amount of pre-gaming conversation could prepare me for what I experienced in that game, and I loved every minute of it. I think Outlast is a testament to just how far the gaming interactivity has come for us.

Now, let’s look at the immediate future: VR gaming headsets. One of the big wave-makers in the industry is the Oculus Rift. According to their website, the Rift is allowing for a full 3D headset experience, completely removing the TV from the equation. Though the Rift is not on the market yet, the promise of future games using this is a little

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Oculus Rift

exciting, if you can get past the initial awkwardness of wearing a giant box on your head.

Of course, the Rift is not the only headset being promised on the market. Being a huge Sony fan, I was interested in hearing about their line of VR headset, dubbed Project Morpheus. Playstation’s blog speaks on this headset, boasting a 90 degree field of view at any given time along with1080p resolution and stereoscopic sound. Now, don’t get too excited. You can’t walk around your living room with the headset and expect to save the world. You’ll still need a controller and a Playstation Camera to interact with this world. But, the implications are pretty promising, not to mention the future happiness of FPS competitive gamers who struggle sometimes to find the right TV to aid in their killing conquests.

Morpheus

The Morpheus

Now, one has to consider some of the consequences to this. First of all, what is the cost? Will these headsets be affordable toys for the masses or luxuries for those with plenty of time and money on their hands? I’m inclined to believe that they’ll start off somewhat pricey and come down as time and technology grow. That’s usually the trend with these things. Another implication is eyesight degradation. Mom and Dad always say don’t sit too close to the TV. Will headsets have the same effect on the eyes? You can go either way on this one. You are experiencing a first person view of things just like you do every single day. However, you’re experiencing it through a synthetic screen, which is not natural for people to look through. So, a bit of caution may be in order for this new wave of gaming.

Finally, let’s think outside the gaming box. These headsets are great, but if you’re imaginative, you can find more uses for this tech. Astronauts and the military already using virtual simulators for combat and flight practice, that’s already known. What other ways can this be used? Maybe nursing schools and hospitals can train students to administer aid while removing some of the fear of mistakes. Computer techs can play with the insides of their devices before working on them for real. What if real estate agents and homebuyers could coordinate to create a dream home that a person can “walk” through before actually buying or building the place? This may sound a bit extreme, but VR can definitely be useful in the real world. Think about that in a few years when you see how things turn out.

If you’re trying to stay up to date with gaming news and devices, then obviously you’ll want to invest in a VR headset. These things can definitely open up a new world of interactive possibilities. It’s really going to be a matter of choice as to which device to pick, just like in picking a console. Personally, I’m not really in a hurry to pick a headset up. I’d like to let the market mature a bit before choosing to do that. I am optimistic though. The world is an evolving place, and the VR business is looking up. Or down. Or all around.

The Complex Weave of Two Sons’ Adventure

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The journey of two brothers

I’m all for a good adventure. Save the damsel, get the treasure, fight the monster. All these work into classic gaming scenarios that seem to stand a test of time. However, if you take one of these basic adventure structures and throw in something more pressing and thought-provoking, you then get a product that leaves you with a lot more than you started with at the end of the day. 

I feel like that’s what game developer Starbreeze Studios did with their downloadable title Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. What I expected was a quasi-co op adventure played by one person in control of two characters. What I found was that the whole title centered on family, loss and the struggle to keep going through it all. Though some could probably label this game as a very simple Lord of the Rings-type story, I see it as a boy’s forced life in having to deal with reality and tragedy. (Minor spoilers to follow)

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The world around them

See, the subtitle of the game leads most to believe that the game centers around two brothers. And it does, in a way. The two are faced with a sort of crisis in the form of a sick father. They are forced to travel somewhat far away to find a special tree of life. This sets up what the adventure is: leave home, find magical cure, get back to father just in time. But from the start, the point of view is on the little brother, who is mourning the recent loss of their mother. Through subtle cutscenes, you can tell that the boy blames himself for his mother’s death. So, are we watching the boys save their father or the one son attempting to not repeat past mistakes? 

If you think about it, it’s almost a tale of the one son reconciling his regrets and trying to control his future. After all, who wouldn’t do everything possible to prevent both of their parents dying? I think that this is reflected in small ways throughout the gameplay. For those of you who played the title, you may have noticed that the big brother relies a lot on the little brother to open paths and accomplish tasks. Yes, you need both sons to get through the game, but the big brother seems to do little else than heavy lifting and mirroring what the small brother does. And (without giving away the ending), the focus intensifies on the small child, making it seem like he’s been the hero all along. These little parts make up for a convincing argument about there being only one main protagonist in this whole game. Image

In a different point of view, the big brother is responsible for the forward progress of the gameplay. With the player using both sticks and shoulder buttons to control the siblings, it may not be a stretch to think that the game mechanics accommodate the supervisory personality of what a big brother is. So think about this for a second: what if the player’s controller tactics are meant to be reflective of the big brother and the story view is reflective of the little brother? That would make a good point as to why the game is labeled as a story of both sons. Yes, that may be reaching somewhat, but I have never been accused of being simple. This game left me with a sense that something just happened in the ending and that I needed to really sit and consider what I saw.

So to conclude my argument, Brothers kind of accomplished a sort of simple and complex story telling concept in that it is two different things dependent on how in depth you really look at it. Though the game is really about the two sons working together, I think that each son gets his own focus on a core part of the game, with the older brother more focused on the gameplay while the younger brother is spotlighted in the story-telling. It should be noted, by the way, that Starbreeze brought in Swedish director Josef Fares, an upcoming film maker who was able to bring his own flavor to the game. So a lot of thought was put into how these characters are portrayed. This title is staying on my PS3, because I feel like a rainy day can be well spent playing this title again. Maybe I’ll get something more out of it.