Saturday, January 07, 2012

SNES as Money Well Spent: Platypus Nostalgia

I got my Super Nintendo Entertainment System when I was eleven years old.  That's a couple years after it first came out.  The occasion was a little dramatic: to celebrate the end of a two-and-a-half year course of treatment for cancer.  I had no idea that it would be waiting for me at home after the final doctors visit.  It was a nice spring day, the trees were waving gently in the breeze outside the bay windows.  With a cup of tea resting on the coffee table, I set down to play.  What was that first game?  It was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  Around twenty years later, my SNES still works as does that Zelda cartridge.  It's been a long way from boyhood in Southern Connecticut to manhood in North Houston, but I'm still playing.

Why am I still playing?  There were stretches when I didn't.  Many times, I've just been too busy.  There were also seasons when it felt embarrassing to still be playing video games.  Aren't they just for kids, and boys who refuse to grow up?  Surely for adults there's just work and chores, or hobbies that can be disguised as work and chores.  Then I'd get the flu, or be at home for a long summer, or get set strait by someone who was an eminently well-adjusted adult and still made time for games.  Out would come the old nintendos.

Playing again, I began to realize some things.  It's like picking up "The Chronicles of Narnia" in grad school and realizing that they weren't written just for kids.  I began to realize that a lot of thought went into the best games, even the older and simpler ones.  A co-worker pointed out something else to me several years back.  Video games were genuine recreation.  They were something that could be done over a vacation that was really vacating: they weren't a hobby masquerading as work, or worse, work masquerading as a hobby.  The best games set the imagination free to explore worlds totally unlike our own and provide real rest, not merely a cessation of work.

So the old machine still works and I'm still playing.  Maybe it is all just nostalgia in the end, but a little nostalgia now and then is a good thing.  Through all the travel and changes, the good and the bad, there's been some things that remain constant.  If I could meet that eleven year old boy, sipping his tea and sitting in front of the coffee table, we would have something in common.    


vespreardens said...

The best stories are never just for kids, no matter the medium in which they are made. It really is a pity that video games as a whole are sometimes cast to the side by adults who cannot spare the time for "child's toys." They are missing some amazing tales.

James said...

That's really it, isn't it. Video games are form of interactive story-telling.

vespreardens said...

Well, the best ones are. :D

While we're on the subject, I should probably recommend Mass Effect to you. The level of detail Bioware put into this sci-fi opera is astounding, and despite (or maybe because of?) this they manage to keep an incredibly consistent world through two (soon to be three) games. It plays similarly to Knights of the Old Republic, if you ever got your hands on that... but the choices you make hold FAR heavier consequences than whether or not you end up on the light side or the dark side of the Force.

James said...

Yeah, I hear nothing but rave reviews about that one. Now, can video games capitalize on the idea of "interactive storytelling" without it klunking out into the kitschy choose-your-own-adventure books of the 80s? That's the big question I keep wondering. To what degree is interactive storytelling (like pen and paper RPGs) an inherently low-brow art form? Can it become a vehicle for the high brow without the "tyrannical" domination of a single author to impose unity of meaning?

vespreardens said...

We'll find out after Mass Effect 3 releases. :D

One thing I noticed about Mass Effect is while you do control (and at the beginning of the game, create) the main character of Commander Shepherd, there's something... very Commander Shepherd-ish about the character no matter what paths you choose. Shepherd has a sort of reckless determination about him/her that persists no matter what the player does. It kind of feels more like directing a person in scene than like running around in a playground world. One of the beauties of the game is that in spite of this, the players generally don't feel less invested in the character because of this. In fact, I'd guess that most people who neither watched the special features videos nor have any experience with theatre or film wouldn't even notice it. They start things off easy and gradually submerge you, letting you get used to both the character and the world so that you are ready to run when the heat gets turned up, and by the time you get to the end of ME2, you have the possibility of several different endings, all of which will drastically affect game play in 3. That is... if you survived.

Despite Shepherd's Shepherd-ish tendencies, the player's investment does change some key things about the character, as well as the world... and I'm not just talking about appearances. Looking through the web at stuff people write on the game, it's not uncommon to get comments like, "Yeah.... My Commander Shepherd wouldn't do that," or "My Commander Shepherd would have totally done this instead!" It's this factor which is probably driving the franchise's movie-writing team nuts at this point. How do you write a main character when everyone has a different perspective on them from the get-go?

To answer straight up whether or not it can be high brow... I'd argue that Mass Effect has already made a pretty decent stab at this. How they wrap it up, as I suggested before, will be the telling factor, but I'm not the only one who was nearly brought to tears by parts of this game, and I'm DEFINITELY not the only one who spent the first ten minutes of Mass Effect 2 freaking out and repeating, "Oh, this is REALLY FREAKING BAD." They've created a game that doesn't just entertain, but it moves people and encourages them to think about things, especially when you get into 2. There are very few clear-cut good guys and bad guys. There are just people, and they did a really good job of making sure any side character you interact with has enough personality that it's apparent that even the handful that you never interact with beyond a surface level have hopes, dreams, and fears.

Heh. I guess now you can add this to the rave reviews you've heard about the game. :D

James said...

Hmmm. Thanks for unpacking that.

Do you think the continuity comes because the design team had a strong enough idea of the character to limit the choices available to players to those that fit within a certain bandwith that fits with their vision of shepherd? In other words, we might envision several paths a character might take and then the ways that that those paths would influence the character. The character at the end of each path would look different but there would still be enough core similarities for us to discern that each version of the character had the same origin.

vespreardens said...

Mmm.... Sort of. I mean, you don't have a say about whether or not your character joined the galactic military. You did. The end. But you are allowed to choose (to some degree) what your life was like before that and what stands out in your military career. And if you intend to actually play the character (instead of doing the equivalent of going "full light side" or "full dark side"), this is going to affect your motivations on a core level. Likewise, it affects how certain other characters perceive you. A character that (and I'm going to give you this minor spoiler, 'cause it's literally the first thing you do in the game, right alongside choosing what your character looks like) grew up in a struggling space colony and went on to be the hero of a major battle is going to have a different approach to things than a character that grew up a street urchin and was the only one to survive a devastating incident during their military practice, and that's not even calculating for what one brings in of their own personality.

I think the thing that lends the most unity to the overall storyline is quite simply the creative team's understanding of the human condition. Sure, it's a given that your character is tough and determined, but that's because Shepherd starts out a space marine, and what makes Shepherd tough is kind of left up to you. Is it because Shepherd has a hard-as-nails attitude, or is it simply a misinterpretation of being immensely lucky and rather good with a gun? Or something else?

Oh, here we go. It's like fishing. They let you run around all free, and just when you think things are cool, they tighten the line and you have to either react or go under... and running away is not an option. (Well, you could turn off the game... but....) Everything is fair game for them to tug on to get you places (and I'm going to try not to think about that too hard between now and ME3). So... yeah. I guess things get limited there because the game creators give you important things with the intention of using them as collateral later. (Not thinking too hard about that one, either.) If you're sunk in the story, you ultimately go along with this dance or you quit the game. You *do* have the option of parking Shepherd in a bar, getting super-drunk, and just quitting. :D There's no rendered ending for that, though. Of course.

I think part of my difficulty with your question is that Mass Effect doesn't exactly run in predictable lines. I can approach a quest or situation and say, "I'm going to take all the Paragon options on this quest!" or, "I hate all these people. Renegade all the way!" But inevitably there will be something that comes up that you just had *no* way of knowing beforehand. Because that's how life works. So, you can look at different paths others took in the same situations, and you can look at different choices you might have made, but it all ends up being done in retrospect. Heck, not all the Paragon and Renegade choices are even marked as such. I can tell you right now, though, that at least one of the options at the end of the third game will have Shepherd looking like the Big Damn Hero of the Galaxy. Though, at this point I'm not sure if Shepherd will be around to appreciate the gesture....

vespreardens said...

(Had to break things up. Post apparently was too long.)

There *is* a sense of Shepherd. But I'm not sure if that sense goes much beyond Shepherd being a very determined and capable person who wants humanity to survive. I'm not even sure the last one is necessarily important to the character so long as the character him/herself survives, in the long run. If you were to break it into Myers-Briggs types, I could tell you that Shepherd is definitely a Sensor... but Introvert/Extrovert, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perceiving... these are all left to the player. Shepherd may not have emotional breakdowns on camera, but you can imply in dialogue here and there that Shepherd has them off-camera. You *have* to interact with certain characters, but you have control over how friendly you get with... well, anyone you can get friendly with. And if you want to play Shepherd Lawful Stupid, you can do that, too (or try... as I said before, Shepherd is a competent person).

I don't know if that helps... or even entirely answers the question. I'm trying very hard to do this without giving spoilers, but nearly everything in Mass Effect is spoilers.... It's that bad. Or... um... good. It's complicated.

James said...

Thanks! That does help and I don't fell like anything's been spoiled. =-) I'll have to make time to check that out!

vespreardens said...

Hahahaha! Mostly I just want to cite examples to back up my claims and can't. :) It's not perfect, but even the grumpiest of critics agrees that Bioware (and the Mass Effect series in particular) has amazing writing. And for the most part, the game play is good enough to to back up that writing.

Enjoy, when you get around to it.