Sentiment in Games [Part 1]: An Ode to those Lost

It has been some time since this all began – how long ago exactly, I couldn’t tell you any more – but it’s time I told someone.

Red (Character) Sprite - Red and Blue VersionI knew that even though seasons had come and gone, the world hadn’t changed.  That even though days were passing, the sun had never set.  My ability to measure time was not based on what had been affected in the world around me, but rather my achievements, my progress across this land, and the growth of my team.  The growth my companions exhibited in strength both strength and ability provided proof that, even though my own physical form showed no signs of time having passed – accumulating no scars, needing no sustenance, and never developing beyond it’s pre-pubescent outward appearance – the change I saw in them proved that the universe I lived in was more than just a static, barren landscape of signposts and puppets with tape recorders.

Squirtle Sprite - Red and Blue VersionBubbles had been my partner from the very beginning.  That is, he wasn’t always a Blastoise, his current form and power rendered him almost unrecognisable from the little Squirtle I’d make right back at the beginning of this journey.  We had connected right off the bat.  My neighbour, a crazy Professor who was named after a tree, offered me a companion in exchange for completing a favour for him.  It felt like the horrible decision that one would be making at an abandoned animal shelter, know that all of the lost animals there could one day be your greatest friend, but that your choice will leave all the others in this place of limbo.  The three little guys all looked up at me with longing eyes, all hoping that I’d take them along, and release them from the tiny confines of a miniaturised ball he kept them in.  Against the Toad with a bulb on it’s back, and unfriendly looking lizard with a tail that, most likely as the result of some cruel teenage prank, was always on fire, Bubbles and his awesome little turtle body was, from the moment I saw him, the one I had to take with me.  I didn’t care that it would probably mean being forever in my neighbour’s debt and hiking all over the world to complete his life’s work, Bubbles was going to be my best friend.

Blastoise Sprite - Red and Blue Version
After that fateful day, we’d recruited companions from all over, of all forms and races.  My brother had joined even in on a journey of his own as well, although by some amazing property of the universe and everything, his existence lay in a parallel dimension, where our journeys followed almost exactly the same path.  On the day our journeys began, we both awoke in a strange room, alone and finding only our mother in the house, acting in both dimensions as though the other brother had never existed.  We both fought tooth and nail against the same evil organisation attempting to take over the world, defeating the same enemies that came at the both of us, spewing the same angst-ridden speeches, and challenging our troupe with the same anger-filled creatures.  It was uncanny the similarities that our experiences entailed.  The only way we managed to communicate was through some kind of dimension travelling device that our local hospitals offered.  To this day, I find it amazing that being aware of this parallel dimension, they never pushed the technology further than a method for us to pass through our creatures, trapped in the miniaturised balls, or allowing them to battle somewhere in the limbo that existed between our two dimensions – dimensions that we later called “Red” and “Blue” for the sake of clarity.  Perhaps the technology couldn’t facilitate an exchanging of a larger mass.  I really would have loved to have joined my brother, or have him join me.  We would have been unstoppable.

Giovanni Sprite - Red and Blue VersionI look back fondly on those days, the days of ambient music, impossible physics, and people with 2 second memories.  Every day (I’m still not sure that ‘day’ is the correct term here,) was brought me an amazing new experience: the discovery that one of the creatures of this amazing dimension had abilities that were both unexpected and wonderful, that the antics of this “space-faring” evil organisation were almost childish and half-hearted in their planning and complexity, turning a corner only to happen upon a creature that I could never in my wildest dreams imagined, and seeing my companions grow.  Watching my companions grow, coming into their own – it brought wonder, awe and pride: that was by far the most amazing part of the journey.  Watching Bubbles grow from the cute little turtle he once was, unable to do little more than blow bubbles from his mouth and throw little his body at those opposing us, into the fearsome creature with the ability to blast high pressured water from cannon-like appendages that had sprouted from his shell – it fired off my imagination and dreams that one day, perhaps we would take on the famous Elite Four, the strongest of the teams in our world.  A dream that was shared in my brother’s realm as well.

Lorelei Overworld Sprite - Red and Blue VersionBruno Overworld Sprite - Red and Blue VersionAgatha Overworld Sprite - Red and Blue VersionLance Overworld Sprite - Red and Blue Version

But those days are behind me now.  I never achieved that dream, and although my brother managed to continue on in his dimension, getting ever closer to the Elite Four, my journey came to a premature end.  All that’s left now are the memories.  I’m sure that Bubbles and the rest of the team are here too.  Somewhere.  I have no idea where the the void, the nothingness, the blackness, came from.  All I know is that it ate up everything I knew, everything I loved, everything I had achieved.  No, everything we had achieved.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember exactly where I was when it came, it seems so long ago now, but I do remember how much it hurt.  My valiant companions had always stood in between me and any form of danger, but even in their combined strength there was nothing they could do against the nothingness that swallowed the world.  It wiped out everything; the corporation and their evil plans, the puppet-like inhabitants of the realm, the computers, the buildings, the gyms, all the creatures in existence, my mother, my companions, and, finally, me.  I don’t remember exactly where I was, or even what I was doing, but I remember what happened when it came, after it had taken everything away.  After it had obliterated it, banished it into a void, erased any record of my journey from existence.  After that, there wasn’t anything else I could do.

I cried.

Save Points: From Fun to Fear

   So I was just reading another interview with Alexander Bruce on Kotaku, and it fired a neuron or two.

   One of my pet hates with the ‘Free-To-Play’ model and the way in which it’s implemented most often, is that I find it horrific that a games design company can release a product in which they think that part of the game is boring enough, that people will want to skip it.  It’s exactly why Blizzard keep making it easier and easier to get to the ‘End Game’ in World of Warcraft.
   When so much of a game is about getting to the ‘End’ that doesn’t even exist, it starts becoming a matter of how many games you can ‘beat’, and not the quality of the experience along the way.
   I’m sure there are psychological principles involved, that fuel this drive for getting further, but I’ll save that for another day.  What I’m really interested in are Save Points.

   Save Points, checkpoints, the ability to save, in general, is a fantastic concept.  The ability to put a game down and come back to it later, without having to start again from the beginning, is an essential part of integrating video games into a busy lifestyle.  The invention of the save system, is akin to the invention of the bookmark.  Can you imagine what it would have been like to have to read War and Peace in one go?
   Password systems are also good for taking it up again from where you left off, but a save file is more than that, it’s yours and no-one else’s.  With auto-saves, checkpoints and free saving systems, it only gets better, right?

   I’m not sure how everyone else plays, and so many of these articles will be written from self-experience, but I’m pretty sure I’m not that unique when it comes to my playing style.

   In the games of old, of which the Marios and Donkey Kongs are the foremost in my mind, you could only save after you had beaten a whole level.  Some had checkpoints as well, but these only lasted as long as the game was turned on.  Furthermore, these systems often forgot how many lives you had.
   While it is most likely that this was a result of system limitations, I begin to wonder if the ‘advances’ make us worse gamers.
   These days, most games allow the player to save whereever and whenever he or she wishes, and every single piece of data is saved.  How many lives the player has, the ammo count, the specific world location of the character – everything.  So why do I consider this a bad thing?  For the same reason that I rarely use the big guns in a single player FPS – fear.

   I’m 8, it’s Christmas Day, I’m playing Donkey Kong on my Gameboy, and I’m focused on one thing: getting through the level.  I know that if I don’t get through the level, mum or dad might tell me to turn it off, and that means Game Over.  If I lose all my lives, I’ll lose the progress I made in the level, but that’s usually not such a big piece of play-time.  I’m playing the game, absorbed in it, with the only fear in my 8 year-old mind being the clock ticking down to the time at which I have to turn it off.  I love it.
   I’m 21, it’s an ordinary day, I’m playing Fallout 3 on the PC, and I’m focused on one thing: trying to get the most out of my gaming experience.  I want to see everything, do everything, experience as many facets of the game design as I can, and I’m sure many of you know, Fallout 3 is not that kind of game.  However, my fear is no longer whether I will have enough time, but whether I can collect and complete this game 100%.  What this results in, is stress.  Every time I see a choice that the designer has implemented, it sticks out like a sore thumb.  Hell, even if I wasn’t so acutely focusing on these aspects, there are bars and statistics that makes sure I don’t miss that choosing not to blow up the nuclear warhead is a ‘morally correct’ choice.  I save, I save and I save.  I reload, reload, and reload.  Everytime a combat doesn’t leave me with what I consider to be enough heath, ammo, or something else, I reload and try the fight again.  Everytime I see a choice closing doors, I reload and see what the other choice rewards me with before I settle.  (I have a Bioshock save file right before the first little sister so that I could take the other direction in case saving the little sisters didn’t work out.)
   It’s an exhausting, time-consuming way to play, and to be perfectly honest, it’s not a whole lot of fun. I understand that I play this way, and that not everyone does, but consider the save systems implemented in games today, specifically in ‘narratively driven’ ones.  Every reload, if by choice or by ‘death’ breaks the narrative in twain.

   The fault doesn’t rest solely with save systems.  The way that choices in narrative games are handled is also appalling – death and unsolvable situations too.  However, perhaps in the push for better technological capabilities in the systems we use for our games, and the save systems that came out of it, we lost something.  We lost some fun, some class and inadvertently shattered the narrative experience.