Monday, 11 March 2013

Winterlude (3). How I learned to disregard the canon and enjoy the game

Between hibernation and game-testing responsibilities, I have still managed to involve myself in some other games to provide the change-of scenery and offer a road-stop for the mind's retreat. More than that, these games have given me the itch to share some stories again and let the commentary sprawl. Let's see if I can carve that itch into a somewhat readable series - here goes, in no particular order. 
(Cyber Ninjas took the first slot and Psycho Puzzles landed on second.) 

Dungeons, Dragons and All Things Tolkien never were quite my thing. Not sure where it began but by the end of teen years the realization had settled. As with many things I've grown to "Meh!", it started with the desire to learn more. Back in highschool, it was the rich and/or cool kids who had access to the mysterious circles of "The Game" and casually referred to people by their character names. I was certainly intrigued and curious to figure out what was the knowledge system behind the cult. One thing to probably counterweigh that early fascination was the increased systematic access to "real" world mythology. Another maybe-important factor was that I had basically grown up on worldwide folktales - often adapted but rarely dumbed down. And somehow the D&D-ish-lore I came to contact with seemed... well... lacking or inauthentic in comparison. (No need for the pitchforks and torches - I'm not passing judgement, I'm describing my bias.)

What I'm getting at, is that a degree of Goblin Fatigue and Pointy-ear-induced Eyerolls also creeped into my play-preferences. In fact, when I purchased Planescape: Torment mid-autumn (GOG sales strike again!), I did so under the impression it was something completely different. Somehow I had managed to read "planet" into the title and was mentally preparing myself for "Fallout in space". So, learning that was not the case already shaved off a great deal of enthusiasm.

My first attempts to get into the game didn't go so well. Unable to grasp the interface at first, I also became frustrated over all the things I thought I *had to* know in order to play. [insert the mandatory  *know* joke here.] Having somehow adopted the no-pixel-left-undisturbed-and-no-exp-unclaimed mentality meant that the ultimate goal of "playing fully" obliged me to "find it all" and "figure it all out by myself" and not move on until I did so. Meanwhile I didn't yet quite get it how to equip stuff; I couldn't keep track what the different items did; I couldn't put the various stats and pieces together into a bigger picture; the information was just too much.  This here is a perfect example of an overwhelming info-blast-in-the-face that I found too voluminous to grasp and out of my comprehensive reach. I put the game on hold in a very early stage (mid-Mortuary, that is).

The information overdose wasn't entirely the game's doing though - at the time I wasn't quite at my best and brightest, my information processing capacity going through a low point. I have found that my ability to interact with games is a very useful indicator about my overall focus levels and such. So, a few months later when I found myself able to near-effortlessly process similar text-portions through the game, it was a clear sign I was getting better. My attitude had improved too. By then I was emotionally uninvested enough to let go of that nagging sense of obligation to "know everything about everything to play properly" - I'd even managed to let go of some of that "thou shalt play *properly* and only *properly* or else" nag itself.

I think the first time I truly warmed up to the game was when I noticed some of the ground textures to be similar or identical to those used in Fallout desert tiles. (The music was starting to tug my heartstrings too.)  At this point I didn't even bother to worry about the stats intricacies, alignments, races, dice combinations - and seeing how the sky didn't fall and the game didn't stop because of that, made me feel kind of ... enlightened.  I was also very happy to find the 'AI control' option for my crew - I don't mind having some companions around (indeed, during the game I can get quite attached to them), but prefer not having to micromanage them. When it came to character upgrades, I set a basic direction and then pretty much ignored the rest, letting the points fall where they may. (Upon reflection I found such attitude a bit odd, noticing how character building employs similar-enough structure as in Fallout, yet in there I care deeply about the traits & properties to choose from.)

At the same time I became deeply invested in my ingame decisions - not because I was worried about some proverbial "correct outcome" but because of how these choices would define me, what these questions meant to me personally. As cheesy as it sounds, the game became a spiritual journey littered with definitive moments, complete with goosebumps and openly weeping at the screen.

I mean ... fuck:

This was the point of no return. If a game through its very fabric makes me deal with potentially very important questions and facilitates thought (rather than whacking the player over the head with pre-solidified statements and "truths") - then I'm in. At this point even a (proverbial) elven armada with squirrel-pointy ears and runic tunics could not have scared me away anymore. I was way too busy contemplating questions and making choices that were defining the very world around me with each step.

(Questions such as about the ties between someone's name and their identity; about the ties between someone's actions and their identity; about how you relate to your companions and the ingame entities in general; about the harm you've done and are capable of doing; how enduring makes you stronger ... fun stuff like that.)

Later on, watching the Extra Credits episode where they discuss what depth and complexity mean in games, my brain gleefully went "Ding!" Using their terms, I had been able to ignore the complexity of the canon almost entirely and yet found great depths to dive into.

P.S.: The other day I saw this on Kotaku. Looks like I'm just in time for the bandwagon :D

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