Category Archives: Escapism

Videogames are beautiful

My old friend Cyrille is quite possibly the most dedicated, passionate retro-gamer I will ever know. Before he made his ultimate dream come true – moving to Japan, that mother of artsy videogames, manga and anime, and falling desperately in love with a girl there who is now mother of his son – we grew up together for a time. Cy was a PC Engine (aka Turbo Duo) worshipper down to the bone, with presently 688 out of a total of 735 games owned, and I don’t think he ever eyed any game past the 32bit era with anything but disdain, which made for both entertaining and infuriating discussions sometime. “Video games are works of art” he used to tell me, anything less was not worth his time. He wanted to see love and great care put into them by developers, love for a synthesis between story, graphics, soundtrack and theme, care for the little details that stick in our minds forever. We would watch game intros in solemn awe together or listen to wacky game midis as if they were Beethoven’s Fifth. Truth be told, my cellphone’s ringtone and sounds are still SNES midis – there’s a lot of nostalgia involved.

Why do people play video games? Plenty of reasons there: entertainment, challenge, competition, winding down, the social / cooperative factor, escapism, yadda yadda. Most of these things can also be found while having drinks in a bar or playing poker with friends though. Being into video games goes a bit deeper in my mind, although I am aware not everyone shares the same interest as me. But it’s always annoyed me how anyone into literature, painting or music is automatically a fine “art and culture” lover, while being a gamer gets little to no such credit. Video games are two steps away from movies and TV, with a big fat label saying “passive and unproductive” on the package. Being into teh arts however, is enough to make you seem distinguished and productive. You might not play any instrument yourself or ever have held a brush in your life, still: you = creative!

Well, I have some news: video games are works of art. Video games are beautiful. They’re not just moving pictures stirring behavioural principles to enslave people into passivity forever; they’re the joint product of a hundred art departments come together. Years of meticulous planning and execution, a delightful composition of graphic, music, story, coding and heart. The work of outstanding artists, visionaries and dreamers, appealing to several of our senses simultaneously. If you have a good look at some MMO and general game sites, forums and blog discussions these days, you get the impression that many gamers have forgotten what  they are dealing with. Debates on subscription models and numbers, launch dates, developer vs. publisher wars, playtime, class balances, server and credit card crashes, bargains on collector’s editions. Very little on the art that is games. Very little delight about the concept art, story or music involved.

Has the audience gone numb, deaf and blind or are today’s games simply such cheap creations off the same careless, fast-producing clay, that no appreciation for more artistic aspects is possible? Or is there an ongoing trend in the videogame industry to get closer and closer to movie making, as this author states in his lenghty but interesting article?

When games are works of art

On my recent search for more old-school adventure games, I’ve stumbled into a world that I had not visited for a long time. I’ve asked around for recommendations quite a bit, not just on my blog, but some game forums where I have been resident for many years and people know my tastes quite well. I knew Monkey Island and Siberia were a good starting point – point&click and puzzle adventures in general, as long as they emphasize story and setting over tedious, endless riddle guessing (which I hate) and jumpy acrobatics. I excluded MUDs because I am still looking for the video in game (still, thanks to Jaedia for this recommendation!).

What do you know, I got a lot more feedback than expected. And not just that: I got my finer senses back for what I truly appreciate in games – the scary, the hilarious, the atmosphere. It’s true, a lot of today’s videogames have dropped off the same bandwagon and they are not meant to last; but there are the daring and different still.

One such game that I need to highlight is Limbo (XBOX live arcade, 2010) which has been the biggest surprise to me of the suggested lot – being completely without music (there are sounds though) and text. It is the most unsettling, creepy yet beautiful game I have encountered in years. A boy lost in an deep forest where death is as imminent as the sky and yet as quiet as the wind whispering among the trees. If you hold any love for dark fairy tales and a fascination for the subtly macabre (hello Neil Gaiman readers), Limbo is an absolute delicacy on grounds of imagery and atmosphere alone. It is such a breath of fresh air to find such indie projects still being produced, but judge for yourself.

Videogames are an art form made up of visuals, sound, and a mysterious little something we call gameplay. Limbo is the perfect example of these three crafts working together in harmony to create something astounding. With no text, no dialogue, and no explanation, it manages to communicate circumstance and causality to the player more simply than most games. This 2D puzzle platformer in a film noir style is one of the best games you’ll play this year on any platform. (

Often compared to Braid, I’ve not found the second, very jumpy puzzle game nearly as compelling in terms of atmosphere or gameplay (also, I find the protagonist Tim annoying). Braid has won awards for beautiful artwork and innovative design though and is clearly another pearl in that corner of the genre.

Parallel to Limbo, I have engaged in Monkey Island, re-mastered. After only the first chapters (and some awkward sparring rounds at the weapon master), I noticed my saved gamedata at 40%. I had to smile at this: yes, games used to be this short. Of a great adventure like Monkey Island, you could expect a run of 5 hours max. Today, you can hear people complain if a videogame “only offers 30 hours of gameplay”. But on to some more pearls…

As I hadn’t specified platform, only excluding handhelds (mostly because I have played all the good ones on DS already), I was surprised to get some flash-/browser games on my list. They’re full of love for detail, featuring beautiful tunes and engaging gameplay:

If Samorost’s style rings any bells for you, the games are in fact by Amanita Design, the studio behind the delightful Machinarium for PC, PS3 and Wii. A demo for the game can be found here.

Realizing I am now completely leaving the world of adventures, I still like to mention an old, secret fandom of mine, the Orisinal mini-games by Ferry Halim. The page has been there forever and is not being updated very often, but each game is a little wonder of its own (I particularly like the star girl and dragon flies).

Further Reading

Shinies and oddballs aside, my list of more classic text adventures has grown too. To name a few that I intend to look into: Indiana Jones, Broken Sword (1-3), Discworld, the King’s Quest series, Lost Horizon, Zak McKracken and Gray Matter. For some reason I couldn’t help but feel reminded of the upcoming MMO, the Secret World, when checking out that last title.

I have also been informed that there’s a rather in-depth guide to classic adventure games available on Amazon; I’m sure that to sworn genre cracks such an encyclopaedia provides a great read. Also, unrelated to the topic of adventures, I found this article on artful videogames well worth reading. I can only second the sentiment on Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

I shall be entertained by this list of adventure games for some time to come, methinks – enjoying their stories, music and world. I dare say, it’s quite the rest and relaxation compared to what’s going on in other corners of the world of games right now.

Fighting your inner demon. Or: Take a Ferris Bueller Day in WoW

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Every generation has a movie or two they grew up with and that was particularly influential to them as kids or teenagers, echoing the vibe of their time, inspiring them to adventure and pushing the boundaries of the society they live in. For the 60ies it was The Graduate, for the 70ies it was films like Grease. I’m not sure what it was for today’s generation of teens, but if I am to believe my students, it’s movies like American Pie or Clueless…them poor souls! 

The 80ies were good times: we had films like Stand by Me, The Goonies or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in 1986, to kindle our impressionable imagination. If you’ve never watched Ferris Bueller, then I really suggest you do – it’s not only a great laugh and 80ies flashback with memorable acting and quotes, but a hyperbolic metaphor on getting more out of life if only you dare to “stop and look around every once in a while“. Ferris is one of the big movie cult figures of the 80ies generation because of this.

Taking a day off from the race

Looking back on several topics and bottom lines players are currently drawing for WoW, while turning their eyes on Cataclysm, I feel a little gloomy about the rushed pace the game’s been taking since its latest installment. There’s been an increased pressure to optimize and increase gaming “efficiency” in WoW which has been documented and discussed over many a blog. Tesh struggles with his inner demon, driving him to catch up and optimize in one of his latest blog posts, where he forces himself to take it easy because “efficiency is a natural enemy of exploration and experimentation”. Shintar has written a very thoughtful comparison between applying for a WoW guild and going to a job interview. And there’s been various other posts discussing cookie cutter specs in WoW and the pressure all players feel to min/max and optimize, debating various solutions.

Personally I doubt this trend of efficiency will stop in Cataclysm and I think it’s going to be very hard to stay away from it, even for the more laid-back players. Blizzard’s continued endeavor to make everything as transparent as possible in the game, via combat data, armory or achievements, is furthering the obsession to perfect and optimize every aspect in the game – for no better reason than because you can.
And whether you like it or not, you will find yourself facing situations in pugging as much as guild raiding, where you will be measured by these standards and hence feel pressured to meet them. It’s impossible to turn back the wheel of time.

My new expansion’s resolution: the Ferris Bueller Way

I know that in Cataclysm I don’t want to play the game like that. I want to stop worrying about optimization and explore my own way through the new expansion, making the “newbie feeling” last as long as possible. I want to experiment with gear and specs without reading up beforehand. I won’t join groups or raids that require me to cookie-cut everything or show my achievements. A game shouldn’t feel like a job – it should be an escapism. I don’t want to feel pressured to follow the dogma of efficiency in a game that doesn’t actually require you to optimize in order to experience 98% of its content.

I will take off a Ferris Bueller day, only I’ll make it weeks. I will skip school and create my own adventure, generate my own quests and challenges, exploring at my own leisure and enjoying the little secrets that make a game so much more special.

I know it will take a lot of mental effort and all of my inner Zen to achieve this – I am a very perfectionist, driven and calculating person. It’s been the only way of playing WoW for me the past 5 years. But I do refuse to enter the competition this time around: yes, I will quench my inner demon! When Cataclysm hits, I will ignore everyone and everything around me (lalala!), take a deep breath and do exactly this: play the game like a game. I hope I’ll succeed.

Why do you play another race in MMOs?

Following several discussions on ‘gnome representation’ in WoW the other week, I ended up noticing how different some MMO players choose what race to play from myself. Since it was gnomish debates that got me thinking about this, I’ll take the gnome race in WoW as an example:

I would never roll a gnome in WoW. And while I agree that the gnomes are rendered somewhat goofy and ‘a-sexual’ (or childish) in this particular game, that has nothing to do with it. Even if gnomes were testosterone- and estrogen-pumped starlets of human sexuality, I wouldn’t roll one (or rather that would be one more reason not to roll one). And I actually think gnomes are awesome, some of my alltime favorite NPCs are gnomes and I’ve loved the whole theme of gnomes as tinkerers and engineers introducing more ‘modern’ technology (steam-engine zeppelins!) to the fantasy genre, ever since Mount Nevermind of the Dragonlance series back from the 1980ies.

But no, I would never roll a gnome, no matter how cool and fun they are. I wouldn’t roll a dwarf either, nor a nightelf or any other race for that matter, simply because I don’t feel “represented” by them. In almost every given MMO I’ve played for longer in the past, I have played a human female if such was possible. I need to identify with the character I play – I am that kind of player. Now I know that race and looks are very superficial and cosmetic: if I was to chose the WoW race that is most likely “like me” in humor or lifestyle (the way it’s presented by lore or NPCs), I would probably roll a troll. But then I don’t care so much about lore and NPC representation; I believe that my char is more of a vessel that’s gonna get its personality from me, if that makes sense. The way I’m playing MMOs, my character is just a projection of my real self and so I will fashion my ingame looks after the real thing if I can. All the Syls in the past, be it in Final Fantasy Online, Age of Conan, WoW or some other MMO, have had the same hairstyle, color, complexion, height (if available) or whatever other cosmetic aspect. I am also rather particular about my ingame name like that.

Am I just boring?

I bet there’s a fair few of you thinking now: Wow, how boring! And in a way I agree, it IS really boring, isn’t it? Maybe if I played alts (which I don’t), I would roll another race, I have mules in WoW that are grumpy dorfs or dashy nightelves after all, it was fun to create them. But the character I mean to play and spend most of my ingame time with needs to be “me”. Identification is closely linked to immersion and immersion in MMOs is a very big deal to me.

So, I realize that we do not all pick our characters in the same way; there are many WoW gamers that choose races like gnomes and nightelves (or horde races) exactly because they like to play someone else in a game. And I can totally understand that – it’s fun to assume a different race, it’s a change from being a “boring human” all the time, right?

It just doesn’t work for me that way. I “like being myself” as silly as that sounds and what I’m looking for in MMOs is taking myself into fantastic realms that I can share with others. And different races are so very much a part of that experience for me too: what would the fantasy genre be without them? I love racial diversity, I’m just not looking for escapism from myself when I pick my character. Maybe that’s self-fixation, or narcissism if you will, I certainly wouldn’t call it race-fixation however. What I like too about this, is that when I look back on my past ventures in all the MMOs I’ve played, it feels like the same character, me, has journeyed through all of them which makes my experiences and memories feel much more like a consistent story (and humans are usually always available as a race choice).

Coming to think of that, I feel this is mostly important to me in MMOs where we are so deeply invested in our alter egos: I have played a lot of Japanese console RPGs when I was younger and as the hero was usually set there, I’d be a male teenager called ‘Ryu’, ‘Link’ or ‘Crono’ (sleepy head!) without experiencing any loss of story because of it.
Still, if I am able to choose, I will always choose to play a female character and most likely a human. If an MMO featured male characters only, I probably wouldn’t play it. It’s why we get so much character customization in this particular genre of games: our alter egos are our avatars, our manifestations and developers account (sadly in various degrees) for this demand for customization which is all about identity and individuality. That said, I would draw the line at playing human models that look simply hideous for the same reasons and I’d choose to play an Arisen in Allods (for reasons of awesumness).

So I wonder, how is it for those WoW players that have been running around as shorties, elves, tauren or trolls for years? Did you instantly identify with your character, no matter how different it looked from you? Or do you feel some of the non-human races of WoW actually represent you a lot better?
Or is this maybe not what you’re looking for at all, are you looking to role-play in a way (not in the sense of you rolling on an RP server), getting some time off the real me?

Why do you play another race in MMOs?

I’d really love to hear some views on this and whether I am the only person playing a human character for reasons of identification and immersion.