Archive for January, 2007

GTA3: Taking Fun as Simply Fun

I said that I’m playing GTA3 “in earnest” now. When I was still wrestling with hardware issues, I knew I wasn’t going to bother saving the game, so I didn’t try to make progress. I just explored a little, found a few hidden packages without trying, drove at whatever speed I pleased, and quit when I felt like it. Now, things are different. I don’t quit without first heading back to the hideout to save the game. When I explore, it’s because I’m looking for something. When I drive, I’m attentive to either safety or time, depending.

This makes a big difference to the feel of the game, even when I’m not actively on a mission. The more focussed I am on what I’m doing, the less I’m soaking in the game’s ambience. The thing is, I suspect that the way I was playing it at first is more like the way most of the game’s fans played it. Just enjoying the experience without “lust for result”, either finishing it after a matter of months because they played it so much that they eventually played it all, or not even getting that far but going on to the next sequel when it was released. Is this a better way to approach the game? Maybe. I do intend to take things kind of easy while I can, enjoying the simulated sunsets and so forth, because I anticipate the later missions requiring more attention.

Maybe I should play The Sims next. It’s on the stack.

GTA3: Hidden Packages

So now I’m playing GTA3 in earnest, attempting to make progress and saving the game when I do. I’ve completed several missions for Luigi, one for Joey, and one for a stranger who called a payphone, as well as found 7 of 100 “hidden packages”.

I’m not sure yet if I’m going to try to find all 100 hidden packages. It certainly appeals to me as a completist, but I never completed equivalent tasks in the first two GTAs. On the other hand, it’s kind of different here. The previous games, with their unvarying top-down perspective, were more like 2D games. Not that they were really 2D: there was definitely a height factor, no less so than in GTA3. But the fixed perspective made it possible to hide things only in the same ways that 2D games hide their secrets: by putting them offscreen (or outside of where the screen will normally be), by concealing them with foreground scenery that blocks the player’s view (and thus the player’s view of the player character when getting them), by putting them under objects that the player has to destroy, or, most commonly in these particular games, by putting them in plain sight but behind a barrier, with a difficult-to-find route past the barrier. The first two of these techniques depend on properties of the 2D third-person view: if you could see through the PC’s eyes, things that are offscreen or behind the foreground would be in plain sight. Thus, they seem artificial, and can even break immersion by drawing attention to properties of the game engine that are not properties of the game world. When games started going 3D, one of the big revelations was that secrets could now be hidden in more natural ways, because the moving camera allowed things to be in plain sight from some locations but not others. Thus, in GTA3, it seems like most of the hidden packages can be found by walking behind or inside structures that you otherwise don’t have much motivation to explore that thoroughly.

This last point is one of the main reasons for having collectibles in a game in the first place: to encourage the player to explore the environment thoroughly, maximizing what they see of the designers’ carefully-sculpted world. Every significant landmark in GTA3 seems to have exactly one secret package as a reward for visiting that landmark. If this is consistently true, then it should be easier to find them all than in the first two games, where they were just kind of scattered at random.

PSX-to-USB adaptors

Acting on the advice of many, I finally gave up and bought a different PSX-to-USB adaptor that has a better driver, one that allows me to arbitrarily reassign axes. Such devices are not expensive, but still, it rankles, because I didn’t really want or need a different adaptor. In terms of hardware, my new adaptor can’t be very different from my old one. Both devices take the same kind of signal, and produce the same kind of signal. All I really needed was a better driver. The driver for the new device was available for free download on the web, but Windows wouldn’t allow me to use it with the old adaptor.

I know very little about Windows device drivers, and less about USB, but presumably the two devices send some kind of signature that lets the USB host figure out which device it is. So it should be possible to hack the new driver to work with the old device by changing the signature it looks for. But figuring out how to do this would have involved more work than it took to earn the money I used to pay for the new adaptor.

Anyway, at least I should be able to play GTA3 properly now.

Throne of Darkness: Graphical Style

So, I gave Throne of Darkness another go. I’m out of the dungeon and into the final castle, but things there are slaughtering my party regularly. I think I’ll have to have another crafting spree before I can make any more progress, and maybe go back and slaughter some creatures along alternate paths for more XP and crafting supplies.

Since I’ve run out of interesting things to say about the gameplay, let me talk about the graphics a little. I mentioned before that I bought this game primarily on the basis of the screenshots on the box (which is a poor way to make purchasing decisions, but hey, it was cheap). The thing I liked was mainly the texture of the objects. Items have engraving-like detail, and magic items are tinted in various colors depending on their enhancements. It’s especially striking now, coming from a stint of Guitar Hero, which uses heavily stylized 3D. The Throne of Darkness style is a good example of what 2D graphics can do better.

All of which makes me wonder what they were thinking when they made the crudely cel-shaded cutscenes. Nobody’s perfect, I suppose.

Guitar Hero: Final Thoughts

After practicing by replaying some of the earlier songs to get higher ratings and more unlocks, I finally beat “Bark at the Moon”. Guitar Hero is officially off the stack. I’ll probably play with it some more and see how far I can get on Hard difficulty, but I doubt I’ll ever finish it at that level.

About “Bark at the Moon” as a boss monster: Looking back at the last set of songs, it strikes me as unfortuante that the hardest of the hardest songs has a title that’s a verb phrase in the imperative rather than a noun. The same set has songs titled “Frankenstein” and “Godzilla”. Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to be able to say “Yeah! I finally beat Godzilla!”? Even “Cowboys from Hell”, also in the same set, is more fitting.

Like those songs, “Bark at the Moon” is about a monster. Is it deliberate that the final set is mainly monster songs? Is it coincidence? Or is it just that the kind of band that does really difficult guitar riffs tends to be the kind of band that writes songs about monsters?

On an unrelated note, in a recent editorial in Newsweek, Stephen Levy says that the Guitar Hero gameplay experience is “no different from other experiences made virtually accessible by the computer, from being a World War II sniper to playing golf like Tiger Woods.” The gaming-as-fantasy fallacy again! But then, judging by the anecdotal evidence Levy presents, perhaps it’s not a fallacy. Maybe I’m just atypical. Perhaps imitating the real experience really is the central thing for the people who play Call of Duty or Tiger Woods PGA Tour, games which don’t appeal to me particularly. And perhaps the people who become really obsessed with Guitar Hero, who aren’t satisfied with finishing it at Medium difficulty like me, are doing it to feel like they can play “Bark at the Moon” like Ozzy does. I’ve said that the rock star fantasy isn’t essential to enjoying the game, but maybe it’s essential to getting the most out of it.

Levy also asks:

“…by bestowing the rewards of virtuosity to those who haven’t spent years to earn it, is it dumbing down musicianship? If a teenager can easily become a make-believe guitar hero, does that mean he won’t ever bother to master the real thing?”

For once, a videogame is being blamed for inspiring teenagers to not imitate it in real life. Leaving aside the question of whether fewer teenage guitarists might not be a bad thing, my contact at Harmonix points out that the game could easily have the opposite effect. Even if the game reduces the proportion of guitarist wannabes who go through with learning to play for real, it may be making up for it by producing more guitarist wannabes. In other words, there have got to be people who assumed that they could never play a guitar until they tried it in the game and realized that the skills were accessible after all. Pure speculation, of course, but so is Levy’s comment. I know I can report a similar experience with a different game: Slime Forest convinced me that I could actually learn to read Japanese. A couple of years later, I’m still learning, but I haven’t given up.

Guitar Hero: Bark at the Moon

The songs in Guitar Hero are divided into six levels of increasing difficulty. The highest level is unavailable on Easy mode, so when I unlocked it on Medium, I didn’t know what to expect. The first four songs turned out to be difficult, but not too difficult — I managed to scrape through them all on the first try, albeit missing a lot of notes in the process. Then came the infamous “Bark at the Moon”.

I had heard about this song. It recently made a list of the top 20 videogame bosses. This seemed humorously incongruous when I read about it, but now I understand. It has that bosslike order-of-magnitude-harder-than-anything-else-you’ve-faced quality. The very first thing it throws at you is a rapid alternation between the lowest and highest notes you can play, which involves muscles I haven’t used in a long time. I assume it’s even worse on higher difficulty levels.

It’s been two days since I got that far, and I haven’t successfully barked at the moon yet. Partly this is because I can’t try again immediately after a failed attempt. Not because the game won’t let me, but because each attempt is wearing enough on the hands that I need a break. The game in general is tiring, to the point that I wonder if I’m holding the controller wrong, but not to this degree. (I have experimented with alternate postures a little, such as holding the controller in my lap and playing the fret buttons like a piano keyboard, but these always prove to be more awkward than doing it the right way.)

On my last attempt, I got all the way to the final solo, which, due to its unfamiliarity, I played badly enough to bring the audience all the way from the green zone on the rock-meter down to booing me off the stage. The end result: 99% completion. 99%. I think the final note was actually on the screen.

Guitar Hero: Random Observations

I’ve completed Easy mode by now. I always start rhythm games on Easy mode, I know my limitations. I still haven’t even finished Frequency on Medium difficulty. In this game, though, Easy mode is missing enough of the content that I don’t think it counts as really completing the game for Stack purposes.

And now that I’ve made some progress in Medium, I’ve noticed that this game is heavily zone-based. That is, success depends on “getting into the zone” and letting muscle memory take over — moreso even than in other rhythm games, I think, possibly because of the way you need to coordinate both hands. There comes a point where you’re automatically pressing the frets in advance of the note and not noticing that you’re doing it.

Playing this game has been also been filling in gaps in my musical education. For example, until now, I only knew of the band Franz Ferdinand from reading webcomics. And I had no idea how “Smoke on the Water” goes after the first twelve notes.

My one biggest disappointment in the game is the same one as in all rhythm games, and to a certain extent action games of other sorts: that you can’t play the game and actually watch the graphics at the same time. I can catch glimpses, so I know that your on-screen avatar does something tricky and acrobatic with the guitar when you activate “star power”, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what.

Guitar Hero: Fun, Difficult.

Not only is Guitar Hero is enjoyable even if you don’t want to be a rock star, it’s even enjoyable if you don’t particularly like the song you’re playing at any moment. This isn’t too surprising, as the same was true of Frequency and Amplitude, and the gameplay here is very similar to those games. Some of the complexity of those has been removed, as there’s only one instrument and thus no switching from track to track, but the very nature of the interface has extra complexity of its own. Instead of just pressing the right buttons with the right timing, you have the right hand controlling the timing and the left hand choosing the notes. This is difficult and unintuitive! If this is a simplified version of playing a guitar, then playing an actual guitar must be really, really hard.

Guitar Hero

This was the last game purchase I made before starting this blog. I’d been meaning to get it for some time, not just because of the overwhelmingly positive reviews, but because one of the developers is an acquaintance of mine, and if there’s one kind of game you always have to play, it’s games involving people you know, however slightly. But I hesitated. Partly because, with the custom controller, it’s the most expensive game I’ve ever bought (unless you count Katamari Damacy, the game that finally made me buy a PS2). Partly because no one seemed to be able to answer the question: Is this game still fun if you don’t have a fantasy of being a rock star?

This may seem like an odd question. When I first asked it in an online chat, one person replied “Everyone has a fantasy of being a rock star!” Well… no. Not everyone. It’s not that I hate rock, it’s just that it’s never inspired in me the zealous enthusiasm that makes people idolize its practicioners. Think of, say, John Williams. Here’s a musician whose works have had an emotional impact on millions of people: imagine how dry Darth Vader’s initial entrance onto Leia’s ship would have been without the strains of the Imperial March in the background. But John Williams doesn’t have screaming fans. He doesn’t have groupies. He doesn’t have people quitting their jobs to follow him around on tour. Few if any people have commercially-successful movie sountrack composer fantasies.

Given that the question isn’t purely hypothetical, there’s another problem with it: the assumption that gaming is based on a fantasy of being the player character. Sure, it’s a factor, and a game with a really unacceptable protagonist can raise hackles — witness the recent furor over Super Columbine Massacre RPG! But in most cases, I’d say that character identification isn’t as big a deal in games as pro-censorship activists think it is. If you can play Super Mario Brothers without actually wanting to be a plumber in the Mushroom Kingdom, why can’t you play Guitar Hero without wanting to be a rock star?

(To go off on a tangent: I remember when Infocom released Plundered Hearts, a romance-novel-like text adventure with a female hero. All of Infocom’s promotional materials seemed to be geared towards reassuring their predominantly male fanbase that it was okay to play it, that they knew some very macho people who played it without becoming less macho, etc. And I remember thinking at the time: No one would do this for a novel or a movie with a female hero. And it’s not like audience identification with the hero in a novel is weak; in many, you’re actually privy to the hero’s inner thoughts. But they had to respond to the idea that the player of a game is fantasizing about being the protagonist, and therefore, in the case of Plundered Hearts, fantasizing about being a woman. Of course, no one would bother refuting this notion today. Tomb Raider has rendered it laughable.)

Still, there’s some reason to think that the rock star fantasy may be more important than usual in this game. Whenever people describe why it’s so fun, what they talk about is rocking out. This is apparently the main appeal of the game: it gives you an excuse to rock out, and a context out from which to rock. Sure, it’s a simplified and videogamized version of rocking out, but apparently it does a good job of capturing the experience. The thing is, I wouldn’t describe most games in terms like these. If a first-person shooter felt like actually shooting people, I doubt I’d be able to play it. Jumping around is kind of fun, but the fun in playing a platformer is not based on how well it captures the experience of jumping. That’s because a platformer isn’t about replicating a jumping-on-platforms fantasy.

So, is Guitar Hero fun if you don’t have a fantasy of being a rock star? We’ll find out in my next post, after I’ve tried it out.

Throne of Darkness: The Point of Tedium

I underestimated the amount of game left. There’s a fairly substantial dungeon to be completed before tackling the central castle. The thing is, I don’t think there’s anything left to learn about the game. While the motivation behind gaming is (for me) largely about the sense of accomplishment, much of the actual pleasure comes from mastering new systems, and now that I’ve mastered magic and crafting, there’s nothing new left. I’ve reached the point of tedium.

It seems to me that CRPGs are particularly prone to becoming tedious, because progress in a game is based on developing the skills of the player characters, not on developing the skills of the player. There is one skill that the player learns: how to advance the characters efficiently. Mastery of that skill means that the PCs will be ahead of the difficulty curve from there on out, robbing the game of challenge. When this happens, the game can either end, or throw some new wrinkle at the player that forces them to revise what they’ve learned, or it can become mindless and repetitive. The last option is surprisingly popular among both developers and players.

A reasonable person just would stop playing at this point and get on with things that are either more enjoyable or have practical merit. But this blog is not about being reasonable. I will finish this game. I won’t do it right away, though. It’s high time for a break.

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