Archive for February 5th, 2009

PC Adventure games—the other reality

Posted on February 5, 2009. Filed under: Culture, Games, Health, Musings, Philosophy |

Haven’t done a game post for a while. This one’s probably more about philosophy than games, per se, though. I’m usually playing a PC game in my off-hours—or minutes. My preferences are for PC adventure games; which are not as prominent as war games or multi-player games, so it can be a challenge to find good ones.

Most recently, I got ’round to playing Dreamfall, the sequel to Ragnar Tørnquist’s The Longest Journey. There are many, many reviews around for these games, so I will briefly describe my gameplay impressions towards the end of the post, but first will describe how this medium affects my philosophy and psychology.

For me, the story in an adventure game is the most important element. Puzzles are OK, sometimes fun, and sometimes even necessary to advance the plot, but I’m there for the tale. All of my favorite games have characters and scenes an average, civilized (?) 21st-century person can relate to, but have fantasy, sci-fi, or mystical elements to them; sometimes all three. So, why don’t I just read a good fantasy novel instead?, you ask. (I hear you.) I do that, too. It’s just that getting a story through a game environment is different, just as seeing a movie is different from reading the same story in a book. In the best games, the player is making choices about where to go when; who to talk to; what to talk about; and the pacing is controlled by them. Of course in reading a novel, one can put the book down and come back when one chooses, unlike in a film where one generally sits through from beginning to end. One can even skip ahead in a novel, although I rarely do this in practice. If the book isn’t compelling enough for me to read straight through as the author intended, I generally stop reading. For the most part, both novels and movies are plotted as in this advice, given to a character in a novel about how to tell a story: “Start at the beginning, go on ’til you reach the end, and then stop!” 😉

Although game stories are generally, really, as linearly laid out as a film, they at least give the illusion that the choices the player makes matter. In some games, they actually really do—the player will arrive at a different destination, or reach a different conclusion based upon her/his choices. However in most of them one proceeds through the story in a particular order. What’s different, though, is the ability to explore. Among my first game playing experiences was the Myst series, and I loved that I could go in and out of buildings as many times as I wanted to, look around as much as I liked, and make the next move or solve the next puzzle only when I was ready. It was immersive. I was there.

Which is both the “blessing and the curse”. I tend to be a bit reclusive, and have always lived somewhat in my own fantasy world. I’m one of those players who can sit in a darkened room for hours with my game, and completely forget the rest of the word exists—if indeed it does. ❗ I could, probably, when the technology evolves enough, substitute “virtual reality” for “real reality” (Is that redundant? IS reality real?). I find this both comforting and alarming. On the one hand, if I someday become old, 😉 and have frightened off all my friends, I can live in the virtual world a lot of the time, and be quite content. On the other hand, psychologists say this sort of thinking is very bad for us, has already shifted morals and expectations, and will cause the collapse of society as we know it.

In case you’re concerned, please know that I work with people; I’m active in organizations with people; I sing with people—all of which I find very satisfying and have no desire to give up. It’s just that…I’m not sure I NEED actual other human beings around me to be content. I even have a bit of a relationship with “Clippy” that cute annoying ubiquitous paper clip who is meant to be my “helper” in Microsoft WORD. I can just imagine that once “Virtual Reality” evolves, with the goggles and the pressure suits, and all, you MIGHT not see me for a week at a time. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Given all that, though, I still have to say it was the story in Dreamfall which was the most compelling thing about it. I won’t talk about the plot too much in case you want to play it and haven’t, but I found it deeply moving, and I cared about what would happen next, to characters I’d come to value. (Dreamfall did not have a “Hollywood Ending”; there will be sequels.) While there are a few novels I’ve read more than once, and feel are my old friends, Dreamfall was different in that I could virtually go to some of my favorite locations and “visit” my favorite characters. They became friends. After playing it through twice, I’d start up the game and go directly to my favorite town, and listen to my favorite dialogue. After a few days of this, though, I began to realize this world had become a little TOO real. I went “cold turkey”. I uninstalled the game, and put the disc on the shelf. I know I will come back someday, but, it felt, for a while, like I kept going back to the same little town on a vacation, instead of moving on to a new place. Now, I’m in Egypt, on another adventure, and while the story is not nearly as compelling, I at least remember where I am, in the rest of the world, while I’m playing.

OK, here comes the “Game Review” portion of the post. Feel free to skip it, if, in spite of all my pleading and cajoling you still refuse to play adventure games! 😛

Dreamfall has been out for about three years now, which makes it aged by gaming standards. Its predecessor, The Longest Journey, had been called “the best adventure game of all time” by many reviewers. I’d read a lot about TLJ before playing it, and it turned out to be very different than I thought it would be. This is often the case when I visit a new city or country, too. Only the Yorkshire Moors were pretty much as I’d imagined them, after reading all those English novels set there.

Strictly from a gaming point of view, I thought Longest Journey was better than Dreamfall. By a lot! (A few rather silly and somewhat pointless puzzles notwithstanding.) Adventure gamers, and particularly PC Adventure gamers are generally not playing these games to engage in fight sequences, whether sword, gun, or hand-to-hand. It’s my supposition that Mr. Tørnquist put in a number of those widely talked about and almost universally disliked sequences to attract a larger audience. I’d like to start a petition amongst 12-year-old boys in which they will say the following:  “I, _____(name of 12-year-old boy) will never buy an adventure game no matter what you do to it, so you might as well take out the fight scenes so the real AG’ers will buy it.”   Do you think that would do the trick?

The other thing about gameplay in Dreamfall is that I, and I suspect many AG’ers have a few physical…issues, such as dyslexia, and less than optimal coordination. This is not a problem in most AGs, as most of the “action” involves mouse-pointing and clicking. I can do that! In Dreamfall, there are several timed puzzles, which I don’t generally like (with the “coordination issues” it’s often difficult for me to complete the required action in “time”; very frustrating) and there was one particular puzzle I never could beat. I actually had to search for and load another player’s saved game to get past that part; the first time I’d EVER had to do that in an adventure game. Otherwise, I’d have had to quit about 2/3 of the way through. Hints and walkthroughs are of no assistance in this situation—I knew WHAT to do, I just couldn’t do it quickly enough. And got killed. Again. And again. And… I also think it’s silly to get killed a lot in adventure games—I mean, once or twice is OK, but, really, that’s not what I’m there for. It was sad for me in this case because the player in the other person’s game I loaded had made a different choice early in the game which didn’t allow me to experience one of the very touching story moments I otherwise would have, although I did find the scene in a YouTube video eventually. I felt cheated, though. The scene wasn’t there for ME!

Ah, but the story; the story! It made it all worthwhile. It was philosophically and spiritually challenging, and made me re-think some suppositions in my belief system. The very best novels and films do that as well. The underlying premise is that, underneath everyday reality, there is “the dreaming” which causes the world, and all of us, to be. This is somewhat like some parts of Native Australian belief, but is done a bit differently here. The tag line of the game is: “The Undreaming is Unchained“. What do we make of that? Perhaps the sequels will tell.

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