It being Christmas time, here’s a rant for ol’ Saint Nick to contemplate for next year’s deliveries. What do I want for Christmas? Not what you’re selling.
So it probably comes as no surprise that I happen to like Portal and Portal 2. (Especially given that last musical interlude.) I still enjoy playing these video games. I still chuckle. I still smile. I even still go to YouTube to listen to the end credit songs. Strangely, I think I actually prefer Portal to Portal 2 at that. (I could go into why, but that tangent isn’t particularly relevant to this rant.) I like them enough to still put up with Valve’s nasty evil Steam DRM server crap. And I hate DRM. (Not because I pirate. In fact, I don’t. But I do consume and I’m tired of being punished for doing the right thing.)
Recently I was playing Black Mesa, and it was kicking my asterisk. As First Person Shooters (FPS) are wont to do. It occurred to me that perhaps one person laden down with uncountable pounds of guns and ammo, wearing a power suit (I guess it must have a lot of pockets and attachment points) to protect me, still seems a little … ludicrous for taking on an army. With lots of guns. And even tanks. Not to mention the random aliens that just teleport in with their own special lightning bolts and insectoid homing projectiles and, well, you get the point.
One person cannot an army equal, let alone take down.
Sure, I like a challenge. Who doesn’t?
But as I twitched and groaned, ever hopeful for the elusive headshot with my overly expensive gaming mouse on my not-exactly-underpriced home-build gaming PC, it occurred to me that perhaps the challenges that I keep getting aren’t the ones that actually make me happy. That they’re in fact just challenges that annoy me.
Okay, so it was actually my wife who sagely pointed that out, commenting on how it didn’t sound like I was having fun. To which she has commented upon before and no doubt will again. And for which I can only be thankful that she’s found her own games that do the same to her. Because while overcoming a challenge might not exactly be “fun”, it is at least rewarding in its own elusive way that keeps us gaming. Mostly. Usually. The industry hopes.
But again, it caused me to look back and really examine what I do legitimately enjoy. And what I don’t. And you know what? I’ve come to the conclusion that First Person Shooters just plain have too much shooting in them!
Wait. How can that be?
Let’s go back to Portal for a moment here. It’s the perfect example. Okay, technically, yes, you do shoot a gun. Kind of. Because the gun doesn’t actually damage anyone or anything. It makes portals. A half of a tunnel through space (but not time?) at a time.
(By the way, Valve, if you’re still thinking about Portal sequel concepts: time. Seriously. A portal gun that lets you travel forward and backward through time depending on the color of your side of the portal could make for some deliciously nasty timing puzzles. And if you’re already bending space, what’s a little space-time?)
So my absolute favorite FPS only just barely qualifies as one, but it does, as it involves shooting one single gun, that doesn’t actually hurt anyone.
How can that possibly be?
Well, for starters, it’s a game where you actually get to think. It’s a game of constant puzzle, with just a little hand-eye coordination thrown in. As opposed to pretty much every other FPS ever made where they’re games of hand-eye coordination with a puzzle here and there, if you’re lucky, but even then those “puzzles” usually just amount to “find key A to open door A” and so forth. They’re typically just a matter of killing everyone and letting god sort it out, and maybe memorizing a map well if you play against humans enough. And if you’re lucky you’ll get a mini-game here or there to kill people in different ways to alleviate some of the boredom.
Described like that, is there any wonder why I still play Portal?
Is there any wonder why I’d rather find and pick up the hidden radio so that I can dance to the tune rather than get Uber Gun X and blow aliens into itty bitty bits?
Then there are the games like the Hitman series and the Assassin’s Creed series, where I’m rewarded for plotting, planning, and patience. Resource management (and resource discovery) are vitally important. I’m not just buried under a ton of guns and ammo with a mission to go forth and kill indiscriminately. I have to pick and choose my battles. Sometimes, if done right, I won’t even have any battles at all. Again, thought over blam blam blam.
Even fantasy FPS like Daggerfall, Morrowind, or Skyrim (and no, I refuse to mention Oblivious here because it’s just too awful to play) … and believe it or not, I do still play Daggerfall on DOSbox, and even still have the box with its shiny hologram … even these FPS I find myself more often than not playing some kind of stealthy character, because I prefer to examine and navigate carefully. I’m not a big fan of run-and-gun. I’m not playing for the slaughter. I’m playing for the puzzle. (Which is why Oblivious gets no honorable mention.) Okay, so in the end I’ll probably still kill lots of people and things and whatnots. But I do it with care and precision, on my own terms, in my own careful time, not wanton abandon and haste.
(And for those of you who say I got that wrong, that those are RPGs, not FPSs, maybe that argument could be made for Daggerfall and Morrowind where character skills mattered as much as the player’s ability to twitch well, where things like hitting and damage were randomized based on character skill, but they were only just barely RPGs even from the beginning. That was their point, to give you a first-person perspective in an action game instead of a turn-based board-type view. But especially ever since Bethesda threw RPG out the window with Oblivious, they’ve been at best a FPS with RPG-like elements. Even the minigames, as cute as they are, bypass character skills in favor of twitch-tastic player skills. Skyrim has at least enough RPG-like elements to make it palatable again, but it ain’t no Daggerfall. And Arena? Well, it was their first, and that kind of shows. Not exactly their best work, but being their first, that’s understandable and expected. But not one that I want to keep playing, unlike Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Skyrim which I do still play.)
So long story … longer, I’ve decided that I’m actually not a great fan of the FPS genre. I am however a fan of a FPS sub-genre, that of First Person Non-Shooters, or FPNS.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll still play a FPS if it’s a good one. Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are still in my list of things to play. (And I did download Black Mesa after all.) But you know what? I’m not into Gears of War. I’m not into Call of Duty. I’m not into Halo. Etc. There are an awful lot of FPS that I just don’t play. That I have absolutely no interest in playing. Because they’re all about shooting. The hook is to shoot. Whereas I play games where the hook is to think. I’ll branch out of that on occasion, but not much money goes into the direction of the stereotypical FPS. In fact I’ll choose a good racing game over a typical FPS.
In fact, that’s probably why I haven’t even considered buying Diablo III yet. Because that’s not a thinking-man’s game either. It’s just a hack-and-slash. It barely qualifies as an RPG to me. (If the outcome of an event is not based upon the skill of the character, not the player, then it is not an RPG.) In Diablo’s case it would be an action game with RPG-like elements.
I could go on and on about the flaws of various and sundry games, but that’s not the point of this rant. This rant is about the fact that my money goes to games that make me think while I have fun. Which is not exactly the same thing as games that make me think, period. Because that’s just work. And I get plenty of thinking too deeply at work. I have no desire to try to out-think a computer at chess. I want to play. And I want to play intelligently. I want to immerse in escapism without being bored to death. Preferably whilst having fun. To this end, comedy in games is a significantly beneficial factor and a great hook. Portal has it in spades. I find myself already missing a new game with GLaDOS. I even miss the cake, over-memed or (IMHO) not.
I also miss a good MechWarrior game. Not the later ones where you just pulled out Uber Mecha Alpha and blew everything up. The earlier ones where you actually had to collect and store mechs and parts to repair them with. That was my favorite part of BattleTech campaigns, was resource management and tailoring for the job. Again, thinking. Planning. Plotting. Enacting. I’d love a good MechWarrior game set in the periphery where you have very limited resources.
Did you know that well over two-thirds of my play-time in Ultima Underworld I and II (yes, I actually enjoyed UU) was spent not in actually “adventuring”, but in carrying items around to make “campsites” for myself, and to dispose of trash? Smoky the Bugbear says, “Clean up your dungeon! Only you can prevent tripping hazards!” I’d stockpile tradegoods. Hoard gold by trading those trade goods. Create armories of unique weapons and items. Create spare rune bags for … absolutely no good reason. I cannot explain why I do these things, but that’s what I do. I even do it in regular FPS if I can. When Half-Life introduced physics to the FPS genre it ruined me. I’ll lug around medpacks one at a time to hoard them all in one corner … just in case. You never know! I’ll lug all sorts of items around to areas that I’ll never be able to return to, just on the principle that it should be done. And don’t even get me started on the dangers of STALKER if you’re a hoarder. I am a video game hoarder. At times it comes in handy, but I do it because I like to think as much as I like to do. Some part of planning relaxes my brain. And when the game ends and I’ve won, it’s typically with an over-abundance of uber-weapon ammo left unused. Because I might have needed it later. (And if I won, apparently I didn’t need it. Which kind of makes you wonder about the difficulty level involved, huh?)
And if video game companies want my dollars, that’s where they can get mine, by making games that are as much (or more) about the thinking as they are about the doing. I want to see more FPNS games. I want to buy more FPNS video games. I want only as much action as necessary to support my puzzle-solving habit. I want hoarding. I want planning. I want slow careful action. I do not want to twitch nervously as I fend off Yet Another Army with more guns and ammo upon my person than any one human being could imaginably carry, let alone use while plowing through umpteen dozen soldiers.
I am consumer. Do you have anything that I want to consume? If not, I’ll just go back to enjoying the things that I’ve already paid for. My dollars go towards blowing my mind, not blowing someone’s head off.
(PS: Please forgive the gratuitous lack of grammatical italicizing of video game titles. This is a rant and I’m frankly just not up to going back and fixing every last one of them now that I’ve finished venting.)