Tag: Games

Does anyone play Bloodbowl II?

(on PS4, that is)

I might – might – have a slight addiction to Bloodbowl II, Cyanide’s gamification of Games Workshop’s excellent Warhammer-American Football mashup. I can’t tell if I like the PS4 game Bloodbowl II – because gods I can see ways in which it sucks as a game – or the tabletop game of Bloodbowl, but I’m loving my time with it nonetheless.

That title is a bit of a joke – I’m not expecting too many people to pop up as closet Bloodbowl fans on my Newsfeed – but there’s a serious aspect to it, that I want to play Bloodbowl (and indeed most of my games) with more people. Having ploughed through rounds of Monopoly and Mario Kart with my friends recently, I’m seeing the potential for games to be the backdrops and introductions to meaningful social interactions, rather than lonely time-wasters. And yes, I understand that I’ve come to this Earth-shattering conclusion about twenty years after the gaming industry did, but I’d just not experienced it for myself.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not a fan of playing games with strangers; I’m not afraid of people I don’t know, I just prefer to use games to cement and develop existing relationships than use them to spark entirely new ones. I’ve had an Internet connection and games like Star Wars Battlefront and Frozen Cortex for years, but have never really got into the multiplayer side if said second player wasn’t a close friend of mine. Ideally, I’d drag nine buddies together so we could start our own ten-person Bloodbowl league, playing games every weekend and generally having a lovely time, but I know that won’t happen; in the meantime, I’ll scratch my chin about the prospect of paying to play online through PS+, while enthusing about my single-player exploits to my decidedly uninterested friends, for a bit longer.

Get off the Hype Train

(knowing me I’ll immediately bail into the Hype Canoe or something)

I’m very excited for Bloodbowl II. Like, far too excited; more excited than a person should be, and more excited than I ever get. I’ve even pre-ordered the bloody game. Part of me is excited for the potential writing opportunities to arise from this game (hints at perpetually-delayed, still-unannounced project) but a lot of me just wants to play a game I’ve know about for a while, and haven’t had the opportunity yet to do so.

But I’m afraid of hyping the game up too much in my estimation, not just in case it turns out to be crap, but because of the cost of time and money (if it’s anything like the sports management-strategy game it looks like I’ll soon be waving goodbye to a good hundred hours or so) I don’t want to give up tangible things for something that’s not worth it. Yet I’m still getting excited, and feeling apprehensive at this excitement, with each passing day until it arrives in a week. And I don’t know what to do.

I guess I’ll translate Old English, play Mario Kart and add to my black t-shirt collection as normal, but now with slightly more fearful anticipation.

I’m Not Very Good At Games, And I Don’t Care

(this isn’t just the repeated deaths from Bloodborne talking)

I’m a big fan of games, both as an amusing way to pass one’s time and as a form of art to be appreciated and engaged with in an intelligent manner. But while I love them, and know a fair bit about them, I can’t run away from the fact that when it comes to most games, I’m simply not very good.

Platformers, for instance, are often the death of me, as my apparently godawful hand-eye coordination means I’m constantly plummeting into bottomless chasms like a one-man recreation of a hoard of lemmings diving over cliffs for no reason. I’m hopeless at first-person shooters because I dislike the narrow camera angle, which is why shooters designed in the third-person, like Mass Effect, are so much fun for me.

I’m too much of a perfectionist when I play racing games, often not being content with collecting second-place finishes to unlock a new car or area, instead pushing for first-place on every track which boils the game down to a precision driving sim, as opposed to a fun arcade game. I’m also too stupid for most puzzle or adventure games, relying on walkthroughs for even some of the more obvious puzzles in early Zelda games (OOT’s Water Temple allowing), and totally losing my shit when I come up against something like Myst, which is a mystery wrapped in an enigma bottled in a set of clunky controls.

I usually better at RPGs, as success in the game is based on a grasp and application of mechanics, rather than the execution of button presses, but these are often so expansive that I don’t have time to finish them with all the other things I have to do, and games I have to play; I’ve not beaten a Pokémon game since the first Black, and my Golden Sun playthrough is currently on its fourth hiatus as I power through my writing work.

But I honestly don’t care. A big draw of games is that they’re an art form more dependent on audience interaction and skill than any other, but the growth of the Internet and Let’s Play culture means this skill is only required to beat the game for yourself, not experience the full extent of the worlds and stories these games have to offer. I’ve never picked three of the Mass Effect endings, but have an intimate knowledge of all of them because I want to know the details of the game. This is why I may even like talking about games more than actually playing them; to discuss a world and its characters with someone who cares as much as I do is often more fun than clunking through that world with my slow, pudgy fingers.

If I wanted to be a real wanker I’d say that I’m not a gamer, but an appreciator of games, one who doesn’t really play them, but analyses and contextualises them like Classical poems set against particular historical backdrops. But I don’t feel like being a wanker today, so I’ll say I’m a gamer who really likes lore.

I WILL HIT YOU WITH MY HAMMER THAT IS ALSO A SWORD

(also, I’ve not cleared the Cathedral Ward yet, so no spoilers please)

Bloodborne is a fantastic game. This is undeniable. It’s graphically beautiful, artistically dark and creepy, the combat is fluid, the difficulty insanely high but not unfairly so, and it manages to create a powerful, lore-driven world without any characters or narrative advancements to speak of (at least in the early game). But by far its greatest feature is the kirkhammer: a weapon that is a hammer and a sword at the same time.

A key mechanic of the game is transforming your main weapon; in your right hand is this main weapon, and it can be wielded as a one-handed tool, leaving the left hand free for all manner of guns, torches and shields, or as a two-handed behemoth. I was using the hunter’s axe previously, a weapon that unimaginatively transforms from a small axe to a large axe, and while I appreciated the different fighting styles these forms offered, I wasn’t blown away by the creativity. But then I found the kirkhammer; in its two-handed form, this is a mighty hammer, the sort that makes Thor’s look like a kid’s plastic my-first-toolkit hammer, that is swung slowly, but with such oomph that it can level small mountains with a single blow. But when it transforms, the head is holstered on your back, and a thin sword is drawn from its handle, leaving you with a sword. This weapon is, therefore, a sword and a hammer. At once.

I don’t think you understand what I’m getting at here, which is indicative of both my failings as a writer, as the extravagant magnificence of this weapon. You can stab things. Or smush them. You can hit with lots of attacks, or one dirty great one. You could hold and release B to spin in a circle and cut down all the grass around you for rupees, or you could do some DIY. With the same tool.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve stumbled across the most clunkily-worded, needlessly capitalised, specifically-referenced threat in the world; and it’s a bloody great feeling.

Screw You, Bloodborne

(after waiting a month, my PS4 arrived just to piss me off. Huzzah!)

Bloodborne is hard. Like, really, really, hard. Hard enough that you end up with no XP points if you’re not careful, meaning thousands of slain enemies do nothing to advance your character. Hard enough to have a single checkpoint per level, resulting in hours of the same hack-and-slashing to get anywhere. Hard enough that I’m writing a post about how hard it is, and don’t have the time to write a longer post precisely because I’ve ploughed endless hours into it already in an attempt to beat it.

So screw you, Bloodborne; you’re beautiful, satisfying, and the hardest bitch I know.

My Sister Started Playing Mass Effect 2

(I’m Commander Shepard and this is my favourite sibling on the Citadel)

It’s no secret that I’m a huge, obsessive fan of the Mass Effect series. But while I’ve gushed over the games for five years now, none of my friends or family have shown a particular interest in picking up a controller and firing incendiary ammo at the Collectors; this stopped today, as my sister dived into Mass Effect 2 with all the grace and decisiveness of someone who’s never played a shooter or a game with an interactive narrative.

Watching her play made the game into a movie – a link that is itself a testament to the awesome cinematic qualities of the game – where I wasn’t deciding the fate of the galaxy, but responding to another person’s decisions regarding that end. And while it’s not a particularly interesting idea to say that art is a thing to be appreciated and responded to, this was a pleasant inversion from the immersive, James-revolving focus of my previous Mass Effect experiences that were themselves an inversion of the typical relationship between artist and audience that drew me to the series in the first place. Basically, it was nice to be a bit powerless in an art form where empowering the audience is at the core of all things.

And these choices and reactions were decidedly more human than looking up alternate paths on the wiki; I know these games inside out, from several playthroughs and obsessive research online, so the things my sister’s Shepard were saying weren’t a surprise to me, but her thought processes behind those words were fascinating. As were her reactions to characters and events, as were my own opinions on characters now that I know their fates, and can employ the reverse-engineer character analysis you can do when you reread a novel.

But, most of all, the way she approached the game was striking to me, simply because it was so different to my own. Saying I focus on the narrative of games directly, while she explores and discovers lore, is too simple a distinction, but choices she made, as a player not as a character in the game, regarding her class and method of recruiting squad members, opened up a way of looking at characters and Shepard’s role in this universe that I’d not thought about before.

So I’ve learned something today. And, not for the first time in my life, I have Commander Shepard and my sister to thank.

Narratives Versus Interactivity In Games

(I tried to come up with a comedic, sarcastic title, but I failed – you’ll have to make do with my self-deprecating, meta-sarcastic subtitle, which is a phrase whose existence almost heralds the death of bluntness on this blog)

I’ve been ploughing through CD Projekt RED’s excellent The Witcher 2 recently, because prequels are often available on the cheap from Steam when their sequels are being released, and I was wondering why I’m in love with it after just nine hours of gameplay. It’s not just the characters, locations or depth of gameplay – InFamous, Skyrim and Darkest Dungeon all have those respective qualities, but I was less immediately enamoured with them – but something wider. Something only a pretentious English student would notice. I love the game because it strikes the rare balance between having a coherent, gripping narrative, and being largely interactive.

There’s been a big push in the games scene for interactive story-telling in recent years; giving players freedom to do what they like is as old as the first Elder Scrolls game, but games like 2007’s Mass Effect and 2010’s Heavy Rain extended this quirk into a gameplay mechanic in and of itself, with the latter title resembling more of a visualised gamebook than a video game. As a result, it’s common to mistake a non-linear narrative, or one with irreversible decisions, as being synonymous for a complex, engaging narrative. But in reality, the opposite is likely to be true.

Take the most recent Elder Scrolls game: Skyrim. It’s a fantastic game that deserves all the praise that’s been lobbed in its general direction like a character with a low Destruction level haphazardly flinging flames at their enemies in a desperate attempt to level up their magic skills; but I found that in its attempt to immerse the player fully in the game world, there was actually distance between the player and that world. The entire game is in first- or third-person, so grand speeches worthy of Metal Gear Solid 4-style cutscenes are reduced to mere conversations, and the game’s relentless lack of cutscenes or alternative perspectives turns the whole world into a sandbox in which only the player is of importance, and it is only their actions and viewpoints that matter. Obviously it’s a single-player game, so this is true on a practical level, but for me, Skyrim wasn’t an expansive, living world for me to interact with and live in, but a series of complex and diverse tasks ultimately centred around me. For instance, the player can become the leader of the Companions, the Thieves’ Guild, and the Collage of Winterhold, playing them in a position of power in all three of the game’s skill disciplines – combat, stealth and magic – all at the same time; I was the leader of the land’s greatest collection of mages, and I never got beyond level 20 for my Restoration skill.

The most extreme example of this ultra-sandbox world is perhaps Mount & Blade: Warband, a 2010 open-world medieval RPG in which the player can rise from a peasant to a noble through a series of wars and political alliances; it’s basically Game of Thrones. But again, there are no cutscenes, no mechanics for informing the player of the game’s political events beyond a small update log in the corner of the screen; as a result, the world is practically wholly interactive, yet is devoid of humanity and personality to the extent that it becomes a really big quest-completing exercise, rather than the world of far-reaching, human consequences that make Game of Thrones a fantastic TV show, instead of a dry piece of historical fiction.

The other extreme is the ultra-linear game, ones such as classic Zelda titles that are great fun to play through, but offer no character creation, no free choice, and make the player feel like a train driver: shoving coal into a furnace to drive the story onwards, but without any ability to change the direction of that narrative. Simultaneously, these games often have great cutscenes, and are the most human and moving ones available; I’m thinking Skull Kid’s loneliness and the general despair in Majora’s Mask as the prime example.

So there’s a paradox in most games: an overly linear narrative deindividualises the player, while an overly interactive one deindividualises the player’s character and kills the wonder and realism of the worlds these games create. And to answer this problem, enter Mass Effect.

This is why I harp on about the series so much: it is one of few titles that manages to have an interactive narrative, yet doesn’t render the game world as existing purely for the benefit of the player; it has a linear enough story to allow for progression from game to game, yet the player never feels like they’re retracing the pre-rendered steps of the developers who play-tested the game before it was released. Mechanics such as the ability to name and mould your character’s physical body, yet still have them be fully integrated into the game’s world through their own voice, and being named by NPCs, means each player creates their own protagonist, yet no protagonists are separated from the world around them, as they are in Skyrim where NPCs never name the player, or GTA Online where players’ characters never speak.

Similarly, the narrative (of Mass Effect 2 particularly) is a masterclass in combining direction with interactivity. The basic premise is that you must recruit a team of heroes from across the galaxy to stop a threat to all life in the universe, a structure that has enough linear progression to never bog the player down in endless inconsequential side-quests, but is open-ended enough to let the player pick what order they recruit people in, and how those heroes interact with each other. The relationship between Jack and Miranda is a great example of this, as the player can recruit and interact with these characters however they like (interactive narrative – tick) but their relationship changes as the player interacts with them, or completes other quests, or ignores both of them altogether (player not distanced from the game world – tick).

The Witcher strikes a similar balance; having a premade protagonists, Geralt of Rivia, other character can call me by name, title, or creative insult, involving the player in the reputation-driven, scummy world of a medieval backwater. Yet the player can still choose how to complete quests, so they’re not going through the motions as one does in Skyrim, but creating a unique character through their actions.

And it’s this balance that I love in games: The Last Of Us, InFamous and Assassins’ Creed: Brotherhood are all brutally beautiful narratives, but have been created largely by someone else; Skyrim and Mount & Blade are expansive and complex, but lack the artistry and engagement of titles with more linear narratives. I stumbled onto a beautiful addiction when I impulse-bought Mass Effect 2 over Metal Gear Solid 4 back in January 2011, and it’s an addiction I now realise I’ve not properly fed until I downloaded The Witcher 2 this week.