Monthly Archives: November 2012

Let’s Play

I suppose YouTube has done a great many number of things, and (as undoubtedly for other interest-groups) for the ‘gaming community’ one of those things has been to provide a platform for a new way of doing an old thing: watching someone else play a game.

As my university studies this year have slowly transformed into a turgid mess, I’ve sat in on a few ‘Let’s Plays’: hours long recordings of someone simply playing through a game, and talking over the top of the footage.

What’s suddenly struck me about these kinds of YouTube ‘shows’ is that they form an intensely interesting phenomenological experience. I’ve come to realise that watching someone complete a game from start to finish is an epic journey. I suppose what makes a Let’s Play different from the age-old real-life couch experience is that it’s almost as if you’re the person playing the game on the screen  — it’s as if the viewer constitutes a kind of  higher cognitive process of a single mind. One part of the mind actually plays the game, and the footage of this game is transmitted to the other half, which sits there and evaluates the results.

Take this for an example. I decided to watch a Let’s Play of Zelda 2 for the purpose of writing an earlier post on the game (as I had only ever been able to complete half of it), and the childhood memories that were evinced during the process of recording the (difficult) game mingled with the player’s more recent, immediate experiences of work and other mundane everyday activities, and this gave the play-through of the game this insane level of depth. In a significant portion of the Let’s Play, the player went from talking about work, to divulging a memory about when he was a child, making up nonsensical names for the enemies on the screen with his sister — the entire series of vidoes having been filmed over a couple of months, hearing the player relate significant memories (sometimes the same ones, repeatedly) to his seemingly unchanging present life gave the impression that you could detect what made his life important, worth living.

Praxis: From The Phenomenological to The Political?

It strikes me that the level of access that anyone can have into a person’s existential tribulations when they watch Let’s Play signifies something very profound about gaming as an art-form. It’s been recently announced in Australia, by the Federal Government, that a modest sum of money (20m AUD) will be spent on the game industry. The government cited that they were doing this because they believed that gaming presented itself as a logical extension of other art-forms like film, photography and painting. This should of course present itself as a very welcome gesture to the gaming ‘industry’/’community’, but I think that what Let’s Plays reveal about art in general is that the communication of meaning (through art) must harbour anarchic and spontaneous elements to its eventuation. Because the technology was there, thousands of people got to peer into the life of this person because they decided to sit down and play a game and talk about their life. As a result, I believe that they probably gained a whole new perspective on a game they had understood in a previously other, particular way.

The recent publicised decision by the government to, in a small way, fund game development in Australia can probably also be better understood by contrasting the above with the results of Let’s Plays that feature people playing bad games. I suppose when I refer to ‘bad’ games I really mean a specific kind of game, one developed and marketed primarily for the purpose of making money. The phenomenology of playing a bad game is unlike the placid, nostalgic experience of playing a well-worn childhood game. The frustration, exasperation and disappointment of being unable to comprehend, or progress in a game shuts out the viewer’s access to the player’s reflection on their existence, and forces them to focus entirely on how they’re reacting to the game being played. A poorly developed game is an affront to a player’s senses; it seems impossible for a someone to lull into a domain of psychological security when their access to the virtual reality of a game is unintuitive.

In this regard, when it comes to this kind of funding from the government for game development, such an initiative is almost meaningless. Let’s Plays provide a convenient demonstration why. The funding from the government won’t mean anything for Australian gaming unless it transforms our “community’s” process of collectively constructing (developing, inventing, processing…) meaning around our games, unless it makes the Australian game praxis more ‘dynamic’. Perhaps best put simply, if that twenty mil results in a couple new games with which everyone is mildly pleased, but then forgets (no matter how much money it makes), then it’s wasted money. The announcement is probably more important. It’s gotten gamers talking about ‘Australian’ games, and that’s probably good enough.

Spyro: A Conclusion

The particular way a player went about interacting with channel subscribers in order to solve a puzzle in Spyro 1 in another Let’s Play can serve as yet another example of what is most important about gaming as an art-form (I can think of at least another three or four examples). The way players discover tricks and short-cuts in games and pass them on — in a seemingly organic manner — between themselves illustrates the essence of art, language &c: where there was originally intended to be one meaning, there now exists the potential for an infinite number of meanings. It seems that there exists, when a game is played, an over-determination of meaning. With respect to this Let’s Play, the particular player involved had spent their entire childhood never understanding how to reach certain platforms in certain levels, because two or more different perspectives of those platforms were needed in order to understand where they were placed in their respective levels. Varying conflicting, but equally valid suggestions about how to reach those platforms were proffered up by viewers.

(As an aside, I now have a new appreciation for Spyro; the entire game consists of trying to get to higher and higher platforms in order to explore all of the space that exists — I’ve never played Spyro 2 or 3, hopefully I’ll find that they build cleverly on this concept, because it truly is a beautiful one.)

I think what all of this (Zelda 2Syro, 20 million dollars) means is that gaming and art is all about what communication and meaning really are.

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Power Blade

Keen fan of Mega Man on the NES, but can’t spare the money to finally be able to possess a cartridge? This this might be a possible solution: Power Blade.

The title executes a whole load of concepts that you can find in Mega Man, for a fraction of the price! It might not be the authentic blue bomber, but if you’re after some solid 8-bit platforming from a trusty developer, Taito, you’re going to get your money’s worth.

PAL Power Blade cartridges on eBay.

Meditations on Zelda 2

EDIT: Jump’nshoot 9000 has moved to a dot-com domain! Find us here: jumpnshoot9000.com!

Gaming lore has it that this is one of the worst titles in the Zelda series. The general will of the gaming community also seems to instruct that this is one of the worst games ever made. Contrary to what a review of a game might usually require, the Derridean attitude that there is ‘nothing outside the text’ will (hopefully in a manner that avoids a  cliché) be deployed in discussing Zelda 2 in this post. So, along these lines, these two kernels of pop wisdom should merely be borne in mind when reading this post. Neither of them will be addressed per se, but they’re important for the purpose of reflecting on this text – as is, it might be argued, the popular sentiment attached to any particular text.

What will also not be discussed is the decision to include RPG elements, and side-scrolling action in the game. There is nothing wrong with the inclusion of these two concepts in the game in-and-of themselves. What many seem to rely on when criticising Zelda 2 is that, somehow, because these two concepts make Zelda 2 so different, it is therefore bad. To put this bit of popular criticism to rest, it should be responded that there is nothing that can be argued against these two concepts except the manner of their execution.

As a point of departure for the discussion, note that included in this post is a constructed image of the entire Zelda 2 over-world. The purpose of including this image in the post is to provide a different perspective on the game. One of the earliest criticisms of the game one might hear, one based on a first impression of the game, is that the over-world is blocky and displeasing to look at. This image should work to counter-act that criticism – its easy to observe that a lot of care has been taken in assembling Zelda 2’s overworld, and the result of all this effort is that the features of its landscape are actually very, very subtle. Look, for example, how the big road on the western part of the over-world, the mainland, paces its curves through forests and mountains by going through areas of relaxing plains. In addition, notice how the plains and forests themselves are hugged by mountains. That’s surely some deft game design!

In contrast, or, alternatively, almost by complement, the main problem with this game lies not with its aesthetic construction, but its mechanics. The two elements within Zelda 2’s mechanics that could be improved are its:

  1. Difficulty curve; and
  2. Technological limitations.

Both of these elements are broadly agreed to be the core problems with the game. What seems to have happened, however, is that many have seemed to go too far when relying on these two elements of criticism, going on and condemning the game. Furthermore this kind of attitude seems worryingly congruent with a philosophy of deeming games as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Difficulty Curve

Two of the most salient criticisms of Zelda are that (a) when the player dies in a dungeon, they should not return back to the beginning of the game, but to the start of the dungeon, and (b) a player’s experience should not be lost at Game Over. These are two of the easiest things that could be fixed to improve game play.

Aside from these two problems under this element, the way the game is paced is an issue. Dungeons like Death Mountain are almost impossible because of their difficulty relative to the amount of experience that a player usually has the opportunity to accrue. The problem with this is that it encourages grinding. Grinding nothing but evidence of poor game design. The accrual of experience in any RPG should be for two purposes only: deepening the enlightening nature of puzzles in the game, and driving the story. It could be argued that RPG experience points should serve as tiny meta-items that go towards the discovery of game items proper. What happens when experience points are not properly focused on these two purposes is that experience becomes a focus of jouissance: the accrual of experience for its own purpose. This wastes the players time, and as a result, utterly destroys the quality of game play.

What many players have done is blame the inclusion of experience accrual as a concept tout-court, in Zelda 2, when the real issue is that it is, at times, horribly executed. To make clear what was said above, the cause of this poor execution is due to the game’s poorly designed difficulty curve.

Technological Limitations

One of the important things that Zelda 2 established for the series was going and talking to people in towns. Interaction with people helped drive the story somewhat, and introduced an extra layer of complexity for puzzle-solving. Unfortunately, the potential for conversation the player has with townspeople in Zelda 2 is extremely limited.

The terrible dialogue with people in the game can probably be put down to memory limitations. Games like Final Fantasy and Ultima (among others) appear support enormous amounts of text without sacrificing much graphically or interactively, but there is probably some reasonable explanation other than laziness for this being the case in Zelda 2.

The other way in which technological issues hamper the quality of this title is the way enemies respawn and the way their AI functions. Add to this list the occasional glitch and shoddy hit-box and one has a more-or-less comprehensive list of almost every unavoidable problem with games from the 8-bit era. Dungeons and random encounters can become extremely tedious due to the unrelenting number of enemies with which the designers populated these areas, due to a lack of memory and processing power. It simply wasn’t possible to make these kinds of games any more complex. Here again, as with accruing experience above, quality (in an abstract sense) is sacrificed for quantity.

The tediousness of the game play in Zelda 2 is no better demonstrated than in the open-air water-side random encounters: where bubbles and rocks fly at the player in order to create a challenge similar to that of Bullet-Bill aerial levels in Super Mario.

Redeeming Features

Aside from these two problems with the game’s mechanics, Zelda 2 is a brilliant game. This game manages to pull off an incredibly deep thematic feel. After walking around in the sunshine for a while, talking to people in towns and collecting items, plunging into a majestic stone-cobbled dungeon really conveys a sense of brooding evil lurking beneath the surface of the land. Forests feel wild and dense, and the associated desert and water side-scrolling areas authentically convey exciting forums of action that serve as an important indication, in comparison to the original Zelda, of how Nintendo wanted to develop this franchise.

This is a good game. You should definitely play it.

You can purchase it on Nintendo’s Virtual Console or buy a NES cartridge on eBay for far too much money. It’s also available in various other forms, be it compilation discs on the GameCube or relaunch cartridges on the GameBoy Advance.