Looking for a Good Time?

Maya at Very Very Gaming made a post about Braid recently.  But let’s forget about Braid for a second.  I certainly do.  In it, Maya points out the mentality some take that for a game to take the form of High Art and deliver all the EMOTIONS! and ATMOSPHERE! and FEELINGS! that so many developers, players, and supersexy games bloggers are looking for, they shouldn’t be fun.  The games as art discussion has been around the interbutts for a good long while, and this is not a new idea.  I’ve seen it said plenty of times by plenty of people who don’t know what they’re talking about, that a game’s nature as a game precludes it from delivering all the things art is supposed to.

There are good arguments against the ‘games as art’ idea.  This one isn’t one of them.  The thought that something should be an ‘interactive experience’ rather than a ‘video game’ to deliver the artsy stuff is just as much complete bullhonky as all the ‘art is not interactive!’ arguments out there.  Maya hit it right on the head that ‘games can be both enjoyable AND deep and meaningful.’

That’s like two paragraphs to get me to the actual point of this post, but that phrase there got me thinking.  Nearly all video games out there are intended to be fun.  Some aren’t.  Like Braid.  And a few other games I’ll be talking about here.  So, does a video game have to be fun to be worth playing?

I know, I know, it’s tempting to get into the traditional definition of ‘game’ here, but honestly, the medium of video games has grown beyond that.  Video games as we have them know have grown to include as much a variety of styles and experiences as most any other medium.  Yeah, it’s plenty immature compared to most other types of creative works, but that doesn’t really mean anything as it pertains to the medium’s potential.


And yeah, the vast majority of games are meant to be fun.  And that’s a good thing.  Even for the lofty, complicated, and plot-based game.  Red Metal had made a very good point recently that Papers, Please and Undertale were big, deep, thoughtful experiences, but they did a lot better at delivering the lofty ideals behind them because they are fun.  And there’s good reason for that.  Being entertained by something drives engagement, and through that, makes you more open to exploring the more conceptual aspects the game’s trying to deliver, and, even just working on a subconscious level, opens the door for the more intangible aspects of a game to get ingrained in you.  People have been using games as learning experiences for at least as long as I’ve been alive, and it runs off of the same concept.  Entertainment leads us to internalize things, and that’s where a lot of these game stories really thrive.

I’ve had plenty of these ‘deep’ experiences that never gained root with me because I just never enjoyed the experience enough to really get into it.  Braid’s a great example of that.  The developer put a lot of thought into the story, but I didn’t have a good time with the gameplay, so I just didn’t bother with that.  The Path is another strong example there.  That’s one of the earliest ‘art games’ I came across.  And it’s clear the developers wanted it to be a deep, thoughtful experience.  Basically, to illustrate that game, you’re one of six versions of Little Red Riding Hood, set to go to Grandma’s house.  If you just follow the path there, you get there safely and uneventfully, and the game ends without anything happening.  If you leave the path, you actually explore the forest, come across your metaphorical wolf, have a bad time, then make it to grandma’s house with your life a little more ruined.  It’s all wrapped up in themes of childhood, and growing up, and moving through bad life experiences, and is the kind of thing that’s really interesting on paper.  In practice, though, it’s a really weak experience, and that’s largely because the gameplay aspects of it are absolutely worthless, only there as filler for the few brief moments of the game where they are delivering something, bringing you neither fun nor any real experience in the interim.  And that it the weakness that absolutely ruins The Path.  If the gameplay parts of it had some actual gameplay, you may have been able to use that to bring more experience and reinforce the themes and moments they were actually going for there.

Fun is important.  Even when a game is more about the plot than the fun factor, having that entertainment there goes a long way towards carrying the rest of it through.


And yet.  And yet.  Always an and yet. Let’s think back to the games that were all the rage before I started realizing how much I love the sound of my own voice and stopped listening to everyone else.  You remember how big everyone was going on about Spec Ops: The Line?  That game was a big emotional tour de force, that I didn’t really like, but that was more due to the content itself rather than its delivery.  Plenty of people loved it.  And its message wasn’t really harmed by its lame gameplay.  In fact, many said it was enhanced by the poor shootbanging.

You remember before the Telltale formula became the Telltale formula, before all the best writers bailed off the ship, and the Walking Dead, Season 1 came out and blew everybody’s minds?  There is not a single part of that game that is actually ‘fun’.  Yet it was still the storytelling experience of the year in games.

For that matter, think back to any horror game you particularly liked.  Not action horror, because that’s going for a completely different feel, but good old classic survival horror, or spook horror, or just plain scary scary game.  Chances are, if it left that impression on you, it was never fun.  Video games do horror very, very well, possibly better than any other medium, but horror games are very rarely fun.  And that’s deliberate.  Horror video games are geared towards delivering a very specific feeling and experience.  And fun would interfere with that.  Scary video games don’t deliver the rollercoaster type scariness where you can mix that with the fun, video games, and most other spooky artistic mediums, reach into your brain and twist the mental fear out of it.  They get your mind working against itself.  If your mind is having fun, it won’t be able to settle on the fear.  Fun would be a complete distraction, a big mood killer, in this experience.

For that matter, I brought up exactly this point when I was talking about my adventures with Zelda II.  I played the game.  I beat the game.  I was so fulfilled by that.  Yet I never, ever had fun with it.  I had some similar experiences with Dark Souls.  You all watched me repeatedly wear my well-built rear end as a hat in fighting against the likes of Manus, Artorias, Ornstein and Smough, et al.  Overall, I did have fun with Dark Souls, but that fun didn’t come from running up against the same challenges and failing over and over again.  And even so, I still felt fulfilled by overcoming the challenge, although the time I spent doing that was not traditionally ‘fun’.

So where does the line fall?  What makes the Walking Dead, Season 1 a good experience, and the Path not?


I think it’s a pretty simple dichotomy.  The games that aren’t fun, but still make it work replace the fun with something else.  The likes of the Path and, as Maya pointed out, Braid, do not.  Dark Souls fills the unfun parts of it with a lot of opportunity for that oh-so-satisfying personal skill growth.  Walking Dead used the unfun gameplay bits to keep the plot moving forward.  They get use out of the gameplay.  Games that screw up the fun and end up the worse for it don’t gain from their gameplay sections, by and large.  They end up as mostly movies making you wonder why they were even released at all.  Games that aren’t fun but are still good experiences are those that still use the interactivity to deliver something to the player in service of whatever experience they’re going for.

Does this make these games worthwhile experiences, however?  To be honest, as wise and charming and always right as I am, that is completely up to you.  You’re the one charged with making the most of your time, and if what you’re looking for is something fun, nobody can hold that against you.  Usually, when I pull out the controller, that’s what I’m looking for.  But I’ve had plenty of great times, and have grown my sphere a bit, playing through games that aren’t traditionally fun.

Random Thoughts on What I’ve Been Playing

Batman Arkham Knight


I said that the similarity between Shadows of Mordor and the Arkham games made me a bit less interested in playing Arkham so soon after Mordor.  Turns out, I was right.  I’ve loved the Arkham games, but Arkham Knight already feels a bit stale, just because I’m trying to pick it up so soon after an extended run with what’s pretty much the same engine.

There’s been a lot written about how the Batmobile sections drag the game down.  This is true.  The developers had this new gameplay component that they devoted a lot of time, effort, and segments too, and it wasn’t as good as they expected.  They took a risk, it didn’t work out, and you know what?  I’m fine with that.  What is really odd to me about the Batmobile is just how much they have to stretch to still fit what they wanted to do in the whole “Batman doesn’t kill” deal.  Drive into a mob at 140 MPH?  Look, they’re twitching with electricity, they’re only stunned, not dead!  Your cannon?  It’s a good thing you’re only fighting drone tanks.  Ramming cars around at high speed until they flip end over end?  Eh… you just forget about that.

You know, if they just put people in those tanks, rather than using drones, Batman would be able to do nothing against them. Continue reading

The Working Player: Real Life Skills from Video Games

I don’t tell many people I game.  In meatspace, I mean.  People who know my flesh-name.  Here, on good old cyberspace, where I am the Aether, I talk about it all the time.  It’s not that I’m ashamed of my passion.  Far from it.  But there is a problem with the way a lot of people react to it, I’ve learned.  See, people who don’t play video games don’t understand videogames.  Go figure.  And people who don’t understand videogames put a lot of mental baggage on videogames, and that baggage doesn’t fit with the image of the hypercompetent supersexy professional I have to present to most of the world.

So yeah.  Most of the people in my life don’t know that I love video games.  All in the name of getting them to take me more seriously in my work.

Which, after some thinking I’ve been doing recently, seems real ironic.  As it turns out, I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten plenty of my professional skills from gaming.

I was talking with a group of clients recently, discussing the importance of doing a skills inventory on oneself.  Yes, this is boring work stuff, but hold on, we’ll be back to the fun gaming content you know and love soon.  In any case, as I often do, I just dove right into talking about myself, highlighting some of my most marketable skills.  The conversation turned to where those skills came from, and, well, while all of them I have actually spent time developing in the work place, there were some of these that, as I traced the path of where I built them up, seemed to have some definite roots in my life as a player.

And you know, that was really interesting to me.  Obviously that means it’s interesting to you, too.  So let’s take a look at some of the skills my secret superhero identity as a player has helped me with in my professional life.

Regulation/Policy Navigation

In my current job, I work in government, administering a program that ties in federal, state, and county level government actions.  And as you may well know, government loves it some red tape.

In my last job, for the record, I worked for a nonprofit, and a big chunk of it was in helping other people get through the good old bureaucracy as well.

Hell, even beyond just exterior government red tape, I’m great at both navigating and building those within the organization as well.  Building business plans, planning for contingencies, and most of all, keeping all the myriad policies and procedures in mind and calling them up at the appropriate situations, those are all things I’m quite fantastic at.

And I’m great at all of those.  Always have been, even while I was still in college and hadn’t yet entered the real world proper where you never have money or time but find yourself with a hell of a lot more responsibility.  I started my career better at this than people who’ve been working at it for years.

And that’s because it’s something I’ve been working at through gaming ever since I was a child.  Games, whether video or tabletop, are all about the rules.  Deeper games have more rules.  Many games have a lot of rules that only apply in specific situations.  Most have rules that can interplay in odd ways.  Many games, RPGs in particular, have special rules that you can impose on it yourself.

And if you’re going to get any good at these games, you’ll have to learn these rulesets.  Pokemon’s a great example of this.  17 types of Pokemon and attacks which form the foundation for success in the single player games, a deceptively complex system of stats and growth and impacts, and how many people do you know who have that all memorized?  And not just memorized, internalized, to the point they can build their critters just the way they want them and can always call up the right attack to use without even thinking about it?  It’s not just RPGs, either.  Any game, from the big brainiest puzzles to the dumbest of shootbangers have their own rulesets that understanding is absolutely vital to success.

And really, I’ve found that the parellels between understanding the ways a games rulesets work, and the ways an organization’s systems of established behaviours work, are quite strong.  You may not be able to predict the behavior of people based on gaming systems, but the behavior of entities actually go by similar metrics.  It’s all about setting bounds for people who are cooperating with you and within your authority to act within towards a desired overall goal you both share from different perspectives.  Really, from a game designer of a manager/government-crony, it’s all the same.


I’ve been mentioning it over her occasionally, so if you’ve been following us for a while, you know full well that I’d been looking for a new job for quite a while before I landed in my current one.  Over three years, specifically, more than most anyone you’ve ever heard of.  For a good long while, that was the main focus in my life, and I was just failing at that over and over and over and over again.

I stuck with it, however.  That’s a big problem with unemployment from an economic development perspective, that when people stay unemployed for long enough, most everyone will just give up looking for a job, and leave the workforce entirely.  Not me, however, I stuck with it, and eventually, it did work out for me.  My new job is helping people on welfare find jobs.

Yeah, the irony is not lost on me, either.  Turns out, though, I am absolutely fantastic at it.  And I attribute that all to the amount of time I spent failing at my own job search.  The three years I spent job hunting led me to see pretty much everything hirers have going on, and I am an expert of the hiring process like no other, simply because I have gained so much experience at it, through my failure.

I started gaming in an era where games hated you.  Limited tolerance for screw-ups and an abundance of cheap deaths meant if you wanted your fun, you were guaranteed to fail countless times before you made it work.  And games were not just hard, they were punishing.  You screwed up, and it was back to the beginning with you.  As the medium developed and started to become more, the punishment and cheap deaths started to fall away, while tolerance for minor screw-ups increased, but never to the point that failure is not a constant companion with games.  If games are too easy, after all, that starts to sap the fun of it.  And I’ve had a lot of practice picking myself up from my gaming failures.  You all watched me do that over and over again with my Dark Souls run.  Eating those failures, in life, at anything, learning from them, and getting up again, it’s not an easy thing.  And it’s really not an easy thing to be doing constantly.  I wonder if I would have been able to do that if I didn’t already have the years of experience from my gaming.

Also, this totally works for romance too, in case you were wondering.

Resource Management

Yeah, this one’s a relatively simple parallel.  Real world budgeting and resource management is way, way, way more complex than anything I’ve found in video games.  There is absolutely no way, no matter how good your 4X Strategy Empire is running, you can transfer that right over into managing a program budget without some additional education/experience.  But you know, it does at least give you the basic principles to use.  This is not one I’ve really mentally explored enough to explain, but I have found it kind of interesting that I take a similar approach to managing my time and my program’s resources as I do to financial management in plenty of the games I play.

Honestly, a lot of resource management is just fitting pieces of a puzzle together.  Most games that have a resource management aspect have you juggle a lot less puzzle pieces than do your given job, and the puzzles may be a lot more complex, but a lot of the foundation is still there.  Just a measure of learning the additional steps.

Stress Management

Yeah, so this may not so much be a skill as a result from gaming, but I thought I’d include it anyways.  I work in the welfare field.  I deal with people going through some of the worst times in their lives.  Burnout is a constant risk that my organization and many others are contributing a lot of time and energy to try and fight against.  And things aren’t always dandy there.  A good part of the reason my already slow rate of posting has gotten even slower is that there are some days where work has been so rough that I just get home and I cannot do anything productive anymore.

But I’ve found video games to be a great way of refreshing myself.  My clients often unload  an emotional weight on me, and I take that, because, well, that’s my job, and I’m a professional.  But that eats at you, and those emotions need to be worked out, and in a far shorter timeframe than actually solving those problems takes before they deliver harm.

And you know what, I’ve found video games to be invaluable for that.  It’s a little hokey and childish, maybe, but spending that time being absolutely immersed in something else, completely forgetting about myself and what I’m going through, that’s one of the biggest things keeping me refreshed and helping me manage the emotional burdens I find myself carrying.  Because of that, video games are just making me a better worker in general.

All told, with all those skills given, it seems like real life is just the rather disappointing sequel to your favorite video game.

The Higurashi Notes: Onikakushi-Keiichi’s Sanity and Ooishi’s Behaviour

All right, so now that we’ve taken a look at the happenings in our last post, let’s go back and try to work out… you know, what actually happened.  Onikakushi drops a whole lot of questions.   No answers.  But if you know where to look, there might be a few hints.  So, what do you say we start with the biggest question?

How much is actually real?

Yeah, yeah, Onikakushi runs really heavily on the “Is it magic? Is it mundane?” question, to the point it has the characters arguing about it OOC at the end.  But you know, that question is nowhere near as interesting to me as this one.  Stuff happened in this plot.  A lot of stuff happened in this plot.  But, did all the stuff that happened actually happen?


At its core, Onikakushi is a story about Keiichi’s descent into paranoia.  You see him going from being a normal kid, run into a conspiracy so far beyond him that starts targeting him for even knowing about it, and in defense, Keiichi starts backing into the corner and pulling out the claws.  Starts smashing up nothing, thinking enemies are all around him.  But, maybe it goes beyond justifiable paranoia.  Maybe Keiichi starts experiencing things that are not actually there.


It’s interesting to me how much Keiichi does that seems to serve no other purpose than to make his house a portrait of madness at the end.  The entry way of his home is all smashed up.  Mashed garbage strewn all over the room.  A hastily scrawled note asking “Was there a needle?” on the fridge.  The brief, hand-written memoirs of a crazed child stuck with tape behind his clock.  The kind of home that would make you think its owner escaped from the asylum if you came across it in any crime drama.  Of course, all of these were in response to something Keiichi was reacting to, and you see all the context for that, but take a look at that from outside Keiichi’s head for a bit.  He smashes up his house by swinging at something invisible and intangible.  He has a relatively calm phone conversation with Ooishi, then mention of the needle causes him to take a break and throw garbage all over his house, before he returns to the calm-ish conversation.  Keiichi knows what it all looks like.  That’s why he’s so very careful about what he puts in his dead drop note, and why it ends up being way too vague to be useful, outside of the bits that get torn out before the police find it.

But how far back does Keiichi’s altered perception go?  Let’s start from the end, and take a look at some contradictions between what we’re shown and what we know.

So first, the police report at the end.  Right off the bat, it states, and states conclusively, that Keiichi had called Rena and Mion over to his house before he beat them to death.  Now, it doesn’t list any of the evidence for that claim, but logically, the police would be able to look into phone records in regards to what calls were made.  At least, I’m going to assume they could.  I don’t know ‘bout that 1983.  So we can figure that it’s more than just an assumption that Keiichi called them out.  Thing is, if you recall from the events we saw, when Keiichi woke up in his house before he killed his friends, Rena was already there.  Sure, she called Mion from Keiichi’s house, but there’d be no reason for Rena to be called over.  Unless, either the ‘Director’ she called share’s Rena’s number, or Keiichi had in fact called her over, and just wasn’t cognizant of it.


Keiichi died in exactly the same way as Tomitake did earlier.  That’s exactly what Mion was threatening, saying he’d be injected with the same drug.  But there’s two problems with this.  The first, going by what we saw, Keiichi was never injected with the drug.  He blacked out just before he did, came to with his friends dead, then recalled that he had knocked them away before he was injected.  Possibly, this is recreating memories after the fact, but otherwise, he should never have been impacted by the drug at all.  The second notable thing is that Keiichi started following in Tomitake’s footsteps long before the drug ever came up.  The big moment is when he smashed up his front entryway, striking at the presence he detected but couldn’t see.  Ooishi had notice that Tomitake had been found with a two-by-four that had impacted several things, but had no blood, skin, or biologic materials found on it.  He smashed up a guardrail, but had no sign of actually hitting anyone else with it.  Mayhaps he had been finding a presence that couldn’t be seen or touched, himself. Continue reading