Sunday, October 23, 2016

We Were Right! Thoughts on the Switch

Almost exactly 8 months ago I wrote a post on some of the rumours surrounding the console now known as the Nintendo Switch. Based on the rumours I was pretty excited - it seemed Nintendo would go back to cartridges and do a crossover console basically turning their handheld and stationary into one. I loved both of these concepts, here we are more than half a year later and it turns out these rumours are pretty much true. As far as I know the cartridges have not been confirmed (although I think you can see it in the reveal trailer), but it seems pretty clear Nintendo are going to go for something like it.

So what can I say? I am not any less intrigued today than I was then, in fact I am thrilled so much of what I hoped for actually turned out to be true (as it seems). I absolutely love the entire idea and I am happy that Nintendo seem to have gone and done another... well Nintendo. Few people think so much out of the box like they do and rarely does it end up being a complete failure.

It looks better than anything I could've imagined (yes, even the dog head) and there are few things about it I don't have high hopes for. There are of course some important issues that need to work like battery Life - the portable screen (and all the other peripherals) needs to have a decent battery life, nothing substantially less than the 3DS is boasting now, if Nintendo wants this to work as part of their handheld line as well. I'm sure they don't need reminding that one thing the comparatively weak Game Boy had over its competitors was battery life (and game library).

I also find it a tad optimistic of them to show people split screening the portable screen. Eventhough it doesn't state the exact size of the screen I am pretty sure it is way too tiny to be split up and still give satisfying game play for everyone involved (especially in a moving car). I did grow up split screening a lot of games on a 16 inch TV and never recall it being an issue, but this screen is most likely smaller and people are just used to bigger screens nowadays. I know people around me who complain when they have split 30 inch TVs in a well lit, non-moving, living room. I love the idea of wirelessly hooking up several of the portable screens for some on the go multiplayer though, and since I know how effortlessly Nintendo have made it work in the more recent Pokémon instalments I have high hopes this will work fine for the Switch.

I have no idea what I am doing

Speaking of Switch, I like the name. Some people (like my bf) who don't like change and have gotten used to the NX moniker seem a bit reluctant to call it anything else. But "the Switch", as it no doubt will be known as, is short and neat and says everything you need to know about it (unlike a name like Playstation 4, which I can only assume it has because Sony are so damn proud of coming up with Playstation in the first place. By the way, I wonder if Gamecube is a play on that? Although, Xbox One is probably worse, at least ps4 is consistent and clear). I find it actually sounds "hip" without trying too hard, unlike NX would've. It also avoids the confusion the WiiU caused, having some people wonder if it was another console at all or just an addon to the Wii. I guess that time Nintendo tried to ride off the wave of fortune the Wii had spawned, but it clearly had the opposite effect.

This time around Nintendo seem to be promising a much bigger third-party support, which really was one of the biggest issues for the WiiU which is otherwise a cool console. None of the games shown in the trailer are anything that will make me throw money on the screen though. I am not a huge Zelda fan (and they cleverly avoid to show any interesting gameplay in the video), I couldn't care less for Skyrim (which hasn't been confirmed as a port or anything else anyway). I don't do sports games and I probably will never play Splatoon (although it seems like a decent game). I suck at any and every Mario game I've played and that only really leaves Mario Kart which ok... I always enjoy to play Mario Kart.

Dude... that things is going to fall on to the floor and break like that.

And that is pretty much it. Nintendo don't have to show me another Smash Bros, Mario Kart or Mario Party because (unlike the Metroid series) I know they will be on there, and they are what I am after.

I love that it is basically a little Swiss Army Knife-console, allowing you to turn it into what you need it to be for the moment. It looks like a lot of things for my 3 year old to accidentally (or deliberately) break, but just as with everything else precious to me it's up to me to make sure that doesn't happen.

I can't say for certain I'm not going to miss my Game Boy though, assuming the Switch means Nintendo are moving away from a pure handheld console. For instance, will I want to bring the portable screen with me on a trip somewhere? How do I charge it then? Do I have to bring the entire console? I dislike any handheld that doesn't have a flip-screen as the possibility of scratching the screen always gets me proper stressed out. Getting some sort of protective gear for the Switch seems like a necessity, but it isn't for my 3DS. To me this looks more like a portable, rather than a handheld, if you get the distinction. Basically I am worried that in trying to fuse these two worlds together, Nintendo are going to end up just getting both of them done half-assed. But, it is Nintendo we are talking about here. If anyone can pull it off, they can.

If the Switch is anywhere near as smooth to use as it seems like in the trailer (which I doubt it is, those people don't even have to turn their TVs on to play - or do they just leave them on all day?) I think it is going to be one hell of a cool console and I am very hyped about it coming out as soon as early next year. I really hope my economy (and the launch line-up) is good enough for me to buy one.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Character Creation and Identification

Now since I am playing a new game every now and then, I've come across a feature in gaming that I realize the developers have put a whole lot of effort into, and that I really couldn't care less about. I am, of course, talking about character creation, and specifically the looks of your character (as opposed to the stats of your character, which I care quite a lot about). As I started playing Dragon Age: Origins recently and I yet again only clicked "random" and "done" on my character, I took some time to think about it. Do the character looks matter to me at all? I tried thinking back to different games I've played where character creation was a thing, and the only time I could remember ever caring about it was in World of Warcraft. But then I wasn't so sure anymore. Was it really that simple for me? Is there no part of the character that is important to me, and in that case what and why?

Thinking back to early 90's and even before then, I hardly consider the characters even relatable. I don't think of Mario or Sonic as characters as much as a tool or prop I am using to get through the stage. Maybe this is the reason that many characters from this era have some really far-out character designs - like Plok, Chuck D Head, Dynamite Headdy and every animal in the animal kingdom. The games were then often designed to fit those characters. And eventhough character creation in terms of stats had been around for a long time, in terms of looks has only been more common fairly recently.

I think he/she is supposed to be laundry.

It's almost always been limited to role-playing games, and it makes sense. RPG's are the games where the creators want you be yourself playing someone else, hence the term "role-playing". In this way character creation is about identification, either about identifying with the character you're playing because they look like you or because they look like someone you want to be within that game. Sometimes these decisions have actual practical outcomes within the game and I realized that for me at least, that was by far the most important factor for deciding what kind of character I wanted to play.

Back when I started gaming, being able to identify with the character I was playing meant having to accept I was playing as someone who looked nothing like me. As a white female there were few games that allowed me to play as a character where I could pretend she was me (Perfect Dark and Lara Croft comes to mind, none of which I've actually played) and I just never did. Even removing all the games where anyone would have trouble identifying themselves with the main character (like the above-mentioned games) there were plenty of role-playing games (and still are) that don't offer any choice. I got so used to it that I stopped thinking about it and thought that is not even an effect I am after when I play video games, the same way I don't look for that effect when reading a book. I can get immersed in the story, sure - so much that it really deeply resonates with me. But I really didn't need to feel like I was the main character for this to happen. At least not until recently.

Definitely recommend Divine Divinity.

But let's linger in the 90's for a bit longer, even early 00's. The vast majority of games I played had a male, specifically a white male, as the main protagonist. I don't think it ever bothered me. Because the story was told to fit that character - think Final Fantasy, Deus Ex or Thief. I got so used to this that even at first, when I suddenly came upon games that had a choice, I chose to play as a male as long as the gender had no further impact on the game. When I played Divine Divinity I played as a male. When I played Diablo 2 I chose solely based on class and didn't care about gender. Same thing in Geneforge. Being used to only think of the character as a tool it took me a while to identify with it and I still don't really care when I play older role-playing games.

But then came the character-interaction heavy games, like the before mentioned Dragon Age, or games like Mass Effect and in a similar-but-different-sense any MMO really. Either I have to interact with other players or with other characters in a character-developing-social-kind of way I realized that I wanted to play as a female. Suddenly, when characters were interacting about anything from their favorite wine to whether to get all smoochy, I felt like doing this in a gender I didn't identify with would feel odd somehow. I know I can do it, and will have to do it in games like The Witcher for instance, but given the choice I definitely prefer doing it as a female.

Morrigan gets on my tits though, and not in the good way.

I had this thought initially in WoW as well. All my first characters were female, I guess so that players around me would now that I was also female. Funnily enough, eventhough anyone can choose any gender for their characters, I found that female characters were treated differently from male ones. After I had played the game for a while I lost all interest in representing my gender in my character and went with whichever had the best fighting and casting animations (male tauren is so much better than female tauren for instance and female orc wins over male orc any day). But in games that are dialogue-heavy this still matters to me. I have no idea if it would even if I knew the dialogue and options would be exactly the same between the different genders however.

One could ask the question why? Why do I need to interact "as a female" in a game just because I happen to be one? Of course it has to do with relatability, but since most female dialogue and interaction is also written by men (just my guess), I am in fact ending up playing a male interpretation of a female anyway. I don't want to make this a big discussion about gender differences, but in games they generally are very few and only stretch so far as to whom you can date (some games have even removed those restrictions, thankfully enough). So why do I feel slightly more comfortable doing these social interactions looking like a girl? Especially since it doesn't seem to bother me in other situations? Is it just so I can come on to the male characters if I want to (and I rarely want to anyway)?  I honestly have no good answer to these questions but I think they are interesting because it really comes down to how we enjoy games. It's just something about what feels right.

It's impossible to convey in a picture how awful the 3rd person view is.

Looks still holds no importance to me however. When it comes to looks I seem to be able to identify with anyone. In fact I played as a black character in Fallout 3 and was thrilled to see that my "father" had my looks. At first it confused me because the only father-character I had seen in trailers and the like was a white male so I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Bethesda had taken this part into consideration when giving you free hand to create your character's looks. In hindsight it is obviously perfectly logical.

So I thought maybe the looks of a character doesn't bother me at all because I know that no matter what I make my character look like, the game will treat me the same. In fact many games, Fallout 3 being among them, you are given the option to put a lot of time and effort on your character, only to find you won't even see them that often (unless you play in 3rd-person view, and in Fallout 3 you really don't want to). I spoke to a guy who was playing Destiny, if I remember correctly, and he told me he had spent up towards and hour on his character, only to find it looked exactly the same as everyone else once the armor came on. And generally, the armor stays on.

I know people to whom character creation matter a whole lot and who spent a lot of time to make their character look just right.  I wonder how they feel about playing games where there is no choice as to what your character is going to be. I guess I have a more pragmatic look on it where I only care as far as it will affect my gameplay (this is why I loved playing as Oddjob in Golden Eye). I'd like to think that gender is only important when it affects gameplay. But then I remember that I always choose to play as a female in Pokémon (ever since the option was introduced at least) and in that game the gender truly does not matter. And then I think that maybe I thought I didn't care about having to play a guy because I had to stop caring, because if it bothered me too much there wouldn't really be many games out there for me to get enjoyment from. I truly loved Deus Ex and Thief, but I can't help thinking that I might've enjoyed them a little bit more if I got the option to play as a female.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Newbie-Friendly Games

This week my son has been a bit sick - right between being too sick to go out and play and not sick enough to just try to sleep it all away. Short story, we've spent a couple of days just playing indoors and after a while the idea to play some video games popped up. I let him choose freely and he tried some Mega Man and Decap Attack among other things. He didn't get passed the first enemy in Mega Man but got a bit further in Decap Attack, almost to the end of the first stage. Watching him struggle with different elements of these different  games, as I have seen him do with games like Yoshi's Story as well, it got me thinking to what makes a game more or less difficult, or more or less newbie-welcoming for lack of a better term.

I am mainly talking about more classic "character-controlling"-games where you move through a level trying to avoid obstacles and enemies, I guess you can call it platforming games. I am curious on a personal level because I consider myself quite shite at platforming games and only end up having fun with the more lenient ones. I know nowadays there are games that are actually aimed at "newbies" or people with very limited skills, time and/or experience with gaming. Nowadays there are countless games in which it is, for example, impossible to have your character die (I think for instance the LEGO games belong to this group). And with the surge of mobile-games things have gone to an even more accessible level. But what was it like 20 years ago?

Nevermind that it's a dead guy throwing his own head...

I am part of a video game group on Facebook and I decided to ask the members the question about what classic games they thought would be accessible to a child nowadays. The response was pretty big and I got suggestions with everything from Turtles in Time to Toejam & Earl to Rocket Knight Adventures. I hadn't really clarified the age of the child, and there is obviously a big difference between someone who is 4 and someone who is 9 (which might explain why someone suggested a fairly difficult game like RKA). But I think a newbie is a newbie and will struggle with similar things regardless of age. We're talking about someone who has the interest, but maybe lacks the motor control, cognitive awareness and experience with general gaming rules.

Now, my son is barely 3 so he's obviously on the most basic level of gaming. Watching him play is fascinating, because he learns quickly, but what lacks him is the ability to do things simultaneously (mostly because his small hands can't grab the controllers properly) and the cognitive awareness to react in time. He also just doesn't know some of the rules of gaming that I at least take for granted - lava and pitfalls will kill you for instance. In fact, just that the fact of dying is something to be avoided is something he hasn't grasped or at least doesn't care for, yet. He will gladly fall down a hole a hundred times (and why not, there's no law you can only play games a certain way!). He also lacks the ability to distinguish what on the screen is bad for him and what isn't (admittedly, so do I in some games) and has to trial and error his way forward. But I imagine this is what an adult with no prior knowledge of video gaming would struggle with as well, at least to some extent. When he plays I try to avoid telling him what he should do, but only tell him what he can do, and let him experiment on his own. It can be frustrating to watch sometimes since I am primed to tackle the game a certain way and he definitely goes outside of those perimeters, but as long as he is having fun it's all good.

Since I didn't really grow up with video games myself I have little personal experience of what it was like trying to grasp the games of 20-30 years ago. The few games I did play I was truly very bad at and never got far, but since I didn't own them myself I have no idea if I would've kept at it and eventually gotten better. That is what happened eventually, but I was in my early teens at that point already. A lot of people in the FB-group suggested that back then there wasn't much option, you had to keep whacking your head against the brick wall or not play at all. Of course, this will slowly allow you to get better at all of the above things - rules, reaction time, awareness, simultaneous button mashing and so on. But I also believe some games were so relentless that you hardly got anywhere before you were stuck and that didn't allow you to learn much at all. The bf told me he could never get passed the first stage of Revenge of Shinobi until he was an adult, so I guess that game only offered a very limited learning curve. So back to my original question then - what games were the best at easing you into and allowing you to learn these things 20-30 years ago?

I guess he lacked these skills. Noob.

After watching the son struggle with different games I got a general idea of what was "required" of a game to be more newbie-welcoming. For instance, some games have enemies pretty much straight off the bat that are also fairly difficult to hit. Mega Man is a perfect example. You move three steps and you immediately get a flying enemy that swoops onto you (assuming you choose Cutmans level which is the preselect).

That segways straight into the next difficultly - the amount of different movements you need to master early on to be able to move on. Is it enough to just run and occassionally jump, or do you need to be able to run and attack at the same time? Do you need to jump over pitfalls? Climb ladders? Jump between narrow platforms? Jump between narrow platforms while avoiding enemies? Cutmans level is another good example here, because not only do you have a swooping enemy attacking almost immediately, but you also need to jump or climb to move further into the level.

No one likes swoopers.

And a lot of this also boils down to how much reaction time you are allowed. That first enemy in Mega Man wouldn't be so difficult if it moved really slowly (and if it didn't swoop! I mean wth).

So let's look at some of the suggestions that were given to me and see how their respective first stages (or early parts) stack up on my newly minted newbie-friendliness scale from 1-10, where 10 is "No Sweat" and 1 is "No Chance";

  • Sonic - My issue with Sonic is the control, it's sluggish and unpredictable. I know Sonic fans think it's awesomely rad, but for someone trying to learn controls for the first time this is just an unecessary hurdle to get over. Otherwise a fairly friendly game. The fact that you can simply jump on enemies to kill them is a very nice touch. 7/10
  • Toejam & Earl - I haven't played this much myself, because frankly I think it's quite boring. But nevertheless, the first couple of stages of T&E are very newbie-friendly as they basically only require you to walk around and look for stuff. The game progressively introduces the player to new elements and no doubt becomes pretty tricky by the end, but until then I think it looks like a great game to get started with - if you have fun with it, unlike me. 8/10
  • Spyro - I'm not sure how much you'll be able to accomplish if you don't grasp the goal of the game, but it does allow you to run around fairly unhindered and just have fun and explore and there is nothing bad about that. 7/10
  • Yoshi's Island - I consider Yoshi's Story to be one of the most newbie-friendly games out there, it's predecessor Yoshi's Island is a whole nother story however. The first stage has some fairly difficult platforming to get passed and I know it only gets harsher from there. 3/10
  • Ecco the Dolphin - Yet again a game where the goal isn't too obvious (it's not just "get from left to right") and eventhough you can just swim around for a bit there isn't much to do unless you get good at avoiding enemies and obstacles. 4/10
  • Donkey Kong Country - The first stage isn't too fast paced at first and doesn't have too many pitfalls, it does however have many and differing enemies. Then it gets pretty difficult half way through where you have to climb ropes and get thrown across the screen. And we all know DKC overall is nothing for the faint of platform-hearted... 3/10 
In the end, Yoshi's Story still stands as the by far most newbie-friendly platforming game I have come across from pre-2000 but my quest continues (with my son as a guinea pig, as long as he's up to it). Any suggestions?