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?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Majora's Mask and the Nervous Crush

My relationship with the Zelda-series is a respectful yet distant one. Although I can acknowledge it for the achievement it is, it's just never been for me. The most fun I've had was with the Minish Cap and I've played far from every entry in the series. I definitely prefer the 2D ones over the 3D ones but to be fair I haven't played enough of them to make a good judgement. Ocarina of Time is still one of the few video games I've owned and sold (although I regret it now), after my dear brother deleted my clear save. Not that I had beaten the game or anything, but I had bought it from a friend who had. I had spent some time running around the world, checking it out but after that save was gone I felt no need to play the game from start. Would you believe me if I told you I found it too creepy?

I'm still interested in the Zelda-series however and don't mind keeping up to date on information or reading/listening to the odd piece about it. So it came that I listened to a podcast about Majora's Mask by Cane & Rinse, a podcast I recommend checking out if you're into more in-depth discussions about video games.

The heart shape is a trap.

Just as with most Zelda games, I've never really played Majora's Mask myself. I've got the Zelda-collection on the Gamecube and gave it a spin a couple of years ago but just couldn't get into it. Just as with Ocarina of Time it's not because it's not a good game, but because it doesn't feel like I belong there. I feel out of place. It's a difficult feeling to explain and I've tried to formulate it to myself many times. Since I've never heard anyone mention feelings similar to that (not that I've asked though), I've always sort of thought I was just being weird about it or that it was actually feelings of inadequate skill that I tried labelling something else. It's far from just Zelda games that give me this feeling either, Omikron: The Nomad Soul is another good example of a game I have no reason to dislike, yet have so much trouble to get into because I simply feel like I'm not supposed to be there.

I don't get this feeling from anything else either. There's never been a movie I really enjoyed but didn't want to watch through, or a book I thought was great but didn't want to finish. Maybe it's because I invest more of myself into a game than those things. With a book or movie, I am an observer. With a game I am participating, I am the one getting affected by what happens, through my proxy on screen. Eventhough I love books and movies they can never become as immersive as a really good game to me. But I wondered if I was the only one who thought that way about some games.

Yes, David Bowie is in the game.

Then I listened to that C&R podcast on Majora's Mask and realized they were talking about exactly those feelings. In it, spoiler alert here by the way if you actually want to go and listen to it yourself first, they conclude that eventhough Majora's Mask is a very good game in almost every respect, it's just not very welcoming. Most agreed that the game was original and were glad it existed, yet none of them (if I remember correctly) said they wanted to ever return to it. Even if they didn't word it the same way I had to myself, I instantly recognized what they were talking about. But what does that even mean? And how can a game be good, yet not be able to make you want to play it? Isn't it by definition a bad game then?

As I said I've been trying to explain to myself how this can be happening, but I am struggling to find the right words for it. Looking again at a game like Omikron, that I've at least spent more time with than Majora's Mask, I have no real reason to dislike it. The controls, albeit taking some getting used to, are fine. The story is interesting, the gameplay is cool. And it's far from a scary game - yet it is definitely unsettling in its style. The world is so different, the characters in it so odd, that I feel out of place and frankly, stupid, whenever I play it. And it is exactly that feeling I had when playing Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Even if I may be perfectly capable to play the game, and I know I am, it instills me with a feeling of inadequacy, like there is always something going on behind my back that I am not quite getting. Like I am the one being played and not the one in control.

It takes me right back to when I was completely new at gaming and every game I booted up made me feel insecure and out of place. I didn't know the controls, I didn't know the gameplay. It took me a lot of time and courage before I even dared to try out entire genres, like shooters, because I simply thought I didn't have it in me to play those kind of games (bullshit, of course). Now, except horror games, there is no genre I avoid simply because I think I am incapable of learning them. I know I am bad at certain games, but I'll still play them and I will still have fun with them if they're well done. Yet these special style of games like Majora's Mask and Omikron, eventhough I have fun with them once I get around to playing them and think they are good games, they make me feel like a newbie again. The best thing I can compare it to is having a crush on someone but you end up avoiding them because they just make you so nervous.

Yep, nightmare fuel.

Maybe that is the root of the problem. These games make me feel vulnerable, not because I am afraid I am going to die or fail but because I can't work out what the game wants me to feel and think. The game feels smarter than I am and like it is always one step ahead of me. I never feel like I am in control and as such it is like playing something that is always on the verge of becoming a nightmare even if I intellectually can tell myself it isn't (to be fair, a lot of people think Majora's Mask is nightmare fuel). This drains me of so much energy when I play them that even when I do get around to starting them up, I can never stick around for long before I am mentally exhausted. It is really a very difficult thing to wrap my head around and I end up wishing I could just think of them as "just another game", but somehow instead I get too invested.

The worst thing is that I actually like these games, I do find them fun. Omikron has been such an interesting experience so far and it should be right up my alley, yet I have to force myself to play it because it stresses me out to play it for some reason. Maybe I just need to gather up the courage to ask it out on a proper date.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Field Report #23 - Dragons and Dinosaurs

I was hoping to be able to do a review of Grandia today, but the game turns out to be slightly longer than I anticipated. Not that that is a bad thing, I am already feeling a bit sad that I'll have to part with the characters before long, after having spent almost 40 hours with the game so far. So instead here is a little bit of this and that I've been gaming lately;

Endless Sky
I got the recommendation to check out Endless Sky after having ranted about how much I like Escape velocity yet another time. And it is definitely very much like Escape Velocity! In fact I'd say it is almost an identical copy in style, albeit it seems the story is somewhat different. It's difficult for me to say since I haven't really encountered much story in Endless Sky yet, but it presents itself in the same manner that it does in Escape Velocity. Endless Sky, much like Escape Velocity, is a pretty slow-start game. You don't get much of a ship to work with early on, but there are fairly easy ways to make money. It does require a lot of "mindless" flying back and forth to do escort and shipping missions however, but this is just the way it was in Escape Velocity. I haven't really got the hang of how to battle in Endless Sky yet, and I didn't do much of that in Escape Velocity either, but in both those games it is clear that if you want to enter the fringe areas of space you will need to be able to stand your ground in combat. At the moment I am still mostly doing delivery service in the centre, and safe part, of the galaxy (ie close to the Earth Solar system) and waiting for a story arc to present itself, but overall it is proving to be much of the same simple fun Escape Velocity was.

This picture does not capture the danger of these zones.

Dragon Age Origins
After a rough start where I didn't have much fun with the game things are starting to look a bit better. I've got a squad I am fairly happy with but I still feel a bit lost in the bigness of it all. Dragon Age Origins suffers from the same problem a lot of more-or-less open world games do - they give you a main story arc to follow, often a very urgent one, yet also gives you free hands to ignore it. What's the problem, you might think? Well, it makes the main story arc less believable and immersive if I can just choose to ignore the imminent threat of death and destruction at any time. In DAO I've got characters that remind me of my main task at hand, and that get annoyed when I choose to dilly-dally. Eventhough I like the touch, their nagging personality actually grates on me and to have someone sigh everytime I want to save a child from trolls got on my nerves. So goodbye Morrigan. So far it's definitely not a bad game and I find combat quite enjoyable most of the time (targeting with aoe's is so broken though), but I have yet to feel immersed in the world or stories and the whole Fade business is verging on being more obnoxious than fun or interesting.

He might sound like an Antonio Banderas-wannabe, but he's my favorite character so far.

Yoshi's Story
Not that I have been playing it much, but the son has made great progress! I am so proud. And a bit surprised seeing as he really has not played the game much. Probably not even ten times in his whole life. I am still far from promoting gaming to him since it really is more hassle than it is worth, as far as I am concerned. Personally I think he can have just as fun with a train set or something, and then there is a lot less worry for me that he will break something. He did have a bunch of friends over the other day and at one point they wanted to play some video games. They knocked my n64 twice in the floor before I said it's time to go play something else. Lesson learned, consoles with cables should be on floor level.

Yoshi's Story is great though because it really has a very gentle learning curve. It allows my son to take his time and just jump and walk around for a bit if that is what he wants to do. There is no time limit to worry about and the first stage has very simple enemies. But he's already learned to jump obstacles, eat enemies and fruits, shoot down fruits and get eggs. It's eerie really.

No Man's Sky
I am actually still having fun with NMS. I say that like it's some sort of miracle, but it's gotten so much scorn people seem to treat it that way. It really requires that you make your own thing of it and try to forget the hype. Just like I said in my Initials Thoughts on it, there is a fairly entertaining game in there, it's just not what you might expect.

World of Warcraft: Legion
I am pretty sure I am going to buy this sooner or later, but I really haven't decided when. I knew that I wasn't going to get in from the start because I really don't have the time to stand around with a hundred other players trying to click the same quest giver and getting kicked out of the server over and over. I've done that, no more, thanks. But maybe in a month or so, we'll see.

And that's about it for now, but I'd love to hear what you all are gaming at the moment. I'm guessing it's mostly Legion though!