May 11, 2010

The Allure of Trophies

I'm somewhat new to the current generation of games. For years I've always been stubbornly "last-generation" when it comes to consoles, refusing to buy the newest system until it's life cycle is basically at an end. That way, I could pick up all the games I wanted on clearance or at used shops for a fraction of the cost. (This was way back when game stores were plentiful. It was actually possible to comparison shop at different locations to find some really great deals.) I never had an urgent desire to play any of the current games, mostly because I was still busy working on the "new releases" from a few years earlier. It's not a bad way to build a collection if you don't mind waiting a few years to pick up the titles you want.

There were exceptions of course, I bought a Dreamcast pretty early in it's life, and I picked up a Neo Geo Pocket Color as soon as I could find one. Of course I latched on to these pretty hard and I still collect and play games for both systems. About a year ago I finally played through Rayman 2, and it was amazing. I had tried it in college but at the time I was really fixated on the Saturn and sprite based games. It took a while for me to overcome my polygon prejudice, but now I can go back to quite a few titles that I missed out on.

As of a few months ago, I now own a PS3. I'm still a bit late to the party, but this is the first time I've ever owned a console during the prime of its life. There are a lot of things that separate this generation of gaming from the last, but one of the biggest changes that I've noticed is the inclusion of trophies/achievements. No longer do bragging rights just come from beating a game, you have to prove yourself by completing a series of goals given to you by the programmers. It reminds me a bit of those old Nintendo Power "Super Power Club" trading cards. If you were a subscriber, they'd include a perforated sheet of cards in the back of each issue, and every card had a "challenge" on it. There were varying degrees of difficulty and they often focused on tests of endurance, such as beating multiple levels without using certain items, or completing stages within a certain time limit.

(Yes, these are from my personal collection. I still have to scan the rest...)

Of course, if you could actually perform these feats there would be no way to prove it unless your buddy sat and watched you do it. You could just complete them for you own sense of self satisfaction, but that's just not enough for most gamers. Ever since we were ten years old we've been bragging during recess about about our conquests, telling tall tales about how we can beat Mega Man 2 without dying, or speed run through the Mario 3 without using any warp whistles. It's part of our nature to want to show of the pointless tasks that we spend hours mastering, and now with Trophies/Achievements, the whole world can see how frighteningly dedicated we are to our hobby.

I've never considered myself a "hardcore" gamer. I don't often play through games for a second time, and there are plenty that I haven't even finished once. I like fighting games and shoot-em-ups, old school platformers and ridiculous puzzle games that involve colorful blobs and anime characters screaming catch phrases when you complete a chain. The idea of playing through a title for a second time on a harder difficulty always seemed like such a time consuming task with no real reward. It's one thing if there are new items or additional bits of plot, but if it's just more punishing, why not move on to a different game? I have so many piled up in my backlog, I feel like there's just not enough time to replay something.

That all changed for me after Dead Space.

I had just finished Resident Evil 4 on the Gamecube, so the transition to Dead Space was an easy one. Similar in just about every way, Dead Space does everything exactly as well as RE4, just in space, in the future. I loved every minute of the game and I have to admit it actually really creeped me out on more than a few occasions. I played it while Alicia sat by my side and watched, having just as much fun as I was. She would often bug me to play in the evenings so she could see the story unfold. As I played through I got a few trophies for simple things like finishing a chapter or collecting a certain amount of money. My first concern was to successfully finish the story, so I didn't concern myself with the extra tasks at first.

I completed the last chapter around 1am on a Saturday night, and was quite satisfied with my victory. Alicia was with me the whole time and having stayed up way past her bedtime, immediately hit the hay. I stayed up a bit longer, because now that I'd beaten the game, I wondered if I could maybe get a few of those trophies. It would be kind of neat and they seemed within reach. I decided to take on the challenge of killing 30 enemies with each weapon, since I'd already done that with the main weapons I used during my first play through.

There were 8 of these trophies, one for each weapon and one for melee combat. I started with the melee since I figured it would be easier to beat the shit out of the creatures early in the game when they were considerably less powerful. As I fought through the opening scenario, I found myself using a different strategy, paying more attention to the patterns of the monsters and thinking more about how to handle a group of them. I wasn't just going through the motions and replaying the level, I was having a lot of fun and experiencing it in a new way.

Once I'd earned the "Melee" trophy I bought one of the weapons from the shop that I had not used at all yet, the force gun. I was shocked when I realized that it was AWESOME. I kind of wished I'd used it the first time, because it was really effective against an enemy type that had given me a lot of trouble before. Now I had a new strategy, a new technique in my arsenal, and as I forged ahead I had a blast taking on those little bastards that had fucked with me so many times before.

I would not have done any of this if I was not motivated by the trophy system. There would have been no real reason for me to jump immediately back into the game unless I was really curious. Hour after hour went by as I went through the list, until finally I killed the 30th creature with the flamethrower, the most worthless piece of shit weapon in the entire game. What a pain in the ass it was to fully defeat even one monster with that thing, much less THIRTY. They didn't really seem to mind being on fire, so you had to run backwards while shooting bursts of flame to keep them lit up until they FINALLY collapsed. You know what though? It was challenging, it was satisfying when I actually did it and it was fun. At this point I was a little over halfway through the game already, so I figured, hell, if I just keep going, pretty soon I'll have enough money to max out all of my weapons, which would give me a GOLD trophy! So I went for it, searching extra hard for hidden items, checking every corner and defeating every monster in order to get as much money as I could.

At around 10am, I finished the last chapter for the second time. I had spent 9 straight hours on the couch replaying the game in its entirety, immediately after I beat it for the first time. It was one of my favorite gaming experiences in recent memory, and later that day I loaded up that save file and began my third journey through the USS Ishimura. I'm currently a little more than halfway through my "One Gun" trophy run, which requires you to beat the game using only the plasma cutter, the equivalent of a standard pistol. Along the way I continued to hoard my cash so that I could finish upgrading each weapon, even if I couldn't use it. It's starting to get difficult, and I've ended up in a few situations where I ran out of ammo and had to retreat in panic. However I've also gotten much better at targeting enemies and disabling them with as few shots as possible in order to conserve ammo. It's great, and I wouldn't be getting this much enjoyment out of the game if I hadn't been enticed my trophies.

I also bought some of my first downloadable content. I bought two suits, purely for their aesthetic beauty. Both are slightly less powerful than the Military suit that I earned for beating the game the first time, but they just look really cool and I figured if I'm going to play through at least two more times I might as well wear something different. The all black PS3 Obsidian suit is bad ass, it looks great and was totally worth a dollar fifty. This suit used to be free when the game first launched, but it looks like they decided to start charging now that it's been out for a few years. I figured it was worth having for less than what I normally pay for an energy drink, plus it came with a slightly stronger Plasma Cutter. According to the EA forums this won't effect the "One Gun" trophy, so that's what I'm going with for this run. I also grabbed the insanely awesome Astronaut suit, which I plan on using when I attempt to beat the game on Impossible. That might have to wait until I get an HDTV though, since I'd like to revisit this game when I can finally see it in High Def.

Because I was enticed by trophies, I feel like I've learned a greater truth about gaming. I said earlier that I never saw the point in replaying a game on a harder difficulty. Now, I understand. I get it...there's a depth and a certain type of dedication that has its own rewards. Would I still do it in a different game if there were no trophies for my efforts? Maybe. Who knows, I might even take a shot at something like Monster Hunter, which requires inhuman levels of dedication but is immensely satisfying...

I should also mention that the proper term for playing through a game in a single marathon session without stopping is "Shenmue Style." This was coined when Equidist, the other contributor to this blog, bought Shenmue when it first came out for the Dreamcast and proceeded to play through the entire damn game without ever turning off the system. It took a few days, an entire weekend I think. He would occasionally fall asleep, controller in hand and Ryo left standing in the street, idling for a few hours. When he woke up he'd jump right back in, gazing at the screen like a zombie and propelling the characters in the game towards their final destinations through sheer will power. It was a legendary feat and I still use that term today, much to the confusion of anyone listening.

You earned a trophy, "Shenmue Style"

(Dead Space screencaps taken from Visual Walkthroughs.)

May 5, 2010

85 hours into Monster Hunter Tri

This Quropeco armor isn't a costume, it's a way of life.

Sure, the abundance of vivid feathers and assless chaps might make me look like Chief Smokescock gearing up for the pride parade, but in truth, I'm preparing to hunt. I'm going to hunt the large reptilian beast that has been terrorizing the small coastal village of Moga. They need a hero, a savior, they need... a MONSTER HUNTER.

Or something. Whatever. That's the entire Monster Hunter Story. The game has a rich and well realized backdrop that can be summed up with: Humans enter a tribal iron age alongside huge dino-dragon beasts that rule the land. The bravest of humans become Hunters and claim their rightful place at the top of the food chain by killing these large beasts and saving the day for everyone. But all you really need to know is: You -> puny human, That big scary thing -> going to ruin your day and then feed you to it's young.

But thankfully, the humans have something on their side. Ridiculously Huge Fuck-Off Swords (and other weapons, but mostly RHF-O Swords). And you get these swords by killing a monster and then carving pieces off of it to make even bigger Ridiculously Huge Fuck-Off Swords. If swords aren't your thing, there are also RHF-O Hammers, RHF-O Lances, RHF-O Bowguns, and so on. So the basic progression of the game is: Kill big thing to get bigger sword to kill even bigger thing to get even bigger sword, repeat ad-nauseam.

Sounds like a grind, right? Wrong! No wait, that is actually right. But where as other games might define a grind as wandering around the map and killing things over and over again to watch your XP slowly fill up, Monster Hunter has you embroiled in basically a series of boss battles. And it's an action game. You are not turn-based menu surfing, selecting 'attack' over and over again, sometimes selecting the 'heal' menu option. Nope, you are in 'the shit'. You are slashing and stabbing. Diving and rolling. There is no lock-on, no easy mode. You succeed or fail based on your own gaming merits. Sure, you craft better weapons that do more damage, and better armor that gives you different skills. But there is no XP counter slowly going up. The only XP you are gaining is in your head.

Real XPerience. Like "When that monster rakes his foot across the ground, he's about to roar and give me a chance to get some free hits in." or "When he looks over his shoulder, he's about to barrel-roll in that direction and I want to NOT BE THERE.". The monsters are full of tells like this that you only discover by fighting them. When you are playing MH 'right', it's like you are dancing with the beast and it's leading.

That flamboyant armor I am wearing was crafted from many a dead Qurupeco. It's an entry level monster that resembles a large green pelican dinosaur thing. It has three spots on it's body that I can destroy thereby removing some of it's abilities. For instance, It can puff it's chest up and then release through it's strange beak-sac different mimicked calls that summon other creatures. If I Smash it's beak in enough I can stop it from doing that. Sometimes it summons small annoyances, and sometimes it will summon another boss three times bigger and badder than the Quru. It really is in my best interest to cleave it's face in two. Plus, if I do succeed in disabling that ability, I have a better chance of carving a beak off it's dead body and I needed two of them to craft that fabulous headdress.

So why would I want to wear such an 'alternative' set off armor? Well the defense is better than my last set, but really it's all about the skills. Each piece of armor (head, chest, hands, legs, uhh.. skirt?) has it's own set of skill points, and when these skill points add up to a certain number, usually 10, that skill is activated. That Quru armor gives me Defense Up (S), Evasion +1, and Recovery Up. Plus, I stuck enough gem decorations into the armor to give me the Autotracker skill that always lets me know where the monster is. Sometimes the skills are self explanatory, sometimes obtuse (Punishing Draw, HG Earplugs, Divine Whim), but they are always useful. You will find yourself mixing and matching pieces just to activate certain skills that useful against certain monsters.

The weird part is that I've been wearing that armour for so long long that I'm starting to identify it as 'me'. Yes, that is who I really am, on the inside. The Village People need me. They need me to thrust my mighty sword into the beast again and again until one of us falls over, exhausted and spent.

I'm here. I'm Queer. I'm wearing that thing's sphincter as a belt.

Deal with it.

May 3, 2010


I'm sure quite a few people realize this, but I'd just like to point out a few reasons why Avatar is not science fiction, it's a fantasy film.

First, the generous use of magic. The process of using the actual "avatar" was basically getting into a magic chamber and possessing a new body. I know it's all supposed to be linking neurons based on tissue growth and all that, but really, they never got into the technical side and basically just said, when you get into here, your brain goes over there! Magic! How does it stay remotely connected even at great distances? Magic! How does the connection stay strong in regions that are filled with electromagnetic energy that makes every other piece of technology in the film go haywire? I can only assume it's through the power of magic, since this is never addressed in the film.

The whole "electric forest network" really seemed like a way of disguising a mystic forest with spirits and ghosts as a sci-fi theme. Yes, I get that they "downloaded" their memories into the "hard drive" trees, but really this was a magical forest that had creatures who could hear your thoughts and a powerful protecting spirit that predicted the future and gave the animals instructions. The forest also had the same magic powers that the magic chambers had, but with even more magic! Just lie down and the forest fairy will guide your conscience into the new body.

This isn't really a bad thing, it's actually pretty clever to dress up a fantasy film with sci-fi themes. Maybe I'm wrong here, but between the all the dragon riding and floating mountains, it sure felt like a magical journey to a far away mysterious land full of wonder, the kind of place you might go in an RPG. It's like if the space marines from Halo decided to land on a Final Fantasy planet to steal their Mana points.

I'm obviously nit-picking here, but I just wish that for a movie that takes place roughly one hundred and fifty years in the future (150!) We would get to see some cool future technology or innovative, visionary advancements. Instead it all looked like things we could do in the next 15 years. Wow, computers with screens that you can see through from behind! The ability to map a brain! Holograms! Helicopters! Clunky, bulky, mech suits that reminded me of Robot-Jox! Come on, this is so far in the future it's the equivalent of the difference in technology between 1860 and 2010. Go crazy James Cameron! Make some cool shit up! And why are people still smoking? Why not have some other, weird future drug choice or something.

I just feel like the sci-fi aspects were an obvious afterthought to the fantasy world of Pandora, as if he just pulled from his past films and other standards to get it out of the way so he could really focus on ways to make the Na'vi just the right amount of alien while still being sexually attractive. This right here is where his often proclaimed love of anime is showing, he filled the whole movie with fan-service! I'm on to you, Jim. Way to flood the internet with a new breed of self-insert fan-fiction authors. You gotta give him credit though, he knew exactly what he was doing when designing those creatures to be the perfect mix of cute/sympathetic/sexual.

Two of the things I enjoy about sci-fi movies are the "science" and the "fiction." I like seeing a director come up with a new creative concept, and then making that idea a reality through their film. I like seeing unique interpretations of what the future will hold, or what an alien planet would look like, or what would happen if time travel was possible. Just having a movie take place in the future doesn't make it sci-fi by default. Even the inclusion of giant robots doesn't necessarily make it sci-fi, especially when those robots aren't a huge stretch from what would be possible with current technology.

I think that's what bothered me so much about the movie, there was no exploration of the technology or the future world. I mean, it was hardly even touched upon. The same goes for Pandora, sure, the audience gets to see a lot of it, but it was just visual. Maybe they could have spent, oh, I don't know, five minutes perhaps, explaining exactly what the hell "unobtanium" is and what makes it so desirable. Is it a fuel source? Has it helped advance technology? Is it the new monetary standard, replacing gold? Why does it float? If it floats, doesn't it seem to make sense that those floating islands would be entirely made from this stuff?

I'm not saying that a movie needs to constantly over explain everything, but seriously, this mineral is the entire driving force behind the push to wipe out an alien race. It might be good to fill the audience in on exactly why the government of the future thinks it's a good idea to commit genocide in order to get it.

Anyway, none of this will really make a difference for most people who see Avatar. It bothered me enough to write about it, but I suppose I'm just disappointed by the many missed opportunities in the film. This is my way of venting my frustration that James Cameron felt the visuals of this movie deserved much more development time and attention than the plot.

I'll just leave you with this, Wikipedia's definition of sci-fi (emphasis mine):

Science fiction is a genre of fiction. It differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation). Exploring the consequences of such differences is the traditional purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas".[1] Science fiction is largely based on writing rationally about alternative possibilities.[2] The settings for science fiction are often contrary to known reality, but the majority of science fiction relies on a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief provided by potential scientific explanations to various fictional elements.