Hawkes Editorial: Lightning In a Bottle.

In: Uncategorized by David LaMont

17 Oct 2008

The cliché goes: “It’s like trying to catch lightening in a bottle.”

And in this case, it applies to attempting to recapture that initial visceral thrill you felt the first time you played a game that touched you deeply.  Whether it was that moment in Unreal where the lights all went out and you had to change your underwear after you cleared the level, or that moment in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic where…

Well, I’m not going to spoil it just yet, but let’s just say it changes your entire perception of the game you’ve experienced so far. “From a certain point of view.” Indeed.

These fleeting moments, these wicked and beautiful little twists that enhance your enjoyment of a game, are almost always a one shot deal. Subsequent plays of the game tend to diminish that first-time feel, and you almost find yourself just unconsciously moving through the motions to get to the next level.

This, unfortunately, brings weakness to the very type of game genre I enjoy most: The game with a story to tell.

From this point on I’ll discuss spoilers of Gears of War, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Bioshock. If you haven’t played through, consider this your only warning.

I prefer to buy new retail games over renting or buying used. Chances are if I’m walking to the counter with 60 bucks (plus tax) I’ve done the research and feel I’m taking a good chance with my money, and that it’s a game I’ll either play over and over or will at least be able to show it to friends with pride.

When the gaming cycle hits a down swing, or my money issues make it difficult to get something new and the platter on my game device of choice hasn’t spun for a while, I tend to take a look back at what has come before and give them another whirl.

Thomas Wolf once said: “You can’t go home again.” And that can resonate with certain games as well.

Let’s start with Gears of War.

The “story” of Gears, if you can call it thus, is about a man named Marcus Fenix and his friend and co-op buddy, Dominick Santiago.  Dom has come to free Marcus from prison to fight in the war against the Locust, who have burrowed up from somewhere deep in the planet of Sera to destroy humanity.

When you write it up, it is to quote South Park’s late Chef: “The biggest load of pig crap I have ever seen.”

As the adventure continues however, there are hints of a bigger story, something more complex and almost compelling if it hadn’t been presented in such a, “Yeah, yeah, get to the shoot-shoot-BOOM parts” way. 

Fenix was imprisoned for disobeying orders, and he was put on trial, which his friend Dom believes was a sham. Fenix has a difficult relationship with his dad, Dom is searching for his wife. Cole was a sports star, Baird is a sarcastic pain in the ass. Quite a compelling group of guys to have walking around. If an 80s movie had sex with the more cerebral parts of Battlestar Galactica — and the child was born prematurely – you would get the plot for Gears of War.

So it’s not the most compelling reason to spin up the game again. Nope, that’s the gameplay itself.  The mechanics of the game has you running for cover, moving from point to point, taking down the bad guys using your array of weapons, and clearing the room before moving to the next battle point. It’s well designed and fun as hell, and every time you pull the trigger or go into a cover move you feel like you’re doing it and it hurts in both directions.

Even after nearly two years on the market, the game play still feels quite fresh and visceral. The problem, of course, is that after the second play through you know where the enemies are coming from, you know what types of weapons they’ll have, and it makes you predict events much easier than your first time through.

As an example, Fenix and company come to a huge open courtyard. Once you hit the point where there’s a fountain in the center, out from the side doors of a semi-circular building comes a small phalanx of Locusts. Once this battle is won, a red shirt gets killed. You then have to defend the position for a bit and move forward into the room that leads to your destination.

I remember my first play through of this level. Walking to the fountain, all sides opened and I immediately went to cover. I stopped and popped, but no matter what position I fired on, I seemed to get hit from another. I died many times. The red shirt’s death (Carmine was his name) was a shock, though not exactly the emotional ”oh-em-gee” moment I think Epic and Cliff would have liked me to have. 

The subsequent battle seemed to make the first part of the battle almost tame in comparison. (For the record: I had played the game on hardcore the first time through.)

Last night I played it again, and when I came to the area, I immediately went right and headed to a set of doors. Taking cover, I pulled out my Locust rifle and waited. Sure enough, out comes Mr. Locust with a shotgun who probably didn’t have a chance to piddle himself when I cut him down as quickly as I did. I grabbed the shotgun, made my way around the interior of the building, took out the Locust, and then listened to Carmine’s death from the kitchen as I grabbed a refill.

It occurred to me as I heard Carmine complaining about his gun being jammed, that I was just going through the motions to get to the next level, classic arcade gaming at its finest.

And as I went back to the game and nonchalantly took out the remaining Locust horde that once troubled me so harshly the first play through, I started to wonder about “nostalgia gaming.”

Nostalgia gaming is the big thing right now. Remakes or “reimagined” versions of timeless games are starting to pop up on an almost regular basis. I often find it funny that the same groups of people who decry Hollywood for remaking movies less than 20b years old seem to have zero issue with gaming companies basically doing the same thing.

Now I’m not talking about Mega Man 9 – that is a true sequel to the game done in the classic style. I’m talking about titles like Bionic Commando, or Street Fighter II —  games that people knew and loved while growing up with gaming and are suddenly “rediscovering” them thanks to modern digital downloads. (And other means… Yes, I’m aware of things like MAME, thank you.)

But to make these “remakes” more palatable, they are washed, dressed nicely, have lipstick applied, and are slapped with a $10 sticker before being put up on display. It is no different than Michael Bay producing a “re-imagined” Friday the 13th movie  and instead of outrage, we seem to mop it up like gravy with a crispy slice of bread and lick the crumbs from the plate.

All I could think to myself as I tried some of these demos was: “Yup, just like the good old days of gaming, save for the boob job and makeup.” But the core of the game play hadn’t changed. In short, if you had already solved or mastered these games to begin with, what was the point of going back to the well?

There are two possible answers to this: boredom or narcissism. In the case of boredom the answer is self-evident. Looking for relief from a period of gaming humdrum, there’s nothing wrong with pulling out an old title and doing some mindless gaming.

But that’s the point — it’s mindless. The strategy that you had to work out the first time is already there. Sometimes it’s a bit dusty, but it comes back to you rather quickly –something I learned while playing Duke Nukem 3D.  I immediately remembered exactly where all the power ups and hidden places were, and this is a game I hadn’t played in nearly eight years.

Gone was the thrill when an enemy spawns out of the blue or when you turn that corner and find yourself surrounded.  Gone was that shocking moment in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic when you find out that the villain is you, or in Bioshock when Andrew Ryan reveals that you are nothing but a slave. Would you kindly, indeed.

What’s left is game play, and due to the nature of game development, said game play is extremely predictable after you’ve played through once or twice. Sure, you could still die, but in the end that’s attributable to a small case of “forgot about that guy,” rather than the lack of skills.

It becomes an exercise about as strenuous as breathing, and I can’t tell you how many times I rounded a corner and fired off a shot taking out a bad guy without even remembering hitting the trigger to do so.

So that brings the discussion to full circle: What’s the point? If you can no longer capture lightening in a bottle while playing a game you once adored, what’s the point of even trying to play it again or even buy the prettified version of it?

That leads me to the second reason: Narcissism, also known as the “I’m better than you” reason.

Now we’re in a much more complex territory because there could be someone who is legitimately that good at games, and is just trying to prove his or her skills by showing all that even old school games hold no threat to his or her prowess.

However there’s a second group: The ones who decry today’s game as overly complex and who bemoan the loss of the simpler days of gaming…

…The days when they were good at it, that is.

That’s right, I typed it and I mean it. Most of the people who beg for remakes of old games are usually people who want nothing to do with modern gaming and want to show the world that they actually CAN game, but just not today.

It’s the equivalent of the old business man who used to be a baron during the 80s but now has to beg for change in the 21st century.

The majority of classic game players are viciously holding onto the past games that they were experts at because they can’t grasp the complexity of modern gaming. They are people who don’t understand controls beyond a joystick and, at most, four buttons. Sure for games like Street Fighter they got all the combos down, but that’s still a very static game that is very simple and logical in execution.

Oh, and before someone says it – no, I’m not an expert in any game.  I don’t consider myself an expert. I play because it’s fun. I don’t feel the need to go into the very heart of every single nuance of a game just to play it. I don’t feel the need to show off any of my “mad skillz” because it’s not what gaming is supposed to be about.

Gaming is supposed to be fun and competitive. The fun can also be in the competition, but I’ve found more satisfaction watching my sorry ass get taken out by an opponent than taking out one myself.

That makes me different than most, but I’m okay with that.

What I want to know is why the nostalgia heads can’t seem to get their noggins around anything that has come out in the last, say, five years? Why is it that you always have to compare two games that have so little to do with each other?

It’s because you suck, and the classic games are the only thing you’re good at.

There’s really not a lot to be gleaned from an old game that you haven’t already gotten out of it the first time through.  Modern gaming means you can go back for achievements or trophies, but what else is there?

In the end, Gears of War goes back in its case, as it’s served its purpose to me. It’s reminded me how the game play works in time for Gears of War 2.

But I don’t see wasting another hour or two completing it all again out of joy. It’s just another task – something that’s more natural to me now than it was two years ago. The joy was the first time through, and everything else is practice for online gaming or attempting to increase the size of my cyberdick.

And frankly? It’s big enough already and, like lighting, once out of the bottle, it can never go back.

Hawkes

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3 Responses to Hawkes Editorial: Lightning In a Bottle.

Avatar

Bert

October 19th, 2008 at 5:11 am

That’s some damn fine writing old man.

Avatar

FuNkYbOsS

October 19th, 2008 at 8:59 pm

Going back to the well of played games is like watching an old movie, listening to a classic album or re-visiting a good book.

It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Sure, it will never feel like the first time but we always miss something on the first go ’round.

Avatar

CooperHawkes

October 20th, 2008 at 4:06 am

@FuNkYbOsS

True, I never thought of just “memories…” the problem is that for me personally, I don’t find re-dipping into the gaming well all that satisfying..

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