Mini Video Game Reviews

As you may have realized by now, I play a lot of video games, and though it’d be fun to do quick review of the games I finished over the past year. You’ll note that these reviews are all largely positive. That’s because I’m picky about the game I play, and if I don’t like a game, I don’t finish it 🙂

Skyward Sword

I’ve been playing Zelda games for twenty years and it’s hard for one to disappoint. That said, I loved the dark aesthetic of Twilight Princess (not to mention wolf Link!) and was disappointed they were going back to a more cartoony look. I got over it. Excellent game play, fun, inventive dungeons with great boss fights, and the first game to convince me the Wii-mote was more than a glorified controller – too bad it didn’t happen till the end of the Wii’s life-cycle. My only complaint was difficulty – I wished the puzzles had gotten harder in the last couple dungeons, but interestingly enough the only time I got really stuck was in the fourth dungeon.

Fez

I first heard of this game when I watched Indy Game: The movie. The game’s creator, Phil Fish, said without hyperbole he would kill himself if the game didn’t come out. Fortunately for us all, it did. Fez is wonderful, combining exploration with challenging, ambient puzzle-solving. Some of the harder puzzles are overly obscure, but no doubt there are fans for that type of thing and I’m glad there’s a game that caters to it. The ‘2d guy in a 3d world’ theme is carried out brilliantly.  Amazing that a game developed by only a couple guys can achieve such a powerful sense of wonder.

Diablo 3

Diablo 3 has taken a lot of heat online for numerous reasons. My only comment is I played for approximately 12 hours straight on release day on a stream with my friend Sean “Day[9]” Plott, and wanted to play more when I was done. Note that my average gaming sessions is about an hour. The game isn’t perfect – the plot’s disappointingly shallow and looting wasn’t as interesting as Diablo 2 – but the sheer joy of killing monsters makes up for it all.

New Super Mario Bros 2

Formulaic to the point of frustration it might be, but it’s a 2D Mario game and it’s impossible for that not to be fun. Unlike the premiere games (Sunshine, Galaxy), the New Super Mario Bros series seems almost aggressively traditional. I’d like to see cooler power-ups, more varied level design, harder hidden coins, and better bosses. But here’s the truth – they could be doing the exact same thing twenty years from now, and I’ll still be playing them. It’s a fun game and worth the money and time.

Rayman Origins

This game didn’t appear on my radar till a month after it had come out. My boss at work kept talking about how good it was. I’d seen some screenshots and wasn’t sold – the graphical style didn’t seem to appeal to me. Boy was I glad to be wrong here; I picked it up on a whim and was blown away, not only by the graphics (which are simply lovely in motion), but by the game-play as well. This game is hard; some levels even reach Super Meat Boy levels of frustration. No platformer can get away with that without flawless controls, and Rayman Origins delivers. Also, there’s the music. (LINK).

Max Payne 3

Didn’t play the first two in the series; bought the third on the strength of reviews and that I wanted to shoot some bad guys. Game delivered and had a surprisingly enjoyable storyline to go with it. The ‘matrix’ style mechanics are fun and well-executed, as is the graphic-novel aesthetic.

Final Fantasy XIII-2

I’ll be honest; I really, really liked Final Fantasy XII. I liked the open zones and the combat. XIII decided to do away with that and go back to ‘hallway with a boss’. Worse, more than one zone was an actual hallway. The one open zone was well-enough received that the sequel, XIII-2, was built with at least some exploration possible. That along with some enhancements to the battle system and the addition of a Pokémon-like monster capture mechanic made this game a pleasant surprise. I enjoyed it and would happily recommend it even to those who did not like the first one.

There was a deluge of great games this fall. Largely due to World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, I haven’t beaten most of them, but the good news is I’ll have plenty to do next year, not to mention I’ve got the Wii U pre-ordered solely for  New Super Mario Bros U.

This week’s video is a very silly song by a capella group Da Vinci’s Notebook, in the style of classic folk song “The Fox”. It’s strangely addictive 😉

 

Story in Games: Final Fantasy VI

I’ve been thinking about story-telling a lot recently.  After all, we’re surrounded by stories; movies, television, books, and video games, not to mention the stories we tell each other every day.

What makes a story work? Ultimately, the answer differs from person to person, but it’s clear some stories work for a lot more people than others. Take Harry Potter – it’s something anyone, of any gender, of any age, can fall in love with. Others, like Twilight, have a more narrow appeal, but seem to really nail a couple particular groups.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what should be a far simpler question – what makes a story work for me? Sure, I can point to what I like and don’t like and I can stack them in arbitrary (but still oddly satisfying) rankings, but none of that gets to the heart of the question.

In the interests of trying to work through this, I thought it’d be fun to go through some of my favorite video game stories, ones that have really stuck with me (and many others), and try to pin-point some of the qualities that give them that staying power.

Final Fantasy VI

Warning – the discussion below contains spoilers

IGN recently released a list of their top 100 RPG’s ever made. Topping it was Final Fantasy VI (originally released in the US as Final Fantasy III), a game released for the Super Nintendo in 1994.

I think I got it the following year for my 11th birthday. I haven’t played it in 16 years, yet I remember the plot, from beginning to end, every character, every scene, every battle. Terra,  being escorted through the snow by two soldiers. The dashing thief Locke who rescues her. Brothers and princes Sabin and Edgar (who now live on as my cats!) forced to abandon their kingdom to try to save the world. The general Celes who betrays her empire. The knight Cyan, who’s family was murdered by the emperor. The mysterious mercenary Shadow. The feral child Gau. Gambler and air-ship owner Setzer. The young magical-artist Relm and her grandfather Strago. And of course, Mog the moogle.

These are the characters who unite to try to save the world from the Empire, led by the power-hungry Gestahl and his insane advisor, the evil-jester-like Kefka, who want to use the power of the Espers to rule the world.

The game proceeds as one might expect, at first; Terra and Locke travel the world, gathering allies and preparing to battle the empire. They finally confront Kefka and Gestahl on a floating island, where the two are preparing a ritual that will ruin the balance of magic in the world.

They fail.

A year later, Celes wakes up alone on an island, in a ruined world. She searches among the few surviving towns and castles for her friends, and eventually they once again confront Kefka in his fortress. The final dungeon is one of the longest and most memorable in RPG history, with I believe thirteen unique boss fights, culminating in a final battle against Kefka, who’s transformed himself into some kind of grotesque fallen angel.

So, why does this story work so well, not just for me but for millions of video game fans around the world?

Structurally, I think there are two things going on here that I haven’t seen executed nearly as well anywhere else. The first is the large cast of characters. Though Terra is the protagonist, at various times she’s not even a member of your party.  Nearly all the characters are given a clear history and personality. Whereas many RPG”s focus on a single character’s personal journey, Final Fantasy VI feels much more like a multiple-point-of-view epic fantasy.

The second is the fact that the world ends about halfway through the game. Abrupt, unexpected twists like this are risky.  Epic fantasy stories carry the implicit promise that the heroes will succeed at saving the world in the end. Players may feel betrayed by this type of turn.

On the other hand, when they work, the story is usually seared into your brain. A more well known example of this unexpected turn of events is the death of a major character in George R. R. Martin’s game of thrones toward the end of the first book. For many people, that made the story more memorable. For a few, it ruined it. I wonder if the same is true of Final Fantasy VI.

I’m in the group where this choice worked. It elevated the story to a new level that I still don’t think I’ve come across. It’s very likely that rose-colored glasses are in play here, so I do want to distinguish between execution and impact  – I imagine if I sat down and nit-picked the game’s story, I’d find all sorts of flaws. But who cares about those, if the players are still happily remembering the story fifteen years later? I’ve played a number of games the last couple years where I thought the story was great, but now I have trouble recounting all the details. Yet I still remembered Figaro Castle, the bazillion floors of the stupid Mage’s tower, the secret time you had to put on the clock in Zozo to find Edward’s chainsaw,  the opera (yes, there was opera!).

It’s odd to me how far away from this type of storyline the more recent Final Fantasy games have gotten. Though there are some great characters and moments, most of them fall short, especially at the end. Final Fantasy XII and XIII, both of which I did enjoy, have absolutely befuddling weak climaxes to their story, almost as if they had to cut the story short to fit the game.

 

Once again this has gone on longer than I anticipated. I plan on doing this again in the future with some of my other favorite games. I think story in gaming is something with a lot of room to evolve and I look forward to see what designers come up with in the future, hoping one day something comes along that surpasses Final Fantasy VI.

 

 

 

 

Awesome People: Sean “Day[9]” Plott

I’ve been fortunate in my life, to have amazing family members, teachers, and friends. They’ve inspired me, taught me, and helped me be a better person.

One of those people is my best friend, Sean Plott. If you’re at all into e-sports, especially StarCraft II, you’ve likely heard of him. Going by the handle Day[9],  Sean’s done a daily web show called the Day[9] Daily. He’s nearly hit 500 episodes, which is insane given how much time he spends travelling to cast StarCraft II tournaments (commentating on matches like a baseball announcer) or to take part in panels at conventions like PAX and SXSW. Along the way, he’s picked up a few other accomplishments, like being named to the Forbes 30 under 30.

I met Sean at Harvey Mudd. I was a junior then, and living in what we called the Halo Suite. Me and three other guys had grabbed a suite of two rooms connected by a bathroom, moved all the beds and desks into one room, and turned the other into a gaming lounge with TV’s, XBOX’s, and couches. A bunch of guys were practicing for their first pro Halo tournament. I didn’t play Halo at the time, but I’d been a competitive RTS player for years, and I knew the transition from playing with friends to playing with strangers for money was going to be a shock. It’d be like a recreational tennis player walking up to a division one level tournament, and discovering for the first time what 110-mph kick serves look like. People got that, when it came to sports. I’d never met anyone who got that when it came to video games, not then.

That day, Sean came over to check out the suite. Someone introduced us. “Hey Tristan, meet Sean, he’s a frosh. He’s really good at StarCraft.”

“Oh, cool,” I said. “I’m pretty good too.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking something like, yeah right, good like the guys in the other room think they’re good at Halo.

A minute into our conversation, I knew I was wrong about that. He wasn’t good, he was really good. Maybe one of the best in the country. At that point I was thinking something along the lines of: Holy Shit, I need to hang out with this guy.

The Halo guys went to their tournament and had a pretty good learning experience. Sean went to a tournament that year too – got 2nd at the World Cyber Game nationals, which qualified him for the grand finals. There, competing against the best players in the world, he made top 16.

I remember the first time I watched Sean play StarCraft. Now, intellectually knowing someone is better than you is one thing, but seeing it is another. I might have acted humble about my StarCraft skills, but inside, I thought I was pretty awesome. I’d been playing for a long time. I’d topped some ladders, done well in some online tournaments, beaten a lot of pretty good players. Sure, maybe I wasn’t about to go pro, but I could hold my own. I’ve worked hard on my game.

Back then, when people watched me play StarCraft, they’d be blown away by my hand speed. I played at around 140 actions per minute (APM), give or take, at that time. That means I average 140 mouse clicks or key presses per minute.

Sean played at well over 300 APM. He wasn’t just faster than me, he was accurate. Every click was precise. My 140 APM was at like 80% accuracy; his 300 was at 99%. He could maintain that every game, for hours at a time. If you don’t know StarCraft well, it was nearly impossible to even tell what he was doing. I’d say my emotional path, while watching him play, went something like this.  First there was jaw-dropping awe. Then: crushing depression. I was nothing. I shouldn’t even be in the same room as him. I wasn’t worthy.

After, I went back to my room. I fired up a game, and I thought – fine, maybe I can’t be as good as him. But I can keep improving. Let’s see if I can play even faster. Let’s see if I can up my accuracy.

Sean and I hung out occasionally at Harvey Mudd, but not a ton. College was busy. I graduated, and went on to the Ph.D. in mathematics program at the University of Oregon (which I talked about in my last post). There, I started to play a lot of online poker. Sean had picked up poker too, and was doing really well. As anyone who’s played poker knows, nothing beats calling a friend and talking about hands, whining about how unlucky you got, or celebrating each other’s victories. We started calling each other on Skype to do just that. Then, we got the idea of going to Las Vegas together during Spring Break, with a third friend of mine. At one point in the trip, I ended up getting very emotional (over something that most people wouldn’t consider a big deal at all). Sean spent hours walking the dingy hallways of the Imperial Palace with me, talking and listening. After that, I didn’t just feel better – I had a new close friend.

Every post I’ve made on this blog began as a seed in a conversation I’ve had with Sean. I remember, I asked him how he’d gotten so good at StarCraft. He said he found his weaknesses, one by one, and crushed them. I’ve thought about that ever since. It’s shaped how I learn, how I improve, how I think. Such a simple idea. Find your weakness. Eliminate them.  But man is it hard to implement. It requires brutal honesty about what those weaknesses are and hard work to eliminate them.

That’s how I’ve tried to proceed with my writing. Been at it for nearly three years now. Lots of bumps along the way, lots more on the road ahead. But by talking through them with Sean, figuring stuff out together, forging ahead toward my goals and his, I’m getting better. I’ve learned to be happy with where I’ve gotten but not satisfied with where I’m at, to push through and be better and better and better. Watching him succeed so much at his own endeavors has been the best inspiration for my own.

But Sean’s got a talent for that. He’s got this energy, this aura, this something, and what’s brilliant is it’s not just reserved for those who know him personally. He can show that to total strangers, to people who only see him on the screen. You can see it in his fans, when they line up to get their picture taken, to get his autograph, to talk to him for a moment. He inspires them, too.

Nothing exemplifies that more than what he did a couple years ago, for his 100th episode. He describes it himself as “Hear about my life of Starcraft, its downs and ups and everything in between.”

You should watch it. If you don’t know anything about games, or if you do. It’s one of the most touching, inspirational things I’ve ever seen, right up there with the James Owen stuff I talked about in my last post. It’s about how games are more than games, how the communities and relationships we build over them are as lasting and rich as anything else. It’s got 3 million views. You don’t need to know anything about games to appreciate the message. There’s a pretty good chance it’ll make you cry, but they’ll be good tears. Watch it here.

I want to reach people like Sean does. To make them feel something with my stories. I want to teach them, and to learn from them.  It’s what he does every day. My friendship with him has taught me I’m capable of doing that too.

Thanks, Sean.

(If you’d like to check out more of Sean’s content beside the amazing 100th daily, his archives are available at www.day9tv.com. He’s also casting the NASL season three finals this weekend, which you can check out over at http://nasl.tv/)

A Particular Kind of Quagmire

I know what you’re thinking.

You read my last post, and you thought, after tearing yourself away from the misdirecting cuteness of the puppies and cupcakes, what’s this guy really saying? After all, history and myth are rife with the perils of setting your sights too high. Icarus, for example. Flew too close to the sun and melted his wings, falling to what was no doubt a hideously gory death.

Point is, it’s really, really easy to say stuff like “set your goals high”. It’s not like it’s a new idea or anything; plenty of people do it. You might know some of them. You’ve likely seen the crushing disappointment as those people fail to reach the goals, or worse, the growing delusion that they are reaching them when they’re not even close (see American Idol auditions for some particularly brutal examples of the latter.)

So let’s flesh this out and see if we can make it a bit more robust.  Consider the following three ideas

  1. Set an ambitious goal
  2. Figure out where you’re currently at.
  3. Crush your weaknesses, one at a time.

This is the approach I’ve used in all my endeavors over the past few years. It’s a coarse set of guide lines, of course (hah!), and as with everything else, it largely comes down to the execution. I think the most difficult of these  is the second. The human brain is a gloppy quagmire of emotions and biases and false assumptions and lots of other irritating things. (This is sometimes called the human condition, but I like the term ‘gloppy quagmire’ more). A lot of this blog will be about my various ways attempts to navigate those problems to try to achieve a more precise understanding of my own weaknesses and strengths.

The third item is tough too, but I feel like if you’ve done the second well and you’ve correctly identified the weaknesses, it’s the most fun. It’s where you actually feel like you’re improving. Or, at least, you get ephemeral moments where you feel you’re improving between longer periods of feeling soul crushed.

So, there you go. Want to be the best in the world at StarCraft/Writing/Shuffleboard/whatever? Just do that! Tada!

Okay. Fine. It’s harder than that. I’m somehow not the best in the world at any of those things. We’ll spend a lot of time talking about the obstacles one might run into trying to implement these ideas.

I’m going to start off with what I think is the biggest obstacle to all of this. I will even claim that it’s the number one reason people fail at things.

Ready? It’s about the simplest reason in the world, but one that I’ve found very difficult to truly internalize.

The number one reason we fail at anything is…

(this is called tension)

(powerful stuff, huh? It’ll make whatever I say seem REALLY awesome)

(okay, now I’m just being a jerk.  I’ll stop)

…is because we give up before we even try.

In my next post, I’m going to share with you a story about this mistake, and how it stopped me from even attempting something I always wanted to do for a very long time.

Puppies and Cupcakes and Martian Mountains

Well folks, let’s try to add some content to this thing. I mentioned in my first post that I’d like this blog to be about learning.  Now, you might say, that’s an awfully vague thing to base a blog on. After all, pretty much any topic can fall under the guise of learning if you want it to.

I might say, that’s the point. Why limit myself too much when I’m not even sure what I’m getting into? 🙂

Still, there’s something slightly disingenuous about a blog that purports to be about learning and then talks about nothing but puppies and cupcakes, so let’s see if we can take this vague thing called learning and find something to say.

(By the way, there WILL be posts about puppies and cupcakes. They will be glorious. You just wait.)

So. Learning. There’s some nice formal dictionary definition I’m sure, but really all it means is to acquiring knowledge and skill. That’s cool – you’re doing that right now by reading this, I’m doing it by writing this. Might not be useful yet, but it’s a start.

What’s the point, though? There’s certainly something to the notion of learning for the sake of learning. It’s self-edifying, good for the soul, etc. How far that gets you is going to be personal. The other reason we learn, which I think is easier to talk about, is to accomplish goals. To improve our skills.

For me, I want to take everything I do and I want to do them better.

Not just a little better either; we’re talking major, shoot-for-the-stars-wow-you’re-kind-of-delusional-aren’t-you better. Real gargantuan better-ness.

For instance, I play StarCraft 2 at a reasonably competitive level (High NA Masters, for those of you who know what that means. For those that don’t, worry not – I’ll cover it in more detail than you want to know about later.) I’m not satisfied with that. I look at the best player in the country (heck, the world!) and think, “I want to be that good.”

Are those realistic goals? Maybe, maybe not, though I suppose that depends on how you define ‘realistic. Here’s a better way to look at it. What’s the worst that can happen if I try? “Sorry, mom. I tried to be the best player in the world and I’m not. I hope, someday, you’ll forgive me.” That’s not a failure. The failure, for me, would be if I didn’t try.

I’ve got a number of things I work to improve at. The most important one to me right now is my writing. That’s part of the reason for the blog. I write fantasy novels. Someday, I want to be published. I want people to love my books. I want to sell a bazillion copies. I want to hit the best seller lists. I want to lead seminars teaching other new writers how to do what I did, before retiring to my personal castle complete with secret doors, towers, and guard-dragon.

Kind of a tall mountain to climb, huh?

Now, just to make it clear that I’m not some deluded narcissist. Those are my goals. Those are my dreams. They are not things I’ve earned. They are not things the universe owes to me. It will not be some grand injustice if I do not obtain them.

Here’s my theory.  You need to aim high, way higher than what your friends or parents or pretty much anyone, including your own mind, will tell you is reasonable. Don’t assume things are impossible.  Instead, be the person who says, “A mountain the size of Olympus Mons? Sweet! Let’s try to climb it.”

Will you get to the top? Maybe not. But I bet you’ll get a heck of a lot higher than if you stick with a smaller mountain.

Inspired yet? Ready to fly to Mars and do some mountain climbing?

In the next post, I’ll talk about my approach to these tasks, in particular, the troublesome problem of self-evaluation and discovering your weaknesses. Till then, take care and dream big.

(Or, if you don’t want to do any of that, eat a cupcake while petting a puppy. While this isn’t something I’ve tried, it seems like it pretty much is guaranteed to make you feel great about yourself.)


First Steps

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to write this blog.

Frankly, it’s because the whole blogging thing is a bit scary. I’m an introvert, after all. I’m just as happy to spend my weekends playing games and chatting online as going out. I don’t share much to anyone besides family and a couple very close friends. Flinging words and thoughts and stuff out into the universe isn’t my thing. Who’s going to read them? What will they think? Will they like them? Hate them? Will they even care?

It cames down to this fact: I’m scared. Because I might be a terrible blogger. Because maybe no one will care.

It’d be easier just not to do it.

But you don’t learn much by doing the easy thing. You can’t improve if you don’t even try. You can’t succeed if you’re not okay with failing. And learning is something that matters to me. I love being both the student and the teacher. I love not just learning new things, but working on the mechanism of learning itself.

So in this blog, let’s talk about learning. Let’s talk about improving. Let’s talk about not trying to be just good, not just great, but the best.

And let’s see if I can learn a thing or two about blogging on the way.