Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bomber's Notebook, Part 1 - New Kid in Town

For the past few weeks, The Vintage Game Club has been playing through and discussing The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. If you're not familiar with the Vintage Game Club yet, take a moment to click the link and catch up on some of the most interesting discussion surrounding games going on right now. (A more competent introduction to the club can be found at co-founder Michael Abbott's blog, The Brainy Gamer). I find it amazing how this group can get me looking at a game I've already played five or six times before in a completely new light.

In order to set this play-through apart from my other save files and foster some critical thinking, I began the game considering the chain of events from Link's point of view. Early in the game, the player is given The Bomber's Notebook, an important item that embodies one of the key mechanisms for navigating Majora's Mask's unique plot structure. Whenever Link encounters an NPC that needs assistance, the who, what, where, and when is recorded in the Bomber's Notebook, and as the player progresses in the game they begin to fill the notebook with a detailed itinerary for the inhabitants of Clock Town and the surrounding world. Instead of the player needing to take notes manually, they can consult the Bomber's Notebook if they need to track down a particular character to complete a side-quest.

The game takes place over the course of three days, at which point a scary-looking moon crashes into Clock Town, destroying the world. Link escapes by traveling back in time to the start of the three days, repeating this cycle ad nauseum until he has collected the tools and information necessary to stop the apocalypse. The notebook takes on a role here, too - since all of Link's good deeds are reset when he travels back in time, he is left with only the stickers in his notebook as a lasting sign of his generosity. Link can't help everyone on every day (unless the player is feeling particularly ambitious), but he can console himself - and remind himself he isn't crazy - by consulting the permanent record in the notebook.

For the next week or so I'll be playing Majora's Mask, updating here and at the VGC's forum for the play-through, putting together a sort of Bomber's Notebook of my own. I believe that organizing the information presented by the game in this way will give me a new angle to observe the game from, and I hope to have some more interesting things to say in the future.

Three-Day Cycles: 2
Started quest; restored first Great Fairy and got Magic meter; recovered Ocarina of Time; learned two songs; turned human again; got 3 masks including Deku Scrub Mask; got Adult Wallet, Bomber's Notebook, Bomb Bag, and 4 Pieces of Heart; and met 8 people in Bomber's Notebook.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Once You Go Gamer

There is a billboard near Penn Station advertising Verizon Mobile's new "app store." The images may be hard to see above, but nearly half of the "apps" being advertised are games - Prince of Persia, LIFE, Tetris, Guitar Hero, etc. Many people see this billboard: men and women, college students and baby boomers, fast food employees and professional athletes.

Down the block there's another billboard, showcasing a handful of games available on the iPhone and iPod Touch. One block in the other direction, there is a particularly gaudy two-story GameStop. And tomorrow, just a short walk away, Time Square's Military Island is being taken over by Nintendo to promote the release of Wii Sports Resort with a tropical-island themed "beach party." As I considered these facts, one after the other, on my way home yesterday, I caught myself silently celebrating a small victory for this great pastime called gaming.

Then I stopped myself, remembering that nearly every facet of our diverse culture manages to find a home in New York City. I remembered that there are actually a few games downloaded on my mother's iPhone - but she's never played any of them, and I or my sister or brother put them there.

Still, I couldn't help my wishful thinking. Maybe it's all the marketing getting to me, or my recently increased exposure to online gaming portals that reach the newer portions of the expanding gaming audience, but I couldn't help myself, and I formulated a very unscientific hypothesis in my head:

Within five years from now, my mother will be a gamer.

My father? Well, I'll give Dad ten years. He doesn't have the iPhone in his pocket quite yet.

When I got home, my dad - a computer scientist who is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in history - asked me a question out of innocent curiosity. He asked if they make games about the factors contributing to various global conflicts throughout history. Not wanting to waste a fine example of divine providence, I did my best to hide my enthusiasm while I attempted to explain the differences between the Civilization series and the Total War games. I offered up my review of a Gettysburg game I once played in high school, and mentioned the recently-announced project by a Norfolk University professor to make a game about the Underground Railroad (Source: Kotaku). Then I stopped myself from scaring him off with too much information, figuring Google and Wikipedia could handle the rest.

My father was just asking a simple question, of course, and it probably doesn't mean anything... or maybe, my future children are going to look forward to playing video games with Grandpa.

Hmm... I may have gone too far with that last bit. Here's a fun diversion that I encourage you all to try: choose three people in your life that don't play games - even if one of them is you! Now, pick the three games that you think could actually engage them enough to bring them back for more. Let me know what you come up with in the comments.

Asteroids for the Internet Age

A long time ago, in an age nearly forgotten, teenagers cashed in large bills for pocketfuls of quarters, and dedicated themselves to hours of chasing high scores and challenging each other to impromptu tests of skill in Space Invaders. Space Invaders turned to Street Fighter. And while the past two sentences have been a gross oversimplification of the history of arcade culture, this much is true: it's 2009, and arcades have all but died out.

In the span of a few generations of home consoles and PC hardware, gaming audiences and game designers alike discovered the joys of saved progress, 40-hour campaign modes, and separate multiplayer modes for 2-4 players. Recently, however, the design philosophies behind some of the greatest arcade gaming experiences of the past have been making a comeback in the last few years. I'm not the first person to notice, but this never felt so real and so obvious to me until this week.

Aegis Wing is a free download on Xbox Live Arcade, and is a very old-school-inspired side-scrolling shooter. This game has 6 levels but encourages re-plays in multiplayer and on multiple difficulty settings. Upon beating the game in 2-player mode on Normal difficulty, I'm rewarded with the "Hero" Achievement, but this leads me to the discovery of Achievements still far out of my reach: Achievements for doubling my current high score, or for beating the game on Insane difficulty. The last time I listened to a game when it told me to "try again on a harder difficulty" was in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. I have to say I was surprised how effective the tactic was. Needless to say, I will be spending my week losing lives in Aegis Wing while I chase Achievements.

In the arcades of yore, High Score tables let you show off your accomplishments to your peers. However, back then, your victory was tied to a mere set of initials. Today, my Achievements and Gamerscore are tied to my Gamertag which links to this web site, my e-mail address, and all of the other games I've played. I take my place in global leaderboards, and the game informs me of my current rank when compared with all of my other friends who have played it. My Facebook profile automatically posts an update whenever I gain an Achievement, expanding the circulation of information beyond those already interested in the game. In other words, it's really easy for me to show off, and it's really easy for me to get competitive.

Gamasutra recently published an interview with Gareth Davis, Platform Manager at Facebook, which covered a lot of ground (and is well worth the read!). Most interesting to me is a concept I've had a lot of exposure to over the past few weeks, the notion that "social gaming" can be applied to any game to make it more valuable an experience for the player. Those leaderboards, achievements, and Facebook updates make games goal-oriented, competitive, and social, even when playing them alone. I normally wouldn't think twice about my end-of-level score, but every time I sign into Facebook, Aegis Wing taunts me with the possibility of beating my own best - or one of my friends'.

The fascinating thing is that despite the fact that this is all the result of "social gaming," I haven't once mentioned an actual interaction with other people as a result of these updates. Naturally, these interactions exist - I played the game in two-player mode, and my Xbox leaderboards inform me that I have two Xbox Live friends with this game with scores for me to beat - but they aren't necessary for the experience to feel worthwhile. It's enough just for the Xbox to pull up an Achievements Comparison list, or for my Facebook to remind me of the remaining challenges to be faced, and I end up perceiving my gaming experience as being more valuable and entertaining than it would have been without these features.

I suppose this all just sounds like I'm finally experiencing the kind of Achievements-addiction that every Xbox owner started feeling a few years ago, so I apologize for being so late to the game. I feel this is all noteworthy, though, because I didn't originally hold high hopes for Aegis Wing, a game I downloaded because a friend told me it was free. Yet somehow this game has managed to make me feel like a kid in an arcade again.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Looking on the Bright Side

I have a confession to make: I love my commute.

I may be cheating: I'm only traveling into the city Monday through Thursday. Perhaps it's Friday that crushes one's soul. Or, perhaps there's still a bit of novelty attached to what is certainly a very new daily routine for me. Whatever the case may be, however, the status quo is such: Every morning at 8 AM I pay three dollars for parking, and another two for a bagel, never having woken up in time to make myself breakfast. I wait about fifteen minutes for a New Jersey Transit train to arrive. I'm not alone, of course; a woman stands far back from the platform so that she doesn't blow smoke in anyone's face. A young guy who doesn't sound like he speaks English tries to decipher the train schedule. I'm enjoying my bagel, with butter.

Everyone piles on board and a somber game ensues: thirty seconds later, scores of dejected early-risers walk the aisles of the train, looking for a stranger that doesn't look too fat or too dirty to sit next to. I take a seat next to someone kind enough not to look like they want to kill me.

And as the train starts gaining momentum on its route to New York City, with a full work day ahead of me and with my two hour (combined round-trip) commute in mind, I smile, and I turn on my DS.

God bless the public transportation system.

So, now that I have an extremely busy schedule and loads of responsibilities, I actually have more time to dedicate to gaming! I've been thinking about giving The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass another chance once of these days; my first try at it didn't get very far and was frustrating. I'm looking forward to trying out some portable games I've never had a chance to try, as well - and I'm open to suggestions!

Can anyone out there relate to the joy I am feeling at the thought of spending two hours a day on the train? Or is this, perhaps, a result of some sheltered naïveté that I am soon to grow out of? Share your thoughts in the comments!

One last thing: if anyone is interested, Bethesda recently released The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall as a free download on the Elder Scrolls web site (source: Kotaku). The Elder Scrolls: Arena has also been available there for free for some time now. If you're interested in something a little more modern, however, you may be delighted to hear that hot on the heels of the announcement of a new MechWarrior game, MechWarrior 4 and all of its expansions will be released for free, at the BattleTech and MekTek.net web sites, sometime soon (source: Kotaku).

Enjoy some free gaming courtesy of the wonders of infinite supply and sporadic demand! And help me out in my search for some good commute games.

Image courtesy of JanneM (Flickr).