Interesting experiences with games lately. In brief, I spent much of last year berating myself for not playing enough games and thus further stunting any remaining insights I might have into the medium. But then I got the chance to be a judge for the 2013 edition of the IGF, and then rather remarkably got to be a part of the jury for the Nuovo prize for that competition. And let’s face it, that’s the best prize. But I digress. The thing about the IGF was that I suddenly played a lot of games. I think I played around 70 different games over the course of a month and a bit, say. There are many nice things that came out of that, but perhaps the nicest was becoming obsessed with three games I would never have thought I’d give the time of day for one reason or another.
Making surprisingly good headway into the new game. As ever, I’ve found myself reluctant to say what it is, which is some kind of totally absurd secrecy behaviour I barely understand. So, anyway, it’s a game interpretation of Epic Sax Guy, called Epic Sax Game. It started off as a super simple version, but I’ve ended up adding a bunch of different “levels” and I feel kind of excited about it just at the moment (pending the despair I will necessarily feel in a week’s time or whatever). One thing that’s happened, though, and happens with some frequency in my game making, is getting massively sidetracked by technology-related stuff that is ultimately a bit irrelevant to the game itself.
I still play Baseball Stars for the NES, a game from 1989, every day on average. Every, damn, day. I fire it up, select my team (American Dreams) and a random opponent (like Ninja Blacksocks, or my favourite punching bag, the Japan Robins), and soon I’m blissfully swinging the bat, throwing the ball, and running on fields of green.
But is this bliss?
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that people other than me find themselves playing games in a kind of dream-state with some frequency. By which I mean that I only marginally play baseball when I’m playing Baseball Stars. I have some awareness of scores and notions like doubles and triples and home runs and strikeouts, but that’s not really what I feel I’m doing. Rather, I’m engaged in some kind of almost indescribable interaction with the system and the coloured pixels.
It becomes like a simulation with the fiction element taken away. Digital baseball without the baseball part. I guess it’s tempting to suggest that this is somehow a game becoming a “pure” game, with the representations, narratives, etc. all stripped away from it and only the rules being of importance. But even then, I don’t so much play to win as I play to interact in a pleasing way; though I think that the “pleasing way” does relate to success conditions in the game – I prefer to get hits off rather than be struck out by the opposing pitcher, for instance.
Part of me is disturbed by playing a game so obsessively and in such a detached manner. I’m not getting anything out of it at an intellectual level – in fact I’m often despairing about wasting my time on such uninteresting play. And yet I can’t stop and it’s a true pleasure to push buttons and have the patterns of light change in ways that I recognize. The game is meaningless and the interaction is all.
But what does it mean?
About a year back, when we bought our Xbox 360 (for research purposes), we got some crappy games bundled with it. One of those crappy games was SEGA Superstars Tennis. I’d occasionally glance at it on the shelf, but never even bothered to pull off the plastic wrapping, let alone put it in the Xbox.
Today that changed. I can now add myself to the list of self-hating individuals who have spent time with the game. In short, it’s not good. It’s a terrible tennis game with no obvious skill involved and then a whole lot of minigames based on the idea that, having made the various tennis courts, the developers ought to milk as much mileage out of the environments as possible.
Thus, we have minigames where you run around collecting things on a tennis court; minigames where you dodge objects on a tennis court; minigames where you collect things while dodging objects on a tennis court; minigames where you use a powerup to collect things on a tennis court; and so many other variations of exactly the same thing that it’s kind of astounding. I set myself the task of finishing just one set of minigames and in the end it defeated me. I was driven away by the sheer shock of how many trivial activities could packed onto a tennis court.
But this brings me to my sleazy admission. I played the damn game for at least an hour, probably more. Why? Couple reasons. First, it has a series of minigames and therefor one really owes it to oneself to beat at least one set of them, right? That’s what humans do. Each minigame is a mini Everest, but moreso: it’s just there. Not “there” in a cosmic, God-sky way, just… there. Like a speed-bump. So climb the damn thing an get it over with. Second, I had this strong feeling that I ought to milk some Xbox achievement points out of the stupid game and one of the achievements was to finish a set of minigames. It’s a testament to how awful the game is that I couldn’t even bring myself to complete the task.
It’s also a slight mystery to me as to why I might care about the achievements. They have peppy names (“Zombie hunter!” “Top Gun!” “Cameo Appearance!”). They have, well, points. And that’s it. I have about four friends on Xbox LIVE, so it’s not like I’m impressing anyone. And yet, like a dog chasing a stick, I want the points. I just want them. I want them enough to play SEGA Superstar Tennis for over an hour.
And that’s saying something. On a tennis court.
After playing it on, off, and sometimes obsessively, for the past four years, I’ve finally ‘finished’ Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, the tennis game that came with my cellphone (a K800i). This game, probably more than any other, has somehow triggered my immense capacity for fixation on stupid game goals.
I finished all the tournaments in the game pretty early on. But the game has this upgrading system such that, on finishing a tournament, you can add up to ten skill points to your player in five categories. Playing through the first time I just upgraded as I went along.
Then, I realised that I had to play the game by winning every tournament, from easiest to hardest, without upgrading the avatar. And I also realised I then had to keep winning tournaments until I had enough upgrade points to upgrade my player to the best possible in one fell swoop. That’s what took the last couple of years.