Saturday, April 17, 2010

A more human experience

I have played a lot of FPS war games in my time, with the vast majority of them having me alone, or leading an elite team, sneak behind enemy lines and single handedly win the war, or at least change the course of it. Which is strange, because the moments I have most enjoyed have been those where I have been just another soldier in the middle of a chaotic battle: the battle for Red Square or the storming of Omaha that was mandatory in World War Two games for a while. The greatest satisfaction I have had while playing war games was when success was not defeating the enemy, it was surviving.

So why the obsession with being the hero? Well, I suspect part of it is, or has been, technical, and part of it is cultural. For years computers simply lacked the processing capacity to maintain and render large numbers of soldiers in prolonged battle sequences, even now there are serious limits on what can be done without sacrificing graphics.

The cultural element is simpler; we like being the hero. Games are by no means alone in this, just look at cinema’s long history of war films, John Wayne was never just a soldier. Stories about war in cinema and games have primarily been about saving the day, seldom (with exceptions) about just surviving. This hero dominated cultural has begun to shift; for example the duality of Band of Brothers and Brothers in Arms was an amazing experience, filled with characters with whom I connected with far more than the countless heros I had seen and been before. But, even Brothers in Arms could not rise to meet the level of combat shown in its televised half-sister, and at the end of the day we were fighting skirmishes not battles. Good things take time I guess, but personally I’m sick of always being the hero, I want to experience being human.

All this has been at the forefront of my mind as I have recently finished playing through both Brothers in Arms games while re-watching Band of Brothers. It was an interesting experience. Watching the combat on Band of Brothers was more immersive and intense as I had guided my men across those same battlefields and faced those very challenges. On the flip side, I felt much greater attachment to my squad in Brothers in Arms, as Band of Brothers showed me the personal stories of men just like those I was commanding. Both offer very different experiences, but experiences that complemented each other very well. Try it sometime.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Return of X-Com?

So X-Com is finally coming back after all these years. Only its coming back in a new and exciting form fit for the 21st century, a FPS. My initial reaction was exactly what has been filling the forums; 2k Marin is taking one of the best games of all time and gutting the very thing that made it great, its tactical combat. No-one wanted to be an X-Com soldier, we just wanted to command them.

Of course that initial reaction could just be just counting chickens before they hatch. At this stage we really know nothing about the game, other than its a FPS in the X-Com universe. It could literally be anything at all, or for that matter, it could never come to be.

There have been a number of attempts, commercial and open source, to capture and recreate the spirit of X-com, but they have never taken off. All the spiritual successors to X-com seemed to ever so lightly miss the mark.

Its possible that X-com was just a game for its time, but I don't think. I think X-com gave us an experience that is hard to quantify let alone reproduce. I vividly remember, as I hope you do; the fear of seeing the first glimpse of an alien in the dark as it passed across an open doorway, the terror as one of those hard shelled aliens sprinted out of the shadows and turned one of your soldiers into a drooling zombie waiting to turn into yet another alien, or the great satisfaction when your hard research paid off to allow your soldiers the fly above the battlefield raining down waypoint guided missiles on anything that moved. Those experiences, not the tactical combat, were the real spirit of X-com.

I'm yet to be convinced a FPS can offer those same or similar experiences. In fact by virtue of its game mechanisms, the new X-com will likely deliver an entirely different set of experiences, but whether they will come even close to what X-com once gave us? Well, only time will tell.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Doors without Rooms

I have been thinking a lot about identity recently, identity and the digital world to be exact. I used to be certain of how I identified myself in the growing digital world but now I'm not so sure.

The old moniker of 'gamer' served me up with a ready made identity in my youth; I was a 'gamer' because I played video games, an activity the mystified the majority of the population. But now I feel that the label is entirely redundant. What merit is there in describing someone as a 'gamer' when games have become mainstreamed. I am no more a 'gamer' than I am a 'movier'. There is nothing wrong with this of course, its just, well, interesting.

I'm still a big fan of games of course, although now days I enjoy a wider range of digital entertainment. Film, television, music, and games all offer ways into different worlds that we can explore individually and collectively, they are portals that can whisk us away and give us that great treasure, experiences.

This blog is about what happens when we step through the doors created by digital entertainment and find not rooms, but those treasured experiences that fill our lives.