An Elusive Hero in 2013 (Recap)

As 2013 ends tomorrow, I’d like to wrap up the year with a short review of my posts this year.

First of all, I want to thank everyone who has followed and read my posts since I started writing on “An Elusive Hero” in March. The feedback and support I’ve received has been invaluable for me to improve. Wednesday will look forward to the plans for 2014. But until then, let’s recap some of the most interesting posts from this year.

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My Favorite Video Games of 2013

My previous Best-of lists for 2013:

Before focusing on the new games I enjoyed most this year, I have a few additions to make to my list about movies from last week.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is a spectacular film, definitely worthy of being included on the list. Of course, in order to make a slim children’s book into three movies, Mr. Jackson and his crew took a few liberties that might not sit too well with Tolkien purists. All in all however, the movie is a great ride and puts the newest technological improvements in filmmaking on display.

One movie I forgot to mention is This is the End, featuring a celebrity-filled cast desperately trying to survive the apocalypse. I found it to be one the funniest movies of the year, especially because it has actors poking fun at themselves. Emma Watson, Michael Cera and Mindy Kaling shine as guest stars, while the main cast surrounding James Franco, Seth Rogen and Danny McBride are as hilarious, over-the-top and charming as we’ve seen them many times before.

Okay, that was it for movies, so it is time to look at the three games that captured my attention long enough to get me to stop playing MMOs for a moment.

BioShock Infinite

I loved the imaginative world of BioShock Infinite. The atmosphere is breathtaking and I felt transported into this extremely creepy, but still fascinating city in the clouds. Booker DeWitt is the reluctant hero of the story. The mystery surrounding not only his back story, but the whole world shown in the game, was a driving force for me. And of course, Elizabeth, who needs to be saved by DeWitt, is a fantastic character definitely worth saving. I don’t play many FPS games, but BioShock Infinite is an extremely well-told and well-presented tale that shows what storytelling in video games is capable of nowadays.
BioShock Infinite is available for PC, PS3, Xbox360 and Mac OSX.

The Last of Us

I’m nowhere near through with this thrilling game, but the Last of Us is simply stunning. It feels like a movie I’m playing through. I’m just at the beginning of the Joel and Ellie’s journey to safety, but so far I’ve loved every second I didn’t spend terrified by the zombies. The voice acting and writing is terrific. The Last of Us allows players to immerse themselve in this very realistic and scary apocalyptic future. As with BioShock Infinite, I don’t normally play games with this genre background, but I’m drawn to great stories.
The Last of Us is available for Playstation 3.

GTA V

Of course a list of this sort would not be complete without the biggest game of the year: GTA V. Rockstar Games did it again. It took everything people loved about the series – the freedom, the pop culture references, the cars – and catapulted it to another level. Everything in GTA V is bigger, flashier and more spectacular than in the previous instalments. Having played a few of the older versions I did feel like I’ve seen it all before, but the opportunities in Los Santos, the virtual Los Angeles are seemingly endless. The game includes countless mini-games like golf or tennis and dozens of weird, quirky and interesting characters to interact with. I wasn’t very comfortable with the constant switching between the main characters Michael, Franklin and Trevor, but it did allow Rockstar to showcase different personalities and abilities. GTA V is not a story-driven game. It offers great opportunities to discover a beautifully crafted, human-designed world full of hidden gems.
GTA V is available on PS3 and Xbox360.

Of course, I spent the rest of my gaming hours this year on MMOs (as detailed in my series on them), on FIFA or on the 2010 release Civilization 5, a round-based strategy game. What games did you enjoy most in 2013? And what are you looking forward to in 2014?

I’m looking forward to the new WoW Add-on Warlords of Draenor and I’m very excited for Elder Scrolls Online. Otherwise I’d love to try out the new generation of consoles, but I don’t see me getting one of the machines until the latter part of the year. Also, I’m very intrigued by the Nintendo 3DS and I’m thinking of giving handheld devices another chance.

Sincerely yours,

Albert

My Wishlist for Future MMORPGs

This week I continue my series looking at my favorite genre of games. MMORPGs. The first part looked at the games I’ve played (and still play) and last week’s second instalment was a commentary about the most recent developments in the genre. Today, I want to talk about what kind of MMORPG would be able to get a long-term commitment from me:
A fantasy sandbox game with a strong IP behind it.

What do I mean by sandbox game? I’m looking for a world that gives players a sense of progression without having to fight if one does not feel like it. As far as single-player games go, the Elder Scrolls and GTA series have shown what virtual worlds can look like. Skyrim offered a fantastic, open world with tons of content to discover and the ability to be modified by fans all over the world. GTA V, which releases on September 17, has awed players with a realistic and beautiful recreation of Southern California and will allow players to do whatever they feel like in its virtual world. The space MMO EVE Online is famous for letting players do battles and trades while creating their own story lines. A few weeks ago, two of the largest alliances fought one of the largest battles in history, which was covered by mainstream websites such as The Verge.

Nowadays MMORPGs seem so focused on letting players just get new gear and beat bigger, badder bosses. It has become somewhat like the rat race in the real world with gear and better stats being the only worthwhile goals. I’d really relish a game which awards crafting and exploring. A game which would allow guilds to build alliances and enemies, with ways of getting NPCs as support.

I prefer the fantasy setting over the sci-fi setting. After all, there are so many dystopian novels out there about humans leaving the real world for the perfection of an online utopia (Ready Player One as a prime example). With a fantasy world, that wouldn’t happen. After all, who would want leave behind electricity and modern sanitation devices?
But a world with a healthy emphasis on story by developers and players alike, with innovative methods of progression, would be a step in the right direction. Players often need an incentive to do things. But how about giving guilds the ability to recruit NPCs for them, which in turn offer quests to either fight an enemy, craft a weapon or explore a ruin, depending on your play style? Or all three options for completionists? I’m sure that if players are given the option to create or choose a way, they will cherish it.

More freedom to choose and the choice having an actual long-term impact would be great. Guild Wars 2 had the right idea with their origin stories. But how about being able to choose to be a noble human with your mate choosing to be a low-born soldier. Now, you as a noble get the opportunity in quests and story to work together with your friend. In the end you can secure him the knighthood he has long coveted. On the other hand, maybe another friend is playing a noble with a totally different agenda working against your plans and plotting your downfall.

I also feel that a game like this should have a strong or unique IP behind it. This would attract other fans and make it easier for new players to see where the source material has come from. For instance, I think an MMO set in Westeros about the various houses of Game of Thrones could be a massive success if done correctly. Existing IPs also have the benefit that they often engage players on a different level, since players have always aspired to be like Luke Skywalker or Aragorn (Darth Vader or Loki if you’re looking to play the Dark Side).

As you can see, I have a few ideas about future MMOs, but without a background in-game development, I don’t know how feasible they are. But one can dream.

What are your wishes for future games? What would you envision? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Please also like, share and subscribe!

Sincerely yours,
Albert

The recent Developments in MMORPGs

I talked about my experience with the genre of MMOs last week. Today, I want to look at some of the developments and changes within the immensely popular genre. There are some fantastic games on the horizon and older games such as World of Warcraft still have a huge player base (even though it’s smaller than before). In the last 8 years I’ve played MMORPGs, many new features and changes have been introduced in various games. Some have made games better, some have made them far less enjoyable.

I find the direction many large RPGs have taken in making everything available to solo players very disappointing. In most games today, many tasks are easily accomplished alone and developers try to make all content available to everybody. I understand that some of these thoughts are especially made from a business point of view as publishers want to bind players to the respective franchises for as long as possible. Another reason is the fact that most players have already reached maximum level in older games, leaving the world unpopulated and empty in earlier stages.

But if nothing requires a group to complete, MMORPGs become similar to single-player roleplaying games, but trapped by the conventional tools of of a completely different genre. As an example, single-player games can offer meaningful choice with different paths to follow and different endings, while MMOs have much less room to differentiate, often only able to change rewards or the physical appearance of players. The greatest strength of the genre is the ability to bring like-minded people together. When there is no incentive to group up, most gamers tend to go at it alone. I find this a worrying tendency.

In the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online, everything will play out on a huge mega server, which is a development I’m looking forward to seeing in action. In The Old Republic, many players quit quickly after launch as their home servers became empty as many subscribers gave up after the initial free month. This forced Bioware to merge servers a short time after release. In World of Warcraft, server communities have eroded thanks to the fact that battlegrounds, dungeons and raids have become available as cross-server features to minimize wait times. Unfortunately, this takes away some of the benefits of having everything play out on one server. Unfriendly and mean players cannot be easily called out anymore, while unskilled and new players get less support when starting out their journey. Hopefully, this mega-server technology can combine the best of the two worlds, offering a lively and full world with less waiting involved, while keeping the ability to punish and help players as a community.

The most interesting development however are the changes in business models many games have gone through. With The Old Republic and Lord of the Rings Online two games I have played are free-to-play with the option to subscribe, while Guild Wars 2 uses the buy-to-play model with a pay shop. World of Warcraft is still entirely subscription based, but offers various trial modes and a pay shop for cosmetic items. The Elder Scrolls Online will also be a subscription-based MMO, while Everquest Next is expected to be either buy-to-play or free-to-play with no subscription fees.

Both models have their merits with free-to-play losing the stigma formerly attached to it. The Old Republic has been far more successful with the new model and Lord of the Rings Online has managed to survive for years. It offers players the meaningful choice between investing either their time or their money for features. As the generation of Dark Age of Camolot and Everquest players has grown up, this choice has become more and more important and attractive to gamers not able to spend all-nighters chasing down the biggest bosses anymore. The downside of the free-to-play model is the imbalance it can create between paying players and free players. This of course helps the publisher earn more money.

I still believe the patches in WoW to be the largest and most polished around. I never regretted paying the subscription fee for countless hours of entertainment they have provided me with. On the other hand, subscription models encourage the development of features designed to make players stay on longer without really being extremely innovative or even fun. As an example reputation grinds or the gating of content behind other goals come to mind.

Currently both models have their place in the genre. Guild Wars 2 has so far struck a fairly good balance between earning money with the sale of the game, having a pay shop without excessive benefits for paying players and the ability to continue to develop their games with patches and updates. I cannot say which model will take over the future, but it does seem like customers are becoming more reluctant to spend money on subscriptions, especially with the variety of free-to-play options out there.

What are your thoughts about the recent development of the genre? Do you prefer are singular payment model? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Sincerely yours,
Albert

What I’ve learned from Video Games

Over the last weeks I’ve noticed how video games have become a vital part of daily life and culture in general. The kids on the bus are busy playing on their cellphones, conversations in bars are about the newest gameplay video for GTA V and hangouts are dedicating to battling each other in FIFA. For this generation, playing games on a console, computer or cellphone is totally normal, like watching a movie or reading a book. I’ve looked at how books, movies and videos are intertwined in this post, so today will be dedicated to the benefits and perks of (video) gaming.

I’ve played games on a Gameboy or on PC for years (my gaming history). My favorite genres are roleplaying games (RPGs), which allow me to immerse myself in fantastic adventures.  They take me to faraway worlds based on the medieval age or the distant, dystopian future. These games can be compared to “choose-your-adventure” books, as the developers often tell an elaborate story, while allowing you to pick the path your hero will wander down. Many of the them are set in an expansive universe, with in-game books and codices with stories and background information waiting to be discovered. Playing them, I’ve learned to not be afraid to explore your surroundings, but instead to check out every corner and nook for a hidden item or easter egg. Good RPGs award the curious.

The next genre I’m fond of are Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs), which take roleplaying games to the next level by adding other players to the equation. They’re similar to RPGs in wanting to tell a great story, but they include various elements of teamwork and competition. Throughout the game, you’ll encounter challenges that can’t be overcome alone and you’ll need to seek out help from others. This encourages teamwork and makes gaming a very social affair. I’ve met a lot of interesting people just by asking them if they would help me out fight virtual monsters. Unfortunately recent MMORPGs have made a lot of their content easier so they can also be completed alone. This has lead to the decline of one of the most interesting aspects of the genre: actually playing with others.

Another element in MMORPGs are Player-vs-Player (PVP) environments which allow you to test your skills against others. This can be compared to most modern-day team sports. Most PVP battles also involve a great amount of teamwork and strategy. Putting players in the right spot, preparing a plan for a battle or surprising the opponent with a well-timed attack is a great way to learn the value of great leadership and teamwork. It is important that every player tries to improve their own skill as much as possible and then plays their position as the team needs them to do. This is no different to football. Of course, sports has various health benefits, but studies have also shown that gaming can improve your reflexes and visual skills.

Last, but not least, I’d also like to talk about strategy games. If the game is properly balanced, this genre can be compared to the centuries-old board game chess, where every move from an opponent can and should be adequately countered. The name of the genre already says it all, playing these games has shown me that choosing the right strategy is everything. Knowing when to fight and how to pick the right spots for a confrontation have helped me in confrontations. And of course, they’ve taught me that access to advanced technology often leads to victory.

People used to look at video games as an inferior form of entertainment, asking why a person would waste his or her time playing them. On the other hand, you rarely see someone asking a person reading why they are wasting their time reading. I haven’t heard many question people who like movies. Of course, this also depends on the quality of the books and movies in question. Games are no different. Some games are definitely not worth the time, but many modern-day classics should be experienced and savored.  Even if they do not teach you anything, they will hopefully succeed in telling a fantastic story or make you appreciate the art they’ve created. As you can see, the time I spent in virtual worlds has inspired me and taught me a fair deal of things institutional education never achieved.

On Friday, “An elusive hero”, the story, returns after a two-week hiatus. I hope you’re looking forward to it! Thank you for reading and please like, share and subscribe.

Sincerely yours,

Albert

The art of play

First of all, sorry for the slight delay as I’m having some technical difficulties here. So, this might arrive at your timezone on a Thursday, but it’s still Wednesday where I am, so I guess that counts!

One of my favorite pastimes in the US is going to the cinema. The screens are bigger, the seats are roomier and no breaks disturb the flow of the movie. They add to the entertainment by showing half a dozen trailers before the movie starts. On a rainy New York city day, my friend and I took a break from all the sightseeing to watch the apocalypse comedy “This is the end” by Freaks & Geeks alum Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg. I enjoy self-irony a lot and a movie full of actors poking fun at their profession exactly fits the bill. The host of cameos highlighted by a delightfully rude Michael Cera and stunning Emma Watson had me laughing throughout.

However, one of the lines that made me smile and think is delivered by James Franco, who asks the LA-hating and art-bashing Jay Baruchel (this is not an exact quote): “You don’t like art? Do you like videogames? That’s art. …” Continuing his rant and showing Mr. Baruchel the error of his ways, he goes on to call sandwich- and lovemaking art as well.

Mr. Franco is not alone in his assessment that video games are art. A few hours before we fled the rain for the comforts of the cinema, we spent the morning a the Museum of Modern Art. The MoMA is a staple of all my New York City itineraries and my absolute favorite museum.

After walking through the fifth level with works by Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet and the fourth level with late 20th century artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein, we reached the third level featured pieces I hadn’t seen in 2009 and 2011. The exhibition on level 3 featured classics of videogame history. It included videos such as a hilarious play-through of a player trying to build their Sims house without cheats (spoiler alert: unsuccessfully) and a great space battle in the massive universe of EVE Online. For the interactive parts, visitors could test their skills playing the hallmarks of gaming culture: the original Tetris and Pac-Man. Games as Sim City 2000 and Portal also received their due at the diverse installation.

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Foto: Darko Miodragovic

Needless to say, the exhibition made me appreciate the museum even more than I already did before. A lot of video games are fantastic artistic endeavors. Some developers succeed in crafting beautiful virtual worlds and writing breath-taking stories. Some of the worlds I see as very interesting creations: the vast world of the revolutionary online game World of Warcraft; the creepy, but intense atmosphere of Bioshock Infinite and the creatures of Pokemon, thoughtful plays on real-world animals. Video gaming has become a platform for artists to bring their vision to an interactive medium. With technology improving, creations are becoming more realistic and animations are becoming more fluid. The new consoles and the ever increasing computing power allows content these modern-day artists to push their creations to new levels. I’m pretty excited to see what the future will bring. As a next project, I’m looking forward to playing the critically acclaimed apocalypse game “The Last of Us”, which has received rave reviews for the cinematic parts of the playthrough.

Which games would you include in an art exhibition? Have there been any worlds, which have blown you away? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

If you’ve enjoyed my thoughts, please like, share and subscribe!

Sincerely yours,

Albert

Examining the connection between books, movies and video games

I have to admit I was late to the Game of Thrones party. I haven’t read all the books yet and haven’t seen every episode of the show yet (Yes, I’m working on catching up). However, last week’s season finale of the excellent HBO series made me think about how different forms of entertainment tell stories and how I perceive each form. Among my group of friends who have watched both the show and the books, general consensus is that the book is superior to the series. But personally I enjoy both, but have to give the edge to the series.

If you ask most people how they feel about a movie based on a book, many films leave consumers thinking the movie was good, but not as great as the book. I’ve caught myself making this comparison a lot. But as I get older, this way of thinking has lost its appeal to me. I’ve learned to appreciate the intricacies of the different mediums.

Reading a book, the pace is your own, as fast or leisurely as you like it to be. There is no rush and no fixed length. You can take the time you need. One of the great benefits is the ability to extend the characters with your own backstories and to make minor characters more important. The power of your own imagination is the key to a great reading experience. Creating your personal mental images of the world the author tries to transport you too is endlessly fascinating and rewarding.

Movies take away that joy as the director and producers have molded the world the author created and you brought to life into their interpretation. More often than not, their imagination fails to match your own. I remember the disappointment I felt when watching the first Harry Potter movie. The 12-year-old me did not appreciate the changes Mr. Columbus and his crew had made and how their world differed so greatly from my mental imagery.

Fast forward to 22-year-old me eagerly awaiting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. As I’ve written about my Harry Potter obsession before, it was clear to me from the start the movie would not match the book’s prowess. But it didn’t have to anymore. I was able to enjoy the whole movie because I stopped comparing it to my view of the source material; a comparison the movie was destined to lose anyway. After all, everyone likes to believe they know best.

This allowed me to focus more on the characters and how they are portrayed and how they’ve interpreted the material adored by millions of fans. It sharpened my view on the outrageous and exaggerated special effects. After sitting through the movie, I didn’t think “It was good, but not as great as the book.” I felt like the movie had been an exciting experience and that I’d probably rewatch the movies again.

Since Hollywood hasn’t been producing many original films lately, blockbusters nowadays are based on comics, children’s toys or Disney World rides. Nobody has ever told me “Transformers was good, but not as great as the toys.”. (On the other hand, I haven’t heard that many who have said Transformers was any good at all.)

Great movies have the gift to break down a story to its core. They can highlight the important sequences and focus on the heart & soul of a story. Fantastic actors can bring the characters you adore to life, revealing insecurities or motives that were hidden between the lines, waiting for you to pick them up. Movies allow you to get lost in the story for approximately two hours and give you the visual sensations which enhance some stories. And these are reasons why I’ve come to view movies and their books as only loosely connected.

A recent example is the new Leonardo di Caprio movie “The Great Gatsby”, which is one of my favorite classics to read. While I found the book rather understated and holding back, the movie goes all-in with over-the-top visual effects, and a focus on the party life and decadence of the twenties. It is a totally different product compared to the book. Did I enjoy the movie? Yes. But not because it was similar to the book, but because it was fun and a great visual experience (a bit long though).

Video games on the other hand are a blend of books and movies, with the unique element of participation included. Similar to books, you can choose how quickly you want to play, either rushing through levels to beat the game or exploring the worlds the developers have created. But you also have fast-paced action and a world that wants to pull you in through exciting scenery and atmosphere. Good movies are the same. Games are also getting more sophisticated in their acting, with more and more TV actresses like Camille Ludington (Californication) or Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck) taking on roles in video games (Tomb Raider and Mass Effect, respectively). Story-telling in video games has been improving steadily.

Most franchises nowadays have launched a three-headed attack on living rooms. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have started out as books, have been huge successes at the box office and are also available as video games on different platforms. Star Wars started out as a feature film, but now has an extended universe including comics,science-fiction novels countless games from different genres. Warcraft begun as a strategy game, became the most successful online rpg in history and has brought their story to a series of fantasy novels.  The next step is World of Warcraft – The Movie, which is about to release soon.

I believe that great stories will continue to thrive as different forms of entertainment. Movies, games and books each have their strengths and I enjoy each medium. Comparing books to movies and vice versa can take away some of the joy and excitement about what’s lies at the heart of entertainment: a great story. It can cover tiresome writing, a weak script or faulty programming. And most importantly, when story is told with pure class regardless of it’s form, you can bet I’ll be the first in line at the bookshop, cinema or video game store.

What do you think about the different forms of entertainment? Pick your poison and let me know!

Sincerely yours,
Albert