59 – Gothic II

I end up talking about Skyrim a lot, just like I end up talking about Final Fantasy VII a lot, and BioShock a lot, and it’s obvious why: Everybody’s fucking played them. And it’s obvious why everybody’s fucking played them, and, oh, let’s be honest with ourselves, most of these games deserve their position–they do what they do very well and in a way that a lot of people like, and if BioShock isn’t quite as deep as its press releases say it is, it’s deep enough. (We’ll leave the subject of Infinite closed indefinitely.)

Skyrim is one of those games that I love in theory, because let’s face it: I do very well with games where you’re placed in a land and you have to bum around and figure it out and maybe you fight dragons. But Skyrim is an extremely flat and homogenous game. In its effort to be all things to all people, in its efforts to be so large and so sprawling and so massive, the game simply doesn’t have enough tricks up its sleeve. Cast your net at a section of gameplay–dip in and pick a dozen quests and dungeons and maybe every one will be different. Dip in and pick another dozen, and another dozen, and there are going to be a few too many similarities in each packet. Skyrim is the kind of game which doesn’t want to leave any players unsatisfied. Oh, sure, there’s more to do if you’re Cheevo-hunting, and there are enough variants in the quests to make things interesting, but I’m a dungeons guy, I’m an exploration guy, and the dungeons are all samey and the exploration is so brief–it’s traversing rather than discovering.

Gothic II is the kind of game where I had to start over after about ten hours of playing because I squandered a few resources and built my character in an unproductive direction and wanted to do it right this time. In those ten hours I explored a relatively small area–the initial city and the surrounding woodlands–and in the entirety of that time I was able to chart only about two thirds of the entirety of that area and I certainly didn’t feel safe at all. Rather than large, Gothic II is going deep and intimate. There’s shit hidden in different corners, some shortcuts–it’s not as much of an intertwined cartography maze as Dark Souls is, it’s rather a single large island rather than a selection of interconnected areas which loop upon themselves in surprising ways. But it’s a hell of an island.

I find I like games which invite an intimacy with the land, which are based on developing a familiarity with the environment. It’s why I love Might and Magic so much: VARN is a world that you chart and become familiar with and eventually learn to navigate on your own. Same with the Wizardry Cosmic Forge trilogy. It’s why people love Dark Souls and why I loved ICO–hell, it’s why people love Ocarina of Time. I have never been able to have that intimacy with an Elder Scrolls game–although I’ve never played Morrowind which I’m told is one of the finest in the series.

Gothic is doing a great job at balancing some tight reins with an extreme degree of freedom; the monsters are hard, and the point–that your character is, right now, a supreme wuss–gets very strongly made when two flies kick your ass. Combat is sporadic and fixed–there aren’t too many enemies around, but all of them are legitimate threats and every combat feels very meaningful. But skill plays a part as much as your stats; restarting the game, the initial bits were much, much easier because I understand the timing underlining the combat a tiny bit better than when I first played. (Those flies are still really difficult though.) Everything has these really stringent requirements–half of the weapons I’ve picked up require strength 40, strength 80, strength 100 when my 10-hour character only had strength 10 (part of the reason I restarted was because I put some points into the wrong stats.) It’s a game where you chip and chip and chip away and every bit of progress feels like a rush, and the density of stuff and the rarity of stuff and the importance of stuff–finding two arrows and a healing herb has not stopped being a good find–means that every time you find stuff it’s rewarding. Skyrim threw crap at you, it gave you more treasures than you knew what to do with and gave merchants too little gold for you to sell everything and gave you weight requirements that meant you simply couldn’t take everything–and I don’t know about you, but it breaks my heart to have to sort through the items in a chest and have my decisions very easy to make because half of that shit is absolutely useless. Sure, it’s possible that the early game of Gothic requires gold in a way the late game does not, but all I know is that I’ve got to get 1000 gold pieces in order to do one quest, 500 to do another, and a good 200-300 to buy a couple spells I need to buy, and I’ve been scrimping and saving to capture 200.

I speak as if this is my character in the present tense, of course–this is all from that abandoned 10 hour playthrough, again, part of the reason I want to restart is because I want to manage my money better. I’ve loved the density of the world so far, and I’ve been told that it stays that way for the whole game, and I’m so excited to see more on the island and find more stuff out. All of the quests I’ve been given have been very meaningful and different–again, so far–and I just want to be able to play more of it. It’s just an immensely satisfying game in a way that Skyrim never was.

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3

The liner notes to Treasure Adventure Game state, simply, that it’s a love letter to the games that developer Stephen Orlando played as a kid and “the countless hours of joy” that they brought him.

Holy shit. Joy, eh? That’s a word we rarely see. Right!, we say. This shit used to be fun! A comment left by Aaron Jean on Electron Dance says it well: 

I’ve been struck lately by just how dark gaming is at the moment….Why can’t we have more genuinely pleasant worlds in our games?..I do wish there were more worlds I felt like saving.

This is Blue Sky In Games stuff, and it’s true: Indie games can be depressing as shit. The existence of Depression Quest–released on Valentine’s Day, for fuck’s sake, and we say the scene doesn’t romanticize depression!–seems like it’s almost satirical, like the sad indie hipster equivalent of a sitcom kid pining for Super Murder Death Kill 3000 IV.

I’d extend this a little further to not just be videogames–there’s a general view out there that sad shit is deeper than happy shit. Let’s face it: When I was 17 I was listening to Nirvana and Alice in Chains while classmates were listening to Britney Spears and N’Sync. The associations of depression with introspection and intelligence, and bliss as a condition of ignorance–they’ve been associations I’ve never been able to quite slough off. Most of us can’t.

Things are somewhat different now than when Blue Sky was written–the rise of pixel games had yet to occur, and gaming was in a funny spot where it desperately wanted to avoid any perception that it was “kiddie” in any way. What can I say: I guess we all wanted to appear more mature so we made everything brown and violent.

Games are uncomfortable with themselves: Whether we’re deconstructing mechanics by calling them stupid while at the same time making a game about them a la Bioshock or The Line, or adding interaction to self-excoriating prose poems in order to attempt to say something profound, I feel we’re very reticent to let games be Games.

Look at Mass Effect 2: It’s one of my favorite games because it does not see anything shameful in telling a blockbuster starship captain story. You have a group of characters, all with their own shady pasts; an evil enemy, with a dark secret; some great pew pew shootemup action–Mass Effect 2 does not think that a videogame is a bad thing to be, and so instead of trying–and failing–to be Art (and by the way, one thing we all seem to miss about Games As Art is that “Art” is an expression of intent, rather than of quality…), Mass Effect 2 succeeds in being a Great Videogame.

Treasure Adventure Game sees nothing wrong with being a fun challenging platformer; the couple hours I’ve spent with it are demonstrating that by attempting to be a great version of something simple, it almost transcends its genre.

It’s really nice to play a game made in a state of joy.

2

I’ve lent my friend my copy of Bioshock Infinite. He loved Bioshock, which was his gateway from jocky shooters to games like Fallout 3, which was his gateway to games like Skyrim; I’m thinking Mass Effect is the next logical step for him. He was disappointed by the initial stages: Infinite, he said, is kind of ugly, and the story isn’t nearly as compelling from the get-go as Bioshock was. I can’t disagree with him.

“I got a little farther in Bioshock last night,” he tells me. “I just met Elizabeth.”

“And how are you liking Elizabeth?” I ask. My opinion of her is not very gracious: She’s a slightly-better-written-and-animated CG robot than the other CG robots are. Did I mention that one of my theories about Infinite was that Elizabeth was the only human and that the citizens of Columbia were all robots or holograms or something, explaining why they only spouted one line or sang one song and then remained silent and dead-eyed at you until you shot at them. Now THAT would have been a twist–even though Elizabeth doesn’t act fully human, she’s so much moreso than the rest of the NPCs that one could extrapolate, but alas, it’s just poor writing, a game whose characters’ personalities fall squarely in an uncanny valley–everything’s realistic enough that their glassy stares become extremely disconcerting.

“Elizabeth is…something, all right,” he says. He shrugs.

“She’s a fucking Disney princess,” his girlfriend says.

“Yeah, a lot of people were saying that, I think that was the Penny Arcade strip on it,” I say.

“She was watching me play and it was the part where we were on the docks…”

“The dancing scene?”

“Yeah!” his girlfriend says. “I was watching him and I was like, what the fuck is this?”

“It’s kind of a stupid game,” he says. “I mean I’ll play it, of course, but I think I’m gonna play Bioshock again cause it’s making me miss that game.”

I am finding, more and more, that Bioshock Infinite reminds me of that old saw about being shocked about President Nixon’s election, given that Pauline Kael or Susan Sontag or Joan Didion or whomever hadn’t met a single person who voted for him. For all of the perfect 10s that the game has received, I don’t really know anybody who wholly liked it.