Category Archives: Rant

Game.Stop, a short fiction

“Did you know you can trade in your old games for credit towards your purchases?”

My eyes glance around the store. A 5-foot tall poster tells me to Go Green Save Money by trading in my old games for someone else’s old games. Empty game cases line the walls, each one’s cover art marred with a bright green Trade Me sticker. I look down to my left, then right. On each side of me is a bin that shouts Recycled and is filled with more games, more green stickers. Finally I look down at the counter, covered in flyers promising me the best value if I trade in the most wanted titles. I could get up to $30 if I trade in The Order, a game I paid $70 for when it came out 9 days ago.

“Yes” I say flatly.

She continues, undeterred. “Right now we’re having a promotion where if you bring in 5 of your old games that are worth $8 or more we’ll give you $100 towards…”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard her go through this speech. In fact, I had just heard her recite it to the two customers in front of me. The glint in her eyes seems to dim with each repetition. While the words fall out of her mouth in the way only things so rehearsed and meaningless can do, I wonder what she’s really thinking.

“…we’re also currently taking pre-orders on the new Amiibos that are coming out…”

I imagine she was initially really excited to get this job. The money probably sucks and I doubt customer service was her first choice, but the love of games made up for it. Who could complain about getting paid to be around and talk about games all day? I bet it was fun for a while. Thumbing through the shelves each day she probably discovered all kinds of new games she wanted to play. Her first few paychecks likely went right back to into the store. The employee discount was small, but at least it was something.

“…there’s still a bonus if you trade in your old 3DS for the New 3DS, which is compatible with the Amiibos…”

I wonder how quickly it started going downhill. When was the first time her manager took her aside and admonished her for chatting about games too much and touting the amazing trade-in deals too little? Told her it was mandatory to recite at least 5 of the current offers to any customer she cashed out or spoke to on the phone. Reinforced that she should always ALWAYS sell used copies of the games over new.

“Would you like to guarantee your game for only $2?”

How many times has she been told to get those guarantee sales up? How often is she compared to her obnoxiously overeager coworker who always has a smile plastered onto his face and is unphased by the dirty looks he gets as he goes on, and on, and on.

“No thank you.” I smile in a vague attempt to offer my sympathy for having to ask this question..

“Are you sure? In case of any damage or scratching we’d replace the disc…”

As much as this overly long sales pitch makes me want to scream, I stay quiet. It’s not her fault this is what her job requires of her. She knows this is a racket, that her place of employment is basically picking the pockets of the game companies, a number of whom make games she loves (and some of whom she couldn’t care less about). That fact is probably easy enough to put at the back of her mind though, while me telling her what I really think of her sales pitch would not be so easy to ignore.

I shake my head.

“Do you have an Edge card?”

I’m sure she’s seen her fair share of customers who are less concerned with being polite. Seeing people’s eyes glaze over as she begins the checkout process is probably the best she has to look forward to. Outright verbal abuse hopefully doesn’t happen often but she’s a sales associate, so I’m sure it does happen.

As I hand her my loyalty card and payment I hear her coworker haranguing a couple browsing through the XBox One games behind me.

“Did you know you can trade in your old games for credit towards this purchase?” he asks eagerly.

“We don’t have any games to trade with us.”

“That’s okay, if you bring them in with your receipt later on I can reimburse you for the value of the games.” I glance over my shoulder and see that he’s standing very close to the couple, nodding as he talks.

“Well, I’m not sure our son has anything he’d be willing to part with,” the woman responds, glancing at her husband.

It’s not hard to tell that the couple is uncomfortable and just want to pick out a game.

“Well, you can bring in anything, even if the discs are scratched…” he just keeps going.

I think back to when I was a teenager and I used to like visiting Electronics Boutique. The walls were lined with shiny new copies of Playstation, Nintendo, and big box computer games. Now the PC games are all but gone. If there was ever a valid argument for the merits of PC gaming it’s that game stores don’t harass you about recycling them.

I quickly take back my cards and the bag the woman at the cash hands me and start rushing out of the store.

“Don’t forget to bring your games back to us when you’re done with them.”

I promise myself I won’t go back there. Again.

Dragon Age 2 is a Better Game than Dragon Age: Origins

After playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, I had the urge to replay through the Dragon Age series. I started with Dragon Age: Origins and I have to admit, it was a little rough going. I think part of the problem was my choice of class. 2H warrior combat consists of pressing an ability button about 3x per minute, it’s really dull. Then I started Dragon Age 2 and I have to say, it’s a much better game.

Oddly, many people don’t agree with this. From a critical perspective (at least a metacritic perspective), DA:O has an average review score that’s a bit higher (8-9% depending on platform) than DA2. As far as user reviews go though, DA2 received a deluge of really bad review scores and has an average score of 44% compared to DA:O’s 86%. Because gamers are spiteful creatures, a little like Hurlocks.

That’s not to say DA:O is bad. It’s a good game and I like it but DA2 does almost everything better. Like…

Dialogue is better

  • Going back to DAO’s voiceless protagonist is very strange. The Warden doesn’t feel like an actual character, she’s an empty vessel. This is a huge downside to DAO.
  • The dialogue wheel is much more interesting and effective than static response options.
  • In DAO the mean/negative/renegade? conversation options just make your character sound like an asshole, while in DA2 the conversation options are more snarky or direct. Playing through the Dwarf Noble origin story, most of the “bad” dialogue options basically amounted to “Get away from me you lowly peasant.”
  • In DAO, despite women being present in all the major battles, and in positions of power and leadership throughout Thedas, female Wardens are still subjected to “What? You’re a woman? How shocking!” reactions all the time.

Relationships with your party members are better

  • No trading random gifts for sex or acceptance.
  • Each of your party members has their own life, it’s not 100% about the player character. You can visit them in their homes, they can visit you at yours. They can have relationships with other party members or NPCs which can grow over time.
  • Other characters can disagree with you, but still stick around.
  • In DAO it’s really easy to miss or even kill possible party members. If you didn’t know Zevran was supposed to be a party member, all you need to do is make one choice and you kill him and miss a lot. Likewise with Wynne – agree with Cullen in the Tower? She attacks you, you kill her, no healer for you this playthrough.

Combat is 700x better (I did the math)

  • From an animation standpoint, everything is faster and slicker.
  • You can move around the battlefield much quicker, rather than feeling like you’re wading through quicksand.
  • Talent trees are bigger, more interesting, and allow you to customize your character much more.
  • By the end of DAO you pretty much have every talent you can use so your choices meant very little.
  • Your companions get enough tactic slots for all of their abilities.
  • You can take your dog into fights with you without having them take a spot in your party.
  • When you tell a character to take a potion, they take the damn potion.

Story is better

  • I enjoyed the story from DAO, especially the first time around, but it’s a fairly generic fantasy.
  • DA2 has a lot more depth. There are more politics, there’s more nuance. Elements from other parts of Thedas get incorporated into quests or character back-stories rather than just referred to in one of the 7 billion codex entries.
  • Since the story takes place over a number of years, you can see how Hawke is making a difference in Kirkwall and in the lives of its people. The scope of the location is small, but the scope of the story and timeline is much bigger.

UI, inventory and controls are better

  • Having your party members have a single set of armor that can be upgraded, makes inventory management much less tedious. You can still customize their weapons and accessories but don’t need to worry about armor, boots, helms, and gloves. It’s also easier to tell when something is an upgrade.
  • Besides gear, there’s less junk to manage. At once point in DAO I had 20 gift items taking up space in my inventory, there’s none of that anymore. Also, quest items you pick up can’t be accidentally junked or sold.
  • Runes are much simpler to manage. Their effectiveness depends on the level of gear you’re adding them to so you don’t have to worry about different rune levels like journeyman, master, etc.
  • It’s much easier to tell your other party members to stay put, or move as a group. They get in your way a lot less often.
  • There’s more useful stuff to find, like items that start side-quests, recipes, or armor upgrades. This makes looting everything much more useful – you have a chance to pick up something other than yet another damn Darkspawn Dagger.

So that’s that. I know the big complaint is that DA2 recycled dungeon areas which, I’ll admit, isn’t good but in the grand scheme of things is rather minor.

Fun or Addicting?

I’ve never been big on mobile gaming. When it comes to games, I always prefer to play on a big screen over a small one. This is also why I don’t enjoy handhelds. Even in situations where big screens are not available – say, while commuting to work – I prefer to read a book, listen to a podcast, or just look out the window and give my eyes a break from screens altogether. This isn’t to say that I never play mobile games. There are a few that got me quite hooked for a while. The problem is, they hooked me for the wrong reasons.

The first was Spirit Stones, a dungeon-crawly puzzler with colour-matching gameplay similar to Candy Crush and an added card evolution mechanic. The gameplay wasn’t particularly interesting, and any challenge seemed to be there to make you buy gems, but I really wanted to evolve all the cards to collect them all. I even spent a few bucks to buy gold so I could evolve more cards. It took me a while, a couple of months maybe, before I realized – Spirit Stones is not a fun game. It is an addicting game. All the dungeon levels are basically the same. 99% of the card evolutions give you trash that isn’t an upgrade over what you’re already using. It has the time (or money) based component that limits your play which is common among Free To Play games. Looking back, I’m a bit embarrassed of all the time I spent playing this game on my phone while watching Nip/Tuck on Netflix. A terrible game and a repugnant tv show, there must have been some self-loathing going on there. Eventually I stopped, deleted it from my phone, and never played again. Nothing about the game was fun, it just had constantly moving goalposts that kept me playing.

Spirit Stones

Yeah, don’t even get me started on the artwork.

Next came Cook, Serve, Delicious, a restaurant sim. While I’d rate this game 100x higher than Spirit Stones and it lacked insidious micro-transactions, it was still more addicting than fun. In game I’d do day after day of food service, trying to get my restaurant up to 5 stars (by now I had moved on to Gilmore Girls for my fix of TV I didn’t really need to pay attention to). The time management component of the game was challenging, and at first I actually was having fun. But once I was familiar with everything, I had my staple foods I’d rotate on the menu every day that I could prepare the fastest, and it became rather mechanical. What was interesting on day 6 was really just a chore on day 62 but I wanted that 5-star ranking. Eventually I got it, only to find out the game wasn’t done with me. More challenges lay in wait! By this time I had figured that the game was more addicting than fun though, so I took my 5 stars as an indication that I had beaten the game, deleted from my phone, and never played again.

The last game that got me in its clutches was Trivia Crack, and I think that name speaks for itself. While I’m actually a big fan of trivia, playing against strangers on my phone isn’t really comparable to trivia nights at a bar, or Trivial Pursuit in my living room with friends. Again, it was fun at first, but 2 weeks later when I had 10 different games on the go (or how ever many the time/money limit would allow me to have) and was checking to see if it was my turn every 10 minutes, I realized the compulsion to constantly check the game status was much stronger than the reward of getting to answer one or two questions (and then waiting for my turn again). So it too got deleted.

Now, I’m not saying that all mobile games are like this, or that only mobile games fall can into the addicting not fun category. I do think mobile caters to this type of game more than other platforms, but they can be found anywhere. In my 8 years of playing World of Warcraft I know at least a quarter of my time (more than that in the lulls before expansions) was spent doing things I found the opposite of fun just to get some dumb achievement. My blood still boils when I think about the 6 hours I spent collecting Noblegarden eggs to get some stupid fucking mount or something I probably never looked at again once I got it. This wasn’t fun at all, I was just addicted to collecting.

There are too many good games out there to spend time on ones that hook you with collecting or variable-interval incremental reinforcement rather than fun gameplay or story. I’m trying to make an effort to spend time on games I actually find fun, or meaningful, or thought-provoking because with such a huge selection of games available, why waste time on the junk?

Quality vs. Enjoyment

A lot of video games have received unconditional love from me in the past, even when they are peppered with mechanics and design choices that frustrate or puzzle me. It can sometimes be hard to reconcile. How can a game have so many faults, but still be so enjoyable overall?

Take Mass Effect 3 for example. While in many ways (most notably combat) it improved over the first two games in the series, there were also a number of things that bothered me to no end. I’ve been slowly replaying it and often find myself yelling at the TV over poor design.

  • Side quests that are completely lacking in context. Run through the Citadel, and your quest log fills up with 2 dozen fetch quests. Occasionally you overhear people talking about these quests, but you don’t need to stop or listen to them, the quest just appears as if you’ve accepted it. There’s rarely any information offered in the quest log other than what star system the item can be found in. These kinds of quests are terrible for immersion.
  • Related to the issue above, the quest log in general sucks compared to the first two games. A bare minimum of information is offered.
  • There’s no sense of place. Every location is restricted to small, contained areas. You fast travel everywhere.
  • Speaking of fast travel, the Citadel Rapid Travel terminals are still in the game and you can interact with them, but you can’t actually use them. You need to use the elevators instead. (Why the hell can you interact with them when you can’t use them?!)
  • The entire game is fan service. Except the ending. Ba dum pssh.

Or how about the Twin Peaks-inspired Deadly Premonition? This game is a cult classic which people tend to either love or hate. I just finished this game after starting it more than 2 years ago, because I could only take the game (specifically the combat) in small doses.

  • Poorly designed combat. Tank controls, an awkward control scheme for aiming, not being able to aim and move at the same time, bullet sponge enemies.
  • The worst final boss fight ever. Long range shooting is awful.
  • Everything is so slow. When you examine something or try unsuccessfully to pick up some ammo but can’t because your inventory is full the text appears, one letter at a time, at a glacially slow pace. You can hold down a button to speed it up, but it’s still slow. A lot of the time as you’re smashing buttons trying to make it go faster you accidentally examine the damn thing again.
  • Lack of inventory space, and irritating inventory management.
  • Cliche “serial killer murdering women” story.

Wasteland 2 was just released a few months ago, but is an old-school isometric RPG in pretty much every way. In trying to hold on to the Fallout 1/2 aesthetic and feel, it makes a number of design decisions which just don’t appeal to modern gamer sensibilities.

  • Terrible inventory system.
  • Weapons that jam, effectively wasting a whole turn in combat.
  • Antiquated skill system. Try to pick a lock or brute force a door and you’re shown the % chance you have of doing it successfully. A lot of time is spent repeating these actions when you fail and if you critically fail, the item you’re working on just breaks and you can’t access it anymore.
  • No ability to respec your party’s skills (unless you hack the save file, which I did a lot), meaning if a party member leaves or dies you might be left with no one who can pick up that skill at a high enough level to be useful.
  • Ugly character models. If you want to make your own characters rather than use the pre-made ones, the character portraits are also hideous.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a game I call one of my favourites of all time, despite it having a host of problems.

  • Bugs! So many bugs. From minor annoyances like graphical clipping, to crashes, to game breaking issues at certain points of the story.
  • Character designs look nice in close-up, but watching your character move in 3rd person view just looks wrong.
  • While the beginning locations of the game are wonderfully detailed and rich, as you get towards the end it seems like the quality drops off.

Then there are point and click adventure games. All of them. Well, maybe that’s unfair. Let’s say 90% of them. Convoluted solutions to simple problems are a mainstay of the genre. Almost every adventure game I’ve played has had that moment (or many of them) where I have no clue what to do and furiously try to combine each item in my inventory with the others, or with the environment. Or painstakingly move the mouse cursor over every pixel, trying to see if I’ve missed an object. Often the solutions to puzzles are things no logical human being would ever think of. Like combining an inflatable duck with a bandaid, a metal clamp, and a rope to retrieve a key from the subway tracks. Or throwing a pie to ward off a  yeti, as opposed to using a weapon or magic. It’s like they were designed to sell hint guides (when those were still a thing).

It might seem like I’m writing this post just to rant. There may be a little truth in that, but overall it’s about how many problematic elements I’m willing and able to overlook in games because the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

Mass Effect 3 saying goodbye to Garrus

Mass Effect 3 may have many frustrating design decisions but I still love it because, well, feelings. I’m attached to Commander Shepard, Garrus, Joker, EDI, and the rest of my crew. I love seeing them interact with each other, I love running into characters from previous games, and watching the story come to an end is both heartbreaking and satisfying. Plus I love being a renegade and punching out anyone I can.

Deadly Premonition talking to Zack

Deadly Premonition is certainly not top quality at a technical level, but it pays homage to one of my favourite shows in an oddly sweet fashion and features so many quirkily lovable characters that it’s hard to resist. What’s the frustration of one 8-minute long quicktime event compared to the strange joy of listening to the hero talk to his other personality about attending punk concerts as a teenager?

Wasteland 2 ET cartridges buried in the desert

Wasteland 2 may have used some stale mechanics, but that doesn’t overshadow the detail and love that went into it. The annoyances didn’t prevent me from spending 50 hours in the game, and enjoying most of them. For every annoying dice roll fail there’s some great little detail that brought a smile to my face, from finding Teddy Ruxpin dolls to the hidden cache of Atari ET cartridges. Choices mattered in the game, and being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland meant a lot of times where were no right or wrong decisions, just different shades of gray.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines dialogue with Jeanette

VtM:B may have been riddled with bugs on release. It may have once broken my save file right at the end of the game so I couldn’t finish the game. However, it’s also one of the most darkly atmospheric games I’ve played, with a deep backstory drawing from the World of Darkness RPG, and a collection of great characters. Though I’ve only beaten the game once, since the quality does dip a little near the end, I’ve played through the Santa Monica section more times than I can count and playing as a Malkavian makes a great game experience even better. I’m not the only one who loves this game. Ten years after its release, fans are still making and releasing patches to iron out all those bugs.

Quest for Glory 4. Hero in front of the monastery

And adventure games? Well, they may be frustrating and highly illogical, but not enough to stop me from replaying my favourites like Quest for Glory, The Longest Journey, or Gabriel Knight every few years.

So, does a game need to be of “good” quality in order to be enjoyable? Clearly not. I can overlook quite a lot of issues in games and still find the overall product most satisfying. Pull at my heartstrings, give me a great story and atmosphere, unique and interesting characters, or just amazingly fun gameplay and I can overlook a lot of negatives.

Of course it’s not just technical or mechanical issues that can detract from games. Another question I ask myself a lot as I play games is how problematic portrayals of characters – generally female characters – impacts my enjoyment of those games. This will be a topic for another time though. As soon as I finish Saint’s Row: The Third I’m going to have a lot to process and talk about. It’s something to think about.

Shame

I have a confession to make.

This is hard for me to admit.

I am bad at Super Mario Brothers.

As someone who spent a lot of time playing NES 20 years ago this is a very difficult thing to come to terms with.

I didn’t accept it at first. “I never owned an SNES, so I need a few minutes to get used to Super Mario World.” “I haven’t played Super Mario 3 in 20 years, I’ll remember everything in a couple turns.” “The dog made me run into that koopa.” “It’s because I’m playing Luigi. Mario’s better, I want to play Mario.”

Super Mario World

After I had died a number of times without my skills improving much, I got mad. “Holding down a button to run in a platformer, what terrible, stone-age design” or “Is this it? Get a leaf and fly over every level before you find the secret that lets you skip half the game? That’s dumb,” and “How am I supposed to use this blocky controller, it’s terrible.” Also: “Stop watching me play and laughing at me when I die! This is your fault!”

Super Mario 3 death

Then came the questions and self-reflection. Is this it? Am I bad at video games now? Was I ever good at them? Am I a gamer? Has this entire part of my life been a self-aggrandizing delusion? Can I really continue to write about video games with any kind of authority when I’m so fucking terrible?

Super Mario Brother game over screen

I know the last phase of this is supposed to be acceptance, but no. I won’t accept it. I’m going to keep playing, keep practicing, until I’m awesome again. Or at least not completely shitty. I will kick shells into my enemies. I will jump on the heads of koopalings. I will not get killed by anymore Boomerang doucheBros, or  fall to my death. I will master that awful blocky controller.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Continually Disappointing and Melodramatic Dead

Warning: This post contains ranting. Also, spoilers! So if you aren’t caught up on The Walking Dead or haven’t watched the season 5 premiere (and you still care), turn back now.

Ah, The Walking Dead. I never read the graphic novels, but when the television show started back in 2010, I was excited. I love apocalyptic fiction, and it’s not a genre that’s covered often, or well on television. The BBC series Survivors was enjoyable, but only lasted for 12 episodes, and I guess you could call BS:G post-apocalyptic, but that’s about it. The Walking Dead gave us the end of the world and gave us zombies, which hadn’t been quite so overdone as they are now.

The 6-episode first season was well done. The setup was good, personal relationships and conflicts were established. There was a clear goal of getting to the Atlanta CDC to see if there was hope for a cure.

Season 2 starts with some excitement (oh by the way, the CDC stuff from last season? A hopeless waste of time). Sophia is missing! Carl is shot! The apocalypse is clearly no place for children. The group finds a farm which seems safe enough, owned by a vet who moonlights as a doctor and they stay there. For the entire season. Just hanging out on the farm. The story stopped moving forward, and instead each episode centered on personal drama and all the characters yelling at each other without actually communicating.

Season 3 has the survivors camping out in a prison. We get introduced to the Governor, who’s a bit of a caricature of a villain and Michonne, who everyone loves, but her defining character trait at this point is that she has a sword. Rick goes crazy, but he’s such a boring character that nobody cares. A bunch of major characters die, and the survivors return to the prison. Oh, and now there’s a baby. Because that will end well.

Season 4 brought the Governor back, and this time tries to make us sympathize with him. He just wants a family to take care of, he’s not so bad. Oh, wait, he just decapitated a sweet old Hershel, never mind. Once the prison is left behind, things did pick up a bit. The group gets separated, new relationships form, Michonne develops into an actual character. And then there’s Terminus. Everyone starts heading toward this apparent sanctuary. There’s mystery! There’s intrigue! What is Terminus? Is it safe? Who are these people who run it? The season ends with most of the group locked in a shipping container. Apparently no, Terminus is not safe, but Rick and the others are determined to survive.

That brings us to season 5. I’m so mad I can’t even form proper paragraphs.

  • After all the Terminus build-up – who are these people? What are they going to do? Are they cannibals? Within 5 minutes of the season opener, all the questions are answered. Yup, they’re totally cannibals, and they’re going to kill Rick, Bob, Daryl, and Glenn RIGHT NOW.
  • The four merry men are knelt in front of a trough and we watch 4 redshirts get their throats slit like pigs. Then, it’s Glenn’s turn. Oh no! Not Glenn! He’s going to die!
  • Nevermind, we get Carol ex machina, who blows up part of Terminus just in time to save him!
  • Ugh, this whole situation is so dumb and lacks any kind of tension. We know they’re not going to kill off 4 leads in one scene at the very start of a season. Was anyone actually worried? And having them saved right before it’s Glenn’s turn to die is just lazy. Mix it up a bit. If Bob had been first in the kill line, I might be worried for him. But Glenn? Don’t waste my time.
  • So the whole five episode arc leading up to Terminus is just done, boom. Cannibals all dead, Rick and co. are free in the first half of the episode.
  • This episode also features Tyreese. He’s with Judith (Carol has gone off to be a hero), and watching over one of the people from Terminus. This character plot device tells Tyreese he and the baby are going to die because T won’t kill him. Tyreese is a good guy, he just wants everyone to get along, but he gets the message and eventually pounds the guy’s face into the dirt (though I’m kind of skeptical that he actually killed him since he wouldn’t let Carol go in and see the body).
  • Then, a happy ending! Rick and Carl are reunited with Judith! Tyreese is reunited with Sasha! Carol is reunited with Darryl! Beth’s still MIA, but who cares! There are tears of joy, maybe the rest of the season will be one big love-in.
  • We got two flashbacks at the beginning and end of the episode that showed the people running Terminus and how they had been captured and brutalized by others before, so that’s why they turned into butchers themselves. But there’s a pretty big discrepancy between killing your captors and protecting your own, vs. sending out broadcasts and putting up signs drawing people to you so you can capture, kill, and eat them. And they’re all dead now anyway, so the flashback at the end really did nothing. If you want to explore these characters, fine, but this was a really brief and lazy way of doing it.
  • TDW is very subtly trying to show us that our favourite characters are becoming the monsters they were trying to fight. Oh, did I say subtle? I meant they are using a sledgehammer to drive that point across.
  • The action scenes are starting to feel like they’re just showing off how good the make-up and effects departments have gotten at gore. And they are good. But now it just seems like the show is trying to gross us out rather that create horror in any literary way.
  • There are things that make me think I want to continue watching season 5 – another actor from The Wire, Morgan from way back in season 1 – but I also know I’ll continue to be disappointed. They’ll continue meeting and killing new people. Some big thing will get built up this season only to be resolved within an episode once they finally get there. Characters will yell at each other and question if they have become monsters. And on and on and on.

So that’s it. I obviously didn’t care for the episode, which is disappointing since the build up in season 4 actually made me excited for this premiere. I think I’m mostly just mad that I keep watching the show when it clearly gives me no joy.

Information Overload

Once upon a time, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, before the Internet was a big thing, getting help when you were stuck in a game was not easy. The first game I remember getting stuck on was Maniac Mansion. When I got stuck, there wasn’t a lot of help available. Basically I just had to keep trying new things. Sure it was frustrating but, looking back through wistful rose-coloured glasses, it was also kinda nice. I had to figure things out myself.

However, my gaming hobby had barely gotten started before the era of figuring things out yourself started getting eclipsed by the business of game hints. In 1989 Sierra introduced their new hint line – for only $0.75 for the first minute and $0.50 for every additional minute, you could talk to someone who would tell you how to get through their games. I don’t believe I ever called them, but only because I didn’t have a credit card when I was 8. Gaming magazines, like Nintendo Power had sections dedicated to hints and strategies. Prima Games started making strategy guides in 1990, and their guides for challenging games like Myst sold like hotcakes. Hints were on TV too. If you were lucky enough to be a Canadian with access to YTV, Nicholas Picholas would share Turbo Tips with you every week on Video & Arcade Top 10, which premiered in 1991. In 1995 GameFAQs was created, which really got the ball rolling on internet game walkthroughs and guides.

Access to information is great, but when does it become too much? When does it begin to hinder enjoyment of a game rather than enhance it?

Let’s talk about World of Warcraft for a bit. When I first started playing World of Warcraft, one of the coolest things about it was the amount of exploration I could do. Everything was new to me. Every zone had new things to look at, and every quest (whose text I needed to read in order to know where to go) told a new story. There were little surprises, like treasure chests you could find scattered about. Sure, they rarely had anything exciting in them but just finding them and anticipating the contents as you opened them was exciting. Doing dungeons or killing a rare I stumbled upon and having a blue piece of loot for me was unexpected and rewarding. One of my favourite early memories from the game was finding and completing the questline that eventually rewarded me with the Sprite Darter Hatchlings. The quest-giver was quite hidden, so it felt like a secret. Not everyone had one, so it felt special.

If you asked me to name a time something unexpected or surprising happened to me in WoW over the last few expansions, I’d be hard pressed to think of one. What happened? Information overload happened. The Sprite Darter Hatchling questline (if it still existed) could never stay hidden, you’d see a big yellow exclamation point on your map as you came near it. Getting stuck on a quest became near impossible as your map would highlight the area you needed to go. Reading the quest text and actually knowing what was happening in the story became a thing of the past for me, since it was no longer required.

Mods were created that gave you information in-game that you’d otherwise not have access to. With AtlasLoot Enhanced, I could see the loot table of every boss I fought. Good drops were no longer an unexpected delight, because I knew where they all came from. Bad drops became infinitely more disappointing because I knew when they came at the expense of a drop I really wanted. Rare mobs stopped being interesting as soon as I downloaded RareSpawn Overlay so I could see where every one of them spawned and NPC Scan which would blast noise at me as soon as one was in range so I didn’t even need to pay attention to the game. Mists of Pandaria introduced treasures and BoA items you could find around the map. These were fun, until I realized it was much more efficient to check the Wowhead guide and see a map which pinpointed every single one, or download TomTom and be navigated right to them.

Further than just information about objects, there’s also a ton of information available about how to play your character. IcyVeins will tell you how to spec and ability priorities. Mods like SpellFlash will tell you what spell to cast next. Even the default UI will make your spell icons flash when an ability is ready to use. Raid healing was always my favourite thing because it required some decision-making and quick reactions on my part, but even those requirements are reduced by DBM counting down every major ability I need to know about or GTFO screaming when I stand in bad things.

Looking up the information or installing an addon is so much more efficient than trying to figure things out or find things yourself. But it is not more fun. Sure, you could just not use addons, not use Wowhead, but that’s a lot like telling someone who complained about content nerfs to just turn off the Dragon Soul buff. Technically possible, but not bloody likely. Why should you handicap yourself?

For a game with such a huge, beautiful world there’s actually very little to discover in WoW that you can’t find in a database first. Exploration can seem like a waste of time. With PTRs, Betas, and datamining, it’s even possible to learn everything there is to know about a new content patch or expansion – every item, achievement, cinematic, quest – before it’s even released.

Of course, WoW is not the only game that can be ruined by having too much information easily accessible. With all the walkthroughs, FAQs and video guides available, it’s possible to ruin almost any game. Information is good and sometimes a game will really stump me so I’m happy it’s there. However, there’s a thin line between access to info that prevents me from banging my head against a wall for too long, and having so much information available that I never have to actually think for myself.  I played a puzzler called The Bridge a couple of weeks ago and I really enjoyed it. At first. The puzzles were all based on gravity, sometimes momentum, and solving them in the first few levels made me feel accomplished, especially as they got more challenging. But then came a puzzle that I played around with for a good 10 minutes and I couldn’t figure out how to solve it. So I looked up a video, got the solution and went on my way. The next puzzle that stumped me I only tried for a couple of minutes. I mean, I had already found a cool video guide that had all the answers, doesn’t hurt to take another peek, right? By the end of the game I was sitting at my computer, right hand on the keyboard, left hand holding my iPhone as a video walked me through the solutions to all of the last puzzles. This is not fun. This is not gaming. I want to think, want to have to try, but all the answers are right there. Looking up the answers is so fast and easy.

I lack self-control when it comes to spoilers, though the pervasive presence of guides makes me think I’m not the only one. Once I’ve looked up a solution, it becomes very hard not to do it again for that game. Soon I’m not even enjoying the game, I’m just following a set of directions from point A to point B.

When it comes to availability of this information there’s no going back, but it does make me miss the days when finding that information was just a little bit harder and thinking for yourself felt more encouraged.