Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
February 2008

Game Music and Musings

One of the most memorable but most often overlooked pieces of a good game is the music. A lot of music is pretty generic and is just there to cover the awkward silence but there are still plenty of games that have truly amazing soundtracks. These soundtracks are often good enough to stand on their own as works of music but when that great music is tied to great memories from a game, it's magical.

It took a while but people are finally starting to realize just how effective music in games is and just how strongly fans are tied to their games' tunes. There are currently two major performances featuring video game music that tour the U.S. and the world. One of them, the more high brow and serious is Play! A Videogame Symphony. The other, taking a wilder and more performance oriented approach is Videogames Live.

As someone who loves videogames and loves their music enough to own many soundtracks and listen to them all the time, I've been dieing to go. Somehow, the starts have been out of alignment and I've never been in a locale that either are near to - until recently. A couple weeks ago, Play! came to town and, of course, I had bought tickets the hour they went on sale.

Strangely, my wife declined the invitation to go to a symphony with me (she was excited till she heard just what kind of music this symphony was playing) so I went with a cousin who is in the gaming industry and actually loves games even more than I do. The audience in the concert hall was certainly not the kind that normally graces those padded seats. Attire ranged from shorts and dirty t-shirts to tuxes and prom dresses with the typical group being three or four teenage or twenty-something guys.

The musical arrangements were excellent and the choir and symphony performed fantastically. Hearing the Mario theme performed by a full symphony was a blast as were the selections Halo, The Legend Of Zelda, Chrono Trigger, and others. Sadly, however, the show failed to live up to my full expectations due to the sub-par video presentation.

One of the big selling points to me was the video montages that accompanied the music that contain scenes from these games. Unfortunately, most games contained very little video content and the Final Fantasy games, the ones I was most excited about, contained no videos at all. I don't know if this was intentional (trying to put the focus on the symphony) or not (couldn't get the display rights) but it was obviously missing throughout much of the show.

Still, despite that setback, it was a fantastic time and I'm looking forward to checking out Video Games Live soon.

While listening to this great music and reveling with fellow gamers, I of course was reflecting on just how fun gaming could be. Not only are games pure entertainment, though, they can also teach us things that have value. Now, wait--before you dismiss such thinking as a complete detour from the real reasons all of us play games, hear me out. Though some may disagree, I think there are a lot of things in games that apply to life, and a lot of life lessons that can be learned from games. Here are a couple I thought of...

Sometimes you just have to bash barrels

Sadly, life isn't always filled with the coolest stuff, the most friends, or the most glorious titles and awards. Sometimes, you're stuck doing things far more painful and far less glorious, things like paper routes or working at grocery stores (trust me, I've been there).  As hard as these times are, I've learned from gaming that sometimes you just have to accept a bit of barrel-smashing to get where you want to go.

Smashing barrels is never fun in games but just about every game makes you do it.  Whacking away at crates and barrels in hopes for a few loose coins or a slightly better weapon is tedious, but sometimes necessary. Whether it is literal (like just about every RPG ever made) or figurative (RTS campaigns that only give you the good units after eons of play), you don't really appreciate your sword of awesomeness or your title as ruler of the universe unless you've experienced what life is like at the bottom. 

Nothing is sweeter than a critical hit on an inanimate object

While some games do manage to avoid this (Portal is almost entirely just a training game, yet is still fantastic), for the most part you've just got to accept that there are some things that aren't going to be so fun. Oh well--just remember that some day you may look back at your barrel bashing days with nostalgia.

Friends are Fun

All of my most enjoyable life experiences have been when I'm with friends and family; why would good times in gaming be any different? That's not to say that there aren't great single player experiences--immersive single player RPGs are among my all-time favorite game--but for just about every other genre I'd rather play with others. For me, playing most games by myself feels a little shallow and pointless. 

What good is a victory in a war game when your opponent is just following programmers' instructions and doesn't care that he lost anyway? What does your daring capture of a flag matter if you don't value the appreciation of your teammates? Whether it is competitive or cooperative, playing with people you like is not only more interesting, it also makes games a social experience. Not only does playing with friends make the actual gameplay more fun, it can also make for better real-world friendships. Gaming for me is a great way to continue hanging out with friends even after we have physically moved apart.

Gameplay over glamour

Beauty is only skin deep. Don't judge a book by its cover. Looks aren't everything. Yeah, yeah, you hear it all the time but it's repeated because it's true. Games are a pretty great example of this - just because it is shiny and new doesn't mean that what's underneath is worthwhile. Take, for example, Sega's Time Traveler, a 90's arcade game that 'revolutionized' the industry with full-motion video while everyone else was using simple animations. Yeah, worst game of all time. It was the worst of video and games - crappy acting plus crappy gameplay = just plain crappy.

Even now, developers sometimes lose focus on gameplay and put too much into glossy visuals.  Now, I'm a fan of great graphics; I don't spend hundreds on graphics cards just to play Free Cell. But I do think there is a balance between "future proofing" your graphics and making a playable and interesting game. When Supreme Commander came out and wasn't playable on the scale it was intended for (6~8 players) because at those settings it brought 99% of machines running it to their knees, I was sorely disappointed. After playing the open-source TA:Spring and enjoying 16-player games with no hitches, it bites to go back to playing on a small scale.

The Wii has been an excellent example of innovation trumping visuals. The Playstation 3 has amazing hardware and the Xbox360 has a broad game selection and a great online interface, but the system that has taken the world by storm is the weirdly named graphics underdog, the Wii. By forcing many developers to think outside the box, the Wii has inspired creativity and originality rather than just bringing forward old ideas with new paint.

Money doesn't always buy happiness

As I pointed out last month, it can be hard to find a free game that is really good - but don't confuse paying money with having a good time. It's true that spending money and getting a great game often go together, but it certainly isn't a guarantee

Just like some brands rely on charging ridiculous prices for everything and hoping you will buy them just to feel elite, some games will charge a hefty price yet aren't worth a minute of your time, let alone your money.

For whatever reason, I have a hard time judging entertainment without factoring in the cost. A movie that I might think is great when I get it from Netflix, I may think is only OK if I have to shell out movie theater prices to watch. And so it is with games - if I'm going to be spending $50 or $60 on a game I certainly won't be buying it on a whim, and I'm going to have pretty high expectations.  I've been playing a lot of Guild Wars lately, which may not have the huge userbase or constant updates of World of Warcraft but it does do a terrific job of providing a fast and fun adventure and doesn't cost a monthly fee. Money may not directly buy happiness, but without it, it's hard to pick up new games!

It doesn't have the WoW following but Guildwars is still a lot of fun.

Stop and face reality

Sometimes in life, you just have to recognize that you've messed up. Your great ideas turn out to be flops and the pictures you drew actually aren't masterpieces. You could go on living in denial, but you'll feel a lot better if you just admit you made a mistake. 

I was a huge fan of Neverwinter Nights, I played through dozens of community-created modules with friends and had a great time. It's one of my all time favorite games. When I heard Neverwinter Nights 2 was coming out I was, of course, ecstatic.  Better graphics, new campaigns, new classes, what's not to love? Plenty. 

I've been playing off and on for a few months now and while there are sometimes great moments, for the most part there is just a lot of pain.  It has taken me months to finally admit to myself that NWN2 has failed me; I was mistaken in my respect for it.  I don't know whether it was the minute-long load times, the idiotic respawn system, or one of the many crashes, but I've had it.  And you know what? Now that I can face this reality, I can finally move on looking for better multiplayer RPG experiences, and that's refreshing.

Take time to enjoy the present

I often catch myself spending life living in the future, looking forward to the next highlight in my day, week, or year.  Whether it is getting off work to enjoy the weekend, getting to next week for a new movie or game, or waiting for months for a trip, I'm constantly living ahead of myself. While this gives good reason to get up in the morning, it does take some of the enjoyment and fulfillment out of the present.

Games, like life, often have a mix of quiet melodies and intense crescendos. Tetris starts off easy and almost boring, and it's many minutes until your mettle is really put to the test. The Civilization games are also filled with a lot of down time, waiting for wonders, prodding your scientists, slowly irrigating your fields. Getting this balance properly set is a challenge not only for developers to time, but also for players to attune themselves to.  Just like life, if you only live for the peaks then you'll find yourself unhappy or unengaged most of the time.

One multiplayer Half Life 2 mod, SourceForts, really has this concept down. While multiplayer first-person shooters are often all craziness with little or no down time, SourceForts creates a balance between building and destruction.  In a SourceFort round there are two phases, a build phase and an attack phase. The game is really just an extension of capture the flag, but before you get to capturing, you spend a few minutes actually building your base. 

Using Half Life's infamous gravity gun, you can weld together metal sheets on your side of the center divider to best shape the environment to your advantage. Once build time is up, the divider disappears and the battle is on.  Because you have been intimately involved in the creation of your base, the capture phase becomes much more exciting because you actually get to see how all your building work plays out. Thanks to the slow times, the action is all the more exhilarating.

Keep a sense of humor

Everything is more enjoyable if you have a sense of humor. Say, for example, you wake up in an experimental facility and find out that an insane computer is trying to kill you.  That and some killer droids, acid vats, and seemingly impossible barriers may all be enough to put a damper on your spirits unless you can see things in the right light. Maybe the computer is just being a little melodramatic, maybe those droids are cute and awkward and maybe the cake isn't a lie! It's all how you look at it!

Developers are becoming more in tune with their audience and have realized that it's OK to have humor in any genre.  In fact, jokes and plot elements can be even funnier when they aren't over the top or obviously set up. On the flip side, a game that takes itself too seriously is only appealing to a portion of my emotions and misses making a complete connection.  I hate to keep going on about all things Orange, but I think Valve does a great job of this and really 'gets' what's funny to its audience. 

People are irrational and random stuff happens all the time in life - with a sense of humor it can all make you smile.

Keep your expectations reasonable

OK, I love games as much as the next guy, but it's a lot easier to enjoy games if you don't hype them up to the point where they can never fulfill your expectations.  With just about everything from TV shows to movies to games, it is the rabid fanboys who are the ones who hate something that everybody else enjoys.

In the end, enjoy games for what they are: entertainment. Sure, they reinforce a lot of life lessons. But while they may make life better, they aren't what life's all about... I think.

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