There is a certain quality that only time brings. Those who tell stories long enough, consistently and without milking their worlds and characters predatorily, end up building great, well-grounded works.
Most video game producers create decades of history for a single product. A song may refer to events from 10 years ago in the game world, but it is an artificially constructed historical date – the player can feel that the genesis of the song is that same as that of the story that gave rise to it.
Video game producer Bioware suffers from this malady. Always shifting from universe to universe because of the present trends, the volatile, almost childish creativity of its artists, and the demands of its investors, it never gets to create a historical past for its worlds in an organic way. Everything must be settled in a single development cycle, or over a single generation of consoles.
At the other extreme, a much more uncommon scenario: developer Blizzard has cultivated the same universes for more than twenty years. One can argue their art has become paler, staler, by virtue of growing corporate pressure. But one can not deny its narrative consistency. The result is that in 2018 they can launch a musical work based on 15-year old ”historical” facts, not as measured by the passage of time in the game universe, but in our “real” time.
There is more to this work than colossal budget and impeccable artistic talent . There is a lived quality, a historical truth that has been refined over the years. I bet that several people who worked on this were there fifteen years ago, living the events that are portrayed in song today.
Most video game producers seem to think money makes art. Money helps. But what makes art is the passing of time.
The past couple of posts have been sort of heavy. So hey, let’s have some fun. Here’s what’s been entertaining me lately: Hearthstone.
For the uninitiated, Hearthstone is a free card game where you build your deck from a pool of cards (there’s a base pool, but as you play and/or spend money on the game, you expand it) and use it to battle other players online.
It’s a tactical game of building armies (and wiping them out with a well-placed spell), but the luck of the draw is what keeps drawing (sorry!) me in.
I like games that balance preparation with chance. I love the way that they mirror life, and in a way, I see them as essential training for life: a way to practice not being resentful for bad circumstances, and making the best with what you’ve got.
Of course, winning is preferable, but there’s a mature kind of satisfaction from knowing you’ve managed to push a losing hand pretty far into the game, too.
Sure, if you start today and go against someone who’ve been collecting (or outright buying) cards for months, no amount of good fortune will prevent you from losing more games than you win. That’s also life. Some people have all they need to succeed right from the cradle, but most need to bid their time and build their resources over time until they can have a shot at doing something meaningful.
Entry into Hearthstone is an exercise in humility, then. That said, the game has never been more generous than today, throwing plenty of cards at new players, and providing an ample selection of single-player modes that do an excellent job at showing them the ropes.
Its cheerful exterior is clearly aimed at children, and I approve of this. It might just help the next generation build some backbone and feel just a little bit less entitled.
(Transparency disclaimer: if you use the link above and play until you reach level 20, I’ll get a handful of cards.)
It’s August, and I’ve been playing a lot of Destiny 2. I’m playing it with my brother – ostensibly, to have fun. But that’s not the full story.
I mean, we could have done it any time, but we didn’t. We started playing at the beginning of the month, and why? Because the “Solstice of Heroes” event is happening. With it comes the time-limited chance to get exclusive goodies. By exclusive goodies, I mean shiny suits of armor to doll up our space-knights.
I’ve been trying to figure out why this is so appealing. There’s this quote that strikes true:
“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
The author is Dave Ramsey, and I’ve never read his financial fitness book (Sorry, Dave!) but I like the quote.
That’s the silly thing about these “get your armor/pokemon/potted plant while you can” games. The stuff you get is just for show.
In Destiny 2’s case, the armor is partly a catch-up mechanism: it’s powerful, and it will prepare you to take on the expansion (due right after the event ends). But I’m also sure that any utility will be superseded by the rewards you get after playing the expansion for a couple of afternoons. So what’s left?
You’re left with a badge of “I was there, I did this.” And, fair enough, to get the armor, you do need to complete most of the game’s content – the exception being a couple of 6-person raids. It’s a neat way for Bungie to nudge you into experiencing the most of the game before the expansion hits.
So, who is the “badge” for, exactly? It’s only once in a blue moon that I actually pay attention to what other players are wearing. Everything kind of blurs in the moment of actual playing of the game.
In the end, the person who enjoys the way my character looks like the most is… Me. But again, we’re talking about a 1st-person shooter game. I don’t get to see my character 90% of the time! So the utility of investing so much time in playing the game is limited to enjoying my character in the inventory screen, or in the brief character vignettes before each PvP match.
(Those are cool, by the way – more games should do them, and Bungie should add more flavor to them.)
The same is true for one of my all-time favorite games, too. For some people, World of Warcraft is all about the collecting. There are hundreds of pets and mounts to collect and thousands of pieces of armor. I can’t say I haven’t spent my fair share of hours collecting outfits, there. And yet again, after thousands of hours of playtime, I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions where other players remarked on my character’s outfit, and vice-versa.
And if in Destiny you could say that the Solstice armor could get you up to speed for the expansion, in World of Warcraft the exercise is almost always cosmetic. After a very easily-reached threshold, upgrades are minor and only matter in the most hardcore of end-game activities.
We grind for things we don’t need, to impress people who aren’t looking.
Or do we?
Back to the point about doing these things for myself. Playing these games is enjoyable. You can reach a point where you’re just mechanically repeating the same action like the virtual version of an industrial revolution factory worker, sure. But I find that it rarely happens these days. The games have gotten smarter than that, the gameplay loops are more varied and enjoyable.
The cosmetic items are like a goal of a sort, something to aim for. There’s something intrinsically satisfying about striving for something. Ultimate utility be damned! That’s part of the appeal of video games. Aiming for stuff in real life can be more satisfying, but it also usually takes longer. You’re very rarely in a position where you can make meaningful progress toward life-goals in a couple of afternoons. But you can get the quick hit of satisfaction from a job well done and goals reached in a weekend, playing a video game.
There’s both a danger and a utility there.
The danger: that you feel that that is enough. That it’s not worth pursuing more than what’s necessary to survive in real-life because you can get the satisfaction that comes from achievement more quickly and with less stress in a video game.
The utility: that video games addict you to work and achievement. That you are able to use those short bursts of video game goodness to inspire you and generate enthusiasm for setting and working toward real-life goals. They can help cultivate the right mindset: set the goal, grind towards it, re-evaluate goal & approach, repeat. A gamer has the raw material to develop the mentality of a doer, a person who makes things happen. That’s a life-skill.
And let’s face it, who should you want to impress in your life? Just the one person: you. Even if you’re usually going about your life in first-person.