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An Interlude: The Scariest Video Games

For reasons that I don’t quite understand, I’ve suddenly felt the need to comment on scary video games. Enjoy if you can.

The atmospheric and slower-paced Silent Hill series (at least,the first four) get my vote.




I’m going  to make an unpopular statement, and say that Silent Hill 3 is the best and scariest of them, followed closely by Silent Hill 4. The first two are outstanding, but… sorry, you spend far too much time wandering around aimlessly, and although the stories are better, the atmosphere gets less scary every minute you spend not knowing what to do next.

SH 3&4 don’t have this problem. You don’t spend a lot of time wandering around – the things that are terrifying push you from one event to the next. The very fact that they are more on-rails makes them scarier: the character you’re controlling has almost no control over the events transpiring around them. You’re just trying to survive, and find out what’s going on so you can keep surviving. It’s more intense than wandering around a foggy town. SH2 is amazing, but it takes a while to get into it, and that while is too long.

Everything after SH4 is pretty much a train-wreck, by the way. The production studios changed, and the new one brought a more American-Horror-Movie aesthetic to the games. Now, American style horror movies are great (I’m a huge fan of them), but what works in a scary movie isn’t what works in a scary video game. The southeast Asian (Japanese, Korean, and Thai especially) style of movie horror, to me, works much better in video games.

Since SH4, the landscape of horror games has changed. There’s a lot more spring-loaded-cat, and a lot less atmosphere. Doom 3 is good for the occasional jump-out-of-your-pants scare, and does have a seriously creepy vibe to it. Likewise, F.E.A.R. has some great scares to it. The problem with these two, however, is that they focus on the action. That’s fantastic for the games themselves (you’ll never hear me bad-mouth either one of them), but it does make them a bit less scary.

Dead Space has some pretty creepy moments

But after a point, you get the feeling that the freaky monsters are looking for disco lights to stand in so you can see them better. That’s not cool in a horror game. Fewer monsters that spent more time in the shadows – and made you feel completely outclassed when you fought them – would have gone a long way toward making Dead Space on part with Silent Hill in terms of pure terror.

To bring this to a close, I thought I might mention one more game from the past that’s scary as all holy hell, for much the same reason the early Silent Hill games were. If you’ve never played Fatal Frame 1 or 2, you should. At night. With all the lights off. All alone. Which is how you should always play horror games anyway.

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VRP Madness Continued: My All Time Favorites

I’m not really sure how to start this post. It’s pretty easy to rant about stuff that made you hate a game, but things that make you love a game seldom seem to induce such entertaining passion. I think, though, that my best bet is to make a few picks, and then see where it takes me, which is more or less what I did in my last post.

My Brother (in this post) talked about story and had very little to say about play mechanics. I’m not going to go that route, because play mechanics can make or break a game for me. I can’t sit through a great storyline if the mechanics of the game yield no entertainment (this happens to me with Action RPGs on a fairly regular basis, especially older ones); meanwhile, if the gameplay is  frakkin’ fantastic, I will ignore story thinness and issues – or, at the least, I will ignore them while playing (again, Action RPGs are most frequently the culprits, as will become fairly obvious).

Like my last post, these are in no particular order. Also, there’s a game on this list that my Beloved will severely disagree with, unlike my last list. I imagine there will be an interesting discussion. Perhaps I can get her to record a video counter-point for my inclusion of Skyrim on this list… Anyway, you;re going to find more in common between these two lists than the other two because, let’s face it – some games really are that awesome.

Where to start? Which game to I want to rave about first? Hmmm… Oh – I know! Just like last time, I’ll start with one that’s on my brother’s list! Here we go:

Chrono Trigger

Chrono trigger's cast, more or less

Chrono Trigger's cast. The original box art is awful. Not Original Mega Man awful, but pretty bad.

Did I Finish It?: Six times at my last count. I imagine I’ll finish it several more times in the future.

A certain amount of any “I loved this game…” involving SNES or NES games will always be nostalgia. There’s no getting around it – I’ve gone back to play games I loved as a kid, and found them unplayable. This happens more frequently with Atari 2600 games, but it happens a lot with SNES and NES games. A good example is the original Final Fantasy: while I can play the re-makes for the Game Boy Advance, PSP, and so on readily enough, the actual original NES game is impossible for me to play now. The difficulty is preposterous, and the visuals give me a headache. The stilted dialogue, the almost silly frequency of battle, the limited graphics: all of it combine to make a game that I just can’t enjoy anymore – and yet, I still have fond memories of the thing.

None of that applies to Chrono Trigger.

This is, in my opinion, the best game Square (Now Square/Enix) ever made. It beast the entire Final Fantasy series by a fair margin in my book. The combat system is close to perfect – fun and engaging, with opponents you can see on the map screen and occasionally even avoid. The story is fantastic, the characters are great, and you can have an impact on how the game progresses and ends. The art is beautiful in an old-school-game sort of way, and the Dual and Tri attacks are cool to watch and effective.

If you like RPGs at all and you haven’t played this game, you really should. I suggest getting the recent DS release (which I bought for my fiancee as a Christmas Present), since it’s got a lot of neat added stuff, but (unlike the Final Fantasy 4 DS remake) is still the same game.

An Honorable Mention goes here for the sequel Chrono Cross. I didn’t like it as much, and the color-splash thingy in the combat system frankly annoyed me, but it’s a fantastic game with a great story and what I still think is the best opening music in the history of video games.

Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout: New Vegas box art
Image via Wikipedia
Now that’s good cover art right there,

Did I Finish It?: Not yet, but that’s not the point.

My love of Open World RPGs didn’t start with Fallout: New Vegas, but it’s the best one I’ve ever played, bugs and all. Yes, it was very buggy on release – and it still is, with the PC version suffering from the same “I can’t exit the game properly” and occasional Crash To Desktop issues that also plague Fallout 3 and Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. I don’t care. This is a fantastic game.

The world feels very real here – it’s huge and easy to get lost in. There is so much going on in tis game that it’s almost impossible to properly comment on it, since any real commentary would fall short. There are lots of characters, each one individually crafted and loaded with personality (with the exception of some of the troopers for the various factions). The massive wilderness is breathtaking. And here’s the bit I love the most: it doesn’t matter one lick if you never ever even glance at the main plot. In fact, the vengeance basis of the main plotline makes it so that you can just decide that your character thinks he/she is luck to be alive and wants nothing to do with the folks who tried to kill him/her.

This makes its opening the freest of the free. Unlike some other games I’m about to rave about from Bethesda, the main quest is great, but you can ignore it without feeling like your character is being willfully ignorant of the world he/she is in. Maybe your character is terrified of seeing the man who tried to kill hi again. Maybe your character isn”t interested in vengeance. Maybe a lot of other things: the point is, you can do what you want, and have perfectly good in-character reasons for choosing whatever path you like. You can even skip over all the introductory hand-holding by just leaving the starting town shortly after character generation.

This is my favorite Bethesda game so far, although I hold out high hopes for Fallout 4 (which is, if you think about it, inevitable now that Skyrim is out). It does right everything Fallout 3 (which is also awesome) did wrong. The only problem I have is the Perk-every-other-level thing, but that’s not a huge deal.

The Elder Scrolls 3, 4, and 5 (That would be Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim)

Did I Finish It?: Morrowind sorta, the other two, no – but, again, that’s not the point

Starting with Morrowind, all of the Elder Scrolls games have been fantastic. Daggerfall (Elder Scrolls 2) was pretty good too, but it’s overly complicated and by the time I played it, the graphics were horribly dated.

These are open-world games to the core, with main quests you are free to ignore or follow to your heart’s content. Each has its issues, some of which are baffling to me, and all three are/were kinda buggy, but I don’t care. They7 have good stories whether you follow the main plot or not.

My specific objections to each:

  • Morrowind has a clunky UI and inventory system. It works when you get used to it, but it’s still unintuitive.
  • Oblivion has multiple minor issues  – the creepy dead-eye stare of the NPCs, the awful Pie-Chart speechcraft mini game, and the Psychic Guards are all minor things. The only major problem I have with it is the leveling system: you’re better off intentionally not leveling by choosing for main skills things you have no intention of using. As you level up in the game, you start running into bandits wearing fantastically expensive armor, which begs the question of why they’re bandits at all: if they sold their armor, they could live on the residuals for more than a year.
  • Skyrim is my fave of the three, but the main quest is the weakest of the three as well. Moreover, you’re forced to play through a goodly portion of it just to get the best power in the game, while all the other Best Stuff thingies are gained through not-main-questlines and the unbelievably in-depth crafting system. The lockpicking system is stolen directly from Fallout 3/New Vegas as well, but I see this as more of a bonus than a weakness.
The freedom in these games, coupled with the great Alchemy crafting in all three (best in Skyrim, but really good in Morrowind and pretty neat in Oblivion) and the amazing expansions releaced for Morrowind and Oblivion make these games infinitely replayable. Oh – and did I mention how awesome the mod communities for all of them are? That applies to the Fallout series as well, by the way – but that’s pretty useless if you’re playing the console version. I’ve always wondered why they never converted the tools for consoles, a la Little Big Planet – but I guess with these games, that would be terrifyingly complicated.

Final Fantasy 4, 5, and 6

Final Fantasy 5 - this screenshot shows off the incredible "Jobs" system of the game. I always made my male characters into wizards and my females into badass warriors, just to go against JVRP stereotypes. Is that sexist?

Did I Finish It?: Each one multiple times

These are the best games in the Final Fantasy series, in my opinion. I don’t really have a lot to say about them, but it seems that you’re required to include some sort of Final Fantasy game or two in any list of favorite VRP games. For the record, Final Fantasy 5 is my favorite: fantastic Jobs system with great characters and some genuinely good storytelling, even if it gets a little thin towards the end.

These games haven’t weathered the years as well as Chrono Trigger did, and if you want to try them out, I recommend getting the most recent re-releases for each – especially the Nintendo DS version of Final Fantasy 4, which is frankly amazing and better than the original in every way I can think of.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment: the Job system in Final Fantasy 5 is something that Square should have kept for later games. I know it wouldn’t fit well into some of them (10 springs to mind), but I loved it so very much. The idea that I could improve my characters how I wanted to, and assign them to the roles I needed them to play at any given moment was awesome. The way you could “buy” abilities that could then be used while playing other jobs made it even better. This should have become the FF default system as far as I’m concerned. It’s almost identical, by the way, to the Jobs system in Final Fantasy Tactics, another game I loved.

Lunar: Silver Star Story

This game has the best story of any JVRP game ever. I'm sorry, it just does - even though it's based on the "rescue the girl" trope.

Did I Finish It?: Oh, YES. Oh, very YES.

I love this game so very much. Yeah, the plot is based on a trope that borders on cliche – essentially the same plot of virtually every Mario game ever made. It works here, though, because:

  1. None of the female characters in the game are portrayed as being helpless
  2. the “princess” you’re set to rescue stays in your party long enough for you to develop an attachment to her
  3. Well, there was a 3, but it’s way too much of a spoiler. Coming from me, that’s saying something.
I know it’s not exactly feminist friendly, but, again, I don’t care. This game is amazing. It is JVRP perfection, and the fact that they keep re-making it again and again has to be some kind of testament to that – doesn’t it?

Baldur’s Gate Series

I love this game. Seriously - I love it a lot.

Did I Finish It: Yes – both games plus expansions, including once using Baldur’s Gate Trilogy, which might be the best mod ever made for any game ever.

During the late 90s and early 2000s, Bioware was responsible for a rash of D&D video games all built of something called the “Infinity Engine”. Now, I want to state that literally all of these Infinity Engine games are amazing. The Icewind Dale series, the Baldur;s Gate Series, and Planescape: Torment are all fantastic games that deserve to be on this list. They’re all worth your time even to this day, and that ain’t nothin’. You can, by the way get them allevery one – in Windows 7 compatible formats from Good Old Games – and if you don’t have them or haven’t played them, you really should.

Still, Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 are the only ones I always make sure are installed on my computer, usually with the Baldur’s Gate Trilogy mod added in. Great characters, real meaning in in-game decisions, and a strong and friendly Mod community make these games eternal. BG has a fantastic storyline well told. The UI is a bit clunky by today’s standards, but it’s worth it for the writing, character development, and fantastic combat system. This is the closest to a real D&D experience you can get without actually sitting around a table with other people.

I need to mention, at least in passing, that there are also Console games called Baldur’s Gate. These aren’t nearly as good, and are basically D&D flavored Diablo clones. They’re great fun and worth playing, but they don’t hold a candle to the PC games.

I could go on – for a few hours probably – but I think these are representative. My next post will be about D&D Next. Look for it in the next couple days.

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Gaming and Gaming – We had it first, damnit!

I love video games. I’m not good at them or anything, but I’ve played them since I was a kid. M family’s first video game console was (if I plumb the depths of my memory from the late 70s/early 80s) a Super Pong console, although I couldn’t tell you on a bet the manufacturer. I dimly remember having a light gun… but I can’t come up with much else, even when pressed.

Atari 2600 mit Joystick

Atari 2600 Home Entertainment Console; Image via Wikipedia

We later had an Atari 2600, and that’s the console I remember best from early childhood. My whole family played; my Mom was fond of Super Breakout and Video Pinball. I don’t remember my Dad playing much, although that’s probably because of his work schedule. My favorite game early on was Adventure, but that was eventually supplanted by Dragonstomper and Escape from the Mind Master, a lovely game made possible by the Starpath Supercharger. The Supercharger was a gigantic cartridge  that connected to a audio cassette player to load the game. Apparently, the thing also expanded the memory and graphic capability of the  2600, which isn’t difficult to believe for anyone who played any of the long-loading but still awesome games.

Dragonstomper, in particular, appealed to me due to its similarity to the D&D games I was already enjoying. You played an adventurer who was on a quest to slay a dragon overlord. You collected items and gold, fought monsters (generally unimpressive ones, to be sure… I mean, being attacked by bugs, monkeys, and beetles wasn’t exactly tension-building), dodged traps, and eventually fought a massive pink dragon. Why was the dragon pink? I’m going to blame the 2600’s limited color palette, but I’m not sure that’s much of an excuse.

Dragonstomper and, to a lesser degree, Escape from the Mind Master were precursors. I have no way of knowing if the future creators of Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy ever played these games, but it doesn’t matter. The JRPG genre of game was soon all I wanted to play. I enjoyed platformers (especially Mega Man) and other games, too, but my fondest video game memories of my childhood make me think of dragon lords named Baramos, elemental fiends, and espers. I’ve always been especially attached to the Dragon Quest games, and out of them Dragon Quest 3 and Dragon Quest 4 shine the brightest. These games did a much better job than their American counterparts (Ultima not withstanding, although I disliked it for other reasons) of telling a story. Even today, the things I look for in my video games are story and the ability to improve my character(s) as I go along. I want good gameplay, too (which means the abysmal Final Fantasy 13, or as I like to call it Press A a lot and run down a corridor is straight out), but story is the main thing.

Switching gears, I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons (in the original Red Box) when I was 8, and fell instantly in love. I’ve been a role-player ever since, and, as this site attests, have made ham-fisted attempts at making my own games. I’ve been doing that since I was, I think, 11.  I’ve played a laundry list of tabletop RPGs, and I’ve read and leared how to play several that I’ve never had the opportunity to try out.  I read rulebooks as casual reading, and I frequently keep one in the bathroom.  I try to keep up with the state of the industry (although I freely admit that I’m not very “with it” when it comes to indie games).   I love dice. I enjoy minis, although due to unsteady hands and a lack of patients for all things artistic within me, I tend to prefer the pre-painted ones. I dream of run

Dungeons & Dragons

Image by unloveablesteve via Flickr

ning a booth at Gen-con.

In short, when I started both hobbies, neither one was exactly what you’d call mainstream.  I do remember, however, that we tabletop role players called ourselves “gamers” long before the term referred to video gamers. We tabletop RPGers dealt with the idiotic cries of “concerned parents” and – moreso than video gamers have ever had to – persecution and outright slander/libel perpetrated by the religious right. Want proof? Here:

The first article is about as accurate as anything else put out by – which is to say not at all. There are not and have never been  specific ritual instructions in any Dungeons & Dragons manual. Saying that the creators went and consulted with an “Alexandrian tradition” witch who was also a Satanist is insulting to witches, satanists, D&D players, and the memory of Gary Gygax. It’s also phenomenally ignorant.

The second article talks about misconceptions concerning D&D players that apply to tabletop gamers and (to some extent) video gamers.

The third is a sad story, and I feel for the woman who wrote it. Suicide is a horrible thing, and I understand this mother’s need to understand what motivated her son to take his own life. That said, D&D is not a cult. It is not a religion, so that eliminates it from the definition provided in the article for cult, but even if it didn’t, D&D is still not a cult. It is not “extremist”, and it never makes any claims on being truth (in fact, it really only claims to be a shared imaginary experience, which is what it is). And – here’s the part I find most difficult to type – it did not kill this poor mother’s son.

At any rate, we tabletoppers have been the subject of the same idiocy. The primary difference is that Video Games have become much more mainstream than role playing games ever have been or ever will be, and so congress has gotten involved. Also, current and past Politicos in the U.S. Presidential administration seem to be of the belief that if they keep harping on video games, we U.S. citizens won’t notice what a craptastic job they’re doing.

I suppose that, if there is, in fact, a point to all this rambling it’s this: as a tabletop gamer and a video gamer, I can tell you that our hobbies aren’t that different. Both are associated with being anti-social despite being intensely social. Both are maligned by ignorant religious and political leaders. Both have had their day in court. Both are fun, both help forge friendship, and both have a interesting history that’s about the same length and has much in common.

We (meaning video and tabletop gamers) have a similar hobby. In fact, I can’t think of a single tabletoper who doesn’t enjoy video games. I can’t help but think that our mutual communities should be sharing things with each other, not the least of which is the name “Gamer”. So stop assuming that, when I say I’m a Gamer, I mean video games. I usually don’t, even though I play both. Let’s all come together and show the world that our hobby isn’t about being lonely, dysfunctional eff-tards.

We’re all Gamers together – but we tabletop gamers had the name first, dammit.

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