Why We Play (Certain) Video Games

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Fans Want To Know, And We Want To Answer

Hi Friends. This is Megan. While Devin is here with me this week, and may add his two cents in from time to time, I’ve noticed a question that I need to address. Whenever we cover cons and gaming events for GiN, people always ask why we love games so much. I mean covering events and reviewing products for a gaming magazine is a big deal. And people want to know what I get out of playing so many games.

This is Devin popping my head in real quick. Not to steal Megan’s thunder, but people don’t often ask me this question as much. I guess they just assume that guys love video games. Most of the time I get surrounded by people who tell me how cool my job is and ask how they can do the same thing. Sometimes over a few drinks I might even tell them the secret. But anyway, Megan has a much better story, so I’ll let her explain, and only interrupt again if my spidey senses start to tingle. Take it away Megan!

Thanks. Okay, when I was twelve years old, I saved the princess. You know the one. Princess Peach, the classic damsel in distress, held captive by the evil Bowser. If you played, then you know that, as fun as it was, Super Mario Brothers on the old Nintendo Entertainment System was no joke. The player had to beat eight worlds (okay, so I warped), dodging bullets, jumping on hostile creatures, swimming through enemy waters, and balancing on small brick stacks to keep from plummeting into chasms. The real difficulty was that there was no save-and-reload option. This was back in the day, when, if players ran out of lives, they just had to start all over again. Beating those old games required a special combination of patience, obsession, and a complete lack of other responsibilities in life (or the willingness to totally ignore those responsibilities for long stretches of time). It’s the kind of thing you could dedicate half of 7th grade to. I did.

And then I never touched another video game – except for Tetris, but everyone played Tetris – until I was 28 years old. Mario became a childhood memory as I navigated high school, college, and a career. When I did have occasion to think about video games, I secretly sneered at the grown-ups who still played. Gaming was a hobby for little brothers, or for sad, 40-year-old weirdo guys who lived in their mother’s basements.

When I was 27, a close female friend kick demanded that I play a video game called Knights of the Old Republic, claiming that I would LOVE it. She waxed rhapsodic about its characters, its storyline, it’s emotional power. She was already a gamer, so I doubted that her endorsement applied to me; I tried to tell her I wasn’t interested, but she was relentless. She pressed me repeatedly to give the game a try, and I promised repeatedly that I’d check it out if I had time. After a year of this, I finally felt guilty enough to go out and buy the PC version of the game. My intention: to play it for five minutes, tell her I had tried it, and get her off my back.

I loaded the game onto the computer. I fired it up. The first segment involved no actual gameplay, and it was remarkably fun: I got to design my own player character. I could choose whether the protagonist should be male or female. I could select her hair, nose, skin tone, facial shape, and even make-up style. I could decide whether to be a soldier, a scout, or a scoundrel. I could balance how strong, smart, and persuasive I wanted the character to be. And I could name her myself. I did all this quite happily, surprised that a video game would allow a player this kind of input and loving that I had such control over my avatar. In the end, I built a protagonist sort of like me – redheaded, green eyed, and pale. Unlike me, however, she was insanely beautiful and absurdly physically fit. Seeing this enhanced version of “myself” gave me a weird ego boost. This might actually be fun, I thought, not fully realizing what was already happening to me.

I was becoming invested.

Deeply invested.

After creating my character (a scout named Iara), I felt more excited about playing the game than I had anticipated. So I started playing. The game opened with blue text on a black screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” And then that rousing, soul stirring Star Wars theme music started up. Wonderfully familiar, scrolling yellow text floated across the darkness, setting up the story. I sat on my bed with my laptop on my knees, covered all over in goose bumps. I had always really liked Star Wars. I wasn’t a true Star Wars geek by any stretch of the imagination, but I was born in the mid-70s and grew up with Luke, Leia and Han as heroes. And here, with this game, was my chance to join them! My character would be one of them!

Is this how video games are now? I thought, stunned. AWESOME.

The camera panned down to reveal a starship, under attack and clearly outnumbered, and then the action cut to inside the vulnerable starship. There lay my character, asleep in a military cot, tossing and turning while the ship came under fire. But it was time for her to get up. Someone named Trask was there to wake her. It was time for her to spring into action and get to the bridge. Yes! I thought. Action! Now we’ll get to the story!

My character woke up.

And suddenly, the story was all on me. I realized abruptly, and with a sense of real panic, that the action of the game was now in my hands, and I was supposed to do something. Press a button or something.

What, like an arrow? Or the space bar? I stared at my keyboard, which was rendered completely alien to me. I had only ever used it to type. Could it do other stuff? I had no idea how to make it do other stuff.

The Trask guy was talking to me. A few dialogue options came up. I was supposed to choose my answer. He was asking me a question I didn’t understand, so I responded with another question, hoping he would help me figure out what to do. Instead, he told me that I must have hit my head, because I obviously already knew the answer to that question, and then he gave me some information in a sort of annoyed, rushed way. He told me to hurry up and get dressed so we could get to the bridge.

“You’re an asshole,” I said out loud to Trask.

Like he could hear me.

Then I started trying to take his advice. He said I was supposed to get dressed. Yeah, I probably needed armor or something. And a weapon. We were under attack, after all. Probably best not to go wandering the ship in underpants. I tried to run around the little room we were in, but didn’t know how to do it. Across the room, I saw a box. The box had a sort of target on it, making it clear to me that I needed whatever was in the box. What was I supposed to do? How did I get inside the box and get the things? I pressed a bunch of buttons. My character ran in a circle, then into the wall. I tried other buttons. Nothing happened. I finally got to the box, but for the life of me, I could not figure out how to make my character interact with it.

I became desperate.

“Open the box!” I commanded my character. “Come on, open the f*&$ing box!”

She ran into a wall. Nearby, Trask the asshole reminded me repeatedly that I needed to get dressed so we could get to the bridge. I started hoping that one of the missiles striking the ship would sail in and hit Trask right in the face. I was overcome with frustration. Stupid Trask. Stupid box. Stupid video games. What the hell was I playing this for, anyway? I had said I would try it. Well, I tried it. And I was done.

I turned it off and stalked away from the computer. I spent some time cursing and slamming things. I ate something. Probably ice cream. I can’t remember.

And then, struck by the first of many, many waves of obsessive force, I returned to the PC, turned on the game, and sat down to play it. It just can’t be that hard, I told myself. It’s a f&*ing box.

It was about eight hours before I looked up from my screen, stretched my neck, and realized what had happened.

I had become addicted.

I was in the seventh grade again. And there was no other world except the one that existed in Knights of the Old Republic. And I had to go to work the next morning. But I didn’t care. I did. Not. Care. I stayed up all night. I was lost. LOST.

How was this possible? What was it about this game that had blown away not only every one of my preconceived notions about games, but had made me capable of playing it so quickly when, only eight hours before, I had been a complete motor moron who could not open a box?

I realize that this is the point in the post where it seems like I’m going to write a review, or try to compel anyone reading this to give KotOR a try. But I can’t. It was a special experience for me, and I almost didn’t have it because I was prejudiced against games in general. But playing it opened a real can of worms. I was hooked. I replayed the game dozens of times. I wrote a lot of fanfiction. And I’ve played every BioWare game that’s been released since. I salivate over those release dates, waiting impatiently for them to arrive, knowing each new game will bring me 50 or 60 or 70 hours of delight and satisfaction.

The satisfaction is partly in really owning your protagonist. That character is yours and can feel very much like a projection of yourself. You choose your dialogue. You choose whether to play the light side or the dark side. You choose where to go and what to pick up and how to treat people. Certain elements of the story happen whether you like it or not, but many don’t. It’s about who you are, within the game. That in itself is addictive.

Ad to that the absolutely brilliant script writing and voice acting. The amazing plot. The flawed but lovable cast of characters. The romance options (oh yes, you can have a romance if you want to).

Add to that the fact that the game is very cinematic and that it’s set in the iconic Star Wars universe, where, eventually, you get to wield not only the Force, but your own lightsaber.

You can even have two lightsabers.

It’s just a winner. What can I say? Playing KotOR, particularly for the first time, was the kind of fun I hadn’t had in a very long time. Or maybe ever, where games are concerned. Yes, Super Mario Brothers is a true classic, and it was even fun, in its sick, punishing way. But KotOR was different. KotOR was just…wonderful.

I realize that many people might, like me, have heard from friends and family members who game that “The games I play have good stories! You should try them!” And then maybe you’ve picked up those games, and they’ve been real disappointments, because the people who recommended them are perfectly happy to play games with crappy stories as long as the gameplay itself is satisfying. Most games do not – DO NOT – have real stories. (I feel qualified to say this, because I am married to a “real” gamer who is also a professional game tester, and I have seen many, many games with crappy stories or with no stories at all played from start to finish.) Some games are fine without stories, because they are not about stories – they are about puzzles, quick reaction times, or skilled maneuvering in a variety of situations. Other games try to have epic stories but end up mostly with atmosphere (in some cases, like Bioshock, the atmosphere is so fabulous that you can almost be fooled into thinking the story is equally great). Many games, however, have stories that exist purely as a backdrop for the shooting. They’re kind of like porn in that way. The stories are ludicrous, the characters ridiculous, and you’re just there for the sex. Or the shooting. Whatever. Other stories are so complicated that you stop caring and you just start killing creatures and getting good gear and skipping all the dialogue, because the storylines, while present, don’t grab you on a personal level.

The BioWare games are not that. They are story-driven. And you have a constant, direct, personal influence on that story. Also, the combat is not as difficult as it is in other games you may have watched people play. You don’t have to be intimidated by KotOR in terms of actual gameplay, because you can pause in the middle of combat as many times as you want and decide what to do. The combat is also round-based (they get a turn, and then you get a turn). It doesn’t require serious skill. Obviously. Because I couldn’t even open a stupid box, and I got through it.

Other BioWare games do require a touch more skill. Jade Empire involves more real-time combat, the Dragon Age games require more tactical thoughtfulness, and the Mass Effect series requires a player to understand the basics of a shooter and to be able to essentially play one. However, I am not a serious gamer with serious skill, and I have been able to play the Mass Effect games just fine. I die sometimes. Okay, a lot. But that’s okay. Because the story pulls me along and makes me want to keep playing anyway. I’ve bought an Xbox and an Xbox 360 in order to play these games, and I do enjoy the consoles more than I enjoyed playing on the PC (for many reasons I won’t go into here), though after the initial PC experience, they did take some getting used to.

There are games out there that have excellent stories that cannot be influenced by the player but are still immensely compelling. Portal and Eternal Darkness are at the top of that list. And there are some games that are extremely fun and addictively immersive, even though their stories are of the extra-complicated, who cares anyway, let’s just wear awesome gear, ride dragons, and kill enemies variety. World of Warcraft comes to mind.

But if you’re a story person. If you’re a person who needs to be entertained. And if you’re a person who has no idea how to use a video game controller. Then KotOR is for you.

Okay, so I lied. I ended up sort of reviewing the game and also pretty much telling you to play it. So I guess I should at least mention some of its problems, because KotOR isn’t perfect at all. Combat becomes repetitive, and there are major pathing issues (characters block each other and trap each other in corners), and it’s an older game now, so it doesn’t look as good as most modern games do. Still, you should play it. If you want to.

But then, I didn’t want to.

And I’m so glad I did.

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