What I’m Playing (And What I’ve Learned)

A few days ago, Justin posted about what he’s playing and what he’s learning from them. Like him, I play a lot of games for research as much as I do for enjoyment. I’ve been meaning to talk about this a bit, so I decided to post what I’ve been playing from the last few months, and what I’m learning from each game.

Assassin’s Creed II: I didn’t play Assassin’s Creed I, but I had heard so many positive reviews of the franchise that I played it soon after David was finished. I loved it so much that I went out and bought the first one after I finished it (which I didn’t like as much, I admit). I learned a lot about ways to introduce small snippets of background without being intrusive or taking total control from the player, as I find the historical elements and how the gameplay weaves around them to be utterly engaging.

Dragon Age – Origins: An interesting look back at BioWare‘s roots through the lens of modern console gaming. I personally think the game was a little too ambitious – the story gets pretty flat in the middle to accommodate all the story options, and I found the combat system to be irritating – but it was enjoyable, and I logged about 30 hours from start to finish. BioWare’s narrative structure is always worth studying, even if it wasn’t implemented as well as I would have liked.

Mass Effect 2: On the other hand, I found this to be a good balance between shooter and RPG. The story is a little more straightforward than the original Mass Effect, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Like the Assassin’s Creed franchise, this shows that you can change up your gameplay while staying on target with the core elements of your franchise.

Star Trek Online: It’s not very Star Trek, and it’s not very online, but this is a fun, casual MMO despite all that. I learned that this uses the Champions Online engine, and I can see aspects of that (changing my ship’s appearance, for example, gave me a pop-up of “Costume Changed!”) It’s another look at franchise elasticity, though (although it may have stretched a bit too far in this case).

Dungeons and Dragons Online: It’s yet another fantasy MMO, but the game doesn’t shy away from its tabletop gaming roots. There’s actually a Dungeon Master voiceover that narrates certain portions of your adventure, and there are more puzzles and traps than I recall being in World of Warcraft. And hey, free to play (though there are lots of microtransactions built into the game). As a good intersection of tabletop RPGs and MMOs, it’s good to study and see what’s being used from each format.

Torchlight: Have you played Diablo? Then you’ve probably played Torchlight. It’s an evolution on the “click on it until it dies” style of gameplay, but it has a certain life and color that I never got from Diablo. Plus, it runs on my little netbook, so it’s great to sneak in a half-hour of gameplay once in a while (although the loading screens do take slightly longer than forever).

Roguelikes: (Yes, technically Torchlight is a roguelike too – shut up.) I have a weird relationship with NetHack – I think it scratches the same itch for me that Diablo did, and the ASCII graphics add a certain old-school charm that I find appealing. But I found the gameplay of NetHack lacking, so I poked around and found Angband, which felt much closer to what I wanted. (I also found DoomRL, but that’s more of a de-evolution than anything else.) When I picked up Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the PS3, I was surprised to find Fatal Labyrinth in there – Sega’s version of these games, so I played the hell out of that for a day.

I think what I find more interesting about these games is that, despite the heavily random nature of the game, narratives start to come out regardless as the player puts the random elements into some semblance of order. Granted, it’s not a complex or excessively engaging narrative, but it does end up making a weird kind of sense. Plus, beating stuff up is fun.

Phantasy Star IV and Shining Force II: I used to enjoy Japanese RPGs (JRPGs), and when I found a number of them tucked on that Genesis collection disc, I wanted to see if I still enjoyed them. Some of them didn’t age well, but these two really stuck out for me. PSIV is a more traditional console RPG – get a party, kill random monsters in a turn-by-turn scenario, collect and upgrade your weapons, and sometimes get some story elements. SFII is similar, but more tactical – you get a lot of heroes, but you’re fighting a lot of monsters, and placement and resource management are more relevant. I was surprised at how attached I could still get to characters, even if I didn’t have a fully-rendered cutscene to tell their story.

Mutant Future: I was always more of a fan of sci-fi and superhero RPGs when I was growing up (except for D&D – I played the hell out of some red box D&D), and I have been running a short campaign of this game over lunch at work for the past few months partly out of nostalgia. This Gamma World clone gets a lot of the trappings right, even if the core system isn’t exactly the same. I also wanted to play a game where the excessive random elements played into the story a bit, more explicitly following that “random elements create a narrative” aspect I was noticing in the roguelikes. I’ll be wrapping this up soon (I find the system unfortunately a little too clunky for my liking), but I learned quite a bit from running it for a time.

D&D 4e: I admit – when this game first game out, I wasn’t a fan. I liked 3rd edition just fine. More accurately, I liked the idea of 3rd edition just fine, as I wasn’t actually playing in any 3rd edition games. And yet, I’m in so many 4th edition games that I had to drop one to balance the other two out. It’s just fun. It reminds me of what I used to like when I played D&D as a kid while appealing to my adult sensibilities of design logic and ease of play. I also admit that this is one of the games I play out of sheer enjoyment, rather than out of design considerations (though I have learned a bit as well from it).

What games are you playing, and (if you’re a game designer or writer) what have you learned from them?

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