Making Progress in Video Games

As Clint and Erik noted a while ago, there are good ways and bad ways for a video game to tell you that you’ve done something important. It could be as simple as a little victory noise, like the “doo doo doo DOO!” in the Zelda games, and if you didn’t have Link holding up your new weapon triumphantly, it would lose a little something. Everyone and their mother know that video games are pointless and a waste of time, but if the game can give you that pleasing feedback, then that false sense of accomplishment will make the three hours you spent learning the level boss’ movement pattern all worth it.

I’m just kidding, kids. Video games are totally a valid art form and build hand eye coordination.

My wife avoids this problem by playing mostly puzzle and racing games, and those applications on her ipod involving lots of tapping on animals and fruit trees. Immediate gratification, immediate reward, and no bothering with a potentially awful narrative or slogging through sixty hours (so far) of the meandering and confusing “plot” of Final Fantasy XIII like a schmuck (me).

Most modern games seem to reward the player with tools. You cleared out the haunted castle infested with aliens? Here, have a bigger gun. Receiving a rocket launcher with a chainsaw duct taped to it is fun and all, but I like it when the reward is environmental. I would rather the positive change be for the group or the town I’m trying to save from the Nazi demons, rather than for myself. But that’s because I’m a communist, I guess. I like seeing my efforts restore that town to its former glory, hopefully with some neat sound effects and cool music.

Two games come to mind that do this pretty well: one old and one not as old but still probably kind of old to those damn kids on my lawn.

If you’d asked me five minutes ago, I couldn’t have told you the plot to Soul Blazer even though I played the thing at least twenty times in my youth. But in my research I was reminded of the story, which is very generic and unremarkable but then it’s not that important. Some evil spirit named Deathtoll (really?) has captured all of the world’s souls and trapped them in these monster …um, lairs/portals/things. You play this angel warrior guy who comes down to these various towns that are all empty except there’s always a cave with the monsters. You walk up to these portals and several monsters stream out of them to walk headfirst into your swinging sword. Once you defeat them all, the portal is now able to be activated which releases the soul of the person or animal or plant trapped inside (yes, even plants have souls, think about that vegetarians!). Sounds boring I know, but the fun part is the reward feedback you get for releasing the souls, namely a cool sound effect and the satisfaction of seeing the town spring back to life:

Love the pipe organ and the cool bass line. Add in the “padoo padoo padoo padoo!” sound and I get a warm feeling of “yes! I accomplished something!”
A more modern example of this would be the Zelda ripoff, Okami. I kid! The setting, the plot, the characters, the mechanics are nothing like Zelda. Unless you count Twilight Princess, and then yeah it’s totally like Zelda.

By which I mean there’s a big world map where sections have been taken over and corrupted by some shadowy demon, and Hyrule’s/Nippon’s only hope is a wolf with an annoying sprite sidekick. Area by area, they banish the shadowy demon’s influence with the help of a Light Spirit/Magic Brush. And thus the land is restored in a glorious and theatrical cutscene.

Whereas Soul Blazer restored places and people by piecemeal, Okami does it in a bigger, more dramatic fashion, with soaring and inspiring music:

Nature, fuck yeah!

Of course, Okami also rewards you with The Bigger Gun in the form of more weapons and abilities, but I find rewards like this cutscene somewhat more satisfying. If I’m supposed to care about this fake world on the other side of the screen that I’m trying to save, it’s nice when a game actually shows me the fruits of my endeavors.

In conclusion, I had this song stuck in my head the whole time I wrote this thing:

About Tim

Tim Bennett works for a publisher of science and technology, amongst other things.
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