BRETT MCCALLON | AT PLAY | September 12th 2008 Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
For the last few weeks, Brett McCallon has been playing a violent version of dolly dress-up with a virtual avatar made of 3D polygons. And he is not ashamed...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Here's a quick recap of how I've spent the past few weeks (when not fleeing tropical weather disturbances): I've been battling mechanical trolls, goblins, dark elves and other miscreants in an ancient, yet technologically advanced version of Norse mythology. After these battles, I search through their vanquished remains, equipping my cybernetic God with exotically named armour and weapons that aid him in his quest to quash every piece of mobile artificial intelligence on the battlefield.
Basically I have been playing a violent version of dolly dress-up with a virtual avatar made of 3D polygons. And thoroughly enjoying myself.
"Too Human", the recent Xbox 360 release that has been taking up all of my time, has endured a development saga stretching back more than a decade. Developed by Silicon Knights, it has been greeted by decidedly mixed reviews from the gaming press, and its flaws are pretty clear to anyone who plays it. The game, which is meant to be the first of a trilogy, does a rather poor job of setting up a story that is supposed to carry across two more titles. It features dialogue and cut-scenes that are surprisingly ham-fisted for a developer known for delivering interesting, nuanced narratives in its previous games. (This is a great, if highly snarky, list of the game's greatest dialogue miscues.)
That's not to say that "Too Human" doesn't have strengths--there are plenty of different attacks and defensive moves available, especially for a game in this genre, and it allows players to rampage through any level co-operatively, bringing a friend along for the ride through the 360's Xbox Live online gaming service. Players can also customise each character's innate powers and abilities. Still, its faults are hard to ignore: for a game that is so completely focused on combat, there are very few types of enemies available, and journeying through the game's rather sterile environments can make the whole thing seem quite rote after a while.
So why have I dropped more than 20 hours into this game? Why do I wish I were playing it, instead of writing this column right now? Why is it so addictive?
The answer is simple. The game provides a steady supply of increasingly powerful and interesting weapons, armour and equipment for my character. This "loot" produces--while I hate to compare myself to a rodent--a Skinner-esque hold on my faculties, driving me to dispatch more and more enemies in a quest to replace, for example, my "Pure Hardpoint Pauldrons of Precision" with "Proficient Web-Brace Vambraces of Fortune". I can't help myself. The feeling of increased power and ability is subtle, yet significant, and it keeps me coming back for more until suddenly it's 2 o'clock in the morning.
Acquiring better skills and finer equipment (ie, loot) with each progressive level is a typical feature of role-playing games, particularly when players can choose a character with a special skill (eg, swordsman, magician). These games feed our very human urge to acquire stuff. The effect is predictable: cool new weapons are used to defeat tougher new enemies, yielding yet more, better stuff. It's a remarkably effective way to keep otherwise cerebral people playing somewhat insipid games. It has underpinned some of the most popular and beloved series in gaming (including the legendary "Diablo" series, which helped to inspire "Too Human").
In role-playing games with hundreds or thousands of simultaneous players (known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing games, or MMO), the effect of loot becomes less about gameplay and more about keeping up with the Joneses. Players want their characters dressed in and equipped with the finest, rarest, hardest-to-get items (which, not coincidentally, are what videogame artists lavish the most attention on), because their characters exist in a highly social playspace in which everyone can see their finery. It's like wearing new clothes to the first day of school.
In fact, in many Asian MMO role-playing games, the games themselves are free to play, while the most desirable equipment, clothing and other virtual items are considered "premium" content, for which players are expected to pay. Current estimates peg the value of virtual items sales at over $1 billion. In many of these games, players are paying real-world currency in order to avoid having to pour the tens or hundreds of hours into the game that would otherwise be required in order to create a similarly equipped character.
For example, "World of Warcraft", an MMO that is perhaps the most successful game ever made (boasting over 9m paying subscribers, at around $15/month), is not content to simply let loot be a reward for a player's achievements. The game's developer, Blizzard Entertainment, has also designed in-game auction houses where players can pony up for rare items. Indicatively, Blizzard's's revenues exceeded $1 billion last year.
Not everyone thinks that loot in its many forms is such a good thing. Jonathan Blow, a thoughtful designer (whose recent game "Braid" was the subject of my last column), has been outspoken in his insistence that "scheduled rewards", like loot systems, dumb down videogames. They create environments in which players earn prizes for bludgeoning their way through to the next level, not for exhibiting cleverness or making any kind of discovery.
It is true that there is little substance to the rewards in games like "Too Human" (though I wish everyone could see the sweet helmet I discovered on my third run through the Ice Forest level). Lord knows I can't brag to my family about it--not even to my two-year-old child.
Sure, the game's attempts at artistic merit fall very flat. But not every gaming experience has to be more than a simple, gratifying feedback loop (indeed, some readers may be surprised to learn that gaming can ever be more than that). Frankly, I am not ashamed of the time I've spent slashing through hordes of evil machines on a quest for better swords and cannons. Really, I can't help myself.
Picture credit: Jake of 8bitjoystick.com/flickr
(Brett McCallon is a writer based in New Orleans. His last gaming column was "Warping Time and Cheating Death in 'Braid'")