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Sidequest 3(DS): Fire Emblem, Etrian Odyssey, and Shin Megami Tensei

[I love games, but the older and busier I get, the less time I have to play them. Being as book-minded as I am, I’m mostly drawn to games with compelling and intricate stories. In this column I share some of my game playing experiences that I think might be of interest to fellow book nerds. You can read previous installments here.]

I’m finding myself increasingly tired of most video games. In recent months I’ve found myself less and less willing to sit in front of a TV with a controller in my hand. I can’t remember the last time I turned on my Xbox, and if it weren’t for the Virtual Console and today’s re-release of the excellent Wind Waker, my Wii U would be in the same dusty boat.

I still do carve out some play time during my commute to school, or while watching football or listening to podcasts before bed. For many, the iPad (or some other tablet) has filled this space nicely, but I’m sticking with my 3DS.

I have an iPad and I love it; I hate playing games on it. Sure, there are a handful of outstanding games on iOS (some favorites: Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP; Year Walk, the overpriced Final Fantasy Dimensions), but for the most part, it’s full of shovelware garbage. With few exceptions, I don’t find seeing how long I can keep a dude from running into a wall, or constantly tapping little buildings to collect one kind of money to buy other little buildings that the little guy in the corner constantly reminds me I can get with less taps if I pony up my real money on some second in-game currency to be even remotely fun after about 5 minutes. (And yes, I admit I fell down a Tiny Tower hole a couple years back, until I realized playing it was closer to ant farming than actually doing something fun.)

I’m not usually one to evangelize, but if you spend more than an hour or so a week mind-rotting with these sort of apps, you should really considering getting a Nintendo 3DS. It’s the one device I still use with any sort of regularity for playing games, and has come to rival the Super Nintendo in my mind as the best video game device I’ve ever owned.

Yes, for the the first year or so it was overpriced and there was a real dearth of things to play on the damn thing, but the price has dropped the two models (I prefer the XL) to the sub-$200 range and a third, budget-cost, non-3D model is coming in October; the eShop has built up a respectable selection of bit-sized, above average downloadable games unrivaled on iOS; and so far in 2013 it’s delivered not one, but three of the best RPGs (my bread and butter) that I’ve played in a very long time–as well as a growing library of pretty darn good games.
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Sidequest 2: Actual Sunlight and Depression Quest

[I love games, but the older and busier I get, the less time I have to play them. Being as book-minded as I am, I’m mostly drawn to games with compelling and intricate stories. In this column I share some of my game playing experiences that I think might be of interest to fellow book nerds. You can read previous installments here.]

I came across a couple indie games–if you want to call them that, there’s not much playing–and was struck in such a way that I wanted to talk about it. It’s going to get a little heavy from here, so heads up.

I have major depressive disorder. It’s something I’ve dealt with pretty much my entire adult life; sometimes I’m able to cope with it well, and other times I’ll go through extended periods of struggle that are as seemingly endless as George R. R. Martin’s winters.

One of the most difficult hurdles of depression, and what make it a real son of a bitch, is that it runs counter to logic. I’m perfectly aware if I’m being too hard on myself, or if I’m making a decision I know I’ll regret, or that I should be finding pleasure in certain things. I can sit down and think or write about it rationally. Then I won’t follow through with any plans to adjust things, at least not when I’m in the depths of an episode. It’s like my id locks me in a box and puts my body on autopilot toward a brick wall. I scream at myself inside my head to pay attention and change course, but the rest of me isn’t listening.

Feeling helpless inside your own body is a horrible experience. And it helps perpetuate the negative emotions, pushing you down even deeper, convinced of your ineffectual helplessness. Usually I am able to wrest back control and swerve at the last minute, but not everyone is so lucky to miss that wall.

Actual Sunlight
2013, Will O’Neill
Available for: PC

Actual Sunlight was created by one man, and the whole thing will take you about a half hour start to finish. (Unfortunately you need Windows to run it currently.) It tells the story of a young man, Evan, who suffers from depression. You guide him as he goes to work, rides out the day, goes home, gets drunk and eats junk food, and repeats it all the next day. You control Evan with the arrows on your keyboard, but very few options are put before you. You have to go to work. You have to talk to your boss. You have to stop at the store for junk food and video games, despite Evan’s narration telling you how much he really doesn’t want to be doing that.

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Sidequest 1: The Walking Dead

As I’ve let on in my now-yearly video game list posts, as well as the odd C4 Recommends (and even a little in the podcast editing and a couple of places around the site for the more sleuthy nerds), I play a fair amount of video games for someone approaching 30.

I’ll spare you a soliloquy on the merits of videogames as a valid–in some cases exceptional–medium for fiction, as much as film and even many books (though if you want one, this article on the history of video game storytelling is pretty interesting). Instead, I’ll just say that since I was a kid both games and books have served a similar purpose for me. The older I get, the more I realize that both mediums provide an escape that is vital for my mental health.

Anyway, I figured since most of the games I enjoy have qualities similar to the books I like, I ought to take advantage of the platform C4 allows me and share some of the more literary-tinged game experiences I come across. My aim is to do one of these every 2-3 months, but it could be a lot more or less often. It will be entirely dependant on what games I have time to play, and if any of those fit the bill.

So with that, here’s the first installment of Sidequests:

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The Walking Dead

2012, Telltale Games

Available for: XBox, PS3, Steam, iOS

The primary distinction between book fiction and game fiction is agency. I’ve always thought of a book as a conversation between an author and myself, and indeed I write constantly in my books. But (with a select few exceptions) it’s still a largely one-sided affair.

Games, on the other hand, are all about choice. Since the early days of text adventures, there’s always been a niche for storytelling and even a modicum of narrative input (anyone reach the end of the old NES game Dragon Warrior and remember getting the choice to pull a Darth Vader and swear fealty to the final boss rather than fight him?). It’s true, too many games merely use story as a backdrop for action. But increasingly studios are taking the player agency inherent in their games and incorporating real choice into how the story plays out.

The Walking Dead takes this a step forward, largely cutting out the game part, and instead focusing on story and choice. Sure, you have to walk around at times and there are a few (rather terrible) shooting sections; those parts are few and forgettable, but they are still there. Despite those, this game is brilliant, one of the best I played last year.
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