Sunday Nibble #80: Not playing around

(I can’t believe I’ve written 80 of these by now. Wow.)

I was thinking about the film Free Guy recently because it’s still being advertised in the media. Well, at least online, but I suspect it’s a bizarre case of, “Oh — you already bought it, so we’re going to show you more and more ads for it because our algorithms are too stupid to realize that movies are not like milk or eggs.”

Anyway, I realized that it was kind of surprising how much I really liked the movie despite not being a big gamer at all.

Okay, that’s not quite correct. Like most kids of the Information Age, I dropped plenty a quarter into one video game or another over my formative years and absolutely haunted the arcade on my college campus — well, for a short while, anyway.

It got to the point where I couldn’t close my eyes at night without seeing the sprites from my favorite games flying past my eyes. Plus, my right elbow started to hurt. So, I toned it down a lot once I was past my Freshman year — which was one semester long because AP credits from high school made me a Sophomore in my second semester.

I could have graduated early but instead, since I got to opt out of a number of core classes that would otherwise have been required, I had plenty of extra room to take on a minor. So, being the little over-achiever that I was, I added two.

They were Abnormal Psychology and Theatre, and yes, those both go hand-in-hand and were especially helpful with my screenwriting emphasis in my Communications Major.

No need to critique the poor life choices I made when I was around 18 and 19. I’ve spent plenty of time since then doing it myself.

But that was the first strike against me becoming a hardcore gamer like a lot of my friends did: Not a lot of time in which to do it.

Oh, sure. I had gotten into side-scrollers, but those were also the ones that gave me weird nocturnal visions and which I ran out of time for anyway. The second strike was that I really had no interest in FPS games of any sort, nor with MMORPGs.

Translation for non-nerds and/or people who wouldn’t know a Poké Ball from a Dragon Ball, or a Pokédex from a Rolodex, but who would know what the hell a Rolodex was:

FPS stands for “First-Person Shooter,” which is basically a game in which you take on the role of the protagonist, see everything from their POV mostly (unless you choose a different camera angle) and proceed to blast the shit out of whatever enemies you come across with an increasingly powerful array of weapons that gain their powers as you “level up.” (There’s a freebie definition for you.)

Generally, it’s all about running around, collecting valuable objects like coins or health points, moving up levels by completing missions and killing off mini-bosses and (see above) blasting the shit out of whatever enemies you come across.

Generally, these games end when you meet the Final Boss, and you damn well better have all of your weapons and health points and everything else maxed out and come in with everything blazing, because if you don’t you will lose here by having the shit blasted out of you in two seconds.

As for the other one, the unpronounceable so it’s an initialism and not an acronym “MMORPG” stands for “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.”

You can probably tell from the definition, but while FPS games are as old as computers and consoles with the speed and graphics sufficient to handle them (i.e., the 1980s), MMORPGs were not even possible until the internet existed and until everyone had a connection fast enough to make it feasible to play without constantly lagging or glitching out.

Not that those still aren’t problems, of course.

The RPG part of it is probably vaguely familiar to anybody who’s ever heard the infamous phrase “Dungeons & Dragons,” because that’s exactly what it is. Well, generically, at least. Players go into an invented world with its own lore and rules, create a character to play, are assigned attributes based on whatever formula the game uses, and then team up and go from there.

Typically, there might be anywhere from five to eight types of characters, which will broadly cover occupations like soldier, healer, magician/shaman, leader/royalty, non-human supernatural entity, wizard, and so on. A typical team may comprise only one each of the more powerful types, like magicians, leaders, and wizards, but have multiple players in the other roles — within limits, of course.

Too big a team can get unwieldy quickly, though, so there are usually pretty reasonable limits.

It does sound fun in practice, right? Yeah, but not so much in theory for two reasons. One is that you’re playing with a whole bunch of other people. Two is that you can communicate with each other, originally just in chat but more recently via voice as well.

Did I mention that for a lot of games, there are no age-restrictions, so you wind up with a major fanbase of tween and teen boys awkwardly mixed in with everyone older? It can get very toxic very fast because tween and teen boys are basically major assholes when you hand them a controller, stick them front of a screen, and give them the power to mouth off anonymously using a screen name that more likely than not has the word “Dick” in it and ends with the number 69.

I’m not really big on collaborating in games anyway that are not face-to-face (IRL or Zoom) and not played with people I actually know, so that’s why I give MMORPGs a hard pass.

As for FPS games, I’m just not a big fan of running around and blowing shit up — and this gets back to the gigantic irony of me really liking Free Guy so much. See, the whole conceit of that movie is that our hero, Guy, is a non-playable character (NPC) in a game very much like the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series.

If you’ve really, really been living under a rock… the GTA games are in the category of open-world action-adventure, with some of the installments approaching the level of being RPGs and others sticking more toward being FPS.

As for open-world, I think that it’s really what computer gaming was created for and, done right, it can be fantastic. Open-world means that game play takes place in an unlimited (sort-of) map and you are free to wander wherever you want to without being constrained to a single path or mission.

In fact, that idea is the whole point of the ending of Free Guy, but you’ll just have to see it to get it.

I did try to get into exactly one open-world game, and that was L.A. Noire. It was a third-person‑ish RPG in which the player is a fledgling LAPD detective paired with a succession of senior partners through the streets of 1947 downtown Los Angeles, and that setting was one of the two things that got me interested.

The other was that a friend of mine had done the motion-capture and voice and was the physical model for one of the suspects in one of the many cases in the game.

But I never really made it that far because the interface and controls were just so wonky. Maybe it would have worked better with an actual controller or joystick, but trying to walk or drive the characters anywhere always wound up slamming them into walls.

That, and it also required creating an account with yet another online game host. Sorry, but computers have this thing called local storage, graphics cards, and memory, so I really should not have to play any game I paid for on anything other than my own computer onto which I installed it.

If you’re keeping score, that’s another major gaming pet peeve. Keep it local, goddammit. I don’t need to access the cloud to play — just like I shouldn’t have to access the cloud to edit Word or Excel documents. There’s a reason I’m sitting on three terabytes of storage, after all — it’s so I don’t have to share it with Microsoft, Amazon, Google, or any of the other robber barons riding our necks to try to squeeze out our last dollar.

But I do digress. The final nail in the coffin for L.A. Noire was that gameplay mechanics made it really unclear what changed based on the reaction you gave to an interrogation. Ask a question, then you can either believe the witness, doubt them, or accuse them of lying — then watch as their response to that was not particularly helpful.

But cross FPS games and MMORPGs off the list because I never got into playing with others in the same virtual space and I really never got into the “let’s shoot anything that moves” mindset. What I did discover was my absolute joy over a computer’s ability to simulate pretty much anything.

Hell, in my early coding forays in high school when we barely had graphics, everything I tried to create was designed to simulate something in the real world. The backend for that was sexy as hell. Gather your statistics, stick ‘em in a table, use these and algorithms to determine turn-based outcomes, and ta-da!

Create an economy, an ecosystem, a city, a planet, whatever — and let what happened to it be determined by player input.

Ironically, I’ve basically just described the computerized version of an RPG. And, okay, I have no real issue with those because, in fact, when I did get my game nerd on, I was totally dedicated to a sub-genre of RPGs.

These would be simulation games, just like the ones I tried to cook up myself, except that I always managed to muck up the code in a fashion similar to the hilarious but just an urban legend story of Nuclear Gandhi from the game Civilization, who’d start dropping A-Bombs on everyone as soon as India’s aggression level dropped.

See, apparently, Gandhi’s starting level was at 1. India becoming a Democracy dropped the score by 2 points, and because of the way the original programming handled math, when Gandhi’s number went negative, it rolled back to the biggest possible 8-bit number, 255, so… bombs away!

Cool story, bro, but it never happened.

Oh… I was never a fan of Civilization either, because it had one of those other features I really hated about games — turn-based outcomes. That is, as everyone’s turn came up, they would take their sweet time adding tokens or points or whatever here or there to the various units they’d deployed all over the map, then the big old hand of fate would move ahead and everything would be re-calculated and changed.


The first simulation game I stumbled upon and liked was something called Life & Death, and I remember picking it up really cheap in the bargain bin at whatever local computer geek big box store was still around at the time because it was after the sequel came out.

The game was simple genius. It managed to work even on VGA systems in four colors, and put you in the role of an abdominal surgeon who would have to diagnose and then operate to fix various conditions, like appendicitis, kidney stones, and a heart aneurism.

It was not about killing people to get stuff — it was about saving people and learning, and it was kind of awesome. I have to say “Kind of,” because I never actually managed to make it through any of those operations and keep the patient alive.

Kind of ironic, too, that nowadays at least these operations now frequently just involve shoving a tube up a vein and either using a tiny lariat, a burst of sound, or a little balloon to fix things.

If you’d like, you can still play both the original Life & Death and its sequel Life & Death 2: The Brain online in all their low-res glory.

But then a company called MAXIS came along, releasing the holy grail in a game called SimCity. It sounds like just what it says on the tin: You create a simulated city.

Oh, sure — there were obstacles and disasters to overcome, but it didn’t involve shooting anybody, but did involve a lot of collaboration to make deals with neighboring cities that were either created by the computer or which you created yourself.

It went through various iterations over the years, and really hit it big with SimCity 4, Which took the 3D graphics and everything else to entirely new levels. There was really no winning goal or clear endpoint. The joy of the game was pure creativity, and that was it.

Eventually, MAXIS got sucked up by the evil empire known as EA, and their “improvement” on SimCity was to completely destroy it through a bastardization called SimCity Societies.

I actually bought this one at a “Going Out of Business” fire sale at Circuit City when it went tits up, and I think I paid maybe five bucks for a game that had originally retailed at nearly $70. Oops!

I only tried to play it about twice, though, because EA (via a third party) had taken everything out of SimCity that made it so enjoyable — zoning, watching neighborhoods develop, building roads and subways and monorails, dropping in to watch your citizens wander around the place, and so on. Instead, they focused on everything that made it tedious.

That is, construction was pretty much one building at a time, there was no coherent road-building system, and everything really relied on micromanaging and tweaking the attributes of each particular building based on the kind of residents who lived there and their wants.

Yeah, basically, it brought back the worst parts of RPGs.

The final nail went into that coffin when Microsoft decided that the DMCA controls that had been put on original CDs of all the games became a security risk, so it wasn’t even possible to install or run them anymore after Windows 7.

Yeah, fuck you Bill Gates. Why include the ability to run a program as if it’s on an older version of Windows if you’re still going to tell us we can’t?

At least MAXIS gave us The Sims, in which we get to drill down to focus on one household within the greater simulated city, and control the lives of the people who live there — although some people take it to extremes.

I haven’t tested yet whether I can actually install The Sims on my current computer, but I might try some day when I have time. That and Rollercoaster Tycoon, which is probably the best of all because, unlike most of the others, it has a design/sandbox mode where you’re not playing for any points or rewards, and you just get to build and test rides all day long.

And that is the awesome part of gaming.

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