The genius blind spot
So long, asshole

A good day for gamers

Smile_by_hatethisfool_2 This is a happy post. No whining about cutscenes, complex controls, or stereotyped characters. No lamenting the infancy of the medium. No wishing for games to be more or better than they are right now. This is a buoyant, contented post brought on by a series of recent experiences and a bit of reflection.

In the afterglow of GTA IV and MGS4 - and I choose that term quite deliberately - I've been thinking about how these two AAA titles have provoked us to consider, analyze and debate the current state of video games and the road ahead. Whatever you may think about these games, they unquestionably demonstrate a commendably high degree of ambition and commitment to excellence.

The creative teams that built these games clearly poured everything they had into them, and one senses an unmistakable authorial signature woven into both. These games stake their claims on delivering a clearly-defined set of experiences, and neither shy away from addressing ideas or advancing points of view. We may interpret them in a variety of ways, but GTA IV and MGS4 clearly attempt to reflect on the world we live in, and they do so in often bold and critical ways.

And they're such different games. The sandbox vs. the predefined path; shooting and carjacking mayhem vs. stealth and geopolitical intrigue; Western vs. Eastern design aesthetic. It's tempting to juxtapose GTA IV and MGS4 and interpret what we see as a snapshot of the modern video game landscape. Toss in World of Warcraft and Wii Fit, and there you have it. The state of video games in 2008.

But, of course, that's wrong. I think what excites me more than anything else about video games is the way they consistently confound such simple-minded thinking. Today's gaming landscape is significantly more complex and nuanced than it was 10 years ago. A gamer today - even someone jumping in for the first time - has so many terrific options, so many possible points of entry, that I can't imagine a better time than now to be a gamer.

One commenter to my previous post has been urging us to revisit interactive fiction games, which can now be played within a modern browser, no interpreter needed. There's a thriving community of gamers writing and playing these games. If this kind of gaming floats your boat, it's out there. I recently wrote about ARGs and wished for a game experience that blended real and fictional worlds in imaginative ways. A commenter recommended an entire community of creators and players.

Hardly a week goes by that I don't hear from an Earthbound fan, just interested in discussing the game, wondering if I've played it, eager for conversation.

On the recommendation of a friend, I decided to load up Oblivion again (PC version) the other day. As with many such games, the modding community has managed to significantly alter what this game looks and plays like. If you're interesting in playing with games in ways that go beyond simply "playing" them, you've got more free tools than ever available to you, and more games to mod.

A former student visited me recently and asked to see Mario Kart Wii. When I turned on the system, he saw the main screen and said, "You can play Super Mario World on this?" He had no idea. He nearly fainted when I showed him my other VC titles. A blogger friend recently reported on his experience re-playing Chrono Trigger. If it's old games you want, they're out there (though you may need to do a bit of nefarious prep to play some of them).

I've been plowing through some RPGs for possible inclusion in my RPG seminar this fall. Load up DOSBox, and there's Pool of Radiance from the old SSI Gold Box series. It's like a revelation. I had all sorts of trouble playing these games when they were released, mainly due to hardware incompatibilities. Today, they're nearly all available for little or no money and easily playable on my Mac, PC, or even Linux. If I run into trouble, I can nearly always find help online in less than 5 minutes.

My wife plays Picross on her DS when she can't sleep. My niece plays Nintendogs with my sister. I'm turning Burnout Paradise into a demolition derby with a bunch of guys I've never met from Europe. On Thursday nights I meet up with a couple of colleagues in Lord of the Rings Online to discuss a project we're working on together. We voice-chat while we level up and traverse Middle Earth. My in-laws visited a few weeks ago. They're big movie fans. We played Scene It and had a blast.

I played Rez HD yesterday with my new way-cool headphones and couldn't stop smiling.

A good friend of mine likes to send me Meebo chat messages in the window you see to the left. He always appears under the name of a different character from a Hitchcock film. I'm challenged to name the film with no Wikipedia assist. This, of course, is yet another kind of game. :-)

Yes, video games must evolve. Yes, video games need their own language. There will always be much to do, and I'm not suggesting we stand pat. But could I be enjoying games more than I am now? Will gaming be more satisfying to me when the next phase emerges? I wonder.