Saturday, March 21, 2015

The working class or busy student gamer survival guide

There are a lot of things that we talk about gaming everyday, but it is not too often that we get into the topic of how our gaming experience changes as we get older. I'm sure anybody over 25 (unless you are rich or have somebody paying for your hobby) can relate to this, as reality and life itself clashes with the things you love to do (like gaming). Today I am going to do a little guide that gives some tips on how to keep your gaming experience as intact as possible while at the same time tending to your adulthood. Now, without any more delay, let's jump right in.

I have nothing to play
Nothing to play... If you only dedicated 20 minutes to each game or course.
1) Focus your gaming time into whatever you want the most.
You may remember the days where gaming meant play everything and master every game you touch. Well, if you are reading this it is possible that this is not so easy for you as it was 5-10 years ago. At times you most likely feel like you are not enjoying your game so much and this is because you are not advancing as much as you would like in the games that you play. You may play that epic story based game you bought for a while, but then all of a sudden you change to an online multiplayer, played a couple hours and went back to your epic solo adventure to play a little more and so on, giving scraps to each game.

At the end of the week you will notice that you haven't really progressed that much in either of them and that pisses you off and makes you feel like you wasted money on both, but before you quit gaming altogether, know that there is a solution to that problem and that is to choose a side. If you want to play your solo adventure to the very end then stick to it. If you just want to play with your friends, level up, complete the game while playing with others or just compete with other players, then do it. There is no wrong option as long as you stick to it and enjoy it. Believe me when I tell you that trying to do everything at once is just as waste of time after which you will end up with a bunch of unfinished games piling up and reminding you about how little free time you now have, its depressing.

Simpsons Mob
Almost impossible to avoid once you get focused.
2) Be prepared for a backlash.
If you are already a focused gamer, then you most probably have received a lot of criticism because of it. This rather unpleasant situation happens when focusing your gaming time to fit what you want to play when you want to play it, makes you look like an asshole in front of other people. When other gamers that are close to you (like friends or siblings) have more free time than you or when they just have different interests, they will see you like an outcast because you are not flowing into their collective. This is completely normal and no reason for you to feel discouraged.

What you need to do is to be prepared and stand your ground. After all, you buy games for your entertainment so just don't let anybody tell you what to play or when to play it. If you at some point coincide with them, then enjoy it to the fullest, but don't dedicate yourself to following the opinions of others because you no longer have the time to afford such luxury. You are no longer the 17 year old kid who could please everybody because you could play all day, everyday so grow a backbone and play whatever suits you at the moment, regardless of any criticism or peer pressure.

Gaming vs distractions
You decide who wins...
3) Forget about modern distractions while you play.
Gaming in this day and age is not the same as it used to be. Back in the past, a gamer's environment was most likely composed of a gaming console/pc and a tv/monitor (with the occasional gaming magazines thrown around the room). Now the current gaming environment has a lot more distractions coming from an always connected world. Now you have social networks, instant messaging applications, push notifications, email notifications, different types of news in your face all the time and all those kinds of modern life components that are quite useful... If you are not trying to play a video game.

Trying to get immersed into a game world or just enjoying a play session with your friends becomes really annoying when the cellphone is always getting in the way, your computer is full of people trying to make small talk (getting angry if you don't respond) or web services are bombarding you with information that takes you away from the game. The best thing you can do against all this is to temporarily ignore them or get some auto-messaging software that can tell people that you are busy. (if any of you know about a good one for Facebook I would be glad if you could share it with me). Contrary to popular belief, doing this is really good for your social life, because then when you spend time with somebody you will not be ignoring him/her in 10 minute intervals because you just cannot put your eyes away from your phone screen.

Burned out brain
Believe it or not, burn out also applies to gaming.
4) Whatever you do avoid burn out (not the game).
The fact that you like certain types of games doesn't mean that you have to be only playing that. Tip #1 may had been about focusing your gaming time, but that doesn't mean playing the same thing until you hate it. From time to time you need to take a breather and play something simple. Getting one of those mobile time wasters (without falling into the micro-transaction scam), downloading some demos or trying some indie games can be real good to your overall gaming experience. This kind of thing makes you feel relaxed and eases the tension of a gaming industry that moves a lot faster than you can follow. In fact, it doesn't even have to be about gaming, as you could just go outside, take a nap, watch a movie or any other one of those things you like to do beside gaming.

This kind of thing is also an old trick used to clear your mind when you get stuck in a game. Instead of spending more time than you have, trying to get past that nasty boss, just get off from the game for a while and try something else. Neuroscientists say that the human brain pieces together information way after initially getting it, so give some rest to your organic computer and let it work while you think on something different.

"Once processed in short-term memory, our brain’s neural pathways carry these memories to the structural core, where they are compared with existing memories and stored in our long-term memory, the vast repository of everything we have ever experienced in our lives.  This process occurs in an instant, but it is not always perfect."

The "not always perfect" part is what makes this tip necessary. If you want to read the rest of the article you can find it HERE.

The sky is the limit unless you limit yourself.
5) Never lose your sense of adventure!
This doesn't mean that you have to make a backpack and head to the wilderness as if you were the explorer guy in Pitfall. NOT losing your sense of adventure is all about keeping the same excitement you always had for gaming. It is understandable that been starved of time and having to do all sorts of things in order to keep been a gamer regardless of your age can make you a little too picky about games in general, but overall been too picky harms more than it helps. The gaming industry is bigger than ever and there are a lot of games coming from a lot of places, so getting into a "bleh" attitude can only take you so far. For example, don't be one of those people that talks trash about every indie game without even trying it.

Remember the days when you tried anything regardless of how stupid and senseless it looked? Remember all those "what the hell" moments that happened when playing that game you picked at the video club just because the box art looked cool? There were no "bleh" or "meh" feelings in those times were they? Well, that's the kind of enthusiasm you need to keep in order to fully enjoy your experience as a gamer while been a responsible adult at the same time. It is not easy to pull off, but once you do, it is very rewarding.

Wrapping it up
Well, folks there you have it. A small survival guide for any gamer over 25 who feels like he/she is spread too thin between adult life and gaming. Of course there are other things that affect how gaming is personally perceived after certain age, but keep in mind that you can do still do something to enjoy gaming and be the hardcore gamer you have always been.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Which has been your most relaxing moment as a gamer?

Today I am going to write in a more calm and non-critic matter. We all know that certain combinations of sensory input have the power of becoming some sort of memory beacons. Those memory beacons are moments in your life that flash through your mind just by thinking about those events and objects even if your thoughts are ambiguous, sort of like catching a glimpse of a poster or something and remembering a very specific feeling because of it. The same thing happens with video games, so today I am going to share a very rare time in my life as a gamer and that was the small time span when I felt so at peace while playing that it was almost weird and surreal.

Anime Santa Claus

It was Christmas 2008 and as the college semester ended I was getting ready for my holiday vacations. My Xbox 360 had died (RROD)  and I was broke as hell, so I went back to the Wii and my PC for some Christmas time gaming. I started my vacations by ordering The Longest Journey (saga which I am a hardcore fan of since then) and Sanitarium through a very cool trading site that used to exist at the time and went by the name of Goozex (no longer working). I did this by using the first 100 points they awarded me just for joining the community and another points I earned for referring a friend. Both games were awesome and I just felt so nice and focused while playing them that I basically breezed through all the puzzles and problem solving with a lot of ease. Also both storylines were really surreal, which helped to the overall "mind on the clouds" mood. It is also worth noting that the temperature at the time was near perfect and there were a lot of rainy days (which I love) making it all a lot more enjoyable.

After that, Nights: Journey of Dreams was going to be released and in a lucky turn of events, my mother bought it for me as a Christmas present (which was very surprising considering that the last game she had bought for me at the time was Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones (NES) so yeah, it had been a while). Been a long time Sega fan, I found the game to be quite enjoyable even if official game reviews were not that good. I was also one of the very few that actually used the online feature this game had, in which you basically constructed your own dream world and could have friends visiting your world while you were visiting theirs. The whole dream topic made the experience to be very mellow and relaxing and I thought that the game's ending was even better than in the original Sega Saturn games.

Last Window Nintendo DS
So there was another game like Hotel Dusk: Room 215... I have to play this!

After that, as New Year's Eve was getting near, I got a couple games for the Nintendo DS at a bargain bin at Kmart (they don't do those anymore) which were Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and Contact. In Hotel Dusk I was instantly absorbed by the film noir style it had and also by its intriguing story (in which I got a couple bad endings before finishing it the way I was supposed to). As for Contact I got it thinking it would be some sort of DS Earthbound and while it wasn't exactly what I expected, it still made up for a pretty nice experience.

Finally as 2007 went away and my vacations were ending, I got some more cheap games while I had the chance. This time it was Trace Memory (DS) and Alida for PC (Alida was through Goozex). Trace memory was a good game that made me feel as if I was watching one of those "wth is happening" anime series and Alida took me back to the days of games like Myst. I barely finished both games before college started again and I went back to the daily grind.

So yeah, my little story of an awesome holiday season... So what?

Why do I tell you all of this? Well, because this was my case, but I'm sure each one of you had at least one occasion where you went full mellow gaming just to kickback and relax. For me, that holiday season was very special even if my Xbox 360 broke down (missing out on some of the new games) and even if most of the games I played were one year old at best. This proves one simple thing, which is that following the latest trends will not always lead you to the full enjoyment of your games. At times you just have to look back and give a chance to those games you may had missed when they first released. Give it as try, as it is a very fun and rewarding thing to do.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Elements Of An Superb J-RPG Experience

Some may call them a "dated formula" others would say "its too much reading", but if you make an Japanese style rpg with the correct set of elements, you have a great chance of turning skeptics into believers. Up until now the genre has been slowly making a comeback with a great variety of games (especially on the PS3 and PSVITA), but we still don't have that insane masterpiece that becomes a legendary game to remember. This is why today we are going to see which are the small details that would help create such a j-rpg experience. Of course a game doesn't necessarily needs to have every single one of the things you will see today, but at least some of them would do the trick.

Star Ocean 2 World Map
You could find all sorts of stuff on the Star Ocean 2 world map like characters and
new towns that were not part of the main plot.
Scaled world maps that feel alive
Examples: Old Final Fantasy games, Star Ocean 2, Wild Arms series,"Tales of" series.

Nowadays this kind of approach to a world map has been reduced to menus or stretched to open world settings, but neither of those modern styles have been able to capture what an j-rpg world map used to be. For one thing, a scaled map is faster to navigate, but keeps a good balance between going between places and possible side events. This kind of style also makes it simpler for the developer to put extra stuff in there, just so it doesn't become a monotonous walk from town to town. This is the kind of world map where everything goes, be it extra dungeons, towns and places that are not part of the story, strange happenings while on the road, meeting new characters, following side stories. It is a rich part of the j-rpg genre that has been oversimplified in favor of shorter development cycles.

General Spiriel
General Spiriel from Shinning Force 3 is still a fan favorite of the whole series.
Generals, admired warriors, mysterious but cool characters
Examples: General Spiriel (Shinning Force 3), Raven (Tales of Vesperia), Dias Flac (Star Ocean 2).

This is a staple of the whole genre and one of the reasons because of which j-rpg games became famous in the first place. It is obvious that some villains are considered the coolest characters in the genre, but that kind of thing is quite predictable. Where the cool character aspect really shines is when the player has somebody to admire, both because of his actions and might in battle. It is the kind of character that creates an atmosphere of confidence without looking too benevolent and it can be even better when games treat the topic of war and two great generals face each other in battle. This is what separates an rpg where "a couple kids save the world" from something more serious, engaging and overall more exciting.

Materia System
Most people I know hate this at the beginning only to love it on the long run.
Fun inventory/equipment/skill systems
Examples: Materia system (Final Fantasy), Weapon modification (Parasite Eve), Dragon enhancements (Panzer Dragoon Saga)

This is one aspect of j-rpg games that not everybody loves, but if there is something that we have to accept, it is that once you learn to use one of this systems and figure out a way to use it to your advantage, it becomes natural and fun. These kinds of things do have a learning curve, so the very first moments will be kind of confusing until you get the hang of it. So after the initial annoying process there is a great chance that you will end up feeling empowered as you play with all sorts of items, equipment, skills and game rules. Here is where you get creative and start to make a strategy that doesn't always involve grinding and leveling.

Chrono Cross Nikki
You help this guy with his rock concert and he may join you.
Side Stories
Examples: Fort Condor (Final Fantasy VII), Getting Bowman (Star Ocean 2), Branching Paths (Vanguard Bandits). Getting various characters to join you (Chrono Cross), Finding characters before their time of death (Valkyrie Profile).

This aspect has been tried over and over again in the American Rpg genre, but they haven't gotten to a point where it doesn't feel generic in nature. Most people think that this can only be done in completely open environments, but Japanese Rpg games in the past managed to pull this off while keeping their story oriented focus. For example Star Ocean 2 had extra characters that you had to go out of your way to meet them, help them with their problems and get them to join (not to mention that the game had more than 50  different endings). Other games like Chrono Cross had really good side stories that you had to play in order to get secret characters to join you and Final Fantasy 7 had several activities that developed while following their very enjoyable side plots. So now that we know that, we can see why this was one of the things that made the genre to be so popular in the 90's.

Cloud Tifa Memories
This scene evoked really strong feelings of nostalgia, friendship and our hopes and dreams vs real life.
Good usage of mood and atmosphere 
Examples: Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy, Koudelka, Vagrant Story, Wild Arms, Baten Kaitos

This one is really important because it is the thing that keeps us glued to an rpg game in the first place. If the game is capable to cater and activate your own feelings and emotions while you play, then it has succeeded in instantly making you a fan.This is the kind of feeling we got from scenes like Cloud and Tifa talking about their "broken promises" and childhood memories, the relaxing "mystical" atmosphere that Chrono Cross had in all of their places, the kind of surreal mood that Baten Kaitos had with its mix of magic and technology and even the wild west vibe that Wild Arms is known for. All of these games had an extremely good mix of visuals, music, plot and characters that became something more than just reading dialogues, it became something that catered to our sensibilities and made us care about what was happening in the game.

With all things discussed, the bottom line is that Japanese Rpg games need to look back into the little details that made them big in the past and capitalize on them on our modern era. We can have the best graphics ever and the most detailed environments, but if they don't hit us where it counts we will lose interest. This is not your classic argument about turn based battles or any of that game aspects that many old school rpg gamers talk about. This is more about keeping the art in rpg games and move it up a notch with our current technology instead of relying on limitations and half baked ideas.