Nostalgia and Wonderment

20 Sep

When I was a wee lad I owned a NES.  Buying games was not on the docket, so I was stuck with Super Mario Bros 3 and Star Tropics.  I rented games from time to time, but as a five year old it could not be done on a whim.  So those were my games.  I wasn’t particularly drawn to them, but I did enjoy them.  As well, I did not understand them — and this was goddamn fascinating to me.  There was a point in Star Tropics where a snake patrolled an underground passageway.  One simply had to find the right moment to cross the path so as to avoid the snake.  I marveled at the complexity of this for hours, maybe even several play sessions that didn’t progress past that point.  Eventually I summed up my courage and hit the snake with a yo-yo.  It killed me.  I guess eventually I got past that, but I don’t remember when it clicked.  Later in the game, when I stopped playing, I was in a submarine (for reasons unknown to me) and got lost at sea, cursed to swim forever alongside pixelated dolphins in the tiled sea.

When my older neighbour showed me the secret flute levels in SMB 3, the ones with the ships and the lava, I was blown away.  It was a magical thing.  I played through a lot of that game, but I was very inconsistent.  My early brain didn’t grasp the core concepts; sometimes I blew past level 2 and sometimes I had to give up out of frustration.

One time I rented a combat flight sim for the NES.  I think I saw a plane once.  I spent the rest of the night barreling endlessly through a  depthless blue sky, sitting in a badly rendered cockpit.  I didn’t know what to think.

When I was old enough to graduate to our family’s old Mac (which was something like eleven years older than me) I finally, after grueling diplomacy, had secured for myself a copy of Warcraft II.  The older kids on my street all played it, and I was ecstatic.  I waited several hours for the game to install on the computer.  I then started up the world editor, thinking it was the game (this was my first time installing a computer game) and ended up “playing it” for about an hour.  I realized something was up.  This looked like the game, but there was some essential functionality missing.  There was no attacking, units did not move from point A to B (only when I moved them there, as per the editor’s rules), and surely nothing was fighting against me.

After some time I found the actual game.  Clearly, it became “my game”.  My first game to fully figure out, I think.  I learned the tech tree, unit costs and which spells did what.  I became pretty adept at beating the computer.  I was not even aware that it had multiplayer capabilities, but I was happy with it.  Even so, eventually I stopped playing.  I moved on to Age of Empires II and Unreal Tournament, and proceeded to figure them out.

Shadow Complex has led me to this nostalgia, because it brings me back to that sense of mystery and bewilderment.  I never played the Metroid/Castelvania games as a kid, so I don’t associate it with those respective tropes.  But it has brought to might the sense of mystery that used to bind me to games, and that led me to view them as very big things.  Because of my ineptitude at Star Tropics I inferred that, surely, it must be an endless world.  Looking back it must have been a very short game when compared to today’s norm.

I find myself backtracking, checking my map with a wrinkled brow, retrying areas over and over trying to figure out “the way” to pass the test.  I feel lost but powerful and capable as well.  I hope I never attain the completionist’s knowledge of the game and lose my sense of awe.

It is strange that this is considered “old school” game design.  Surely it is part of World of Warcraft’s artificially extended world.  I wish other games would consider tricking their players rather than putting them on track to “play along”.  It breaks my heart when I’m surrounded by urban detritus and see that rubble piles block all routes of movement besides “the path”.

To be timely for a second, I’m also ready to be somewhat disappointed with Halo ODST.  I’d rather the open world be the entire game, with new missions to accommodate it.  Instead the bulk of the game, as I understand it, will be played through “flashbacks” in the traditional Halo mission style.  Frankly I’d find it a relief to just get lost in a dark city, in enemy territory, all alone and trying to find my way back to the rest of the boys.  I’d like to just do that, for a change.  What I don’t want to do is jump in a tank and go to point B where I will fight bad guys until they stop coming.  I just played that out in my head, cut together from past experiences.  The shooting will be fun, yes.  But I have done that already, that mission.  I know the outcome most certainly.

Should it not be some tenet of game design to keep your players “in the magic circle”, unawares of your machinations?  Should it not become more important in sequels?  That’s not a knock against Halo ODST; it’s a convenient example and I can’t wait to play it for other reasons.  I just want some of that wonderment back.

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