Pelit elämän peilinä

pelit_elaman_peilina

A second book writer has emerged from among the staff of the Finnish Pelit video gaming magazine. Aleksandr Manzos is known as the reviewer of the weird games, the aimless walking simulators and the acid heavy lucid dreams, and he seems to like most of them.

This is his second foray into book writing. This one picks elements in games, that reflect life, that is, it picks an element of art, and points out, that games are there. Aleksandr is convincing and his writing is entertaining. Occasionally his rationalizations veer into far fetched territory, but in general his arguments are plausible. His writing keeps you reading even through the weaker bits. He is smart to pick just a single aspect of art and reflect on that in a quite free flowing manner – this is not an academic piece trying to convince you that games are art. Not being academic, he can stay away from the more awkward areas of the question. When just ruminating about these things, he hits gold occasionally and you almost start to believe.

As an added bonus, the book goes through its themes through games that are sometimes not well known but highly interesting. I didn’t know about several of the games or had ignored them after reading a less thorough review, but the book goes out of its way to find games, that go into territory that is not often explored with games, and that interested me in quite a few of them.

  • Title: Pelit elämän peilinä
  • Author: Aleksandr Manzos
  • Year: 2018
  • Finished in: 18th Jan 2019
  • 3.5/5

As a quick side note, I need to mention, that I attempted to read through the other Pelit alumni book writer’s, Juho Kuorikoski’s, Pelitaiteen manifesti.

It was inspired by Seitsemäs taide by Henry Bacon, which is book that takes film, which is said to be the seventh art, and very thoroughly compares that to all the previous six art forms (in reality, there are more). Henry is clearly an educated researcher of film and the arts in general. He is able to distill the essences of the various forms of art and finds the similarities and differences to film.

Pelitaiteen manifesti posits video games as the eight art form. The biggest difference between these two books, is that the gaming book is a manifesto that posits something, that is currently highly contested – it faces an uphill battle in trying convince everyone that games are art, where there was no question about the position of films as art, when Bacon wrote his book. The second major difference is that while Kuorikoski’s knowledge about games is extensive, he is at best a dabbler at making an academic manifesto like this. His arguments are badly rationalized, he seems weak even, when he is building the essences of games, let alone the other arts, his comparisons are amateurish. The question of games as art is of some import to me, so I was unable to finish to book, when it started to look like the book is actually making games seem less like art than they probably are.

Finally, in my opinion, games in general are far from art. There are distinctive parts about game design and production, that definitely fill various definitions of art, and occasionally a game emerges, that could be argued to be an artistically valuable piece. The general artistic quality of games is very much lacking though – the average blockbuster game is at best on the level of a bad summer blockbuster film – built to entertain and any serious look at the games’ handling of various themes breaks the film apart in a heartbeat.

Torment: Tides of Numenera

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Planescape: Torment is probably the best or second best video game I’ve ever played, so when I heard about this spiritual successor being kickstarted, I pledged immediately. It was my second ever crowdfunding pledge. The game was successfully funded in early April 2013 and they estimated delivery for Christmas 2014. That didn’t quite hold as the game was finally delivered over two years later in February 2017. A month later I finally found time to launch the game for the first time. From that it took me about a year and half more to actually finish the game on the 20th of October 2018 with the last save file clocking at 47 hours of actual game time.

The game itself is an isometric CRPG very much reminiscent of the CRPGs of their second golden era. Baldur’s Gate started that era and Planescape: Torment was a part of it. Basically the only differences are that the game looks slightly better and it isn’t strictly based on the AD&D tabletop RPG ruleset nor any of the settings published for AD&D. Instead, it uses rules from the Numenera tabletop RPG published by Monte Cook games and the Ninth World setting from the same game. There’s also occasional short bits that are reminiscent of choose your own adventure books or early text based adventure games, where the game presents you with a textual description of a situation and you choose from a set of predefined options that define, which bit of text is presented next. So nothing too special with the engine.

The story of the game, despite the changed setting and rules, is very much reminiscent of the Planescape: Torment story. You start the game by falling to the ground from an unknown place and waking up without any memories of your past self. There’s a voice in your head and some literally shadowy entity chasing you with apparently ill intentions.

You spend much of the game piecing together your identity. You quickly discover that there’s a Changing God, who goes around chasing his goals by inhabiting a body, and when the body is not suitable to his purposes anymore, he discards the body in favor of another. The body remains behind as a Castoff – a human with supernatural powers imbued to the body by the Changing God. You are the latest Castoff. Besides piecing together that identity, you also piece together, who you want to be. With their powers, the Castoffs usually go around achieving great deeds whether good or bad, whether altruistic or self-centered. Who are you going to be? How are you going to change the world with the powers given to you?

The Changing God itself is mostly not a power for good. He is extremely self-centered – sometimes he ends up performing deeds that others benefit from, but that’s always due to those deeds serving the Changing God’s purposes as well. It shouldn’t be too much of a revelation that the finale concentrates on you encountering the Changing God and also the shadowy power that seems to be chasing you. On the way you pick up a bunch of companions and get to know them and explore some parts of the Ninth World.

The setting is called Ninth World, because there have been 8 previous civilizations that have mysteriously collapsed before the current era of the world. The ruins and artifacts left behind by the previous civilizations litter the landscape and are so pervasive that the technology and even much of the economy of the current civilizations are entirely based on them. At least some of those civilizations were highly advanced and the setting is an interesting mix of sci-fi and fantasy. The current civilizations are mostly living in the usual high fantasy swords and armors era, but the artifacts are at times very sci-fi. They are not well understood though, so in practice they handle as esoteric magic items – they are just odder than usual, since their origins and purposes are not well known.

Most CRPGs are very combat-heavy, which is not true of Planescape: Torment or Torment: Tides of Numenera. The majority of the XP achieved during the game, is earned through progressing the story line or playing through peaceful encounters. This is a good thing – I’ve always enjoyed stories more than combat in RPGs. Most of the combats are completely avoidable and even the ones you can’t avoid, can be resolved without killing all the monsters present.

When I started playing the game, I felt instantly at home exploring the oddities and mysteries of the world and the protagonist. Finding mostly weird companions and going through seemingly endless discussions with NPCs. But it doesn’t hold. At some point you become familiar with all the mechanics in the game and some of the mystery of the old tech vanishes. You encounter yet another weird thing re-purposed for something else in a weird and wonderful way and it’s not that weird and wonderful anymore. The things start to turn from wonderfully weird to intentionally weird and it becomes a chore to read through the descriptions of everything and go through the ruminations of the NPCs providing further exposition about the world. A further thing adding to this feeling is that there seems to be about a half a dozen hints towards each important bit of world and plot exposition. You could finish the game in a much more direct line, but I went through all the corners and finished all the quests I could, which meant that I got to encounter all the exposition multiple times. Although I’m a fan of stories and I’m not averse to walls of text, but reading through almost identical exposition texts multiple times was the final straw for me, which pushed this game from masterpiece to just a very good game.

Yes, the game is still very good. It could’ve been improved by cutting down on the extreme amount of things that are weird just for the sake of being weird, and the repeated exposition – or by not going through every possible corner. It could’ve improved from tightening some of the environments, so you didn’t have to spend so much time running between places. But otherwise it hits the right notes. The story is excellent, the mysteries are interesting to unravel, the world holds you in thrall for the most part, combat is interesting enough and there’s little enough of it that it doesn’t become a chore. Very nice indeed.

  • Finished on: 20th Oct 2018
  • 4/5

Deus Ex: Revision

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I finally managed to play through the legendary Deus Ex from 2000. I first attempted to play the game, when it was still fresh. I’m still not sure, if there was a bug or if I was just too bad at it to make it through one mission pretty early on, but I hit a wall back then and couldn’t finish the game. I had another attempt some time around 2012 or so using several mods to update the graphics of the game, but I lost interest and just quit playing.

This time around I used the Revision mod from year 2015. The mod advertises its main modifications as re-designed locations, new soundtrack based on the original score, high resolution textures, high detail 3D models, Direct3D 9 rendering and various gameplay modes that tune the game rules one way or another. The full list of changes and fixes is really extensive. Forums are obviously full of complaints about the mod changing the maps and thus ruining the experience. I wasn’t too familiar with the original maps, so I wasn’t bothered by this, and I would imagine that the complaints are just the usual whining from people not wanting any changes that actually change something. I would fully recommend utilizing the Revision mod, if you are looking to play through the game now.

The game is a cyber punk RPG with a first person view. The gameplay is pretty standard computer RPG stuff – conducting missions, progressing in the story, improving your character and gear. The story tells of JC Denton, a cybernetically enhanced agent of UNATCO, who ends up finding clues about a conspiracy to take over the world and rule it from the shadows, while the common people live in squalor and practical enslavement. UNATCO is obviously involved, or rather a tool utilized by the people in the shadows, and Denton ends up defecting and defeating the conspiracy.

The game is commonly listed on best games lists and for a reason. Every area of the game is well implemented – maybe even exceptionally at the time it was released. The story is where the game shines though. For the first half of the game, you are in the dark about many things and the way you start to find pieces of the puzzle and put them together keeps you playing just one more mission to find the next piece for the puzzle. For the same duration, the suspense is so tangible, that going into new areas and meeting new people always feels dangerous – you can never be sure about what you’ll encounter and if you’ll be making a huge mistake and getting caught. You actually end up getting caught and escaping from the prison is probably the best individual sequence of the game. After about a dozen hours of tiptoeing through the game scared of your own shadow, ending up in a holding cell and trying to get out without basically any equipment, managed to ramp up the suspense another few levels.

After the escape sequence, the game finally starts to ease up though. You have most of the pieces and you can guess the rest. Instead of figuring things out, you do odd jobs to gather allies and find the opportunity to take down the conspiracy. This part takes maybe even a bit more than what it took to get here, which is a bit unfortunate. There’s still interesting bits here and there, but I was mostly not so interested in the triad wars or helping the French resistance movement or any of the other bits late in the game. There were a few points, where I thought about giving up for good, but I pushed through to the finale, which was pretty basic fare – a few more twists and turns, several conspiracies within the major conspiracy and you finally choosing, which way the world will turn next.

I’m really happy that I did push through to the end. If the latter half of the game was maybe only half as long as it currently is, I probably would’ve enjoyed the game even more, but that is pretty much its only weakness. The gameplay supports the story very strongly, the story is one of the most interesting ones I’ve ever experienced in a game. There are several types of players – I play games to experience the stories, so this really hits the spot for me.

The various characters and locations that make up the world of the game are very good. The locations are impressive and it’s exciting to go looking through the nooks and crannies of most locations, when you first go there. The characters are mostly well written. Some of the are more serious and some more funny. Although the tone of the game is mostly very serious, there’s a lot of humor (not just the characters), but it manages to not break the suspense. There’s also a ton of references to inspirations of the game and spotting those is another source of fun. Altogether, the amount of detail and love put into the game is just astounding. Although you hit the walls of the game just as you do in any other CRPG, the walls are just a bit further out and what is inside those walls is really well built.

With the mod, the graphics improvements are just good enough to not hurt your eyes. Obviously it’s still far from bleeding edge, but while I can be wowed by graphics, they never are too important for me. The bug fixes and gameplay modes (I used the BioMod, if I remember correctly) are further improvements to the experience that I appreciated a lot. The fixed bugs mostly weren’t show stoppers, but just some logic failures and side quest problems. Still, a more seamless experience is a more seamless experience. The BioMod mode is more subtle just tuning things slightly here and there and making a few character development aspects more flexible and balanced.

Altogether, with the Revision mod Deus Ex is now modern enough and bug free enough that no one should have no reasons not to finally experience this classic of a video game, if you haven’t done so yet. The game itself has earned the classic status for a reason. If you play games to experience the stories, this is probably one of the best choices out there. While this is not the best game I’ve ever played, this is easily within the top 5.

  • Play Through Finish Date: 28th Mar 2017
  • 6/5

The Book that Sparked this Blog – Suuret seikkailupelit

So, I guess the first real post should be about the book that made me put up this blog in the first place – Suuret seikkailupelit.

suuret_seikkailupelit
Suuret seikkailupelit by Juho Kuorikoski

Look how pretty it is. Just looking at the cover takes me back to dozens and dozens of warm childhood memories.

I actually asked my fiancee for Juho Kuorikoski’s earlier book – Sinivalkoinen pelikirja. I wasn’t even aware of Suuret seikkailupelit at that point. Sinivalkoinen pelikirja had run out from the bookstore, but the sales people there remembered the other book by the same author. My fiancee picked that up, despite being worried that I didn’t want that one, because I hadn’t asked for it. I am very happy for the Finnish gaming industry due to its recent success and the history does interest me, but my two favorite genres are adventure games and role-playing games. Both are underrepresented in Finnish gaming industry, so the book would’ve been just a nice curio read for me. Suuret seikkailupelit on the hand touches the deepest parts of my love for games, so my fiancee’s worries were very much unfounded. Best Christmas present in a long while. If Juho ever writes a book about the history of computer and video role-playing games, I’ll throw my money at the screen, if it helps me to have the book in my hands faster. A book about storytelling in games in general would be nice too – that’s the thing that adventure and role-playing games have in common. Just a few hints.

I remember playing some early King’s Quest and Police Quest games and Black Cauldron as a child on our first computer. Me and my brother didn’t know English very well, so we had a dictionary at hand. Still we ended up progressing through trial and error until we found the correct responses at certain situations without fully understanding what was happening or why something worked and something didn’t. A bit later we had Zak McKracken, Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade and King’s Quest V. Our English skills had improved a bit, but at least I still didn’t understand all the events happening on screen. Despite the language barrier, we still spent endless hours on those games. I’m not sure, if we ever finished any of them except Indiana Jones. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that, when I fire up Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade again, all the actions required to finish the game will come from muscle memory.

In any case, those games and the feeling I had playing them have been burnt into my memory very deeply and encountering them again after a few decades brought me to tears. After bringing me to tears, I realized how many other great games were done during those times and even earlier with Infocom and Legend Entertainment. I’ve missed most of them, so as I said in my earlier post, I decided to fill in the gaps and play through the history of adventure games. Thus was sparked The Great Adventure Game Project and this blog.

For a long time we had the situation that our computer didn’t run the newer games. I ended up missing the latter part of the Sierra and LucasArts golden era except for a game here and another there that I played with some friends on their computers. Mostly I wasn’t able to finish them. I picked up on adventure games a again, when Telltale Games came into the scene. I’ve played a bit of Sam & Max and a bit more of The Walking Dead. Again, the book revealed to me that I’ve only scraped the surface though.

But I digress – I was supposed to write more about the book. It is difficult without mentioning the feelings that it brought up in me, but with that now behind me, I’ll try and say a few words about the book.

The book is divided into four parts:

  1. Text based adventure games and early graphical ones
  2. The golden era of graphical adventures
  3. The death of the genre
  4. The resurrection

The only thing about this structure that bothers me, is that although many of the text based adventures are given their own subsection, those subsections are not listed in the table of contents, so going back to check up on a single title is a bit difficult. I can understand that their handling is more cursory than for the rest of the sections and titles. They were put out by just a few companies and gaming was smaller back then. Many of the titles are out of release and can be only found in the murky abandon ware corners of the Internet – I bet even Juho had a hard time getting to know the titles from that era. The rest of the structure nicely supports the narratives that Juho builds. This occasionally brings slight confusion, because he breaks chronology in favor of the narrative structure. Luckily, I like stories more than chronology.

Juho has done an amazing job digging up the original designers and developers of the games and contacting them for interviews. He’s interviewed 40 people for the book, a few of them several times. The stories and feeling that the developers tell are the most interesting part of the book. Anyone can go and experience the games themselves, but it’s more difficult to find out the stories around the games – why did they get made, who were the people that affected them, why were some design choices made, where’d they get the ideas, etc. I like to read about the things surrounding the cultural products that I like, and Juho does simply an amazing job in bringing the industry and people around the games into life.

Reading the book took me first to my childhood memories of hours and hours spent exploring wonderful worlds and stories and then to the realization that there’s a lot more of those. Going through the games that I haven’t played, took me on introductory journeys into the adventures that I can still experience. Last but not least there was also the story of the industry and people in the industry – who doesn’t like a story of rise and fall and rise again, just look at Hollywood films and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a different story.

If you are into adventure games and can read Finnish, I urge you to buy the book and read it. I don’t remember that a book that has taken me so deep into my own memories and then into new exciting worlds in a long while, and it isn’t even fiction.

Besides, buying the book will give Juho more resources and motivation to write more of these. He just finished the crowd funding project for his forthcoming third non-fiction book about games, X-Com. There is not too much Finnish language books on gaming, so his one man project to fill that gap is commendable. Besides, he writes with a very readable tone that is both entertaining and informative.