Saturday, November 5, 2016

Gamer Rage

I'm not even sure this is a real thing to anyone but me, because maybe I have serious issues, but in the event there are others out there who suffer from this, let's talk about Gamer Rage.

Two years ago,  I had to take a break from almost all forms of video gaming, particularly classic gaming.  The reason:  video games were sending me into a blind rage.  I'm talking Wolverine level, berserker, "there's something very, very wrong with that guy" rage.  Think Road Rage, but with video games and no other offending party.

If I think back, getting irrationally angry at video games is something I have been doing for about 15 years, since I first got back into classic gaming.  It would flare up from time to time and then calm down and go away.  Usually it would be enough for me to get really pissed at a certain game, then I would put the game away, switch to something else, and all was cool.  But about two years ago, the rage went from being spikes on the graph to being a haze that clouded my entire gaming experience.  It would take about 10 minutes of one particularly frustrating game to just wreck the whole gaming session.  No matter what games I switched to, the fury burned inside me and would not go away.  Pretty soon, I was getting no joy whatsoever from one of my most favorite pastimes and stress relievers.  I was getting so worked up playing games, that I had to quit.  It was honestly affecting my regular life.  I was getting angry at something that was supposed to be fun and I was missing a critical source of everyday stress release.  It was bad.

So I quit.  I gave up almost all forms of video games.  Classic games had to go, no question.   I don't play many modern games, so that wasn't too much to give up, but I also shut down most of my app gaming.  (Those of you lamenting my departure from games like Smurf Village, Dragonvale and that Mermaid game will now understand that whole thing a little bit better).  I was reserved to playing a few inoffensive app games (Final Fantasy Record Keeper, the main one of late) and Minecraft, and that was about it.  Every now and then I would get the itch and I would dig out the NES or VCS and give it a try, but I could tell within minutes that it would be best if I stuck to the stuff that wasn't transforming me into angry Homer Simpson.

Since it was affecting my everyday life, I thought it was smart to talk it over with the wife.  She's a gamer too and she doesn't experience Gamer Rage, so I thought maybe she had some insight as to why I was having trouble.  "It's that stupid score book you keep and the fact that you won't play a game after you've beaten it or rolled the score.  You aren't having fun playing games anymore because you've made it too competitive."  And she was partly right.  From 2002-2008 I compiled a score book for all the VCS and NES games that kept score (and were worth playing).  During that time I pushed myself to the very limits of what I was capable of on a given game.  For example, my personal best Haunted House score on Game 9 is a completed game using only 2 matches and 7 lives remaining.  That's just stupid and virtually impossible to beat without blind luck.  Using that example, any time I would sit down to play Haunted House, perfection was just about the only goal.  So if a game used more than 7 lives or 2 matches, it was RESET.  As you might imagine this led to a  lot of RESET.  And since the goal is so lofty, lots of RESET built up lots of frustration and lots of frustration led to anger.
I did this to Baseball Stars II because I was mad at Battletoads.  Perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, right?

It should come as no surprise to anyone that one of the culminating factors in my decision to give video games a hard break was my participation in the High Score Club.  I was a player in the club for a couple of years and was having a really good time.  It was just for fun and was great to post scores up against fellow lovers of the VCS.  Then I got fairly high up in the rankings.  At one point I think I was jockeying for first through third place with a field of absurdly good players.  And the desire to be the best was too much.  I was playing games like a fiend.  I was playing games on emulators at work and playing right up to the deadline to try and keep my raking high.  And, I was getting angry when I wasn't in the top 3 on a given game.  So quitting the High Score Club (mid-season, no less) cold turkey was step one in defeating my Gamer Rage.

My wife was right, the level of competition was one of the major factors contributing to my Gamer Rage.  I was playing against increasingly higher stakes, whether it was my own personal best scores or other, incredibly skilled players.  But there was also another component and it seemed to stem from a lack of patience born of the pursuit of perfection.

Every time I played a game, I was expecting to be the best, at the top of my game, right from the start.  Anyone who plays video games at any level knows that some of the best games feature learning curves, sometimes big ones.  You can pick up Centipede right now and play one hell of a game, cold.  But if you play Centipede for 30 minutes or an hour, you'll likely find yourself in a groove where you and the game tune into each other and operate on a commiserate level.  It is at this point you might find that it is much easier to obtain high scores and avoid blunders that end your game prematurely.  Beamrider is a another game that comes to mind which thrives on this groove mentality.  I'm sure you have your favorites as well.

The problem was, every time I played a game like that, I expected to just be in the groove, from cold. I wasn't giving myself time to warm back up into a game I perhaps had not played for years.  I expected that I would be right back at my peak level just by plugging the game in and holding the controller.  From an outside perspective that certainly seems ridiculous, but from inside the mind of a gamer, driven by competition, even internal, this was just how it should be.  I know I can clear the first maze on Jr. Pac-Man without losing a life, therefore losing a life on the first maze is absolutely unacceptable.  Seems nutty, right?  But that's where I was at.  It was not going well at all and I didn't see any way clear of that mindset.  I once ripped the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (NES) cartridge from my system and launched it at the window (nearly breaking both) because I couldn't get past the barrels rolling through town. (and that game is riddled with glitches that actually make it impossible to beat!)

Several years ago, I participated in an experiment during my time at the goal of which was to determine the Top 25 most difficult NES games of all time.  Long time fans will recall the fruits of that ultimately unharvested labor were borne out here at EF.  (I'm proud to say it is one of the most popular features on this blog, still to this day people read it and talk about it, yay me!)  During that project, we were tasked with playing a good-sized list of NES games in order to determine the difficultly of the games and how to rank them.  The parameters of the experiment required us to play each game for a minimum of 5 hours of total game play.  Doesn't sound like much, but consider that two of the games on that list were Ikari Warriors and Conan.  Neither game lasts for more than about 45 seconds per play.  So imagine playing the same 45 seconds of Ikari Warriors, dying almost immediately, 300 times.  That required a LOT of patience.  And you know what?  I very nearly beat Conan and got way farther in Ikari Warriors than I could have ever hoped or wanted.  Why?  Because I stuck with it.  I pushed past the frustration and anger and annoyance that those games generate in absurd quantities, and I really got to know them, inside and out, and I really, honestly played them.  Sure those moments of clarity don't come until about 3 hours in, but they do come.  Honestly, that's how Uncanny X-men for the NES became one of my favorite games for that system.  I just stuck with it long enough to find the fun.  You can read all about here, if you missed it.

Considering the sources of my Gamer Rage, and the experience detailed above, I decided to try some new tactics to see if I could put the joy back into my gaming sessions.  First, I decided the score book would stay.  I worked hard for those records and they weren't going anywhere.  Keeping scores is part of my video game heritage, from my childhood days of gaming with my dad.  I couldn't give that up. However, I have some new rules for playing any classic game.  First,  I must play it a minimum of 5 times.  If I can't warm back up to a game within 5 attempts, then I just move on, play something else. Second, no RESETS.  No matter how dismally a game starts out, I play it through.  And that means play it through.  I'm all too tempted to get angry again and just run my ship into the asteroids 3 times so I can start over, but that doesn't help the situation.  It's like pinball. Pinball is a game of one ball. It really is.  You can play all 3 (or 5) balls in a pinball game and score all of your points on a single ball.  So if that first ball drains, you don't just TILT the machine.  Video games are much the same way.  So you die on the first maze on Jr. Pac-Man?  So what?  You may go three more mazes without dying on your next man.  I realize that this sounds like common sense to you non-enraged gamers out there, but for people where I was a few years back, this is a real coping mechanism and thus far I am happy to say it is working.

That isn't to say I don't find myself reverting back to the Incredible Gaming Hulk from time to time.  Of course I do.  You don't just fix a problem like this with an overnight epiphany.  However, I am back to where I am enjoying classic games and my gaming sessions are lasting much longer.  Those of you following my Atari 2600 Score-a-long over on the facebook page are seeing the results of this.

For me, at least, Gamer Rage is a real thing and it is something I, a lifetime gamer, find myself grappling with.  Honestly, I'm not a super competitive person, but in this one area, I found that I was vulnerable to that tendency.  I don't know if anyone else out there is noticing this as part of their gaming experience, but if you are, I strongly advise that you take a break.  Take a step back, look at how you are playing games.  Think about why you are getting angry during game play and consider what might be triggering it.  Then figure out how to combat it.  There are going to be strategies for setting the rage aside and returning the fun to video games.  If your games aren't fun, why are you playing?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor REVISITED

A million years ago when I was first exposed to the Might and Magic series, it was to me then what Skyrim was to me a few years ago:  all-consuming.   I was first introduced to the series through Might and Magic VI: Mandate of Heaven.  It was an RPG like none I had experienced before.  Oh, sure, I grew up with Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy and Ultima all on the NES, but this, this was something else.  Mandate of Heaven so engrossed us, that we literally pulled the couch over to the computer desk and took turns playing for something like 96 hours straight.  One of us would play while the other watched or slept.  Work/classes were either skipped or begged off.  Food was eaten on paper plates and was either delivered or hastily prepared.  For the better part of a week, I literally LIVED Might and Magic VI.  Looking back now, that was a magical and terrifying time.

I tell you this to set the scene for my overwhelmingly "meh" reaction to the follow up game Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor.  I was so enthralled with MM6 that I was super stoked for MMVII to hit and when it did, it seemed at first like the ultimate game.  You see Might and Magic VI was running concurrently to the incredible strategy-based sister title Heroes of Might and Magic III (a pinnacle of strategy gaming in its own right, more on that another day).  Since both MM6 and HoMM3 were such hits, 3DO decided to capitalize on this popularity by taking the enemy set from HoMM3 and using them as the enemies for MM7.  Thus you could RPG battle the same monsters you had fell in love with strategy battling in HoMM3.  I know that sounds like a mouthful, but basically they just took the creatures from the strategy game and used them in the RPG.  (wordy)

Seems like a great idea.  Little did I realize that this would ultimately contribute to my first experience with gamer fatigue.  Turns out you can have too much of a good thing.  I had spent SO much time playing both MM6 and HoMM3 that smashing the two together into a mega RPG gave me too much of things I already liked and not enough new stuff.  I really wanted to like MM7, but I honestly felt like I had already been there before and found myself just rushing through the early levels as quickly as possible to get to something new and interesting.  I never found it and quit the game, fatigued, and honestly, bored about half-way through.  I put MM7 into the game collection and never touched it again.  My final evaluation: a decent game, but a shadow of the two games it spawned from.

I would return to play Might and Magic VI repeatedly in the following years.  I don't think anything can diminish my love for that game.  It stands out as one of the greatest WRPGs I have ever played.  I strongly recommend it for any WRPG fan.  But I never had the urge to give MMVII another look.

Over the years I realized that I was pretty jaded against Might and Magic VII and that was a result of gamer fatigue.  I found it hard to believe that I could be so disinterested in something that was born of games I really, really loved.  So, having not played either Might and Magic VI or Heroes of Might and Magic III in years, I decided the time was ripe to give Might and Magic VII another, non-biased look.

And I'm glad I did.

The game is good.  Really good.  It's never going to be as good as MM6 because that game has transcended in my mind, but it's pretty darn close.  The mechanics are exactly the same as MM6 which means it is easy to access and getting into the action doesn't require much of a learning curve.  There is a tutorial level, which is kind of odd for an RPG, but I think it's there to help ease in those gamers brought over from the HoMM series.  Ultimately, it's extremely brief and inoffensive to even the most experienced RPG player.
The story continues the plot from previous MM and HoMM games, following the drama of the Ironist Dynasty.  When you really immerse yourself into this world, it proves to be a very engaging and rewarding one.  NPC interaction isn't as involved as it will become in the following generations of RPG gaming, but it's still enough to draw you in and keep you interested.

In terms of difficulty, this game might be slightly more difficult than its predecessor.  MM6 starts you out fairly slowly keeping you engaged in the starting town of New Sorpigal for what feels like 50 or so gaming hours. MM7 gets you out and wandering the world well within your first 30 hours of play.  The world is a little bit smaller and each area map containers fewer points of interest than MM6 and there seem to be far fewer minor quests, but that isn't always a bad thing.  MM6 was a bounty of grunt work and just wandering around to see what you could find.  That's great, but it doesn't always move the plot.  MM7 moves the plot.  And overall there is more plot.  This time around, like in HoMM3 you are asked about 2/3 of the way through the game, to choose between the sides of Light and Darkness.  Your choice will determine which towns are friendly to you and which later quests you can access.  This means you kinda get two games in one, as you will have to play all the way through twice to see everything the game has to offer.  Not a novel concept, but it was a new wrinkle in the Might and Magic formula.  This also increases the difficulty, because it blocks you from certain spells or abilities that would make some aspects of the game easier, while opening you up to other advantages depending on your allegiance.  Early on, though, leveling up is tough and the first enemies you meet will give you a solid beating.  On the upside, the leveling in this game is extremely well balanced and there is practically NO grinding.  Yeah, you read that right, NO GRINDING.

That's a LOT of Hydra...
You also get a castle that slowly upgrades as you progress.  When you first get it, the castle is infested with goblins.  After you run them off, you can request that the Dwarves clean the place up, and later upgrades give you shops and open treasure areas.  You never get a place to sleep in your home, though, and overall this new addition to the game seems very under developed.  The castle you get is huge, but the upgrades are slow to come and never really maximize the potential of the "build your own castle" gimmick.

Big Pimpin', Erathia Style
Once the game gets going, it's just as much fun as the previous installment in the series.  Exploring, customizing your characters, finding treasure and taking down ever increasing monsters, all the staples of a good RPG are here.  The plot-directed decision making doesn't have a huge impact on overall game play, but it will determine whether you have unfettered access to the main cities of Light and Dark.

I just finished the game tonight, and it was a very satisfying and full gaming experience.  The only downside is that it commits the one sin I hate the most in fantasy RPG's:  the Sci-Fi Finish.  You know this device.  The entire swords and sorcery world you have been inhabiting is actually a ruse or a staging ground for a wildly advanced culture that has been working behind the scenes for centuries. In the final act of the game the veil is lifted and your team of adventurers suddenly has access to technology far beyond their greatest imaginings.  This, of course, completely derails the fantastic elements of the story and injects an unwelcome influx of robots, aliens, ray guns, and computer terminals.  The Might and Magic series is consistently guilty of this sin.  The upside, is that the lion's share of the game takes place extant of the Future Finish elements and what little robot smashing you have to do is really very minimal and is preceded by an awesome and incredibly difficult underwater area, so it kind of makes up for the jarring shift in theme.  You can also win the game pretty quickly in the final "dungeon" as there is no boss fight and all you must do is locate a certain item and then clear out.

In the final estimation, I am very glad I decided to revisit this game, some 15 years after its release.  It's every bit as fun as Might and Magic VI and I really believe that the only reason I was less than impressed with it the first time around was gamer fatigue, which at the time I didn't even realize was a thing.  If you're kicking around looking for a good, older generation RPG, and you've got a good emulator that can slow your computer down enough to play it, I recommend Might and Magic VI AND Might and Magic VII, just don't play them back-to-back.
Yeah, I used FFVII names, what of it?

All this talk of RPG's is inspiring me to take a look back at some of the other RPGs that had a profound influence on my gaming life.  Might be a subject for another time...

As always, thanks for reading.