Unfinished Business – The Pile Files Vol. II

All gamers know the term “Pile of Shame” — it’s the stack of unfinished games that sits in many a living room, unloved, smoldering and emitting a dull ominous thrum, like the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark when it’s sealed up in the Nazi crate.

Dan Golding at Game On recently opined that it’s OK not to finish games, and I agree with him for the most part.  Not all games need or deserve to be finished.  For example, there’s my short stack of JRPGs, which I picked up during my youth when I was wild-eyed and experimental (2007).  Like a Uni kid who goes to a bondage club for shits and giggles, after a few hours I emerged with teary eyes, maybe walking a bit funny, and vowing never to return.  I wasn’t sure I understood exactly what I just experienced, but I was certain of one fact: it was Not My Thing.

This is a way of saying there’s a distinction between unfinished games on the Pile of Shame and those in the Scrapheap of Good Riddance.  Today, I’m not interested in the Scrapheap.  I’m focusing on the Pile of Shame, which contains the games you really think you should finish, but haven’t, hence the Shame.

There’s enough shame in playing videogames as it is.  Playing games is stereotyped as lazy behaviour by the mainstream press, Hollywood and your mum, and we all know how persuasive those three can be when they get together.  So how lazy is it if you can’t even finish an inherently lazy activity?  That’s laziness to the power of lazy, recursive laziness, which is just as bad for your self-esteem as being stuck in a hall of mirrors with a man who has a claw on his arm.

Luckily, there’s a solution: Reduce the Pile.  Break the mirrors.  Finish some of those damn games before they destroy you.  That’s what I’ve been doing lately in the Bunker of Experience.

I approached my Pile of Shame like a cop doing a strip search — I started at the bottom.  So let me just say that 2008 was a great year for games!  2008 was a whole Olympiad ago.  I’m so late to the party, it’s like I just turned up to Corey Worthington’s house.  (That gag was, if not funny, at least period-appropriate).

Most of the games I’ve been playing have been well-digested, critically speaking, so rather than assign them digits of assessment or describe their features in depth, I’ve decided to take note of how they got onto the Pile and what made me dust them off and give them a go.

Bioshock

How it got on to the Pile:  The shooting controls shat me.  I’m used to pressing R1 to shoot, whereas in Bioshiock it’s R2 — R1 merely cycles through your weapons.  I kept confusing the buttons — whenever splicers jumped me, I’d stand there switching manically between pistol and wrench like an indecisive Cluedo murderer while they whaled on me.  So I had a troubled start to the game.  Then, a week later, Fallout 3 happened and the rest of the world faded into the background for 2 months.

What changed:  People still won’t shut up about it!  Whenever the topic of narrative in games comes up, the much-vaunted twist comes up.  Bioshock may not be the Citizen Kane of games, but it might be The Usual Suspects.   I almost felt obligated to play it, like reading Crime and Punishment, except with more senseless killing.

Inevitably, after all this time and all the hype, I found the twist somewhat anticlimactic.  I was also surprised at how long the game went on after the twist was revealed.  Still, it was good to finally cross it off the list.  Pity I can’t talk to anyone about it.

Status: Done and dusted.

Far Cry 2

Why I piled it in the first place:  The first few hours are a chore.  You have crappy guns that are liable to jam up, and the respawning dudes at checkpoints were more annoying than the frequent malaria fevers.  I was approaching it too much like other open world games, eg “take a direct route to mission marker, then kill all dudes”, and  the game was punishing me.  Rather than push through, I pushed “eject” and moved on.

What changed:  Once again, it’s a much-discussed game.  I also wanted to see the infamous fire physics at work.  Once I started playing, I realised it wasn’t about wading into groups with an AK.  I started scouting, taking detours to avoid checkpoints, and approaching scenarios more carefully and realised that the game has a slower rhythm.  In many ways, Far Cry 2 is an open world stealth game.

Status: Still not finished, but about 12 hours in and glad I gave it a second look.

Demon’s Souls

How it got on to the Pile:   Because I’d specced my character wrong.  Because I couldn’t bear to lose an hour of progress.  Because I was confronted by my own inadequacy and ran away rather than tried to improve. Because I was a big nancy cry baby.

What changed:  My appetite for challenge.  As awesome as Skyrim is, once you hit a certain level it’s a doddle.  That’s fine — it’s part of the intended arc of your character.  However, I wanted something that would punch me in the nuts a bit more.  Kingdoms of Amalur wasn’t it; it has deeper combat mechanics than Skyrim, but is actually even easier and therefore yawny.  It currently sits atop my Pile of Shame — I did a one in, one out deal and found Demon’s Souls.

Demon’s Souls is like groundhog day, but you have to live through all the shitty days before you get to the one awesome day, rather than do it all in a brief montage.

I don’t think I’ve walked so much in a game before.   Exploration is a cautious exercise, taking heed of the environment rather than barging heedlessly forward.  The tension builds as you go deeper into a dungeon, holding precious souls and thinking “I’ve got enough to go back, to level up some stats, but then I’ll have to come back and do all this again … I’ll just go a little further, see what’s behind this —– AAARRRGH! Why didn’t I see that hole in the floor!”

It’s only taken 3 years, but it’s finally got its hooks into me.  Demon’s Souls will punish you, but it also makes you feel that progress is earned through individual mastery rather than simply time-serving.  Maybe my subconscious is protesting about my public service job, and my inner capitalist is trying to get out.

Like all good RPGs, it is teaching me something about myself.  The main lesson is:  I’m a big believer in the safety net.  Rather than conquer the game single-handed, I seek help. I regularly consult the wiki, which told me the easiest class to play — a snivelly mage who lurks in the shadows and snipes, rather than a melee brute who has to learn how to time blocks correctly and counterattack.  I check the notes on the ground left by other players, for clues as to what’s ahead.  If there’s a place I can stand undetected and snipe from, I want to know about it.  So I’m not about to sell the house and open up a banana stand just yet.

Status:  Haunting my dreams.  I want to finish it before they close the servers on 31 May, which means the unique online features — notes, blue and black phantoms  — will be lost.  And after that, there’s Dark Souls.

So there you have it, folks.  Dig into your Pile.  In all likelihood there’s some forgotten gems in there.

– Felix

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