GrindQuest 2012

Sims 3 (2009)
The Sims Studio
Genre: Simulator/Grinder

I was sitting in a car with Liz Ryerson and Andrew Handsome and they were talking about the death of jRPGs and how them games just don’t got it no more; that they’re long and demand too much time, that the whole grinding mechanic is tedious, and how neither of them felt that they could safely recommend many of the genre’s classics to anyone simply because there are games that do similar things, have similar funs, but are less of a time commitment.

Perhaps this is a skewed way of viewing Sims 3, but I think that its core mechanics revolve around similar ideas of grinding and time dilation. Even if you don’t care about the dollhouse aspect of the game, its actual meat is the same kind of obsessive micromanagement and stat leveling which drove the best of the last few generations’ 99 hour RPGs. It even manages to one-up them by creating several tiers of simultaneous micromanagement (fulfilling the Sims’ needs, doing mini-quests to acquire Life Points that are used to unlock bonus attributes, raising their skill levels, and optimizing their home so that it maxes out their Mood Bar in the shortest amount of time) that need to be taken care of in real-time, and then pits the tiers against one another by making time the game’s limiting factor. If you don’t optimize your sim’s eat/pee/shower/socialize/fun/work routine and squeeze the most out of every day, they will be dead before you know it and they’ll never have achieved that Life Goal of theirs, which means you missed out on big-time Life Points, which usually means that you missed out on getting some sort of hyper-efficient household appliance that future generations can benefit from.

I don’t know how a more casual crowd/who I imagine the target audience is responds to these Life Points reward inducements, but at least for me there was never a moment when I wasn’t thinking about how to eke out more stat gains for my little avatars while keeping all of their Needs bars green, and trying to get the optimal timings down for their mood boosts.

On the one hand this is really fun, and conducive to obsessive and extended gaming. The only time when I thought about stopping was when I began to worry that maybe I was playing for too long. And by too long, I mean that I could see dawn breaking outside my window and I needed to pee, and I’d known that I needed to pee for at least two hours.

I know this is “good”, that a good entertainment should entrain its audience into an alternate dimension of pure fun, but it’s just…after about three days of this, I realized that I would probably end up living in a dumpster where all I did was eat dumpster food and play Sims 3 on a dumpster laptop.

I’m willing to admit that this might just be a personal problem and not indicative of the game’s effects on a larger audience. But then again, how else is EA able to push six expansion packs, five packs of objects, as well as an online store that sells new objects a la carte. I’m talking a minimum $310 investment to get the complete Sims 3 experience, and that’s before whatever forthcoming expansion packs there are and the odds and ends from the site. I mean, who else is going to spend that much money on the Sims? Casuals? People who play Sims 3 for maybe an hour every three days? I suppose if it’s the only game a person plays, sure, but… I only played for three days and literally had to force myself to stop, out of the fear that I ruin my life by spending too much time playing a game that was about helping people who weren’t me.

Ghost sims and a fat sim have a swimsuit party

And it’s not like the game isn’t aware of its own nature. Probably the most Sims-qua-Sims moment was when, after I’d filled my house with ghost sims and got distracted by micromanaging every single one of them, one slipped through the cracks and stayed up all night playing a videogame. She was dead tired, smelled terrible, was on the verge of peeing the couch and had to go to work in an hour, but there was a little icon next to her Fun meter that said she was “having a blast” from all that gaming.

I deleted it pretty soon after. Some things are just too good.

this looks like it could be the best game ever
Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch (2011)
Genre: jRPG parody

I feel bad saying that this game is “vaguely” misogynist and — worse — kind of dumb, because I really wanted to like it. I like dinosaurs and kites and stuff, and I’ve played a lot of jRPGs, and I certainly have a fondness for parodies, so there wasn’t much working against it as far as I was concerned.

I mean, aside from the unfortunate subtitle. But who knows! Maybe it’s a more abstract kind of bitch, like when people say a situation is a bitch, or like when middle schoolers call something gay. It isn’t literally gay. It’s some sort of metaphorical, non-literal, not-quite-homosexual kind of gay that has more to do with something sucking (no homo) than it does with any particular reality of gender-on-gender hotgayaction (no fishsticks). So maybe it’s that kind of bitch. Or something. You know?


In any case, after a few minutes of wandering around aimlessly, the titular Bitch shows up and boooyy is she a bitch! Here are the qualities that the game uses to define her as an unsavory bitch: she has a unibrow, dresses in kArAzy clothes, has INEXPLICABLE MOODSWINGS, and ~loves~ Mark Leung/Title Character way too much. The last one is probably because she’s his girlfriend, and the inexplicable moodswings are probably related to how much he inexplicably hates her. Why are they dating if he hates her? If he didn’t want to date her because she had a unibrow, why didn’t he decide that before dating her? Was he unaware of her personality before he dated her? Given that she is so up-front with her personality, how is that possible? If so, why didn’t he just break up with her earlier? Why does he break up with her after she saves him from getting mauled by a bear? All answers point towards MALE SELF-OBSESSION… or maybe I’m just having trouble seeing that it is an ironic gesture, and am in the wrong about this.

Either way, these two issues dovetail into the same series of questions: Is this supposed to be a parody of the self-obsessed masculine hero that videogames tend to champion? The Duke Nukem of silent/autistic RPG heroes? Or are these two just another pair of depressing examples in a long line of tedious charicatures of male/female social dynamics?

Well, let me put it this way: when’s the last time you encountered a Crazy Bitch character who wasn’t one dimensional? The Bitch exists for the sole purpose of making the player go, “wow, what a bitch! I sure hope that dumb bitch gets what’s coming to her, or at least stops being shoved in my face!” and as a plot device around which some sort sub-plot will revolve. I’ll go further to guess that she’ll show up at inopportune times and do something that is the equivalent of saying I’M A BIIIIIIIIITCH before disappearing in a puff of smoke, like some kind of evil genie.

But then this wasn’t even the whole game, so who knows. I mean, I didn’t even play the whole game. I went for about 30 or 40 minutes and quit out of boredom. The constant barrage of endless jRPG battles (which comprise at least 80% of the play time. The battle system is your standard Square-Enix turn-based affair, with the menu options consisting of Fight, Special, Item. There is a thing on the side of the screen that shows you the turn order of your party members and the enemies for the next few rounds, which is a good idea but doesn’t help how absolutely awful and tedious the opening is. The sounds are clever but get irritating, and combat animations take forever. Why jRPGs suck in 201X: it’s the moneyfact that the whole format is stale and nobody who is alive and kicking in the year 201X would actually want to waste their precious lives sitting through a console-styled RPG that isn’t hyper-optimized, or at the very least constantly engaging), combined with the dismal writing made it unbearable to go any further, so who knows what happens with this whole Bitch character. Maybe she isn’t really a bitch? Maybe the whole thing gets subverted?

All of this “latent” misogyny isn’t to mention the other worry I had going into the game: is this going to offend by delicate aesthetic sensibilities by being a bunch of wackypants monkey-cheese-silly-willy jokes? Is this game going to be like sitting in my high school computer lab, listening to people trade HeHeHe quips from Monty Python? Will it be something that does not fulfill my subjective taste in humor???

Ohhhh….yes and no. After I stopped playing, I browsed the wikipedia entry to see what I missed and couldn’t even get through it. I tried power skimming both paragraphs and my eyes just bounced off of things like “Canada, a country suspected to be the origin of Vegetology” and “Mark and Dick were sent on a mission to Ireland to retrieve Hong Kong’s lost pirate navy.” Most of the game is this kind of word salad. The protagonist is a wandering ginseng farmer. The save point is a red camelback couch that is just sitting around various parts of the countryside. The protagonist is perpetually in a state of infantile nerd-rage about everything, which roughly translates to “you! Bear!! You took my ginseng!!! Fuck youuuuuuuu!!!!!” in a way that is so in love with its own wacky-doodle way of expressing itself that it forgets the part where a joke is crafted and humor is born.

There was actually a good one, one which briefly gave me some hope. As I adventured, I encountered a pair of women who are running away from pirates and hiding behind treasure chests. I did the obvious thing a player should do when playing an RPG and finding a chest: I opened them. Each time the chest disappeared, causing the women say things like, “what are you DOING? Go away!” and “STOP following us! You messing everything up!” Yeah yeah, I know that cheevo rpg flash game had a similar gag, but it is better here because other characters in the game world notice and are affected by it, allowing me to go heheheheheh as I continue to do it.

Aside from making me laugh, though, the greater thing here is that this sequence is doing something worthwhile with the medium, something that very few games are able to explore without some form of cheevos (the best of these are esoteric in their granularity, like the animal ranks at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3, or the titles you can earn in Way of the Samurai), or taking it to the extreme and becoming open world. Most importantly, this one works in a way that doesn’t require the player to have ever played an RPG before. They’ve already seen a couple chests in the game, so there is already the ingrained desire to open more chests for more loot, one that is probably a lot stronger than helping these two people out.

In other words, this is a pretty interesting exchange and it almost makes me want to go back and see if there are more like it. I know Mark can be a very clever writer, as College Saga is both smart and funny, but… well…

Ah well. Maybe next game, Uglysoft.

this looks like it could be the best game ever
Serious Sam: The Random Encounter (2011)
Genre: jRPG-esque

An oasis from the post-jRPG inferno that is world market of RPGs right now. It takes the basic principles of Serious Sam and applies them to console RPGs. This translates into a game that has minimal level design, dialogue, characterization and grinding in favor of maximal combat.

Random encounters abound. The combat revolves around a turn-based action phase, where you select your weapons and aim them, and then watch as your party fires into the oncoming mass of enemies. This lasts for three seconds before the action freezes and you choose what to do again. It’s an oddly tactical experience because while the basic mechanics are simple, every battle is a challenge in figuring out how three guys can stop an avalanche before it crushes them. You need to set up crossfire zones, look at the mass and figure out where it’ll be in a couple turns, balance mowing down the small fries with focus-firing on the heavy hitters, and protect your two most vulnerable guys from bullets, all while your dudes are backpeddaling away from this ever-approaching ball of death.

Grinding is also pretty much non-existent. There is exactly one thing to grind, and it’s the item bar. At the end of every battle is a little bar that fills. When it reaches the top, you get a randomly selected item, one which tends to have a fairly dramatic effect on battles.

In theory the bar is very grindable, but the battles are so tense and the unit compositions of the horde so unpredictable that grinding ends up becoming a very slippery slope. If you die in a fight, you respawn on the tile you were on before you entered the battle. You get three lives a stage and if you run out, you have to start over from the entrance. And it is so easy to die in this. In the game’s relentless desire to kill you, it regularly makes bosses into mini-bosses, and then mini-bosses into regular enemies.

In a way it’s an even better application of the Serious Sam design principles than Serious Sam 3, since underneath the simplicity of the mechanics is a very good strategy game, one that plays unlike anything I’ve played before.