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How the gaming experience is different

It’s often pointed out to me (usually by my mom), that I’m a first-class addict when it comes to gaming. Then I would quickly reply: “well you're also a Korean telenovela addict”, but of course I only say this in my head.

But I digress, and I try to wonder: why can’t gaming be my primary choice of entertainment? I would speculate the non-gaming mass, especially the older generations, haven’t come to grips that gaming could be considered a legitimate form of narrative.

Throughout my so-called “gaming career”, I’ve been very lucky to have experienced some of gaming’s finest moments. These are some moments that so far, no other medium has been able to match. Here are some thoughts on games that I think gave me a fulfilling experience.

Red Dead Redemption

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Early 1900s America, where settlements are being found and wild animals still freely roam the land. Picturesque landscapes of canyons and mountain ranges and dusty deserts with the tumbleweeds crossing about. You play the role of John Marston, a man struggling to do what is right (or sometimes wrong) in order to see his family again. It’s one of the rare games that would make me not use the fast travel feature, because I’d rather soak in the sights and sounds during the pioneering days of America. Not only that: it was able to successfully capture the feel during those days of lawlessness and how one can brutally survive with a Colt single-action revolver. Like the the art and aesthetics, the story is beautifully paced and the characters all have depth and personality, especially the protagonist, John Marston. I would go as far as to say this game was truly a masterpiece of its genre as I’ve never been so absorbed with any other title to this day.

Mass Effect Series

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Man has found a way to travel beyond Earth and to other solar systems with the help of technology curiously left behind by an unknown race. You play the role of Commander Shepard, who can be male or female, depending on how you customize the character. The plight of saving humanity and how you do it -- morally or immorally -- really depends on you as the player. The game successfully captures the feeling that each decision you make can have a rippling effect throughout the whole series. You are also given comrades in arms to fight with, both human and alien, and all of them are interesting enough to bring along as they will give you nibble sized bits of their opinions and backstory. Of course, the game takes place all over the universe. You get to hop in and out of different planets with different kinds of environments. What is a space opera if it doesn’t deal with some kind of “jumping” from one star system to the other?

Far Cry 3

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It was supposed to be an exciting getaway in an exotic island filled with flora and fauna that could only be found in the tropics... until suddenly everything turned for the worst! The island is filled with murderous pirates: not the charming kind, but the human-trafficking, sell-you-for-drugs-and-money kind. An excellent example of a first person narrative, the game never shifts out of the first person perspective of Jason Brody. Every grit, pleasure, and pain that Jason experiences is communicated very well by the game to the player. You get to witness first-hand the transformation of an adrenaline junkie man-child into a courageous yet ruthless warrior who seeks revenge. It may be cliché, but the main difference is in this game, you get to pull the trigger.

Why it's different

The one unique aspect of gaming that trumps other forms of media is the emergence. As I have mentioned with Mass Effect, some games today give you the freedom and choice to shape the outcome of the story. Imagine that you get to be the writer and director of your favorite TV show or movie, choosing the path of the protagonist and how he/she acts when presented with different kinds of situations. Some games also put you right smack-dab into the middle of the action, making you (as the audience) experience what the protagonist is experiencing first hand. Other forms of media only go as far as trying to make you understand by painting you a picture either visually or with words. Games, in my opinion, immerse you better since you have direct control of the character on the screen, and depending on the game, you are granted certain freedoms to go with certain situations. Couple that with quality visuals and professionally produced audio, and I can guarantee you that this is by far a superior experience to simply being the passive audience.

Even attractive women enjoy playing games (circa 1995)

I urge the non-gamer readers out there not to dismiss gaming as a hobby, or a distraction for children. The sad fact is that gaming has been generalized to be an activity meant for the juvenile populace, especially where I live. Yes, I acknowledge the fact that there are some games that are geared towards children, but same goes for any other form of media. There are shows and stories that are carefully designed and created to target certain age groups, which is equally true for games.

Although I enjoy the occasional summer flick on the big screen, TV shows with multi-dimensional characters (shout-out to Downton Abbey!), or a book that could easily toy with my emotions (go read: She’s Come Undone), I would still hand it to gaming for giving me truly unique and memorable experiences.

The Walking Dead: My Own Little Slice of Paradise in Hell

(or: Telltale's The Walking Dead as played by an adventure game veteran)

Zombies -- always fun, always thrilling, and uniquely suited to any horror scenario from a slow and quiet exploration of a creepy house in the dark of night, to a terrifying and action-packed dash through an abandoned shopping mall, to a full-scale apocalypse where civilization has broken down and the monster threat has become just another force of nature. I like zombies.

When The Walking Dead by Telltale Games went 40% off during this year's Steam Summer Sale, I just had to get it for myself. Here's what I thought.

As a purist and as an old hand at adventure gaming, I should have been appalled the moment that The Walking Dead handed me the reins and made me play minute after minute of quick time events and choosing dialogue. The gameplay formula is as simple as it gets, and is split into a handful of distinct tasks:

    1. Talk to a bunch of people by choosing what to say before a timer runs down
    2. Do a series of actions by mashing and hitting buttons as the prompts appear on-screen
    3. Explore a small area by walking around, picking up items, using them on things, and talking some more
    4. Sneak around a zombie-infested (or otherwise dangerous) area by moving between predetermined hiding places and using items and weapons to eliminate threats
    5. Choose between two given courses of action as a timer rapidly runs down

That's basically it. The entire game is a linear progression of some of A, and then some of B, a short stint of C and D, more A and B, and then a gut-wrenching serving of E as the episode hits its climax.

Part of me inside is screaming out: where's the freedom in this? Where are the dialogue trees where I can ask people about everything under the sun? Where are the grab bags of items to use in creative ways, and to bang together in a MacGyver-esque display of ingenuity? The exploration? The puzzles? Dear god, where are the puzzles?

No, The Walking Dead isn't an adventure game in the way that my happy, adventure-filled childhood defines it. It might not even be a game as much as it is an interactive animated series with branching paths. All those doubts, however, went flying like a zombie's head at a lumberjack convention the moment I really started playing and getting into the narrative.

The Walking Dead succeeds because it manages to capture the essence of what makes the original comic book series great: the uniquely human-centric view of conflict and survival during a full-scale apocalypse of the walking dead persuasion. As Lee Everett -- a convicted murderer given a new lease on life by the zombie outbreak -- you will find yourself interacting with various groups of other survivors over the course of the two episodes currently available. Not everyone is as agreeable as you'd like them to be, and while it's very possible to play as a nice guy through and through, sometimes you will have to do some nasty things to ensure your survival.

That's about par for the course for a game about survival and the apocalypse, though. Even the fact that you're saddled with a child to protect isn't such an original idea. Fortunately, the little girl named Clementine whom you are tasked to look after is a likeable and resourceful character, not registering so much as a grain-sized blip on the annoying-kid meter. The game also uses an invisible but clever way to illustrate your connection to her: usually, during moments of personal danger, a red border starts to appear on the screen and the scene begins to take a reddish hue. This usually happens during sneaking sequences when you find yourself exposed and in plain sight, or during QTEs when your face is inches away from being peeled off by a set of snapping zombie teeth. Everytime Lee sees Clementine in danger, however, the screen goes red like a warning siren, reminding us that we're not just dicking around and that saving her is not just another branching path option. To Lee, Clementine's safety is as important as his own, and the game communicates that brilliantly.

Talking is a big part of The Walking Dead, even if it's essentially the dialogue system from Alpha Protocol, complete with the timer that makes you choose your response quickly. It seems like a weak attempt at interactivity at the game's outset, but eventually, dialogue becomes less and less of a narrative chore, and more of a respite from the grim realities of life in a dead world. Conversations are short and to the point, and never quite long enough to satisfy the player initiating it. The system does a good job of making things frantic, clipped, and uncomfortable. Lee will never get to know the strangers he's grouped up with as well as he'd like, and likewise, there are things about his past that are better off unsaid -- the aforementioned murder conviction not the least among them all. Often, there's an option for "..." to keep silent, and sometimes it does feel like it's the right thing to do. Impressively, your choices here matter -- people will remember your responses to them, and future interactions will change accordingly. Even the tv-like "Previously on" and "Next time on" segments use your plot and dialogue choices in the recaps and previews.

The choices you make during key points affect the plot in a big way. Characters will live or die depending on your decisions, and those who live will go on to play major roles in the episodes to follow. The branching is enough to drive home the point that your choices do matter, but you can't really derail the plot with them either. The Walking Dead is a linear game, with events happening in a predetermined order and crises playing out when the script calls for them. In a Deus Ex-like manner, it's the way you progress from plot point to major plot point that will differ from player to player. At the end of each episode, the game presents a tally of the choices you made and compares them against its record of all the other players who played through the scenario. It's a nice way of seeing how the rest of the community is playing the game, and also to find out where the major branches in the episode took place. Some of them took me by surprise, because while I was playing the game, I felt like some situations presented me with no choice at all.

Apparently not.

There's no doubt, however, that The Walking Dead is light on the puzzles that the genre is known for. At no point will you be tasked with using lateral thinking to overcome an obstacle, like padlocking the vertical gate in Full Throttle to secure it and climb up the chain that served as its pulley. Nor will you ever need to show a character a specific item to get her to help you accomplish a task. The game has some inspired moments -- distracting a group of zombies with some common sense application of a universal tv remote, for instance -- but most of the tasks you will do is of the use the flashlight on the dark hallway variety.

That's fine with me; in a setting like this, there should be no time to spare for clever solutions to inexplicably important puzzles. The Walking Dead constantly communicates to you that if something seems like it can't be manipulated to your liking, it's more efficient to turn around and look for another way to overcome a problem, instead of pecking at it with rubber chickens and dazed monkeys.

I think it's great that the developers at Telltale Games have managed to marry story and gameplay so eloquently in The Walking Dead, although it arguably limits the way that the plot will develop. In the comic book, the survivors have reached the point that they have started forming real communities, making real and major decisions to stay alive, stay fed, and stay safe from wandering zombies and murderous humans alike. The way the game plays, however, I don't see how this can be possible without making the player feel powerless and insignificant. Unlike the protagonists of the comic book, Lee Everett and the player will never make the shift from reactive to proactive as far as interaction with the game world goes. We will have to see how the succeeding episodes will develop, and I still have high hopes that the series will satisfy regardless.

My bottom line is this: The Walking Dead is such an immersive and engrossing experience that there's no way I can not recommend this to anyone, from hardcore gamers to, well, your mom. It was just on sale on Steam, going as low as 40% off, but the trip is well worth it, even at full price. Play it and see for yourself!

Malaysian Gamer: The Age of DLCs

I'm sure you all have your personal opinions on DLC. It's the kind of gamer topic that you could host a radio call-in show on; you can be passionate about it, or totally ambivalent, and still have something to say. Malaysian Gamer's frags has posted a concise but thorough examination of the downloadable menace -- or the downloadable surprise blessing, depending on where you're coming from. Read the full article here!

In ye olde days, PC games would get released, with maybe 4 to 5 subsequent patches(or more depending on just how buggy a game is) and the development studio would call it quits there. From then on, the community takes over producing new content and mods for a game. Today, publishers look forward to extend the lifespan of a title by releasing Downloadable Content for their 'products'. Not quite expansion packs and it has become a trend now that they cost money. Why? Because it sells...

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It is important to distinguish just what DLCs are. They are not expansion, which add a considerable amount of content and normally sells for about half the price of the full game(expansions are common for strategy and RPG games). DLCs add content to the game… that’s basically it. However, how much content is a point of contention for many consumers.

Read the full article.

About the author: frags prefers playing his first person shooters with background music from Pink Floyd. It's a religious and spiritual experience. Recommends others to try it out.

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