Playing Video Games With an Open Mind

I thought the pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV were pointless, but I found them all anyway. I spent hours getting Tonberry as a Guardian Force in Final Fantasy VIII although he was underpowered as a summon. I even saved Cybil in Silent Hill through some extra legwork.

I try to play video games with an open mind and to completion. I avoid reading previews or reviews before I dive into the latest video game release as well. I strive to complete side quests, embrace even the most fruitless of storylines, and play my heart out until the end credits roll. I save the complaints for later written analyses and prefer to get lost in the moment, attempting to remain objective until I can see the sum of the whole.

Every once in a while, however, a video game and I don’t start off amicably–and it takes a lot to get us back on track.

Sometimes it’s due to a a bug that shouldn’t have made it past testing, other times it’s an absurd storyline I can’t quite swallow. It can be something as simple as a bad voice actor that bothers me. But regardless of how it happens and how rare such a reaction is, the end result is always the same: it sets me on a war path regarding the game.

BioWare’s Dragon Age and I had a rough start that soured my response to the title. Where others found exemplary agency and perfection in gaming, I found residual frustration from my first few minutes of gameplay. The problem stemmed from choosing to be a human–but it wasn’t the storyline nor the character herself that turned me away from the game, although I will admit I later discovered I identified more with the elves.

It was, instead, the noble human’s first party member–the Mabari war hound. The dog is an exclusive introduction to the human character, serving as an integral part of the storyline.

At first glance, the dog was cool enough. He annoyed a woman who seemed altogether too uptight which won points with me, killed rats with aplomb, and had comic relief instead of dialogue with his whimpers.

And then he got stuck in a door.

For some reason, as I exited the kitchen, the war hound went at the same time as me and we got stuck. I slashed at him, I pushed, and I pulled; I accidentally paused, in an attempt to jump which didn’t exist in the game. I even switched perspectives, trying to control just the dog or just my character, but nothing helped. Finally, I yelled a little at my monitor. But no matter what I did, I could not get out of that doorway. I was stuck forever in my castle’s kitchen doorway and I eventually had to restart to get myself out.

For some reason, the bug stuck with me. It clouded my neutrality and, from that point on when I played DA, I projected my disappointment throughout the world. I didn’t do anyone favors, I chose nasty replies, and I was a horrible leader. I didn’t really care if the Darkspawn were a real, viable threat to our existences–I just wanted to kill things in a bloody fashion and be done with the game.

All that motive to plow to the end did, though, was essentially kill DA’s immersion for me.

Dragon Age is a behemoth of a game, a powerful homage to Baldur’s Gate and the fantasy genre that pulls no punches. Eventually, this quality managed to rise above my distaste. Additionally, the game was repeatedly praised by people I valued and they encouraged me to take a deeper look at the game many times. After my human playthrough, I started another save, this time as a elf in the city who was wronged by royalty. I found no dissonance this time through and even enjoyed the opening greatly. I also found no dog (and you better believe me when I finally saw him at the camp, I didn’t even say hello–I knew better than to invite that mutt to my party). And although it took me quite a while until I could even look at it the same way I did Mass Effect, I grew to like it more than I imagined I ever could.

A similar thing happened in Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion–however, unlike Dragon Age, I make no apologies for that game. While I concede DA is a good game (and have high hopes for Dragon Age 2), I completely abhor Oblivion and all that it stands for. I discovered this hatred within the first few minutes of the game when, after breaking through the initial sewers and escaping into the light of day, I found a horse.

Maybe I would have liked the game if I hadn’t found that horse, though I doubt it. Still, it was the horse. It was always the horse. I was wandering the fields, near a pond I had walked to on foot, when it began to rain. The horse appeared out of the mist and it seemed nice, like it was there to give me a ride–to help a new hero out in a cruel, stormy world. But when I mounted it, I immediately felt nauseous from the awkward controls. Veering left to right, a second problem was quickly presented. Although I was out in the field away from anyone, I was wanted for stealing a horse according to the game. Apparently someone had somehow seen me take a horse that seemingly belonged to no one.

I rode my new steed back to the stables in the very far distance, hoping to hand it in to stop the angry people of the world, but there was no such luck. They were out for my blood and I couldn’t explain to them the mistake. Doing what any noble hero with no experience and no clue what was going would do, I got back on the horse and galloped away. Unfortunately, I ran into the direction of the first town in the game, where there were even more guards who killed my horse with their swords. Then I was put in jail.

From the very start, it seemed, Oblivion was not for me.

Or maybe I was not for Oblivion.

Either way, it didn’t work out.

Of course, it’s always nicer when the game displeases you immediately. If you know you don’t like it, you don’t have to waste hours on it. While I’m glad I spent more time with Dragon Age to get past our little disagreement, I was pained to spend more time in Oblivion’s lackluster world. There was no making amends with Bethesda’s creation. It was hollow and bland, even after the initial grand theft horse. It didn’t inspire me to keep playing–even after I got past the horse incident, every dungeon was the same and I found nothing original that was an improvement over the previous installment besides its graphics. Honestly, Morrowind had more depth and better presentation which was disappointing given the years of difference between the two.

Its lack of innovation was not as disappointing as Final Fantasy XII’s hidden weapon debacle, though. It’s amazing I still like this particular Final Fantasy after what it pulled. But I do like the title; I have a thing for its characters, especially Princess Ashe and Balthier. I also like its political intrigue and different plot. Its world feels alive and intrinsic, somehow magical, even years later.

If I liked the world and the politics, though, what I didn’t like in FFXII was the Zodiac Spear. The Zodiac Spear was the ultimate weapon of the game–the most powerful, the most sought after. However, to get the weapon, the game relies on you to not open specific treasure alcoves set out along the game’s path. There’s no indication that the spear exists and no explanation written that opening these containers could be harmful. As far as I can remember, there’s never been a Final Fantasy that has punished you for looting before. The action of looting, in fact, is basic survival to the series.

Just not in Final Fantasy XII. From the chest in Rabanastre to the entirety of Phon Coast, if you open an urn there, apparently you can’t get the spear. It won’t be in the Cloister of the Highborn if you have rummaged through these goods. Worse, there’s no indication that this would happen–no ancient rumor of good weapons hiding for those who are less greedy at the end or any other sort of pitch to explain not opening the chests. It’s just there if you don’t do something that’s as natural as fighting an enemy in the game. It’s nonsensical.

I suspect they thought it would appeal to second playthroughs, or someone who used a strategy guide. But as someone who neither used a guide nor wanted to play dozens of hours again, it was largely disappointing. There was a small chance for the spear to exist in another coffer later on, but it did not show for me. I completed the game without the Zodiac Spear.

It suppose it varies from person to person as to what causes a dislike of a game. For me, it seems to be an accidental reminder that I’m actually playing a game that does it–particularly when it’s a game that is trying extremely hard to rise above the medium. An arcade game, of course, would not suffer from this nor would a simulation game. But RPG or an otherwise interactive title in detailed world will always suffer when this occurs. It’s a break in the virtual reality the game is trying so hard to build. From a dog stuck in a doorway to a horse that doesn’t move quite right, they stuck out like sore thumbs as atmosphere killers.

In Heavy Rain, I made Ethan drink orange juice and it ruined the title for me. The game already had an unfortunate first impression–the opening tutorial tried my patience and I found the Mars family too contrived to inspire my feelings. But it was the orange juice that really ruined it all.

It happened by accident. I was walking to the fridge to make dinner for my son, Shaun, when I picked up a carton of orange juice instead. When prompted, I took a long swig and the game offered me the choice of having another without making the choice of how to put the carton down clear. So I drank some more and then I wondered why they hadn’t coded a limit into it as they had in the demo where Ethan also drinks from the fridge.

But this time there was none. I drank enough orange juice that the hours passed by in Heavy Rain. Shaun got angry, but I kept drinking orange juice, wondering if the game would stop the behaviour or if the carton would ever empty. I heard him pace around sighing loudly, then eventually get his own snack from the cupboard as it grew later into the evening. When I finally put the carton down, a carton that probably should have been long gone forty some drinking sequences ago, I told him to go to sleep and unceremoniously turned off the television to his chagrin. As he stormed out in a tantrum, I turned back to the fridge to see if the game would let me get even more orange juice and suddenly blacked out.

As a player, I found it ludicrous. As Ethan Mars, I was really confused. One minute I was drinking orange juice and the next I was downtown in the rain presumably sans son.

Something was triggered in me with the juice incident and I didn’t care about the game anymore. The game was imitating art, attempting to be stimulating in a manner much like a movie with a host of involved characters. But the orange juice moment broke the illusion for me–I couldn’t think of a single movie that consisted of a forty minute short about orange juice and murder. And the fact that I could very well make that my own movie within the game about orange juice ruined my suspension of belief. The lack of hindsight to put a figurative cap on the beverage intake and inherent lack of realism in his ability to drink endlessly without problems–no sickness nor bathroom breaks–somehow triggered the worst in me. I’d expected better from Heavy Rain, a game where every plot detail was supposed to be thought out like a piece of a puzzle.

Removed from the world I was supposed to care about, I gave up and decided to play for the worst ending possible. I figured it would be fun.

As I segued into Detective Shelby’s story, my first impulse was to get him killed instead of play through the story–not because I particularly hated Shelby or knew about his darker side, but because I wanted to see if I could. I screamed at the prostitute who had lost her son, I engaged in a brawl I purposely lost with an angry ex-client of hers, and I limped away covered in blood. As his scene faded, I vowed that I would get him killed next time. But there really was no next time, because I turned my PlayStation 3 off and I will probably not play it again for a long time.

The funny thing is I liked Quantic Dream’s first offering: Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy). While it was absurd to a degree and grew increasingly out of touch by the last half of the game, the game still provided me with engagement and entertainment. Unfortunately, as its spiritual sequel, Heavy Rain just gave me orange juice and a kid I rather disliked.

At this point in my life as a gamer and a writer, I’ve accepted I just won’t like some games. You won’t like some games either. Sometimes I can be wrong, if Dragon Age is any indication, but other times I’m probably right and the same goes for you. We’re all different creatures with different likes and dislikes. We make snap judgments and we frequently stick to them. The old adage says another man’s trash is someone else’s treasure, and it rings true in a medium so large as video games.

Honestly, the best we can do as a gamer is know our biases. Know our gaming pasts. Do our best to try to achieve an open mind while introducing ourselves to a new title or two. I won’t walk into Bethesda’s newest production thinking of my distaste for Oblivion and I won’t approach Dragon Age 2 thinking about the damn Mabari war hound. I will let future games rise and fall on their own merits, or my reactions to such merits. I won’t expect to like a genre I previously disowned or a game by a studio I’m not a fan of, but I won’t judge it before I’ve paid it its dues either.

I will play every game with an open mind, until otherwise given a reason to be opinionated. The developers and their development teams deserve at least that much.

Unless they put orange juice in one of the opening chapters of their games, at least.