Today’s article is in two halves. The first is a guest article submitted by Jason Falls (the “five games” part), and the second is by yours truly, adding relevance to tabletop RPGs to the mix.
5 Games That Will Wreck Your Life
When I was a kid making my first tentative steps into the Mushroom Kingdom, there was a lot of anxiety around games. Not anxiety felt by anyone playing them of course, we thought they were awesome. But our parents were petrified. The constant worry was that we would become addicted to game playing, incapable of leading any kind of life or having any other interests than the bright colorful interactive pixels that bounced around thanks to my 8 bit game console.
Now, of course, we know better, and many successful and highly functional adults grew up playing games and continue to enjoy this hobby alongside rewarding careers, social lives and families.
However, something else has happened since then. The games have got better. These games have the potential to completely end you. Some of these games are new, some of these games are old, but all have them will have you playing until the dark hours of the morning, while constantly insisting you can give them up any time you want.
Civilization II is a very simple game. You start off in the Stone Age and you take your civilization through to the modern day, trying to avoid environmental catastrophes, nuclear war, or simply being wiped out by someone who invented guns while you were still mucking about building the Library of Alexandria.
And it’s super addictive. Civilization II more so than even any of the sequels, because what it gives you is an incredible level of micromanagement. You get hooked trying to build the perfect utopia you have always thought you could if it wasn’t for The Man, and you’ll stop and walk away from the game after just one more turn, you swear. And that’s what you’re still saying as the sun comes up when you started playing at six the previous evening.
Of course, compared to this game, Civilization II is rocket science. This game is simply the art of lowering blocks and making them all match up, and the thing is, it doesn’t matter how good you are, because the game is still going to deny you that long block whenever you need it most. But you just know, just know that if you play for another five minutes you can incrementally increase your high score.
This is perhaps the most deadly of the games on here. The graphics are not that amazing. In fact they mostly look like large Lego bricks. And therein lies the clue. Because what Minecraft gives you is a play area lager than the planet Earth, and all the raw materials you need to build, well, anything you like.
There’s no victory condition (well, there is another dimension called “The End” where you fight a dragon, but nobody really cares about that), just endless possibility. You can build a wooden shack, a furnace, learn metallurgy, build rails and switches and anything, literally anything you desire from floating castles made of glass to a fully working aqua duct. But you have to build all of it block by block, so say bye bye to anything else you wanted to do with your free time.
Bombermine is the old Nintendo game, Bomberman, shameless ripped off, put in a larger level and move the number of players up from “four” to “hundreds”. And you can drop in and out of the game any time you like. I’ve paused writing this article three times already just to have a quick game. And I’ll probably reward myself with another one when it’s done.
Any RPG by Bethesda Game Studios
Elder Scrolls or Fallout 3, take your pick. It doesn’t matter what the actual game is. What matters is that you’re given an absolutely massive playing area, with hundreds of locations and characters and side quests. Much as with the other games on this list, with any of these games, whether its Oblivion, Skyrim or New Vegas, there’s always something around the corner to explore, some minor task to complete before you wrap up for the night.
And then you can do it again a different way. You can be a gun toting Rambo, or a coward who talks his way out of a situation, then runs it away. Even now I’m thinking of having another play. Back soon…
Jason Falls is a freelance writer and avid gamer who works with Butlers Bingo and has racked up something like 50 odd hours in Fallout 3 alone.
So what do these games have in common? Well, the first thing that’s common to most of them is the theme of exploration or discovery. Even Tetris, where you have no idea what the next shape will be until it lobs down the chute (some versions give a 1-piece or 3-piece advance warning, but the principle remains). The second common ingredient is great gameplay.
Both of these are common to RPGs, as well.
When you play a computer game, you discover the world created by the game programmer, even if it is randomly generated each time you play. Ever since mankind first looked over the hill just to see what was on the other side, exploration and discovery have been ongoing pleasures for the human race. James T. Kirk’s five year mission celebrated the sense of discovery, of finding something new, in each and every episode. When we play a computer game, even one that we know well, we are vicariously recreating the experience of the great explorers and the joy of discovery that they must have felt when they saw a new land for the first time.
In a tabletop RPG, we are the creators of the world; we stock it with interesting encounters and dangerous critters and mind-bending puzzles and engaging characters as best we can; and part of the thrill of being a GM is that you get to watch your players as they discover and interact what you have created. Why is that so much fun?
It might have something to do with Mirror Neurons.
These basically don’t just show us someone doing something, they make us feel like we’re doing it too. When we see someone smile, the same neural centers that activate when we’re smiling light up. Current theories suggest that this is related to learning, and may be connected to more subtle forms of empathy – but this is cutting-edge science, and we don’t yet have all the answers. Bottom line: if we can get someone else to have fun, most of us will enjoy the process as much as if we were the ones having fun. You can never recapture your first time through a particular amusement park ride; but by watching someone else go through it for the first time, we can get almost as much visceral enjoyment out of it. It follows that we can have fun exploring the world as we are creating it, and then have some more fun when someone else plays through it even though we already know what’s there to find. Whether GMs have more of this capacity than non-GMs, I don’t know; and whether or not that is the cause or the result of their ability to GM is another unanswered question. Studies have shown that watching a violinist play actually stimulates the motor cortex of the brain responsible for controlling the left hand (the one that’s doing the playing). I suspect this may also be the reason why so many of us play air guitar at times!!
Not all games are created equal; there have been many more clunkers released in the computer game market for every winner. The same is true, I’m sure, when it comes to RPGs and the adventures and encounters we incorporate into them. The spirit of exploration and the fun of being creative is not enough.
When you’re playing with a computer game, you enjoy it more when you don’t have to stop and think about how to get your onscreen character to do what you want; you just want them to do it. The gameplay has to be compelling and the system has to be unobtrusive. That’s harder to achieve with a tabletop RPG, but it remains the goal in a lot of ways. For routine tasks, don’t ask for that skill check; assume that it has been rolled and was successful, and cut the middleman from in between statement of intent and description of outcome. The goal is to have the players interacting with the game world and not with the game mechanics.
And the more we can achieve this, the less incentive there is for players to turn “interacting with the game mechanics” into a game in its own right – in other words, to game the system and min-max their capabilities.
Sidebar: One Bad Apple
One ‘bad’ player can ruin a GM’s entire refereeing ‘career’ by teaching them bad habits, and the contagion spreads if you aren’t careful. One player who tries to rort the system, to exploit every flaw and weakness, can inculcate a defensive mentality within the GM, a ‘say no unless you have no other choice’ perspective. Other players then get affected by the splash as collateral damage to the conflict between the two; they start to get told ‘no’ as well, even if it’s in a completely separate campaign with completely separate players. They soon learn that the only way to get ahead is to fight the GM tooth and nail for every possible advantage they can get; then they carry that attitude into a new campaign with a new GM. I still struggle to overcome the legacy that some such players have had on my GMing style, so if you’re in the same boat, you aren’t alone. And if you’ve never encountered the problem, consider yourself blessed.
There’s another analogy to be made here. The Game Mechanics can be thought of as the “operating system/platform” for the “computer game” and the adventure for the day can be considered the “computer game”. The ‘operating system’ defines how the game players can interact with the adventure. The GM should be a blend of supervisor of the operating system, checking for errors and making sure that the system calls take place in an orderly fashion and produce sensible results, and the game author, extending the game in whatever direction the players choose to head. Outside of his narrative function (replacing the graphics card) and his role as the NPCs, the less the GM is heard from in the course of a game, the better.
Just as different operating systems have the strengths and weaknesses, place different priorities on “look and feel”, and are better suited to some tasks than others, so each different game system has strengths and weaknesses, place different priorities in terms of what they do easily and what they have to be dragged into, kicking and screaming. Some are better than others, but there are so many criteria, and so many compromises, that few can be declared absolute dogs and none can be considered perfect. The best you can hope for is that they will be perfect for the adventures you plan on running.
But great gameplay is not enough, even in conjunction with the stimulation of discovering something new.
When you get right down to it, a successful computer game has to be fun, or it is doomed to failure (obscurity, at the very least). Everything that gets published at Campaign Mastery has one goal, at the end of the day, or at least should do so: It either helps you do it better, or it helps you do it easier (leaving more time to work on something else), or both.
And that’s the ultimate lesson from the five games that are so good they can wreck your life. Get everything right, and your games can achieve the same addictive qualities as a great computer game – with benefits.
I couldn’t let it go quite there. Have you ever tried playing a computer game when you were really, really, tired? I’ll bet that you didn’t do as well at it as you normally would. Your reflexes would have been slow, your thinking would have been fuzzy at best and muddled at worst. The same is true of GMing. Just something to bear in mind the night before game day when you’re thinking about all the prep you still have to do – sometimes you will be much better off forgetting the prep, making sure you’re smart, and winging it.