Breaking My Backlog #1 – Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

Breaking My Backlog is a semi-regular features on Troamm.com in which I attempt to complete my entire backlog before buying any new games. You can read more about the quest and see my backlog here.

COTMSpoiler Warning: The following post contains some spoilers for Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. Turn back now, lest you be spoiled.

Selecting Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon as the first game in my backlog journey was anything but random. First, I was nearly done with the game when I made my list, so it was an easy victory right out of the gate. In addition to this, however, it also forced me to consider two questions that had come up in my mind as I envisioned this entire ordeal:

  • At what point is a game actually “complete?”
  • Does the difficulty setting lessen my completion of the game?

I think the first question is much harder to answer. The definition of “complete” varies wildly from game to game, and Bloodstained: COTM  is no different. Originally a stretch goal for a Kickstarter for a “Metroid-Vania” style game called Bloodstained: Ritual of the NightCOTM is about a demon killer Zangetsu, who sets off to destroy the Dark Emperor. Along the way, he picks up a few hitchhikers who help him in his quest, and I think we all learn a bit more about ourselves through the journey. The game is a definite throwback to the 8-bit action-platformers of the NES days, and it’s very, very good. I bought the game on my Switch on release day and quickly played through the eight stages of normal mode. During this initial playthrough, I played the game on veteran difficulty, which limits the player’s lives and causes kickback when the player takes damage, a clear emulation of 8-bit gameplay. Nothing in this first playthrough of the game caused me too much trouble, though I did die on a few of the bosses that seemed fairly cheap — again, an emulation of the NES-style action-platformers that clearly inspired it. So, after finishing eight stages, and beating eight bosses, I breathed a sigh of relief and settled in for the final cutscene. At least, I thought it was the final cutscene. And therein lay my conundrum. Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking My Backlog – The Intro

Like most gamers my age that have eventually grown up and got jobs that maybe give them some disposable income, I have a problem. I have a huge backlog. Due to things like Steam Sales and Humble Bundles, I’ve quietly amassed a list of games that I haven’t even downloaded yet. So many, I can’t even keep all of them straight. This creates a problem as I tend to forget what I have, and when it comes time to pick a new game to play I either don’t bother to check my games list and just decide I have nothing to play, or I do check my games list and get overwhelmed with choice. Either way, the result is the same: I end up deciding to just play Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the 50th time.

Something has to change, or dare I say: Something has to break.

Read the rest of this entry »

Enter title here

*Walks out on stage*

*Taps mic*

*Blows briefly into mic*

Read the rest of this entry »

A Switch From Regret to Acceptance

SwitchI woke up this morning to the pangs of regret. It’s become a bit of a normal practice, for better or worse, to check Twitter when I wake up to make sure the world didn’t end while I was sleeping. This morning, however, my feed wasn’t filled with the typical politics I expect to see, but with pictures and posts from people buying their Nintendo Switches. You see, I had a Nintendo Switch. I preordered it overnight after the big press announcement, and up until about ten days ago, I had been preparing for my new toy to arrive in the mail sometime this first week of March. About ten days ago, however, something changed. After a few days of deep thought and consideration, I ultimately decided to cancel my preorder. After it was done, I breathed a sigh of relief, convinced I was making the right decision. This morning, though, I woke up, read Twitter, and experienced regret for the first time since I canceled my preorder. I’ve been spending some time this morning trying to figure out why.

First, my reasons for canceling my preorder still seem spot-on. The launch lineup is still weak to today, aside from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And rumors swirled a couple of weeks ago about games that had previously been announced no longer being launch titles. Additionally, other features, like the Virtual Console, which should have been available out of the box, were not going to be present. While I had no doubt in my mind that Breath of the Wild would be a fantastic game, I knew that, really, that would be the only thing I play on the system until at least late April, when Mario Kart VIII is released. $300 is just too much to spend on what is essentially a single game. In addition to this, I currently have a huge backlog of games to play, and even throwing on one single game — especially a game as large as Breath of the Wild — felt like a bad call. I felt that way then, and I still feel that way. Looking back, if I had to do it over again, I doubt I would have made a different decision.

Why, then, do I regret canceling my preorder?

Even after thinking about it all morning, I’m still not sure I have a definitive answer to that question. I only have a series of unorganized thoughts as to why I may be feeling this way. For starters, I think a part of me feels a sense of obligation to Nintendo. I am a soldier in the Nintendo army from a long-time back, and while I haven’t always bought Nintendo systems on launch day, I have historically at least done everything I could to support them. I don’t think this is the reason, though. Despite my love for Nintendo, I have fallen away from this fanboyism, for lack of a better word, over the past few years. I didn’t even buy a Wii-U, despite the system having a few games that I wanted to play. I didn’t dislike the Wii-U by any means, I just didn’t feel compelled to buy one. I don’t believe it’s any sense of obligation to Nintendo that is causing my regret.

I do think I have a slight desire to be part of the crowd, which may be feeding that regret. There’s always a sense of excitement and camaraderie that surrounds a console launch, and by canceling my preorder, I essentially pulled myself out of all that. Like Icarus, I flew close to the sun, and my wings of wax melted, sending me plummeting into the sea with a splash. Perhaps a bit overdramatic, but I tend to be overdramatic when video games are concerned. It’s one of my things. I think this may be closer to the correct answer, since so much of my regret seems to stem from pictures on my Twitter feed showing excited gamers getting their hands on the system. I’m still not entirely sure that this is the only reason, though. I see people on my Twitter feed all of the time posting new games they’ve bought. I’ve seen countless images of Horizon: Zero Dawn across all of my social media feeds this week, and I don’t experience any of the same regret that I haven’t bought or played that game yet, despite it being one of the main reasons I bought a PS4. Again, I have plenty of games to play right now, so if a few games slip under my radar for a few months until I have time to play them, that’s just better on my sanity and pocketbook.

Lastly, I think it may have something to do with my desire to write about video games. I’m not in a place where I can write about video games full-time yet, and that’s a bit disappointing for me. I thought I would be at this point in my life, so there’s probably a hair of regret that this is not the case. Perhaps the countless images on my Twitter feed are serving as kind of a reminder of that, since buying games on day one is what you do when your job is writing about them. Of course, this is all compounded by the reminder of that huge backlog of games, since really, my backlog stems from the fact that I am fairly busy in my week. I work a 40-hour-a-week job, I own a house that I am still working on, and I am trying to finish a book of essays. While I do spend some time during the week playing video games, it’s still pretty limited. This wouldn’t be the case, of course, if I wrote about video games for a living. Playing video games would, naturally, be a part of my job. The more I think about it, the more I believe that this is really the source of most of the regret — a desire to be some place other than where I am right now.

Or, maybe, it’s all three?

I suppose the reason for my regret is less important than how I deal with it. And, on this point, I’m still working it out. Reminding myself of truth is a big part of it. $300 IS a lot of money to play a single game. I DO have a huge backlog of video games to finish. My life IS really busy right now, and I don’t have a lot of time to play through video games, and I don’t need more video games that I won’t play at the moment. All of these reasons are very, very valid in my decision to cancel my pre-order. Remembering all of this is a good, good thing. Looking toward the future is a good thing, as well. I know that this regret is short-lived. I’ll probably experience it a few times over the next week or so, as much of Breath of the Wild hits the Internet. But, after that? I remember after the Wii-fever died down, most thinkpieces on the Internet talked about how the console was just gathering dust while waiting for the next big Nintendo release. Will the Switch fall into that same trap? I doubt it. They do seem to have some good third-party support. But, here now, at launch, it’s hard to see any stability in the future. Nintendo has burned a lot of their goodwill with me with the last two systems, and giving them the benefit of the doubt is really, really hard. I’m sure, somewhere down the line, after some major titles are released, I will buy the Switch, and I’ll play the games. I think, until that happens, though, I will be okay with my decision to cancel my preorder. Maybe. I don’t know.

Now, I feel like I need to close out this post with a disclaimer and possibly an apology. I feel like I may seem like I’m coming down on people who did preorder the system, or those who waited in line to get the system today. That’s not the case. I’m sorry if I’m giving a holier-than-thou impression with this piece, that is not my intent. I made the decision that was right for me, and I’ve written this to remind myself of the reasons why I made that decision, and hopefully process through the weird regret that I’m feeling today. If you bought a Switch, I wish you the best of luck. If nothing else, Nintendo consoles are always fun. I’m sure you will have a blast with the system.

Just, maybe, don’t post Breath of the Wild spoilers, okay? Some of us haven’t had a chance to play it yet.

The Birth of the Player

monkey-typingAs I sit here, drinking coffee and listening to Nobel Price winner Bob Dylan, I’m thinking way to hard about video games. Please note, this isn’t abnormal. Ninety percent of my life is spent thinking way too hard about video games. If I ever revisit my alma mater, and my old adviser asks what I’ve been doing with my Master’s degree, I hope the disappointment on their face won’t be too evident when I tell him that I write about the class struggles evident in Super Mario Bros. Anyway, I’m thinking way too hard about video games right now, but not just about video games: I’m thinking way too hard about video game journalism, and how much I’m enjoying where the industry is going right now. Before I begin, please go and read Terrance Wiggins’s brilliant review of Mafia III.

I had intended to write something vastly different today, some review of some random game I bought on Steam about a month ago, but instead, since reading this review, I can’t stop thinking about it. I love it so much. It’s not just how well-written it is — and it is well written — and it’s not just how raw it is — and it is raw — I love it because the review works so incredibly well.

1.

I’ve been noticing a trend in video game journalism which excites me to no end. Back when I started reading video game reviews as a kid, they largely followed the same formula: The reviewer writes about the story, graphics, sound, gameplay, and control, and he or she is going to use this info to tell you whether or not the game is any good. Something happened about ten years ago, though, around the time video game journalism started to shift to more of a blog-type format and voice. Reviews started to grow more subjective. Rather than rating the “Big 5 Categories,” the reviewers started to offer more of a personal take on the game. Rather than determining the quality of the game purely on technical aspects, more weight was given to the experience, and how well that experience resonated with the reviewer.

I love this, because it is so true. A bad game can be good simply on the merits of the impression it leaves on and with the player. The reviewer does have a responsibility to address any issues with the game he or she finds, but these issues are no longer the be-all, end-all determination of quality. It’s just one more thing to consider as you, the reader, determine whether or not to buy the game. I think this is one reason Wiggins’s review is so good. He addresses the flaws in the game. He talks about the ways the game fails. But, these observations seem much less important than this experience playing the game, and for him, that made the game good. And that perspective should not be discounted, because it’s the most honest a review can possibly get.

2.

I want to play Mafia III. This surprises me because I have nothing invested in this series. I think I played the first game. I seem to remember playing it in college, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you anything about the game. I want to say that I didn’t play the second game, but again, I’m not sure. If I did, it left even less of an impression on me than the first game did. I want to play Mafia III, though, and that’s in no small part thanks to Wiggins’s review.

To be fair, if I did play Mafia III, I wouldn’t have the same experience Wiggins did. I’m a 34-year-old white guy from Nebraska. I’ve never felt out of place based on the color of my skin. I’ve never felt like I don’t belong in any given situation. But, I know that exists in this world for people every day, and I need to acknowledge it and attempt to understand it if I ever want to be a good ally to those marginalized groups of people. While playing a video game won’t ever be the same as experiencing this ugliness every hour of every day, like any piece of art, a video game can serve as a tool to increase understanding for those of us who don’t. Should it take the place of listening to those in the middle of this struggle? Of course not, but like reading a book, or listening to a song, or watching a movie, we can leave the experience of a video game with a better understanding of the world as viewed through eyes other than our own.

And that is so damn important.

3.

I know there are people who have issues with this type of video game journalism. There are many people who feel that video game journalism should be objective, unaware that remaining objective is impossible. Other people have a hard time believing that someone’s truth might not match their own. This causes them to lash out, telling the reviewer how wrong they are. You can see this anytime someone does something silly like express enjoyment of a movie like the 2016 Ghostbusters. If you throw on a healthy heaping of a social justice issue in the mix, you’ll bring down an apocalyptic level of “well, actually” telling you how wrong you are with the self-restraint of an addict.

I haven’t checked Wiggins’s @mentions, but I hope he’s not receiving any backlash for his review. If he is, I hope he’s strong enough to handle it. His voice is so damn refreshing, it needs to exist in this world. As gamers, we want video games to be considered “art,” and we scream at anyone who says otherwise. But, to consider a medium as art carries with it a certain set of expectations. First, the medium must be open to cultural criticism, both good and bad. What does it say about the surrounding culture in which it’s created? What does it say about those of us who enjoy it?

Second, and arguably as important, the medium must be open to reader interpretation.

In 1967, Roland Barthes published an essay called “Death of the Author.” Considered to be a catalyst of modern literary analysis, Barthes’s essay argues that with good literature, the author’s intent matters little in creating meaning. Ultimately, good literature requires the reader to be an active participant in creating meaning. The death of the author inevitably creates the birth of the reader. To put this idea into the context of this discussion here, the designers of Mafia III may have intended to create a story that resonates with modern black gamers, and they may not have. Their intent doesn’t really matter. As a consumer of the medium, Wiggins created meaning through his review.

The death of the designer inevitably creates the birth of the player.

4.

When reading this post, you might get the impression that I’m a little pretentious in my view of video game reviews. I assure you, I’m not. I tend to adopt a postmodern view of art, which refuses to see a distinction between arbitrary definitions of “high” and “low” art. Even what most people would consider low art — video games, even, in some circles — can have cultural value simply because it speaks to some people. And those who enjoy what others consider “high” art are in no way more cultured than those who do not.

These subjective reviews are not better or worse than the objective reviews. Those of us who enjoy the subjective reviews are not better than those of us who enjoy the objective reviews. Both of these types of reviews serve different functions for different people, and there IS room for both types of reviews in this world.

I just know what type of reviews speak to me, and I am so excited to see the growth of these reviews as they become more prevalent. It tells me that players are starting to view video games as items that reflect culture. In a way, this is an example of video games growing up a bit. All types of media that we consider art have gone through this transition at some point. Video games are starting to say something different to different people, and those differences are creating logical discourse, as these differences are spawning conversation solely for the purpose of increasing knowledge about the subject and ourselves.

And, really, that might be all that matters.

You may agree with Wiggins’s reading of Mafia III, and you may not. If you don’t, I would encourage you to develop your own reading of the game. And if someone disagrees with your reading, I would encourage them to develop their own reading. Like a movie or book, video games can have multiple interpretations, and analyzing those interpretations can be as fun as playing the games themselves.

Well, maybe just for me.