Scribbling.

Late to the Party

In Improbable Mutterings, Video Games on January 21, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Or, on the Virtues of Technological Semi-obsolescence

 

Can you believe we used to have to program these bastards in order to run games? We are talking serious dedication here.

 

Because I work as a writer, I often don’t have a lot of money. (Still…what I lack in resources, I gain in cultural gravity, right?) This means I have to be very particular about my entertainments. While books and film are the mainstay of my leisure time, I’m also an avid video game player. And within the spectrum of video games, I am a PC gamer.

It’s not that I don’t like consoles – far from it. While my first “gaming system” was a Commodore 64 (my parents would dispute its intended purpose in this respect), I owned several consoles in the years following that. The 16-bit era of gaming was a real heyday for me and my friends. I was particularly attached to the Sega Genesis, but my brother owned a Super NES, so we got the best of both worlds.

But my heart has always belonged to gaming on the computer system. Games on the computer tended to be more cerebral, more complicated, less arcade-like. I particularly loved strategy and role playing games – and it is no coincidence that these types of games have not found the levels of success on gaming platforms that they have on computers.

I avidly follow the development of video games, and the journalism (including reviews) that surrounds them. And, being a 14-year old nerd at heart, I still get excited about the newest and coolest releases.

It is difficult to maintain your enthusiasm for an older product in the face of a new one. Whether a new game has improved performance, or gameplay, or just plain looks better, you’re always aware on some level that your product, the older product, is now no longer as good. I have several friends who work in graphic design, and they are particularly susceptible to this trap: it’s their job to be impressed by beauty of design, and these friends are often drawn in by the incredible graphics of a new-generation release.

But because I don’t have the money to always be buying a new system in order to play these gorgeous and awesome new games, I often have to make do with what I’ve got. More than a decade as a university student taught me to be extremely frugal with my video game purchases – milking those I already owned for all they had, and only purchasing the best of the best of new releases. If my machine could not play these new releases, I had to suck it up.

I will not be able to play Bethesda's Skyrim until, say, 2020.

Over the years, I nurtured a characteristic I never knew I had: patience. Not only have I become able to wait several years until I can afford a new machine to play “new” games, but I’ve also gotten really good at selecting what I believe to be the best of several years’ release schedule. The end result has been that upon the purchase of a new machine, I can play the very best of a herd of years-old games, all at a discount price, and with all the updates and mods and expansions I could hope to play.

For someone like me, who enjoys getting the most out of his games, this is an enormously beneficial habit. In my years of mucking about with a limited number of games, I discovered the sheer delight of the modding community. Games like Bethesda Studio’s Morrowind are very replayable on their own, but when you add user-generated mods, they are almost infinitely complex and deep. This is where it truly pays off being a PC gamer – you are never locked into the pre-determined restrictions of a hard-coded console system or game.

I also avoid ever having to pay full price for a game. New-release games can run as much as $70 after tax. I haven’t spent that much on a game in almost 10 years. (The one exception being a disastrous purchase of Master of Orion III, which proved the argument for waiting a few weeks so you can read a few reviews.)

But the real excitement for me lies in only ever playing the best of the best. For several years, I have reveled in the Baldur’s Gate series, Planescape: Torment, the LucasArts adventure series (The Dig is still one of my favorite adventure games of all time), The Longest Journey (and its sequel), the Civilization series (with particular shout-out to Civilization IV, and the outstanding mod Fall from Heaven II), Half-Life 2, Deus Ex, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, System Shock, the X-Com series, the Fallout series, and the Homeworld series. These are all games which would by today’s standards be considered achingly obsolete. And yet I played them as new. At times it was tough to see my friends playing all the newest games, but it made me all the more resolved to find the best older games.

Of course, I couldn’t keep this up forever. My venerable laptop died after an agonizing decline, and so I recently purchased a new machine. I’m finally getting a chance to play games that have been building on my list for years. For the first time, I’m experiencing the truly glorious Mass Effect series. Canadian company BioWare has one of the most enviable records in video game development. I’ve enjoyed their games since the start of their Baldur’s Gate games, and it’s such a pleasure to be reunited with them now. It’s even better than I can play the original Mass Effect and its sequel back to back.

Games like Mass Effect are well worth waiting for. Having a system that can play them at their fullest potential makes the long years in between completely worthwhile.

I am surrounded with an embarrassment of riches, the harvest of about six years of little to no new game purchases. It’s hard to know where to start. I’m excited to give Bethesda’s Oblivion a shot on a computer that can actually do it justice (to say nothing of their iteration of Fallout, a continuation of the Black Isle series I adored during my undergraduate years). I recently played Relic Studio’s Dawn of War II, which I was very happy with. And I’m really looking forward to playing really nerdy and visually spectacular games like X3, at which my old machines would simply expire at the thought of running.

The reality, however, is that I’m not even rushing to play these. Being patient with video games also taught me to appreciate more low-fi releases. We’re currently living in a golden age of indie game development, the release and distribution of which have been greatly aided by digital distribution platforms like Steam and Impulse. Games like Braid, Machinarium, and the Galactic Civilizations series are just as appealing to me as the big studio marquee titles.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I kinda love being a few years behind, as a gamer. I enjoy watching the hype build up around big releases, and get more than a little Schadenfreude when they don’t live up to critical expectations. I’ll likely never put myself in the position of pre-ordering a title again. Why bother? Why not wait until it drops 50% in price, the bugs get fixed, it gets a new expansion pack (bundled in the reduced price), and the mod community has found hundreds more ways to make it better?

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  1. You write this article and don’t mention you are in a Mozilla kinship in Lord of the Rings Online?? I am demoting you. *shame*

  2. I thought about talking about MMOs, and then got sidetracked with all the single-player games I’ve been playing recently. But yes, I deserve a demotion. So, let’s see — demotion from the lowest member standing to…aww, man! Does this mean I’m booted out?!

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