Why do I play – Finding the Hero

A great game overall, still a few minor insignificant bugs, but somehow just feels more frustrating to me than fun. Couldn’t figure out why until…

I play a lot of games. In the last year especially, I’ve tried to get my hands on and play a lot more games than I have in the past. I’ve also struggled with depression and with my severe OCD and other things. In the last few days, I’ve especially been very depressed about my future, work and school specifically. At the same time, I splurged and got myself State of Decay for both Xbox Live Arcade and Steam PC. It’s really a great game, though I do disagree with some of the mechanics. One of which is you don’t make your own character; you play as a survivor with his own personality and back story, and then as you rescue more survivors each with their own personalities and back stories, you can switch off and play as them, too. Once a survivor dies, though, they’re gone permanently. There’s no re-loading a previous save and trying again, they’re just gone. You literally play as almost the entire community of survivors, give or take, and even though each one has their own personality and story, the game is brutal enough that I sometimes wondered if J.R.R. Martin was one of the writers of this game; every time I started to get attached to a survivor, they died horribly.

The upgrading system for melee weapons in this game is impressive and well implemented.

I had also played some of Dead Island recently, too. Another amazingly well made game. The premise is simple, yet effective, and the weapon upgrading system is impressively done. The atmosphere of being just a normal person trying to survive horrifying circumstances was so well done that it’s practically a work of art.

In both these games, as much as the gameplay was amazing and the writing well done and the music beautiful and all these other things that should make it fun, I found they just weren’t as much fun to play as I expected. I also played through all the episodes of The Walking Dead on my iPad; another great game, though this one I gotta say wasn’t entirely my cup of tea. The story was very well written, one of the better story-driven games I’ve played; what I didn’t enjoy as much was this one had barely any gameplay at all, and felt more like watching a TV show than playing a game.

A very good story-based episodic game, if you’re into that kind of thing.

I felt like I had no real control of the story at all and was just along for the ride. Now, I’ve said lots of times that if the game has crap for story, it’s not worth my time. Well, the same can be said for the flip-side – if the story is great but the gameplay is crap or practically nonexistent, then it’s not much of a game at all. A good game is a balance of all it’s aspects – story, gameplay, sound, graphics, UI, controls. They all have to blend and flow in unison to make a game good. The Walking Dead fell short in gamelay and UI, in my personal opinion, but I know lots of people that this kind of game would be perfect for.

The other day my mom was over visiting and she made an interesting observation. She noticed I have been depressed and frustrated and I was explaining to her how i kept losing good characters in State of Decay, and she said that yeah, of course it’s depressing; I’m not the hero of that game, but I play games to escape real life for a little while and feel like a hero who matters and makes a difference. That struck me. She’s right. These three games have something in common, and not simply that they’re all Zombie games. The one thing they have in common is that you’re not a hero. You’re just some person trying to survive when the world around you is trying to kill you and eat your corpse. Which is, really, quite a metaphor for real life.

In real life, I’m no hero. I’m nobody. No matter how much I want to do good and make a difference, I can’t. Heck, I’m struggling to keep a part-time minimum wage job, which is hard enough in and of itself, but add onto that things like depression, severe OCD, ADHD, the kind of severity that put me onto permanent lifelong disability at age 19.  It’s a struggle for me to survive day to day in the real world; playing a video game where I struggle to survive just compounds the emotional problems.

One of the few MMO games I can still play solo and at least usually feel heroic and important.

I also have been playing some Fable 3 on Xbox 360, Batman Arkham City on Steam, Diablo 3 co-op with buddies on Xbox 360, Star Trek Online on PC, Rift on PC, Path of Exile on PC, and so on. Some single player games, some MMO games. I’m enjoying the single player games where I don’t feel so powerless,where I’m special and can make a real difference for good in the world. I’ve not been playing many MMO games, and the few I have been playing, I’ve been pretty much running through quests solo.

Always be yourself… Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.

Today my mom’s words struck me again, when thinking about those – in MMO games, I’m also no hero. “But you play a powerful mystical warrior with badass armor, deadly weapons, and powerful magic; doesn’t that make you a hero?” No, not really. If everyone were a rock star, who would cheer from the audience? When everyone is a hero, then no one is a hero. I’m not any more special in an MMO than anyone else, and because I am so story and RP driven in MMO games, I tend to always have slightly weaker equipment etc. I played MMO games originally for the sense of community and camaraderie as we faced challenges together as a team.  Unfortunately, I just have never found an MMO that enough of my friends all were willing to play regularly, so never settled into any one game. Star Trek Online is the only one I keep going back for myself, because I just love Star Trek that much, and the gameplay really is that good, even when played solo.

So I’ve started really looking at the games I play, and I think it’s even affecting the way I look at the games I am designing. I play games as an escape, a therapy from the struggle that every day life is. I play to give me that brief feeling of being important, of being a hero, that allows me to wake up and face the next day.  I play to let off steam and blow things up or beat up bad guys that I know full well I can’t do in real life. I play because, deep down in my heart, I really am a hero; the real world just gives me no real opportunities to express it. We all want to be heroes. Even those wanting to be villains want to be heroes to other villains. We all want to be important and special and admired. We need that. It’s human nature. I play games so that I get that feeling, because without feeling eve a little bit important, we lose that will to keep going each day. We need that, and when real life is shit and we can’t find it there, at least we have video games. For me, this means that I’ll not be playing much in the way of Zombie Apocalypse games, and if I do, will likely use trainers or cheat codes. I play some games for the challenge, yes; but sometimes, dammit, I just wanna be invincible.

This also means I’m changing my game design philosophy – I want to make everyone their own hero, in their own way. Heroes need challenges, but they don’t need to just be barely surviving day to day. That means character customization, epic stories, and options, options, options. I’m taking lessons from System Shock 2 and Guild Wars 2 character creation and going to apply them to my games.

What about you, dear reader? What game made you feel the most like a true hero?