Let’s Talk About Difficulty vs. Fun in Video Games

 

With the release of “Super Mario Odyssey” and the success of the Switch, Nintendo has once again proven itself a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the video game industry.  I own a copy of “Odyssey” and I have to say it’s a great game.  It’s pure and simple fun to play, leaving you with a big smile on your face.

Ever since its release, “Odyssey” has been drawing rave reviews from all over.  However, there were a few who weren’t pleased with the game, and it often boiled down to one simple complaint:

The game was too easy.

This is a common criticism to hear from gamers.  “Games these days are too easy.  Where’s the challenge?”  Having played a decent amount of “Odyssey” over the last couple of weeks and reading this complaints online, it got me thinking about the intersection of difficulty and fun when it comes to video games.

What it came down to for me was two basic questions:

  • Why were older video games harder?
  • Should games be more difficult?

So with that being said, let’s get into it.

 

Why were older video games harder?

This isn’t just a matter of perception either.  It has been scientifically proven that older games were more difficult.  But the question remains…why?  Well the answer is actually quite simple.

I talked about this a couple of years back, but in the 1980’s arcade cabinets were king.  And it is well known these days that arcade games were specifically designed to DEVOUR ALL OF YOUR QUARTERS.  They were purposely difficult for the sole purpose of getting you to spend more money.  This meant that, when systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES for short) were being designed, the audience for those systems were made up of the very same people who played arcade games.  So game developers had to make their games difficult enough to appeal to them.

 

 

So yes, older video games were harder, but because they had to be in order to be successful.  Today’s video games are easier because the audience has shifted.  When Nintendo released the Wii in 2006, it tapped into an audience of casual gamers and people who had never even played games before.  As time went on, video games became far more mainstream of a pastime.  Because of that, games were made to be easier to help ease newer players into the medium.

There are other factors in this as well, such as the shift to being three-dimensions.  This made games exponentially harder to design and program.  But for the most part it had to do with that change in audience.  Which leads me to my next question…

 

Should games be more difficult?

There are a series of games out there known as the “Dark Souls” games.  They are known for being punishingly difficult, and actually become harder if you die.  Now, I’ve never played any of these games, but a lot of people really enjoy them.

When I was playing “Mario Odyssey”, I recognized that the game was fairly easy.  Nothing came across as overtly difficult, and you unlock new levels very quickly.  There’s not a whole lot of challenge to the game, but something I realize after thinking about it is that I don’t care.  It doesn’t matter to me that the game isn’t that hard, because it’s just fun.  It’s a blast to say to yourself “hey…I wonder if there’s anything up on that platform”, make your way up there, and then be rewarded with a Power Moon (the game’s main objective is to collect these, as you need a certain amount to get to another level).  The game is designed to reward your curiosity.

Which is probably why there are over eight hundred Power Moons to collect in the game.  That’s no joke.

I think what it comes down to is that there shouldn’t be a set standard of difficulty that all games adhere to.  Games like “Dark Souls” can be fun as well as games like “Mario Odyssey”.  And I think most gamers would agree that those two games are at very different ends of the difficulty spectrum.

A game’s difficulty should be set in a way that enhances its overall design.  For example, if “Mario Odyssey” had the punishing difficulty of “Dark Souls”, it wouldn’t be fun because it would discourage people from exploring every nook and cranny they can find.  At the same time, a game like “Dark Souls” shouldn’t be made super easy because it would lessen the thrill of finally beating a boss you’ve been stuck on for days.

Different strokes for different folks, as they say.

Whenever someone says “games are too easy”, I feel like they’re over-simplifying things.  There are plenty of games out there that can offer the challenge some people seek.  Some games even grant you an ultra-difficult mode upon completing the game for the first time.  I think it’s not necessarily that games are too easy, but that games are more diverse.  There’s a wider range of people to appeal to now, so some games are naturally going to be easier than others.  Besides, I don’t always want a game that challenges me.  I don’t always want a game that pushes me to the limit and forces me to fight for every inch of progress I make.

Sometimes I just wanna have fun, you know?

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Advertisements

Let’s Talk About Nostalgia

With the release of season two of “Stranger Things” right around the corner (October 27th), it got me thinking about nostalgia.  You know, that warm and fuzzy feeling you get while thinking about pleasant past experiences.  Those who have watched any of “Stranger Things” know that it is a show steeped in nostalgia.  It’s heavily influenced by classic ’80s movies, and takes inspiration from Spielberg, Carpenter, and the like.

You don’t even have to go past the show’s title sequence to see that ’80s influence.

This has become a common theme recently.  Many forms of media…be it books, movies, or video games…have steeped themselves in this wave of nostalgia for the 1980’s.  In fact, the game “Stories Untold” which I wrote about earlier this year has an ’80s veneer over it in the form of old text-based adventure games.  Now, I don’t hate this nostalgia…although I do feel that sometimes it becomes overbearing.  That’s something “Stranger Things” did really well with during its first season.  Despite the obvious ’80s influences, the show never went out of its way to point them out, relegating them to things like movie posters hanging on the wall in the background of a scene or taking story cues from said movies (like the van chase scene near the end of the season which is clearly inspired by “E.T.”).  The most obvious it gets is a scene where the school’s science teacher is explaining to his wife how they did some of the special effects in the movie “The Thing”.

However, there are times where I feel like the ’80s nostalgia is used like a crutch.  The book “Ready Player One” almost falls into this trap.  The premise of the story is that, in a dystopian future setting, kids like Wade Watts spend most of their time in a humongous virtual reality world.  As the book begins, we learn that the creator of this massive virtual reality passed away recently, and with his death left behind an “Easter egg” inside the game.  Whoever finds it first will inherit the creator’s massive wealth and legacy.  Because of the fact that the creator grew up in the 1980’s, this leads to a massive resurgence of ’80s pop culture as players pour over anything they can get their hands on to figure out the clues and find the Easter egg.

 

 

None of this is necessarily a bad thing.  And the book explains the origin of a lot of the ’80s references, especially the ones that are critical to the main plot.  But it teeters dangerously close to the edge of the nostalgia hole, and risks alienating younger readers who have no real connection to ’80s pop culture.  Having grown up in the ’90s, a lot of the references in the book didn’t really do it for me.  The text-adventure game “Zork” is referenced at one point, which I do have a passing familiarity with.  But most of the things I either have only a vague recollection of or I know it in passing.  Having never been steeped in that ’80s culture, part of the appeal was lost on me.

If the book wasn’t well-paced with likable characters and a fun story, the ’80s charm would have been completely wasted on me.  That being said, “Ready Player One” is definitely worth a read.  It’s a dystopian science-fiction story that manages to avoid falling into that cliché trap of lamenting the dangers of technology.

However, there is one modern instance where I really noticed the nostalgia crutch.  And that instance is…”Rogue One”.

 

Hey look, it’s Jyn Erso and Captain…umm…Captain What’s-His-Face.

 

I talked about “Rogue One” before and how I feel like the movie is a mixed bag.  The storytelling is jumbled at times.  Most of the characters aside from Jyn have very little development and aren’t memorable.  It’s part war movie, part Star Wars movie but doesn’t really nail either of those…at least until the second half of the movie.  But one thing that grated on me more than it probably should have was the fan service.  The biggest example of this was early on in the movie.  Our heroes are making their way through the holy city of Jedha when they run into those two guys from the Cantina in “A New Hope”.

You know the guys.  “I don’t like you.  My friend doesn’t like you either.”  Those guys.  They have a random ten-second cameo that adds nothing to the movie aside from making people go “hey I remember that!”

But then like twenty minutes later the entire city is destroyed by a test-firing of the Death Star’s laser.  So how did those two guys escape exactly?  Did they just happen to have a ship they flew away in just before everything was vaporized?

The movie doesn’t stop there either.  There’s a random cameo by C-3PO and R2-D2 later on.  There’s a not-so-subtle reference to Obi-Wan.  And there’s a scene with Darth Vader on Mustafar (the lava planet from “Revenge of the Sith”) that adds nothing to the plot and just regurgitates stuff we already.

And also Vader makes a pun.  So that’s cool…I guess.

My biggest gripe with all of this is that “Rogue One” was often subtitled “A Star Wars Story”, implying that the movie was meant to be standalone.  Except it isn’t, because it very clearly binds itself hand and foot to “A New Hope”.  It kind of makes sense, considering the movie is about stealing the Death Star plans, which helps the Rebel Alliance destroy it in “A New Hope”.  But at the same time, there’s so much stuff in “Rogue One” that feels like it was put there merely to appease the super fans.

Why did Obi-Wan come back to help even though he was in hiding from the Sith?  Because his friend Bail Organa asked him to of course!

Why did the Death Star have a super critical weakness that caused it to blow up from one proton torpedo?  Because Galen Erso purposefully designed that flaw of course!

(To be fair, I actually did enjoy the explanation of the Death Star’s weakness.  It was a nice little detail that filled a plot hole from the older Star Wars movies.)

Honestly I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene with C-3PO and R2-D2 getting on the blockade runner with Princess Leia, just to explain why they’re on the ship at the beginning of “A New Hope”.

At times the movie feels less like its own thing and more like a forced justification for everything that follows.  I could go on and on about “Rogue One”, and I would still say it’s a good movie.  It just isn’t the great movie it should have been.  It relies a bit too much on nostalgia and not enough on its own original content.  And in the end, that makes the movie feel lopsided.

Nostalgia isn’t inherently a bad thing.  It can help us cope with bad periods in our lives by remembering good times and reminding ourselves that things can and will get better.  But nostalgia can also be blinding.  It can blind us to the flaws in our past.  It’s like whenever people reminisce about the 1950’s as the “good ol’ days”, but fail to remember that they were only the “good ol’ days” if you were a straight, white, Christian male.  If you were anything else, your memories of the 1950’s were probably a bit different.

Perspective is a funny thing.  It can grow distorted, showing us things that have been exaggerated or blown out of proportion.  And sometimes it can show us things that weren’t even true.  Perspective is fickle.  And that’s why nostalgia can be dangerous.  Viewing the world through rose-colored glasses is pleasant and fun, but ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away.

If anything, it just lets them sneak up on you and cause more harm than they rightfully should.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Video Games

…again.

Let’s face it, I talk about games a lot on this blog.  They’re a big part of my life…being one of the main ways I relax when I’m not busy dealing with my responsibilities (adulting is hard man).  And I’ve come to their defense a number of times, particularly when it comes to the attitude that they’re either pointless wastes of time with no value or, in more extreme cases, that they lead to violent behavior.

When I was younger, I heard this kind of talk a lot.  Violent games cause violence.  For so many people who had never laid their hands on a controller, that just seemed to be the logical conclusion.  Because there is a large amount of history and research behind the idea that people who consistently witness violent imagery become more desensitized to violence.  But while violence was constantly glorified in movies and sensationalized in the news, it seemed that video games were the ones that found themselves in the crosshairs.

Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a worthwhile discussion we can have.  The interactive nature of a video game is something that sets it apart from watching a movie or news broadcast.  But despite all the stories about killers who played violent games in the days leading up to their crime, there’s never been a conclusive link between the games and the violence that the person perpetrated.

One of the first times I can remember games being blamed for something was in the case of the Beltway Snipers.  During the course of the investigation, it was revealed that the younger of the two snipers (Lee Malvo) was “trained” on the video game “Halo”.  This of course led to a whole long crusade against the game franchise, led by then-lawyer Jack Thompson, a notorious critic of video games at the time (he has since been disbarred from practicing law…hmm I wonder why).  But despite the outcry, nothing ever really became of it.  And the “Halo” franchise still continues to this day.

Stories like this were common when I was growing up.  There were so many tales about the supposed dangers of playing “Grand Theft Auto” that I eventually lost track.  Like I said, the problem with all of this is that a conclusive link between games and violence has never been proven.  Even this Slate article from 2007, which seems to lean against video games, admits that these studies have their flaws and that “maybe aggressive people are simply more apt to play violent games in the first place”.  For every study that supposedly links games and increased aggression there is another study that finds helpful benefits from playing them.  That’s not just my bias talking either.  If you look for it, you’ll find that the literature surrounding the effects of video games is scattered at best.

 

And there are games out there that have no violence in them whatsoever. It’s a very broad medium, one that gets unfairly whittled down to a few controversial games in the public eye.

 

 

Another thing that bothered me was just how hypocritical the attitude toward video games really was.  In 2011 people in Canada rioted after their hockey team lost in the Stanley Cup final.  And no one really thought much of it.  Think I’m joking?  Just check out the headline for this CNN photo gallery of the riot:

“Canucks riot: Canadian hockey fans go Canucks in Vancouver.”

Ha ha isn’t it so funny guys?  Look at those silly Canadians.  Aren’t they just so crazy?

 

Nothing to see here…just some Canadians setting things on fire.

 

 

At least 140 people were injured in that riot…all over a sports game.  But do we want to talk about the implications of that?  Hell no.  Because violent behavior over sports is just an accepted thing in mainstream culture.  Even here in my home state, the animosity between Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers fans is nothing short of legendary.  And hockey fans in Canada have rioted even when their team wins!

It’s crazy, really, how skewed public opinion has been toward video games.  It seems to come mostly from the older generations who just don’t understand them.  It’s a natural generational thing…even my generation looks at babies with iPads and gets skeptical, despite the fact that the science isn’t conclusive on that either.  Someone I know from my high school days told me recently that he used to be one of those people until he had a kid and got him an iPad.  After he saw how it helped his child learn to speak and read, it changed his mind completely.

And that’s the key thing here: understanding.  We should be making attempts to understand why this latest trend is a trend.  We should be making attempts to understand why people like playing video games and why parents feel inclined to give their children iPads.  But instead, the conversation surrounding these things are frequently dominated by fear-mongering nonsense and hyperbole.  Is it worth having a conversation about?  Of course it is.  But immediately comparing video games or iPads to hardcore drug addiction is not the way to go.  All it does is muddy the waters and make having an actual dialogue impossible.

Because after all, understanding can go a long way in this world.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Weird Implications of the Horror Genre

I think most of us would agree that many horror movies are just made to be dumb fun and aren’t meant to be taken seriously.  There’s a movie called “Wish Upon” that’s coming out at the end of the week that’s about a magic box that grants people’s wishes.  But there’s a catch.  For every wish the box grants, someone close to the wisher dies!

Yeah…it’s pretty dumb.  But that’s usually the point.  These kind of blockbuster horror movies aren’t really about a story…they’re about spooks and scares and things going “BOO”.

Also gore…there’s a lot of gore these days.

But what if we took these movies more seriously?  It is true that some older horror fiction contained moral lessons or at least satirical observations on modern society.  So what would happen if we took these tales at face value?

Well…

 

Sex is bad

If you’ve never seen the show “Robot Chicken”, all you really need to know is that it’s a skit show involving action figures.  And it’s raunchy…oh so raunchy…

There’s a skit on the show that mashes together “Scooby-Doo” and “Friday the 13th”, with the crew of the Mystery Machine getting brutally murdered one by one by the masked killer Jason Voorhees.  At one point during the skit Velma complains that “the virgin lives the longest in these horror movies”.  And it’s true.  The virgin is the last one alive, particularly in slasher movies.

The excellent 2011 movie “The Cabin in the Woods” references this, stating that for things to work out, the virgin has to be the absolute last one to die, if at all.

But why is this exactly?  How did this become a trope?  Well, as it turns out, horror movies have a weird thing with sex.  Which is that sex is bad.  Very bad.  Unless you’re married.  Which is why in slasher flick movies, the promiscuous cheerleader and the football jock she’s dating are pretty much always the first targets.

The movie “It Follows” literally revolves around a monster curse that is passed on by sleeping with people.  It’s weird, but horror movies apparently grabbed on to this cultural fear of teenagers having sex.  The plot of “It Follows” reads like a paper-thin metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases.

 

You darn kids and yer unprotected sex!

 

It’s like horror movies abide by this strange, Victorian era sense of morality when it comes to sex.  Which brings us to our next topic…

 

Warped Moral Messages

The Sam Raimi movie “Drag Me to Hell” features a female loan officer who refuses an extension to an old lady, who subsequently turns out to be a gypsy or something and puts a curse on the main character which will send her to hell.

Seriously?  I mean, refusing a loan extension is a cruel thing to do, but even the IMDb plot summary points out that she only does it out of misplaced fear for her job:

“Christine Brown is a loans officer at a bank but is worried about her lot in life. She’s in competition with a competent colleague for an assistant manager position and isn’t too sure about her status with a boyfriend. Worried that her boss will think less of her if she shows weakness, she refuses a time extension on a loan to an old woman, Mrs. Ganush, who now faces foreclosure and the loss of her house. In retaliation, the old woman place a curse on her which, she subsequently learns, will result in her being taken to hell in a few days time.”

Given that this movie seems to take place in the modern-day, why not go after the people who caused the housing bubble to burst and created the economic turmoil that likely put the old lady in danger of being foreclosed on?  What about the politicians and the rich people who sat by and let everything fall apart?  I mean, if it’s that easy to curse someone, why not curse the people who deserve it?

But that’s horror movies for you.  They attempt to justify all manner of horrible things through the flimsiest lens possible.  Take, for example, the “Saw” franchise.

If you’ve never seen the movies, the basic premise is that a serial killer kidnaps people and forces them to play elaborate games involving deadly traps.  It’s a franchise that spawned seven different movies and is even spawning another movie later this year, seven years after the last movie came out.  But what bothers me isn’t how many sequels there are, but the motivation behind the killer himself.

In the second movie, Jigsaw tells a former police detective that he attempted to commit suicide after he was diagnosed with cancer.  Evidently, when his attempt failed, he was infused with a new appreciation for life.  And apparently, he was compelled to inspire that appreciation for life in others.

Inspiring an appreciation for life…by physically and psychologically torturing people until they have PTSD and nightmares for the rest of their lives.  And that’s if they survive.

Yep…seems legit.

 

Superstitions are not to be mocked

“There’s a logical explanation for all of this” – Guy who is about to be killed in horrific fashion

A great example of this trope can be seen in “Blair Witch”, the 2016 sequel to “The Blair Witch Project”.  It was…not very good.  Near the beginning of the movie, when the crew is first making their way into the woods, one of the characters makes their thoughts on the legend of the Blair Witch heard and mocks it for all it’s worth.  Then, on the second night, he is chased by some unknown entity and presumably killed.

Just goes to show you kids: don’t mock superstitions.  Because they’ll come true and kill you dead.

And this a common character in horror movies, especially ones involving local legends or folklore.  They’re a skeptic by nature, so they loudly proclaim their disbelief in “silly” superstitions and the like, much to the chagrin of others.

“You actually believe in Bigfoot,” they’ll ask with a mocking chuckle.  “Bigfoot isn’t real.  He’s a myth and a hoax, sustained by people who have nothing better to do with their lives.”

And then Bigfoot will promptly stroll out of the woods, rip the person’s spleen out of their chest, and it so far up their rear end that it pops out their mouth.

Actually, that sounds pretty badass.  I’d pay to see that movie.

 

Archaeology is nothing more than grave robbing

This is a weird one.

I’ve gone on record before about how I enjoy point and click adventure games.  Well I have a couple in mind when it comes to this trope: “Barrow Hill” and its sequel “Barrow Hill: The Dark Path”.

In these games, the central plot revolves around an isolated gas station and motel set near an ancient barrow or burial mound.  In the first game, archaeologist Conrad Morse triggers the horrible events that trap you and other characters in the area because he digs up the mound, taking dirt samples and treasures.  The implication is that he disturbed some kind of ancient spirit by doing so.  And in the second game, which features the spirit of an ancient Wicca witch, goes much the same way.  In the game you find the diary of an archaeologist who dug up the grave of the witch and angered her spirit.

Now, “Dark Path” ends with a message from one of the main characters stating that “there’s a difference between archaeology and grave robbing”.  But the game never makes that distinction.  There’s no point in the game where it points out what would be considered good archaeology.  Because for archaeology to work, things have to be dug up.  But according to the “Barrow Hill” series, that’s a bad thing.

You could argue that it’s more a point about having respect for ancient cultures and tradition, but without any clear indication of how you’re supposed to have respect for these things it comes across as a harsh indictment of the profession itself.  Even if it’s just about not forgetting the past, if we leave it alone eventually nature will erase any trace of these things ever existing.  Even if Conrad Morse hadn’t dug up the barrow in the first “Barrow Hill”, nature would have eventually eroded away the rocks or overgrown the area, which means that people would have forgotten about Barrow Hill anyways.  Think about how many ancient cultures or cities we don’t know about, that we may never know about because nature has long since destroyed any evidence of their passing.

Maybe Indiana Jones could get away with it.  Who knows?

 

I hope you enjoyed reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Contrived Destiny: Prophecies in Storytelling

So lately, I’ve been thinking about prophecies.  And I’m not talking about prophecies as in biblical prophecies or any of that Nostradamus stuff.  That’s a story for another time.  What I’m talking about are prophecies in fiction.  You know what I mean: in a story a prophecy will say this or that, and then the characters end up stressing about the prophecy instead of doing anything about it even though they have adequate time to take care of things and then their laziness actually makes the prophecy come true and MY GOD WHY AREN’T YOU PEOPLE DOING ANYTHING?!

No?  Just me?

When I was younger, I didn’t really have an issue with prophecies when it came to fiction.  To me, it was just a thing, especially in fantasy.  You know, some great evil would return to the world and only the chosen hero or heroes could defeat it, that sort of thing.  But more and more, I’ve come to the realization that prophecies can be really lazy.  And indeed it seems like some stories rely on them heavily, like a sort of crutch.

This is kind of an oblique example, but here goes:

You’ve probably heard of the reboot Star Trek movies directed by J.J. Abrams.  Now, I don’t really have an issue with them.  They’re mindless, action movies that kind of miss the point of what Star Trek was about, but they’re still fun to watch.  However, once I had this particular thing pointed out to me, I couldn’t un-see it.

In the first reboot movie, time is re-written when the villain is sucked through a black hole type thing and ends up in the past.  He attacks a Federation ship and destroys it, which kills Kirk’s father.  Fast-forward into the future, and Kirk is an edgy, dark young man who gets into bar fights and has a problem with authority.  Later on in the movie, he ends up marooned on an ice planet after he pisses off Spock.  Being chased by what might as well be a Yeti, Kirk finds himself in an ice cave.  And there he meets…Old Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy (rest in peace).  Old Spock tells him that in the timeline he comes from, Spock and Kirk are best friends.  Therefore, because of that, they are sort of destined to work together.  With that knowledge, Kirk and Spock inevitably put aside their differences and work together.

But that’s kind of lazy storytelling when you think about it, isn’t it?

Instead of Kirk and Spock naturally becoming friends, they end up as friends because they’re supposed to to be friends.  History has been changed.  Events occurred differently, shaping Kirk and Spock into different people than they would have been originally.  But instead of figuring out a clever way to use Kirk’s brashness and Spock’s logical thinking to save the day, they just force the two together because Old Spock said it was meant to be.

Their characters don’t really develop.  They’re just fated to be together…apparently.

 

Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy)

 

And this is something you can see in a lot of stories with prophecies in them.  Why does the hero become the hero?  Does he work hard?  Is he of admirable character?  Does he train and get stronger over time?  Or does he become the hero because some obscure, ancient writing said he was going to be the hero?

Now, prophecies can be used in interesting ways.  Take the video game “Final Fantasy X” for example.  In the game, there is this giant monster that returns to devastate the world and only a summoner can defeat it.  But to do so, they must sacrifice themselves to summon a being powerful enough to defeat it.  Later on, the main characters come to the realization that this is all a bunch of nonsense, because the monster will just keep coming back over and over again.  It’s at that point where the heroes basically say “screw prophecies” and forge their own path.  In that way, it uses prophecy to expose the flawed nature of the religion that the game’s world is based on.

So you see, you could do that.  Or you could do what “Snow White and the Huntsman” did: kill off Kristen Stewart, only to have her magically come back to life and suddenly be a badass warrior.

Why?  Because prophecy baby!

By insisting that a character be a hero according to prophecy, a writer can get past all sorts of pesky things like character growth, development, training, and so on.  The hero can just have god damn magical powers if they want.  And why not?  It’s a prophecy!  Anything goes!  Even “The Matrix” pulled something like that, although in that case it actually worked because it served to highlight the movie’s theme of rebirth.

 

Wait…Neo is an anagram for “one”? My god it’s ALL COMING TOGETHER!

 

Like I said, prophecy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s just too easy to use as a lazy crutch.  Why bother coming up with experiences for the character to justify their growth into a hero when you can just predestine that from the very beginning?  No one’s going to question it, because it has to be so if the prophecy said it.

The problem with prophecies is that they often become too binding.  They force things to play out in a certain way, whether it fits in line with the prophecy or not.  There are two basic outcomes to a prophecy in fiction:

  1. The prophecy comes true.  Heroes deal with the fallout and try to fix things.
  2. The prophecy doesn’t come true.  Cue preachy message about the future not being written in stone.

As you can see, there’s not a lot of wiggle room between these two outcomes.  At best, prophecies are usually a convenient way to foreshadow a major, future event.

At worst, they’re just lazy writing.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Story Re-Analysis: Returning to the World of “Dark Fall: Lights Out”

Human beings love to look back.  They long for past days, past events…times when they were younger.  But other times, they look back on the past with regret, wishing they could change things…

A little over three years ago I started writing this blog, posting every Wednesday.  And I’m proud to say that I’ve never missed a week.  But there are other things I am not so proud of, things that I wish I could have done better.  The biggest regret I have were the “story analysis” pieces I did.  I think I did around four of them total before I gave up on it entirely.  They were just proving too difficult to write and took more time than I thought they were worth.

And nowhere did I feel this more than the story analysis for a little video game called “Dark Fall: Lights Out”.

It just wasn’t a good post.  It was boring, and it was long (it totaled at almost five thousand words).  I have trouble reading through the entire thing and I was the one who wrote it!  So in the spirit of looking back I decided “what the heck…I’ll give it another shot!”  Here’s to second chances!

And without further ado, I present to you the story of “Dark Fall: Lights Out” once again…

 

The Story

A man tosses back and forth in his sleep.  Ghostly visions of a lighthouse and disembodied voices swirl around in his dreams.  He wakes, brought out of his slumber by a brief knocking at his door.  But when he opens the door, no one is there…

 

Don’t you hate it when ghosts knock on your door? Stupid ghosts…some of us are trying to sleep!

 

Our main character for this journey is Benjamin Parker, a cartographer commissioned to map the coast around the small town of Trewarthan.  In his journal, Parker makes it clear that he doesn’t enjoy the job and considers it a waste of his time.  But it doesn’t take long before he becomes intrigued by a light offshore.  He believes it belongs to a lighthouse, which is strange because the maps show no such lighthouse nearby.

He also talks about a repeating dream he’s been having for a long time, one of a metallic object falling from the sky…

Parker was called to Trewarthan by a man named Robert Demarion.  According to Parker’s journal, while the two are having breakfast one morning, Parker asks Demarion about the lighthouse.  Demarion responds as if he’s ill and exits the cottage, leaving Parker alone.  Parker begins rummaging around, finding a log by Demarion.  The log mentions how Demarion found a cavern underneath the lighthouse out on Fetch Rock island, but when he went to explore it he felt a terrifying presence that forced him to run away.

The book also holds a curious black object he found that can bend but not break, yet can be easily scratched or cut…

 

My oh my, what could this mysterious object be?

 

(Side note: the name “Hadden” refers to a company that was in the first “Dark Fall” game).

Back in the present, Parker ventures outside.  It doesn’t take long before a voice beckons Parker to enter a doorway.  Inside, Parker finds Demarion, who explains that he didn’t tell him about the lighthouse because he didn’t want Parker to be caught up in the town’s superstition.  Demarion also tells him that a passing ship reported that the lighthouse lamp isn’t lit, something the keepers would never allow.  There are three men manning the lighthouse: Oliver Drake, Robert Shaw, and James Woolf, who is the youngest.  Demarion implores Parker to go out to the island and investigate.  Parker agrees and takes a small boat moored on the pier.

(Side note: during the transition to Fetch Rock, we are treated to a partial reading of the poem “Flannan Isle”, based on real life disappearances at a lighthouse.  This event and poem likely inspired the game’s story).

Trewarthan at night.

 

Upon arriving at Fetch Rock, Parker finds that it is indeed dark inside the lighthouse.  Once he gets the interior lights back on, he ventures further up the lighthouse to discover what happened.  Mysterious shadows dart through the corridors, and Parker has a run-in with a ghostly voice that identifies itself as Robert Shaw.  The ghost laments being unable to protect the younger keeper, James, and tells Parker that Drake has gone mad, as if possessed by a demon.

The ghost vanishes and Parker continues exploring.  He finds no signs of anyone, but does discover a unsent letter from Woolf to his beloved.  In it, Woolf describes how Drake had gone mad, moaning to himself in the bowels below the lighthouse.  He tells about how Drake came after them and seemed to transform into a colorful glow.  As he was transfixed by the impossible vision, Woolf heard a name in his mind: Malakai.

He later came to with Shaw in a barricaded room, but Drake came for them again soon after.  James’ last words are that he can see the light under the door…

Continuing upward, Parker makes his way into Drake’s room where he finds the man’s journal.  Drake mentions a dream eerily similar to the one Parker had, right down to the flaming comet of metal.  But in Drake’s, he sees the object falling into a bed of reeds, which reminds him of an etching somewhere in the lighthouse.  Drake complains of a headache one day shortly before the journal descends into maddened gibberish.  Drake starts rambling about a “master” and dotes on Parker as being instrumental to his plans.  He conspires against the other keepers, saying that his master needs them to “feed”.

The journal ends with a creepy “I see you, Parker” scrawled across the page.

 

Cute.

 

In Drake’s desk, Parker finds a drawing showing a path leading to a cavern.  He makes his way down to the ground floor and across the rickety wooden planks.  He enters the cavern, led on by ghostly whispers of “this way” and “over here”.  Upon reaching a caved-in tunnel, lines of color suddenly crawl across the rocks.  When Parker leaves the cave, he notices things are different.

And not just anything…everything.

 

 

The entire island has changed.  Parker enters a small building just a little ways away from the cavern and finds a machine projecting images on to a sheet, a radio, and a mystical, wondrous device full of such magical power that-

 

 

Okay, it’s just a laptop.  But come on!  Imagine how crazy that would be to someone from the beginning of the 20th century.

Anyways, it doesn’t take long before Parker discovers he’s in the year 2004.  Somehow, he was thrown through time almost a hundred years into the future.  The lighthouse is now a tourist attraction, but it appears to have closed down for the day.  And a storm looms on the horizon…

Making his way into the gift shop, Parker finds a plethora of books and music.  One book in particular catches his eye: Horror at Fetch Rock.

 

 

In the book, Parker discovers that after he disappeared off the face of the world along with the three lighthouse keepers, the resulting investigation concluded that Parker must have murdered the keepers.  Demarion covered everything up, denied any involvement with the proceedings, and placed the blame squarely on Parker (although it seems that, over the years, Demarion was suspected of being involved in some way).

Parker also finds letters and a journal written by a woman named Polly White.  It turns out Polly is a ghost hunter who believes the lighthouse is haunted.  She also believes that she is the reincarnation of James Woolf, the youngest lighthouse keeper.

(Side note: Polly White is actually a character from the first “Dark Fall” game.  Fortunately knowledge of the first game’s story is not essential here.)

In the journal, Polly describes how she was led to the lighthouse because of her dreams.  It didn’t take long for her to experience some unexplained activity, such as a chair throwing itself across the room.  Along with her journal is a creepy recording of a hypnotic regression session she went through, which is what led her to believe she is the reincarnation of Woolf.

Continuing through the lighthouse, Parker discovers that history has not been kind to him.  He is portrayed as a troubled soul who likely murdered the keepers in a fit of madness.  There are numerous signs with details about the duties of lighthouse keepers, how a lighthouse operates, and some bronze age relics.  As he makes his way up the stairs, Parker finds that the rooms have been dressed up for the guests, with the crewroom featuring a voice re-enactment of the keepers’ final night.

Suddenly, Parker hears someone dart out of sight farther up the stairs.  A dropped journal entry reveals that Polly saw Parker enter the gift shop and is trying to hide.  Continuing up the stairs, Parker finds that she has locked herself in what used to be Drake’s room, but is now a storage room of some sort.  She slides a piece of paper under the door for him, which leads him back to the little building outside with the laptop.

There he finds the “Radvision” goggles, which let him see ghostly phenomena.  But they also serve another purpose: by using them on certain objects, Parker can travel back to 1912.

 

I see a bad moon a-rising

 

After some sleuthing, Parker finds a section of wall behind the boiler in 1912 that transports him to another time period.  In this time, the lighthouse is no longer standing.  A foundation remains, but most of the structure is now gone.  Parker follows a hole in the wall and climbs down an elevator shaft, finding a futuristic tablet belonging to a man named Gerard Magnus who works for the D.E.O.S. organization.  Continuing through a metallic tunnel, Parker finds another tablet from someone named Maria Ortega, who complains because Magnus has begun acting weird ever since he started working in the elevator shaft.

As Parker makes his way deeper into the facility, things start to fall into place, and a narrative eerily familiar emerges…

 

 

D.E.O.S. stands for Deep Exploration of Space, and is a scientific organization that launches probes to study, you guessed it, cosmic bodies and phenomena.  But things haven’t been well since the disappearance of their most recent probe.  According to the log of one Mitsuyo Taku, someone has been skulking around her room.  She suspects Magnus because, like Ortega, she has noticed him acting weird.

She has also noticed someone on the cameras…someone who seems to glow with an unearthly light…

Taku hatches a plan.  She decides to use one of the crew’s birthday party as a ruse to gather fingerprints.  Everything seems to be going fine, although spirits are down because of the lost probe.  However, Taku writes about a brief confrontation between Magnus and Cobin Hart, the overseer of the probe project and the one blamed for the lost probe.  Hart is lamenting the loss when Magnus starts acting weird, muttering things like “he is calling to me”.  The party eventually breaks up, but soon after Taku returns to her quarters the lights go out and alarms start ringing.  Evidently, soon afterward everyone vanished, just like in 1912.

But more telling is the name of the lost probe: Malakai…the very name James Woolf heard in his mind.

Malakai was apparently the fourth probe D.E.O.S launched and featured an advanced AI system as well as something called Matter Manipulation Software.  This would, according to Hart, theoretically let Malakai generate power from anything it wanted.  The probe was launched into deep space and encountered some type of unknown matter.  When it tried to jump back, the probe vanished without a trace.

So now Parker knows: Malakai is behind all the mysterious events and disappearances.  But where is the probe itself?  The answer lies back in 1912 with Drake’s journal.

In the journal, Drake mentioned that his dream featured a bed of reeds, which reminded him of an etching.  In Drake’s closet, there is a secret compartment Parker was unable to open before.  But now, using clues he got in 2004, Parker solves the code and opens it.  Inside is the etching of reeds, and when Parker looks at it with the googles, he is transported through time yet again.

 

 

Finding himself in an abandoned bronze age village, Parker finds the cavern once again.  Only this time, he is able to continue down the tunnel.  And there, after all this time, lies the object that he’s been seeing in his dreams…Malakai.

 

 

Apparently, when Malakai attempted to jump back to Earth, the resulting incident catapulted the probe back in time to the bronze age.  It’s been lying there the entire time, desperately trying to find a way back home.  But for that to happen, it needed someone to enter the activation code, a code known only to Hart and Malakai itself.  Using clues he’s found throughout the times he’s visited, Parker manages to decipher the activation code and enter it.

Malakai then ascends into the sky before the scene shifts back to the lighthouse.  The lamp is lit once again, the swift beam of light cutting through the gloomy night…

 

Concluding Thoughts

It’s funny.  I still enjoy this game and its story.  But looking back on it, there are some things that could have been fleshed out more.

For instance, the history of Fetch Rock itself.  We know from Demarion at the beginning of the game that the island has a cursed reputation and that the building of the lighthouse was fraught with strange accidents.  But since the Malakai probe would have been there since around prehistoric times, there must have been other weird things going on throughout the island’s history.  Why not flesh it out some more, give it more of a history instead of just saying “hey this place is bad news…take our word for it.”

And for that matter, what about Polly White?  Her only purpose in the game is to feed Parker the location of the Radvision goggles.  And yet, she’s given a whole little bit about being a possible reincarnation of one of the lighthouse keepers.  But it’s never touched on again once you get the goggles.

And what about Malakai itself?  It’s vaguely hinted at that Malakai uses the Matter Manipulation Software to “feed” on people for energy, but why do Drake and Magnus suddenly start glowing?  What is the purpose of that?

I could go on about stuff like this, but I think it comes down to the fact that it is a video game first and foremost.  And to be honest, the atmosphere and exploration were why I was playing the game in the first place, not the story.  But in the end, the story was intriguing.  It just didn’t use its potential enough.  I love the idea of ghostly happenings turning out to be advanced technology that people from earlier times can’t even begin to fathom.  I like the idea of a ghost story with a science-fiction bent to it.  It would make for a fascinating novel.  That way the story could hammer home the technology theme by having Parker be the “man out of time” who encounters these strange devices.

I think the story’s biggest flaw is that it ends up being too complex for its own good.  There’s a lot at play here and it doesn’t all connect in a neat fashion.  Part of that is likely due to the game being very low-budget and indie.  But a lot of it has to do with the fact that a point and click game generally tells its story in a non-linear fashion, whereas I think this game’s story could have benefited from being told in a more structured manner.

In the end, I still love the game.  But I think I enjoyed the idea of the story more than the story itself.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

The Power of Nostalgia

We all know nostalgia.  It’s that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when thinking of a time or place from the past.  It’s that pleasant tingling you feel when you remember an old book you read, a movie you watched, or a video game you played.  But how much power does nostalgia actually have?

Let’s get political for a second.  This past election cycle, Donald Trump’s campaign phrase was “make america great again.”  This motto clearly resonated with a decent amount of people, because it won him his party’s nomination and eventually he won the presidency.  Clearly, nostalgia played a factor here, but nostalgia for what?  If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the 1950’s.  That’s the obvious answer, because the ’50s were that blissful age of good ol’ fashioned family values and being American.  Well…if you were straight, Christian, male and white that is.  If you were anything else, your experience in the ’50s was a lot less fun.  Because that’s the thing with nostalgia…it can blind you to the problems of the past.  The older generations tend to look at the ’50s as a Utopian era and long for those times again, but that’s largely due to the fact that advertisers have been drilling that image into their heads for decades.

But nostalgia affects us in smaller ways too.  Like say, when it comes to our entertainment habits.

 

realMyst Masterpiece Edition

 

I’ve gone on record before about my fondness the game Myst.  I really love Myst.  Like…really, REALLY love Myst.  I could go on and on about the game.  And apparently I have, if my blog is any indication.

Part of my love for the game, of course, stems from nostalgia.  Myst was one of my first-ever video games, and it was vastly different from other games I played around that time.  Instead of going on an epic quest to save a princess, I was just wandering around an island all by myself trying to uncover its secrets.  It’s a profoundly atmospheric game, an experience all its own.  That uniqueness, combined with my age when I played it, likely led to my nostalgic memories of it.  In fact, I would consider Myst to be one of my favorite video games of all time, largely due to that nostalgia.  But, even so, I acknowledge that the game was not perfect.

Some of the puzzles could be frustratingly obtuse.  And some of them were more tedious to solve than they needed to be.  For example, on the island there were these pedestals with symbols etched onto them: a snake, a leaf, an anchor, and so on.  Once you activate a certain combination of them, the sunken ship by the dock rises out of the water.  But the problem was that, in the original edition of the game, you couldn’t tell which of these pedestals were on or off unless you got close to them and hovered your mouse over the symbol (red for off, green for on).  It doesn’t sound like much, but if you were the type to just click random things to see what they did, it made solving the puzzle a little more tedious once you knew the answer because then you would have to go around and figure out which ones you accidentally turned on.

And then there was the puzzle with the ship you had to drive through the underground maze.  A clue to understanding that puzzle was actually hidden in a different location, something which the game hadn’t done up to that point.  So basically, if you went to that age, to get the clue for that puzzle you would actually have to solve the puzzle to get back to the island so you could get back to the other area to get the clue.

Yeah…it was a thing…

Despite all that, I would say that Myst stands up fairly well for its age.  I mean, at least it doesn’t require you to grab a toothbrush at the beginning of the game or else you can’t beat it at the end (no joke, there was actually a game like that).  Its puzzles had logic behind them.  The difficulty came from figuring out how the mechanics of each puzzle worked.

But like with the 1050’s, nostalgia in video games can blind us as well.  A lot of older gamers tend to lament how “easy” games are now and how they hold your hand too much.  But the thing a lot of them (including myself) often forget is that older games weren’t always the best designed.  Often, there were tricks you would have to learn in order to even complete the game.  And these were often never truly explained to you, because standards in game design weren’t really finalized yet.  The older Zelda games are guilty of this.  I’m not sure how you were supposed to figure out that certain blocks could be moved to unlock doors in the dungeons, but you had to do it.  And that’s an issue with a lot of old-school games…even the good ones.

A similar thing happens with movies.  People love old movies like Casablanca and Citizen Kane, but would they really stand up on their own nowadays if it wasn’t for nostalgia?  Movies back then had a lot of restrictions because of the way technology was.  Cameras were hard to move and sound was hard to capture, which led to a lot of movies featuring little more than people standing around in a room and talking,  Now, that’s not to say that this can’t work (like in The Maltese Falcon), but a lot of old movies are very static.

 

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while nostalgia is a nice, warm thing…it does have its drawbacks.  I’m sure you’ve often heard the phrase “rose-colored glasses” to indicate that someone is blind to the bad side of something.  And that can be the case with nostalgia.  We remember these times, places, games, movies, and so on with pleasant feelings, but we often ignore that they had limitations or bad design choices that wouldn’t make sense in the modern era.

It’s okay to be nostalgic about something.  But like with many things in this world, moderation is key.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Follow me on Twitter over here.