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Stories, challenges, and chainsaws; Why do we play video games?

Hello childhood.

Chuck E Cheese.  Remember that place?  I do.  I don’t remember it for the pizza, which I’m a bit hazy on but I think could mostly be described as “bad”.  I don’t remember it for the giant mechanical animals that played canned songs about how awesome Chuck E Cheese was.  I dug those guys, but they were a distraction from the REAL reason to go to Chuck E Cheese.  That reason was Metal Hawk.  The premise was simple:  you are a helicopter with guns and bombs and there is some sort of evil military force trying to kill you.  So blow them up.  I poured quarters (or tokens I think, what’s up with Chuck E Cheese proprietary currency, whatever) into that thing every time I was there.  I never finished it, but that didn’t stop me.  It was one of the first games I remember that truly left an impression on me.  As a seven-year old, that impression was pretty basic;  I liked the fact I had a flight stick and there was lots of things that blew up.  As I’m now an adult, is that enough anymore?  I’m a huge gamer….what’s the draw?  Why do we play?

I’ve been playing the hell out of Dark Souls recently.  The game has been called one of the most difficult games ever, and at points is even unfair.  For example, you can’t pause the game.  So if real life decides to intervene while I’m playing the game, I better hope I’m not currently engaged with an enemy or I’m pretty much screwed.  And yet, I’m relentless in still playing this game and finding its secrets.  I was explaining this to somebody a few days ago and their reaction was basically “Why the hell would you play that game?  It sounds awful!”.  Interestingly…it does!   The challenge is part of the allure.  Some of the more difficult gaming endeavors are the ones I value the most.

One of the biggest examples of this is end game raiding in World of Warcraft.  In my WoW career I have spent weeks dying over and over again to the same boss with my raid team.  The key phrase here though, is with my raid team.  Working with others presents its own challenges, but the reward for finally succeeding is that much greater.  I’ve never played organized team sports (what, a dude blogging about video games and moves on the internet hasn’t played team sports….shocking!) but I imagine it’s akin to a hard-fought victory on the football field or basketball court.  On an even more basic level, whether it’s single player or with others, spending time to overcome an obstacle and thus be rewarded (even if the reward or the obstacle mean nothing, as is usually the case with video games) produces a good feeling.  I understand the notion of why people wouldn’t want to play Dark Souls or do end game MMO activities.  It’s most certainly not for everybody.   To me though, finally defeating that boss that was literally one shotting you 14 attempts ago is a fun and enjoyable experience.

Dark Souls boss.....as difficult as he looks.

The second draw is what I referred to as chainsaws in the title but it more accurately described as a spectacle.  The Transformers movie series and Gears of War are not huge money-making machines by accident.  We like action, explosions, and violence.  This is why I played Metal Hawk so much.  As graphics, sound, and home theater systems evolve almost exponentially at this point, it becomes very difficult to not stop and stare sometimes.  Gears of War 3 is the most recent example of this.  The chainsaw execution alone is enough to make gamers smile a bit and non gamers say “That is disgusting”.   It’s not always that way though.  I’m very much looking forward to experiencing some amazing vistas in Skyrim when it comes out.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution recently had some quite astounding environments as well,  in particular sections of the Heng-Sha level.  Not ALL of the graphical prowess is being used to show head exploding…just some of it.

BROPOCALYPSE! ENERGY DRINKS! ASS SLAPS!

So now we come to the reason I think is the strongest draw to video games, story.  The interactive element of a game story is different from a film or book, although it borrows elements from both (cut scenes and text menus, huzzah).  That freedom to do things, limited as it may be in most games, provides an excellent story telling device.  I think the king of this idea right now is Bioware, specifically its Mass Effect series.  Memorable characters that respond differently depending on how YOU treat them.  This is a unique way in which games set themselves apart and it’s addicting.  It’s much easier to become involved and attached to something when you have some manner of control over it, as opposed to just a passive experience.

What say you, readers?  What makes you play games?  All of these things, or maybe none of them?  For me, it’s a combination.  Mass Effect has story in spades, is a decent spectacle, but little challenge.  Dark Souls has almost no story, decent spectacle, and more challenge than arguably any game ever.  I’m not trying to decide which of those game is better.  I’m not even saying any of these three things is more important than the other.   I think a combination of the three is what makes games worth playing.

I haven't been this excited about the third installment of a trilogy since....well, ever.

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