Looking For The Next Best Thing

Warren Zevon, as always, said it best.

“All alone on the road to perfection, at the inspection booth they tried to discourage me.”

Sadly, we often ignore his advice. Now it may not be immediately apparent, not from my tendency to rest typing fingers on the AWSD keys, my dissection of Achievements or my love of Mortal Kombat, but I am quite an avid player of video games. That’s right, I’m looking to ostracise another segment of my readership. Well…sorry. If I wouldn’t change for my ex-girlfriend, I’m certainly not going to change for you shadowy visitors to my blog. Well, I might. You seem like nice shadow folk.

(But if you want to play video games with me, I’m flattered and would love to take you up on the offer. I’ll buy you coffee. Now I’m blushing. Stop it.)

Borderlands, Diablo, Torchlight, every MMO ever made…The common element amongst all of these is that they are cleverly veiled greed simulators: beneath the trappings of a fantasy world, a galaxy far far away, or a city infested with superheroes, you portray an adventurer who starts with nothing, but quickly sets off on an undoubtedly noble journey, collecting enough weapons and armour to outfit the entire evil militia from any Arnold Schwarzenegger film. It’s at this point of slowly-splitting backpack seams that the greed simulation kicks in. (And you realise I spelt Schwarzenegger correctly.)

No matter what the setting, the story or the themes, these games will always find more ways to continue your adventuring. It may be through additional content, offering repeated play-throughs once finished, or simply by repopulating areas previously travelled. Regardless of the method, the real driver is the knowledge you have gained through your questing experience: no matter how formidable your sword, how many benefits your chestpiece grants, or how many bullets your gun holds, there is most DEFINITELY a better one out there. Buried in the desert, tucked away in a rusty treasure chest or tightly-clutched by the grubby hands of a depraved enemy, it’s a certainty.

And so we quest on. But why? I think I found the answer to this whilst playing Borderlands 2 on the weekend. My game settings welcoming others to join my particular session, I soon found a pair of yahoos running rampant with their godlike characters, cutting an electronic swathe through the forces of Handsome Jack, leaving me trundling very slowly (but safely) behind them. As I traversed the now barren landscapes, populated only by the loot dropped by digitally-destructed enemies, I realised that those same enemies were merely a smoke-screen to the real deal, the treasure hunt that the game really was. I also realised my friends were ruining the game for me.

In other genres, a game will regularly upgrade your weapon so as to help you improve as the difficulty its presenting increases. Not only will you be suitably enhanced, but it will allow further options to you, the human button-basher. Hitting X repeatedly may well be effective, but we crave variety – present to us a different input, or even just a more effective rhythm with the first button, and we’re happy. Mega Man gained new weapons that provide special attacks, Mario frequently gained power-ups from ridiculously dangerous flora (which he then lost by bumping into, well, anyone), Legend of Zelda rationed out special weapons as a way of solving puzzles. The variety served a purpose, more so as tools to a Swiss army knife, than weapons to an arsenal. If one gun shoots like all others, or a sword swooshes the same, why replace it? PROCEDURALLY GENERATED STATS.

These greedy games will give you the weapons you need to play, and then like a grandmother who is overly-attentive to your eating habits, will continue to offer you more delicious options, even when you feel like you’ve had your share. Every serving will be similar to the last, comparable in most every way…but there WILL be differences. On the whole, a glance at the randomly generated, colour-coded statistics shows you the benefits to this new item, but on the whole…not worth keeping, so you ditch it. If it has a high enough value, you might store it for selling later, but your inventory space is limited, and you’re keeping your eyes peeled for that next step in armament evolution – the semi-automatic equivalent to opposable thumbs, that will put you ahead of the curve.

And this behaviour drives us ever onwards. I know people who have dedicated absolutely insane amounts of time to these games, constantly waging a war whose only purpose is potentially yielding a slightly better helmet. To these passionate devotees, the game’s conceit has been forgotten and the setting now serves as simply a test-bed for them to run their endless tests on just what the game will generate next.

At this point, you find yourself deep inside the greed simulator. Once you’ve saved the universe, beaten up a dragon/demon/tentacle-headed demi-god, the world is your oyster and due to the behaviours that allowed you to succeed, you now demand that which you would any oyster – the digital version of that naturally occurring, spherical calcium carbonate jewel we know as a pearl. Somewhere out there, probably garishly coloured and marked as “rare” or “legendary” will be the pearl of the simulator’s arms race. And when you finally get your hands on it, you may take your well-deserved rest…



Until the inevitable sequel gets released.

~ by nick on November 25, 2012.

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