Claire and I have been picking our way through the splendid animation and storytelling of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for what seems to be a couple years now. In fact, I think we started this epic game back in early 2013 and our adventures, while sporadic, have been ploddingly and deliberately driving us further into the game.
Up until recently, however, Claire has been mostly content to side-seat-drive. I bought her the strategy guide for the simple reason that she didn’t quite have the nerve to take on the controller. I guess she was afraid of the battles, admittedly frequently chaotic button-mashing fests if you don’t need or don’t know the more complex strategies available.
So, she’d sit right by my side, calling out baddie weaknesses or suggesting the next play we should make. And she was happy with that.
The thing about kids, though, is that they’re rarely content to sit by the sidelines and watch. Heck, we fought over whose turn it was back in our golden era of the Coleco Vision and NES console days. I wouldn’t have put up with it for long had my dad sat and played while we shouted out “go lefts” or “shoot nows” at him. I didn’t expect my turn to go on forever, either.
She worked up the nerve recently. Just as we reached that point in the game, the point that happens in most every RPG I’ve ever played, where the linear, hand-holding story turns into a more scattered “oh, look you can teleport around and do all the quests you missed” kinda game, she decided that she was going to have another go at playing by herself.
“Let me try.” She said suddenly, and there I was watching.
And she played: grinding, bashing, fighting, leveling up the characters, and proudly showing off her battle tactics to her old man in the form of various collected trophies and captured critters.
And now I don’t think I’ll be getting many more turns for a while.
I found myself playing Skyrim again on the weekend. (I’d blame my daughter whose cross-country-skiing-induced tantrum resulted in a two-hour time-out in her room, and left me on idle-and-frustrated guard duty… but I won’t. Any excuse, really.) I jumped back into my PS3 saved game, which apparently had been sitting ignored for roughly a full year between plays resulting in the observations that (a) I was sorely out of practice and (b) the skills I had nurtured in this particular play-through we deeply dependent on practice and I was essentially left starting from scratch. That’s okay, though… I still love you Skyrim.
Forgot to mention that Claire’s cousin got herself a copy of Disney Infinity with her holiday windfall. The results of that was two little girls, a seven year old and an eight year old, who twice over the holiday break connected across the three-hundred kilometer gap that separates them via PS3 and the telephone-on-speakerphone to build some random Disney-themed virtual madness and mayhem. I know I was a bit of a game nut at that age, but long ago –and rationally I know better– part of me really did assume I’d be playing tea parties with my daughter, not dibs’ing for playtime on my game console. #soProud
While the multitude of parents are sipping their Tim Horton’s coffees at the arena this week, propping up false dreams of hockey greatness in their tot’s wide-eyed wonderment at the forever-push towards the statistical unlikeliness of epic awesomeness found among the chosen few elite, I’m happy just knowing my daughter knows how to properly grip a Dualshock controller like a pro.
My free time is about half way split between time with “Godus” on the PC and time with “Destiny” on the PS3.
I started playing Destiny on PS3 last week. I’m not usually into online, multiplayer games, but I think I needed a palette-cleanser after a summer of nearly exclusively playing mobile games on my phone. Something big and new and bold and full of loud guns and adrenaline-shocking aliens hiding in dark corners. This isn’t a review. As I’m sitting at a meager level 4 character right now, seasoned players could quickly tell you that I haven’t even made it past the metaphorical first onion-skin-layer of the game. But so far the verdict is that I’m (cautiously) enjoying it. The scope is a little narrower than I’d imagined, and I haven’t hit upon much of the multiplayer aspects yet… but the depth of universe seems inviting and keeps me wanting to play.
Oh, and so apparently we’re at that point in the daddy-daughter-gamer relationship when I don’t necessarily get first go on new games I buy.
It has taken the better part of year, but sporadically picking away at it, this jRPG on the Playstation 3 is finally starting to take root at our house.
That’s right, after logging nearly fifteen hours of sporadic gameplay over the past nine or ten months (summer doesn’t count!) the kid’s comfort level finally elevated to the point where she nabbed the controller and wanted to help move the game forward.
Grinding Ni No Kuni
I may have alluded to this game a couple times in that past year. One part modern role playing video game and one part Studio Ghibli anime film, all of it geared at a pre-teen demographic, the game caught my interest a while back and I picked up a copy so that Claire and I could share some proper gaming time together. With Studio Ghibli involved I knew there would be an awesome story layered below the pretty graphics, and while some of their stuff deals with complex themes, they don’t cross into the realm of crude or graphic… so, kid-safe.
We’ve been poking at it. We’d load up the game for an hour here or an hour there, and pick our way through the story. And it captured her. She was getting it, remembering key characters and important bits of the story as we progressed.
Lately, she’d sit with the strategy guide on her lap, a bit of an indulgent purchase I’d made to see if I could coax her out of her mostly-passively-watching state of involvement. She turned out to be a bit of an elegant strategist, making notes of enemy weaknesses and suggesting battle tactics whenever we squared off against a random baddie.
“No, Daddy! I’m too scared.”
But… always watching, never playing. No matter how often I tried to shove the controller into her hand: “No, Daddy! I’m too scared.” She say.
This past weekend something changed. I might have been because we’d cranked our level up to a point where battles were becoming routinely balanced in our favour. Or, perhaps she’d started to become more confident in how the game was played and that losing a fight didn’t actually mean anything bad was going to happen in the real world. Or, maybe the strategy book had planted enough raw data into her sponge-like head that she was inspired to put it to use. Who can say, but a moment arrived quite suddenly on Saturday morning after breakfast when she reached over and asked if she could “try fighting a monster.”
And next thing you know she’s been planted on the couch for over half-an-hour on a very chilly stay-inside-sorta-day, just happily level-grinding up our characters. All by herself, and bragging about how great she is at it, too. Then suddenly I realize the implications: I get to be the guy who’s begging for a turn while my daughter has all the fun.
Thanks to some timely Black Friday sales, I picked up a discounted copy of the new-ish Disney sandbox game, Disney Infinity.
We bought the PS3 version of the starter kit, which came with three characters, the game, the base, and a power disc for Cinderella’s carriage, and then an additional character… Violet, from The Incredibles.
Claire is really getting into gaming. I may need to write a post about this later on, mostly detailing and rebutting some of the opposition I’ve come up against for letting my six year old play video games, but I’ll save that for later.
Mostly she likes to sit on my lap and watch me play, but I’ve been encouraging her to play on her own. The touch stuff is super-simple for kids, but it’s only been recently that I’ve plunked a PS3 DualShock controller in her palms and pushed her to be a little more advanced in the play department.
Our greatest hits to date include, of course, Minecraft (which she now plays mostly independently on the iPlatform) and Ni no Kuni, a PG-rated RPG (which she mostly directs from my side while I play).
Introduction to Controller-ology 101
My motives in advancing her gaming education is simple. I’ve had my eyes out for a game that she would not only enjoy and engage with, but that would get her away from a life-time of touch-and-tablet gaming, pocket gaming, and the in-game-purchase-heavy, dress-up-girly-style, this-must-be-educational-somehow gaming experience that seems to over-populate that realm.
So, far, I think I’ve found a hit in Disney Infinity (and no, this isn’t a sponsored post! Though, a free set of Wreck-It-Ralph characters would sure be nice… wink, wink!)
Pros and Cons
I’ll be honest about the big’ol cons of this game, first: It’s an expensive toy. If I hadn’t picked it up on special, we wouldn’t own it right now. Really. I got it on sale, but I waited. As of this writing I’m already in for about sixty bucks, and that was the sale price for just the starter kit and one extra character. (And I only bought the extra character because said starter kit doesn’t come with a girl character… I mean, c’mon Disney!) To unlock more content you don’t necessarily win it: you go buy, with real cash money at a real store, either (a) new characters models for about twelve bucks per, that you plonk onto the base and then activate into the game or (b) mystery packs of additional power discs for five bucks per pair, that when activated on the base unlock a variety of power-ups or new toys, features, worlds, or other random stuff. The spend-happy gamer could spend three or four hundred bucks on pieces, just on what’s out and available now, and they are releasing new characters and power disc series all the time. Save your pennies if you want to get in on this one.
On the other hand, the game fits with quite a few of my criteria for a father-daughter learning game: the game is (on the one hand) mostly a simple exploration 3D platformer, but (on the other hand) it’s built on the backbone of a sandbox-style creative toy. We can play it two player or she can play alone. I can explore the worlds at night when she’s in bed and when she next plays later on the benefit is that what she missed plot or playtime, is made up for that fact that I’ve unlocked more construction elements for the Toy Box sandbox for her to create with.
It’s also safe. We play Minecraft in peaceful mode because she is still creeped out by creepers, zombies, spiders, and all the other scary mobs that accompany survival mode. As for Infinity, we can just delete or simply not build the baddies, and KA-POW, the worst thing that happens in the world is that she might fall off the edge of her construction and materialize back at the starting place. Nothing too scary… until she’s ready for it.
And then of course it’s both a Disney product full of Disney characters (which she loves) and played on the PS3 (which means she’s been getting some time in with the DualShock controller and away from the ubiquitous touch-interface that current;y dominates her young life) so… we’re both impressed.
But Then It’s Only Been A Week
Will it stand the test of time? Who can say? She’s been asking to play it… a lot. In fact, we’ve been withholding it so that she’ll practice her piano and do her chores. When you need to deny as a form of incentive or punishment, that –from a parenting perspective– means you’ve probably got a minor hit on your hands. That, and those ten dollar figurines glaring at me from beside the television when we’re not playing might be enough incentive to boot it up more often, too.
It was well over a year and a half ago now when I found myself completely obsessed by the open world fantasy role playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I’d downloaded a release day copy for my PC through Steam and over the span of about three or four months played far more than a mid-thirties guy with a kid and a job really should have.
Insert Abrupt Pause Here…
And then spring arrived. And some running goals fell into the mess. And that darned thing called life got in the way of a perfectly good video game.
I’d poked my head back into the vast and expansive world of Skyrim once or twice since, but my career as a dragon-slaying Nord-ess ended fairly abruptly as my priorities shifted. And, picking back up where one left off after such an extreme shift in engagement… not as easy as it sounds.
But then not completely forgotten, either.
About a week ago the Internet was ablaze with the release of the latest installment of the Grand Theft Auto series. GTA:V, as I understand it, is another vast, open world game, but that’s where it’s similarities to games like Skyrim end. And it’s also where my discussion of that game ends: with me saying the GTA series, as much as I’ve played past versions, are just not my cup-of-tea.
But back downtown, near where I work, is a video game shop in the mall. And on one particular morning last week, when I happened to wander by, a few dozen guys about my age, most in neatly pressed business attire, were patiently lined up waiting to grab their copy of the much anticipated “five” pre-ordered and waiting to be loaded into Playstations and Xboxes across the city and around the world.
“Impulse Shopping” Meets “Been Thinking About It Anyhow”
I decided to be different. Not deliberately, mind you, but when I wandered back to the store at lunch there was a pre-played copy of my long lost friend Skyrim — but for PS3, not PC — for little less than twenty bucks.
- for those who will first off say I’ve downgraded going from a PC version to a console version on the PS3, you are right. But what I’ve lost in graphics and control finesse, is more than made up by the fact I can play on the couch on a giant HDTV instead of in the basement, in a squeaky office chair, on a monitor less than a quarter the size.
- unlike last time when a four-year-old Claire was a little bit too young to even watch me play, the six year old Claire that lives at our house now LOVES the game and, in fact, told me she made up her own game to play during recess at school where she runs around fighting dragons and doing pretend magic in school yard. I’m still the one who actually plays the video game though.
- having decided to deliberately make different character and plot choices — some as early as minutes into the game — I’m surprised at how similar the early stages of the game are to the last time I played.
- it is just as addictive the second time through. Whatever perfect combination of game-play and simulated feedback the game designers stumbled upon in creating this piece — or whether it simply found a gaping hole in my brain to crawl into and set up home forever, I can’t tell — it’s like the obsession bloomed right back into full life only a couple hours after starting up the new adventure.
- I still don’t think it’s cheating to use the game guide and I pulled out my –only slightly dusty– copy almost before the game had finished downloading its initial installation updates.
- my updates are going to be far less interesting here because I cannot do screen grabs on the PS3… so you’re stuck with whatever old or stock imagery I can dig up elsewhere.
To quote another fantasy franchise: Winter is coming. And apparently that means juggling some dragon slaying in with my ongoing marathon training… provided I get to use the TV once in a while.
I, like many folks out in gamer-land, watched Sony’s launch of the so-called PlayStation 4 last week with baited breath. Dozens of questions bubbled within our eager gamer-brains: What awaited us in the next generation of console gaming? What did the experience-masters have in-store for us this time? How was the world about to be re-shaped by a sweeping and amazing new innovation? Who could say?
The results were disappointing, I’m sorry to say.
Ok, not really.
As it were, Sony may have been better off to temper our excitement-level by naming this new system something more in-line with the moderate upgrade it appears to be. They should have called it the PlayStation Three Point One. PS3.1. A point version denoting an moderate-but-iterative upgrade.
But I guess that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue so nicely, does it?
I’m sorry to announce that this is most definitely not the next generation of gaming. Or, I’ll caveat that statement with my humble opinion: What was shown to us was not the “Next Generation of Consoles” so adamantly promised. We had hoped. We had dreamed. We barely contained our salivating excitement. But again, apologies… this ain’t it.
And here’s why…
1. Graphics Don’t Matter Right Now
Game Play and Experience Rule, Of Course
Games that are truly able to grab hold of our imaginations don’t need more polygons. Sure, more polygons equates to a more film-like experience, but think about it: our brains are really good at filling in the gaps left by deficient fake realities. In fact, if you’ve ever read about something called the “uncanny valley” you’ll understand that less-close to reality is actually ideal in most cases… at least until we get it spot-on perfect. Our brains can do that last bit of gap-filling, high-power rendering missing from our machines, and they are probably going to win every time, and for a long time.
Or better, Dwarf Fortress which I played for the first time the other day. Blocky or text-based graphics have massive appeal right now and well implemented game-play-driven titles are finding cult-like audiences. Neither are particularly pretty titles and in fact, Dwarf Fortress is down-right abstract art (in a kind but pejorative sort of way.) But both engage users on either experience or story.
Also, 16:9 Displays are Boring
And then there is the problem of screens. How 2012. No matter how many other screens or screen sharing or device parity — or whatever the buzzword turns out to be — goes on, the next generation of consoles is going to need to leap off the screen. I don’t care how they do it. I don’t know if they look to things like Google Glass technology, or on-the-wall-image projection, or 3D Princess-Leia-like holograms.
I know it’s hard, but until the game finds a way to break out of that 16:9 box, they can throw all the shiny pixels at us they want and it’s still only tweak and a minor upgrade to what’s already available. Simply: Use some of those pixels and polygons somewhere that isn’t on my screen.
2. Some of Us Do Actually Want Creative Freedom
Your Network = My Home
I run my own website. I’m what you might call an indie-content-guy. And I understand: the urge to lock-down and control what’s going on inside of a network is strong. No honestly, I really do get it. But if you want me to be comfortable inside a gaming network — any network — then you’re going to need to do more for me and let me have more control over that space. I need more than what you’re already doing. For example, Sony is infamous in the dark corners of the net right now because they won’t even let a user change their profile name, locking them into a kind of identity-alias limbo for as long as they are customers. That kind of attitude needs to change. If it really is my space at least let me feel some of that control over it.
Now, I understand that with this need for less control and the potential of letting out the metaphorical rope-and-noose to the customer, there is the problem of moderation. Who? How? But, you know what: figure it out. A lot of other companies have found ways to be centres of creative freedom on the net. Youtube? Instagram? Even Facebook, to a degree (and as much as I despise them, I’ll grant them so much that they’ve done better than the game companies.) There are all sorts of models for creative expression with a balance of control with respect to piracy, ownership or even just adult content. So, why does the culture of centralized, no-access Big Brother corporate oversight continue on gaming networks?
A Powerful Networked Computer = Server, Right?
With that idea goes hand-in-hand the elephant-in-the-room fact that this new console is going to ask me to be a power-hungry, always-on, always-connected super-computer. If they want that, then let me use it for something more: as a server, for example. I’m not necessarily talking a website here (though why not?) but instead give me ways to do interesting things for the gaming community: a simple language or construction kit to build virtual spaces, a home or a space, public or private, that is accessible to other users. And not just a cut-and-paste, pay eight bucks and download this cookie-cutter apartment, either. Real code, with real customization, and hosted from my console on my connection where my friends can meet and play and…
3. Social Should Be Central, Not an App
My Phone Can Do That
… because the real problem is that I’m sick of bobbing around from app to game to app to game and back to app again. No really: my phone can load apps. It doesn’t impress me any more. Consoles need to be better than my phone. With enough computational power and enough networked connectivity, the experience of being inside the console should be seamless. There may not be any existing models in reality — though hey, this is the Next Generation of innovation we’re talking about, right — but there are plenty of models in fiction…
Read some of the science fiction favourites that have looked at this exact problem. They’ve all long since predicted where we’re going with this: whole universe, immersive environments, OASIS-like, metaverse-powered, virtual real-estate, and social that isn’t just an e-business card application layered over top of the game, but a persistent persona that is immersive as the rest of reality.
It doesn’t need to be polished and super-pretty at first. It just needs to be seamless and feel like I’m dropping into a different world: a gaming space where I’m a gamer, playing, and there is no need for loading or clicking around from icon to icon. PlayStation tried this, half-ass, with PlayStation Home. It’s neat, but it’s mostly a lot of waiting and teleporting (which is an instant fail, by the way) and, in my opinion, backwards… because:
Broad, Persistent & Deep
As a model, PlayStation Home could and should be the bottom layer of the interface, not the top. It shouldn’t be something I opt-into exploring, a meta game. It should BE the interface… but almost: A lighter, faster, less-trying-too-hard, less-restricted version needs to emerge. Open it up. Let us help you build it (and host it on our ever-connected consoles.)
Gamers expect to interface with a gamer-like space, to explore and walk around virtual environments: heck, if I want to click and navigate menus then I’ll go to work and use Windows. Instead, take me to a world, make that world deep, seamless, load-time-free, and somewhere where I am persistent and able to contribute to. Get developers on board. Games should have real lobbies and front doors. I should be able to check things out without downloading demos and installing and building up new profiles for every game I want to sample. Standards, and a broad, every growing metaphor. And then let me access my games and my gaming by stepping through a gate rather than just clicking a pretty icon.
In end the biggest lesson is that our beloved console corporations are just too big to risk any more than basic hardware-driven iterative development. Nothing this spectacular comes easily from any company, but it seems to me to be even less likely from a giant with more to lose.
Either way, be willing to risk it on something greater or you’re never going to — really — show us the next generation of consoles, and never going to provide the amazing experience that will define that next generation we’re all craving. It may not be anything like my wish-list or my prediction, but unless it’s something ambitious, inventive, and different it’s just going to be another point-one upgrade.
Brad is a part-time gamer nursing a chronic addiction to awesome creative and story-driven game play. He’s currently indoctrinating his daughter on the joys of Minecraft, and occasionally pries himself away from his various glowing screens to level up in the real world. He writes opinionated blogs about that, too.