How Not to Play the Wrong Game
How Not to Play the Wrong Game
You’d think after decades as a gamer, I’d know what kinds of games I like. And I usually do. But all too often, I make a big mistake.
Posted: 11/16/17 | Category: | Platform:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the hobby of video gaming in general, and my gaming habits specifically. I thought I’d explore various aspects of both in a new series of articles. In this first one, I’m going to tackle an absolutely embarrassing problem I have: Playing the Wrong Games.

You’d think after decades as a gamer, I’d know what kinds of games I like. And I usually do. But all too often, I make a big mistake. The most recent time I did this was with Sega’s beautiful game Valkyria Chronicles.

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Here are the things I love about Valkyria Chronicles:

~The beautiful art style that looks like watercolors that leapt from drawings in a sketch book.

~The Baltic setting. This is a part of the world that I’ve visited and that I’m quite fond of.

~The intriguing alternate history premise: It’s 1935, and what’s essentially World War II is erupting, but from the east (the Russia equivalent). The heroes are from sort-of-Estonia.

~The characters: Division 7 is a diverse crew that included hardened soldiers, scrappy youngsters and a dreamy botany student forced into the role of military leader.

~The music: Hotoshi Sakimoto’s lush score enchants me every time I fire the game up. This should come as no surprise, as he also wrote the incredible score to my favorite Final Fantasy game (XII).

~The presentation: The game unfolds as if you’re reading a sort of historical comic book. It’s just lovely.

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It's just so pretty!

In fact, I am so intrigued by this game that I bought it twice: Once for the PS3 and again, recently in its remastered PS4 iteration1

But when I tried playing the game a second time, the same thing happened as the first time. Several missions into the campaign, I found myself avoiding firing the game up. This week I had to face the fact that I was actually dreading the next battle in the game. I regretfully admitted defeat and moved on to the next game.

How could I make such a boneheaded mistake not once but twice? What a waste of time and money, right?

The answer is in the list of points above. All of those lovely aspects of the game that I just loved. Unfortunately, it turns out that there was one crucial element of Valkyria Chronicles that I didn’t enjoy…the actual game itself.

To be clear, this isn’t an indictment or even a criticism of the game per se. Merely the observation that the gameplay wasn’t for me.

Does this happen to you? It seems to be happening to me more and more lately.

In the specific case of Valkyria Chronicles, the reason I failed the first time was at least partially not my fault. The game was billed as an RPG or a Tactical or Strat RPG. I love both of those genres more than chicken, so the game sounded right up my alley. Unfortunately, the game is not an RPG or a Tactical RPG. It’s a turn-based strategy game. And I have a history of not gelling well with turn-based strategy games. I tried mightily to play Jagged Alliance. Age of Wonders. Fallout Tactics. Advance Wars. XCOM. Disciples: Sacred Lands.

Though variously billed as an RPG or a Tactical RPG, that’s not really what Valkyria Chronicles is. It’s a turned-based strategy game. And for whatever reason, there aren’t many turned-based strategy games I really like. Oh, I spent hundreds of hours on the various iterations of the Heroes of Might and Magic series. And I love and successfully play tactical turn-based RPGs all the time (Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Fire Emblem, Jeanne d’Arc, Gladius, just to name a few). But regular old turn-based strategy, not too much.

I’m not sure why this is true. And it doesn’t really matter why it’s true. My point is that for us gamers, some kinds of games work and others don’t. While this is obvious, what’s I’ve learned isn’t so obvious is that it’s easy to make mistakes when looking for the right game.

I remember how determined I was to play the game Homeworld when it came out in 1999. It was a Real Time Strategy game (RTS) about a vast ark spaceship attempting to journey to the ancestral origin planet of its occupants. The game was elegant, beautiful, had atmosphere for days, and even featured music by one of my favorite composers – Samuel Barber. But I had to give it up after just a few missions. Why? Because I just can’t play RTS games. I’m no good at them. They stress me out.

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The Homeworld series is visually stunning.

Other examples of games I purchased, expecting to play:

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It's just viewtiful

Viewtiful Joe (2003). Amazing graphics and vibe. But it was a complex brawler and I just sucked at it.

Pikmin (2001). Incredible pedigree: Created by Shigeru Miyamoto! Science fiction theme! Alas, another strategy game that I couldn’t get into.

Katamary Damacy (2004). Great score, cute insane premise, but just not enough game there for me.

Half-Life (1998) and Half-Life 2 (2004). Legendary games, of course, so I felt I was supposed to play them. But I never made it very far in either; despite the amazing design and atmosphere, they both just seemed like never-ending gauntlets to me and I lost interest.

Divinity: Original Sin (2014). I loved the original Divine Divinity, but I just found this one dull as dishwater. And clunky.

And it seems to happen to me a lot when it comes to Japanese RPGs:

Resonance of Fate (2010). Super cool world-building and setting. But a baffling battle system and an underexplained and obtuse mapbuilding mechanic killed it for me.

The World Ends With You (2008). Intriguing setting and premise, but jangly presentation, obnoxious characters and more baffling core mechanics put me off.

Eternal Sonata (2007). A JRPG inspired by Frédéric Chopin! With Chopin as a playable character! What’s not to like? Well… this one was a case of the Japanese obsession with extremely young characters doing incredibly adult things, like fighting to the death every five minutes. It was just too much for me.

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Yeah, it looks like a bedtime story for four-year-olds

And don’t even get me started on all of the 2D platformers I’ve acquired and failed (or gotten bored with) three levels in. Sorry, Fez, Braid, and all the various Super Mario remakes.

And let’s not even dwell on the Metroidvania games I just can’t sustain interest in2. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me. It’s a big waste of energy and bucks.

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me. It’s a big waste of energy and bucks.

So what have I learned? How can better use my time and resources moving forward?

It turns out, the lesson is very simple. Let me write it in big letters:

Gameplay Rules  
 

Period. It trumps graphic design, world-building, voice acting, atmosphere, everything.

While I LOVE appealing game worlds, and they are a huge deal for me in terms of gaming enjoyment, they simply aren’t as important as gameplay. Thus I have spent hundreds of hours playing the various installments of the Fallout series, even though they take place in dull, depressing post-apocalyptic game worlds. Because the gameplay is so sweet. And I couldn’t make it through any of the Starcrafts, despite the gorgeous graphic design, insanely interesting science fiction world-building and solid voice acting. I just can’t, even with the RTS gameplay.

So, say it with me, everyone: Gameplay Rules!

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1 I know! Fooled me twice etc.
2 Note regarding platformers and Metroidvania titles: I’ve learned that it’s the 2D that’s the problem when it comes to those particular types games. I love 3D platformers; can’t get enough of them. And I loved the 3D Metroid Prime.

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