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On One’s Own: Casual Gaming Concerns

Critter_CrunchOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

There are some things that people just were not meant to understand. Jell-o, for example, is one of those things that continue to be amazing as long as you do not try to figure out exactly how it works. The stuff is delicious, bouncy, satisfying and gelatinous. If you ever want to turn yourself off of Jell-o forever, read up on gelatin. Scary stuff there, I’m serious.

This is the realization I have come to over the past couple weeks as I have had some time off from DIYGamer: I enjoy some kinds of games only when I am not thinking about it. This is sort of a shocking realization for someone who has spent the past two years looking for deeper meanings in videogames and sharing his criticisms with the world.

Critter Crunch vomitImagine my shock that this kind of enjoyment, the mindless, pointless enjoyment of gaming, extended to indie games that some of my peers had long protested were amazing and worth the effort to purchase and play extensively. By peers, I don’t just mean random people my age that attend classes with me or fellow coworkers, but other journalists in the field.

Luckily, in both cases that I will mention below, I received the games for what I would call “more-or-less” free. Best Buy stockpiled some coupons for me which I then turned into virtual cash via a Playstation Network card and the Nintendo DSi came with points that I had neglected to spend until recently.

In the same little shopping spree, I finally picked up Critter Crunch by Capybara Games on PS3 and Fieldrunners by Subatomic Studios for the DSi. Critter Crunch is one of those games that a number of people were quick to inform me that I absolutely had to play. Fieldrunners was not exactly recommended by folks I know, but goodness did I hear a lot about it in general. Besides, Desktop Tower Defense is a frequent addition to my rather normal day job, so I figured I would give it a go.

Critter CrunchThis is where the bad news starts. Critter Crunch has thoroughly failed to impress me. Other than being amusing to try to describe to someone—you eat the jewels inside bugs and then attempt to vomit enough into your child’s mouth—and very, very pretty to look at, my stint with Critter Crunch has been largely spent with a frown. It’s gorgeous, goofy but just is in no way substantial enough.

Perhaps this is all a matter of perception, though. Bejeweled, for example, is not exactly marketed as having a wonderful narrative, gripping plot and engaging characters. The same goes for any of the various games within the genre that Bejeweled has helped make so popular. Going to Panera Bread and expecting a steak dinner might leave a person dissatisfied but maybe they should try a sandwich, soup or salad. Results may vary, of course, but the principle remains the same: misguided expectations are only that; misguided.

Part of the problem is a lack of time in general, sure, so games like Mass Effect 2 or even Machinarium have been shelved in favor of more accessible titles for me. Even Valkyria Chronicles, a game that has recently entranced me, is not exactly the best to try and pick up for some quick playing before heading off to work.

Desktop Tower DefenseCritter Crunch has the exact same downfalls for me, though, being relegated to console play, but is a type of game that is entirely meant to be played while waiting in line, during long stints in the bathroom or in the backseat whilst carpooling. Someone, somewhere, clearly was not considering that a person might actually sit down on a sofa and attempt to give it an extended play. I refer again to Jell-o, as it might be delicious and you can eat a whole lot of it, but there sure isn’t any substance there.

Even ignoring Critter Crunch as a “possibly better if it were mobile for me” kind of game, I still have my handy-dandy Nintendo DSi and Fieldrunners. Unfortunately, it just so happens to be a tower defense game and, as everyone knows, there hasn’t been any real innovation in the tower defense genre since, well, people started calling it a genre.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I actually have a weakness for Ye Olde Tower Defense. I thoroughly enjoy every single minute I spend plotting out my building structure in order to cover the most ground in the best way. I have only recently been turned on to the whole idea of selling outlying towers in order to bolster defenses where you need them most. If you thought that your MMO of choice required micromanagement, pick up Fieldrunners and get back to me.

FieldrunnersAn epiphany occurred to me the other day however that has since tainted each and every time that I play the game. I thought to myself, “I really should get to working on my column… right after this level.” When I did finally put it down, I considered the meaning of this decision process.

What, exactly, did I accomplish in my time? At least with some games, there is a bigger picture to consider. While playing Grand Theft Auto, I might struggle with the comic depiction of violence in our daily lives. While playing Braid, I might consider the entire concept of perception among other things. While playing Fieldrunners, on the other hand, I usually consider how to better stop the little guys from getting to the other side of the virtual field. Especially those damn helicopters, pesky things that they are.

As a graduate from Indiana University, perhaps I could better utilize my time. It’d be like constantly playing Solitaire. I relate the entire process to a concept from food: empty calories. Sure, Fieldrunners might taste great going down but jeez, is there anything in there that actually nurtures my thoughts at all?

FieldrunnersThe casual gaming scene screams of fast food to me. And yes, I did just personify an entire section of entertainment. To repeat myself, there’s nothing of substance to be found but most people can agree that they’re enjoyable. The problem is not that they are not enjoyable but that they hold no meaning beyond that. Solitaire might be a fun pastime but there’s a reason why it’s called that: it is meant to pass the time.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. Muddled definitions and various ways of describing videogames have existed since the medium’s inception. Is it video games or videogames? Are they more like games or more like interactive movies? How do they relate to traditional literature?

These are all questions that I have considered from time to time and take a toll on how this argument is viewed by any given reader. Depending on what you make of those questions, you might agree or disagree vehemently with me.

If nothing else, I propose that the casual gaming sector be relegated to being a pastime while all others are referred to as hobbyist. There’s a reason baseball isn’t a national hobby.

Comments

  • http://clintmakesagame.wordpress.com TheCube

    I tend to have the same moments of realization, usually after long sessions of playing a game to discover that I either did not enjoy myself, or feel like I just watched 2 hours of MTV and my brain is custard.

    I’m torn as to whether or not these kinds of games are purely negative. On the one hand, they can be a massive time waster and preclude more productive activities. On the other hand, I find myself doing my best thinking when I’m doing something, but not totally engaged in it. Sometimes to really think, you have to be slightly distracted.

    But yeah. Tower Defense games are the worst when it comes to custard braining me. They’re so addictive, but take up so much of my thought process that I don’t feel like I’ve gained anything, or even relaxed.