They create worlds: Fez

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

I love exploration in games. I love it when developers create virtual worlds that hint at a story about its history and inhabitants: the shack in the wilderness with the single plate on the table and the gravestone in the back garden; the eerie, sparsely lit alleys with people whispering for you to go away and leave them alone; the ornate mansions with their ostentatious displays of wealth and the secret compartment hidden behind the owner’s portrait; the desolate, windy¬† good at creating memorable characters, but their biggest strength for me lies in creating places.

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He may be easy, but he’s a prince

What makes a video game enjoyable? It’s obviously different things for different gamers: some like non-stop action, while others prefer games to be slower, more cerebral experiences. Some are graphics fetishists, while others say that gameplay complexity trumps visuals every time. Myself, I like a good narrative in a game, but I also want the gameplay and storytelling to be intertwined.

In the end, however, what it boils down to for most people, and in the most circular fashion at that, is that most people want games to be fun. They want to be taken out of their everyday lives for a while. Obviously that’s one of the reasons why so-called ‘casual games’ have been a major success in the last few years. Whether it’s Peggle or Plants vs. Zombies, or indeed one of the gazillion variations on the theme of Mah Jong, they’re all making money compared to what they cost that make most ‘non-casual’ games cry into their DVD boxes.

Is it just me, or is casual gaming more sexy than sweating, bespectacled nerds hunching over their gamepads for whole weekends? Or is that just evil advertising messing with my brain?

Now, old-school gamers like myself, who remember the times when a pixel was bigger than your head and the height of gaming was yellow pill addicts running through mazes and frogs crossing the street… Many of those gamers have nothing but disdain for casual games. Why? Because they’re easy. There’s little to no challenge in Puzzle Quest, they claim, so even your grandmother can play them and succeed. The most embarrassing examples of such old-school gamers will then go on a rant about the evils of instant gratification and those horrible people who feel entitled to winning a game every now and then without serious training.

Myself, I like a challenge every now and then – but to be honest, next to working 100% and having a relationship, I definitely see the appeal of games that are not punishingly hard. I see the fun in games that you can pick up, play for 15 minutes and drop again feeling that you’ve had a good time and cleared your mind.

However, there is such a thing as a game being too easy. I’m currently playing Prince of Persia, a reboot of a reboot of a classic gaming series back from the days when computers were big as houses and joysticks had one button. It’s a beautifully crafted game: it looks and sounds gorgeous, and it tells a nice story to boot. But, honestly: if I wanted a game that practically plays itself, I’d watch a DVD.

Behind every weirdly dressed man there's a woman with glowing hands. Or something.

It’s a real shame, because the game could easily have been as much fun or more while still providing a bit of a challenge. As it is, you never feel like you’re controlling your character – and for me, that’s one of the big things when it comes to good games. If it’s there, you never think about it, but the moment that control is taken from you, you can’t help noticing. In previous incarnations of the Prince of Persia series, your character performed the most amazing free-running acrobatics, but the controls were tight enough to make you feel that you were the one making the Prince run along walls, parkouring his way through Arabian Nights-inspired worlds. In this game, however, it’s enough to run roughly in the right direction and press a button at roughly the right time, and hey presto! you’re running along walls as if gravity was completely optional.

Without a bit of a challenge, without the feeling that you’re actually controlling your character, the gameplay actually becomes a bit of an annoyance much of the time. It’s like watching a film on DVD (or Blu-ray, of course!), and every time you get to a new scene you have to play Tic Tac Toe against an idiot. You’re sure to win, but it breaks the flow of the game. At what point does a game become so easy that it might as well consist of one button: “Press X to watch the next cutscene?”

But yeah… the game is oh so pretty. Behold (and if you’re a fan of the final episode of Six Feet Under, you may want to brace yourself for a tune you know very well – once you’ve accepted this as something other than utter blasphemy, it actually works quite well):