Thursday, October 20, 2016

Falling back into the 'horrid' videogaming habit - A ReadItTorial

Klonoa 2 - Lunatea's Veil (PS2) - 'Retro' gaming at its finest
Despite my best efforts, I've fallen back in love with videogames and Charlotte's also starting to find out what all those mysterious boxes tucked under the telly are really all about.

I've been 'in it' since the days of those 'blip blip bleep' sports games you'd hook up to your old black and white TV (yes folks, we weren't posh enough to have a colour set until way into the 1980s), then worked up through the lovely old 'wooden-veneered' Atari 2600 - through to the heady days of typing

10 Print "Hello Bogeyface"
20 goto 10

...on all those demo microcomputers in WH Smiths.

The interesting thing about seeing videogames through a fresh pair of eyes are that Charlotte doesn't automatically have any of that cynicism I've developed, nor any of that slight snobbery when it comes to older retro games. Whereas most modern videogame discussions get caught up with the ridiculous willy-measuring (pardon the phrase but that's pretty much what it is) about which console is the most powerful, and why PC gaming is still the 'elite' just because you can drive games to eye-numbingly ridiculous resolutions if you spend the equivalent amount of cash that a small family car might cost you, from Charlotte's point of view games need to do two things.

1) Be fun. Be an enjoyable way to spend an hour or two. Not feel like a waste of that time

2) Tell a story

The last bit is very interesting. I'm dutifully trying to introduce her to the classics before letting her loose on more modern fare (though she still loves Minecraft and would - if we let her - spend all day building crazy structures or mating animals or aimlessly wandering the blocky wastelands in search of goodies).

I picked out Klonoa 2: Lunatea's Veil recently - a game that by anyone's standards really defined that perfect era where platform games were brilliantly puzzling, taxing and achingly beautiful to behold as well as being wonderfully playable. Namco's weird dog-cat-thing was never better than in this game, but to Charlotte the most interesting parts were the story bits (the bits I, er, usually skip through very rapidly to get through to the actual gameplay with my usual hoary old gamer impatience).

She wanted to know what happened to Klonoa before he was washed up on the mysterious island he then has to work his way through. Why his two helpers chose to aid him in his quest. What he had to do, and why he had to do it.

"WHY!" - We all know how kids are once they get a questioning frame of mind going. Alas, I couldn't really offer much assistance other than to wonder whether other parents notice that their kids fall into one of two categories (oh humans, how we love categorisation!)

Those that play for the sake of playing, and those that want to be entertained with a story.

The reasons I've started to slip back into the whole kit and caboodle (in a slightly less obsessional way than when I was a complete game-head at the height of the 80s, 90s and 00s) is - admittedly - partly because of the completely different way Charlotte approaches stuff I now realise I've been taking for granted, and partly the lure of something new - Virtual Reality.

The Playstation Virtual Reality headset (PSVR) aims to bring VR to 'consumer level' gamers for the first time. VR isn't new, and it's been sitting with PC gamers for a while - wowed by what systems like Oculus Rift and Vive can do if attached to a PC gaming rig that could, if left alone for long enough, probably become sentient and destroy the planet.

I've used VR stuff at work before, mostly just to see big 3D extrapolations of CAD drawings or in limited use in research groups but beyond monkeying around with Google Cardboard a while back, this is the first time I've properly had a go at anything VR-flavoured for gaming.

The results - well, they were pretty jaw dropping to be honest. The PSVR is far from perfect, but the sense of immersion is eerie, entrancing and in some cases horrifying (remind me never EVER to play that Kitchen demo from Capcom when I'm in the house on my own. I'm not quite ready for PSVR horror titles just yet!)

Most of the games I found alluring weren't the usual shooty-bang or driving games, but games I know Charlotte will love when she's older. "Wayward Sky" is one such game...

It probably doesn't look 'all that' to most seasoned gamers, but having a story unfold that literally feels like you've got a tabletop in front of you, with animated figures walking around on it and that weird VR feeling that you're actually THERE really affected me in a way I hadn't expected.

I also loved Tumble VR:

Like a weird puzzle game hybrid of Jenga and block-stacking, it again makes you feel like you're sitting right in front of a table full of shapes, able to pick each one up and place it delicately to build a tall tower, or in other puzzles, to direct the path of a laser to its goal.

Of course, these aren't the games you'll hear lots about in any PSVR teardowns but they are games that (along with the PSVR itself) made a cynical old gamer into a true believer that there are still surprises left in store with videogames.

Now all that remains to be seen is whether children's games can evolve past being as dumb as a box of rocks (that's a subject for another day methinks). Could the videogames industry start to learn lessons from children's literature and stop talking down to kids, treating them as curious and clever little people in their own right? We shall see!