Serotonin: Finding the good in the ‘flawed friend’ game

November 24, 2012

I’m sure we all have a friend who we sort of wish wasn’t our friend. You hang out with him, or her, and they cause nothing but trouble; they break things accidentally, say inappropriate things at inappropriate times, borrow your stuff without asking you (I call that unanticipated partnership of ownership) or don’t shower. Whatever it is.

But when push comes to shove, when the situation is laid out on the table and you’re looking over the events that occurred, you can point to that friend and you can proudly claim that, faults and all, you’re glad they’re your friend. Until they take the last beer out of your fridge and ask if it’s okay to date your sister.

Some games are like that. You’re playing them and thinking, “I can already tell this won’t work. The controls are wacky, the levels are confusing and the characters are stupid. I better check out this castle and… ooooh, what a pretty castle. What is that enchanting tune?” And you stand there for ten minutes listening to the song over and over. Like people who pretend to be Christmas shopping, but for some sadistic reason enjoy the muzak played over the speakers. Maybe they’re just being controlled and not ready to head outside the castle yet.

I’m not a cynical person by nature, and that carries over to playing video games. There are only a few I’ve started and haven’t finished; I always want to give the game a second chance, despite the frustrations. Maybe I’ll reach a good level. Maybe there will be something to give me a sliver of hope, or something to think about later on. If I can play through Quest 64, I can play through anything.

The games I’m about to mention aren’t bad. They’re not great, but they’re not bad either. Which, in video game terms, means they’re terrible. Awful. Not worth your time. They won’t end up on any “top list” (or at least any of my top lists), but they both have one or two things going for them that makes them passable.

When you’re playing a game that’s just there, you’ll look for anything to get your hopes up. You’ll look for something to keep you moving on, and I don’t mean like quitting video games and getting a job in real life. That X-factor, or a concession you’ll make in order to finish the game. And in the end, aren’t flawed friends more fun anyway? Don’t they make for better stories and adventures?

Infinite Undiscovery is a 360 RPG by developer tri-Ace. It is riddled with cliches and frustrating game design. There’s no hotkey for the map, which I found I needed to check constantly. The combat is cheap and repetitive. Why do I have to unsheathe and sheathe my weapon? Why does this action take so long? Why isn’t the writing good? You’ll find yourself backtracking through areas that at first glance are cool, but end up empty and devoid of charm.

I’ve played more than a few games by tri-Ace, and haven’t really enjoyed any of them. I keep telling myself to stay away; no, Henry, not another tri-Ace game. Didn’t you learn your lesson last time? Besides, RPGs take up huge amounts of time. A bad side-scrolling platformer probably won’t take more than a few hours. FPS campaigns usually won’t run me more than ten. But RPGs? It’s an investment in time. It’s a book, with worse writing. Infinite Undiscovery is one of the shortest RPGs I’ve ever played, and rushing through the game still took me 23 hours. 23!

If there’s ever a judge in the afterlife and they start going through all the time you spent on your life doing what, I’m going to die (again) of embarrassment. So, Henry, it will say. You dedicated an entire day of your precious, precious life to playing Infinite Undiscovery? They’ll shake their head. And I’ll hope they don’t know how much time I spent playing World of Warcraft. So why do I keep going back to games made by this developer? Am I secretly employed by them? Do I have a crush on their CEO? Do I find their logo enticing?

I know why I keep going back to tri-Ace games. Because they’ve always got that special something that impresses me enough to keep going. The game isn’t a complete wash. There are parts where I nod and talk to the non-present employees of tri-Ace. Ooooh, that’s nice. How did you think of that?

It’s probably for the best that they can’t hear me. I’d also tell them that the main character’s flute playing is unnecessary, and that the “connect” functionality with your allies to open up side quests and extra gear is tragically uninteresting and time consuming. But Infinite Undiscovery has some appeal.

Like other tri-Ace games, the world shows some creativity. An evil presence has bound the planet to the moon via massive chains. Wherever the chains are embedded, destruction follows. Animals die, plants wither, people suffer. Your job is to go through the world and cut all the chains. The visual image of a giant chain snaking through the sky endlessly towards the moon is a clever one. We already have preconceived notions of the moon influencing our planet. The moon is a source of great wonder in all forms entertainment, from games to books to poetry. What will happen when you sever the chains? Will the moon be affected too?

But a good setting isn’t enough. It wasn’t enough for this game, to be sure. What kept me playing was Infinite Undiscovery‘s multi-party battles. The sense of camaraderie, the chaos and the unexpectedness of these fights made me feel like I was playing a totally different game. You end up with entirely too many allies. Your party consists of a maximum of four, and you really only control the main character. The other three allies are A.I.-controlled. And in multi-party battles, you can have up to three other groups of four fighting alongside you. Again, you only control the main character.

Some may be frustrated by the lack of control. But I… I was entranced during these fights. I remember going into a dungeon with gusto, sprinting to fight enemies. To my left, I saw one of my group of allies fighting their own set of enemies. Casting spells, healing each other and using attacks in sequence against foes was mesmerizing to watch. It was a melee. Absolutely no organization. I couldn’t keep track of all the attacks flying left and right, and I had a hard time focusing on my own fight. It was… awesome. These sequences can last a while, but don’t overstay their welcome. The freedom during these fights is refreshing.

Transformers: War for Cybertron got my interest right away when I heard someone made a Transformers game that wasn’t awful. Did someone finally get it right? Create an interactive piece of digital entertainment that would please old fans and create new ones? How hard is it to make a game where you’re a wise-cracking, transforming robot that blasts lasers and turns into a jet with the push of a button? Apparently very. They did it, but it took them 26 years.

If you were to send this game back in time to the mid-’80s and show it to a Transformers fan, I guarantee their minds would be blown. It’s too cool. It’s perfect. Look at the graphics! What do you mean I get to pick between three different Autobots and Decepticons per mission? What do you mean I can turn into a jet with the push of a button? Peter Cullen, the original voice of Optimus Prime, is back?

I must have traded my soul in a dream for this, because zooming down a highway as Bumblebee, blasting Decepticon bad guys and then jumping, transforming mid jump, shooting my lasers at more Decepticons, transforming back into a car and zooming away before anybody knew what hit them is just too much for my brain to process. I’m sorry, take it away. I can’t wait 26 years for this. Erase my memory.

The game is not memory-wipe-worthy to those living in 2012. I found the combat cheap at times and the level design extremely linear. While the robotic planet of Cybertron looks astonishingly-detailed, there isn’t much to it. But the X-factor: transforming never gets old, ever. Sometimes I would just sit in a hallway and transform back and forth. Jet, robot. Jet, robot. Jet, robot. Hehehe. Jet, robot.

When a specific game mechanic works, it’s amazing how many concessions you’ll be willing to make. The player won’t care that they’ve died 20 times on a cheap jump, because in the next level you get to play as a jet. The reward (barely, though!) justifies the struggle. I won’t go back and get all the achievements, but I’ll certainly consider purchasing the sequel (Transformers: Fall of Cybertron) or replaying the flight levels.

We shouldn’t have to make concessions during our choices of entertainment, to be honest. If we’re reading a bad book, we should put it down. There are enough good books that deserve our attention. Why stick with a bad egg?

Not everything you experience will be good. Sometimes it’s refreshing to dig the good out. Find the good. It can be surprisingly rewarding and make for a good conversation piece. And it can surely make you feel good when you complete the game, or finish the book, and look back at your flawed friend and be happy for the good.