30 Days of Video Games: Day 27, most epic scene ever

I always cringe when I see “most” and “ever” in a prompt title.  To quote Kip from Napoleon Dynamite, “How can anyone even know that?”  Part of me is hesitant to answer, because I know whatever I choose as the most epic scene ever will differ immensely from what anyone else thinks is the most epic, and while people are awesome about respectfully voicing differences of opinion, there’s part of me that still fears judgment.

But I suppose I should just go for it, because even if I have gaps in my gaming knowledge I still know enough to write about what I feel is the most epic scene ever.

Upon thinking it over, I’ve decided that the final scene of Halo: Reach may just be the most epic scene I’ve ever encountered.  The designers of Reach had some pretty strong nerve to do what they did with the end; Reach was a slight departure from the ‘normal’ Halo games, and it stayed that way up until the very end.  In a lot of ways it was a fitting ending to the series (as produced by Bungie), and a fitting end to the prequel that was true to the Halo universe and to the Spartan way.

In a sense the ending scene is pretty fatalistic, and while someone could easily say, “I invested hours of my time and got blisters on my thumbs for this??” it was worth it.

As you go about futilely trying to save the doomed planet of Reach, Noble Team is slowly picked off one at a time.  The final missions involve getting Cortana to Master Chief aboard the Pillar of Autumn, and then finally seeing it safely out of the atmosphere.  And then Omega Mission begins: Lone Wolf.  The objective? Survive.

That’s it.  No collect x, y, or z… no find an alternate route to place q… just… survive.

The first time I played it was with a group; we were holding our ground against the Covenant pretty well until one guy got shot down.  He waited to respawn, but didn’t.  Then another guy went down, and we slowly began to realize that this was it.  All we could do was try to survive as long as possible until it was last man (or woman) standing, and then all they could do was try and hold on.  And then it was too late.

It’s fatalistic, and wicked depressing.  I grant that in a heartbeat.  I was stunned by the bold move on Bungie’s part.  But at the same time it was truly epic, and embodied everything about the Spartans and Halo in general.  It’s sad, but valiant, and there’s something satisfying about the idea that if I’m going to go down, it’ll be going down while fighting and I’m going to take a few of those things with me.



30 Days of Video Games: Day 16, Best Cut Scenes

Okay, doing it again and double posting in one day.  This whole week is crazy for me between progress report grades closing and rehearsals for this weekend’s Carmina Burana concert with the choir, and also getting the school magazine to the printer and such.  But I’m working to keep up with this, because I really want to see the month through.  So without further ado (since there’s been enough already), I present day 16: the game with the best cut scenes.

Cut scenes are tricky.  You don’t want them to take over the game, but you want them to add intrigue and improve the story in a way that gameplay itself won’t or can’t achieve.  Technological advances have given designers and developers the ability to create sweeping, cinematic cut scenes that are beautiful; but of course there must be a balance between what’s visually stunning and what contributes to the game.  In some cases both can be achieved.

In my own experience I feel that the game that best does this is Halo: Reach.  The game shifts almost seamlessly between cut scenes and playtime, and the scenes contribute to and enhance the story without hindering game play.  In the scenes you learn more about the characters and about the doomed planet of Reach.  The graphic quality is the same between the cut scenes and the game play; some games don’t have this balance.  The cut scenes will be smooth and cinematographic, while the game graphics will be rougher.  It’s a little annoying, but it’s a relief that Reach, Bungie’s final foray into the Halo universe, doesn’t have this dichotomy.

Another nice thing is timing.  The cut scenes in Reach usually come right after a difficult fight, giving you time to breathe and prepare for the next segment of the game.  Sometimes they come before another difficult segment, allowing you a chance to scope out the territory.  So really, Reach’s cut scenes enhance game play, rather than interrupt it, all while telling the story of the planet and the characters.  It’s nicely balanced, which is what we want.

Later today: I back-post day 15, screenshot from a game I’ve been playing.  Oops.  Haven’t had my coffee yet.

30 Days of Video Games: Day 15, Recent Screenshot

The full title is “Screenshot of a game you’ve been playing”, but that was kind of long for a title.  And according to some comments that get routed to spam (and I’m not sure why–they’re so helpful!) I need to optimize my on-page thingamawhatsit.  Okay fine, it really is spam, which I find kind of funny.  Anyway, I digress.  I actually haven’t been playing much in the way of games lately.  I just haven’t had much time to game, and the free time I do have, I feel like there are other things I need to work on.  The upside is summer is coming, and as a teacher I’ll have time to get caught up on my gaming (I may even play ME3 at long last.  Yes, it’s 3 months after the fact).

I don’t have a screencap of this one because it’s on my 360, but here’s a pic of the box art:

Bard had never played Halo 2, so we’ve been working our way through it on 2-player co-op.  We don’t play every time we’re together so we’re far from finished (we just did the first arbiter mission), but it’s nice to just decide to load up the game and play a mission when we’re feeling like doing something a bit different.

And on the Halo note: Just ordered Halo 4 Limited Edition tonight.  AWESOME.

30 Days of Video Games: Day 8, Best Soundtrack

I don’t feel like the creator of this meme really understood what he/she was asking when they put this prompt in it. Or maybe they did, and it’s just me getting overwhelmed. Because you see, music is a huge part of my life. It always has been. I started playing flute at the age of 10 and played through elementary, middle, and high school. I took music theory classes in high school. I currently take voice lessons and am a member of the local auditioned choir. My iTunes library has well over 4,000 songs on it. Music adds ambiance, it adds power, and it creates atmosphere. Some moments in movies would not be nearly as powerful for me had it not been for the music. Music captures me and carries me away. It makes me feel in a way words cannot.

So needless to say I love the musical aspect of video games. Having grown up training in music, I feel I’m able to appreciate it more than if I had not had that background. From the recognizable themes of the 8-bit era to the sweeping orchestrations of Skyrim, it adds so much to the game I’m playing and the world in which I am playing. My game scores playlist has 526 pieces on it: over 10% of my library (and 2.87 GB). And Bard has way more game music than that! But how do I go about figuring which is the best?

I love the electronic sound of the Mass Effect scores; I love the epic grittiness of Gears of War. The heavily orchestrated Dragon Age Origins score is a nice contrast to the slightly Mediterranean flavor of Dragon Age 2. Skyrim’s sweeping orchestral sounds evoke mood beautifully. And I love how the composers of Metroid’s music take the recognizable and classic themes of the old games and weave them into the themes of the new ones.

But I’m going to have to go with Halo on this one.

From the very beginning Halo’s music captured me. The solemn vocals combined with the driving drum and bass lines make for a strong introduction to a series of soundtracks that is as varied as the many worlds Master Chief visits, and the many creatures he comes into contact with. The score evokes mood and nicely blends electronic musical sounds with acoustic and/or vocals. The themes are solid and clear, and it’s evident that you’re in the world of Halo when you hear them.

However, that’s just the first game. The composers incorporate the main theme into new music for Halo 2 and 3, both of which have new and different settings and thus require new and different music. Very rarely do I find the music of the first three Halo games to be repetitive.

But wait, there’s more! Halo 3:ODST, which comes between games two and three, is done by the same composer, and yet has a very different sort of sound. It’s a different protagonist in a different world, and the music evokes that beautifully. Rather than the super-soldier Master Chief, the protagonist is the human Rookie, an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper (ODST) separated from his crew in the city of New Mombasa on Earth. He must fight the covenant, but he has to do it in a different way because he lacks Master Chief’s armor and arsenal. The music conveys these differences by omitting the usual chant-style vocals and opting for a smooth, jazzy feel by incorporating saxophones as the predominant instrument. There’s still great percussion, and a couple lovely flute solos, but overall the feeling is far different from the ‘normal’ Halo score.

Finally, Halo: Reach calls for a different type of score as well. With no Master Chief, and on the doomed planet Reach, there’s a need for new music that conveys all Reach and the new group of Spartans has to offer. Syncopated rhythms give a sort of swing feel to the music, making battle more of a dance than an all-out bloodbath. The music is at times driving and relentless, at times sad. Vocals are either eerie or dramatic. It provides a lovely intensity that serves as a great background for the game.

Overall, what I love about the Halo scores/soundtracks is that they create mood and they’re made to enhance the game, but are awesome on their own. I love putting “Tip of the Spear” on my iPod and feeling epic; but I also love the haunting melancholy of “Ashes”, or the sheer beauty of “Unforgotten”. Most of all I’m sincerely hoping that Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori are going to be the ones behind the score for Halo 4. Halo, for me, has more than a gaming legacy. It has a musical legacy.

Tomorrow: Day 9, Saddest Game Scene. Oh this one’s a doozy.

Am I Really A Gamer?

There are a lot of things that keep me awake at night.  I worry about the next day: do I need to make copies before class, will I have a chance to grade a set of essays, do I have the answer key to the vocab sheet.  Stuff like that.  I think about my Dragon Age rogue armor: can I pull it off?  Can I get it made before PAX East?  Is my new design idea viable?  I think about finances and bills and how a relationship might be nice if only to have someone helping with the bills.  I think of a lot of things.  Usually my identity isn’t one of them, but today I got to thinking about my identity as a gamer.

I’m a high school English teacher, so the fact that I game instantly gives me +50 approval with a lot of students.  Suddenly I’m not so alien.  My interests are the same as their interests, and there’s suddenly common ground for us to talk about.  For a few moments I don’t hold their grade in the palm of my hand, and they aren’t expected to learn about literature and writing and vocab.  For a few moments we’re just people.

In a way, I think that’s what I’ve always liked about games and gaming: they bring people together.  There’s no gender or age discrepancy.  Growing up, there weren’t any girls my age in my neighborhood.  They were all just a few years too old to be bothered with me, or just a few years too young.  My best friend lived across town.  So what did I do?  I hung out with my brother, my two male cousins, and their male friends.  I remember the year one of my cousins got the first Nintendo console… and everything changed.  It didn’t matter that I was a girl, or that I wasn’t a fast runner or didn’t like sports.  When we played Mario and tried to get to the Minus World we were all the same.  When we struggled through dungeons in Zelda, or tried to figure out the mysteries of Metroid, we were all on the same level.  Beating a game?  Was a big deal.  We started a club: the Nintendo Nuts.  That was the year I got a Nintendo calendar from the Scholastic book order, and we all chose characters to be our code names, and diligently wrote our meetings into the calendar.

If I can recall all those details so clearly, then it’s evident gaming always has been a big part of my life.  I’ve had my hiatuses from it: high school and college and summer jobs and homework and everything else made me drift away.  But now that I’m an adult, living on my own, I’m back into it, and it’s a major hobby of mine.

But am I really a gamer?

I have consoles: my most current is an xBox 360, which I purchased in 2010 just before Kinect came out, so I don’t have Kinect.  I have a Nintendo GameCube, and an N64 I got a couple years back at Game Stop.  I have a DS, but it’s a first-generation one from 2005-2006.  I could have traded it up for a DS Lite when they came out, but since I got it in Belfast, Northern Ireland, it has some sentimental value.  I have a GBA-SP, which I keep so I can play my ancient, ancient Gameboy cartridges.  I do not have a PS3, a 3DS, or a Wii.  My gaming library consists of 22 titles,  quite a few of which I bought with the system (it was a good tax return that year).

We’re now in the dawn of 2012, and so far the only game I want is Mass Effect 3, which is coming out in just under two months.  I’ve never played Portal or Portal 2; never played Assassin’s Creed or any of the Final Fantasy games, and ironically, I know a great deal about Call of Duty Black Ops without ever having played it.  My gamerscore isn’t in the tens of thousands; heck, I was just happy to break four digits!  By some standards I have large gaps in my gaming background.  And of course, when talking about games with my students the question comes up: “JayRain, are you going to get insertepicnewgamehere when it comes out??”

Usually the answer is no.  Most of the times it is financial; I am a public school teacher with grad school loans, after all.  But the real reason is I’m just not interested.  I subscribe to Game Informer, so I am informed about what games are coming out, but I’m just not that interested in purchasing most of them.  If a game really intrigues me or is another installation in a franchise I like, I’ll find a way to shell out for it.  With Gears of War 3 I used my tax refund and paid in its entirety when I pre-ordered, for example.  I pre-ordered Mass Effect 3 today, and used some gift cards.  For Halo: Reach I put down $10 a month for the Special Edition.

But I didn’t get Battlefield 3.  I didn’t get the Halo Anniversary edition, much as I love Halo, and while Homefront and Bulletstorm looked cool I couldn’t bring myself to shell out around $60 for them.  Even Dante’s Inferno, based on a work of literature I love, didn’t sear my wallet begging to be bought.

This all begs the question then: what is a gamer?  And with this I think I’m referring just to videogaming– I know there’s card and tabletop gaming, as well as roleplaying, all of which were included with video games at PAX.  But as for what makes a video gamer: Is it someone for whom gaming is life, regardless of price or time commitment?  Is it someone who just enjoys picking up a game and playing for a few minutes to relax, and then moving on?  Is it someone who engages in social gaming on Facebook or with iPad/iPhone apps?  I don’t know.  But I do know that when I think about it, I think I really am a gamer.  I don’t have a wide range of games, but the franchises I do enjoy I am loyal to and I play them frequently.  I read through my Game Informers every month for the insider news and information as much as for the previews and reviews of games.

But most of all, I love game culture.  I like analyzing the storytelling elements and the characters.  I love puzzles.  I love becoming someone else even if it’s just for a few hours, and I love exploring new worlds or new versions of our own.  I don’t have a lot of games, or the newest consoles.  But what I do have I enjoy and it’s big part of who I am.  So when I shut down Skyrim tonight after joining the Bard’s college, I may have other worries that keep me up.  But my identity as a gamer will not be one of them.