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Editorial

6 Indies Like Pokemon

Pokemon has always been one of those series I’ve given credit to for starting my love of video games. The idea of going your own way in a grand world, making friends with the creatures you meet along the way, has always been appealing to me. Beyond that, the completionist whom I share this fleshy prison with also happens to love Pokemon for its focus on “catching ‘em all”. Combine all of this together and it’s easy to see why millions of people around the world love this series.

So with Pokemon’s 9th generation on the way, I thought I’d take a moment to highlight six indie games with creature collecting mechanics. There’s a range of goods here, and I’m all but certain they’ll keep you busy until Pokemon Scarlet and Pokemon Violet arrive (hopefully) in late 2022. 

  1. Temtem

Temtem is an MMO that melds the social features of online games with the addictive nature of creature collecting. Sporting a distinct art direction and creature designs that hit a wide range of archetypes, Temtem excels at visual distinction. Beyond its replication of the tried and true creature collection formula, Temtem also stands on its own as an enjoyable social experience. Staples of the MMO genre can also be found in troves, such as player housing, guilds, co-op, and competitive play. Temtem is definitely a one of a kind take on the creature collecting formula, and one to consider if you’re a Pokemon fan.

  1. Monster Crown

Monster Crown is a creature collecting adventure that pays homage to the GameBoy era of Pokemon games. I admittedly haven’t spent as much time as I would have liked to with Monster Crown, but from what I’ve played, the game feels like a more mature Pokemon. Specifically when it comes to the dialogue in Monster Crown, which is much more grim in its subject matter (people even say bad words). It also has a free-for-all breeding mechanic, meaning you can slap any pixel thing you’d like with another pixel thing and end up with a wide range of hybrid-pixel-things. 

Just don’t go pointing the blame at me when PETA comes knocking at your door. 

  1. Nexomon: Extinction

Nexomon: Extinction is the follow up to a mobile take on the Pokemon formula. Now before you go booing this one, just know it doesn’t commit the same sins as its father. Instead, this sequel to 2017’s Nexomon released as a full-fledged console drop. With a distinct chibi style, and over 300 Nexomon for you to collect, there’s plenty on offer here for you to sink your gamer-teeth into. What really helps Nexomon: Extinction stand out from its contemporaries though is its focus on difficulty and player choice. The game scales with you, meaning you’ll never outlevel or easily outpace wild creatures levels. In addition, you aren’t necessarily gated into one path of progression, meaning you are more than welcome in whichever direction you’d like. Nexomon: Extinction is one of the lesser known creature collection indies, but it’s also one I’d recommend any Pokemon fan check out.

  1. Monster Sanctuary

Monster Sanctuary answers the age-old “what if” of what it’d be like to have a Pokemon game with only 3v3 battles. Featuring a steady difficulty curve and a heavy focus on story, Monster Sanctuary does a lot to stand out from the competition. One particular favorite distinction of mine is the amount of customization you have over your monster’s potential as a fighter. Stat point allocation is a welcome addition to the genre that isn’t seen too often. Add to that Monster Sanctuary’s metroidvania-style gameplay progression (which relies on using specific monsters to reach certain areas) and the uniqueness becomes even more apparent. Trust me when I say that Monster Sanctuary is an indie any fan of Pokemon should consider.

  1. Coromon

If you were to ask me which generations of Pokemon resonated with me the most, I’d probably tell you generations two and three. Even though I began with gen one, something about the series’ transition into more color and more detailed sprites solidified my love for it. If that opinion sounds relatable in any way, I strongly suggest you give Coromon a try. This game is easily one of the closest emulations of the Pokemon series I’ve seen, all while managing to stand out in its own way. From customizable avatars to varying difficulty levels, creative creature designs, online battles and more, Coromon has a lot to offer.

  1. Slime Rancher

Slime Rancher may not be the first thing to come to mind for many when talking about indie games inspired by Pokemon, but it’s one of the best indie games ever made. Which means I will talk about Slime Rancher any chance I get.

I mean, why shouldn’t I? Few games have managed to mix the creature collecting of Pokemon games with the farm management of Harvest Moon as well as Slime Rancher has. It’s truly a one of a kind experience, where you take on the role of a young rancher in her home away from home. Here you’ll care for a wide range of adorable slimes, all for the sake of profiting off of their poop!

Slime Rancher is a cozy game bursting with charm that any Pokemon fan should consider (and then subsequently buy multiple times because it’s amazing and oh my god, I cannot wait for the sequel to come!).

And there you have it! My list of six indie games worth exploring if you’re a fan of the Pokemon series. Or creature collecting/battling games in general. Pokemon may have started a trend in the 90s and remained a household name even in this day and age, but the genre it cultivated has come a long way. It’s refreshing to see such a wide range of different takes on the formula, as well as all of the tweaks and changes that have been suggested in the process. 

It’ll be exciting to see where the niche (yet astounding successful) creature collecting indie game space goes next!

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Editorial

6 Indies Like Elden Ring

There’s this new game you may have heard of called Elden Ring. It’s basically a linear experience made by a little indie developer…

All joking aside, here are six indies you should play if you like Elden Ring:

  1. Outward

Outward is a fantasy action adventure game made by a team of ten people over five years. In Outward, you take on the role of an average person trying to make their way in life. It deviates from the generic “chosen one” role we see used often in games, and does it’s best to make you feel as little as possible in this dangerous world. Your actions often have unforeseen consequences as well, such as when you die. You may awaken some hours later, and notice you’ve been robbed. Weather and basic survival needs are things to contend with as well, in addition to a wide range of difficult enemies. Did I also mention the game has co-op? 

  1. Titan Souls

Titan Souls is an action adventure game influenced by titles such as Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus. The premise in Titan Souls is about as simple as it gets: collect the shards and recreate the titular Titan Soul. In order to do this, you’ll set out on a quest to defeat a total 19 unique bosses, each with their own range of challenges to contend with. What helps Titan Souls really stand out from the crowd though is its focus on one hit K.O. combat. For your character, game over is always one hit away. The same goes for the bosses as well. The only difference is they’ve got one specific weak spot, which is generally in a fairly tough to reach area. Better get ready to dodge and draw your arrow back time and time again, as Titan Souls demands you do both excessively..

  1. Valheim

Valheim may differ from Elden Ring in many ways, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t parallels between the two. Both sport fantastic, sprawling worlds full of danger and mystery. They both also happen to have great enemy design and intense boss encounters, which helps highlight Valheim’s combat system. Beyond those similarities however, the two games begin to really show their distinguishing traits. Elden Ring may be a game centered around tough as nails gameplay, but Valheim is a game centered around survival. If you enjoy crafting, cooking and cave diving, consider checking it out. Maybe bring with a friend or two along for the ride while you’re at it!

  1. Mortal Shell

Mortal Shell is an action adventure game that could easily be mistaken for a distant cousin in the souls-like family. Featuring many tried and true staples of the genre, such as tricky enemy placement, and dropping experience when you die, Mortal Shell may appeal to the majority of souls players. To help distinguish itself from the herd, the game gives you access to a variety of “shells” which you can unlock and grow the power of. These shells give your otherwise weak and frail character unique traits, each differ dramatically from one shell to the next. Fight carefully however, as one wrong move could send you flying out of your shell and into the sweet embrace of death. 

  1. Ashen

Ashen is an open world action adventure game, sporting in-depth combat, sprawling level design, cooperative gameplay, somber visuals, and a magical soundtrack. Kinda sounds a bit like a souls game or two you may have heard of in the past. But fret not, as Ashen does just enough to differ itself from the formula. A major aspect here is the Ashen’s focus on community. For example, you’re actively able to see your small community that’s founded in the game grow and evolve over time. In addition, cooperative gameplay is much more accessible in Ashen. So grab a friend, and get to hunting!

  1. Blasphemous

This gothic side scrolling hack n slash hits hard with its tough gameplay and killer art direction. Sporting a sprawling world for you to explore, revolting bosses to contend with, and more savage execution animations than you can count, the game is more than well worth your time. Just be aware that no amount of upgrading or preparing will save you from the horrors Blasphemous has in store.

There are, of course, plenty more indie games out there that are worth mentioning in this list. Unfortunately, I can only spend so much time away from Elden Ring before the withdrawals set in. With that being said, I thank you for reading my list of indies you should play if you like Elden Ring.

I’m off to go die more times than I can count.

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Editorial

Ocarina of Time Randomizer Helped Me Love the Game Again

It took me over a decade to beat the Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time.

I don’t know if it was reading comprehension problems or if I was just a dumb child, but for some reason, I never figured out how to break the spider web on the floor in that first room until years later. There was a huge world out there to explore, but my earliest Ocarina memories never left the forest.

Being stuck in that area for so long thankfully (and miraculously) didn’t deter me from seeing what the rest of the game had to offer. Now, I’ve beaten the game front to back a number of times, including two full 100% playthroughs. I’ve fallen in love with Ocarina of Time and consider it one of the finest games ever released. That last part certainly isn’t a controversial opinion, but it truly is a special title — one where its core design and aesthetics has been stuck in my mind forever. To this day, there’s no game that looks and sounds quite like Ocarina of Time to me (with the exception, of course, of its direct sequel Majora’s Mask). Even within the Zelda franchise, there’s something about Ocarina that always seems to suck me in more than any other title.

But there comes a point when you begin to fall out, in a sense, with the games you love. When I looked at Ocarina of Time over on my YouTube channel back in 2020, I examined it in a different way, picking apart its flaws and diving into what makes the game tick. It was an enlightening experience, not just in determining where my nostalgia for the game was masking its flaws, but also revealing just how much Ocarina is stuck in my brain. I can picture every movement, attack pattern, and sound cue for all the enemies and bosses in the game, and when you have that kind of memory, inevitably you forget to think about why it’s memorable. You just accept that that’s what it is; Ocarina is always a static experience, and although I adore it to pieces, its static, unchanging nature prevents it from wowing me anymore.

At least, until I discovered Ocarina of Time Randomizer. I’d heard about this modification for the game years before and even enjoyed some streams and playthroughs of it, but it wasn’t until last year when I finally made the plunge into trying it for myself. There was a hesitation in not wanting to mess with the memories I had of the game, but also a curiosity to see what modifying the adventure would bring to the table. Turns out, it’s not just a fun method of playing the game in a whole new light. It also helped me learn to love Ocarina of Time all over again.

What is Ocarina of Time Randomizer?

Setting up a randomized file is pretty easy, all things considered. The randomizer generates a seed that contains data on the item distribution and a patch that you can place over a ROM of the game to apply the seed. Essentially, this takes the game and shuffles around items that you find in the game’s chests or out in the world. For example, in the chest in Kokiri Forest that normally contains your first sword, you might find a different useful item like the Hookshot — or something less exciting like an arrow refill or a blue Rupee. You never know what you’re gonna get with the randomizer on until you open up a chest. (Unless you’re using hints, which are definitely helpful!)

Beyond changing the locations of items, there’s a ton of flexibility in how the randomizer can change the adventure. Don’t feel like being trapped in the Child Link section before getting the three Spiritual Stones? No problem; just set the Door of Time to be open all the time and become an adult whenever you please. Want to spawn at a random location on the map every time you boot up the game? You can do that. Want to create a confusing layout for Hyrule by randomizing which entrances and doors lead to which location? Change a simple setting and it’s good to go.

Now, I hear some of you already. “Wait, Ocarina of Time is a game with pre-determined item locations. Doesn’t making that all random ruin the game’s flow? Wouldn’t that make it possible for the game to be unbeatable?”

These are certainly valid concerns; you’d expect that a game as precisely designed as Ocarina would almost fall apart at the seams if the original balance is disrupted. But the Ocarina of Time Randomizer team has taken great care to address that problem. The randomizer is built on a comprehensive set of logic that ensures players will never get stuck on an unbeatable seed. The logic considers every setting you have enabled or disabled and determines places where specific items can’t be placed in order to be reachable. That way, you’ll never encounter an instance where, for instance, you need to play a song in order to get the Ocarina.

But that’s only if you want to play it that way. Like any other setting, you can just tell the randomizer to ignore its logic completely and just place items wherever it damn well pleases. So for the speedrunners and glitch enthusiasts out there who want to test themselves to employ all the techniques they can pull off in the game, you can set yourself up with the ultimate challenge.

That’s the basics of the randomizer covered, as going super in-depth on everything it can change would take far too long. I haven’t even mentioned how you can change some sound effects or the colors of items like Link’s tunic. You haven’t truly re-played Ocarina until you hear the Ganon battle theme on the title screen, honestly.

Instead, let’s talk about how Ocarina of Time Randomizer makes the experience comfortable even in its unfamiliarity.

Hyrule with a different coat of paint

The genius of randomizers is that the core experience isn’t altered; mechanically, this is still Ocarina of Time. It’s just the surface-level details and item distribution that’s different. Think of it like a remix; instead of getting an entirely unique game, you’re re-experiencing the same levels and encounters in a unique manner. Depending on what items you get first, you can go through the dungeons in a completely different order or blast through a section because you have already have super-powerful equipment.

You’re already likely familiar with how to beat these dungeons if you’ve played Ocarina of Time before, and all Randomizer does is make you go to different areas to accomplish each part of the checklist. This is the same Hyrule you know and love; you just need to search for each of your tools harder than ever before.

One aspect of the randomizer that’s important to note is how it trims out a lot of the fat that can inhibit people from trying out repeated playthroughs of the game. If you’ve played Ocarina before, you know how slow the text and cutscenes can be and how much of a drag it is to sit through them for the umpteenth time. The randomizer lets you skip those cutscenes if desired, cutting down all the time you spend waiting for the game to proceed.

It’s the quest to find where the important items are, then, that becomes the main focus of Ocarina of Time Randomizer rather than the game’s story. The base game had a fairly consistent set-up where you first needed to find the right items to solve whatever puzzles open the way to the next temple, then locate the important item inside the dungeon to complete it. Now, those items could be anywhere, giving any location where you can find an item an equal amount of importance.

This also means the sequence of progression you need to get certain items is completely turned on its head. With one seed, you might find the Megaton Hammer right in Mido’s house at the beginning of the game and can just grab it instantly. This makes searching for chests locked behind bombable objects much easier. In another, you might find it tucked in an otherwise optional chest inside a dungeon that requires three other items and a number of keys to reach. The journey to find everything you need to get the important tools becomes an engaging and stimulating experience because you have to look at the game from a whole new perspective.

A perspective that, for me, opened up my eyes again to how wonderful Ocarina of Time is.

The joy of re-discovery

When you know a game as intimately as I know Ocarina of Time, playing it again can almost feel just like you’re going through the motions. You know exactly what you’re going to find, so the sense of learning about what the game has to hide isn’t there anymore.

Ocarina of Time Randomizer brings that feeling of discovery back, even if you’re already more than familiar with the game. Every time you open a chest, no matter if it usually contains the best items in the game or would otherwise be skipped, you’re excited to see what it might hold. Finding something that opens up a bunch of new areas and item locations to check becomes a rewarding, gratifying experience — something that gets lost when you’re dealing with the stock item distribution. Even if you wanted to play a seed where all the items are in their default locations (which you can definitely do), the added quality-of-life improvements makes the game more tolerable to replay.

In essence, the randomizer turns Ocarina of Time into a fresh experience even for longtime players. Whereas other Ocarina fan projects like ROM hacks seek to create something new entirely (and they’re great at doing so, mind you), the randomizer presents a familiar game and challenges you to approach it from a different direction.

With that comes a benefit that you don’t usually get when playing a Zelda game; freedom to go in your own direction to find the tools you need. Zelda games are typically designed to have limited freedom regarding the game’s progression; most follow a pretty linear path that, once memorized, becomes second nature. Ocarina of Time Randomizer, alongside the other Zelda randomizers, gives you a more open adventure where you can plan out a route as you go along based on the items you find and what areas they open up.

In essence, the type of player you are helps determine how you go about a randomized playthrough. Perhaps you’re the type of person who likes to clear out all the checks you can reach in the overworld as soon as possible. Maybe you prefer to go through dungeons the instant you have all the necessary items. Whatever your playstyle, the randomizer caters to you and gives you the ability to re-discover this classic title.

Even the most dedicated of Ocarina players will find a new sensation playing through it with a randomly-generated item pool. And that’s what I think is truly remarkable about Ocarina of Time Randomizer: it makes you find something new and refreshing in a nearly 25-year-old adventure.

Starting your Ocarina of Time Randomizer journey

With the continuing development of the randomizer, there’s never been a better time to start your first playthrough. The people over at the Ocarina of Time Randomizer site are providing frequent updates and tweaks to the modification, adding new features and fine-tuning the game’s logic to accommodate for them. But even now, the tool is in such a comprehensively configured state that you can go super in-depth with the customization.

Obviously, knowledge of the original game is recommended to get the most out of the randomizer. I shouldn’t have to say that as I imagine people who haven’t played Ocarina probably have no interest in playing a remixed version of it first. But if you have that experience, I highly suggest that you look into it. The randomizer delivers a unique version of the game each time you boot it up, giving you near endless possibilities for delving through Ocarina of Time.

You’re not going to find what you’re looking for if you want a completely new project that uses the Ocarina of Time engine, but the randomizer enables you to dive into the game again with a new twist. And just like it did for me, it might help you rediscover why a game like Ocarina makes a huge impact in the first place.

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Editorial

Education Through Gaming

Recently, I talked about my experience learning to play guitar with Rocksmith. After years of picking up the guitar only to put it back down time and time again, I was finally able to break into the hobby thanks to the structure of this game. It was a truly rewarding experience gaining a new skill and having fun doing it. The entire time I couldn’t help but think about what other skills or lessons could be taught through the medium of video games.

The concept isn’t new by any means. Educational games have been around for years. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego had kids track down a master criminal by learning geography. Math Blaster was just math homework with some cute animations and a time limit. Even today, one of the most popular ways to learn a new language is through the mini games in the Duolingo app. All of this software was made with the express intent of making learning more fun.

However, some games have managed to teach the player without it being their main objective; Games whose primary purpose is fun, not education. There could be some slow sections or mandatory lessons for world building or understanding basic concepts here and there, but these aren’t the kinds of games you’ll find on a school computer. The kinds of games we’ll be discussing today.

I think it’s worth taking a look at the ways in which games are best able to teach players new information and skills while still being engaging and maybe find new possibilities for education through gaming along the way, with the occasional cross into general self-betterment as well. And I believe these methods can be broken down into three basic categories, with the first being…

INFORMATIONAL

The simplest way to teach someone is the direct method- telling them. And that’s exactly what this first category is all about. People can learn so much from games that they may not have learned otherwise. Whether it be science, history, or random pieces of trivia, games draw inspiration from real world challenges and many real world challenges are overcome with the power of knowledge.

Sports games are a great example of this. I’ve met quite a few people that learned the intricacies of their favorite sport’s rules and strategies through video games. Whether it inspired them to get up and play the game themselves or just made them more invested when watching ESPN, games can be a great way to dip your toes into a sport by learning its mechanics before committing to a league. In fact, it’s probably one of the best ways for parents and kids to get an idea for what sport the little one would most enjoy playing before signing up for expensive lessons.

Of course, getting a framework for real-life skills is something spread throughout many games. Cooking Mama teaches recipes, Nintendogs can make for good practice before committing to a real pet, and even some racing games teach simple concepts like slowing down before a curve and accelerating in the middle to make a clean turn. None of these are exactly equivalent to their real-world counterparts, but they all provide the player with some level of baseline information that they can then expand upon if they so choose.

Speaking of which, we come to the subject of academia. Many games base their gameplay on scientific concepts such as mixing copper and tin to make bronze in Runescape, building stable structures in Bridge Constructor, and some fun physics demonstrations in Kerbal Space Program. Obviously these all have their inaccuracies as well, but as a foundation for understanding certain scientific concepts, they’re an effective starting point.

Similarly, tons of games take inspiration from the past. Assassin’s Creed, Age of Empires, and even Call of Duty pull some of their inspiration from the history books, recreating specific battles or introducing players to important figures from the time period. While games like God of War, Persona, and Yokai Watch teach about mythological beings and folklore through flavor text, characters, and setpieces. They’re all clearly modified to fit within the game’s needs, but they do provide some level of information, even if they may require further research.

And that’s really the downside to this kind of learning. Games will never be perfectly accurate in how they portray known facts. Physics can be modified to make gameplay more fun, battles can be extended to keep things interesting, it’s less about giving players solid facts and more about teaching them the basics while possibly convincing them to explore further on their own. So what happens when games decide that they want the player to learn something without ambiguity between fact and fiction? Well, you may stumble into our next category…

PHYSICAL

Being an inherently interactive medium, gaming has the power to teach players new skills in ways that books and videos simply can’t. While reading instructions or watching someone complete a project may be good ways to learn, there’s nothing that can replace getting off the couch and learning with experience. Games conveniently provide the means to do this virtually before taking those lessons into the real world.

Obviously Rocksmith is a great example, but even its simpler predecessor Rock Band had the ability to teach players how to drum. While it’s not a one to one experience when compared to a real drum kit, the Rock Band drums do teach players basic drumming patterns and timing by having them actually play the peripheral. Of course, these games could also be expanded to include more instruments such as piano or any other instrument whose sound can be converted into a MIDI signal.

Keeping with the music theme we have games like Just Dance and Dance Dance Revolution. While it can be easily argued that these games don’t actually teach you to dance (something I learned the hard way after embarrassing myself with DDR moves at a middle school prom), they do provide a solid foundation for keeping a rhythm, moving to the beat, and what moves might look good or bad on the dance floor (for those with good judgement).

And speaking of moving, there’s also fitness games like Wii Fit, Ring Fit Adventure, and many others that actually get players off the couch and having fun while exercising. Not only that, but many teach players various exercises that can be done outside of the game that they may not have considered beforehand, with Wii Fit going even further in evaluating the player’s form. Given the thousands of injuries people experience when working out every year, having educational tools that make fitness fun and safe is always welcome.

Of course, physical gameplay can’t be brought up without mentioning virtual reality. The power of VR has been known for years, with even the US military using it to train soldiers and sailors for combat. That said, there are also a number of possibilities for learning that aren’t quite as intense.

VR can help people overcome motion sickness, keep a proper rhythm while improving their reaction time with Beat Saber, or even improve at everyday activities. For example, Everybody Golf VR is a surprisingly accurate golfing simulator, able to track the player’s swing and tell them how to correct it. I love this concept and could definitely see it being brought to other sports such as tennis, bowling, or baseball. It’s not perfectly accurate since the player doesn’t get any physical feedback from contact, but if you live in a colder climate and can’t play sports year-round, VR is a legitimate option for keeping your skills sharp through the winter months.

With all that said, this is just scraping the surface of what physical games are capable of. I’m sure that as time goes on, more intricate and useful tools will be developed to teach players real-life skills while having fun. However, peripherals are expensive and can take up a lot of room. Sometimes it’s more convenient to just learn a general concept instead, which brings me to…

ABSTRACT

There are some things that can’t really be taught in a classroom or through practice. The small lessons gained through the experiences we have over the course of our lives. Many video games are predicated on giving the player a unique experience, one that couldn’t be had in the real world. So how do they manage to educate players through gameplay?

Well to start there are basic developmental skills. Things that are more of a sense than a tangible ability. Games like Portal and Baba Is You task the player with improving their logic and reasoning in order to solve puzzles, with much of the logic being similar to the methods used in programming. I guarantee that someone who plays these or similar puzzle games will have an easier time learning to code than someone who doesn’t. Similarly, games like Gnog and I Am Dead improve a player’s spatial awareness and reasoning skills, like similar puzzles in real life. 

These kinds of games also teach players about pattern recognition. It’s often said that games have a sort of “secret language” that makes it difficult for newcomers to get into the hobby since many tropes and conventions aren’t always explained, like red barrels exploding or cracks in a destructible wall leading to a secret. However, those conventions have to be learned and in doing so, players begin to understand how to analyze an environment and break it down into smaller pieces to gain a deeper understanding, improving their deductive reasoning. Not to mention games like Ace Attorney and Danganronpa making those concepts the core of their gameplay and stories.

Speaking of which, from a narrative perspective games are able to play with structure and the fourth wall in ways that would be impossible in other media. The Last of Us Part 2, Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis fight, Spec Ops: The Line, and Detroit Become Human are all games that play with narrative structure in a way that peel back the curtain and can get players thinking about how stories are written and what possibilities there might be in terms of symbolism, character development, etc.

And of course where literature goes, philosophy follows. Whether it be a linear narrative or one with branching paths, many games present the player with common philosophical concepts and ask them to think critically about the topic at hand. In linear stories like Bioshock, the game puts the player in the shoes of someone experiencing the result of different philosophies clashing while other games put the player in a position where they have to choose which option to align themselves with. It’s more than enough to cause players to think more critically about the world around them.

Lastly, there’s interpersonal skills. Feel free to laugh if you want, but somewhere beneath the mountains of toxicity that always manage to stand out, many popular games have a tight-knit community that’s truly passionate about the thing that they love. The number of people going to conventions and meetups just to celebrate their favorite games is far too high to say games can’t positively impact someone’s ability to interact with others.

Not to mention games like Rainbow Six Siege, Overwatch, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, and the huge range of co-op games that force players to work together on a team. It teaches them how to lead, how to follow, how to not be a dickhead to the point where the entire team mutes them, through play they can actually become better, more well-rounded people.

And while yes, the anonymity of the medium can lead to a vile number of empowered bigots, it can also give players a less intimidating space to open up and socialize or even air out some frustrations, especially in more relaxed games like Minecraft and VR Chat. It’s a lot easier to get over social anxiety when there are fewer consequences to screwing up. And cheesy as it may be, sometimes one of the best lessons someone can learn through these games is that they’re not alone- that there are millions of other people like them, some of whom may have dealt with similar struggles.

So yeah, games can definitely have a positive influence on a person’s education. Whether it be gaining knowledge, learning a new skill, or understanding new concepts and thinking more about the world around you. However, there’s one final way games can make players more educated…

INSPIRATION

While not a category of education itself, the most powerful educational tool in video games is to inspire someone to learn something new or pick up a new skill. Much like how TV shows and movies can pique someone’s interest in a hobby, games can do the same, but to an even greater degree since the player is directly involved.

One of the biggest flaws with each preceding category is that it’s not always easy to tell which information is accurate. Games might stretch the truth to make their story or gameplay more interesting, design less accurate peripherals that make a game more fun, or be misinterpreted and indirectly teach the wrong lesson. However, when a player is inspired to look further into a subject, that’s when things get really interesting.

On a personal note, much like how Prince of Tennis got me interested in the sport and Ninja Warrior had me doing really bad parkour around my high school, games have always had an impact on my interests. Whether it be making boring subjects more fun like learning new vocabulary and bettering my math skills to improve in Pokemon battles as a kid, providing motivation like with Rocksmith’s 60 day challenge, or inspiring me to take up new interests such as video editing, audio recording, and other skills to make YouTube videos.

We see this all the time throughout the community. Speedrunners break down and analyze code to the smallest detail in order to shave mere seconds off their runs. Games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Fifa paved the way for increased interest in what were once niche sports in the US. And who could forget about the cosplayers learning about a wide variety of manufacturing from modeling to sewing to smithing all to make some ridiculously impressive replicas of in-game items and clothing? All of them pushed to learn something new out of passion for the games they enjoy.

Many players also learn more about and even visit the real-life places that inspired their favorite game worlds. The beautiful vistas frequently motivate players to learn more about the history, mythology, and cultures of the places they visit in games like Uncharted or Far Cry. Hell, last year Ghost of Tsushima fans even donated enough money to ensure the restoration of a shrine on Tsushima island.

Of course, one of the most powerful ways games can inspire players is by giving them the chance to flex their creativity. How many kids over the years became artists, animators, writers, or designers because they played games? How many learned to express themselves through the village design in Animal Crossing or the world building possibilities of Minecraft? Not to mention games like Dreams, LittleBigPlanet, Mario Maker, and the litany of mods created by the community getting players into the developer seat and trying to inspire others, creating a cycle that allows the community to grow and foster new ideas more and more as time goes on.

Games have proven time and time again to be just as beneficial for players’ betterment as any other form of media. Whether it be education, inspiration, or just as a therapeutic escape from the stresses of the outside world, the experiences players have over the course of their many adventures can push them to have more fulfilling lives as a result, directly or indirectly.

So while there will always be problems within the industry, it’s important to note the positive effects that gaming can have on players and see if we can improve what games bring to the table in the future because if the current community is the result of the games of the past, who can tell where they’ll take us in the future?

I hope you enjoyed this little essay. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to discuss for a while now so it’s great to finally get it out there. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter about something you’ve learned from a video game and be sure to check back on Atrocious Ink to see the more content soon. Until then, have a mighty nifty day today!

Categories
Editorial

The Aarcadee Lounge Podcast is now streaming (almost) everywhere!

A couple of weeks ago, two of our resident gamer fiends (Aarcadee & Skyomi) launched The Aarcadee Lounge podcast, a biweekly discussion revolving around any and all things video games.

In the month since launch, numerous kind and constructive words have been shared with us, expressing all sorts of support for the podcast and it’s hosts. We want to take this moment to share our gratitude for such a positive response.

In addition to extending our utmost thanks, we also wanted to share some exciting news: The Aarcadee Lounge podcast is now available to enjoy via multiple streaming services (including Spotify, Soundcloud, Amazon Music, and more). Now you can take the gaming discussions and attention-deficit rants with you wherever you go!

We hope to bring The Aarcadee Lounge to many more platforms over the coming months, and we’re just as excited to watch this project grow as much as you hopefully are. Feel free to reach out via social media if you’d like to share any feedback or even suggest ideas for future episodes! We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Categories
Editorial

Rocksmith Retrospective

Learning Guitar in 60 Days (feat. Rocksmith Plus)

I’ve attempted to pick up guitar in the past, but could never get over the massive hurdles involved in teaching myself to play. Whether it be a lack of motivation, time, or just an intolerance for the pain when forming calluses, guitar always seemed like it just wasn’t for me. I always loved pretending by playing games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, but I just couldn’t break myself into the hobby.

In 2011 Ubisoft released what seemed like a miracle to me- a game that was just like Guitar Hero, but used a proprietary cable to hook the game up to an actual electric guitar. It came with a simple, yet bold promise- learn to play guitar in just 60 days. Unfortunately, having just graduated high school and working through engineering school in college, I didn’t have the time or money to spend on a guitar and an opportunity that may have been overselling itself. So I mostly forgot about Rocksmith, but always kept it in the back of my mind.

This past Christmas, I was gifted the game and while borrowing my old roommate’s guitar, I set out to accomplish my original goal. I would play the game for 60 to 90 minutes every day for at least 60 days in a row. I limited the playtime to 90 minutes so I wouldn’t go too far beyond the promise of the Rocksmith challenge. I also refused to practice in my free time or get too much help from outside sources.

Every day I made a small journal entry logging my experience playing the game, so let’s take a dive into the rocksmith experience and see the good, the bad, and even a bit of Rocksmith Plus to see if it really is possible to learn guitar in 60 days.

THE BEGINNING

After creating a profile, players are taken to a mandatory tutorial for setting up their equipment, learning the absolute basics of playing guitar and the game’s tablature, and testing out the system. It’s a good way to start off, though I wish it wasn’t mandatory every time a new profile is created. The game gives explanations for the different modes and a couple of suggestions for where to start, but then drops the player right into the main menu.

At first the options were incredibly intimidating. The main modes the player can try include playing through songs one by one in Learn a Song, jamming with a backing band in Session mode, going through a playlist for a certain amount of time in Nonstop Play, learning new skills with Lessons, practicing their technique in the Guitarcade, and a few other modes I’ll touch on later.

My first few days were a bit all over the place. I tried out some lessons and learned some basic picking and finger placement techniques before hopping into learning some songs. The game’s tutorials did a solid job of showcasing nearly everything a beginner needs to learn the basics, but the game has its limitations.

For example, some techniques such as muting the strings and hitting chords with extra notes can be cheated by ignoring the restriction or performing a simplified version. This is fine for a beginner to get the sense of how a song works before improving, but the game doesn’t have any advice for building up to these trickier techniques, which is perfectly exemplified in the bends tutorial.

Here, players are tasked with a simple set of notes to hit while bending the strings to change the pitch. The problem is that the game is very specific in what it wants while the track showing the bend itself only has a few arrows to indicate the degree of the bending required. And if the player fails, the game doesn’t tell them what went wrong. It could be that the note wasn’t sustained, that their timing was off, or that they didn’t bend the string enough or too much; the game doesn’t say.

After attempting this tutorial for over 20 minutes straight I gave up and saved it for later. I felt I was missing something and figured with more practice in other areas, this tutorial might become easier. That was when I noticed that my fingers really started to hurt. As anyone who plays guitar can tell you, building up calluses on your fingertips is a necessary evil of learning the instrument. In fact, this is what caused me to quit trying in the past, but I set this challenge and was determined to finish, deciding that unless I actually started to bleed I wouldn’t stop playing.

On day 3 I realized that playing for real isn’t like guitar hero- rather than pressing the strings down to the neck of the guitar between the frets, the strings just have to touch the metal fret bars themselves to play the notes. This little discovery not only eased the tension on my fingers, but also made hitting notes a lot easier- especially for chords.

This just shows another omission from Rocksmith- troubleshooting. While the game does have just about every technique for playing properly shown in video tutorials and laid out in their tabs, they failed to anticipate the things a true beginner might not understand. I think a section on common mistakes may have been appreciated with each lesson, or at least a menu that answers questions frequently asked by beginners.

Despite that, progress was extremely quick in the first few weeks. Minor improvements such as muscle memorization on frets, hitting the strings with multiple fingers, and adjusting how I held the guitar all contributed to rapid progression. I also bought a bunch of DLC to add some of my favorite songs to the game. That definitely did a lot to keep me motivated, though even with the sale all that DLC was really expensive.

Which brings me to one of the biggest struggles when learning guitar with Rocksmith- the temptation of fun over actual practice. The Learn a Song mode defaults to increasing the difficulty of a song over time by adding in more and more notes as players improve, which is fine for beginners. It’s a good way to build up skills over time, but it also lends a false sense of security. I genuinely thought I was playing these songs at nearly full difficulty, but it turns out that the difference between 70% of the notes and 100% of the notes is a lot of notes, especially when those notes become chords at full mastery.

The game does have a feature to turn the difficulty all the way up and increase speed instead, but there’s no way to make this the default. And this slow progression without actual practice is definitely more fun than the other modes if for no other reason than getting to play your favorite songs. Will a player get better by playing Learn a Song non-stop? Absolutely, but they’re also likely to stagnate and improve at a slower rate than if they continuously practiced the basics.

This is where lessons and the guitarcade come in. The lessons are usually boring as all hell to watch, using simple riffs to showcase techniques before having the player test them out, but it’s a necessary part of learning to play. I think one potential improvement would be to have the skills being shown used in various songs that the player may be familiar with to provide a bit more motivation, especially if the lesson linked directly to those songs in the game, but as is, the tutorials serve their purpose.

The guitarcade is a mixed bag. A selection of simple minigames that attempt to make the player practice their fundamentals. There are games for slides, bends, chords, even strumming volume. The problem is with the accuracy of the game’s pickup. It’s clearly more strict in the guitarcade than when learning a song, which would be fine if the game were perfect at detecting a player’s inputs, but it’s definitely not.

Missed notes, incorrect inputs, delayed responses, games involving accuracy are made incredibly frustrating since I couldn’t tell whether it was me or the game at fault at any given time. The best games were those involving chords, like Castle Chordead. These were much better at detecting player input while also teaching the player the names of different chords as they play. I do wish the game had its zombie slaying performed to a beat in order to make the game into a song, but I also understand the benefit of training players to strum out a certain chord on command.

With all of this in mind, I think the biggest advantage Rocksmith has over other kinds of guitar lessons in the beginning is in motivating the player. While the menu may be a bit overwhelming and its shortcomings can occasionally lead to frustration and confusion, the 60 day challenge is a great way to encourage players to pick up their guitar every day and the litany of modes ensures that players always have something else waiting if they get bored or stuck. Of course, that’s just the beginning. What happens when the game becomes an actual challenge?

THE STRUGGLE

Eventually, the daily play sessions became a routine. Every other day I would swap between lessons and nonstop play, with some guitarcade mixed in every now and again to break things up. It was still enjoyable, especially when nailing a new skill or getting better at a song I really like, but my inability to learn an entire song was frustrating, especially since I was exclusively playing lead guitar without realizing it.

One glaring omission from lessons, guitarcade, and any other mode is strumming patterns. In fact, the game never really acknowledges rhythm guitar at all. Rocksmith wants players to learn guitar and has arrangements for lead, rhythm, and bass on nearly every track, but the game never tells the player about how each role contributes to a song.

As such, I stuck with lead, not even knowing that rhythm guitar would be more in line with what I expected- a way to learn some of the major chords of a song to play outside of the game and annoy my friends with at parties. I know this is partially done to build up base skills before overwhelming the player, but rhythm guitar is extremely important and it’s usually the simplest way to learn entire songs when first starting out. Plus the arrangements occasionally have the lead guitar play the vocal melody of a song, leading to more confusion.

Another difficulty I experienced was muscle and joint pain. My fingers were pretty well calloused at this point, but when the songs began including new, more complex chords I wasn’t sure how exactly to hold the guitar, leading to quite a bit of pain in the wrist and fingers. Just another area that could have been improved with some beginner Q and As.

On top of all that, stagnation set in. The rapid progress I saw when first starting began to plateau and even worse than that was the inconsistency. It seemed like some days I was somewhat competent while others had me back at square one. Rocksmith’s inability to teach me to correct my mistakes made consistent results much more difficult to achieve. There were definitely days where motivation waned, even when progress was being made.

Still, I was determined at this point. I bought myself a cheap Squier guitar so my friend could have his Fender back and while the quality difference is noticeable, for the price it’s a solid beginner guitar. I also set a secondary goal of completing every lesson in the game before the 60 days were up, just to give that little extra push through the less enjoyable part of learning to play.

On the more enjoyable end, I was very fortunate to get Rocksmith on the PC. Unlike the console versions, the PC version of the game allows for mods, including custom DLC. And I dove right in! I went through the forums looking for any and every song I could think of, adding them to the game one by one and playing through to find my favorites. Getting an endless library of songs for free was incredible, plus the site I used refuses to give out DLC for songs that already exist for purchase in the game, which is a fair compromise.

Now obviously not every custom track is going to be a winner, but they did do a lot to teach the difference between a good track and a bad one as well as exemplify how the guitar fits into different genres of music and types of songs due to the variety available. I even tried making my own when the 60 days were up.

The middle of this challenge was both when it became routine to pick up the guitar every day and when the decision to do so was at its most difficult. Despite the custom songs and the new guitar, my interest in the game was fading a bit since I wasn’t reaching the level I wanted to achieve. It was time to change things up.

THE RESULT

In the final days of the challenge, I decided to try something new- learning a song from start to finish. Each day, after completing a few lessons, I would spend the rest of my time playing Life Will Change from Persona 5, Gusty Garden Galaxy from Super Mario Galaxy, and 1985 by Bowling for Soup on repeat. I used the riff repeater to perfect difficult sections, played over and over to improve the songs, and can now confidently say I can play them… for the most part.

But more on that later. First, the lessons and man, these last few days were brutal. Tapping the strings, pinch harmonics, barre chords, so many difficult techniques both to understand and execute made things extremely frustrating. I ended up deciding that I needed to work on the basics more, but did manage to finish every single lesson by the end of the challenge. Now, they’re really useful as a metric for progress when going back and cranking up the difficulty. I’m sure not every fancy trick possible on a guitar was covered, but it’s more than enough to learn to play, excluding the specific issues I mentioned earlier.

I also tried some of the tools I had never touched before- tone designer and session mode. Tone designer allows the player to make synthetic tones using settings on various real-world amplifiers and pedals. It’s the same system the game uses to turn your computer into an amp, meaning these are the real tones that you play while learning a song, which is really cool. And the options available are staggering, with more being unlocked as you play.

The downside is accessibility. There are no lessons or tutorials for what anything does or how it works, which is a major bummer. One of the lesser-discussed aspects of learning guitar is how to properly set up an amp to get that specific sound you’re looking for. Getting an in-game tutorial to experiment with different brands and plugins is a fantastic addition, but without proper explanations it becomes a missed opportunity.

Session mode allows the player to play along a scale while a backing band lays down a simple track to play over. It’s also not very well explained, despite a massive amount of effort clearly put into making this feature. It’s definitely cool to try jamming out on a scale, but I have no clue why it changes when it does, what the scale means, or what causes the band to adjust their playing style. There are even achievements for using this mode, I just wish they told players how it works.

So that’s how I spent my final days before wrapping up. After 60 days, one hour per day of practicing using Rocksmith, the challenge was completed successfully. So, did it work? Did I truly learn to play guitar in a mere two months? Personally, I wouldn’t call myself a guitarist or anything, but if someone asked I’d definitely say that I know how to play guitar, especially with the progress I’ve made since finishing the challenge.

Rocksmith itself does not teach you how to play guitar, it teaches you to play Rocksmith. Meaning that you may learn the basics of guitar playing, but you really have to think about why certain songs and techniques aren’t coming together and work to improve your abilities on your own.

With that said, I still absolutely recommend it for beginners, but also recommend utilizing outside resources as well such as YouTube tutorials, custom DLC, and online forums to answer any questions or concerns you might have as well as playing outside the game on your own. Also, contrary to what many guitarists will tell you, I recommend starting with an electric guitar since it allows you to build up calluses without too much pain.

Rocksmith is a great motivational tool, provides plenty of tablature to learn songs from every genre of music, and does a great job teaching how to learn guitar, but actually learning to play? That’s on you. And hey, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than taking lessons.

THE FUTURE

After finishing the challenge, I wanted to continue to learn guitar, but on a less rigid schedule. In the following months, I’ve continued to play, bought a bass and gave that a try, got more custom and paid DLC for the game, and improved. Without the previous restrictions I allowed myself to look up tips from guitarists on YouTube and had some great conversations with my roommate’s boyfriend where he gave me some solid advice and answered some of my pressing questions. Side note: he’s the rhythm guitarist for an awesome band, The Fool’s Agenda, so be sure to check them out on Spotify and YouTube. Or check out his personal Spotify- Nels.

I definitely play Rocksmith a lot less now than before, but I always keep the guitar nearby and play it nearly every day. I’ve gone through every song in my playlist multiple times in the various arrangements to get a sense of which ones I’d most like to learn as well as setting up a path for getting better in the future.

As far as the recently announced follow-up goes, I was lucky enough to get a beta invite from reddit user goincd3, so shout out to them for the help. Unfortunately, Rocksmith Plus is really disappointing in its current state. For one, it’s missing basic features like lyrics on the play screen, a streaming mode, and guitarcade, with a litany of options absent that were in the previous game but what’s worse is the bugs.

Keep in mind that this is the beta, but my guitar constantly hummed while playing and the songs never seemed to stick to 100% difficulty even after I turned off the adaptive difficulty setting. The track design is also more difficult to see with its minimalist design, which may look sleek but it’s not ideal for playing, something that’s sure to be even more of a problem when playing on the upcoming mobile app. 

Song downloads are also really slow, even on my considerably fast internet connection, meaning players are less encouraged to listen to previews of songs they haven’t heard before since that will take away from their time actually playing the game. Plus I’m not sure if the song list is just limited for the beta, but if not the offering is paltry, which may explain why there’s no options to view all the songs in the game- to prevent players from noticing the lack of content. Another failing of the overly-algorithm-reliant user interface.

I do like some of the new features like the chord progression mode, being able to play with a microphone or on your phone, and community features such as sharing advice and arrangements, plus it should still be an effective way to learn guitar for beginners, but the fact of the matter is that when you plan to charge a monthly fee for something that was originally a flat price, it needs to be infinitely better than the original. Rocksmith Plus has the potential to get to that point, something I emphasized in my feedback survey, but in its current state I’d definitely recommend players go for the existing 2014 Remastered game instead because right now Rocksmith Plus feels a lot more like Rocksmith Minus.

Going forward personally, I’d like to be able to play a few more of my favorite songs, maybe make some music for the game I’m working on, and improve my playing skills until I master the basics. I have no desire to become a rock star or even a great guitarist. This whole experience was about self fulfilment and experimenting with something new- and it was absolutely worth every second. And hey, I’ve come this far, might as well see if I can put all that practice to work…

That was ‘Nice Enough’, a song I wrote, composed, performed, and produced myself. It’s nothing complex and you can definitely tell when a baritone tries to sing pop-punk music, but I’m definitely proud of what I accomplished in a little over half a year. If you liked it, feel free to check it out on Spotify and other streaming apps. It’s also not monetized on YouTube so it’s free to use if you want it in your own video. But hey, if that’s not enough to convince you, I also played all of the background music for this video, mostly to avoid a copyright strike, but if it helps to prove a point that’s a solid bonus. I hope you enjoyed going on this little journey with me and if you have any questions about the game or learning guitar I’d be happy to answer them to the best of my knowledge in the video comments!