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Tropers: Bonsai Forest
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A nerd who was officially diagnosed autistic at the age of 3, and... didn't talk as a baby. He's in search of entertainment he'll find interesting.

You know how, stereotypically, autistic people tend to have a small number of strongly-held interests? He's really not much different, except for the "strongly-held" part, as he's depressed and doesn't have as much interest in things (any kind of things) as he used to. Still, here are his interests in brief:

He will now switch to first-person, because that's easier to read.

I don't actively partake in all my interests, as some of these are things I enjoy reading about moreso than actually watching/reading/using. For example, I don't watch story-driven cartoons anymore since I can't find any that I can get into; they're either too silly or too angsty, or I just don't care for the theme. And there are a lot of video games whose gameplay or theme don't really appeal to me, but which have interesting ideas. But I do like reading about some of the ideas that people are coming up with.

I would like to expand my interests, though. As mentioned above, I do have that stereotypical "limited, small range of interests" you'd expect from an autistic. But sometimes I see something I really like that I wasn't expecting to. I'm hoping this site will introduce me to some shows, books, games, etc. that I never knew about that I end up really liking.

So far it's already introduced me to a few things:

I am hoping this site will introduce me to more works. Got any suggestions?

Oh and btw, my name is now a trope!

The longer story of my past:

Video games

I used to play video games all the time as a kid. Nowadays, it's hard to get excited over them like I used to. When I do discover a gem (like Super Mario Galaxy or the Uncharted series, or Deadly Premonition), I play it a lot and keep returning to it. It's just that games of such quality are rare. But then, anything of such quality is rare.

I also make a point to check out really weird and original games from time to time, as sometimes they can be a very refreshing break from the Sequelitis that pervades the industry and chokes new ideas. I've discovered quite a few of my favorites that way. I don't dislike sequels, if they're good sequels to things I like, but I do hate the industry's fear of trying out new ideas, which I feel is holding it back from growing the market. And I also really really hate smartphone games, like almost every gamer does. Maybe iOS7's addition of an official controller will result in smartphone games that don't suck. As long as companies also get rid of this microtransaction ripoff crap.

Books

I used to read above my age level when I was a little kid, preferring to read, say, books at a fifth grade level when I was in second grade. But when I was a teen, I found most teen-oriented books to be boring, and not as light and fun as kids' books were in comparison.

A perfect example would be the difference between Fear Street and Goosebumps. Both arguably suck, but let's talk about it from my perspective at the time: Goosebumps was fun, quick and to the point, and the stories were about all sorts of things happening, but Fear Street was slower, less diverse in its plot ideas, and just less enjoyable overall.

I was reading both series at the same time, and the only Fear Street book I really liked a lot was the original Wrong Number, which actually was about two teens trying to get proof that a certain man was a killer. It played out like a Kid Detective story, and was totally different from what Fear Street normally was. But the entire rest of the series? Just not that interesting or creative.

It also took too long for things to happen in teen novels compared to kid novels, and I wasn't a big fan of the angst the books often had. I don't have a problem with drama, but I just don't like overpowering drama/angst, most of the time. I never did get into adult novels, as I didn't care for the few I tried. They were kind of like teen novels, except extended. Maybe if teen and adult novels were written with the same breezy pace and lighter (doesn't have to be too light, just not angsty or "heavy") tone that kid novels were, I would have gotten into them?

There's also the characterization. Being autistic, I didn't have many of the social experiences other people had. I never went to any Wild Teen Parties as a teen, nor have I drank alcohol ever, and I commuted to college rather than living in a dorm. As such, I can't relate to characters who live the typical/stereotypical teen/college-aged adult lives. All of that was and is beyond me. My little brother used to watch Jersey Shore. It's totally foreign to me.

Television

The only TV shows I really watched were Dexter, Family Guy and Avatar: The Last Airbender (and its so far disappointnig sequel series, The Legend of Korra). Other than that, I sometimes seek out movies and read kids' books as well, and the rare webcomic or scanned manga I find interesting.

I used to watch a lot of cartoons, but as an adult, a lot of the stuff I liked as a kid is now unwatchable! I can no longer find the stories compelling like I used to, and the silly humor added to action/adventure cartoons is just grating. And the dialog is horrendous!

On the other hand, I did enjoy Ben 10 for a while, during the early seasons. I think it could have been better, but I liked it.

Sadly, while I love cartoon artwork, it's hard to find cartoons that I can enjoy. Improve the quality of the storytelling but don't dump on angst, and get rid of annoying, unrealistic, cheesy dialog and dumb humor, and then I'd probably like them more. Sadly, the storytelling quality of cartoons just doesn't match that of, say, books or movies, possibly due to Executive Meddling. Two notable exceptions: Avatar: The Last Airbender , which features many of the things I like in storytelling, along with good artwork, and of course the sequel, The Legend of Korra, which I enjoyed while watching it, though I feel it could have been better.

Early general tastes/preferences in works

When I was a kid, I watched cartoons like Inspector Gadget, Peter Pan & the Pirates and Captain Planet and the Planeteers, as well as read books such as My Teacher Is an Alien, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I think these helped shape my interests considerably. What did all of those shows and books I just named have in common? All of them had kid or teen heroes who snooped around, tried to stop villainous plots, and got into danger. And not just any danger, but the villains of some of these shows and books were unbelievably cruel. And lest we forget, you could die in the second-person Choose Your Own Adventure books, making them the only kids' books I knew of in which a kid character would freaking DIE.

Rather than being traumatized, I was excited. I liked excitement, suspense, adventure and danger. I soon started to daydream similar types of adventures in my head, and would seek out similar books and cartoons. I don't like it when people assume kids can't handle violence in entertainment, because I certainly could, and I think that some of the Nightmare Fuel in the entertainment I consumed proves that.

Another thing I always liked was video games that have great atmosphere or try to simluate an experience very well. I was impressed by features such as time which passes in a game world, and even as young as 6 I was blown away by the In-Universe Game Clock in Agent USA, which recognizes 12 distinct times of day. I always liked details that made a game world feel "alive", such as NPCs walking around, people with schedules, realistic precipitation, animals such as birds that live in the environment and move about, and ambient sound. I liked being immersed in the games I played, and those kinds of details made the fictional world more "real".

With today's technology, immersiveness should be easier than ever before, but most games are first and foremost gameplay-centered. Which is fine, since being fun to play is very important. But games which give the illusion of a living breathing world can be immersive and fun just to "live" in. Beach Bowl Galaxy in Super Mario Galaxy is one of my favorite levels from that game simply because I love to "live" in the world of the penguins who are going swimming, sitting on palm trees, and just enjoying themselves, while I put off actually trying to reach the goal. It's a small, compact world, but an "alive" one. And the game Deadly Premonition does an excellent job of bringing scenic rural small town Northwestern America to life with its slow In-Universe Game Clock, its NPC schedules, and the amount of optional dialog and things to do, see, or buy. There's even games like the lesser-known The Ship, which is more or less life on a cruise ship with some optional murder tossed in there.

End

I guess what you could say is, I am a nerd, and probably a bit different from what normally comes to mind when you hear the word "nerd". Definitely not the stereotypical "sci-fi/high fantasy" nerd (I can't get into either genre unless it's simplified and made more accessible), but a different type. In fact, I can't really get into sci-fi or high fantasy, but prefer Urban Fantasy, Slice of Life, adventure, and stories set in a contemporary setting in general.

But what is a "nerd"? Especially with the watered-down meaning of the term (my grandmother pointed out that it used to be used exclusively as an insult).

Besides, people tend to want to put labels on the eccentric or the unusual. It's like if you're weird or different, there's something wrong with you and you should just act "normal", except oh whoops, you have a mental "condition" (if you want to call it that), so suddenly it's okay to be weird. I think that's very wrong thinking, and people should just accept those who are harmlessly different. I shouldn't need to say "oh yeah, I was diagnosed autistic as a baby and didn't talk until I was 3," but I actually have in a handful of occasions where I'd previously said something socially wrong, and gotten better treatment because of bringing up that information. I think that shouldn't need to happen. As it is, the internet has exposed me to people from all manner of walks of life, so hopefully that prejudice against those who are different may be slowly winding down.

The autism/Aspergers checklist (courtesy of Midnight Rambler):

  • No social skills: Badly, at first. I had a hard time understanding the "language" of other people and their own stylized way of talking and found it hard to really engage in conversation. Now I have a better idea of what not to do... but not necessarily what to do. At least on the internet, popping up to random strangers and starting a conversation is accepted and very commonplace. I have no idea how real-life friends become friends to begin with (even though I did have some as a kid).
  • No desire for social interactions: Not so much in-person, and there are times when I don't want people in my IM programs to talk to me either. But I do desire to talk to people about stuff at times. At lunch I eat at my desk rather than the lunchroom. I just can't relate to the people in there and really don't want to take part anyway.
  • Inability to talk to people normally, speaking instead only in long monologues about familiar subjects: Oh yeah, I used to do this a lot. To be honest, if you get me started on a subject I'm interested in and/or have knowledge of, I'll go for a long time, but at least I can detect much better if the other person is losing interest.
  • Weird fascinations, varying over time: I don't think I have heavy fascinations now, but I would say my interests aren't common. Sure, video games are socially acceptable to be interested in. Kids' novels? That's considered more eccentric or strange.
  • Poor motor skills: I always sucked at sports, and still do. It seems to be impossible to teach me how to play them well.
  • Love of order, structure and patterns; rigidity of thought: I have to say, I definitely prefer knowing what's going to happen or what I need to do if it involves a task. And I hate major changes to a routine. On the other hand, I'm not totally rigid, and can be flexible in some respects.
  • Learns to speak at a late age: I didn't speak until I was three.
  • Learning how to read at an early age: I was reading when I was four. I'm not kidding. I have a vivid memory of reading the word "island" as "is land" in a book when I was in preschool, and asking what "is land" means.

Miscellaneous facts about me, and views I hold/held (essay section):

All essays are now in folders due to being rather long. Click the folders to see them.

    Humor in story-driven works 
When I was a kid, I honestly thought that humor in story-driven cartoons was put there because it was "obligatory" and it was expected. I didn't realize until I was older that the humor was actually meant to be funny. Once I realized that, it was a slap in the face that all the shows I enjoyed for their story, were also trying to make me laugh, and failing miserably. They may as well not have even tried, and just focused on the damn story.

Later on, I began to think that humor in a serious story wasn't such a bad thing, as long as it was done in such a way that it flowed naturally and didn't clash with the overall mood or detract from the story. Humor that indicates the story actually doesn't take itself seriously is the worst.

    Common characteristics of works that I like - Video games 
I am noticing that my favorite works in a given genre tend to have certain things in common.

For example, in video games, I like the gameplay to be moderately simple at its core (e.g. kill enemies, collect items, reach end of level), but with depth to the mechanics. What I hate is complication, but what I like is depth. The two are not the same. Depth is, for the most part, making the most of what you have - this is how games like Zombies Ate My Neighbors and the Super Mario Bros. series manage to work; the play mechanics continue to be fun because of the many varied level designs that take advantage of them. Complication is throwing in a lot of additional mechanics, which can make a game have depth, or just slow things down and make the game intimidating to those who just want something they can jump into.

I don't mind some degree of complication as long as it's not excessive. One example is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. There's a lot to do, but the basic mechanics are "attack, move, use item", and the control is always simple. Puzzles aren't too difficult and don't require you to figure out how to use 3 items in 3D space like the 3D games, whose puzzles got on my nerves and slowed down the gameplay too much for my tastes. The game also gives you a lot of freedom to explore, look for secrets, and fight groups of enemies, all with simple controls and a good pace. There's depth in the many items you can use, the many secrets, the puzzles, and so on, but the actual gameplay is never needlessly complicated even when your inventory consists of 20 unique items.

This "simple to understand gameplay, but with depth" element is consistent across games like Kirby Super Star (the hidden items, and many different attacks with one ability), Iji (tons of secrets, ability to level up abilities of your choosing thus forcing you to take a different path through the game each time).

Another thing I like in games is a feeling of progression. While I dislike outright RPGs due to their lack of direct action, I do like RPG Elements when used well in a genre I do like. Leveling up and gaining new abilities in Kingdom Hearts, and always having new items to search for is somehow strangely compelling. And returning to previously visited areas but with new abilities such as jumping higher or gliding, to try to find previously inaccessible secrets (especially notable in the first game, as well as 358/2 Days and Birth by Sleep), just makes the act of exploring a lot of fun. And the simple act of leveling up in Borderlands, and finding new weapons to replace old ones, really adds a lot to the game.

Occasionally, though, I do get into games that are story-oriented. This is rare, as such games have to do story in a way that I can actually get into. Simply shoving cutscenes into an action game doesn't count.

Silent Hill 3 is a favorite of mine in this regard. It creates not so much a story as an atmosphere, and it's real easy to see things from the heroine's perspective as she wanders around twisted versions of a shopping mall, subway, office building and more. One of the key features of that game's storytelling, along with Iji, to me, is the ability to read stuff. In Silent Hill 3 and some, but not most, of the other Silent Hill games, you can examine many things and read your protagonist's thoughts on them, in addition to reading material you may come across. Some of Heather's thoughts actually change relative to the order you viewed things in, showing surprising attention to detail. The game Iji, while an action game in many ways, takes those elements but goes a step further, by letting your actions influence the story, your character's and others' dialog, and what's written in some of the logbooks you find.

But the main thing about the few "story-driven" games I like that makes them work for me is that the atmosphere connects to the story, and is consistent. The areas, the things I can read or examine, everything needs to feel like it's part of the world and add to the feel of what's supposed to be going on. A well-done atmosphere makes the story convincing. A poorly-done one makes it just in the background and easily ignorable. An example would be The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I enjoy the game, and I like its world, the ability to explore and perform a large number of tasks, and the detail put into making the individual areas look and sound interesting, but the story is just "there". Poorly-written dialog, an implausibly small world (in terms of scale), a broken day/night system, and more make the well-done graphics and sound (the 3DS version looks really good) contribute little to atmosphere. I find it strange when people talk about the story, because I find its world so empty (in terms of believability, not in terms of things to do), that the story rolls off my back.

So basically, I don't enjoy games for any one reason. But I do look for certain things in them. They have a simple enough to understand goal and gameplay and not be too complicated. They be fast-paced enough that I can just jump in and have fun. (Those two are things I like about the 2D Zeldas, but dislike about the 3D ones) That they have depth so that even if they're simple, the mechanics are enjoyable just to mess around with, and the world fun to play in. And, if they're intended to tell a story or create an atmosphere, that they actually do so successfully, which may occasionally mean sacrificing some elements of gameplay for this purpose.

    Common characteristics of works that I like - Books 

With books, they are an entirely different medium, being story-driven. So my preferences are different. First, let me quote Roger Ebert.

Roger Ebert: "It's not what the story is, but how the story is told."

Granted, what the story is, is still important to me. I like Slice of Life and adventure. But there's always exceptions to the genre rule, generally depending on how the genre is told. (This applies to video games also. I'd normally be inclined to hate Super Mario RPG because of its genre, but it entirely fulfills my requirements for a good game)

After looking at my favorite books, I've come to a few conclusions about what I like and why.

Characters are important to me. They can be well-rounded, or flat but realistic. What I mean by flat but realistic is that they're like the people you know in life - coworkers, classmates, acquaintances - but whom you only see one aspect of their personality most of the time. Such characters work in adventure stories, since they're pretty much only seen in the context of the adventure, and their personality shines through just the same. I do, however, prefer to see more than one aspect of a character's personality, to remind me that they are indeed human. I also like it when I can relate to the characters, or feel like I know someone who's like them, so there's that element of familiarity.

I also like interesting character interactions. Lots of people do. That's why plot elements such as Fish out of Water exist. But it's fun seeing characters meet someone from a new place, or with a very different personality. Culture clashes like the one in Battle for the Castle, in which two modern-day boys transfer to a medieval fantasy world and end up introducing the locals to the joys of bicycles and flashlights, are a lot of fun. So are moments where a person meets someone else with a totally different worldview, and they end up surprising each other with their differences. Or when major characters in the story have very different personalities, their interactions can be fun to read about.

In adventure, I'm more of a suspense person than an action person. Someone sneaking around a criminal's hideout is more exciting to me than someone getting into a fight. Being chased or being shot at is more exciting to me than an outright gunfight. To me, it's one of the things that separates adventure from action. Action is what you get in video games and action movies. Exciting when I play it, boring when I watch or read it. Adventure is harder for games to nail down (and I dislike so-called Adventure Games), but movies and books can get it really well. It's about outsmarting the enemy instead of outfighting them, sneaking and avoiding, and running away or getting help instead of trying to take on five guys at once.

Good pacing is important to me as well. I do not want to get bored. Most books take a few chapters to get to when the story kicks off, which I'd come to accept a long time ago (when I was a kid, in fact, I'd often pick up a book and flip to a random page. If what I read entertained me, I'd continue from there, and not bother to read the beginning until after I'd read to the end). I do prefer when the first few chapters are at least interesting.

It's been said of writing that "all writing must either advance the plot or reveal character." I don't know about "reveal", so much as "show", as "reveal" implies that each scene must teach something new about the character, which I don't think is the case. But when nothing's happening in the plot, the book can still be fun by showing the characters doing fun things or interacting in fun ways. In fact, so-called "plotless" stories can still be fun precisely through character behavior and situations alone. The only thing I really can't stand, is when nothing interesting is happening, even if the chapter in question is important to the plot. I'd prefer a book try to fit interesting character moments into boring yet story-vital chapters to make them more bearable.

Also, I tend to prefer a contemporary and local setting, or at least a "generic" fantasy setting, as those are the kinds I know and can relate to. I've never lived in the big city, but I can relate to a story set in a big US city more than one set 100 miles underground, or on another planet. When it comes to fantasy, medieval-esque generica is what I know best, probably due to it being part of common culture. Lots of games and shows have been set there.

A good example of a book series that has most of the things I like is Pyrates. Four kids in New York City search for hidden treasure in the caves under the subways, while bad guys are also looking for same. There's plenty of danger, with traps in the caves set by the pirate Captain Kidd, the threat of the bad guys doing what they can to get the treasure, even if it means using one of the kids as ransom, and there's even a culture clash when the kids meet a homeless boy who lives underground, and befriend him. The whole thing is fun, has characters I can understand and relate to, a setting that's still close to what I'm familiar with, lots of adventure, and the character interactions are fun. If there's one criticism, it's that there's not a whole lot of defining characteristics to the kids' personalities (they're defined more by their skills - hiking experience, ability to mimic voices, photographic memory - and by minor characteristics such as one girl being in a band, and one boy being grossed out easily), save for the underground homeless boy who is very alien to them.

Not all the stories I like are adventure. I also like Slice of Life and sometimes drama, though with drama it's tricky, as many of them are about situations I can't relate to.

With Slice of Life, I generally prefer situations I can relate to or understand. If they're situations that are totally foreign to me, where I can't even understand or care about the characters' motivations, then I can't appreciate them. But I like Slice of Life a lot when it's done in a way I can relate to, with a light-hearted mood. It can flesh out characters, be a lot of fun in itself, and in many cases, there's no real plot to speak of.

This is the case with Maxie, Rosie, and Earl—Partners in Grime and Fourth-Grade Celebrity. What's the plot? With the former, "three kids get detention, then sneak out and worry about getting caught". With the latter, "a kid wants to become popular." The story is more about what happens along the way. And Beverly Cleary's legendary Ramona Quimby series has NO plot!

So to sum up, I guess, I just want a story that I can be entertained by, rather than "high literature". For me, that means I can either relate to or understand/identify with the characters and setting, and the story moves at a decent clip, and I like the theme.

    "Adventure" games suck 
Now for an inflammatory opinion, though I realize most people don't care for the Adventure Game genre to begin with. But the title rankles me, as does the content.

What do you think of when you hear the term "adventure" used outside of a video game context? Think of an adventure movie you saw or adventure book you read. You think of danger, suspense, exciting chases, sneaking around, and so on. Adventure is not the same as straight-up action. Action is more about combat and fighting, running and escaping possibly. Adventure can easily contain those elements, but there's greater emphasis on suspense, exploration, and a slower (though not slow) pace compared to action.

The video game genre known as Adventure Game is pretty far removed from action games, certainly, often by containing nothing fun. Many of them are of the point-and-click genre. You walk around, examine objects, read lots of descriptive text (or your character's thoughts), collect objects and solve annoying puzzles, many of which are of the "use X on Y" variety. The games are unbelievably slow. None of the elements I associate with an adventure are there. There's no suspense because you're not in any danger. You're often not in direct control of your character so there's no chases, hiding, fighting, or anything that might happen in an adventure. There's usually little exploration either due to the puzzle-based nature of these games - any exploration tends to be in deference to the puzzles or story, the opposite of games like Skyrim.

In other words, the term "Adventure Game" is a total misnomer, in regards to both words. Call them something else.

To me, a real adventure game would try to, well, recreate the feeling of a real adventure. Allow players to explore and discover unrequired, out of the way areas if they want to. Have moments with no action, and moments with a lot of action. Give the player freedom - it doesn't have to be open-world, but at least give them something explorable but with excitement.

    The elements of a story 
When I stop and think about it, I'd realized that the stories that I liked, be they movie, book, etc., tended to have certain elements they did really well even when other elements are lacking. And I thought about it, and came to realize that storytelling consists of a handful of major elements, which combine to make the story what it is. And sometimes, just one of these elements being done really well can be enough to make a story very enjoyable.

Plot: The gist of what happens in a story. Plot does not refer to individual scenes, but rather the underlying "main" story. In other words, what do the characters do, and why, pretty much. Plot tends to connect "events" together. It's essentially the reason why they happen.

Events: This is the "how" of a story. What are the individual events in a story and how do they play out? Sometimes a story with no plot can be fun because it's just a lot of stuff that happens, and the "stuff" in question is entertaining. The quality of the events also affects pacing. Ever read a story where you're bored because not enough stuff was happening? "Events" are the "stuff" in question.

Character: The personality of the characters and quality of the dialog. Great characters are ones that stick with you after the story is over, being memorable. If you always picture the character acting a certain way or talking a certain way, then that's the sign of a character that's well designed. A great character can also drive the story with their actions, or react to the story in interesting ways. Truly well-designed characters can be the ones that make "events" work and be entertaining.

Arguably, virtually any story has all of these 3 elements, but to varying degrees of importance. I'll use the original My Teacher Is an Alien as an example of the difference between these 3 elements.

In My Teacher Is an Alien, the plot is that Peter and Susan wish to prove that their teacher is really an alien out to take 5 students from the class to space with him. The plot has Susan making the discovery, then enlisting Peter's help, the two of them snooping in his house, discovering what his plan is, trying to get more proof, and dealing with the rumors in school when other kids find out what's going on and they start to believe that Mr. Smith is an alien.

The events are the individual scenes that occur. For example, in one scene, Peter and Susan are in the attic and discovered their former teacher trapped in a force field when Mr. Smith (aka Broxholm, his alien name) comes home. As the two hide out and wait for him to be distracted, they finally hear him listening to his alien music and sneak their way out of the attic, close the door carefully (so it doesn't swing and make a loud noise that would get his attention), and slip out of the house unnoticed. Peter offers to walk Susan back to her house, before going off to his own.

The character is the personality of the two. Susan has some degree of sarcasm in her first-person narration, though by no means a First Person Snarker. She expresses fear at times, sarcasm at times, and mocks Broxholm's taste in alien music. She feels sorry for Peter, who is a bully victim, but at the same time sometimes gets angry with him. She's humanly flawed, but humanly kind as well. Peter is not followed by the narration, so we only see him through Susan's eyes, but he is shown to be a sci-fi nerd, be good at figuring things out to a degree, but not perfect.

Now, looking at the above, you can see that events, while important to keep reader interested, can often be excised from the main plot unless they're part of it. For example, Peter and Susan being stuck in Broxholm's attic and having to sneak out adds nothing to the plot, but is still an enjoyable scene. To me, events are the main part of a story, as without them, the story may as well just be narration. For example, a history book has a lot of plot, but nothing in the way of events or character.

Anyway, there's many different types of stories that can be told by placing greater or lesser importance on these elements. Think of the books you've read, movies you've seen, etc. Are the characters distinct? Do you enjoy individual scenes in the story? Does the underlying plot interest you as well, or do you just see it as an excuse to connect entertaining scenes together?

    The death of the video arcade game 
When I was a kid, arcade video games had a certain unique status to them which gave them a lot of appeal. Basically, arcade games had a bunch of distinctive qualities - some positive, some negative:

  • They were oftentimes only available in the arcade, so if you wanted to play them, you had to visit the arcade, and couldn't buy the game at home.
  • Arcade machines used the most recent, most powerful technology, so arcade games had better graphics and sound than home console games.
  • If the games were multiplayer, it was almost always drop-in multiplayer. Someone could insert a coin at any time and join in a game in progress.
  • The games had a pick-up-and-play design to them. You could walk up to the machine and instantly understand the goal and the basic mechanics, even if you wouldn't understand all the depth until later.
  • The games tended to be designed to gobble quarters out of players' pockets. As such, they tended to base their difficulty on how quickly you might get killed, which would require you to put a coin in and respawn on the spot to rejoin the action. Games which instead forced players to restart a level, race or battle, would instead just ramp up the difficulty later. Games with Respawn On The Spot tended to abuse their design to make players do that very often indeed.

All these things worked in their favor, but over time, arcade games lost a lot of what made them unique and what made people care about them. For one, home consoles were getting more and more powerful. Even if arcade machines were more powerful than home consoles, it was getting to the point where people wouldn't really notice the difference or care that much. For example, F-Zero AX is the arcade version of F-Zero GX, and due to running on more powerful hardware, contains less pop-up and lets you see farther into the distance. However, did it make that much of a difference? No. Whereas when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game came out, it impressed people with its use of the cartoon's actual theme song, very detailed (for the time) graphics and voice samples straight from the cartoon. It was an experience that was impossible to get at home.

Another thing that hurt arcade games was the limitation of their genres. Their pick-up-and-play mentality was largely due to being in simple and repetitive genres. Racing, tournament fighting, beat-em-ups, shoot-em-ups, etc. Easy to learn, but how much depth did they have? Such games are capable of having depth, however, though usually not in the restrictive environment of an arcade where you're required to know what to do, and do it, and where the game is intended to make a profit by making you keep inserting money into the machine. Bottom line is, if you're not dying or losing enough, you're not paying enough. So a game like The Legend of Zelda could never be made into an arcade game, even if it was simplified to be easy to learn. A game like Wizards And Warriors, which throws an endless supply of monsters at you despite the non-linear, exploratory nature of the levels, could easily be an arcade game, even though it actually wasn't.

Furthermore, the most popular arcade games tended to be released on home consoles. Once you owned the game at home, what could the arcade experience provide you that you can't get at home? Arguably better graphics, but this became less true over time. So what else could it provide you, other than requiring you to pay money to respawn or try again? Home versions of games such as Soul Calibur added new gameplay modes that aren't arcade-friendly in that they're not meant to kill you over and over again, and even features like character creation, which wouldn't work in the "keep inserting money" mentality of the arcade.

As a result of all of this, the arcade market is largely dead in the West (in Japan, it had to be reinvented into a brand new form, but that's off topic for this editorial).

And you know something? I don't quite miss it. However, I do miss some of its ideals.

Arcade games were indeed limited to simplistic genres and repetitive gameplay. But some of their ideas are things I think modern games could learn from. Specifically, Drop-In-Drop-Out Multiplayer, and an easy-to-learn pick-up-and-play design. Some of that survives in games such as Left 4 Dead, which is easy to learn at its core assuming you know how to play a First-Person Shooter, and introduces its depth to you with quick pop-ups when you're introduced to a new concept. Players may join and leave at any time. It's arcade-like mentality to a degree, but with the depth of a home console/PC game, and it was a huge success.

Right now, I'm seeing a lot of video games that just look too complicated for me to really enjoy or get into. I don't need every game to use 8 buttons or give me complicated rules on playing. Just something that's easy to learn and fun, but has a lot of depth to keep players coming back, and keep them from getting bored.

Even arcades were sometimes capable of delivering console-like depth to their otherwise simple designs. Dungeons And Dragons Shadow Over Mystara was technically a beat-em-up of the "kill enemies and progress to the right" variety, but it also had a monetary system and inventory management, ability to replace weapons with new weapons that have specialized properties (e.g. a flame sword might do less damage than a regular sword but can also set enemies on fire and stop them in their tracks), the ability to make choices as to which area you wish to go to, and significant differences between the game's playable characters and what they could do. You could even cast spells that augmented the abilities of other players, creating cooperative strategies. It was depth you don't normally see in an arcade game, and yet the game still had a simple to learn design at its core, allowing anyone to jump in, but the more advanced players to enjoy the more in-depth elements.

If more such games were made for the home market, that would be the sort of thing I'd be looking for. Because while the arcade may have been severely limited in its "keep making money off the players" design, the fact that the games were so simple at their core that anyone could learn them, and the fact that anyone could join in at any time, are two design elements we could use more of in today's marketplace. Just don't make the games as simple as most arcade games actually were, and you'd have a winner.

    What's wrong with indie games 
Indie games have always rubbed me the wrong way. They tend to have certain things in common - cheap pixel art graphics and a sort of lolrandom type of theme. The second is really by far the bigger turnoff.

Why do people like the Super Mario games? When I was a kid, why did so many of us watch The Super Mario Bros. Super Show? Because we liked the world and the characters. The games had personality. Why is Angry Birds so popular? Not just because of the gameplay (in fact, it's a ripoff of a prior game which had stick figure-ish graphics), but because of the theme as well.

One of the things that makes video games unique among other media is that they get you actively involved in pretending to do something, in exploring someone else's world and taking part in it. People like Madden NFL not just because of the gameplay, but because it looks and sounds like real football. People like Skyrim because it has a massive, and internally consistent, world to explore and take part in. You can talk to people, read books, fight monsters, explore caves, pick flowers, cook food, and do all sorts of things.

Even when a game is clearly fantasy-based, it still has characters and a theme. Super Mario World wasn't based on anything realistic, but it was an internally consistent cartoon fantasy world, and we liked going through the Forest of Illusion, Choco Mountain, and more.

Indie games, however, often tend to be just silly and random and not really have a theme. Or sometimes, random silliness clashes with the theme. Gunpoint, a creative puzzler involving sneaking through buildings and avoiding guards, uses large pixels for its character portraits, has a Cluster F-Bomb randomly inserted into its dialog (the game itself is otherwise very clean), and it clashes with what is otherwise a great, consistent presentation. Other indie games just half-ass their theme. One shooter, for example, is simply about a stick figurish character who wishes to become the best hero in the world, and so decides to kill the other heroes. There's even a Space Opera themed game... whose plot is that the protagonist was insulted on Spacebook (get it?) and travels across the universe to get revenge. These silly themes completely destroy the feeling that when I'm playing the game, I'm immersed in another world. You can't get immersed in something that feels like it was randomly thrown together by a little kid acting silly.

Indie doesn't have to mean crap. Iji, Cave Story, Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Gone Home are all examples of excellent indie games that not only have great gameplay, but a consistent and well-designed theme.

Iji is about someone who gets knocked out by an explosion, and wakes up in the future to find herself having been turned into a powerful super soldier entirely against her will, to fight off an alien invasion. The game's graphics contain probably less than 256 colors, and they're not super detailed. Most of the game was designed entirely by a single person, so there's no real budget. And yet, it's one of the best experiences I've ever had.

Cave Story is a well-known modern cult classic. Daisuke Amaya created the entire game - graphics, music, level design, programming, story and theme, entirely by himself. And yet it comes together brilliantly to create an experience that's agreed to be amazing. Its world is imaginative and inspiring, and its well-designed story memorable, as well as malleable at points based on player action.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch is hilarious. Its simple, family-friendly theme involves an octopus wearing a suit and pretending to be a human father and husband, while struggling to perform basic tasks. It's a riot. The game feels like a playable Saturday morning cartoon, and its budget of $24,000 was well spent.

Finally, Gone Home is an amazing experience in interactive storytelling. With zero cutscenes or scripted events, you wander through a house and learn about its inhabitants simply from reading things lying around. You have full freedom to go about as you wish. Everything comes together to create a believable portrait of a severely flawed family that's breaking apart, and the result is a well thought out experience.

What do those games have in common? Not a budget: two of them literally have a budget of nothing, or close to it. Instead, they actually feel like something. There's a reason people love Mario, but wouldn't love the same game if it had stick figure graphics. Character, theme, the feeling that the game represents something: either an interactive fiction or an activity. Exploring the house of a broken family is a great idea for a game. It's something I'd love to pretend to do - and a game lets me do that. A jumping meatloaf that has to collect magic bananas to stop an alien sounds like something someone high on caffeine and short on sense would make. It's not imaginative, you can't really relate to it or "prented" it; it's just random and stupid.

Sadly, indie games are filled with that. There's an audience for lolrandom crap, but it dominates the indie scene so heavily that it destroys any chance I'd have of trying their games. Yes, theme makes a difference. Indies need to consider what theme they want, what feeling they want people playing their game to experience, and then stick to it consistently. They have more of a chance of breaking into the mainstream that way, and I'd be more willing to try their games.

Oh, and while they're at it, they really need to hire actual artists and stop it with this pixelated crap, if at all possible. Spend at least a little money, please.

All comments now go on my troper wall, as these main troper pages are no longer editable by the general public.

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