An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

July 4, 2006
 8-HIT at 70mph
I entered my car for the 13-hour car ride to Ohio with my characters at an impressive level 74. By the time I arrived in Ohio, they had become calculated, cold-blooded, level-99 ass-handers. It’s called “leveling up”, and for some people it’s the bane of their existence. For me, it’s time well spent during a long trip.
For those of you who are unaware, I have been playing Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls on the GBA. I originally played FFI when I was in elementary school, but quickly lost interest because my tastes at the time were focused more on goomba-stomping than NulBlaze-learning. I also made some rookie mistakes like giving my monk nunchakus way too early and not including mages on my team. This time, however, I’ve matured into a gamer happily content to craft a balanced team, mind my statistics, crawl through dungeons, weather random battles, and emerge with a random – although incredibly necessary – item (a rat tail?).
I do hate getting my ass kicked, however, so I regularly take time to level-up.

During these bore-fests I usually find some place near a town or dungeon exit, pace left to right (or up and down – you don’t wanna wear out the d-pad!), and wait for some low-level Greek-mythology-inspired purple monster to attack. Vanquish. Repeat.
Sitting in my living room, doing this on my television while my girlfriend claws her eyes out, would have been my only recourse in the 1980s. However, with the advent of modern portable gaming, I can do this mindless activity anywhere I want: On the can, on plane trips, during girlfriend-mandated Food Network marathons. It’s particularly well-suited to car travel where I am expected to make conversation, navigate, ipod manage, and pet supervise.

I believe that losing myself in the game experience, which includes an element of escapist fantasy, is the main draw of playing video games. I’ve posted previously about the elevated role games can play in lives where escapism is needed. In a car ride, with myriad things to pull me out of an engrossing and meaningful gaming experience, I thank the creators of FFI for making leveling-up necessary. Instead of leveling during a quiet part of my day when it would be possible to engage with the story (admittedly thin in FFI, but it gets better in later installments), experiment with battle-plans, or mentally track my systematic dungeon exploring, I can instead commit to mindlessly leveling up during a part of my day that needs my mind to do other things.

Then, once pumped up to a crazy-high level, I finally attack those dungeons that need my full attention with near impunity. Laying waste to the Hill Gigas, White Dragons, and Sand Worms that pepper my path to greatness! Leveling-up gives me a way to invest in my characters, and thereby invest in my future experiences with them, while doing other things. It’s a fantastic use of time, and it is quickly becoming a new joy of mine. I wish it was applicable to more games. Which brings me to a suggestion:
I suggest that game makers incorporate this leveling-up strategy in other games. Wouldn’t it be nice to level up your WoW character on the train ride to work through a stripped-down, single-player Nintendo DS version? Or earn money in Oblivion through a monster-attack game on the PSP? Or improving your Xbox-tethered baseball franchise through a series of baseball-related minigames on a handheld? Then, when you were ready to go on the big-screen, you could upload your leveled-up characters and let the big-screen whomping experience begin! These smaller, handheld games wouldn’t be replacements – but augments. A way to invest in your main console-based objectives during the drudgery of daily life that needs your attention.

This handheld/console connectivity isn’t new. Nintendo experimented with it during the N64 days and brought it to the Gamecube in games like Splinter Cell, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Metroid Prime. But these attempts were largely seen as gimmicks, adding little to the gameplay at their best and unlocking a new costume at their worst. The connectivity between Pokemon (on the GBC and GBA) and the iterations of Pokemon Stadium is close to the relationship I envision, although backwards in its application. In these instances of connectivity, the mindless battling is done on the big screen while the relatively engaging game experience is done on the handheld version.

Nintendo has said repeatedly that the Nintendo DS and Wii will connect. They’ve also suggested that the connectivity might be similar to past attempts, particularly through footage of Pokemon Wii, which is the clear sequel to Pokemon Stadium. And it will probably work for them. But when I play on my television, I have little choice but commit my full attention; there can’t be any other distractions unless I cart in another television. Why give me mindless activity when I give you my full mind? Why would I commit my undivided attention to doing A-button-mashing on the big screen when I can mindlessly (albeit needfully) invest in my characters while juggling fast food over an AAA road-map? Who would have figured that the passenger seat was the perfect environment for the repeated clubbing of trolls?

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