Saturday, 15 January 2011

The woes of the modern gamer

The last month or so has featured an ongoing dialogue upon the "letters" page of Edge magazine. It's to do with the difficulties of combining gaming with parenting.

More on this later. Here's the credit, by the way.

The main source of woe seems to be unpausable cut-scenes, leaving parents in the lurch when they are torn between attending to a screaming child or following the plot. I'd like to assume that the child wins out, but that's not really the point. The point is that the ever-aging demographic of "core" gamers are going to need games to adapt if they are to continue to devote their time (and more importantly, to to developers and publishers) their money to gaming. Parenting is (so I've been told) an exhausting activity which requires constant vigilance, and the ability to stop what you're doing at a second's notice. It also means that parents are often only able to devote blocks of ten minutes to a game, so save-points may have to become a little more forgiving.

The younger element may scoff, but given that it's often the over-30's who are most solvent, their money drives the industry. Besides, if gaming's inability to fit around their lifestyle means they cast their controllers aside when they become parents, there's no guarantee they'll bother to pick them up again when the kids leave home.

Now I don't have children, but I do have a fairly busy life, even more so since I've started contributing to other websites and learning web design. So when a wonderful game comes along which demands a huge amount of time, I often find myself struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

Persona 4 is one such game. A JRPG released in 2009 for the Playstation 2, Persona 4 combines traditional role-playing with a social simulator. The majority of the game takes place in a Japanese high school in a small town. The game's palette is a selection of muted greys, greens and pinks, and characters behave in a realistic and often subdued manner. In order to survive the various monsters in the game's dungeons, you have to make friends with the people in this "real" world. This allows you to grow as a person and empathise with different facets of humanity, thus enabling you to create stronger and more diverse "Personas", spirits conjured by your subconscious who fight by your side in battle.

The importance of personality and the mind is enforced by the fact that the game's dungeons are infested with the repressed selves of the characters. The more our heroes try to deny their darker instincts, the stronger they become. They can only be defeated when the person in question admits to their more unpleasant natures.

I intend to write a full review of this game when I've finished, because it deserves my time.

I don't know when that will be however, because it is extremely hard. Like a lot of JRPGs, it requires players to "grind", spending hours fighting lesser enemies in order to build up strength for the final battle. And like a lot of JRPGs it's extremely unforgiving. If you've been "grinding" for two hours, ensuring that you party's health is balanced, you might still be wiped out by a freakishly strong monster who ambushes you, ending your game and forcing you to reply the last two hours.

I didn't mind this so much - like I said, it's a JRPG - but the very practical difficulty emerges when combined with Persona 4's other unique gameplay element. Without going into too many details, certain dungeons in the game must be completed by a certain in-game "date". You have to keep watching the weather forecast (honestly) to find out when this "date" will be, but if you haven't done enough "grinding" by that date, you don't have a hope of passing it. Should you miss your deadline, the game returns you to a week in the past, allowing you to "grind" again.

Ten years ago, this wouldn't have bothered me a bit. I'd have got myself another crumpet and carried on regardless.

But I don't have that luxury any more, and like Persona 4's nameless protagonist, I have to make careful decisions as to how I am going to spend my free time. Given that I'm also trying to write about games, I'm trying to play as many as possible, and I'm just not going to manage that if I keep getting sent back in time.

So it was with a heavy heart that I restarted my game of Persona 4... on easy.

Wow. It feels a bit shameful to admit to that, but at this moment in time, I don't really have a choice. Here's my current backlog of games, for a start:

Baldur's Gate (all four of them)
Shadow of the Colossus
Just Cause 2

If I'm going to get round to playing these, I'm afraid I'm going to have to play Persona 4 on easy and focus on the (wonderful, imaginative, fascinating) story.

I hope you don't feel somehow short-changed about this.

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