Videogames aren't terribly memorable for me anymore. That's not to say they aren't fun, I'd not play them otherwise, it is to say that I'm old(~ish) and jaded (very) and that much doesn't distinguish itself and enrapture me as it did in years past. For the most part, I've seen what the majority of gaming has to offer, at least the admittedly small corner of the medium I concern myself with, so readily familiar and comfortable but hardly memorable. Thinking back over the past year, yet concluded, I can barely remember what little I've actually played, with one notable exception. Though not of this year, or even this hemisphere, and about as far removed from the mainstream western market as you can get, I did stumble upon not a single game, but an entire franchise that exceeded all expectations and left me genuinely enthralled, eager for more. Interestingly enough, it wouldn't be the games themselves that I'd find so fascinating as the sizable community surrounding them.
It's difficult to remember exactly when, but I can remember where my present fascination began: In the murky depths of a humble little wiki, infamous to those familiar, foreboding to those unaware, a virtual black hole of time wasting trivial information all but the most stalwart are incapable of escaping from, purposefully designed to slowly rob you of your precious life force; TvTropes.org.
My favorite website. God help me.
Aside from Destructoid, of course! *Ahem* Moving on...
One nondescript, thoroughly uninteresting day not so long ago, one such of many, I was mindlessly clicking about the aforementioned website, as I'm for want to do when bored, perusing puerile pages when I stumbled upon one particularly cleverly titled article: E = MC Hammer. That made me chuckle. Yes I'm easily amused. Taking note of the cursory information fist, as always, I was drawn to the page picture. I recognized the character, vaguely familiar but ultimately uncertain. One twitch of a finger later and I embarked on a journey of discovery; reading, watching, listening and playing unlike any I had experienced before. A whole new world exploded into being, formerly in my periphery, now focused I saw it seemingly everywhere. My life hasn't quite been the same since.
Cute little girls. SERIOUS BUSINESS.
Touhou Project, for the uninitiated, is a series of "Danmaku" or "Bullet Hell" vertical shooters focusing on avoiding intricately woven tapestries of deadly projectiles all while desperately trying to shoot down the games many enemies. No simple feat, even on easy mode. Originating in 1996 on the Japanese exclusive PC-98 microcomputer, later moving to Windows and proper PCs in 2002, to date there have been a total of thirteen primary games, each exclusively developed by a funny little Japanese man, Jun'ya Ota, better know by his handle ZUN. With a penchant for snappy attire and an unfathomable love of alcohol he is the sole member of developer Team Shanghai Alice, the creator of, and supreme authority on, all things Touhou. By all accounts a rather pleasant and personable chap.
Stress induced heart attack or diabetes inducing cuteness.
One way or another, the Touhous will get'cha.
After reading up a bit on the series on the site-that-will-not-be-named-because-it-will-eat-up-all-my-spare-time-if-I-link-to-it-again (DAMN IT!) and watching the music video linked in the previous article, I took it upon myself to track down the games and play them. I had to at this point. I was engrossed.
You know that feeling you get when you're made aware of something for the first time and suddenly see it pop up all over the place, as if it had just spontaneously happened the moment you learned of it, despite having existed for who knows how long before hand? That was me with Touhou. Avatars, pictures, songs, all scattered about while I was busy internetting now had a source and I relieved to know of it, like I had found something I had no idea I was searching for.
So began my foray from the media surrounding them to the games themselves, starting with the sixth and first for Windows, Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, by far the most popular of the series. Yes, that's the proper title. They get stranger. I don't make'em I just regurgitate'em. It didn't take me long to come about a startling revelation: I suck at shmups. Even on easy mode, as disgraceful as that is within the community, I could barely advance. I was thoroughly out of my element. Understandable, considering what I was up against.
And that's on EASY.
One hit kills. Limited lives. Limited bombs. Crazy difficult even on easy. Top it all off I sucked, HARD, at it. I should've hated the game, cursed it's existence, deleted from my hard drive and moved on. Instead, I f*cking loved it! Mostly from seeing what I had come to know tangentially spring to life before me, not so much the gameplay itself, regardless I still enjoyed every torturous minute of it. Much like Demon/Dark Souls, Touhou, while hard, is fair in it's challenge. It predominately revolves around memorization, steady nerves, quick reflexes, and, most importantly, NOT FREAKING THE FRAK OUT WHEN A SCREEN-WIDE BARRAGE OF BULLETS BARREL TOWARDS YOU FOR WHAT CAN SEEM LIKE AN ETERNITY OF PIXELATED TECHNOCLOR HELL. Pretty, though.
The games, while fun, are fundamentally simplistic and I find they have little to offer me beyond occasional distraction. I've played them all, including the six spinoff games, but have not yet beaten a single one. I find them entertaining but am not particularly compelled to see them through to completion. Instead, I've taken to the massive and talented fandom surrounding the franchise. There is no adequately simple way to describe them. They are insane. In the best possible manner.
In SPADES. Hundreds of remixes, dozens of professional quality bands dedicated to reimagining ZUN's music, already excellent, into just about every style possible, often accompanied by expertly animated music videos like that of BAD APPLE above.
Pick yer poison. We got:
Badass. (And still adorable)
Sexy. (And also adorable)
Armpits: It's a Touhou thing.
Hundreds of thousands of pictures across every imaginable category. Comics of every style and genre. Crossovers with even the most obscure of properties. If there is a way to express one's love of Touhou visually, chances are it exists. It's like Rule 34, but mostly safe for work.
That's not all though. Far from it. There's still cosplay. Fan games. Fan animation. Proper fan made anime. Professionally made statues and figures. Plushies. All manner of memorabilia. Conventions. Print works. EVERYTHING. If it can be made in the image of something from Touhou then IT. HAS. BEEN. DONE. There is seemingly no end to the creative depths of the fandom. Greater than perhaps any other videogame series, if not in size then at least in both quantity and quality. There's always something new to discover and partake in.
I love the games. Perhaps I don't play them as much as I should. Rather than a truly memorable moment from the series as a whole, save for the first title I inevitably and painstakingly complete, I'll instead look back and recall how one game, and an infinitely absorbing website, introduced me to a gargantuan and marvelous community the likes of which I've never seen. Fondly remembering our virtual experiences, recent or otherwise, is always a great accomplishment for any game, especially now, in the midst of an industry constantly trying to sell us short on content and quality. I'll not soon forget the classics I played as a lad, nor later games that I'll revere as classics someday in their own right, but so few games can offer you more than the experience. So very few can offer you a whole new world to explore and indulge yourself in beyond the program.
ZUN willing, the Land of Illusions will continue to thrive for years to come. By the collective consciousness of the fanbase, the mysterious world of Gensokyo and it's many inhabitants will continue to change and grow in ways no one man, or even team of people could possibly accomplish. I, all the while, will gladly partake of whatever those kooky fanatics think up next, and who knows? In time I may well add my own unique brand of creativity to this wonderful world. Gensokyo accepts all kinds, after all. There is a place for everyone and everything.
All this and so much more, from the mind of one strange little man, who really wanted nothing more than to fiddle around with a computer and make a bit of music.
I'll leave off with this:
His fans wrote him a wedding anthem. A touching rendition of what is effectively his own theme. A beautiful tribute to the man who has inspired so many. Myself among them.
As Tairaid, formerly my level 85 Undead Death Knight in World of Warcraft, I was once more on the hunt for elementium ore, a common valuable metal within the game, flying a well worn route around the bleak deserts of Uldum. With naught more than the relaxing sound of my gyro-copter's cacophonous engine blaring through my headphones, I sped through, one eye ever on my minimap, ready to descend from on high at the first sight of the much sought after ore. Predictably, a lone golden blip appeared along the western cliff side separating Uldum from the godforsaken kingdom of the long since fallen Qiraji and I immediately made way for my quarry. Just I was about to land and claim my prize, another player swooped past and in the blink of an eye scooped up the minerals and made off. I barely had time to make out a name, but I could clearly see he was of the same faction as I, a fellow member of The Horde, a brother in arms so readily able and willing to take from another player without remorse. It wasn't the first time such had happened, and it wouldn't be the last.
In World of Warcraft, all of the game's gatherable resources are shared between the entirety of a server's playerbase, free to anyone of the appropriate profession and skill level, so long as you make it there first. Such a system promotes direct competition between players, regardless of affiliation, and is but one of many ways WoW and countless other MMOs pit their players against one another.
Another day, another tiresome bout of dungeoneering. Once more I found myself leading an expedition through one of World of Warcraft's many endgame dungeons, on a quest for randomly dropped loot and points to buy gear. After besting the trials of the Night Elf Queen Azshara in the historic time-displaced battle of The Well of Eternity, our group triumphantly broke open her stash of precious parcels and were rewarded with a whopping load of ONE piece of gear, a cloak with stats conducive to dealing damage. A fancy DPS cape. I cast my virtual die, along with another member of the group, a Warrior, and promptly lost to his higher number. Deprived once again by a fellow friendly player.
Gear, in Player vs. Environment (PvE), is primarily acquired from dungeons or similar instanced challenges in most MMOs. The bosses therein have set tables of loot, from which one or more pieces are randomly selected and "dropped" after their demise, ensuring no player can ever guarantee exactly what it is they're going to get. To further prolong the process of gear progression, most such MMOs force groups of players to compete with one another, for the very gear they just aided one another in trying to acquire, by prompting them to "roll" against each other for the right to loot. If you want that cape, you'll have to deprive a friend, guildmate or random stranger of the same, all in the spirit of "friendly competition."
Yet again I find myself trudging through my list of daily digital chores, quests which offer the promise of reward for repetitious completion. Dailies, as they are known, and I loath them. Compelled, as ever, by the prospects of better gear and necessary enhancements, I suffer through the monotony, trying best as I can to complete these trifling tasks quick as possible. One such quest, just as so many before it, requires I visit virtual genocide upon a resident dwarven village in the Twilight Highlands, a simple task. As I fly from Blood Gulch to my target of Thundermar, ready to cut down all who stand in my way, I notice a distinct lack of stout, bearded bastards to kill. It would seem, as in nearly every other aspect of the world, that I have competition in the craft of war. I must fight once more against my fellows for the right to progress.
In World of Warcraft, and the many games which both inspired and took inspiration from it, you must first "tag" a foe to receive any credit for dispatching it. If someone lands even the slightest blow before hand, it would be a waste of your time to fight it. You'd receive no experience, no loot, and if on a quest to explicitly kill such creatures, no credit towards completion. Once more, such systems promote competition, and inadvertently, kill stealing. This results in players fighting each other over quests and creatures they could just as easily cooperate to complete and overcome.
Paradoxically, WoW, and those like it, try to both force players to compete against and cooperate with one another at the same time, so much so that most players go out of their way to avoid each other. I, like everyone else I knew, played predominately solo, for the simple reason that I didn't want another person dictating my pace of progression and taking my resources. Purposefully promoting such play styles by way of the fundamental mechanics of the game undermines the massively multiplayer nature of the game itself, and ultimately isn't very much fun.
As Justine, my Engineer in Guild Wars 2, I'm free to play alongside other players without suffering the trivial nuisances of other MMOs. I can gather wood, ore and plants in peace as resource nodes are unique to each player. I can help others kill anything, regardless of who hit first, and still receive full credit, experience and loot as there is no "tag" system. Players automatically cooperate with one another in quests and dynamic events, without the need of formal groups, by simple being in the vicinity of each other. In dungeons, everyone has a shot at looting the boss, and no one need deprive their fellows of gear. By NOT forcing players to group, Guild Wars promotes cooperative play, and by NOT forcing players to compete with each other the game fosters a true sense of camaraderie. In WoW I'd rarely go out of my way, even for friends. In Guild Wars 2 I find myself roaming with players regularly, free to come and go as I please. After seven years of fighting against a digital world, it's revitalizing to finally feel like a contributing part of one. I'm shocked that it took so long for someone to realize that in order to get people playing with each other, you first need to stop them playing against one another.
As Justine Bailey, my Human Engineer, I had bested the final challenges of Queensdale, the human starting zone, and after having charted the area thoroughly, rather than embark on the next leg of my character's racial story, I instead decided to venture off to lands unknown, see sights unseen and adventures un... uh... ventured! Thus I made way for the gates of Divinity's Reach, capital of the human nation of Kryta, my portal to the world at large, to start my journey anew.
Knocking on Heaven's Door?
Guild Wars 2 does things a little differently from other MMOs. While not quite the paradigm shift many may have expected, one way in which it differentiates itself is an emphasis on exploration. Players are encouraged to explore by way of the games open ended regional quest structure, incentivized by achievements, gear, collectables and rewarded with experience each step of the way. Every map is littered with useful fast-travel Waypoints, lore rich Points of Interest and scenic Vistas which both help to immerse players in the game's many vibrant and varied environments as well provide objectives to work towards. Here the game doesn't so much decide your path for you through quest chains and progression as you choose yourself, based solely on whatever you desire.
Passing through the city's gates for the fist time since having started my grand adventure, I found myself amidst the bustling streets awestruck, jaw agape, at the sheer size of the metropolis before me. It was a sight unlike any I had yet seen in an MMO since, and lacking any foreknowledge of Guild Wars, I was caught completely off guard. Divinity's Reach was a city, much more so than what typically passes for such in most games.
This place is BIG!
Typically, a city or town in an MMO is no more than need be, with just enough to facilitate the player and often little else. Such leads to either tiny, cramped towns or spacious, empty cities, neither of which are often exciting. Here Divinity's Reach thrives, packed with buildings, literally layered with them, and full of townies hurrying about the city streets on business all their own. Countless conversations and the cacophony of civilization help the city feel alive, rather than silent and still like so many of it's contemporaries. There's all you'll ever need and quite a lot more within those towering walls.
Like, RIDICULOUSLY big!
My initial intent was to travel to the other racial starting areas, to quest and wander about new locations. I was still fairly firmly locked into the typical player mindset of efficient progression, mostly concerned with leveling and gear, both of which would be easily accommodated by the game's scaling rewards. It doesn't matter what level the monstrous menagerie you slay, you'll be awarded experience and loot appropriate for your level allowing players to explore any area without feeling as though they're wasting their time. The sights of the city helped break that mindset. Progression could wait, I had a sprawling urban center to lose myself in.
Even the potholes are HUGE!
And so I did. I spent well over an hour combing every street and terrace, finding every mark on the map and intimately familiarizing myself with the city's many shops and work stations. Once finished, achievement and reward in hand, I ordered my affairs and set off once more, bound for riches and power. My destination was Caledon Forest and to reach it I had first to make way through Lion's Arch, the capital of capital cities and the center of civilization in all the lands of Tyria. There would be the portals I'd need to effortlessly traverse the otherwise tiresome and treacherous expanses between cities and that which would facilitate my transportation was known as the Asura Gate.
Behold! Star-Asura Gates! Now in your choice of four designer colors!
Stepping through the swirling pink vortex I popped out the other side, after a brief load up, amidst the very portals I'd need for my travels, but just like before I once more found myself overcome with the urge to explore, such a thing very few games so readily inspire. Lion's Arch was large and vast, more so than Divinity's Reach, and with no particular goal in mind I set off northeast from the portal hub, wrapping southwards, passing by the farmlands near the southern gate when I noticed something peculiar on my map. Points of interest, waypoints and vista are all clearly marked as you chart each area, showing you exactly where to go but not necessarily how to get there. City maps are automatically unveiled so you can easily see where everything is located. Here I noticed a stray vista buried deep within the barrier hills surrounding the city, and curious still a stray weaponsmith not far off.
I poked about the crop fields and neighboring storehouse for an entrance but no such luck. I surmised, dejectedly, that the only way through would be to exit the city and work my way back in from the surrounding area, a task I thought impossible at my then low level. Defeated, I pressed on, determined to find all that I could. I didn't get far. That lone vista was mocking me. Everything else had been firmly rooted within the city limits, immediately accessible with little more than a bit of ingenuity, so to must that be. Atop the walls of a nearby garrison I surveyed the fields once more, hoping my vantage point may reveal a way through. Finding nothing, I returned to the storehouse for one more thorough inspection discovering a stack of hay bails along the side of a shed. Up and over, into the clearing behind, I looked around and quite literally stumbled through a passage in the cliff face, obscured by foliage, and found myself on the steep, grassy hillside beyond.
Making my way up, through another hidden entrance and after ascending rocky outcroppings I found my prize. Activating the vista rested camera control from me to pan about the small clearing I found myself in, until it stopped, suddenly focused on what looked like a gaping mouth jutting fourth from the surrounding cliffs.
A Massive Mineral Maw of Mystery!
Plunging into the darkness, I regained control, and precariously placed on the precipice of one stony tooth, I stared down into the abyss. I was done, my objective met, I should've been on my way, off to check the next box on my infinitely long list of "Things to Do 'till 80" just as I was trained to do. Nearly ten years of training, in fact. As every MMO I had played before, I was conditioned over the years to focus on "The Grind." Questing, leveling, gearing, dailies, dungeoneering, raiding, focusing on efficiency, more like a machine than a man. Everything I had learned, was taught, told me to be off to something more productive, and yet I did not move.
There was nothing obvious down there, the remainder of my objectives lay elsewhere and yet something about this hole gave me pause. Intrigued me. Why was it here? MMOs, by their very nature, are massive, with vast open spaces that might at first seem meaningless but most often facilitate progression by some means. There's almost always something to do, or kill, or both, otherwise it's empty, wasted space. The occasional Easter eggs not withstanding, such mindless diversions tend not to exist in the genre.
So there I stood, pondering shortly, finally deciding "Frak it!" and took the plunge. I was either to die or live and neither would carry penalty. I had nothing to lose but time. With my decent went the last vestiges of "The Grind." Even in my exploration I was still fixated on progression. Here, I simply didn't care. This was different, something to do off the beaten path. If ArenaNet can take the time to develop erroneous additions to their world, I can spare the time to experience them. Down I went, plummeting like an eagle... flying a blimp.
Much to my surprise, I was met not with hard, unforgiving stone but instead soft, safe water. I barely had enough time to orient myself before I was greeted by an ethereal voice echoing through the chamber. Old, raspy and a little off kilter, the voice of one Captain Weyandt welcomed me to the cavernous catacombs buried beneath the city of Lion's Arch. Taunting me with treasures for trials trumped triumphantly, I pressed onward into the dark.
Apparently, ArenaNet does nothing small!
I soon found myself in a maze of stone, a ghostly blue sphere, the Captain, as my absentminded guide. Round corners and through fake rock walls I emerged as he beckoned me further in, ascending through the mighty chasm ever higher. Up and over a small water fall, I found myself surrounded by hewn stone walls concealing traps of spiky death. Tempting me further, I dashed madly through, out the other end nearly unscathed. After some perilous platforming I came to a final test of skill. A room, black as pitch, unlit by the many otherworldly torches seen prior, and I tasked to traverse it's many flattened stalagmites sight unseen. At first it seemed daunting, nearly impossible, then I remembered what I was. An Engineer.
An Engineer with a flamethrower! Lighting my path as I bandied about the rocks unimpeded I came to the end, a divergence. One final task lay before me. Just as I had arrived, I now had to plummet once more, down one of three shafts. Choose correctly, treasure! Choose wrong and I start all over. The answer was obvious. The entrance, lit red, was deliberately similar to the very maw that first caught my interest. A quick drop down, once again into the drink and I emerged victorious! Finally, I could claim what was rightfully mine!
The Court of the Not-So-Crimson King
One final chamber, at the back of which stood the Captain, corporeal, more or less. Congratulating me on a job well done, he welcomed me to my prize, then cursed me to eternity in his tomb. Humorous, as even had I lacked the ability to teleport to the nearest waypoint at will, the large fissure in the stonework wall nearby would grant me freedom from such fate. I took my well won parcels, surprisingly useful armor and an accompanying upgrade, and bid the Captain and his cavern farewell. Slipping between the cracks, the old ghast's shock was palpable, but short lived, He'd had his fun and promptly returned to his inane rambling as I left the confines of that earthen womb. Out once more in the fresh virtual air, I found myself atop the waterfall of the inlet stream feeding the city's central bay.
INSERT WITTICISM HERE
There I found the Captain's First Mate, Shane, the errant weaponsmith I'd seen previously on my map. The shambling corpse was selling pirate themed weaponry, far to high level and rich for my tastes. Leaping over the falls, down into the stream below, I swam ashore and paused a moment, first since I had found the cavern, to reflect on my recently concluded adventure.
In the end, progression, in the form of vaguely defined treasure, had been the ultimate motivation, but initially I was moved by pure curiosity, something few games, and not a single MMO, has ever done. I'll stop to admire fine aesthetic and pretty graphics but rare is it I find reason to wander off and truly explore. This was but one such occurrence, of many the game still has to offer, affording a felling much more akin to Bethesda or BioWare than a typical MMO. Odd, as there are many games about exploration, but few which focus so intently elsewhere that can still spark the urge of discovery.
Guild Wars 2 is a fun game. The combat is satisfying, the PvP engaging, the WvW thrilling and dungeons challenging, all that atop a beautiful aesthetic and great music, but what I never expected was a game that was so much fun to simply lose yourself in, explore, and discover. Inevitably, I'll grow bored of it and move on, as happens with all games and such flights of fancy. Until then, however, I'll have a damned fine time playing the game my way, progressing my way and charting the uncharted my way. Who knew something so simple, a bit of freedom, could be so fun?
If you're playing on the server Ferguson's Crossing, hit me up! I'm always up for some virtual adventure!