Weekly Little Big Planet: in the mood

, | Features

“No story. Just a platformer.”

I appreciated that odd little bit of honesty that the designer wrote in the details for this week’s community level, Roses (Platformer). No attempt to hook me with some phony mythology about why my sackboy needed to get from the beginning of the level to the end. No effort at setting the mood whatsoever. Just the simple words above and bam, you’re off and running and jumping.

And why not? If I need some poorly spelled gobbledygook to get me in the mood to play your platformer level, I probably shouldn’t be playing a platformer. Sometimes it’s better to just cut to the chase.

Then again, sometimes it isn’t.

After the jump, what you want, and what you need

We finished the final turn of the game somewhere on the way to four in the morning. One of our number was done, completely wiped out, cashed. He could barely keep his eyes open as we calculated victory points. My other friend was still in good spirits, though most likely physically drained from having repeatedly spiked my little plastic spearman on the dining room floor after finally defeating him in battle earlier. I was tired too, but felt good. There’s a certain satisfaction to wrapping up a board game after almost four hours of constant gameplay. A sense of absurdity as well, to be sure, but satisfaction was predominant for me. I was especially proud of the aforementioned spearman. He’d done well for me in battle, dispatching more of my friend’s dudes, especially heroes, than he had any right defeating. Rest in peace, Spearman.

This was our second time playing Age of Mythology: The Boardgame, but only the first time I actually got it right and played properly by the rules. The first time through, earlier that week, I misunderstood the discard phase and ended up using my random cards incorrectly. Luckily I didn’t win that time, so apart from me feeling like an idiot no real harm was done.

As we set about carefully putting away the game, after sending our exhausted buddy on his way, I started thinking about the computer version of Age of Mythology and wondering whatever had happened to that game. For a good while there it seemed like we played that game every week at our LAN party, Shoot Club. Inevitably it disappeared in favor of something new coming out, Rise of Nations or something. Sometime well after that I bought it for myself, a rare happening. I don’t buy many games for myself, preferring to include them on wish lists so that my wife can gift them to me on holidays. I figure since they are gifts from her, she can hardly complain if I spend time playing them. But I’d developed a special feeling for AoM through playing it with the guys, so when I found it on sale somewhere I grabbed it.

My computer greeted this news by committing suicide, which I felt was something of an overreaction, dying of a fried motherboard before I could even think about installing the game. I suppose in the general distraction that is pricing, buying, and setting up a new system–a process that can take me months, sadly–the game found its way to a forgotten shelf. Playing the board game for hours on end brought all of this back. I had a blast with the board game, would the computer version hold up?

I decided to dig it out and see.

I don’t really have an answer to that above question, actually. I’m terrible at Real Time Strategy games, so the playing I’ve done so far–only a few hours’ worth–has amounted to little more than fumbling around. Messing up the tutorial a couple of times. An ill-advised foray into starting an actual campaign instead of tinkering with a few easy skirmishes first. The constant reminder that I’m hopeless with economics in these games, which is death when it comes to being good at them. So I don’t know that I can say it holds up, per se, except to say that I have found out that I love it much more than I remember, for a couple of reasons.

Second reason first: it’s relaxing. I can’t believe I just wrote that. Whenever someone draws the short straw at Shoot Club and picks an RTS, I immediately tense up. I feel like I’m about to be asked to spend the better part of an hour, or more, doing chores. While being ridiculed. So “relaxing” is the last word that comes to mind when I think of Real Time Strategy. And yet I found, once I abandoned campaign mode and got into a skirmish, that playing this game was relaxing me. Going through the process of setting up my town, creating a work-force, training an army, all of this was oddly pleasing. Playing against other humans is undeniably better for my skills, but playing alone was making me happy.

Now onto reason number one. And kind of, at long last, the point of this column.

The opening cinematic.

That’s right. The opening cinematic. That dopey pseudo-movie that plays at the beginning of the game, the one where the main character–me–bursts into a temple and proceeds to have Dead Zone-esque hallucinations of battle whenever he touches something…I love that. What’s more, until installing it and playing this week, I had totally forgotten that fact. When I fired up the game it all came rushing back and I recalled the way I felt the very first time I saw it. I think that can probably be distilled down to the word cool, or rather “Kewl!” It just got to me.

I didn’t need to “get in the mood” to play this game. The board game had taken care of that by piquing my interest in a game I’d ignored for years. I was plenty motivated. What I love about the intro movie for Age of Mythology is how it sets the tone. It gets my mind in the game more fully, and is probably part of why I find this game so relaxing. I feel like I’ve been eased into another world.

Most of the time I just try to skip those things. I don’t need to watch that weird dude rocking out on top of the car in RB2, for instance, and I find the Cheap Trick song annoying. But a really good opening movie sets my mood. Which is different from getting me in the mood. As I mentioned when discussing this week’s LBP2 level, if I’ve started up the game I’m in the mood to play it. Obviously. There are some opening cinematics that serve that purpose. For instance, I would have absolutely no interest in playing DC Universe Online were it not for that excellent movie that serves as a trailer for it. I still haven’t played the game, but I’m itching to because of that. What I like about opening movies in games I already know I want to play, though, is how they tune my brain.

Take one of my favorite goofy opening movies, the one from the beginning of Red Alert 2 with the piss-on-a-spark-plug guy from War Games and Ray Wise from Twin Peaks as the president. I love that thing. The live-action stuff is incredibly cheesy. “We’re supposed to be allies, you maniac!” Really Mr. President? You’re calling the Soviet Premiere a maniac on the red phone? And the dude in the silo explaining why they have to open the missile doors while his buddy cocks a gun in his face is pure silliness. But the moment that creepy guy Yuri turns to the camera–“Is it done, Yuri?” “No Comrade Premiere, it has only begun.”–and we switch to animation of the shadow falling over the Statue of Liberty and dirigibles reflected in the windows of skyscrapers, I’m all in. It’s not like there’s a suspension of disbelief and I’m imagining I’m directing battles in a world war. It’s that my brain has been tuned to the game’s frequency, so that the cartoony look of the buildings and tanks somehow don’t seem so childish. I’m not picturing real weapons and soldiers, I’m just in a different mental space, and a lot of that has to do with that opening movie.

I’m not asking for game designers to take me out and buy me dinner, but putting on some music, lighting a few candles, and getting me a drink–perfect Manhattan on the rocks, please–would definitely be the right thing to do. We’ll be spending hours together; let’s take our time before we get it on.

Click here for the previous Weekly Little Big Planet