Long Live Games With Heart

21 Dec
chrono-trigger

Little sprites; big heart.

Ever since I got my MicroBox back from the MicroBox fixing center and managed to set aside, like, five minutes (sigh) to play the new Prince of Persia, I’ve been thinking about what that magical thing is in certain games, that thing that grabs me and won’t let go, usually soon after I turn the game on for the first time.  The only word I can come up with is heart – some games just have it, and when I throw in the disc, I’m sold from minute one. 

Prince of Persia is, without question, one of those games.

There were plenty of titles that, in years past, I have had plenty of fun playing, and many that posed a great challenge, had immersive, brilliant graphics, and sucked plenty of hours of my time, but only a select few had real, honest-to-goodness, I-kind-of-feel-like-a-dork-for-loving-this-so-much heart. Off the top of my head: Grim Fandango, No One Lives Forever 2, King’s Quest VI, Gabriel Knight, The Longest Journey, and, more recently, Half-Life 2, Episode 2, Mass Effect and Braid.

This winter, only two games that have really grabbed me by the ventricles – Prince and the DS re-release of Chrono Trigger.  They are, interestingly enough, from utterly different eras of gaming, and the technical disparity between these two provides a clear example of how little “heart” has to do with the nuts and bolts behind the game. They’re at opposite ends of the graphics spectrum, with Prince’s un-fucking-believable visuals towering above Chrono’s 16-bit SNES re-release graphics.  Every part of their technical presentation, in fact, from the music, to the gameworld, to the nature of the gameplay, couldn’t be more reflective of two completely different eras of gaming.

Yet both games brim with heart – you get the sense that these characters care about one another, from the way that Chrono chases Marle through time and Lucca and the gang joke around with one another and do victory dances after battle, to the unbelievably sweet way that the Prince helps Elika hold onto him while climbing and catches her when they hop off of  a wall…  The dialogue between the characters, stilted and occasionally cheesy though it may be, feels genuine, the battle for survival seems as though it matters, the romance is quite romantic, and the magic feels truly magical.

While I could scour the games I’ve listed here for common traits to better pinpoint what it is that connects with me, that would probably be missing the point. I’m sure that vibing with the soul of a game has as much (if not more) to do with one’s own heart as it does with that of the developer behind the game. Some would doubtless argue that Master Chief’s fight to save Cortana in Halo 3 is the pinnicle of emotionally-involving gaming; for others, James Sunderland’s treck through Silent Hill was an emotional roller-coaster from start to finish.

But tricky though it may be to define, heart is usually something that each of us can identify within the first five minutes of a game.  You look at the screen and think to yourself, “Okay, I can care about this.  This is going to affect me.  I’m in.”

Which is a good thing, since right after that you usually wind up having to go and spend ten hours or so saving the world.

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