It sounds strange, but sometimes I get tired of playing good games. Or perhaps a better way to put it is, playing good games all the time isn’t enough. Many games are very good and a lot of fun to play, but fail at something that is just as important: they fail to be interesting.
A long time ago, I played a demo for a game called Albion. It was a sci-fi RPG, in which humans were sending a ship to another planet in order to mine some desperately needed metals. The player character takes a surveyor shuttle to the surface to check it out, but something goes wrong, and the shuttle crashes. When the protagonist comes to, he is in a village, being cared for by an intelligent but low-tech native race. But there wasn’t supposed to be any life on this planet, at least not according to the mining company. Realizing that the company must be up to no good, the protagonist sets off to find the landing site and stop the mining project.
So far, not a very original storyline, but mechanically the game offered an interesting mix of styles. In buildings and when exploring the outside world, the game is shown top-down with some rather pretty sprite graphics. You can walk around, search things, and talk to people. But in towns and dangerous areas, the game switches to a rudimentary first-person 3D mode reminiscent of early FPS games. These areas often feature a plethora of puzzles, switches and traps, as well as enemies. Combat takes place in turn-based fashion on a small grid, where you move your party members around to attack or cast spells (yes, there is magic in the game), but once you’ve given orders, the turn plays out in real-time from the first-person perspective. So, quite a few mechanics thrown in. From the demo I was expecting the full game to have a rather cliched storyline but some cool gameplay. I didn’t end up getting a copy at the time, but for some reason that demo stayed in the back of my memory.
A few years ago, I tracked down a copy to give it a go, and what I found was a game that was pretty much the opposite of what I expected. The various gameplay mechanics were interesting at first, but quickly became a bit tedious. The top-down exploration was fine, but there wasn’t a whole lot of loot to find, which took some of the fun out of exploring. The outside world consisted of big continents, but there was very little reward for exploring them, as they were mostly empty wilderness. Combat began to get repetitive, with the same spells and strategies being used in every fight. And the first-person sections, despite some clever puzzles, were often far too long and became tiresome slogs.
That generic plot, though? Turns out it was anything but. A twist early on (this might have even been in the demo, as I never actually finished it back in the day) caught me completely by surprise, and then the story started going in some really fascinating directions. A great amount of time and thought was put into the world; the game’s credits include a “philosophical coach” and it shows. As the game went on I was forcing myself through the dull 3D sections just to see how everything was going to turn out. And when I reached the end, despite all the frustrations I had with the gameplay, Albion had provided one of the most memorable gaming experiences of my life.
But it’s hard to recommend a game like Albion to others, because you have to explain that, well, it’s not really that good. Instead, it’s interesting. It’s worth playing it, not for fun, but to see the ideas and philosophies it posits. Unfortunately, games like Albion often fall by the wayside. Albion got generally favorable reviews in the 70 – 85% range, but such scores wouldn’t elevate it above a well-made but rather generic shooter. Which is a shame. Albion and other such games deserve to be played just as much, if not more, than said generic shooter, but as gamers and critics we put too much stock in the gameplay systems and not enough in imagination.
In fact, the truly great games are the ones that manage to have both. The System Shock and Thief series. Psychonauts. Homeworld. Deus Ex. Portal. But such games are very rare. When we’re not playing those, we’re usually playing some solid but less interesting ones. But we should be taking more chances, trying more strange, abstract, unusual, and offbeat games. We need to stop focusing on design as the main indicator of quality, and give more credit to games that try to be new and different. We need to play more bad games. We might find they’re not so bad after all.
If you want to give Albion a try, it’s easy to run it these days using DOSBox, but it’s not so easy to find a copy. It’s
not being legitimately sold anywhere [EDIT: it’s now sold digitally on GOG], so your choices are a (very expensive) used copy, or a legally-ambiguous abandonware site. Fortunately, the rising popularity of independent games means there are many newer games that are high in imagination, if sometimes plagued by bugs or design problems. Zeno Clash is a first-person brawler that has you fistfighting bird-men and elephant-people in a truly bizarre world. Magicka has you mixing together some rather volatile magical elements in an attempt to sling spells at enemies, but more often than not sees you accidentally blowing up yourself and your teammates in hilarious fashion. E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy (which I have not yet played) has received decidedly mixed reviews, but it’s got RPG sytems, FPS mechanics, huge maps, co-op play, guns, swords, cloaking, hacking and robot drones all set in a dark sci-fi world infused with mysticism. The recently-announced Dragon Commander has you forming political alliances and arranged marriages, moving troops around a tactical map in turn-based fashion, and then jumping into battle as a dragon with a jetpack who gets to blow up spaceships.
When was the last time you played a game like these?