Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tricks of the Trade

Video games demand an unusual amount of skill in comparison to other media. If one wants to get the most out of a game, factors like manual dexterity, the ability to distinguish between colors, and spacial reasoning all come into play. There's also an additional layer of skill set one builds up as the years pass: simply getting games to work properly can be its own kind of challenge. The amount of complex software and hardware involved in running a game is staggering when one stops to think about it, and it's inevitable that the ride can get bumpy at times. Recently, Hanah and I encountered one such bump during our joint re-playing of 2008's Prince of Persia.

A few days ago, Hanah loaded up her most recent save, launched the Prince towards a distant ledge, and proceeded to watch him fall into a bottomless pit. For some reason, Elika refused to provide him a helping hand when she pressed the triangle button. For those that haven't played Prince of Persia, you should know that the triangle button is integral to the game's functioning. Among other things, It allows for a double jump necessary to clear large gaps, controls magic attacks, and allows for fast travel between zones.

With a dead triangle button, the prince was stuck on a single platform. The Prince couldn't make the jump to the next platform on his own, and fast travelling to another zone was out of the question. What started out as a quest to collect more light seeds had turned into a game of technology troubleshooting.

I suggested the age-old tech solution of "turning it off and then on again." Turning off the controller and then turning it back on solved nothing. We escalated the technique and turned the entire system off and on again; still nothing. I was tempted to curse Sony's hardware, but then we tried a second controller and found that its triangle button wasn't working either. This seemed like too much of a coincidence, so I decided to back out to the XMB and test the button by doing some menu functions. Much to our (and our bank account's) relief, all the buttons worked fine outside of the game.

Our relief was short-lived, as it soon became clear that the problem was with the actual game and that this software glitch had the potential to put an ignominious end to the story. Thankfully, Prince of Persia keeps an auto-save file alongside any manual save file made by the player. As a last ditch effort, I suggested loading from the auto save. We would lose progress, but at least we could get some more information about how far this meta-corruption had spread. In a pleasant-yet-baffling turn of events, the triangle button worked perfectly fine. For some reason, one particular button had stopped working on one particular save.

The whole situation illustrated why, when a game gives me the option, I always have two separate saves going just in case something weird happens. It's not necessarily a natural impulse: most people don't keep two bookmarks in a book in case one "fails," nor do most DVD players have two separate pause features. However, years of playing games and dealing with their quirks has taught me some lessons that transcend any particular title.

When it comes to actually getting games to function, this example is on the simplistic side. Anyone who has waded into config files on a PC or tangled with their home firewall knows that dealing with the practical realities of the medium requires another layer of literacy on top of learning how to navigate a game's systems. In addition to vanquishing a game's villain, players often must tame a game's technology.

And now, let me open the floor to you all: What are your favorite tricks to ensure a smooth gaming experience?  How many of them have you learned the hard way? Your hard luck story could save someone from a similar fate.


  1. I learnt a lot about computers by playing PC games throughout my youth and trying to get them to work.

    In the 90s it felt like 1 game out of 5 would simply fail to launch for no obvious reason. I did a *lot* of troubleshooting... In some regards it was a massive waste of time, but I also learnt to solve problems logically.

  2. I've taken a similar route and make 3 separate saves in every game I play. In fact, when I can't make multiple saves, I get very anxious (Fable 3!)

  3. Having played throughout my teens on a not-so-stellar PC, I learned not only how to configure games to get the best blend of performance and graphical quality, but the inner workings of graphics engines, using command line prompts to switch to a simpler set of shaders (Dark Messiah of Might and Magic in DirecX 8 mode) or tweaking every single obscure setting in the config files.

    And believe me, there's no greater feeling than when you get Far Cry running at a decent framerate on a GeForce 4 MX 440.

  4. Unusual amount of skill?

    Speaking as someone who grew up with a VCR player, and has done enough video editing to know the significance of a lossless codec: You may be underestimating other forms of entertainment.

  5. This article reminds me of two contrasting experiences I've had with saves and glitches. One situation had me worried about glitches I never had, and the other had me feeling safe but my game was finished by glitch (and three successive incautious saves.

    In 2008, I was lured back to video gaming by having a terrific experience playing Zelda Twighlight Princess. Fortunately, that game was forgiving enough that I didn't even need multiple save files to get through - I just kept overwriting the existing one. All that time, I was worried about hitting a glitch though) I try to keep at least one other save for precisely the reason you're discussing in this article, but I had to use the single save because several of us were sharing the Wii console (and there were only 3 or 4 slots to save into).

    Soon afterward, I played Halflife for the first time. Like "Tech Devout", I had a non-stellar PC, and had to make good choices about how to optimise my hardware. Halflife was manageable for my rig, and I was really happy to have multiple slots to save my game in. Unfortunately, I ended in a real problem with my save choices. I used the strategy of using three current saves as I made my way through Zen, and quickly continued to rotate through these as I saved progress during the final boss battle. No amount of perfect hardware could have prepared me for the weird bug I hit. I was able to kill the boss but then nothing was triggered. I was sort of stuck there moving around on a dead boss, but my saves had been so rapid in succession that the only viable alternative would be backtrack by 1/3 of the game. I decided to watch the ending of the game as a walkthrough on Youtube instead. I am so grateful for Youtube since I actually didn't enjoy Halflife very much, so it would have been crushing to play 1/3 again.