Pretension +1 Overlords and Astronauts

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, April 30, 2010 at 9:00 am

I don't see eye-to-eye with my buddy Mike when it comes to videogames. Sure, we like a lot of the same games, but we take different things from them. Mike is a gameplay guy. He admits to skipping story bits when he can. He loves to get wrapped up in the mechanics of games, especially RPGs, and really tinker with the way they work.

I'm fine with those kind activities, but story is what keeps me involved. I turn up the volume when its time for characters to speak -- even when their lines are hackneyed and poorly acted. I get off on exploring new worlds, meeting new people, slipping into a different skin.

And because games can deliver two, seemingly disparate experiences, I'm coming to believe that gamers, too, usually identify with one of two camps. 

If you're into games, you're either an overlord or an astronaut.

Overlords are all about mastery -- they're out to investigate the way a game works, solve the problems put forth by game designers and then wield the power they've earned. Overlords like to win. They can be competitive. And they hate randomness. The blue turtle shell is the bane of all overlords.

Astronauts, on the other hand, are out for adventure. They're more concerned with going places, seeing something new and having new experiences. The mechanics of the game are merely a means to an end for astronauts. They don't care how their rocket works, so long as it gets them out of orbit.

I know that making this kind of binary distinction about an audience as broad and diverse as the gaming public can be dangerous. And I'm sure could easily be a dozen more kinds of gamers sussed out if we thought hard about it. But I feel fairly confident that nearly every gamer can find their place somewhere on the spectrum between the astronaut and the overlord. 

My archetypes, not coincidentally, jive pretty nicely with the division between right brained and left brained thinking. Overlords are the logical, thinking gamer. Astronauts, the feeling gamer. 

By pigeonholing gamers into these two camps we can then step back and look at games themselves from a slightly different angle. Noby Noby Boy, for example, is the ultimate astronaut game. And not only because it allows you to explore the solar system. Your average overlord would probably argue that Noby Noby Boy isn't a game at all because there's no point. There's no failure and no winning. You just go different places, stretch, eat, poop and play.

Tetris isn't as deep or complex as most role-playing games, but for sheer purity I'd call it a good example of what overlords want out of a game. The game hews closely to the old videogame maxim, "easy to learn, difficult to master." Tetris almost pure gameplay. I say almost because the original game's Russian design motifs and the game's enduring theme song do create a sense of place. But at its core Tetris is a set of easy to understand rules embellished by a handful of iconic and discernible puzzle pieces. The rules of Tetris are simple, stack or die. The challenge of the game is getting your mind to quickly compute the best place for a Tetronimo to fall and then convince your body to put it there.

Playing Noby Noby Boy is the essence of play. Playing Tetris, as fun as it may be, is pretty much work. If somebody put you in a warehouse and told you to stack stuff you'd ask for an hourly wage. But the overlord in us looks at Alexey Pajitnov's enduring game as ongoing challenge -- one that we never tire of tackling. 

As I write this I realize more and more that I have my own overlord urges. I have, in my day, futzed endlessly with stats in Fallout 3. And, when I don't have any cellophane to crack on a new game I'll go back to an old one and try to wring more achievements out, or earn a new online ranking. And I continue to play a game or two of Tetris whenever the game finds its way into my hands.

My friend Mike, conversely, swears by Final Fantasy VII -- a game steeped in story. But on top of spinning a multi-disc yarn Final Fantasy VII puts players in control of the complex, flexible and powerful materia system. 

It seems games can, and most often do, serve both camps fairly well.

Its when games push themselves far to the ends of the spectrum (especially into astronaut territory) when gamers get into a huff. Final Fantasy XIII isn't earning any fans among overlord RPG fans. And there are entire genres, such as the fighting game or the real-time-strategy, that scare vast swaths of the astronaut gaming public away because of their punishing difficulty or complexity.

I was going to re-assure you that this isn't a war. That overlords and astronauts can co-exist. But maybe that's wrong. The tug-of-war between videogame as challenge and videogame as escapism is ongoing. Many of us may balk at the way that Final Fantasy XIII dials back all the things we expect from an RPG. But its still selling. Plenty of astronauts are digging the game. And if astronauts get more of what they want that means that overlords may not get the Final Fantasy game they're longing for. 

If you feel strongly about what kind of experience games ought to deliver you may want to pick up one one of the rope and start pulling.

Which side are you on?

Pretension +1 is a weekly videogame column by Gus Mastrapa that explores the notion that gamers are from both Mars and Venus.

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