Two Worlds

In video games, I have recently been gifted the “Epic Edition” of the 2007 PC/Xbox game, Two Worlds.  Yes, 2007.  Generally speaking (particularly if I am buying the game with my own small pile of cash), the games I play are over a year old.  This has many advantages, primary among them being the price, the stability of fully-patched game, and the ability of my outdated hardware to run the game.  Anyway, the game is a terrible, wonderful, no-good, steaming pile of very entertaining trash.  That’s my one-sentence review.  The language and voice-acting used in the game, a sort of stilted Ye Olde English, pretty much sums up the whole game: the delivery is not good, the script is not good, but the end-user experience runs somewhere between bemusement and hilarity.  Thumbs up.
Now I might, perchance, do some in-depth game reviews on this blog, but verily, this won’t be one of them.  Instead, I shall ask the question – why do I continue to play this game?  For instance, I could be playing Deus Ex, another elderly game that is sitting in my Steam library.  It is generally acknowledged to be a classic of modern(ish) gaming.  It has a 90 aggregate Metacritic score, which is excellent.  …and this is just one example.  I have several very fine games that I either haven’t started or haven’t played through to the end sitting only a double click away from me.  Add to this the fact that the time between waking up and falling asleep is limited, and has many important things other than video games occupying it, and forsooth, my motivation for playing Two Worlds should be near zero.  And yet, it is not.  Why?
There are undoubtedly neurological reasons for this behavior.  Radiolab’s most recent broadcast (“Stochasticity“) had a segment in it regarding the release of dopamine in the brain.  In context, it was discussing a woman who had developed an intense gambling addiction as a result of a Parkinson’s drug that essentially overstimulated dopamine release in her brain.  Apparently researchers have found that the human brain disproportionately weights (in terms of dopamine release and thus, warm, fuzzy, good feelings of satisfaction) unexpected rewards.  The evolutionary rationale is that if, for instance, you find a food source that you don’t expect, you should be biochemically encouraged to figure out why/how this reward came to you so that it will continue to arrive.  This extends obviously (and tragically, given the probabilities of reward) to gambling, but I think the principle extends to games like Two Worlds (or Diablo or many others).  These games feature an elaborate system of randomized loot (gold pieces, weapons, armor, etc) that can be used to improve one’s character.  Just like gambling (though admittedly with a positive result that is at once less tangible but more assured) the rewards are unpredictable.  A particularly shiny piece of armor drops randomly from a slain enemy, you pick it up, see what it is, and <snap> a warm, fuzzy feeling prevades your consciousness.
This all sounds, mayhaps, a bit insidious.  (The game is turning my own brain chemistry against me!  Soon I shall be powerless to resist its, er, power!)  However, though the mechanism I described is certainly present in Two Worlds, there must be other reasons.  After all, plenty of other games operate on a similar system of unexpected rewards.  So, other reasons to play…  There’s a mild social component – my friend Joe has also played through this ridiculous game, and there is, verily, entertainment in shared experience.  There’s the campy mode of speech and script.  There’s the story of a brother trying to rescue his kidnapped sister from evil-sounding and evil-looking hoodlums.  There’s wanting to finish something that one has started.  There’s being able to have your character wield an axe half as tall as himself in either hand and dispatch enemies while he says things like “Say hello to death!” and “Ahhhhh!”.  There’s then there’s, well, um, hmmm.  Mayhaps an analogy, with some setup, will suffice.
When I was in middle/high school, I spent some of my allowance on paperback science fiction and fantasy novels.  Not classics in the genre.  Classics by the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Dick, Tolkien, and Lewis I could get at the library.  The ones I bought were almost all terribly written pulp: various Dungeons and Dragons branded novels, the novels of David Eddings, etc.  My Mom, who was at this point in my life probably hoping that I’d progress past the quality of writing that I’d come to enjoy back in second and third grade when devouring the Hardy Boys “mysteries”, gently pointed me towards finer literature.  I (mostly) ignored these attempts, and I still don’t read much fine literature, despite knowing that it’s good for me.  I’m sure you’re getting the analogy already, so I’ll go ahead and avoid comparing whatever won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction last year (no, not this year) to, say, Baldur’s Gate 2.  So there you are:  Two Worlds, the video game equivalent of a pulp fantasy novel.  You can probably even get it cheaper than what a paperback costs these days, so if you’ve got the time and inclination, enjoy and then feel a little guilty about it afterward.  Fare thee well, traveler!

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