Why I Play Video Games

There’s a recent article on Vulture examining why some (particularly grown-up adults) choose to spend so much of their free moments playing video games.

As much a past-time as reading, watching tv, or sports, playing video games has always had a negative stigma. That it wasn’t as worthy of our time and effort as the other recreational activities. I assume because it’s thought to be more for kids. Although I can’t fathom then why so many have no issue obsessing over sports… and not even playing but watching sports.

The article tries to justify gaming through several angles… some people make money broadcasting on YouTube! Or it’s a way to experience a world that has rules and goals unlike real life!

But the author (while a self-described gamer) doesn’t seem to fully buy into any rationale. Even stating that writing for a video game is an inferior artform to literary writing.

Of that, I totally disagree. Just because examples of stellar video game writing are far more scarce than books or poetry or whatnot, doesn’t mean it’s not capable of achieving the same heights.

Take The Last of Us. I can’t recall too many novels that caused me to swim in such a deep well of emotions by the end. I put down my controller at the end credits and felt a mixture of awe and devastation for characters that I had come to connect with more than most fictional characters


We also tend to forget that video games are a relatively new medium compared to other forms of artistic expression. Music and writing are about as old as human existence. Television has even been around for almost a century.

Video games, starting off severely limited by technology, have only really recently begun to venture into the waters of art and storytelling. More complex stories, professional voice (and mo-cap) actors, and music conductors, are all becoming as vital to video game production as the level designers and programmers.

Back to my own gaming journey, I spent a hefty amount of my childhood playing NES and SNES games, only to fall off around college, thinking that yes, indeed video games are just for kids.

I missed entire generations of consoles such as the N64, Gamecube, Playstation 1, and Playstation 2.

I finally found my way back after being intrigued by the concept of the Mass Effect trilogy. That there’s a series of games that allows you to craft your main character, to make decisions that have actual effects in not just the game you’re playing but subsequent games too. That video games were now much more epic and cinematic than when I was running around on 8-bit and 16-bit levels.


Even now, I have friends and girlfriends who look at me a bit sideways when I reveal that I spend a significant amount of my time gaming. It’s still viewed as a waste of time. Especially at an age and time where so many other things should take priority.

My simplest explanation basically breaks down to how video games are much less passive than watching tv or movies. And video games are as immersive as books, but have visual stimulation as well.

Being able to control a character, guiding them through a story or a puzzle or a battle, allows me to have agency and investment.

I won’t deny the sense of satisfaction when beating a tough boss enemy or solving a puzzle obstacle or the pleasure of killing an obnoxious online player. But that’s not what keeps drawing me into gaming. There has to be a story. There has to be character. There has to be emotion.

Recently on the way in to work, Life is Strange‘s main theme came up in my phone’s shuffle mode and I had a flood of feelings hit me. I felt a sense of missing Max and Chloe and their heart-warming, heart-breaking journey.

This is a grown-ass man going to an office, fighting back emotions for a video game about two teenaged girls.


Now, I know that people play video games for different reasons. I’m all about the story. But I recently found out that my cousin only likes to play online shooters and skips any cinematic just to get to the action. I found that mindset completely baffling. But to each his own.

Personally, I don’t play games for profit, popularity, or even as an escape from my real life.

I just like that as a form of entertainment. Like going to see a film or listening to music. Video games have just as much value to me as any of those.

Hopefully soon, there will be less stigma whenever I admit to someone that I like to game. I’ve definitely had the urge to sit people down in front of a game to show them that things have progressed very far from Super Mario Bros.

Here are some of my go-to games to express the potential of the medium:

The Last of Us
No brainer. The prologue might play a little too long for some people’s patience but it’s a hell of a display of the power of interactive story-telling.

A very different type of experience. Most people are caught off guard by how restrained it is. Usually, games come off as loud amusement parks. This game is more like a monastery.

This one tends to be a bit easier transition for people since most are at least familiar with side-scrollers. But the art direction and the stellar adherence to minimalism is always impressive.

Life is Strange
As mentioned above, this game really gets its hooks in you emotionally. It’s a bit of a tough sell though since it takes a good amount of time before the appeal kicks in.

The Walking Dead
I’ve come to love/hate Telltale games but this is a good one to introduce to people due to the popularity of the show. Plus it does a good job of retaining the show’s brutal no-win scenarios but puts decisions in the player’s hands.

Until Dawn
A great one to pull out for a group gathering around Halloween. The impressive visuals and the Scream-like setup is another good example to people of how games can be just as engrossing as a movie.


The Last of Us: A User Interface Review

(Originally posted on Jan 29, 2015)

These posts will mostly center on the user interface (and some basic user experience) rather than a thorough review of the overall game. But I will state that I considered The Last of Us to be an incredible game that hits a home run in just about every aspect. I loved this game. It’s definitely in my list of all time best games I’ve ever played.

Also, while preparing for this review, I stumbled across an article by the actual UI designer on TLOU, which was pretty informative. So check it out here if you want to hear from a legit creator rather than rantings of some blog poster.

Let’s do this!

Main Menu and Loading Screen


Right off the bat, the player gets a sense of what sort of experience Naughty Dog is setting up.

The image speaks so much about what the game is about. The deep, dark shadows juxtaposed with the bright sunlight. The decay of manmade materials and the enduring reach of nature. It’s the yin and yang that drive the story. The despair and horror driving Joel against the hope and optimism of Ellie. Design nerds like me eat this stuff up.

Simple and restrained typography exudes the confidence that this developer has in their creation. White text for the highlighted option with everything else grayed out. Brief descriptive text is displayed below the menu options. No extra flourishes to clutter up the screen.

I’m not a huge fan of the tabbing over to indicate the highlighted option; it muddies the hierarchy to me. But it’s generally clear enough as you interact with it and it’s a consistent element throughout the game. And consistency is good UI.

Amazingly, there’s only one loading screen in this game and it only happens after a player loads a saved game. It’s an incredible feat, especially compared to games like Destiny which are mired in endless loading screens. Simplicity is again the goal here, with just a black screen and a wispy cloud of pollen floating across the screen. Lovely and ominous.

Main Menu and Loading Screen Grade: A+



Button Mapping and Sound Design

The character controls are standard to most modern games as far as the analog sticks, and it’s probably a terrible idea to even think about diverting from it these days.

Running is shifted from clicking the L analog to the L1 bumper, which I appreciated. Clicking on the L analog is problematic for me in games. Sometimes I click it and nothing happens, other times I’m in a tense situation and accidentally click it when I don’t want to.


Tapping on the D pad will bring up the weapon and item menu for selecting what the character actively holds. It’s a nice system that holds up well to the amount of items that populate the menu as the game progresses, however the biggest benefit is how quickly it responds to the user. Simply pressing the D pad directions gives the player access to up to 9 items. It’s easy and quick, even in mid-battle situations. Holding X over a weapon allows the player to place a different weapon in that slot. Once that method is figured out, it becomes relatively natural.

The icons are clear, there are quantity indicators with nice use of color if there is no more of that item, and a wrench icon pops up next to the item if more of it can be crafted.

The only minor issue I have with the setup is that the default state always starts the highlight from the center. So if I was actively holding the bow and wanted to get to the nail bomb, instead of tapping twice to the right and twice up, I only had to tap up twice since the menu starts me at the center. I guess it actually makes sense and requires less button taps, but for some reason I kept getting confused on that issue, especially if enemies were bearing down on me.

It’s nice to see ways to inform the player other than visually.

I wanted to mention sound design because it sort of plays a role in the UI. There is no overhead map with enemy pings so whenever you are in danger of being seen by an enemy, there is a whooshing sound that gets louder as the enemy becomes more aware of you. It definitely aided my gameplay and my stealth abilities. Also, there’s a chime to key the player in on any landmarks or objectives that need to be noticed. It’s nice to see ways to inform the player other than visually.

Since TLOU is a Sony exclusive, I imagine there was a stronger mandate to fuller use of the Playstation Dual Shock controller. I like that the touchpad was used to access the backpack which is a major element. The use of the controller mic for things like the flashlight was nice. Although times like listening to voice recorders through the mic actually took me out of the story and reminded me that I was holding a controller playing a game. Perhaps if it were used more consistently. Since the sound of the flashlight is through the mic, maybe other elements that are on the character should’ve been through it as well, like weapon reloading.

Button and Sound Grade: A



Gameplay HUD


Naughty Dog helps the immersive feel of the game by making the in-game HUD basically non-existent. Times when the player is walking around, there isn’t any HUD at all. And indicators of a manipulatable item is shown by a simple white line circle.

Overall, the icons and graphics in the game are straightforward and simple. It’s a nice display of restraint because it could easily be imagined that a developer would’ve gone for more distressed and dirtied graphics for a post-apocalyptic game.


Items that are found throughout the game have an intermittent sheen and show an icon as you get close. Again, the icons are simple and clear with numbers that inform the player. The effect is subtle enough to be missed, but I believe the intent is that these are discoverables and the reward is for thorough exploration.


What I didn’t like as much was that the ammo was indicated by red icons. They’re differentiated from the crafting icons which is good, but I just associate red with something that is bad for my character. We’ll look into other uses of red in the menus which show why this is a misuse, conflicting all other instances of the color.


Actually, if a player cannot hold any more of an item, a red “FULL” is shown, which indicates something negative to the player.

It seems nitpicky, but in a game that does everything so well, the little things that don’t work pop out more.


When the HUD for health and ammo does show up, it’s nice and compact. I saw previous versions of this HUD with the health as a straight bar, and I think curling it around the active weapon is a nice treatment. Again, the weapon icon is clear; I never confused any of the weapons for another.

As the player gains shivs and melee weapons, their respective icons float outside the health circle, and small rectangles indicate how many attacks a player has with the weapon before it’s used up. As you can see in the image above, once a player has all those items, the HUD becomes more convoluted. It would’ve been nice to not have the two extra elements just tacked on, floating outside the circle. I wonder if other alternatives had been explored.


In battle situations, TLOU makes use of a sonar mode that allows the player to “hear” where enemies are. It’s a visually arresting element and works great in play. Sometimes I felt that I actually over-relied on it because I can recall one or two instances when I stumbled onto an enemy that didn’t show up on the mode because they were completely still and silent.

HUD Grade: A-



In-Game Menus


Once a player goes into the backpack, a series of menus pops up. What I found cool about this is that what’s happening in the game is still live. Enemies are still moving around and you could still be seen or attacked. Thus keeping the game screen visible on the left helps remind you. Also, your companion characters will give you audio cues, which is a nice touch.

The simplicity of the visuals the Naughty Dog has established continues here which make such a busy screen still easy to decipher. Clear icons on the left to tap through, with the same wrench icon to show that another item can be crafted.

The crafting ingredients inventory takes up the main area, with nice icons and circles to show quantity. (Although my friends would joke about what a quarter of a scissor looks like.) Highlighted times are in white while everything else is dimmed. However when the player doesn’t have enough of a material, the items will be in red, again showing that red is and should be used to indicate something negative.

Yellow is used for the top navigation to show that there’s something new or can be upgraded. Why not use the yellow elsewhere?

I think the typographic hierarchy could’ve been a bit better. It starts to get a little muddied. Still, the system is strong enough and content is minimal so it’s not a huge readability issue.


The next tabbed menu is the Skills, which here is where you see another use of red to show when you can’t do something in the game. Otherwise everything here works well.


The last menu allows the player to see any collected artifacts. What’s nice is that Naughty Dog took the time to create each piece, including handwritten letters on crumpled notebook paper, which the player can view in close up, but also allows for a typed version to appear for easy readability.

I thought this worked great until my friend admitted that he never even knew that was an option. It seems pretty clear in the screen above, when there are minimal elements to look at. The only solution that I can think of is to maybe group the options together rather than in separate corners of the menu. I think especially “READ” and “ZOOM” would’ve made sense to be in closer proximity to each other.


Lastly, we get to probably the most complex menu in the game: the weapon upgrading system.

Here is where the solid visual foundation that has been built really pays off. The screen is full of information but it never felt overwhelmingly confusing. The simple yet strong visual and typographic language have already been introduced to the player as the game progresses. Here, it’s all the same just assembled in a different way.

It’s nice that the player can see and access all the weapons in the navigation rather than if the pistols had been grouped into a submenu. You’re able to browse through to see item progress and the cost of any upgrade, which helps the decision making progress. The use of red is for when something can’t be upgraded. Action button instructions are paired together at the bottom.

It’s hard to emphasize why simplicity is important and why it works, until you can point to a screen like this.

Menus Grade: A-



Final Verdict

It’s nice to see a game where the UI works so well so consistently. In such a cinematic, story-driven game, the goal of keeping it out of the player’s way is admirable.

It’s almost ironic that the game is so filled with textural detail and gorey violence that the graphics would be so simple and unassuming. What might not seem like a fit in theory works out wonderfully in application.

Great job!

Overall Grade: A

Let me know what you think!

Let’s Play: The Last of Us

Here’s my very first attempt at a commentated Let’s Play. I streamed directly off the Playstation 4, using their Share function.

A fun experiment but I definitely had to figure out my mic/audio issues. I also wasn’t super comfortable speaking while playing so I tended to be pretty quiet.

All in all though, I really enjoyed the experience which led me to continue to do Let’s Plays.

I had already played The Last of Us to feel safer with the gameplay while people were watching. That meant there weren’t many genuine surprises during the game but I think allowed me to play better and have a bit more to say about the game.

I sometimes feel the urge to go back and re-do this Let’s Play for better commentating after having done it more times, but should just let it be, right?

Hope you enjoy it!