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Of Favorite Games and Booty Calls

Susan Arendt | 2 Jun 2008 21:00
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I came to the conclusion that to really know a gamer, the question you should be asking isn't what their favorite game ever is, but rather what their guilty pleasure is. A game that isn't really all that good, but that you return to, again and again, nonetheless. A game that you're guaranteed to enjoy, but that you feel a little bit ashamed about when you're done playing. Your booty call game, if you will. We all have them, and I believe they reveal far more about us than the games we offer up as our so-called "favorites". Our favorite games are safe, they're defendable, they're the games for which it's easy to find support and solidarity. Our booty call games, on the other hand, are the type of titles that will cause our close compatriots to hide expressions of horror behind their hands as they wonder if they ever really knew us at all.

Phantasy Star Online is my booty call game. I've purchased it, in one form or another, six times. I've put more time into that game than I have into some jobs that I list on my resume, and yet I certainly am not going to look you in the eye and tell you that it's any good. For those who are unfamiliar, Phantasy Star Online is a pseudo-MMOG that saw two iterations - Episode I and Episode II - as well as a "Plus" version that boasted a bit of additional content, first on the Dreamcast and then later on the GameCube. I say "pseudo" because adventuring parties were limited to just four players, so although there may have been thousands of people playing at the same time you were, your interaction with them was largely limited to game lobbies. Gears of War is nearly as much of an MMOG as PSO was.

PSO takes place in the universe created in the Phantasy Star line of RPGs, though it has more in common with Diablo than the games with which it shares a name. You enter a room, kill everything that moves, collect any money or loot that drops, and move on to the next room, where you lather, rinse, repeat as needed. The character classes are as basic as can be - your shooter, your magician, and your somewhere-in-between - with not much room for customization or personalization. The elemental magic and weapons locker full of swords and rifles certain aren't going to win any awards for innovation. If one was feeling particularly generous, one could suggest cutting PSO some slack based on its age, but there's just no shaking the fact that it's a staggeringly derivative game.

If that weren't enough to talk you out of playing it, the camera is bad to the point that it makes some the maps in Episode II all but unplayable. Though the game did make strides in the type of downloadable content we now consider commonplace, the extra missions dried up long ago, so players are left revisiting the same areas, fighting the same foes, working towards that same end boss over and over and over again. It's the hamster wheel of gaming.

Yet I return to it time and again, especially in times of misery and stress. Sliding back onto those servers is a sure-fire way to shove out the rest of the world. It's familiar and safe relationship, one that I understand and can count on. PSO will always love me. PSO will never tell me no. I've since migrated from PSO to its bigger, newer cousin, Phantasy Star Universe which, a few updates later, has an online experience very similar to PSO's, which is to say it's repetitive as hell and utterly unoriginal, but at least the camera is a little bit better. I haven't played it in months, but I keep my membership up to date, anyway, just in case I find myself overcome with the need to make a late-night gaming booty call.

I'm pretty sure that tells you far more about me than my favorite game - whatever it is - ever could.

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