Nov 25, 2011

In Soviet Russia, Game Plays You!

Kotaku Australia has published a couple of really interesting articles about Modern Warfare 3 within the past few days, one slamming the game and a response to that first article.

You should probably read them both, although it probably won't be necessary to follow this post.

The crux of the matter is this:

Are the linear, corridor-shooting campaigns of recent multi-player focused shooters even games at all, when they feature almost no agency on the part of the player (you're always told go here, do this, follow this person, etc., with any attempts to deviate even slightly from the game's path being prevented). Or are they just glorified films? Drawn out quick-time events, maybe? What's the fun in always being kept on such a very, very short leash?

There have always been linear games of course, but even early shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein featured level design that looked more like a maze than a single long corridor when mapped out. In Half-Life you always had to figure out where to go and what to do next, instead of being hand-held and constrained. Half-Life is probably the epitome of a linear shooter done well. There's only one way to go, really, but the game doesn't tell you exactly how to get there, precisely what to do, or throw up (too many) arbitrary invisible walls or obstacles when you try to go the wrong way.

But in Call of Duty, in Battlefield, in Medal of Honor (2010), you are forever and always just doing exactly what you're told.

Regular readers know that my favourite game of all time is probably Deus Ex, because of the freedom to approach situations however you please, and because it forces you to think and plan to be successful. Other franchises and games do this very successfully, but none, in my opinion, quite as well as Deus Ex (except, perhaps, Deus Ex: Human Revolution - a game that I thought could never happen in the modern market).

And I've said before that, to me, in a good game, the player reward should come from the satisfaction of, essentially, overcoming intellectual challenges set by the game.

But I can still enjoy Modern Warfare 2's hand-holdy romp, and, more recently, Battlefield 3's extremely constrained single-player. Games where you are never asked to do this.

It comes down to, I think, not un-games and un-players. There are different kinds of games, requiring different kinds of players. Less obviously, more interestingly, is the idea that these different kinds of games are not as dissimilar as it might at first appear.

Every game is an interplay between game and gamer, one working within the confines of the other. In Deus Ex, these confines are very, very broad. You have a lot of options. And in MW2, you have approximately one thing you can do at any given time. In both cases, the key to enjoying the game is to approach it and engage with it in the way it's asking to be engaged with. In Deus Ex, you gain enjoyment by your freedom.

And in MW2, you gain it by sitting back, relaxing, essentially becoming submissive and letting the game take control. But in both cases, you're doing essentially the same thing - playing the game as it has asked you to.

Not everyone enjoys games with limited freedom.

But really, unless we want to get into over-pretentious, over-critical territory (and this is something I fucking love to do) we should judge games by how much fun they can be when played in the way they want to be played, and by somebody who enjoys that style of game. The yardsticks I use - is there freedom, is it challenging, am I engaged by the game's world - those are all things that I really love from games. And they're all things I'm willing to put away when the game asks me to, and play it how it wants to be. It's somewhat of a flaw, as a budding critic, but I am always trying to see the best in a game, find the ways it does work and cash-in on those, try and seek the things about the game the developer wanted me to enjoy, even if they fly in the face of my very favourite things.

A flaw for a critic, but a fantastic characteristic for a player and lover of anything, to be able to see the good. Indeed, I've very rarely truly hated a game, or felt ripped-off by a developer, feelings many of my gaming bretheren often express.

As a cynic, it's easy for me to say that with this attitude, you're essentially letting yourself get screwed paying money for mediocre games.

And yet, I'm probably a happier person than the guys raging on the dev forums of those same mediocre games, and that seems... good!

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