1 August 2002
Competition is everywhere. For some reason it often attracts the adjective “healthy”; it is thought to be the noble core of sport; it drives down prices in the economy. We are all happy competitors. In videogames, too, we often speak in competitive terms. Not just for those games which function solely to provide an arena in which we compete with other humans, but for single-player games where we interact with an inhuman system. Still we will often say “I beat that level” or “I beat the game”. The point of a game is to “win”, after all. But what does it mean to compete against inanimate digital structures?
During Wimbledon fortnight, while I was grimly telling everyone who would listen that if Tim Henman wins the tournament I’d have his name tattooed on my forehead, I took a look at Namco’s Smash Court Pro Tournament. It’s no masterpiece, to be sure, no Virtua Tennis 2; but it does, with its simple controls and happy immediacy, remind me of days playing Match Point on the Spectrum, and there was a sadistic pleasure to be had from noting how precisely none of the licensed players appeared in the latter rounds of the real-life Wimbledon.
But playing against the computer opponents, as usual with sports and fighting games, turned out to be a curiously soulless experience, good only for practise in anticipation of the inevitable multiplayer. The usual complaint is that the AI players don’t seem human, but why exactly is this? It seems that what characterizes human play in any endeavour is inconsistency. During an evening of Smash Court, my friend Josh would play a brilliant volley to win one point and then dump both his serves into the net to lose the next one. I would whack a perfect backhand return down the line, and then on the next point I’ll fail around making air-shots and miss an easy smash.
Sport, in other words, whether in the virtual world or the real one, is built on mistakes. Just ask David Seaman. If a team of eleven perfect footballers met a team of another eleven perfect footballers, the result would be an antiseptic stalemate with no goals. Brilliance can only exist in the context of errors. The same is true of chess, where the rule of thumb is that the guy who makes the next-to-last mistake – patzer or super-Grandmaster, it doesn’t matter – wins the game.
It is difficult, however, to program a computer opponent such that it makes mistakes in a convincing fashion. Errors made by a machine, because we know it need make no errors at all, are likely just to seem forced and patronising. Virtual Kasparov on the GBA is a case in point. The first 20 or so opponents all play fairly solid chess, right up until the apparently aleatorically chosen point when they bizarrely drop a piece or allow a trivial forcing tactic. Strong chess programs running on fast PCs won’t do that, but their style of play is still notably “computerish”, and one feels as though one is playing the board rather than playing an opponent. Even in Advance Wars, in the singleplayer campaign one feels as though one is solving a dynamic puzzle rather than pitting one’s wits against a contesting intelligence.
Perhaps the central, apparently paradoxical truth is that competition is a cooperative activity. Two creative minds vie and collaborate to produce a beautiful point in tennis, or a beautiful chess game, just as the ostensible enmity of the opposing lawyers in court is in fact supposed to effect a collaborative procedure to find the truth of the charges. In this way, single-player videogames are very rarely competitive. You don’t remember your Virtua Fighter 4 bouts against the computer, but those against your friends. It is enjoyable, for certain tarmac-heads, to win hundreds of cups against the computer opposition in GT3, but if you are in the habit of saving replays to memory card, they will probably be of human-vs-human races.
Because computer opponents lack true creativity, they have mostly offered brute tests of physical skill against more or less overwhelming odds: an impoverished notion of competition. The scripted linearity that one still finds in the exploratory aspect of games such as Medal of Honor: Frontline engenders a feeling that one is merely attempting to second-guess the designer. But there are, increasingly, exceptions. The remarkable situational potentiality of Halo, for example, is a case in point in the action genre, where filmic combat scenarios can be created on the fly so that the player feels unusually involved. But perhaps the most collaborative videogame form so far is the rhythm-action genre.
Dance Dance Revolution notoriously allows the player to add his own terpsichorean improvisations in between attending to the symbolic requirements floating down the screen, although this is still largely a performative game: the function of solo play is usually practise to show off in front of friends or strangers, rather than an end in itself. Frequency, however, offers an even more creative process. The player still has to hit the right symbols in order, but she is free to choose the order in which she brings in the various rhythmic and instrumental elements to each track, as well as being encouraged to improvise in the freestyle sections. And one might even say that the Remix mode is the game’s spiritual core, since – much as in the Traveller mode of Rez – the requirement to gain a sufficient score is abandoned in favour of pure collaboration.
All this is not to say that there is never pleasure to be had in “beating” a game, in overcoming a set of well-designed challenges. But the ever-increasing popularity of online gaming, as Sony and Microsoft gear up to launch their respective networks, might serve to emphasize the point that in many genres, a computer opponent just never will be as satisfying as a human one. We might hope, then, for more collaborative single-player experiences that allow us to journey with the digital system rather than just try to beat it. For there is more to playing than just winning.