2 February 2004
Maybe it’s the gloomy new-year skies under which I am writing this, but sometimes I just can’t take videogames seriously. I don’t mean, dear readers, that I experience physical difficulty in reaching up to stroke my beard – I mean that they seem totally ridiculous, even stupid. Consider some of today’s apparently most sophisticated games with a kind of mental squint and it’s a wonder that anybody spends any time on them at all.
There are currently posters for Max Payne II everywhere in our cities (and in European capitals too), posters cunningly designed to look, at first glance, as though they are advertising a film. Friends of mine are surprised when I point one out and tell them it’s a videogame. Wow, they say, it looks really noir, really cool, really grown-up. At which point I haven’t the heart to explain that it’s all about rolling around in warehouses, shooting people in slow motion while a voiceover delivers ever more ridiculous sub-Chandler similes. (“It’s like looking down into the grave of your love” – what is that like, then, exactly? There is a fine line between parody and mere literary incompetence.) Why does Max call for NYPD backup and then immediately run into warehouses full of enemies anyway? Why can’t I go *there*? Why does Max look so stupid when he jumps? Why can he only carry eight painkillers at a time?
The best people at asking these sorts of “Why?” questions are people who don’t normally play games – who don’t unquestioningly swallow every bizarre paradigm that has been foisted upon us by unscrupulous developers over the years. In this respect, I would almost want to say that the non-gamer is never wrong. Of course there will always be a priori parameters of the game that the initiate must just accept – for example, if you are explaining the rules of chess to someone, they just have to accept that a knight moves like this, and a bishop moves like that; asking “Why?” is hardly productive. But such unquestionable parameters in a videogame system, I suggest, do not extend much beyond the control interface and the rules of success or survival. Everything else is up for grabs. Instead of taking everything mutely on trust, we should always be allowed to ask: “Does this make sense?” The tension in Max Payne II between a pseudo-naturalistic narrative style and a set of arbitrary mechanical conventions is something that has become, over time, almost invisible to the habitual gamer, but immediately obvious – and rightly troubling – to the novice.
Compare the experience of EyeToy, where there are no immediate “Why?” questions that spring to mind. *Obviously*, punching the little martial artists makes them go away; *obviously*, ducking under the ball makes it bounce off your head. This kind of stuff is all familiar from real life (except maybe the three-inch high kung-fu fighters). Now in a sense it may be unreasonable to compare the party-game delights of EyeToy with a high-budget “cinematic” extravaganza such as Max Payne II; one could argue that EyeToy is thoroughly successful only because it is attempting so much less. But it is not unreasonable to imagine, or at least to dream about, a large-scale adventure with the immediacy of interaction and seamless logic of an EyeToy game. ICO was nearly there, but not quite. (In fact, a non-habitual gamer who is playing ICO for research purposes shocked me the other day by going into a rant about how much he hated the annoying Yorda. I was taken aback, but after a while, I could see his point. The fact that she is sometimes a help does not alter the fact that she is often a hindrance.) But if this industry is going to continue to expand, that has to be part of the future.
So far, unfortunately, it seems to be a rule in videogames that every advance in naturalism brings with it new absurdities. The fact that every object in Deus Ex: Invisible War, for instance, can be picked up and chucked around according to simulated physics just makes it appear all the more silly when I spend a full 15 minutes throwing a chair at a friendly character’s head, only to receive a handful of scripted peevish complaints in return. (Clearly the developers half-expected that people would try this sort of thing, but underestimated my grimly perverse determination to keep going until it entirely shattered the illusion of character in the gameworld.)
Invisible War also initially suffered from the absurdity that it took several bullets in the head from a handgun to kill an enemy. This, as Warren Spector explained in a pre-release interview, was a deliberate design decision: he wanted players to play the game in a different way, to do something other than run around taking headshots. Well, in response to such manifest absurdity, to the ludicrous vision of Daddy Designer trying to tell us how and how not to negotiate this supposedly open-ended adventure, the entire gaming community shouted “Why?” – and, sure enough, in the version 1.1 patch, they had “increased the headshot damage multiplier for the pistol”. Thanks, dudes.
This is an excellent example of community pester power, of which I think we should all take advantage more often. Let’s try to look at our games through innocent eyes and remind ourselves exactly what we are being asked to swallow. Not because we have forgotten that games are supposed to be fun, but on the contrary, because we want them to be *more* fun. And this is not a bad habit for a designer (like any artist) to get into, either, constantly interrogating the work and seeing if, so to speak, it can defend itself. In fact, gamers and developers equally should all be like small children pestering their parents, demanding “Why?” repeatedly, never satisfied with an argument appealing to mere convention. That way progress lies.