10 August 2009
It was when I climbed to the mountain lodge, hid inside a bush across the wooden drawbridge, and fired a single shot from my flare pistol. The flare ignited the lodge, and the guards started running around in a blind panic. I just sat there, listening to the cries of my target inside the lodge as it smoked and burned, until he fell silent. Job done. I got off the mountain fast and proud. That’s one stealthy psychotic safari outing. That’s power.
Like many people, I had initially dismissed Far Cry 2 as yet another boring open-world job simulator involving endless backtracking. Coming back to it in search of more pretend men to kill after completing CoD4 left a killing-pretend-men-shaped hole in my digital heart, I realised that such criticisms were both true and beside the point. For many of them, it is a plausible response to say: “You’re doing it wrong.” Are you driving up to every checkpoint in your Jeep, hopping out guns blazing? You’re doing it wrong. (The simple solution to the respawning checkpoint controversy: they ought just to have taken a longer, and more fictionally plausible, time to repopulate: say, 24 gameworld hours.) Are you sticking to the roads instead off driving cross-country whenever possible? You’re doing it wrong.
Of course, to be justified in saying “You’re doing it wrong”, a game must give you an enjoyable way to do it right. Yet for the first couple of hours, Far Cry 2 fails dismally. The player is just not yet properly equipped to play the game. Stuck already in the tutorial, I eventually realized that I was obliged to buy one of the crappy guns the arms dealer was offering me. But I didn’t want any of those guns: they looked rubbish. And, as I quickly learned when I yomped off through the bush, they were.
So the player feels impotent and frustrated for the first few hours of the game. Much later, it all clicks. Finally you can stride out loaded up with, say, the Dart Rifle, the Silenced MP5, and the Flare Pistol. Now you can snipe people in the face from afar and chuckle bloodthirstily at the emergent comedy of panic-stricken guards blowing themselves up. You have gone from zero to badass. That’s satisfying.
But does the satisfaction retrospectively justify the clunky beginnings? Many games progress in the same way as Far Cry 2, as we would see clearly if we plotted graphs of player power over time. Far too often, the player is underpowered early on. It is as though developers design the core experience around the peak of player power, with all the rules and toys in place, before working back through the game, gradually stripping power until the player is forced to begin with a rusty screwdriver. Presto, an instant mechanic of reward — but one that is fatally easy to misjudge.
Player power’s ebb and flow, with spikes and troughs in the time-curve, can imply its own emergent narrative. Take two complementarily stunning moments near the end of MGS4. In one, you are almost completely impotent, crawling through a corridor and unable to use any weapon or gadget. The other moment is one of the exhilarating peaks of player power in all videogaming: you are piloting a Metal Gear through hangar tunnels, stomping and shooting hundreds of tiny, terrified guards. Nothing can stop you.
Some games are nervous of allowing the player to become “too powerful”. Far Cry 2‘s own Clint Hocking, one of the most thoughtful and eloquent of contemporary developers, explained in a talk at this spring’s GDC that the game’s systemic random annoyances, malaria attacks and jamming guns, were designed so as to forestall a feeling of “mastery”, where everything always went according to plan. “When we master a thing, we destroy it,” he argued.
I don’t agree; nor, I suppose, would many world-class athletes or musicians. In a videogame, absolute, unchallengeable power (as in MGS4‘s Metal Gear moment) is a fierce, raw pleasure. It cannot last the whole game, but it can be a durable and thrilling peak. (And it is available, in bursts, in Hocking’s own game, as when a sniping mission is going well.) As Hannibal Smith said: “I love it when a plan comes together.” Should the designer really be a moralistic father-figure, assuming too much power is bad for his children, second-guessing the player’s creative planning in order to try to bork it in advance?
By exploiting the player’s anxiety and adrenaline directly through the downgrading and up-ramping of his power, after all, Hideo Kojima has demonstrated an extraordinary tool for engaging the player emotionally: a more visceral bond between player and gameworld is thereby created than can ever be induced with cinematics or “buddies”. As Nietzsche said, and Far Cry 2‘s Kurtz figure rehearses: the will to power is all.