This is a two-part essay examining ways in which video games reveal things about ourselves, and how some of those things may be more unsavory than we’d care to admit. It’s also as much a confessional as it is an examination, but this story is important to me, and I think it’s a story that a lot of people that play video games, sometimes obsessively, can relate to. Part two can be found here.
When does a game become more than a game? Is there ever a point where the mutual story that the player and the developer (or other players) are creating become more real than the story of your own life? We’ve all cried or laughed at or been repulsed by films or books, and these emotions are unarguably genuine, but they’re also a process of catharsis, a suspension of disbelief. Is it possible to create a situation in a video game that mirrors life so perfectly that it transposes itself and “suspension” is no longer required, because there’s no longer any such thing as “disbelief”?
I’m not here to talk about Zero Wing as an ancient and long-dead internet meme (although that original chip tune beat was pretty catchy). I’m asking if you have any memory of playing a game that was unintentionally, unselfconsciously hilarious, or hilariously broken. After all, A Winner Is You, but only if you have enough buckets for all the NPCs, otherwise you’ll probably fall through the bottom of the world and emerge upon some mythical plane where games work the way they’re damned well supposed to.
Last night my fiance and I were playing Left 4 Dead, and she gave voice to a question I’ve often silently asked myself, in the dead of night, when dreams are hard to find:
“Why is this game so good?”
Now, a lot’s been written about Left 4 Dead, but its all been from an entirely mechanical standpoint. Yep, shooting those zombies sure is fun. Love those rag doll physics. Awesome decision to have permanent friendly fire. Very few essays actually analyze the game from a design perspective, and that’s where its brilliance lies. Why is Left 4 Dead so good? Let’s examine that.
I have a problem with developer-driven narrative in video games, namely that I think it has no fucking place in them. But that’s a pretty strong statement, so let me clarify.
There’s an inherent tension between game play and developer-driven narrative. Video games are defined as a medium by interaction, and any developer that wants to tell you a story is going to have to take control from you at some point. Developer-driven narrative limits choice, by nature.
The thing is, though, I’ve often had to concede that there are some fantastic narrative-driven games out there: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Planescape: Torment, Portal. The question arises: how can these games make narrative work, while most (and I’m talking the vast majority here) fail so utterly, so miserably, that they actually flip the scales and become hilarious and endearing in their own weird way?
While shopping for miniscule upgrades on the Diablo 3 auction house in a desperate attempt to keep my hardcore character alive a bit longer, I had the idea that a four-man, “No auction house/No twinking” game might be fun. Four players, each a different class, only using drops and trades from other players in the game. Hardcore only, of course.
In an uncharacteristic act of bravado (I am a notoriously anti-social gamer) I began to scour my friends list, populated solely by my fiance’ and the few folks on general chat who actually laugh at my dick jokes and racial slurs, for potential partners. While it didn’t take long to get through the list, I was surprised to find that not a single person on it played hardcore mode. Not a single one. And to a man they claimed that they didn’t because they were afraid of losing all their progress – levels, gear, etcetera. I was bummed for a few minutes, until a genuinely funny thought struck me – these people were afraid to potentially lose progress in a game whose information they ostensibly had LESS control over than other video games.
Why do any of us write, but for ourselves?
I admit to having a violent, love-hate relationship with blogs. They, along with tweets, Facebook updates, “vlogs” (the only time I will ever write that word in an unironic context) and all the other relics of our post-culturally connected, always-on world, are most often used to bolster the user’s own sense of self-importance – an understandable reaction to living in a time in which the camera is always on, the eye is always watching, and we are expected (if not required) to live in public. If we sometimes roll our eyes at our friends posting pictures and stories carefully posed and selected to make their lives seem more interesting, or at least less mundane, than life usually is, perhaps the tendency can be forgiven if we view it as a natural method of reasserting some sense of personal control.