First off: the good ship Versusclucluland's article on note tracking got a shout-out in two blogs yesterday. Mitch Krpata mentioned my article in Insult Swordfighting, and then Tycho from Penny Arcade gave us a shout-out. Personal games-writing hero Tycho Erasmus Brahe praised something that I wrote: I have chills.
In an excellent recent blog post, 1up.com editor Shawn Elliot drew attention to a phenomenon he calls “playing the game wrong,” the idea of experiencing a game in a way other than it is meant to be experienced. He points out a couple instances of this idea, with the chief aim of drawing attention to the gap between the inevitably idiosyncratic and subjective nature of a player's experience of a game and the “objectivity” demanded by gamers from reviewers. I agree with this general point about this disparity, but I also think that this idea “playing the game wrong” illustrates an interesting aspect of video games themselves.
His story reminded me of my sniper battle with “The End” in Metal Gear Solid 3. I had heard this encounter hyped repeatedly as one of the most creative moments in the entire series. However,when I first entered the wooded area where the battle takes place, I was totally clueless about how I supposed to combat The End. I wandered aimlessly around the woods, getting sniped over and over; but eventually I accidentally stumbled upon him on a ridge overlooking the woods. I found that by moving back and forth between the areas on the ridge I could manage to surprise him again and unload a couple of shots into him with my pistol before he fled; I whittled his health down some this way before he managed to tranquilize me.
After I awoke and escaped captivity, I returned to the area where the battle takes place and for the first time I noticed that there was a gods-damn sniper rifle in a small concrete building at the entry to the woods. At this point the game suddenly clicked: I spent the rest of the battle hiding out in the ridge waiting for my enemy to reveal his position. I bided my time in this way, lying prone in the grass until the reflection of the sun shining off The End's scope gave him away and I shot him down. In these moments I realized that this was the experience the game designer wanted me to have.
When we manage to overcome the obstacles the game throws at us through dumb luck, I think feel that we have missed something important. I could have succeeded in defeating The End without ever getting the sniper rifle, but that very success would be a sort of failure. This experience shows something interesting about the nature of games. When we “play the game right,” the pleasure we get partially consists in the feeling we get when we sense that we have grasped the designer's intention. We feel that the game's designers have successfully communicated something to you through the game, and it is fun.
I don't mean to say that this sense of the “right” way the game should be experienced should govern how reviewers talk about games. If the game wants the player to have a very specific experience, as the MGS series does, your failure to have that experience is the sign of bad game design. I hypothesize that it comes down to play testing, since Valve is as good at this-- nudging the player, coyly, towards the particular enjoyments it means for you to choose-- as Kojima Productions is bad. I hope Kojima's team improve on this aspect as they work on their next project, because when they succeed in getting the experience it intends to you it makes for some utterly unique and inspired gameplay.