Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Playing it Wrong

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.


Matthew Gallant said...

I agree that Valve usually does a great job of subtly revealing the "right way" of doing things. However, I can think of at least one instance where they failed: the cube pipe puzzle. The "right way" required such lateral thinking that many people stumbled upon alternate solutions, such as stacking chairs.

Congratulations on the Penny Arcade link! It's about time such an insightful blog got some well-deserved attention.

Steve the Creep said...

It must be a delicate line to walk as a game designer. You want to give the player enough options to feel like they're in control and yet direct them to a specific vision.

One of the things that really intrigues me about Fable 2 is that Peter Molyneux said early on in the development that he wants gamers to feel emotions while playing. So they sort of backward engineered it from there.

If the intent of MGS3 was for you to have a sniper battle with "The End," it's the designer's job to make sure that rifle is in your hand.

Anonymous said...

It is indeed a tough thing to do right. Sadly I think many recent games go way too far in trying to direct you to the "correct" way to solve something. While Portal is mentioned upthread I'd also suggest that it did a great job of allowing you to figure out your own, equally valid, solutions.

Bioshock, sadly, seems to go too far the other way with it's many signposts and directions to "GO HERE NOW" and "USE THIS WEAPON". The Metroid Prime series has also suffered greatly from this problem (from what used to be an occasionally confusing, but much more exploration-oriented idiom).

I'd say this often runs hand-in-hand with what the forced failures that Warren Spector has spoken about before (and admitting that even in Deus Ex he broke the rule himself). There should never be a condition where in order to succeed you need to fail. No point in the game where you can't, miraculously, make it through the overwhelming odds that are clearly designed to make you fail to move the plot forward and somehow win.

In this case even if the obvious and intended solution was to engage in a sniper duel the ability to... say, sneak up on him and kill The End with a well-placed knife to the neck should be allowed. Make it hard to do, make it obviously the unintended, discouraged way of trying to play it, but allow someone who decides to think outside the box to win by coming up with a more clever (or just personally punishing) strategy than intended.

Just don't lead me there with arrows and an obviously placed weapon to indicate the "right" way to play through an encounter. Let me figure it out myself (within reason... that cube pipe puzzle was damn tough). That's how we learn after all.

Anonymous said...

any chance we'll get to see a picture of you in a bathing suit?

Kao said...

I don't think Kojima games have an "intended" solution for most of the problems he presents you, and that's what I like about them. If you ask people about their respective battles with The End, you'll get a whole slew of different stories. The fact that it is rewarding and exciting to detect the glare of the sniper scope in the bushes, does not, for me, make it less exciting to track his footprints with infrared and sneak up behind him. Or leave rotten food scattered around the landscape so that he gets sick, or hell, kill him while he's still asleep in his wheelchair in an earlier part of the game.

So many videogames these days feel like little more than an elaborate game of "hot and cold", where you keep trying to figure out the "right" way to do something. The "right" way generally has nothing to do with logic; half the time it doesn't even adhere to videogame logic. It's just fumbling around trying to pull the levers in the correct arbitrary order to get a cookie.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@ steve: I think you are exactly right on this; there has to be a balance between giving the player a certain experience (and certain emotions) and giving him a sense of freedom. I often think Japanese and American game designers come at this balancing-act from different ends of the spectrum. Molyneux (who I would really like to believe on this one) has major ambitions about taking the freedom path and still providing moments of emotion.

@belgand: I think a lot of people chafe at being presented only one path through the game. As linear as Bioshock is, though, I think the variety there is all in the way that the various customizable abilities give you different ways to tackle the combat.

So, by all means, give me more than one way to kill The End, even after I find the rifle (as Ian points out, the game all sorts of way to go about tracking him and finding his position). But the part where I stumbled on him on the ridge just felt cheap-- he spawns at a position everytime it loads a new area of the map, so you just run past the loads over and over again until he pops up in front of you.

@Ian: I agree; one of the cool things about the battle (and the series as a whole) is that there are all kinds of "right" ways to get past The End. (I've heard that you can even turn the game off, come back in a week, and find that The End has died of old age.