Ludus Magnus – Episode Two

Episode Two is now live!

This episode sees David and I adopt what we intend to be our ongoing format: discussing a reading while playing a game. This time out, we had a look at the edited volume Well-Played 1.0: Video Games, Value, and Meaning, edited by Drew Davidson and published by Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press (available for free on Kindle and in PDF at the link). This collection has a foundational place in games studies, and neither of us had read it before. The game we are playing is Mortal Kombat X, which we encountered at GLS and with which we were perhaps a little too taken.

As Dave says in the video, it is remarkably difficulty to divide your attention between tearing someone’s spine out and discussing an academic text coherently (probably why I’m still not the most avid conference-goer). So I wanted to add some clarifications and meditations on what we said during our playthrough.First, I want to backtrack a bit on what I said about Clara Fernandez-Vara’s chapter, “The Secret of Monkey Island: Playing Between Cultures.” While it is a good example of the essentially exegetic nature of many of the contributions we read, it does definitely have ideas that can resonate outside the context of Monkey Island. As a phenomenological memoir of play, it really does draw attention to the cultural embedded-ness of MI‘s story, jokes, and puzzles, and provides a valuable outsider perspective on mainstream games culture, which is, of course, predominantly oriented towards Anglo-American audiences. Moreover, as an exegesis of many of MI‘s more unique puzzles, the chapter offers some neat ideas for people looking to design their own puzzles within games. Both of these elements are very player-centric, and thus critical to good game design.

Second, I want to go into a bit more detail regarding James Paul Gee’s chapter, “Playing Metal Gear Solid 4 Well: Being a Good Snake.” In the video, I express some skepticism about whether Gee has really found a way of understanding games that is any different from standard Derridean reader-centric readings of more traditional texts. Since we recorded, I had been thinking more about his excellent chapter, and then Microsoft released Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes (the teaser for MGS5) as this month’s free Game with Gold for XBox One, so I took some time to play that with Gee’s argument in mind.

As I understood them, Gee’s essential points about MGS4 were: 1. his MGS and my MGS would always be different because of how we chose to play as Snake; 2. this could be further characterized as a difference of how well we played Snake, something he argues takes several playthroughs to do well. Ground Zeroes lets you play one level of the next-gen Metal Gear Solid, wherein you are tasked with infiltrating a proto-Guantanamo to rescue two of Snake (Sr.)’s friends from captivity and torture. The level felt even more sand-boxy than I remembered from any of the previous games, essentially giving you the run of the entire base and leaving you to accomplish Snake’s objectives as you saw fit.

Gee’s first point was quickly proven, since, as in most iterations of the series, you can adopt markedly different approaches to the game, playing it like an action game or a stealth game (or some hybrid thereof). What I was reminded of, however, is that the game makes Gee’s second point very explicit in the post-level scoring, where it pulls up a set of stats (time to complete, enemies killed, alerts, etc.) and then gives you a letter rating. This rating, of course, is based entirely on how Snakelike you were, the implication being that a well-played (a ‘true’) Snake would have completed the objective quickly, with zero bloodshed, no alerts, and so forth. So while Gee and I can both play Ground Zeroes, interact with its rules, fulfill the objective, and advance the narrative, he is completely correct that we can play it very differently, and that difference can be expressed in how good we are at being Snake. This isn’t any kind of far cry from reader-centric analysis, but is one firmly rooted in something intrinsic to games versus other genres: play (defined by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman as “the free space of movement within a more rigid structure”).

The design of Ground Zeroes also furnishes a neat demonstration of how strongly such a reading of MGS coordinates with the concept of affordances (defined by Gee as “something in the environment that you can use to accomplish a goal”). The base is littered with affordances—from shadows to sniper rifles—and Snake carries a few with him (a tranquilizer gun, a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a silence that will wear out, binoculars, etc.). Any one of these things can be used to help you and Snake accomplish the goal (rescue the captives). Intrinsic to this task is the evacuation helicopter, which you have to call in to finish the level but which can be directed to a landing area of your choice (a neat new mechanic which I hope features largely in MGS5).

As Gee puts it, the affordances on offer also include certain skills: your own as a player, those of Snake as distinct from other characters (his example is Sonic), and (perhaps most critically) those skills distinct to Snake that you as the player choose to use. This is where the gap opens up between finishing the game and playing it well, insofar as playing it well means playing at being Snake well.

I chose to finish out the level in what seemed like the most efficient and dramatic way: having snuck my way through most of the challenges of the compound, these challenges were then increased by the requirement that I make my way to evac while carrying a catatonic comrade. Several landing zones where available to me, but the closest were covered by anti-aircraft turrets and presented a risk to the helicopter. So I opted for an LZ closer to the edge of the level, where the helicopter would hopefully be able to rendezvous with me more safely.

Rather than creeping my way to that LZ, avoiding cameras, eliminating guards, and carrying my charge in fits and starts, I chose to make use of a nearby affordance: an unguarded military truck (vehicles are also a new element for MGS5). Bundling my friend into the passenger seat, I called in the chopper and lit out for the LZ.

I was quickly spotted by a guard, the base went on high alert, and APCs were deployed in pursuit. The result was a high-octane conclusion to the level, which had me evacuating under small arms fire, firing my rifle on full-auto from the helicopter as we climbed to safely. It felt fantastic, exciting, and a fun way to play out the last moments of the level.

But I got a C-rating, partly because I triggered a full alert by my actions (I theoretically could have killed more guards this way, but I don’t think my aim was good enough from the chopper). As fun and ‘Matthew’ as this way of completing the level felt, it was not sufficiently Snakelike according to the rules of the game. So this was very much my game of Ground Zeroes, and likely very different from Gee’s, very much because of how invested we are in playing the game as Snake (rather than as Matthew or Gee).

The levels of identification with a videogame character which Gee’s reading of MGS4 implies are a fascinating idea to explore. As I mention in the video, it makes equal sense with regard to the Arkham games, where much of the replay value (and, indeed, the internal scoring system) relies on the idea of being a good Batman (or, at least, Rocksteady’s definition of a good Batman). But I also wonder if it can help illuminate my niggling dissatisfaction with another game: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.

Doing my best to avoid spoilers about this fantastic game (which I believe was reason in itself to own a PS3), the final act of the game turns on a HUGE decision taken by Joel, the primary protagonist of the game. Indeed, the objective of the game shifts from a journey of survival to helping Joel achieve his own personal goal; it becomes the player’s job to exploit affordances (including Joel’s own skills) in order to realize the character’s goal. Part of what makes the game so great is that this goal, and the decision that precedes it, are morally very, very grey, and the final cutscene definitely hangs a huge question-mark over whether or not you helped Joel do the right thing.

What always bothered me is that I never had any say in Joel’s decision. After spending many hours together in play, where my choices united with his skills to chart our own particular course within the rules of the game, he went ahead and made this big choice without me, and I felt myself shunted into the role of mere adjunct to his cause.

Of course, this had arguably been the case from the beginning of the game: it doesn’t affect Matthew whether or not a virtual character survives the post-apocalyptic wasteland of The Last of Us and makes it to their destination, but I helped them all the same. But, much like Ground Zeroes and Arkham Knight, at that point the core objective is relatively simple and unobjectionable: save yourself, save your friend, save the city. At the end of this game, Joel took a dramatic turn, and I found myself assisting with a decision I’m not sure I would make (perhaps opening up a yawning “simulation gap,” to use Ian Bogost’s term).

I’m not trying to suggest anything is fundamentally wrong with The Last of Us, but it does raise questions about the nature of interactivity, player freedom, and identification with game characters. Objectively, Joel’s choice is completely earned by the game’s narrative and makes sense given his backstory, but it was absolutely Joel’s choice and, unlike Matthew’s choice to take the truck in Ground Zeroes, it had huge implications for how the rest of the game played out. For me, it exposed the gap between player and character which well-crafted play might otherwise obscure. There was no play involved in this decision—it was part of the rigid structure of the game. Warren Spector recently wrote some compelling thoughts about games vs. interactive narratives, specifically regarding The Walking Dead, which may have some relevance here. Spector was, of course, behind Deus Ex, a spectacular game which puts a similarly monumental decision firmly in the player’s hands at its end.

This is perhaps an inevitable obstacle for games like this, which have a huge budget to make back and usually a huge story to tell (indeed, Deus Ex doesn’t exactly go overboard with giving you hugely different outcomes to the player’s choice). Sometimes this obstacle has been exploited very cleverly, most famously in Bioshock where the player’s lack of control at a pivotal moment is a critical element of the plot, and also in The Darkness where an erstwhile ally takes away the player’s ability to act when it’s needed most (ironically, a moment where I perhaps felt most closely identified with Jackie, mashing my buttons to no effect as he strained against his bonds). Games like Arkham Knight use a bit more sleight of hand to compel controversial choices, but I’m not sure how to discuss that without major spoilers for a very recent game (beyond saying that—perhaps appropriately—it involves a sort of deus ex machina).

These are more the starting points for an avenue of videogames criticism, to the exploration of which I think Gee’s chapter would prove critical. Which is another way of saying: it’s really a fantastic chapter.

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