The Gaming Club

Call of Duty: Black Ops Is the McDonald's of Video Games
The art of play.
Dec. 14 2010 3:20 PM

The Gaming Club

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Call of Duty: Black Ops.

Hi, everyone. It's great to be back for the Slate Gaming Club.

So, I suppose I should start by taking some responsibility for helping to generate all of that hype about Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar actually ginned up very little publicity around the game prior to its release, in obvious contrast with its marketing strategy for new Grand Theft Auto games (which is to build them up into cultural events beforehand).

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With Red Dead, however, Rockstar had been atypically quiet. Rockstar is painfully aware that most of its non-GTA games have, frankly, sucked in comparison with the GTA line and didn't want to saddle Red Dead with major expectations. Instead, Rockstar let Red Dead's quality speak for itself. As one of the first people outside the company to play the final retail version of the game, I was thrilled to have the chance to help introduce such an awesome product to the public.

I think that like John, a lot of people initially couldn't believe that the critics' enthusiasm could possibly be justified. But I'm heartened that most of them have come to see Red Dead as an all-time classic, as do I. Unlike Tom, I was particularly taken with Prof. MacDougal, the addled Yale anthropologist, though I suppose that's only because I went to the school. And with a venal grave robber named Seth in a prominent role, how could Red Dead go wrong?

John's experience underlies a big part of Red Dead's success: It's just plain easier than Grand Theft Auto IV. And I don't just mean its commercial success; I mean its success as a storytelling vehicle and overall entertainment experience. The longer, more difficult, and less forgiving action sequences in GTA IV obviously prevented John and many other players from fully enjoying the setting and stories that were the game's strongest suit.

I'd argue that as plot and character, narrative structure, and emotional depth become more important in games, games are generally becoming easier than they have ever been. And it is about time. Developers are realizing that almost no one is going to want to experience all their fancy world-building and dialogue if they keep failing all the time. Tom may be a verisimilitude junkie, but most people don't want to play a game in which failure is permanent. That's why Red Dead, unlike the GTA games before it, includes multiple difficulty levels for combat.

Great games these days make difficulty optional. In other words, they allow the player to decide at what threshold they will feel sufficient achievement if they succeed. Given what you liked about Metro 2033, Tom, you should play Fallout: New Vegas. New Vegas includes a hardcore mode in which you have to eat and drink regularly during your journey through the post-apocalyptic wasteland. In hardcore mode, if you ruin a limb you actually have to visit a doctor (who may not be close by at all) rather than use a medical pack. Likewise, I would be shocked if Blizzard's Diablo III (scheduled for release next year) didn't include an online hardcore mode: Die once and your character is gone. What some players find frustrating others find merely realistic.

Meanwhile, one of the best things about Heavy Rain is that it's a game in which only you decide what failure really means. The decisions you make and the actions you take determine the fate of the story and its characters. Coupled with its harrowing emotional impact and overall sense of pacing and style, Heavy Rain is at least as meaningful at Red Dead (though obviously produced on a much smaller scale).

Beyond the influence of individual titles, the really big story about video games in 2010 is gaming's continued push into the cultural mainstream. Mobile games like Angry Birds and Facebook "games" (which I generally loathe) are reaching tens if not hundreds of millions of people who will never play Red Dead Redemption or Heavy Rain or StarCraft II or Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Rock Band 3 is probably the greatest mainstream music game ever, and Microsoft's Kinect and PlayStation Move are making games into reality. (Or is it the other way around?)

If experts like the people in this club are beginning to feel like their tastes are fundamentally diverging from those of the mass audience, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Food experts aren't necessarily supposed to like McDonald's, and music experts aren't supposed to like Justin Bieber, but they should understand those things and respect their appeal. So, no, Tom, there's nothing wrong with playing Black Ops in the wee hours. Just think of it as a quarter-pounder with cheese.

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Seth Schiesel is a staff writer for the New York Times. He currently writes about video games for the newspaper's Culture department.