The Gaming Club

I Hope We Never Lose Track of How Good It Can Feel To Hold a Controller
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Dec. 16 2009 1:44 PM

The Gaming Club

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Hi again, gentlemen,

I'm really glad we're talking about Modern Warfare 2 and the overemphasis on "choice" as the holy grail of gaming. I've been frustrated by the same thing for a long time.

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I'm going to split the difference on "No Russian." As Jamin said, it's the incongruity of the scene that ruins it for me. I, too, had a very emotional response to having to gun down civilians. But as Mitch notes when he references my friend Kieron Gillen's response, it comes right after ... a high-octane snowmobile chase that I liked so much I whooped out loud! Maybe the timing was intended to disorient, but it didn't work. As Jamin said, this lack of narrative continuity is a missed opportunity, and a scene about terrorism is insulting if it isn't given context. You can't treat something like that as "just a level."

But if "No Russian" has any efficacy at all, it's precisely because of the absence of choice. Allowing yourself to experience something as the designers intended can be enormously powerful. Like Chris, I'm often confused by people's insistence that they must be able to impose their will on a story in order to call it effective. Being someone you could never be, and doing things you'd never do, is much of the strength of gaming as a medium. It's why I chose to kill all of BioShock's Little Sisters, and it's why I was satisfied with the subtle comeuppance I got from the narrative as a result. It's why I love Grand Theft Auto—not just for all the horrible things it lets me do, but because of the way the game world makes me think about why I want to do horrible things. That male-domineering bathroom sex in The Ballad of Gay Tony is more than shock art: It actually means a lot when you consider you're playing a larger story about the complexities of gangland bravado and about the friendship between two men when one is gay.

I wasn't interested in Uncharted 2 despite its high quality, because as an "authored experience" it offered nothing new under the sun. To me, it's the same (literal) cliffhanging, the same helicopter-exploding action clichés prevalent since I was a kid in the '80s. Same with Assassin's Creed 2, which offered me nothing I couldn't get watching programs about Italy on the History Channel. Hell, I would have played AC2 if it would've just bagged the game part and let me wander around in the streets and see the sights.

So, why are Demon's Souls and New Super Mario Bros. Wii my favorite games this year? Because if I can't have authored experiences that are meaningful to me, I want good mechanics so I can author the meaning myself. This brings us back to Chris' opening point: Games That Are Play vs. Games That Are Art.

The worlds of Mario are so surreal and so pervasive that even nongamers would recognize their iconography—I would argue that does indeed make them art. But either way, New Super Mario Bros. feels like the game in which Nintendo finally figured out how to have its cake and eat it, too. in the Wii era: how to make group play without degrading individual play, how to make games accessible to newbies yet still enjoyable to people like me who were raised on NES, how to design a multiplayer that works only if you laugh and talk with your friends and family—imagine that.

Did it make me angry, as Jamin asked? No, the people playing it with me made me angry, and I loved that the game let them.

On the other hand, Demon's Souls is patently unfriendly. This is not a game you will play with Grandma and the kids. Ever. But it manages to make frustration addictive—and this is because, as I said in my A.V. Club review, you can't blame the game if you die. The design is so precise that it's impossible not to see and feel how it's possible to succeed—if only you can get good enough. Every stitch of progress you make feels like learning.

We're discussing all these titles that make us feel powerful and skilled by letting us inhabit powerful, skilled people: the Roaches, Drakes, and Ezios of the video game universe. But in Demon's Souls, the emotional response comes from your own vulnerability as a player, the frailty of your created avatar's little life. And the sense of power comes from the fact that you can, hard-won inch by inch, get just a little bit stronger. If you try. And the game doesn't need to tell you you're getting stronger. You feel it yourself.

That experience gut-punched me much harder than any epic-cinema helicopter explosion—don't be so quick to dismiss "purely play," Chris. Sometimes the most impactful choice experiences come from games that let you pick how you're going to tackle their moment-to-moment challenges. I hope that amid all the emphasis on "meaning," we never lose track of how good it can feel to hold a controller.

Though I do think Mitch is right—more people latched onto the "Play" of Modern Warfare 2 (its multiplayer) than the "Art" of it (the game's narrative), so I probably don't have to worry about that. As I've said, I think the serenity of simply playing Flower trumps whatever its wider narrative is trying to manipulate me into feeling. And maybe this also explains why Jamin feels so intensely about dying in Canabalt. "2009: The Year That Play Beat Art" is an oversimplification. How about "2009: The Year That Play Became Art"?

Demon's Souls also raises a question I want to ask you guys: How important is mass appeal? Mitch says we're mainstream now, but could we sit our more casual pals in front of Demon's Souls, or even Borderlands, and ensure they have a good time? And are we going to skip discussing the game played by more people in 2009 than anything we've mentioned thus far: FarmVille? There's your Monday Night Football.

—Leigh

Leigh Alexander is the news director of the game industry site Gamasutra and authors the blog Sexy Videogameland.Formerly an arts and entertainment reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Jamin Brophy-Warren is a columnist for GOOD magazine and founder of the forthcoming video-game magazineKill Screen.Mitch Krpata is a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix and Paste magazine, and blogs about games at Insult Swordfighting.Chris Suellentrop reviews games for Slate.