The Gaming Club

In Praise of Little Games
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Dec. 16 2009 10:55 AM

The Gaming Club

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Guys and gal,

This is the last time I'm going to discuss "No Russian." I promise.

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Chris, there is indeed a name for the "not-yet-named fictional element of games that enables players to feel that they are observing a fictional character and simultaneously that they are the fictional character." In his book Video Game Spaces, Michael Nitsche divides gameplay into five layers. You've described two of them: The "fictional" space is the player' imaginary world and the "mediated" space is what you actually see. What you're talking about is the interaction between those two spaces.

Game theory aside, my issue with "No Russian" had nothing to do with "fallacy of choice." Yes, I did wish that I could take control of the situation and fight myself out. In fact, the first time I played that mission, I attempted to stab Makarov in the vain hope that there was some other option aside from mowing down a room of innocent bystanders. Once I completed the game, I returned to that mission to see whether I could pick off the terrorists and found that I could drop two of them before succumbing to semiautomatic gunfire.

At one level, I agree with you, Chris. Games should absolutely make you do things that you don't want to do. In my worry that my cover would be exposed, I actually knifed one of the wounded civilians. I've never been more repulsed by a video-game sequence. But I was grateful that "No Russian" made terrorist acts more palpable to me. If I was sickened by a simulation, then what would lead me to enact such carnage in real life? Revenge? Religion? Patriotism? Mitch, when you write off "No Russian" as a simple shock tactic, I think you're missing its ability to conjure thoughts and desires we could never otherwise imagine. Imagine using this to depict genocide in Rwanda or the Beslan hostage crisis. I think you'd have something worthy of the Serious Games Summit.

However—and this is a big however, Chris—I think you dismiss the interplay between the game's "fiction" and "story" too readily. My disappointment with Modern Warfare 2 was not that it didn't let me do what I wanted but that the developer, Infinity Ward, missed an opportunity to use a story to make the game more potent. Infinity Ward implies that the "No Russian" isn't essential by letting you choose to opt out of the mission at the beginning of the game. This decision shows an ambivalence that disrupts my experience of the game and, for me, deflates the idea that the game is well-authored. It's probably better to think of Modern Warfare 2 as akin to Mario Party—a series of mini-games strung together with hits and misses spread throughout.

A quick defense of Uncharted now that the long knives are out: Yes, Chris, I felt the same way you did when I took down the helicopter with the conveniently placed rocket launcher. But to me, that was sort of the point. Drake is that lucky—the world bends to his whim and makes the unbelievable a reality. That didn't bother me because it was consistent throughout: Drake always wins. Yes, Leigh, he kills a lot of people, but always in self-defense, right? The bigger problem, for me, was his occupation. I admit a moral flaw in cheering for a treasure-hunter who's looting the world for personal gain. It's a bit like rooting for Hernán Cortés.

Mitch, you're dead-on about the distinction between multiplayers and campaigners, a distinction you've explored before. When I was waiting in line in GameStop, I was amazed at how few people were interested in the campaign for Modern Warfare 2. I knew that games segregate players by personality, but these guys (yes, they were all guys; not a whiff of progesterone in sight) didn't even play other first-person shooters. They had two games on their shelves: Call of Duty and Madden. I felt like a leper, a voyeur walking in their midst.

Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure.

But enough with the big games. 2009 was a tremendous year for small titles and a nice rejoinder to complaints in last year's Gaming Club about the lack of hand-held hits. There were two such games that made my year, both on the Nintendo DS. Mitch, you noted earlier that Borderlands moved us into the realm of the uncharacterizable, a game of no nationality or creed. To that category, let me add Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure, a shape-shifter par excellence. How can we not praise something that merges the platforming fun of the games of our childhood with elements of Bejeweled? Hatsworth uses the DS's dual-screen capabilities to phenomenal effect, with the top screen showing Hatsworth slaying his enemies, each of which becomes a block in the puzzle game below. More significantly, the game's creator, Kyle Gray—who worked for EA Tiburon, aka the Madden studio—developed this fantastic game in his spare time. Hatsworth makes me hopeful for the hundreds of people who've been laid off from places like Pandemic. May a million little games blossom from their occupational ashes.

My other favorite handheld title was slightly more problematic. Is it appropriate to reward a game not for what it does but for what it could do? I loved Scribblenauts and its ability to conjure up tens of thousands of items to solve its straightforward puzzles. Kudos to 5th Cell for creating a blank canvas and letting players create their own pictures. Therein lay the issue: Not everyone is a talented artist. I found myself bounded by my lack of imagination and using "drawbridge" whenever I wanted to cross a wide expanse. (Also, "pegasus" was a go-to item since it flies and it's small.) I found the most interesting items by typing random letters into the game's dictionary and seeing what came up, but that's a bit like throwing paint on a canvas and expecting a Pollock. It's only authentic if there's a vision and intentionality behind it. But that's not the fault of Scribblenauts—that's my own.

Leigh, didn't New Super Mario Bros. make you angry? I addressed this with Slate already, but playing it again with my cousin, my wife, and my mom revived my rage. Thank God for the plastic covers on the Wii-mote, otherwise a rumble was on the horizon.

—Jamin

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.

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