The Gaming Club
To hear Chris Suellentrop, Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner discuss whether video games can be art on Slate's Culture Gabfest, click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 26:04 mark:
Lots to respond to! First, as everybody seemed to mention, choice in games can be a landmine. It's what we think we want, and yet it so rarely seems to work. The new hotness seems to be morality systems, whereby your decisions to be "good" or "bad" actually affect the game-play. While this is undoubtedly something games should attempt, so far most of them are whiffing.
One culprit this year was Infamous, the open-world superhero game for PlayStation 3 in which an angry bike messenger gains the power to shoot electricity out of his hands. Oh, you had choices in Infamous, all right. You could become a hero or a villain, your moral standing neatly quantified on a graph. Your biggest decisions come during ham-handed "karma moments," which are simplistic and undemanding.
A typical karma moment: You come across an innocent civilian under attack by the game's bad guys, who are trying to rob him of his blast shards (essentially, the game's currency). You are given the choice to protect him or to rob him yourself. Gee, I wonder which one of those is the "good" option? The decision-making becomes even more facile once you realize that you'll get material rewards either way—help somebody out, and he'll share at least some of his blast shards with you. Real moral quandaries are more ambiguous than that.
I enjoyed another open-world superhero game much more. It was called Prototype, and it was the one in which you're an angry scientist who gains the power to shape-shift. One of the reasons why I liked it was that it didn't give me a choice to be good or bad. It made clear that the protagonist was a bastard, and therefore it was no internal contradiction when he mowed down thousands of civilians in his quest to stop the military-industrial conglomerate that unleashed a killer virus in New York City. Telling you from the outset that you're a bad guy—that's the real definition of role-playing, isn't it?
I love a tightly scripted game as much as anyone, but Leigh is right that the more profound and meaningful "choices" in games are those that allow us to author our own experiences. Still, I'm with Jamin in saying that New Super Mario Bros. Wii was not that game. I read a rather touching account by 1up.com's Jeremy Parish about playing it with his fiancee and came away wondering how we could possibly have had such different experiences. Like Parish, I played the game largely with my wife, who is not a gamer and who was also excited to play a Mario title for nostalgia's sake. Every time we booted it up, things got so tense within a few levels that I was in danger of having to sleep on the couch.
Was I mad at my wife, and not the game, as Leigh suggests? Not really. We weren't trying to grief each other. We just kept getting in each other's way. Even one of the game's good ideas, giving players the ability to seal themselves in a bubble and float toward their compatriots, can backfire. Theoretically, if you're about to die and another player is safe, you can rock the bubble and head over to where they are. We eventually found that the best way for us to progress was for her to wait for me to pass the challenging bits, and then have her float over to join me. So … what was the point of our playing together at all?
As player-authored experiences go, there was a much better game that came out around the same time as New Super Mario Bros.: Left 4 Dead 2. Chris mentioned, way back in the first post, that people aren't talking about this one as much as he would have expected. While that's impossible to quantify, I concur that it's not getting as much critical traction as its predecessor, if only because there's not much new to say about it. That's no reason not to laud its accomplishments. Here is a game that you absolutely, positively must play with other people if you want to enjoy it.
Co-op play has always been a side dish in video games. With the Left 4 Dead series (and a lot of other games these days, like … Borderlands!), it's the main course. You can tell by the design of the game's zombies. They all incapacitate players in some gruesome way or another, and much of the game is spent rescuing your pals from the long tongue of the Smoker or the catlike pounce of the Hunter. This game would literally be impossible to play without teammates (and though you can play with AI-controlled allies, you won't want to).
The broad strokes of every L4D2 session are the same: As one of four survivors, you make a mad dash from one safe room to the next before trying to hold out for rescue against a climactic onslaught of ghouls. But the details of each game vary, sometimes wildly. That's partly due to the "AI director," the unseen hand of the developer that arbitrarily spawns helpful supplies and unhelpful foes, depending on the flow of the game. But the variance is mostly due to the personalities of your fellow players.
While it's true that you always need teamwork to beat a L4D2 campaign, you'll find that the definition of teamwork changes depending on whom you're playing with. Some players share health items; others hoard them. Some will die trying to help teammates escape; some will save their own skins even if it means leaving their friends behind. One of the most illuminating things about playing this game is finding out what kind of player you are when the chips are down. (I'll admit it: I will absolutely leave your ass to die as I sail away to safety.)
What's great about Left 4 Dead 2 is that Valve doesn't beat you over the head with your choices. They either work or they don't, and then you regroup. In that sense, it doesn't sound so different from Leigh's description of Demon's Souls, although at least in L4D2 you can blame other people when things don't go right. That's my idea of tough but fair.
All this, and I haven't even touched on the question of whether mass appeal should count for anything. The short answer is no. There's no longer a litmus test for what makes somebody a gamer. What I mean is that the act of playing a video game is mainstream—whether it's Demon's Souls or FarmVille is irrelevant. Maybe that's tantalizing enough to keep that particular conversational thread going. Take it away, Chris!
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.