The Gaming Club

I Thought Portal 2 Would Turn My Wife Into a Gamer. I Was Wrong.
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Dec. 14 2011 11:25 AM

The Gaming Club

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I thought Portal 2 would turn my wife into a gamer. I was wrong.

Portal 2
Portal 2's cooperative characters

Ah, yes, Portal 2. I loved it. But something sad happened after I played it. After a couple of weeks of trying and failing to connect with friends online—the daddening of my home life has had as much effect on how I play games as the actual daddening of video games—to play Portal 2’s widely admired co-op mode, I decided, This is the game that will persuade my wife to play video games. It’s funny, it’s accessible, and it’s not very twitchy, meaning she won’t get killed suddenly just because she’s standing around in the game doing nothing. And she loves Stephen Merchant.

So, one night we fired up the Xbox and sat in our living room, gamepads in hand. Rather than a riotous Family Fun Night, what unfolded was a tedious hour of me trying to explain, and her trying to figure out, how to navigate a three-dimensional space using a gamepad. This process is so intuitive to me that I literally have to stop and think about it in order to describe it. But having never done it, she naturally didn’t understand that the left thumbstick doesn’t just move you around the game world the way it does in a two-dimensional game like Pac-Man. You have to take the right thumbstick and sort of turn your character’s head in the direction you want to go, before using the left thumbstick to go forward and back. And you have to do these actions virtually simultaneously. (Or do I have the thumbsticks reversed? I’m serious. I do this without thinking about it.)

“You need to go right,” I’d say. And her robot would start sidling rightward, without turning to face that direction so he could walk forward.

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“This isn’t fun,” she said.

“Of course it isn’t fun,” I said. “It’s been an hour and we’re still in the tutorial.”

We gave up.

None of this is to suggest that Portal 2 isn’t a great game. It most definitely is. But it got me thinking about how inaccessible games are to the general population, despite all the rhetoric about how they’ve gone mainstream. (Example of how they aren’t mainstream yet: New York magazine just put together a “Year in Culture” issue without even a passing mention of video games. Example of how they are mainstream: Manohla Dargis mentioned Katamari Damacy last week in her review of The Sitter.)

Then again, I’m pushing 37. I’m of the generation that was still a little bit embarrassed to play video games in high school and college. Michael, you’re a college professor. Will the little children save us? Or are games still too technically forbidding—as you mentioned, there is not one dominant platform that allows you to play everything—even for the young?

Also, can college students afford to play that many video games? The one thing that goes unmentioned in the enthusiast press is how expensive this hobby is. I easily have thousands of dollars worth of material, in terms of games and consoles, under my television and in my closet. Michael, you were robbed this summer, and the thieves took your gaming consoles and not your TV. Playing video games may not be the province of the 1 percent, but those who pursue it seriously must be, to put a word on it, rich. I think the cost of playing is what is really preventing games from becoming a dominant medium, a people’s medium. Does this bother anyone else? #OccupyVideoGames!

But, to get back to the people who do play games, I admit I should have warned you, Tom—and more important, warned you Slate readers—that I don’t exactly recommend El Shaddai. In some ways, my affection for it is akin to a film critic who likes weird and difficult movies just because he spends the majority of his time watching dreck. If you have only $60 to spend on video games this year, I can’t say I would suggest spending it on El Shaddai.

But why exactly did you loathe it, Tom? I found it striking, if occasionally broken in its gameplay, which is pretty much the judgment you came to with regard to L.A. Noire (one that I agree with). And how is it different from Catherine, which I also quite liked but wouldn’t exactly recommend? But like Tom, I haven’t finished it—I’m going to try to get through the puzzle of the eighth night this evening.

And, like you Tom, I struggle to complete a lot of games, even though I am, at heart, a completionist. But I struggle these days to complete anything, something the jagged peaks of books piled on my nightstand attest to. I suspect that novelists would be as disappointed as game designers must be, if writers were able to measure just how few readers turn the last pages of their books. (Though I suppose that, in a Kindle world, this day is coming.)

Which brings us to Dark Souls. I had avoided it so far this year because I just didn’t get its predecessor Demon’s Souls, despite all the praise for it. (I felt a little bit like Dan Kois watching Meek’s Cutoff.) But Michael and Tom, your praise for it in the first round of the Club wore down my resistance. So I just spent two hours playing it, and I have to say, I’m not sure I get it. It’s definitely evocative, and imposing, and mysterious. But it’s also repetitive and frustrating. Someone who makes games for a living said to me, somewhat dismissively, that Dark Souls is essentially Super Mario Bros. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I think the gist is that it is a game of hand-eye coordination, world exploration, memorization, and trial-and-error death.

I’m going to give it more time, but what am I missing? Would you guys really recommend Dark Souls to a casual+ gamer like Charlie?

P.S.: In that welcoming spirit, should we talk about some games that get TV commercials? Arkham City? Modern Warfare 3? Uncharted 3? Or what about mobile games? Jetpack Joyride, anyone?

P.P.S.: And Charlie, I’m punting your request for a Unified Theory of Gameology to Tom. I took a stab at this idea in the Gaming Club three years ago, daydreaming about how great it would be if some game could have Title X’s mechanics, Title Y’s commitment to the form, and Title Z’s whatnot. I still think the hunger for that mystical Breakthrough Game is part of what makes playing video games so seductive. But I’ve also played a lot more truly bad games since 2008, which makes me more forgiving of the niggling flaws, narrative and otherwise, in the best work in the medium.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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