Playing the Game Wrong

I did some work over in Los Angeles – a story unto itself – and was in close contact with a fairly important guy who was the client for the company I worked for at the time. Once or twice a week he would drive me across town to Venice Beach. Sometimes this was during rush hour and it meant that we would end up spending up to an hour or two in the car. He was a very down to earth guy with a passion for games, so that was generally the topic of our conversations (that and the life-threatening smog that permeated the whole of the city). Bioshock was new at the time and on one of these drives he expressed his disgust with the hype being thrown at the game:

“The fact is, there is no challenge. Every encounter just involves going up to the enemies, hitting them with whatever you’ve got then dying, respawning and, because they don’t regenerate health, you can just rinse/repeat. Also it just isn’t a good shooter. It’s boring.”

I sat there a little uncomfortably. I liked the guy and in some respects he was right. If you play Bioshock in that fashion then it is dull; the mechanics aren’t engaging enough and the essential flaw is that health packs and ammo are pointless when you can just mindlessly rush at enemies until you or they die. Played like that, moving from room to room with scant regard for your surroundings, the game is going to get very dull, very quickly.

It pained me at the time – and pains me more now – but I still had to venture that maybe he was playing the game wrong. He, rightly so, was offended by this statement. The counter-argument being that if the developer put it in there then why shouldn’t he play it like that, seeing as it was an obvious exploit to get through the game?

I tried to argue that those elements were there deliberately to allow for a lower entry-level of player and that the shooting mechanics were not what the game was about, rather the exploration of the world that was Rapture.  At the time I didn’t know about the sly digs the game made about the systems it put in place and I wished I had as I might have made a more convincing argument. Still, the idea of playing a game in the wrong fashion irritates me. If you have to play a game a certain way for it to be enjoyed then it is not you that is wrong but the game – surely?

A year later I was on the receiving end of the same derisive comment. A co-worker suggested I was playing Ninja Gaiden wrong because I wasn’t using the block button. Aside from the blatant dig at my ability to play games, a very successful attempt at getting a rise out me, the comment sort of makes sense. It wasn’t as simple as using the block button: people who play Ninja Gaiden want to be punished. The enjoyment comes from trying and failing at the game and then getting better, refining yourself and improving your reactions. I would argue that Ninja Gaiden is unfair and not fun. In the same breath I would argue with anyone who thought Dark Souls was too hard and not fun, and defend it along the same lines as fans of Ninja Gaiden would. In both games levelling up your character is less important than levelling up your own skills. You have to learn to deal with the mobs efficiently and understand the underlying systems; learning to exploit them is not just par for the course, it is sometimes integral to success. Utilising these flaws is not boring: in fact it is part of learning how to play the game.

Playing the game wrong is to expect the game to communicate anything past the basics, to be fairly checkpointed, to not have one hit kill bosses and not be threatening.

I played Ninja Gaiden wrong, or perhaps I never appreciated what it was doing, whereas Dark Souls’ approach made so much sense to me that I would have rated it one of the best games (if not the best) of last year.

The previous examples I gave of playing a game wrong involved not appreciating the game’s mechanics for what they were, either by exploiting them or failing to do so. I feel that there are other examples where it is not the game’s mechanics but its narrative design that can lead to playing the game wrong.

In a cultural exchange that instigated my 12 Games Before Christmas challenge I made a friend play Way of the Samurai 3 while he made me play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I’ll never know what he did to get the achievement for having played the game for ten hours but not completed a story line (it should have taken him a maximum of five hours to get one of the twenty-one endings) but I am going to fantasise that it was narrative ambiguity. WotS3 has no real direction: there are so many choices which can be made that it is easy to try and do everything, for which the will game brutally slap your hand in a way that can be dispiriting. The narrative is so flexible that it can lead to you feeling lost. You will find yourself identifying with one person even though you have to kill them and similarly every outcome can seem unsatisfying. To not embrace that there is no perfect run (although actually there is and it sucks) is to play WOTS3 wrong.

Inversely, Modern Warfare 2 is sniper-scope focused in terms of its narrative. My rather derisive review of the game picked it apart for what I deemed to be its flawed design. In hindsight I can see that what I was doing was playing the game wrong, which I think I even mentioned in the comments. The narrative requires you to keep it going through suspension of disbelief and to not deviate from its set path. You are only lost when you don’t let the game guide you through its tight corridors. Similarly, Uncharted 2 is a phenomenal experience so long as you are willing to play along with what it is trying to do. Both games are visual rollercoasters where you must pretend to believe that the danger is real and that failure is somehow tangible. Looking in from the outside all you will see is a bunch of people locked into a linear experience with no divergent path, whereas if you strap in and let go you are going to be thrilled (unless you are as emotionally dead as I am) and have an amazing time.

These experiences require that you are a willing participant. Regardless of other qualms you might have, by not playing along you are only ruining it for yourself. Where Way of the Samurai is demanding and therefore can feel utterly opaque in its intent, Modern Warfare and Uncharted want to please you and it is down to you to not play along. Think of it as if you were on a murder mystery tour (or a Live Action Role Playing retreat) and then spend the entire time out of character.  Why are you there and why are you actively trying to make your time worse? Gratification comes from living within that setting’s limitations rather than pushing its boundaries.

Bizarrely there are games that almost succeed in spite of themselves. Playing them in a manner contrary to what was the creator’s intent actually means they rise above what they aimed for. Like a bad film or two, sometimes a game just has to be subverted to derive elite status. (Editor’s note: neither of these games are in any way shit.)

The first is an obvious candidate: Deadly Premonition is a game so bad that it is actually awesome. Playing the game as it was intended can be extremely entertaining but when played badly and clumsily with little regard for its limitations it transcends from an interesting game to a phenomenal game. In this case, to play the game wrong is to try and keep a straight face and play along with the preposterousness, some of which was clearly not intended by the creators. They have now come to embrace the game’s moderate success and its open silliness as a by-product.

The second is the Smash Brothers series explored in the recent Fighterpedia. The episode is a compelling argument for why Smash Brothers should be embraced as a fighter but one of the points made I found especially interesting. The game’s creators don’t want you to play it like a fighter and have done all they can to not make the game a legitimate one. This has got them nowhere as players have played the game wrong/right and adapted it to their needs. This leads to some confusion as to when playing the game wrong is incorrect.

So what is the future of the misunderstood? Many of the examples I have used were games that found their market, some of them proving insanely popular for better or for worse. For every hardcore player deriding Bioshock to no effect there are others mocking Lost Planet 2 or completely missing the drift button in Ridge Racer: Unbounded.

This leads to further questions. Is playing the game the correct way a disservice to the audience that might encounter the game through your writing? Playing a game so straight that you avoid game breakers and progression blockers which common users would encounter is a case of playing the game too right, but at the same time playing L.A. Noire with the intent of screwing up every question could be viewed as going too far in the other direction.

At this point we start getting into the debate of what constitutes normal player action. Ocarina of Time is considered a flawless gem by many but I got stuck for almost two hours trying to find a sword. When you are playing something for the first time, either with no external influences or perhaps many, when are you playing the game wrong or right?

I guess I would like to say that, as a gamer, you should trust yourself and your instincts. If viewing the X360’s top-selling list this week is any indication of gamers trusting their instincts that might not be such a bad idea.

Also, play Mindjack.