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Can People Play Games Wrong?

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I've got a theory.

It goes something like this: "The more freedom a game offers, the better and more powerful an experience it can be." I've noticed this trend in a lot of games, actually; developers provide players with freedom of choice to interact with a game, and people often straight-up love them. Look at the most popular games out there on the market right now, the Skyrims, the Grand Theft Autos, and the Halos of the world. They all empower players to act as they see fit. Cliff Bleszinski, best-known for the Unreal and Gears of War games, shared his new design philosophy in a recent Verge article.

I'm realizing that there is a direct correlation, bugs notwithstanding, between how good your game is and how many unique Youtube videos it can yield.

Far Cry 2, a game that became a cult hit--everyone from Idle Thumbs to me to Anthony Burch loves the game--did so because of the massive amounts of freedom it offered to the player. I still hear stories relayed by its players that surprise me. But... Far Cry 2 wasn't loved by everyone. In fact, quite a few people still rant at how bad a game it is to this very day. Recently, I found myself wondering why that is, which is when I developed another theory: Freedom doesn't just respect players' abilities to play how they want--it enables them to fail.

You can't have freedom without failure.

Some games are safe. If you fail--if the game doesn't click--it's because it's a mistake on your part or the game's, and you, more likely than not, know it. Maybe you weren't paying attention or messed up the timing. Perhaps the game suddenly spiked in difficulty, or failed to communicate where you needed to go. Whatever the case, games that don't facilitate freedom are generally easy to play right. Games that empower, though... well, things get a bit trickier.

Recently, someone told me that they didn't like Far Cry 2. They talked about how the checkpoints respawned all the time, how the malaria was constantly causing problems, how weapons were constantly jamming, the usual. I used to make these complaints myself, so I was more than familiar with them. "Have you tried to use boats?" I asked. The answer, predictably, was that yes, they'd used boats a few times, but had mostly driven around in cars. "Well, here's the thing--if you use boats a lot more often, not only will you get places faster, but you'll interact with checkpoints a lot less.

Given the design of Far Cry 2's world, it's abundantly clear that the designers intended boats to be used quite often. Lakes, after all, dominate the world's two big maps, allowing fairly quick access to most of Far Cry 2's major landmark areas. Cars exist, and they should be used, but to use them all the time... most developers would avoid making players drive more often than shoot in a good, controlled shooter, because that's poor pacing.

Games with freedom don't feature controlled pacing. They function at the pace of the player. There's no good way to get a player to slow down and take in the scenery in a game that offers player freedom, because to make a player slow down, you have to control them--which takes freedom away. So, players might end up playing a game fast and, as a result, hate it, because it's intended to be played slowly. Since pacing is one of the most important elements of a video game (check out the commentary on Valve's Half-Life 2: Lost Coast to learn a bit about video game pacing), it makes sense that people might have trouble with games they have to pace themselves, particularly if they're used to gamey games rather than simmy games.

It seems like a logical impossibility for a game to be both free and yet have a "correct" way to play. Doesn't freedom, by its very nature, mean that anything goes?

Well, yes.

But, presumably, you want to have fun. Anything may go, but that doesn't mean that it's going to be fun. The freedom to play a game you want is the freedom to have fun, but it's entirely possible that you're also free to play the game in an un-fun way. Playing the "right" way, then, is playing in a manner that generates the most engagement for the player. This is what causes such polarizing responses to games that free players to play as they'd like. Some people, because they've been trained to expect certain game tropes, because of who they are, or because of any one of a different variety of factors.

In Far Cry 2, boats are great. I can't say that this is true for most video games. In fact, before I started paying attention to the map and realizing that boats were the most efficient way to get anywhere, I avoided them because of how terrible boats are in most games. They're actually vital, awesome tools, and once you start balancing your car and boat travel, rather than only using cars, the game becomes a lot more fun, because the pacing changes, and you stop coming across random checkpoints all the time.

The people who have issues with the checkpoints are the people who don't go boating enough.

They're the people who play the game wrong.

In fact, most of the people I have met who have complained about games that offer a great deal of personal freedom do so because they attempt to tackle these games like they're playing more controlled experiences. Gears of War 3, for instance, is said to be boring because the Lancer is a good enough weapon to kill anything, so there's no need to try anything else. The truth is that each and every one of Gears' weapons is unique and interesting and will alter the way you play the game. Sure, Gears could follow a traditional shooter path, making weapons obsolete as more powerful weapons come along, but it doesn't. It lets you tackle firefights how you want, with the weapons you choose to use. If you play thinking that weapons should gradually get stronger as you play, you'll never be able to enjoy the genius of Gears' design.

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about STALKER. If you want a game that is both empowering and intimidating, each STALKER game is a good place to start. It has always bothered me that my favorite game in the series, Clear Sky, is also the one people say should be avoided. I, like many people, am a completionist, so I get where they're coming from. In most games, if a quest pops up, you should be able to complete it. It's annoying when you can't do it.

If there's a game that has more "you're out of time to do this mission" prompts, I've not played it. However, unlike most games, which seem to mock the player for some perceived personal failing, Clear Sky actually makes sense. The world is alive. The player just one person. Its missions don't exist so people can do them all--that's an impossible task. They exist because the world is independent of the player. Once players accept that they can't do all the missions and realize that sometimes, people are going to die and there's nothing they can do about it, an epiphany happens. The world becomes more believable. Players start to see the world through the eyes of a stalker, rather than a gamer. They start treating the world with the respect it's been giving them the whole time, and stop playing with the habits learned from countless, less ambitious games.

Now, I've been talking about games with ways to play that I believe are objectively better than their counterparts. What about subjective experiences? What about, say, Deus Ex: Human Revolution? I still remember the moment when it clicked for me. Previously, I'd been trying to play the stealthy way--the game seems built for stealth. As I followed the cues the game for me, I had fun, but... then I shot a guy.

Actually, that's an understatement.

I shot four guys in the face with an automatic shotgun, then yelled "WOOOOOO!" It was incredible. Suddenly, I understood that I'd been playing it wrong. I'd been trying to force myself to play a way that, honestly, I wasn't interested in playing. I started playing the game my way. If they were out to kill me, or were criminal scum, I put 'em down hard. If they were, say, mind-controlled construction workers, I knocked them out, sparing them. I started making judgement calls. I began playing more flexibly.

I went from approving of Deus Ex: Human Revolution to straight up loving it.

Hm.

It seems I've got a third theory, then.

Freedom is respect. Some gamers might not be ready for it. It wasn't until I realized that I'd ignored the respect that Human Revolution was offering me that I started to truly enjoy the game. I love Human Revolution because I get how to play it now--my way.

Developers rarely respect players. They treat them like children. They act as though players must adhere to the rules they've set forward, rather than being willing to let players miss out on content or fail. They are so desperate for players to play their games right that they limit freedom, in order to prevent players from playing wrong. Developers that respect their players, though? They create some of the best games of all time, like Deus Ex and STALKER.

So, can people play games incorrectly? I've gotta say yes. I think that makes gaming awesome.

Next time you're playing a game, and you don't like it, ask yourself if there's a new way to play. Who knows? You might even discover that Halo's Library is one of the greatest levels in video game history!

(it is)

Come join a bunch of us on #Polynauts on IRCHighway for more live discussion! Or, if you want, tweet me at @ForgetAmnesia.

(screenshot via random google image search)

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