Are You Going to Wear That?

Long time readers of our humble writings will recall that we have no love for the Metal Gear Solid games. Pete says, and he is not wrong, that the games implement gameplay systems that are actively hostile towards the player and he doesn’t have time to play games designed by people who hate him. A couple of years ago, I had tried and given up on Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence for that exact reason. Then, while scanning my pile of old games looking for something to play after the holiday rush, I found I wanted to give the game another chance to see if what I liked about the game might triumph over what I hated this time. As it turned out, this is exactly what happened.

Playing the game again, I found myself confronted by the same evidence that Kojima hates me. Even with the new third person camera, the game is archaically difficult to control. I compensated for this by playing on Easy and either sniping or stabbing everyone to death as I traveled from area to area.

As the game progressed, I began to remember what I liked about it. In my mind, what makes Metal Gear fun is that in its design and construction it is always aware that it is just a game and it makes this clear to you too. The game makes almost no effort to integrate the game and the story. In the story, all the characters move smoothly and with great agility. They juggle revolvers, shoot enemies using ricochets and utilize various martial arts with great expertise. In the game itself, Snake doesn’t act coordinated enough to hold his pants, stand, and piss at the same time. He runs around hunched over with his arms folded up, so his hands sit near his face. Like a squirrel cracking open a nut.

The game is also full of “systems” that don’t make any logical sense. The surgery system comes to mind. The field surgery menu is like a deconstructed health pack. You hit A on top of the various items and your injuries magically go away. You can even cure yourself while under attack by hostiles, as if you could hunker down behind a rock and extract a bullet from your shoulder and then get right back into the fight.

Many players find this sort of thing unforgivable, but I found that in my second time through the game I was willing to embrace the game’s quirky design sense. I like it because it goes against the so called “no-crates” doctrine that dictates that the highest possible goal in the design of a game is to try and create an experience that doesn’t feel like a game at all. Rather, you hear designers go on and on about how they will completely integrate gameplay and narrative, or how they will build a “living” world full of freedom and emergent gameplay. I’m tired of slogging through dead living worlds and boring emergent gameplay. If I want that I’ll play Madden.

Metal Gear is refreshing because it throws these ideas out the window and gives you a game to play on the one hand, and a movie to watch on the other. Never mind that the gameplay is stunted and hateful and that the movie makes no sense and has bad voice acting. At least they are doing something different. In the end, rather than giving up on the game this time, I just let the incongruousness flow over me. I turned off my brain, gloried in the over the top B-movie stinky cheeseball cut scene collection.

My change of heart about Metal Gear illustrates an obvious point about critical writing that is too often ignored by the video game industry. The point is that a good critique should combine objective observations (e.g. you cannot aim your gun and walk at the same time) and subjective conclusions (e.g. Kojima hates me). In addition, it should be possible to come to different conclusions about a game even given the same objective observations about how the game plays.

My other recent experience with this idea came when my buddy tilton called me out for unfairly bashing Half-Life 2. I have generally found the Half-Life 2 series to be faithful to the elements that made the first game great, but for some reason the new games just don’t connect with me. I find it hard to care about the HL2 world and its characters, and I get bogged down in the tedium of it all. Interestingly, tilton feels the same way about a game I love: Halo. When I went to beat him up about what a gay lamer he is, it turned out we agree almost completely about how the games work in terms of combat, overall game design, and production values. These are objectively observable facts. Where we differ is what we conclude from observing these facts: I’d rather be in the Halo world, tilton would rather be fighting the Combine. I already knew he was a freak anyway, since all he really plays is WoW.

Ultimately, I think too much critical writing about video games is wedded to the idea that game reviews be an objective evaluation of the game as a commodity. No critical evaluation of anything is completely objective, and setting up an expectation of objectivity serves no useful purpose. In addition, too many consumers of video game writing expect reviews to be nothing but a feature checklist and a score. The result is that most writing about games tends to read like advertising copy from a catalog with endless droning about graphics engines, sound design, normal maps and texture resolution.

What we should be looking for is writing that precisely describes the experience of playing a game in a consistent and predictable voice. From these objective observations, the game review can then veer off into the land of creative opinion. This is something that Zero Punctuation does extremely well. In fact, his reviews work at multiple levels in parallel, combining little animations that both illustrate and make fun of gameplay that he doesn’t like with spoken text that eviscerates the crappy game design all at the same time. Yahtzee constantly makes me jealous because he works at a level that I will never achieve, and I hate him for it. Pete told me that he hates him too. But we were both kidding.

In the end, I have come full circle back to the same old complaint I always have about video game writing. Most of it is bad, and most of the rest is boring. I would like to see more game writing that is willing to throw off the chains of objectivity and take a strong point of view. Maybe go out on a limb and not discuss the quality of the physics engine just once. Who knows, maybe then even professional reviewers will be allowed to change their minds once in a while and embrace a game that they once gave up on. Why should I have all the fun.