Why We Play

Seth, Chris, and Stephen,

I’m writing this just after returning from the NYC premiere of the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie There Will Be Blood. As I was thinking about how to respond to Seth’s statement that he finds multiplayer games “vastly more interesting than single-player games,” I was reminded of a near monologue delivered by the character of Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Here’s a partial rendering of some of the things he says:

I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed.I hate most people.I see the worst in people.There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.

Other than every so often when I’m playing with and against people whom I know personally, this pretty much sums up how I feel about multiplayer gaming. And that goes double for massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Why would I entrust the limited amount of time I have for entertainment to amateurs instead of professionals?

I understand that multiplayer games can offer more unpredictability, as well as opportunities for more pitched competition and collaboration, but generally speaking, I’d rather play a game that I know has been carefully crafted in order to entertain me, where the rules are fixed, where enemy behaviors are more easily grasped. Ask me to choose between testing myself against a game designer or another player, and I’ll pick the former nine times out of 10. I guess I’m just a theme-park kind of guy, Seth, though I don’t mind having a bit of beachfront so that I can play in a sandbox from time to time. That’s what I liked about BioShock, though you’re absolutely right that the team at 2K Boston/Australia could have pushed its sandbox elements further without losing its roller-coasterness.

Our differing opinions on single-player and multiplayer stem from the different reasons why we—and others—play video games, a subject that has been generating some online discussion of late. God of War creator David Jaffe, upon becoming frustrated with the difficulty spikes in Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, wrote on his blog, “I DON’T FUCKING WANT TO BE CHALLENGED BY MY FUCKING ENTERTAINMENT. HERE’S 60 FUCKING BUCKS. … ENTERTAIN ME GOD DAMMIT!!!” Now, there was no need for him to shout, but that said, my next thought was, “He completely fucking described how I feel about video games.” Especially when he went on to explain that what he was looking for was “engagement,” the process whereby he would experience a few failures or trial-and-error, followed by a light bulb going off, followed by success, without ever becoming too frustrated.

Over at Penny Arcade, cartoonist-blogger Tycho explained that when he plays Rock Band, the stars—which denote mastery over a particular song—weren’t important to him in single-player mode, but mattered tremendously in multiplayer, where he saw them as a measure of his band’s togetherness. He added, “That’s a pretty serious distinction—people who play games in order to excel at them, and those who play games as a conduit to fantasy—and its only one axis of the diagram.” His partner in crime, Gabe, echoed that sentiment while recounting his frustration over the difficulty of some of the boss battles in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, saying, “I realized I don’t play games for the challenge. I don’t need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. … I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don’t play games to beat them I play games to see them.”

These explanations resonate with me as well, but it also depends on the game. If there’s little to no narrative and the game’s playable space is fairly simple, as in some of my old favorites (Virtua Tennis, Rez, Lumines) or this year’s standouts (Desktop Tower Defense, Everyday Shooter, Super Stardust HD), I don’t mind being fiercely challenged. In fact, I welcome it. But if the game has a narrative and/or a more complex playable space—in other words, if I’m trying to get from point A to B in a story or a game world—I want to be engaged, just as Jaffe described, not have my ass handed to me over and over. That’s what’s so great about the design of Portal: It walks the tightrope between hard and easy with solutions that make players feel clever no matter how quickly or slowly they solve them.

Seth, you pushed back on the idea of naming a Game of the Year. What about if I simply list the Most Important Games of the Year? To me, these are games that are most likely to influence and impact what we play and how we play it. My list includes:

  1. Scrabulous on Facebook, because asynchronous gaming, when combined with a well-populated social network, could soon redefine interactive entertainment.
  2. Halo 3, for the concept of “Saved Films,” which foster the idea that we’ll one day have a hard drive in the sky that preserves all of our video game experiences for later perusal, and for Forge, which beat LittleBigPlanet to the user-created content punch.
  3. Portal, for demonstrating the power of minimalism in narrative, art direction, and game mechanics.
  4. Hellgate: London, because the future of episodic content is most likely paid subscriptions.
  5. BioShock, for its narrative ambition and its sandboxing of the first-person shooter.
  6. Resident Evil 5—well, its trailer—for demonstrating that empathy is the first thing to go when gamers feel threatened.
  7. Everyday Shooter, because one man made a PS3 game all by himself.
  8. Kane & Lynch, because it got people thinking about journalistic ethics and dubious business practices.
  9. Manhunt 2, because its reception—critical, commercial, and censorial—will have some publishers rethinking their stances on how much is too much.
  10. Crysis, because someday, we’ll get a PC that can run that game.