Everybody’s Playing Something Different—and That’s What Makes Video Games So Great

OK, a lot to get to here.

In terms of N’Gai’s questions about how my job at the paper has evolved, a few clarifications. I have not given up any contacts, just held them at a bit of arm’s length while in this period of heavy reviewing. I just didn’t feel it was appropriate to be taking one-on-one meetings with game executives and PR people while I was reviewing the products they would be trying to spin me about. N’Gai, I think I saw you at one group dinner with a game company, and I made very clear to them that I was there only because it was a group event. It sounds obvious, but ultimately the products speak for themselves. The millions of people whom these companies want to buy their wares aren’t getting special access to game-makers. In trying to come at the games from a perspective similar to that of a thoughtful consumer, I wanted to distance myself from the industry a bit. And as a practical matter, if I want to update my Facebook status with a transitory thought about a game I’m playing before I have published what I’m paid to publish, I don’t think it is helpful if that’s being seen by a few dozen game developers and publicists.

That all said, there is no doubt that even though big games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl, GTA IV, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Wii Fit were released in the first half of 2008 (which I applaud), gaming remains a very seasonal business. So in the early parts of next year, I’m sure I’ll write some broader and more thematic features just because there won’t be as many new games to review. What I will have to think hard about, though, is doing some big hype piece on a game in development that I know I will have to review later. We saw years of prerelease puffery on a game like Spore (none of it, thankfully, with my byline), a game that failed to maintain more than a few weeks of somewhat ambivalent buzz once we all actually got to play it.

Enough about journalism. N’Gai, I didn’t think you were coming at me with what you said about Gears 2 and the wife scene. I think you raised a few of exactly the right questions. And this also plays into some of Chris’ concerns about how stories are told in games. The goal of that scene is to move the player into the plot’s next emotional arc—to attach meaning to gunning down the next wave of bad guys. I agree that the scene could have been a lot more interactive, but the real challenge would not have been in simply giving the player a choice but in allowing that choice to really matter in the overall plotline.

And that might have been a lot harder than it seems at first. Here is this soldier who has been searching for his long-lost wife, and he finally finds her in this horrible ghoulish state. If you give the player a choice there, his natural inclination most of the time is going to be to try to find a way to cure her. That’s a whole different story, and Epic has the right to want her to die there to give the rest of the action a revenge vibe. So, what are you going to do, force the player to pull the trigger? Set up a fight where you try to save her but, no matter what you do, she dies anyway? Now that would piss people off, including me. Once you start giving people choices, the game has to allow those choices to matter. It is not always as easy as saying, “I should have had some choice there, and I didn’t. Epic messed up.” I obviously didn’t think the story was the strongest element of Gears 2, anyway, but I didn’t have a huge problem at that moment because I saw the rabbit hole the game could fall into otherwise.

More broadly, this line of thought plays into Chris’ desire for more different kinds of storytelling in games. The thing is, in all of these mainline console games (even the Portals and such), the story is still being told to you, or even at you. In none of these games does the player really have any role in determining the overall story arc. In that sense, you are still acting out a role that has been written for you and have been given choices only within a fairly limited sphere of the fiction that has been spun around you. Meanwhile, your interaction with other actual human beings in most conventional console games is limited to shooting them, shooting with them, or competing with them for a spot on a high-score list.

That’s why with every passing year I grow deeper in my conviction that the most interesting and meaningful games are massively multiplayer online games in which you have thousands of people in emergent, persistent communities with their own politics, their own tribes. In a massively multiplayer game, every day is different because people are always different. As I’ve played through dozens of games this year for my job, it has been so vital to maintain a gaming home base, a center of gravity with a group of people that I can just hang out and play with. I’ve found that most of this year in Eve Online, the hard-core science-fiction MMO that continues to grow. Eve is the kind of game in which the group of people you play with is the most important part of the experience. These are the people I’m on IRC with even when I’m playing something else, and it is that sense of community, of getting to know people from around the world just a little bit, that is the most valuable thing in gaming for me, and it is something that other media usually fail to provide. (Actually, music probably brings people together more than any other traditional media. I saw the Grateful Dead around 90 times, and I still know people I met out there on the road.)

As far as the year in MMOs, I have to give major respect to Electronic Arts and Mythic for making the first legitimate competitor to World of Warcraft with Warhammer Online. Warhammer isn’t anywhere close to WOW’s size and has only a fraction of WOW’s depth, but Warhammer’s focus on player-vs.-player combat as opposed to player-vs.-computer-controlled-monster combat gives it an important niche.

WOW, of course, remains the juggernaut, and the recent expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, is pure Blizzard: It oozes polish and is totally accessible to casual players. Thing is, WOW is definitely now being built and designed almost entirely for casual players. The WOW of today is probably less than a third as difficult, overall, as it was even a couple of years ago. This is why the game has around 11 million players. But it is a bit of a joke when even the most hard-core players can blow through all of the new expansion’s top-end content in a matter of days. I’m not sure what the people who used to enjoy spending weeks and months working through epic content are supposed be doing in WOW now for their $15 a month. The beautiful thing for Blizzard, though, is that if those people are going to go anywhere during the next couple years, they will probably stay on the Blizzard reservation by moving to coming games like StarCraft II, Diablo 3, and the as-yet-unrevealed new MMO it is working on.

Stephen: I must confess, I have not burned the rope.

And finally, of course games are a medium, not a genre. There are all sorts of games for all sorts of players now. The idea of a canon in games means nothing when there are Bejeweled addicts out there who wouldn’t know Miyamoto if he showed up in their living room. For that matter, there are probably millions of Wii players who have no idea who Miyamoto is. There are people who play Guitar Hero who could not care less about World of Warcraft, and there are Pokémon gurus who have never touched Halo. That’s all as it should be. Video games are the most vibrant and exciting new entertainment medium in the world right now because of their diversity. When so many millions of people are having fun in so many millions of different ways, something is going right.

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