Why Video Games Shouldn’t Let You Be Yourself

OK, guys,

Why was I so disappointed with the critical reception for Modern Warfare 2? It wasn’t because people like Mitch thought the “No Russian” level fit incongruously with the rest of the game. Mitch’s Boston Phoenix review is the most coherent rebuttal to my Slate review that I’ve seen, though I’m sure he didn’t write it with that in mind. (He writes: “Modern Warfare 2 wants to be a game where life is precious, and where you get an extra 50 points for a headshot. It wants you to experience how terrifying a foreign invasion of the United States would be, and it wants you to deploy a tactical nuke for fun.”)

No, I wasn’t disappointed because people didn’t like the game, or because they didn’t like it as much as I did. Rather, I was disappointed because so many people not named Mitch Krpata chose to criticize the game through the lens of player choice. People complained that they couldn’t kill the terrorists, or that they had to walk through the game a certain way, or that they were put in a ridiculous situation that they wouldn’t have chosen to put themselves in. In essence, a lot of people complained that the game didn’t let them be themselves.

If that’s what the most serious writers on video games honestly want from the medium, then, well, there really is no hope for it as an art form. Playing games to project your desires to be a noble soul is just as much a power fantasy as playing so you can experience the frisson of killing a prostitute you’ve just slept with. (Not that I haven’t done both.)

Wouldn’t it be more exciting to play games that let you do things you don’t want to do? That you had never considered? That take you into the minds of people who are absolutely nothing like you? Despite what so many think, player choice is not the most exciting or important element of this new medium. As Bioshock taught us, player choice in games is severely limited by the demands of the designer.

Would you kindly abandon your belief that player choice is the sine qua nonof video games? Instead, what games bring us is interactivity. Games can be interactive without involving choice. And what interactivity brings is even more remarkable and more important—the not-yet-named fictional element of games that enables players to feel that they are observing a fictional character and simultaneously that they are the fictional character they are observing and, in a limited way, controlling.

In a dialogue with Heather Chaplin at the Believer, journalist, fiction writer, and gamer Tom Bissell called this duality in games “narratively unprecedented.” As I see it, video games enable the viewer to become something akin to actors on a stage—people who are inhabiting characters and participating in a powerful artistic exchange, who are bringing themselves into the process while also following a precise script. Jonathan Blow, the designer of Braid, put a similar sentiment into an e-mail exchange with Stephen Totilo. I’ve quoted these five very important words before, and I’ll quote them again now: “Games let us author experiences.”

As an authored experience, in its scene-by-scene moments (ignoring the nonsensical plot and the near absence of distinguishable characters), Modern Warfare 2 is magical. Even Kieron Gillen, in that post about “No Russian” that you cited, Mitch, concedes as much. The power of the medium, and of the game’s craft, is apparent precisely because it exerts a pull even though the narrative elements are nothing short of ludicrous.

That obvious ludicrousness is why I don’t want to get into a deep exegesis of the game’s plotting. Still, I think Mitch is wrong to say the game is war porn, unless he means that it is war porn as written by a Ron Paul supporter. And you’re right, Leigh, to say that I liked the game in spite of, not because of, narrative elements such as plot and character. That’s why I praised the game’s “fiction” rather than its “story.” Yet to criticize the game’s plot is also to miss the point, somewhat—sure, there were better-plotted games this year, but there were no better authored experiences. Except, of course, my No. 1 game, Flower, which has virtually no characters or plot and yet is a blissful authored experience.

Sure, Modern Warfare 2 could be an even better game if it didn’t have so many absurd narrative elements. But there wasn’t a game—not even, Jamin and Mitch, your beloved Uncharted 2—that didn’t have a lot of similar problems. I get the feeling that if Uncharted 2 had sold as many copies as Modern Warfare 2, we’d be hearing a lot more about its many niggling flaws, which exist alongside its delights. To cite one example: Jamin, I liked taking down one helicopter. But by the end of the game, I was wondering just how many helicopters one man could expect to bring down with a conveniently placed rocket-propelled grenade in his lifetime. To cite another: How many times in that game is a character saved from death by grasping onto another character’s outstretched arm while dangling from the edge of a cliff? A half-dozen? I think it might be more. Modern Warfare 2, in contrast, had two such moments. The first made me roll my eyes at the cliché, but by the second, I was surprised to learn that I was being set up to have my expectations subverted.

Uncharted 2 is a wonderful game, better than almost every other game made this year, and it’s unfair of me to focus on the barely visible pockmarks in its otherwise creamy complexion. But I will if you make me.

As for Mitch’s bleat that the vast majority of people buy Modern Warfare 2 for the multiplayer, well, I can’t say whether that’s true, though anecdotally it feels true. (It’s truthy!) It’s certainly true for some people, and those are the very same people I was talking about yesterday when I complained that some gamers are akin to video lovers who want to nominate Monday Night Football for best picture. As visually pleasing and emotionally engaging as Monday Night Football is, it’s not a movie. And Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer mode is exactly what I’m talking about when I say that some games are purely play, rather than art. To quote our very first Fray poster, “These games are ‘art’ in the same sense that Monopoly or Hockey are (i.e., they aren’t).”

Leigh, I want to hear more about your games. Why were New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Demon’s Souls your favorite games of the year?