Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Looped Branches

A while ago I wrote a companion piece to my first post for the Player Magazine blog. Since said magazine is currently non-functional (I can't even get the website to load), and my sources can't tell me if it will ever be repaired, I figured I'd just put my article here instead, since I put a lot of effort into it, and is one of the only things I've written outside of academia that actually had someone else edit it and slap me around over the crap parts.

A Cautionary Tale

Today‘s brainteaser: how do you offend someone who doesn’t exist?

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether my last piece decrying those who would object to games that feature unlockable content and require solo practice (I believe I labelled them “(sugar-addled teenagers”) was overly harsh. After all, many people in this world have better things to do with their precious leisure hours than grind mindlessly away at the same game day after day in the hope that their special moves end up nanoseconds faster off the draw than anybody else’s. This isn’t the Wild West; unfeasibly fast reflexes aren’t really a vital commodity anymore (neither are ridiculous hats, for that matter, although that’s beside the point), and if you’re not fussed about acquiring such skills, perhaps the hidden content genuinely does seem less like a reward and more like buying some half-formed game that will coquettishly promise riches beyond reach.

So, to test the above conjecture, I sat down with Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Turns out it took all of fifty seconds to realise that said theory is, in fact, total shit. If you‘re wondering, the exact moment confirmation came was when a giant disembodied head appeared and attempted to decapitate me with rapid-firing parallelograms. One round later, a heated duel between a hammer-toting thrush and an armoured space hopper with wings was interrupted when a gargantuan golden retriever sprang into view, banging its enormous paws against the screen.

Then everything exploded.

SSBB captures the casual gamer I was fretting about through sheer force of weirdness; through pure chaos theory. Not ten seconds went by in our first hour of playing without something so outlandishly surrealistic going down that the resulting shock and/or hilarity made finishing a round almost impossible.

Initial reaction: prejudice confirmed. No-one could navigate this surreal insanity minefield and moan about there being more madness initially off-limits, surely?Eventually, though, I realised that’s the wrong question to ask. The right one: why assume these people exist at all?

Recently a top scientist (i.e. me) has discovered a new disease: “Fanboy Projection Syndrome”. Simply answer the following question to determine whether or not you may be at risk.
Q: Upon learning Solid Snake would appear in SSBB, what was your reaction?
a) Uncontrollable joy;
b) Compete indifference;
c) Total confusion/desire to intimate that you have been presented with a sexual reference;

Answer a? You may be susceptible to FPS! Fear not, you’ll only reach the terminal stage if you start assuming everyone in the world is playing a game for the exact same reason you are.

Let me explain.

SSBB is designed to work on two levels. There’s the level to which it may interest the casual gamer who I was so unpleasant to last time around (well, mainly the distinct subset of same who resent anyone who may be more attached to a game than they are), mentioned above. Obviously, this trick can‘t work indefinitely (eventually getting disembowelled by a squirrel-tailed turtle with a light-sabre will become positively passe), but then it doesn’t have to. The defining aspect of such players is that they’re never going to reach that point. SSBB opens with twenty three characters and twenty nine stages, so our hypothetical fair-weather player is hardly likely to get through the light show and start demanding to see the man behind the curtain.

There is, of course, another level, providing for a different player type. Which would be me, and probably you if you’re reading this blog; the people for whom a video game is more than just an alternative to playing charades at parties. There are myriad ways in which SSBB caters for us, but for the purposes of this article I’ll just highlight: the sheer density of “Bloody Hell, it’s *that* guy!” moments. Those are for us. You think the people who answered b or c give a shit that it takes time alone to unlock Snake? Well, some of them might, but presumably those same people would whine just as much over having to unlock Shang Tsung, the Vib Ribbon bunny, or Vyacheslay Molotov, so nuts to them. We shouldn’t get so caught up in our own tiny corner of the human experience that we project our desires onto everyone within reach. Just because we’re twitching with rabid joy imagining Sonic bitch-slapping Mario until he explodes to reveal a tiny seal (ask yourself what proportion of Wii owners will get that reference), there’s a tendency to believe everyone else will be too, and will be furious that they can’t immediately get their sweaty hands on him. “What do you mean I have to unlock Green Hill Zone? I must relive 1991 immediately!”

Never one to shy away from picking statistics out of the sky at random, I can say with total confidence that 99.9% of people desperate to watch Falco suplex Ganandorf are exactly the same people prepared to put in the effort to unlock them anyway. Those people (which sure as hell includes myself) don’t pick up this detailed knowledge of gaming history accidentally. We know it because we experienced it. I want to play as Sonic because it taps into countless hours of youthful nostalgia; I’m not going to turn around in 2008 and tell Nintendo that SSBB can go fuck its single player mode. The more casual players can keep themselves going with the Dali-esque adrenaline-fest to their hearts content. Both sides are catered for, so I see no reason why anyone would dream up a game-playing proletariat that longs to join the hallowed ranks of the elite (for “the elite“ read: rag-tag collection of fools unable to distinguish between talent and obsession) and then compound that error by slating those constructs for wanting to sign up for the club without wanting to put the work in.

I have one final article that was in the final stages of it's first draft when The Player went dark. I may post that up here as well, once it's finished. If nothing else, it will infuriate Senor Spielbergo, and that alone would make it worthwhile.


Gooder said...

But there is also the player who knows who Snake is and is excited by his use but crucially also has life beyond the game be it a family or a job.

These are the people that are just stamped on. Besides it was Sonic that featured heavily in the promotion only for him to require you to play the game for hour upon hour before he appeared.

SpaceSquid said...

You unlock Snake in the process of completing the game; it's not like the amount of effort necessary is completely out of order. I'm also pretty sure the fact I've unlocked Mr Solid doesn't prove I have no life outside of my Wii.

As to "stamped on", you'd have to work hard to persuade me there is anyone out there who is simultaneously really excited about playing as Snake, but doesn't spend all that much time playing video games. I just don't understand how that could come about. If we were talking about unlocking, say, Legolas, or Wolverine, then that would be something different.

We've argued about Sonic before. The quality of a game is not affected by the appropriateness of its advertising.