Thursday, 11 December 2008

More Left-Overs

The third and final of the articles I wrote for The Player before it went dark. Since I hadn't finished it at the time they dropped off the web, I didn't feel the need to conform to their word count, so this one is (slightly) longer. I should also apologise in advance to the citizens of Jersey, which is a quite delightful island and wonderful holiday destination. Fact.
Not A Chance In Shell

Jersey is boring as Hell. Sure, it has picturesque beaches, swanky restaurants, and a crop-based labyrinth based upon the weakest pun since Girls Aloud, but with everything so expensive, and all their money apparently modelled on Monopoly: Retard Edition , what’s an urbane thrill-seeker and his shabby coterie supposed to do?

Faced with a week trapped upon the English Channel equivalent of Alcatraz, then, your intrepid reporter had little choice but to barricade himself inside his holiday home with an assortment of Wii games and enough alcohol to replace Robert Downey Junior’s entire circulatory system.

There was a definite upside to this arrangement, though. By day my associates would be absent boogie-boarding, or perhaps prancing around Nazi beachhead bunkers, but at night they would return to shatter my solitude and grasp the surrounding Wiimotes in their clumsy paws, desperate to elevate themselves to my level. The result was an excellent opportunity to flex my gaming muscles, and ruminate on the multiplayer experience.

We sampled many videogame sweetmeats over the course of the week, but the closest I came to a deep revelation on the nature of our obsession came during extended sessions of Mario Kart Wii. Specifically, it pretty much hit at the exact instant the third blue shell in the same damn race hit my hog-riding dinosaur in the back of his scaly head and knocked him flying into one of Toad’s crates on the inexplicable conveyor-belts-to-nowhere.[1]

For a few fleeting moments I was seized by a rage likely familiar to many of you, the reddening of vision that descends as the peasants beat you in your chosen arena, not because of any skill on their part, but because the game you’re playing seems intent on handing out the goodies in inverse order of talent, like Father Christmas guest-judging X-Factor. It’s the home entertainment equivalent of FIFA allowing fans to help out the losing team by tossing them rocket launchers.

The constant sting of outrageous favouritism did, however, lead to my question for my latest article: should the most talented player win all games, or only most games?I mean, we were the ones who put in all the damn effort, wearing our fingers to bleeding claw-like stumps against plastic control pads as we go through the electric analogue to having Mr Miagi punch us repeatedly in the face whilst reciting Taoist homilies. To the victor go the spoils. Right?


It’s likely no accident that it was Mario Kart that inspired this line of thought. Nintendo seems pretty sure as to which side of the fence it wants to stick itself. The chosen demographic; the endless novelty/party games; Hell, even the motion sensing control system itself; all scream out “This isn’t just for hardened gamers!” Which you knew already, of course. The point is that that there are three ways gamers can get screwed over: a new control system [2]; a handicap system; and, last but not least, sheer dumb luck. It’s my contention that MKW attempts to find the middle ground between the second and third method, and that the game is all the better for it.

One of the most interesting attitudes regarding video games is the expectation that they be in some sense fair. Endlessly re-spawning opponents? That’s not fair. Your own re-spawn happens to be inside the blast radius of a tactical nuke. That’s not fair.

Quick question. So. The. Fuck. What? What MKW (along with others) has done, and it’s genius and you people are peons for not noticing it, is to simulate the shit happens principle (also known as “life”). People trip inches from the finishing line. Stalin invades Poland. It turns out George Clooney already nicked it (seriously, what a shitty, shitty film). It’s not like any of this is new to games, either; pretty much any
activity outside of electronics that you want to mention involves endless chance, from where the goalkeeper is when you try to score through to the double you need to roll to get out of jail in Monopoly. It would be nice to think that there is something more that attracts us to our chosen pursuit than a simple fear that things might happen beyond our control [3]. We still have the tools and the talent, to paraphrase Winston Zeddemore, demanding we be free of the vagaries of probability in addition just makes us look small.

So what if MKW is kind enough to skew chance in favour of those who happen to be having a bad day, for whatever reason? That just makes it one of those performance-sensitive handicap systems that seem to be in vogue nowadays. It’s looking after the underdog, it's Ecclesiastes 9:11. It’s how, if we’re honest, we wish God would do things, instead of randomly setting fire to bushes whilst everybody gets cancer.

Of course, maybe you want to sit down, arms folded petulantly, and demand that your games are entirely devoid of random chance, driven only by the cold, uncaring realities of the respective skills of you and your opponent. Which is fine, I guess, as far as it goes. But you don’t want to hang out with your mates, you want to sit down and play chess. With yourself.

So piss off and leave us to it, would you?

[1] Seriously, what does Toad even make in that damn factory? He’s been suspiciously quiet all these years about his side-line interest in the textile industry or whatever. Or maybe his father runs the family business, and Toad is just a useless playboy competing in illegal street-racing for the hopes of snagging himself some mushroom ass. Daddy must be devastated. If only Toad’s elder brother hadn’t met his end in that damn shiitake omelette.

[2] Think back to how traumatic is was when someone told you to play a FPS with keyboard and mouse simultaneously, and that was a system that actually ended up being better than what preceded it, as oppose to simply weirder.

[3] And even when you do find yourself proof to the pseudo-randomness of a games programming, there will still be days when you’ve spent what feels like hours infiltrating the enemy base only for the contents of your head to be evacuated by some jittery thirteen-year old sniper on your own damn side.

1 comment:

Gooder said...

One thing I'd say is that things like Mario Kart isn't something any hardcaore gamer would ever complain about as it's nature is fairly obvious. They know MK is for one where Forza Motorsport is for 'serious' gaming.

Just like there's a world of difference between Counter Strike and Serious Sam - but the 'gamers' know that so they don't complain.

That's why you'll find the happily playing Super Smash Bros when nothings at stake but King Of Fighters when prize money is at stake.

A more interesting approach is to think how the market appears to be reducing in depth and difficulty to open itself up. With Fable II's combat being based around three inputs, Prince Of Persia essentially never letting you die fro example. Although the hardcore game is still out there (Gears Of War, Far Cry, Fallout 3) it seems to be becoming the niche rather than the norm as it was less than a decade ago.

Plus I think it should be noted that for all the MK boosting you never once played it with the remote or steering wheel! A true gamer adapts!