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Playing It Properly

Ed Smith | 9 Oct 2012 09:00
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In one form or another, I turn up in almost every game. Sometimes I'm just unfair; when you've killed and fought your way to the end of Syndicate, the seemingly random low grade at the end bursts your bubble like a lit match to a child's balloon - good job saving the world, but you could have saved the world better. Bayonetta, Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire - so many games today tick you off for not being good enough, and as much as I want to ignore their point systems and star ratings, I've been taught my whole gaming life to go to for gold.

I wish I could erase the part of me that's been trained to go after the high score, then I'd be free to play however I liked.

And now I'm teaching my girlfriend to do the same. But why? What's so important about high scores and trophies? Surely in today's climate of choice-based narratives and sandbox freedom, what's more precious is that players do as they please. Sometimes that'll mean forgetting to pick up the murder weapon and bungling the case, but as long as the game (or your boyfriend) doesn't punish you with a low grade, it won't matter. In fact, it'll make the game much better.

I love to feel like I'm playing something organic: The gunfights in Max Payne 3 are so wonderfully chaotic that although I might waste entire clips and get shot to pieces, I'll always have the pride of knowing that I did it my way. My girlfriend wants the same thing. She isn't interested in unlocking golden guns or earning platinum trophies; she's playing honestly. That inveterate propensity to collect gold rings and rack up points that's been drilled into me since childhood makes me more likely to reload and try again than admit mistakes and just move on. I either do it perfectly, or not at all, and that makes for boring literature. My girlfriend is happy to mess things up, and it's making Heavy Rain richer.

Obviously, you can't apply the same ideal to every game - Uncharted, Gears of War and Call of Duty are so linear and rigidly characterized that screwing things up simply isn't an option. You can either shoot and jump like Nathan Drake, or keep retrying until you get it right. And that's fine; I respect developers who trust their work enough to not let players interfere with it too much. But when it comes to Fallout, Skyrim and the rest of the choice-based canon, it's a capital crime to keep us on a leash. Their score systems are better disguised - Fallout's karma meter doubles as a skill tree, Heavy Rain just gets its supporting characters to yell at you - but for a grizzled veteran like myself, surreptitious nudges like these are as glaringly obvious as CoD's "+10" kill award. I can't help but notice when I could have had more points, and every time I snatch the controller out of my girlfriend's hands I'm cursing her with the same knowledge.

I wish I could erase the part of me that's been trained to go after the high score, then I'd be free to play however I liked. Save the sheriff and see the good ending? Screw that, he's got a sweet jacket. Don't kill any guards to unlock a trophy? No thanks, these guns are cool. Without my stupid instinct to listen to games when they tell me to sit and roll over, I'd be free to carve out my own experience. They might clap me round the ear with a dismal end-game cutscene, but I'd be richer for having played something that was totally mine.

I'm jealous of my girlfriend. As a gaming illiterate, she has no idea of what's going right and what's going wrong. For her, every choice is made without bias; she's totally unaware of trophies, high scores and good endings, so these things don't influence her thinking. Like a child watching a puppet show, she can't see the strings. She doesn't need my nagging to enjoy the game more. Instead, she's totally convinced and completely immersed. Unlike me, she's playing it properly.

Ed Smith is an upcoming writer, always on the lookout for new opportunities. You can contact his secretary through Twitter @mostsincerelyed

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