There’s a brilliant cutscene in Metal Gear Solid 3 that I always wanted to play for myself. Ambushed by the elite and incredibly camp Ocelot unit, Naked Snake finds a split second between their taunts and showboating to grab one soldier as a human shield while he beats, throws and shoots down the rest. In 2004, it looked amazing; my friend and I would watch this fight over and over again, trying to learn the choreography so we could practice it in the back garden. It was just like an action movie, and I wanted a go.
Part of the reason I play videogames is so I can do things that are impossible for me in real life.
But I wasn’t allowed – awkward controls left me frustrated that I couldn’t move and kill like the guy I was controlling. Consider Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. In their respective cutscenes, the characters can backflip and swordplay like Jedi masters. Put them under my control, and they stumble around like the Star Wars kid on a bouncy castle. Part of the reason I play videogames is so I can do things that are impossible for me in real-life – steal a tank, fire a laser gun, eat a hundred and fifty gold rings – so every time I watch Bayonetta Matrix her way through a dungeon full of demons, it’s another glass ceiling between me and my fantasies.
But then Modern Warfare came along and everything changed. I remember playing the first level, and after twenty minutes of emptying my gun into the sky and flashbanging myself (just like a real SAS trooper wouldn’t) I was thrown into a thumping action sequence that for once, wouldn’t be spoiled by my useless human fingers. I’d just managed to kill the last guard by shooting him thirty times in the feet, when all of a sudden the boat we were on tipped to one side and started to take on water. As the cargo holds filled up with sea, I was naturally hit by a sense of dread. “Oh god,” I thought “I’m going to have to retry this loads of times.”
But I was wrong. Despite all the saltwater and plankton hitting me in the face, I managed to scurry back to the helicopter just in time. It looked impossible – collapsing walkways, people screaming – but I pulled it off. I’d never felt so powerful. Infinity Ward had taken all the non-playable, dead eye backflippery that made cutscenes look so impossible, and turned it into something interactive. The “set-piece” as it became known, was the perfect remedy to my cackhandedness; instead of getting lost and fumbling jumps, the game put me on rails and told me what to press, and when. Where normal gameplay could get scrambled by my repeated dying, letting the game handle the cool stuff while I hit a few buttons felt like the ideal balance. The abbreviated controls and lowered difficulty made it look like I was beating up the Ocelot unit. At last, I felt like an action hero.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized I’d been duped. I was gearing up for the fighter jet mission in Battlefield 3, getting ready to hop into the cockpit and Top Gun the shit out of every bogey stupid enough to be in the sky, when, to my surprise, I was railroaded into the passenger seat and told to sit still. While the pilot talked to the control tower and fired up the engines, I was given the humiliating task of closing the roof and checking the brake lights; once we’d made sure that the child locks were working on my window, I gave a confused thumbs up and we took off. As the plane banked and rolled, I felt like I was on a rollercoaster. It was exciting, sure, but there was nothing for me to do except look around. For all intents and purposes, I was back to watching cutscenes, only now I could shake my avatar’s head along with my own.
I began to understand that all these years, Call of Duty and Uncharted had been lying to me. I’d thought that I’d been the one leaping chasms on snow-skis and winning bar fights, when actually the games had been doing it all for me. At best, they’d given me a few buttons to press to let me feel like I was doing something; at worst, they’d strapped me in, locked me out and made me watch while the game went to Hollywood without me.
Ideally, set-pieces would be optional, streamlining the action for struggling players would stave off frustration and keep the game rolling.
I’m offended that developers don’t feel they can trust me; like a patronizing husband, leaning over to assure his wife that, don’t worry, he’ll drive, set-pieces are the fastest way for a game to make me feel inadequate. I’ve shot down space invaders and won the Medal of Honor, so I think I can handle one little fighter jet. If anything I could do it better; let me control John Marston and I’d have gunned down that firing squad faster than you could say “narrative convenience.”
So why do games think I need infinite ammo and Quick Time Events in order to look cool? Sure I can be sloppy on my first go, but part of the fun of videogames is watching yourself improve with every playthrough; it took a lot of practice before I got the hang of Resident Evil 4‘s awkward laser sight, but when I could finally pull off long-range headshots, it felt a lot more satisfying than having one button do it for me.
If you think back to your favorite gaming memories, they’re always things that you did yourself – that six star car chase that ended in a gunfight at Cluckin’ Bell, the million point combo that you pulled off in Tony Hawk. Set-pieces might be loud and impressive, but there’s nothing remarkable about something everyone can do. Ideally, set-pieces would be optional: streamlining the action for struggling players would stave off frustration and keep the game rolling. I hate hitting a brick wall in videogames; momentum and narrative slow down with every hit of the retry button. But I also love a challenge, and I’d like to have the option of doing things manually.
So for all their whizzbangs and drama, I can’t get excited about set-pieces. I appreciate that they’re a dynamic alternative to cutscenes – without completely hand-tying players, they let developers control the drama – but I want to fly the jet myself, For the sake of narrative and arranged spectacle I’m happy to dance the game’s steps, but there’s no reward from beating a set-piece want to play something I can talk about; when Max Payne 3 drops me off at a police station full of riot cops with nothing but a handgun, it’s up to me and my hard-learned skills to earn my bragging rights. I wanted to be Naked Snake because he was the very best, but now, thanks to on-screen button prompts and choreographed setups, anybody can beat the Ocelot unit. Moves aren’t impressive if everyone can do them. But if you can learn from your slip-ups and adapt to the game’s nuances, there’s every chance you’ll pull off something unique, something memorable – something that can’t be scripted.
Ed Smith is an upcoming writer, always on the lookout for new opportunities. You can contact his secretary through Twitter @mostsincerelyed.