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.