You know what gets an undeservedly bad reputation, in both videogames and everyday life? Fucking up. Everyone seems to agree that fucking up is something we should all avoid doing, and yet, a world without fucking up would be a terrible one indeed. The Allies fucked up at Dunkirk but the evacuation is one of Britain’s proudest folk memories. Captain Scott fucked up getting to the South Pole before Amundsen, but no-one talks about Amundsen of the Antarctic, do they. Amundsen fucked up by not fucking up. I’d like to take a moment of your time to appreciate fucking up and its role in society.
Max Payne 3 was the game that got me thinking about this, which almost stands as a celebration of fucking up. I once said that it’s hard to make it seem like the player character is at a low point when gameplay mechanics demand that we be constantly triumphing in the challenges presented. But if there’s any game that seems to be challenging that notion at every turn, it’s Max Payne 3. If you’ll recall from my ZP review one of my main criticisms was that Max was laying it on a wee bit thick, complaining about how he’s doing precisely the wrong thing right up to the closing credits, which was kind of a buzz kill while I, personally, was having a lovely time jumping around murdering people.
But it’s not Max’s personal judgement of what constitutes fucking up I wanted to talk about, it’s the player’s ability to fuck up the gameplay challenges. Max Payne 3 has made me apply a little update to my personal little mental wad of game design theory. One of my favorite game critic tosspot words at present is “Organic” as applied to a videogame experience, meaning that its entertaining moments and situations play out live, as in, within the standard mechanics, rather than as part of some pre-animated set piece or cutscene, which is “inorganic”. Organic is good, and inorganic is not.
As you may have guessed from reading that description, I sometimes find it difficult to explain what I mean by “organic”. But Max Payne 3 has helped provide me with a somewhat definitive … erm … definition: Organic gameplay is gameplay that you can fuck up.
Those inorganic games I don’t like so much, they won’t let you fuck up. It’s too important to them that their character keep looking cool and dignified, I guess. Like in all those opening cinematics from Devil May Cry or Bayonetta in which the player character figuratively jerks off into the camera while you sit and watch or go make yourself a rum and coke. Or those pre-baked finishing moves in way too many games these days when you hit the circle button while next to a weakened enemy and Kratos or whoever artfully takes them apart while you get to maybe mash a quick time event button if you’re lucky. The spectacle of such things is diminished by the fact that there’s no possible way they can fuck up, or at least not in any way you’re involved with. And no, missing the quick time event so Kratos has a brain fart and gets piledrived into a mosaic doesn’t count.
But organic games are willing to allow the player to fuck up their attempts at spectacular stunts in all kinds of magical ways, and that’s what sells Max Payne‘s bullet dodging gameplay to me. Yes, it’s spectacular to sail through the air like a dirigible headshotting nine upward-staring bad lads before landing on your back on a trestle table that waits just a fraction of a second before collapsing with hilarious comic timing, but it’s meaningless if you couldn’t potentially have missed all the bad lads and landed in a toilet instead.
In fact, I’d argue that a really magnificent fuck-up is far more memorable and far more interesting to talk about with one’s friends than a well-executed success, even more so than a pre-animated cutscene or set piece. It’s emergent, isn’t it? The game is willing to work with the player to create the experience rather than treat the player as something that has to be dragged along. Even better are fuck ups that are still successes that occurred differently to how you anticipated, like say if you wanted to rope an enemy soldier to a jet plane for giggles in Just Cause 2, but the plane stumbles on its way along a makeshift runway and sudden decelaration catapults the soldier into one of the turbines. A pre-baked finishing move can never surprise you like that unless something goes drastically wrong with the physics engine.
But the important thing about fuck-ups is that they are necessary to juxtapose success. The two or three times you pull off something really memorable and impressive wouldn’t have as much effect if it weren’t for the countless fuck-ups, near-misses and didn’t-even-bothers throughout the rest of gameplay. An efficient use of bullet dodge might not in itself be as visually elaborate as some Final Fantasy choreographed zero-gravity swordfight taking place on the side of a nuclear missile as it speeds towards the puppy kingdom, but a game containing nothing but that kind of thing with no possibility of the character failing is just as boring as a game where nothing happens. If the pace of a video game is defined with a line graph, then the game’s excitement factor is defined by how steeply the line spikes, not the height the line reaches. A straight, uncurving line is boring no matter how high on the graph it lies. If you see what I mean.
One of the things that makes videogames so interesting to me as a dramatic medium is that they are virtually defined by the main characters being constantly under threat of fucking up. Yeah, Luke Skywalker could potentially fuck up at any time throughout the course of a Star Wars movie, and that’s why they’re fun to watch, but in the back of your mind, you know he’s going to succeed in the end. There wouldn’t be a movie otherwise. In videogames, that safety net is removed, and handled correctly you feel much more invested in the protagonist’s struggle. You share his successes, and more importantly, you share his fuckups.
You see, all things, all emotion, can only exist in balance with its opposite. We wouldn’t fear the darkness if we’d never experienced light. We can’t feel happiness if we’ve never known sorrow. And I’d draw no satisfaction from filling my mouth with Cadbury’s crème eggs if there were no times when my mouth wasn’t full of Cadbury’s crème eggs. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to say “please put Cadbury’s crème eggs in my mouth”, would I?
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.