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Playing It Properly


I’m writing this to keep me sane. Earlier this evening, I fired up my PS3 and started a new game of Heavy Rain. After five minutes or so, my girlfriend looked up and saw me playing with my virtual kids, and kissing my virtual wife. Surprised by the gunlessness of it all, she put down her laptop and asked if she could have a go. Now here we are, hours later, and we still haven’t swapped back.

In a way, I’m glad. Here’s somebody who hasn’t played a videogame since Tetris, and she’s completely immersed in the story and the action. She’s not doing badly either; of the five fights she’s gotten into so far, only one has ended in defeat. And I’m impressed that she’s paying attention to the plot.Last time I put her in front of Battlefield 3, she just sniggered at the dialogue and mashed the skip button. But this time, she’s hasn’t raised a single objection; the only sound I hear is the occasional coo of approval.

And then it hits me. Like Batman staring down at Harvey Dent’s body, I suddenly realize I’ve become the thing I hate.

So why am I getting stressed out? I know I can be a grump. Watching people play always grinds my gears because they don’t do it the way I would. I can’t stand to see Niko Bellic ramming his car into a hot dog stand when he should be out soliloquizing with his cousin.

I start to feel like she’s playing it wrong. Not badly, you understand, just incorrectly. See, for all its lengthy dialogue and scripted action, Heavy Rain is pretty choice-heavy; you can talk to that guy, or this guy, or neither, and your decisions affect the game. My girlfriend’s talking to all the wrong people. Take one of the early levels. As FBI agent Norman Jayden, she’s meant to be rounding up evidence from a muddy crime scene. After about fifteen minutes of scanning for fibers and walking around, she’s turned up nothing but cop DNA and dead cats. Another detective comes over and asks if she’s ready to leave. Shrugging, she hits “yes” and I only just manage to grab the controller before she gets back into her car.

She hadn’t even examined the body! I try to explain that she’s an FBI agent, that a boy’s been murdered; I’ll be damned if any serial killer is going to get away with this on my watch. Slamming my fist on the desk like Bernie Hamilton, I tell her to turn around, get back in there and do her job. Grudgingly, she picks up the controller and starts searching again. With a few hints and prods, she eventually finds the body, gets the blood samples and heads back to the office. Crisis averted.

But I still have this nagging feeling that something’s amiss. Sure, she’s made some sloppy dialogue choices, but I’ve managed to stop her from doing anything too wacky. So long as I look up every few minutes to make sure she isn’t punching a witness or eating some evidence – or whatever – we should be right on track for the good ending.

And then it hits me. Like Batman staring down at Harvey Dent’s body, I suddenly realize I’ve become the thing I hate. Nagging my girlfriend to do what she’s told, I’m the scoring system at the end of each level, the angry support character telling you off for doing it wrong. I’m the thing that kills videogames, the prodding performance review that won’t let you be.

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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