Overly earnest gamers make me laugh a little. Games, if nothing else, are surely about being playful. It seems perverse that amongst all the high def visuals, sound and storytelling, we can lose touch with this most basic element of our hobby – play.
It’s game’s light touch of often painfully serious subjects that singles them out for me. Whereas books and film tend towards a pensive worthy tone, gaming has an inbuilt trend towards fun.
Discussions about whether games are art, or narrative vehicles or able to handle complex moral scenarios are missing the point. These questions make sense when applied to other less playful media, but we need to let games stand on their own merits.
As well as the general nature of gaming, there are many individual gaming moments that celebrate their ability to play with our expectations. This playfulness is seen on those occasions when games find the confidence to ape themselves and break the fourth wall. And here, rather than seeming odd or out of place as it does in films or books, here it really fits the experience.
For example, Super Paper Mario Wii, like the SNES game, makes fun of the whole “player” set-up by referring to them as the “one watching from another dimension.” And not satisfied with a passing assent to this strangeness, the game goes on to tell Mario to “imagine there was such a thing as an A button.” “Then pretend one watching could press this button” of course this is part of the tutorial, but at the same time it says a lot about the mischievous nature of the game.
This honesty about the limits and oddness of gaming doesn’t mean they have nothing to say about bigger topics, or should steer clear of important themes. Quite the reverse, in a similar way to the use of satire to make salient political points, by being candid about the nature of play games enable themselves to create poignant and cutting moments.
Metal Gear is an interesting case here. If ever there was a game with potential for an overly serious outlook it was this. But a number of times it refuses to conform to the rules of books and film, and breaks the forth wall to mischievously engage with the player.
The first Metal Gear game uses other Konami saves on your memory card to pretend to read your mind, saying “You like Castlevania, don’t you?” if a save for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is found. And in Metal Gear 2, Raiden is told that the mission has failed and he must “Turn the game console off right now!” Of course there is no console to turn off in the game. What the game is actually doing here is teasing the player’s blind acceptance that they are being addressed when in fact it is an in-game character. And Metal Gear 3 automatically detects the use of autofire and in-game tells the character “Don’t even think of using auto-fire or he’ll know!”
I’m a real sucker for all that, but I think that this is a good thing. For me, games are about spaces where the usual rules don’t apply. Why should they be limited by the rules that apply to books and films?
Play is about stretching boundaries, about discovering new ways to re-use old ideas. The most compelling and unique games for me celebrate this. Warioware’s plundering of old ideas, Mother 3’s subtle inclusion of the player’s name in the plot, Monkey Island’s looks to camera and knowing commentary and Link’s Awakenings legend of the Select button are all part of this playful fabric of gaming.
While we get ever more convincing visuals, and create more instinctive ways to interact we need to remember the seed that started all this – play. I love big blockbuster games, but I’m more excited about the quirky titles bubbling under that puckishly subvert our expectations. Games like Sleep is Death that make us the playful creators of the story; or like Braid that stretch our perception of what a particular genre can be; or even Zelda Four Swords that puts our existing hardware to new uses and creates new ways for us to play together.
Now and again, let’s give pause for small ideas delivered on a shoestring that remind us what it feels like to really be a players – rather than a furrow-browed hero.
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