Choice. Failure states. Interactivity. These separate games from every other art form. If you want static introspection, look at a painting. If you wish to formulate a vivid story in your mind, read a book. If you want your own personal choices to have an impact on an imaginary world, play a videogame.
Yet many modern games – the BioShocks and Fallouts – also strive to place you in the middle of a thrilling, emotionally involving story. As much as gamers may enjoy these experiences, they’re built on an intrinsic contradiction that Jonathan Blow pointed out in his 2008 MIGS lecture: If well-told stories rely on specific pacing and structure that necessitate authorial control, then doesn’t the interactivity of games run completely contrary to narrative?
While Blow’s personal solution to the conflict boils down to “don’t use story,” several recent mainstream titles have attempted to disguise the problem with an imaginative, if surprisingly deceptive tactic: by lying to the player and secretly downplaying – even to the point of removing – the interactivity that make games alluring in the first place.
Here’s how it works: Present players with a scenario, and actively trick them into believing they have more control over the events than they actually do. The experience will have the emotional impact the designer intended, and players will (mistakenly) believe that they were in complete control the entire time. It sounds difficult, dishonest and more than a little cheap. But when it works? It can be nothing short of goddamned magical.
At the climax of Valve’s Half-Life 2: Episode Two, you must defend the White Forest resistance base against an army of enemy Striders. The bad guys will spawn on the opposite side of the map from the White Forest base, you’re told, and they’ll systematically destroy every building they find until they reach your allies’ outpost and end the game. The implication is clear: The Striders are going to come as fast as they can, and you must destroy them before they reach the last base. Nothing apart from your own intervention will prevent them from reaching their goal.
This is a lie.
In reality, Valve designed the entire sequence around a very specific emotional arc that you can only circumvent by performing either remarkably well or remarkably poorly. “To create a climactic finish to this level,” the Episode Two developer commentary states, “we ramped up Strider density and citizen presence, and systematically destroyed outer installations in order to move the action as uncomfortably close to the base as possible.
“It was important to us that everybody be able to play to the end of the episode, but we also wanted them to feel that defeating the Striders required a heroic effort,” the commentary continues. “A balance had to be achieved between the feeling of being overwhelmed and the possibility of completing the level.” In practice, this means that the Striders will speed up, become more aggressive and force their way to the missile base in the level’s final moments no matter what. The pace of the onslaught depends just as much on the emotional content of the scene as it does on your performance. And since the game never reveals this little bit of backstage meddling, you can experience the exact tension the developers want you to feel, all while ignorantly assuming that it was your skill with the gravity gun that let you destroy the final Strider less than half a second before it would have blasted your base to smithereens.
Valve breaks the promise of full player agency, but the barrage of meticulously controlled emotions that result from the trade-off prevents you from noticing the lie in the first place. In his 10 out of 10 review of Episode Two, Thunderbolt Games reviewer Matt Wadleigh ranked the final battle as “one of the best, most challenging fights I’ve ever experienced.” He may have been duped, but he experienced the exact response that the designers intended.
While Episode Two may procedurally tweak the pacing to give you a more cinematic, less interactive experience, it doesn’t outright rob you of all your agency – it would still be entertaining even if you truly had full control. But what if the backstage meddling was a complete, 100% fabrication? What if it promised you some degree of agency while actually providing none at all?
Enter: the microwave tunnel scene from Metal Gear Solid 4.
Only a single corridor filled with deadly microwaves stands between Snake and the computer that will allow him to stop Ocelot’s nuclear launch and save the planet. As he opens the door, a wave of heat and radiation hits him and the player must maneuver his battered body through the corridor.
Again, the game makes an implicit promise: The walls of this corridor are superhot and, if touched, will hurt Snake and slow him down. If his life meter depletes before he reaches the end of the corridor, then he will die. This is where it all ends – it is up to you to get this old soldier through the radiation and complete his final mission.
Initially, things go as well as could expect them to. The top half of the screen is filled with scenes of Snake’s friends fighting off Liquid’s army, while the bottom half displays a player-controlled Snake who trudges wearily through the corridor with a sustained nudge of the left analog stick.
Suddenly, sparks shoot out from Snake’s muscle suit – did you accidentally make Snake touch the wall? – and he falls to his hands and knees. An animated image of the triangle button appears onscreen, telling you to hammer it in order to get Snake back on his feet.
A few moments later Snake suddenly takes another hit – zzzt! – and he falls even harder, the fibers of his combat suit now visible all over his body, frayed and burnt from the radiation. The triangle button animation appears again, but after a few seconds of sustained pressing, Snake can’t get up; his life bar is so low that, after the button animation disappears, he can only crawl forward on his hands and knees by continual button-mashing. Your hands are now likely beginning to hurt from the effort of repeatedly pressing the button, but it must be done; Snake’s declining life bar visually reinforces that he could very well die in this corridor if you aren’t quick enough.
Snake goes down again, presumably for the last time. He inches forward pathetically, just barely crawling as his health meter speeds down to its last few millimeters of life. The triangle button animation appears for a moment – “press it, or he’ll die!” – but disappears once you press the button even faster, even harder. Then it appears again, the animation running twice as fast as before, sending a clear message: As fast as you were pressing it before, you’re not pressing it fast enough now – for Christ’s sake, press triangle faster or everyone you love is going to die.
With your last ounce of strength, you press even faster and Snake just barely makes it out of the corridor with practically no health left. Both player and protagonist are exhausted; you feel as if you have just barely escaped death, and have now felt the terror of almost letting down all those who were counting on you. Ten years of series history reach a head in that single corridor scene.
And it is a lie.
The grandeur of the scene tricks you into believing that literally every moment of it happened because of your actions, when in reality absolutely none of it did. Snake relies on your input to walk through the first segment of the corridor, but no matter how well you steer him, he will accidentally be shocked by the wall at three specific moments during his journey. Your guilt over hurting Snake is real; your mistake is not.
No matter how fast you press triangle near the end of the scene, the button animation will always speed up, telling you that you are not pressing the button fast enough. In reality, any speed of button mashing, executed with any regularity, will keep Snake moving toward his goal. The images of Snake’s friends scored to the game’s funereal love theme convince you that their peril is real, but Snake’s ever-decreasing health bar cannot possibly reach zero before the end of the corridor so long as you press the triangle button once every few seconds.
In purely mechanical terms, you might as well be holding a DVD player remote that has been jury rigged to only continue playing a film if the viewer presses “play” every so often. Yet, thanks to the grandiose spectacle and emotion of the scene – and the misleading visual cues it gives the player – it ranks among one of the best moments in the entire Metal Gear Solid series.
The word “irony” doesn’t begin to describe it. We value games for their interactivity, but the most effective narrative-driven games draw the most emotional impact from wresting control from the player. While neither Half-Life 2: Episode Two nor Metal Gear Solid 4 even begin to quell the conflict between interactivity and narrative, they provide an interesting third angle on the debate. They concede that interactivity can interfere with narrative, but simultaneously show the remarkable emotional effectiveness of giving you a cinematic, controlled experience while making you feel like you’re still in charge.
Yes, your agency in a videogame may be a carefully orchestrated lie. But with audience reactions as positive as this, is it really such a crime?