Thursday, November 24, 2011

You're Playing It Wrong!

I have an editorial up at Kotaku Australia which is a response to an editorial that Rock Paper Shotgun's John Walker wrote on Wednesday. In this editorial I might say one or two crazy things like "Modern Warfare 3 is my favourite game of 2011" and "You are playing it wrong!". So nothing too crazy.

I won't waste your time repeating what I say there here, but I felt I needed to write this as I am tired of a game's worth being measured in "freedom". I think there are plenty of valid criticisms to be leveled at Modern Warfare 3, but not being able to be a leader or to choose where you go isn't one of them. Talk about it's (arguable) glorifying of war or the complete lack of female characters or the implausibility of its plot if you wish. You can even talk about how it is or isn't well paced and how the set-pieces are or aren't well directed, but judging it simply for being a linear game is wrong, I feel.

And certainly, Walker's piece did make some of these valid criticisms, and that is cool! My disagreement should be seen as specifically towards those bits of his article that discuss the game is terms of choice or lack thereof. Such as his title.

Related, here is an old blog post I wrote last year when I played the first Modern Warfare and was utterly surprised at how much I enjoyed it despite my complete lack of agency.

UPDATE: Walker has now written a response to my response to his post on Rock Paper Shotgun. While moving away from a form of game criticism obsessed with player freedom and privilege is central to my interests and studies, I'm kind of over forwarding this very narrow debate centered on a single game. So instead of repeating my arguments in response to Walker's repetition of his own and continuing this ad infinitum, I'll just leave this as my closing remark and walk away:

If someone is reading a book you despise or watching a film you hate, you might tell them that it is a horrible book/film, but you wouldn't tell them that it isn't a book/film. Yet we seem to do this all the time with games. I hate this. If any videogame regardless of its quality does not fit within your definition of what a videogame is, the problem is with your definition, not the game.


Jeremy Murphy said...

Well, your description of "getting on the rollercoaster" seems apt, given that you make it sound like a completely on-rails experience.

I always thought that the point of a video game, as distinct from a movie, was agency. If you have to give up the concept of agency to enjoy the game experience, why not just watch videos on youtube for the same amount of time?

I mean, sure, it's pretty, and can be exciting, but does that make it a game? I would argue that it does not - it makes it a lengthy QTE.

If you like that sort of thing, all power to you, enjoy away. Lots of people obviously do. But the reason 'freedom' is used as a metric these days is because choice is what the video game does better than other media. If there is no choice, it's sound and fury, signifying nothing. Just a few hours of slightly interactive Michael Bay movie.

I'll stick with Skyrim.

Jeremy Murphy said...

funny - quick follow-up, sorry for the double-post. I read the John Walker editorial after I posted here - having read it now I seem to be simply paraphrasing some of his arguments. So, oops.

Brendan Keogh said...


Thanks for stopping by and for reading!

My issue with this is that I believe it never was freedom/agency/choice that was what videogames did well to begin with. Rather, it was always the ability to participate with the videogames. And as we like to think we humans are so special, we took all the credit and decided that what was special about games was that they would (or should) do whatever we tell them.

But really, your "freedom" in a game is always confined by what the game lets you do. You have no more freedom in Skyrim than you do in MW3. Certainly, Skyrims affordances and constraints allow you to do a vaster array of things, but always only within the confines set by the game.

So, sure, Skyrim is awesome fun because you have the ability to do all these different things, but I don't like how that is conflated with freedom because to me that misses what is actually happening between the player and the videogames. Rather, I want us to find a way to talk about videogames that can appreciate that choosing between an assault rifle and a shotgun in a MW3 level is just as important a "choice" as choosing who your character is or what they do in Skyrim.

So sure, the illusion of freedom might be an acceptable metric for a game like Skyrim, just like you could judge a Rock Band game by what songs are available. Skyrim relies on that illusion of freedom for its player/game relationship to work. MW3's doesn't. Or, it does, but in a drastically different way.

I hate that we say things like MW3 is "less interactive" than Skyrim. It isn't! It's just differently interactive! And I want videogame criticism to be able to account for that rather than just dismiss it because it won't cooperate and pretend the player is privileged or in charge when they never, ever have been.

Thanks again for dropping by :)

Allan Weallans said...

I agree that our reaction to the notion of freedom tends to be a bit knee-jerk. I've been meaning to write (and probably will this week) a blog post about the difference between literal freedom and meaningful freedom, or literal complexity vs. meaningful complexity. Ironically, the idea came to me as a defence of Skyrim, but there you go...

It's a lot like the old "short game/long game" debate. Is it better to have a game a few hours long with a consistently high quality or a hundred hour game with a lot of padding? Well, you can pad for freedom (or for complexity) just as much as you can pad for length. Skyrim lets you do an awful lot of things, but that includes a lot of things you don't really care about.

I work in the field of Emergent Narrative, and even there we generally agree that narrative boundaries are a good thing, because there's a trade-off between freedom and focus. The utopian "total freedom" would be narratively bad, because it would have no focus and therefore no meaning. Total focus with no freedom is different, though. It is what we ourselves are trying to get away from, but just because it's not all games can do, doesn't mean that games should never do it.

To be fair to John, because I love him, he did acknowledge in the RPS podcast later in the week that Modern Warfare 3 is very good at what it does. I guess you have to consider the audience: also discussed in the podcast was the fact that RPS readers - in general - care an awful lot more about RPGs than they do about things like Call of Duty. And if Kotaku's going to republish something for that audience, and take it to what is essentially a very different audience, well, that's just asking for trouble. Or generating lively discussion. One or the other.

But Modern Warfare 3 is very good at what it does. I assume. I haven't played it, and I probably won't, but that's just because I'm not a big fan of modern military stuff. I have, however, played the previous two Modern Warfare games, and I always felt the "it's a movie" argument was kind of thin. Because agency is not the only difference between a movie and a game, and Modern Warfare uses the other differences very expertly. Not a lot of people are working seriously with those other differences, so the terminology for them is kind of slippery and ill-defined, so describing them is hard, but I'll give it a go. I'll say (although this is an oversimplification) that the immersion of playing Modern Warfare is qualitatively different from the immersion of watching a war movie, and the developers of Modern Warfare are very good at leveraging that difference.

So, yes, I think there is room for games like Modern Warfare 3 in gaming, and any holistic view of gaming has to take into account that there are things other than degree of agency that contribute to the quality of a game. On the other hand, I also think John's statements were appropriate for their originally intended audience.

Brendan Keogh said...


Absolutely! To be completely honest, I was unaware the post was originally a "Wot I Think" from RPS when I started writing my response.

Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. Absolutely agree with all of it.

Jeremy Murphy said...

Well, if you equate choosing between the assault rifle and the shotgun with the range of choice in a sandbox game... I'm not sure it's possible for us to communicate. It's apples to oranges, obviously, but still.

That's like saying, I have a choice - I get to choose to eat my nutrient-rich sludge with a spoon or a spork. If you can't see for yourself what a non-choice that is... I'm almost speechless.

Participating with video games is not the issue here. Forcing a very specific, incredibly limited type of participation is the issue.

I'm OK with a corridor shooter. I liked me some Half-Life and soforth. But responding to the complaint that the game drags you by the hair and only allows an extremely specific experience with "you didn't play it right" seems like a knee-jerk reaction to me.

Anonymous said...

And as we like to think we humans are so special, we took all the credit and decided that what was special about games was that they would (or should) do whatever we tell them.

No, I believe what makes them work is consistent mechanics. You should be able to open doors because you have a use button, or the game should explain why you can't open doors, not have doors, or not have a use button.

The game should also bother to explain who you are. There is literally no point to being the player characters in the MW games because you could instead be the character who gives them their orders and have a sense you are someone rather than you're just a head-shaped hole cut into the story which can perform arbitrary tasks. For example, rather than butt-of-all-jokes Ramirez in MW2 being told "go over there and take out that BTR" you could be Foley telling your men "stay here and cover me while I take out that BTR."

It's the failure to involve the player at anything more than a superficial level of throwing shit at them to do that frustrates people into thinking they're not part of the story. This is a failure to make a story that's told cooperatively, and that is a bad thing. It's reminiscent of those GMs in D&D who would come up with huge, elaborate stories which were totally inflexible; the players end up breaking the story through simply trying to interact with it, because they GM has nothing to do but shove them back on the single track he made when they do anything unplanned.

And that makes you a bad GM, not one with uncooperative and "privileged" players, you snob.

Certainly, Skyrims affordances and constraints allow you to do a vaster array of things, but always only within the confines set by the game.

You do realise that this definition of "freedom" also means that you have no freedom in real life, correct? You're still bound by limits and mechanics you didn't decide on or agree to in the real world. You can't drive any way you like to the store because you're limited by traffic laws, roads and the laws of physics, for example.

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