Ugly Truths, Pt. I

Surgery, for the uninitiated.

Many people have asked my why I don’t enjoy Valve or Blizzard games as opposed to other titles. After all, they’re hugely popular and nearly everyone enjoys them, so why not me?They also find it odd that I enjoy other things that are similarly popular, but less universally loved. I’ll admit that this is rather strange, particularly since I’m such a huge fan of the first-person shooter genre, and that’s practically all Valve makes. My reasons are fairly straightforward: I feel that these developers manufacture enjoyment rather than make fun games. To explain it better, I ought to provide a little bit of background first.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the type of person who is said to find enjoyment by taking things apart and putting them back together; that’s me–the clockmaker type. While I’ve never been mechanically gifted, I do find myself applying this thought process towards entertainment, particularly in regards to film and video games. I cannot watch films without thinking about how lighting and framing are used, and I cannot play games without thinking how their levels are designed or how sound effects the player.

In many ways, this enhances my enjoyment of whatever work I’m experiencing. The Third Man, a film by Orson Welles, has taken on new meaning for me because I have, over time, learned to understand the elements that went into the film’s production; for instance, lighting is used to set the scene as well as establish the characters’ intentions. Anyone can have fun watching The Third Man as a straight crime noir film, but anyone looking for more depth and detail can find it, which enhances the experience.

Scarier than Clint Eastwood, smoother than something really smooth.

Unfortunately, this mindset has its downside. It can reveal ugly truths about things we may enjoy–a character may act a certain way simply to gain our sympathy instead of being genuinely sympathetic, or a gameplay mechanic might utilize operant conditioning to disguise repetition as fun.

Ultimately, that’s why I have a hard time enjoying Valve and Blizzard titles. You see, these companies prefer to engineer enjoyment, to manipulate the player’s feelings, rather than to just try to make fun games. For them, their products are rigidly designed and structured in a way to effect maximum positive consumer response. Team Fortress 2, for example, isn’t that special beyond its art aesthetic; instead, much of the game’s draw relies on the human weakness for unpredictable rewards. There are other ways to do this, of course. Intangibles, like achievements and TF2’s hats, serve no purpose other than to stimulate the “gotta catch ’em all” part of the human brain. The fun–the act of actually playing the game because it’s enjoyable–has been ripped out of many games and replaced with things that are designed to keep you around so you keep paying subscription fees or from reselling your games.

Chances are, you know this already. After all, this sort of thing has been covered in-depth elsewhere, and if you haven’t checked those sources out, you should do so.

You might think that the problem is minor–perhaps you’re one of those rare (as in unicorn rare) individuals who hasn’t succumbed to anything mentioned above! If so, good for you. Those things are all pretty basic psychological tricks that anyone can understand and combat. Problem is… it’s a bit deeper than that. There’s something else Valve does to the player, and it’s something that the industry has slowly been warming up to for quite some time, and, because it actually alters the way how the game is designed and played, it’s far worse than simple achievements or free hats you get for pre-ordering another game.

It’s called training.

I am the sports!

Most developers use training rather innocuously–to get you in the game faster and avoid the unnecessary time it takes to develop a training level, most games’ first levels are also their training grounds. This is a pretty basic thing, and it’s generally a good way to design a game, unless your name is GSC Game World and you design your games for people who know this stuff already. For the generic AAA shooter, like Crysis 2 or Bulletstorm, it’s par for the course. It’s good to get people who are unfamiliar with the game and its mechanics some hands-on time, rather than hope they remembered everything in the manual. Generally, the player learns everything they need to know, and then they get loose into the game’s world, ready to experience the story and all it has to offer. It’s great!

I was going to mention Modern Warfare 2, but it actually has a training level.

Valve, though? Valve does it differently. Instead of approaching a game as a fun thing to be played, Valve approaches a game as a thing its players cannot understand, and players are put through consistent in-game training until they’re unconsciously just doing what they’ve been taught to do. As soon as they’ve completed the most advanced activity that Valve has in store for them, the skill is dropped and not picked up again.

Portal is a game about being trained to do things. Portal 2 is a game that somehow manages to restrict the player even more and scream it in your face: “THIS IS A GAME ABOUT TESTING!” It’s as if Portal 2’s team weren’t sure anyone got it, because, presumably, they didn’t feel the audience was bright enough to understand, so they decided to make absolutely sure that you were aware of this by telling you every chance they got.

However, Portal is such an easy target, so I’m going to talk about Half-Life 2: Episode One instead.

Half-Life 2: Episode One has a great example of in-game training. For anyone who has played it, you’re doubtless aware of the incredibly tedious sequence involving a lot of energy balls and the sockets they go in. Where a well-designed shooter, such as the original Half-Life, would have taught you how the balls and sockets worked, then left you to your own devices for a series of puzzles, Half-Life 2: Episode One puts you on a rigid path of puzzles of one type that increase in complexity. This is endemic of the Half-Life 2 series as a whole: in general, when a Half-Life 2 series game wants to do puzzles, it only gives you one type of puzzle, then slowly increases its complexity. It’s unnatural (from a believable-world standpoint) and manipulative (from a game design) standpoint.

If Dog is a great character, Bay’s version of Bumblebee is the greatest.

If you’ve ever flown an airplane, it’s a remarkably liberating experience. Imagine learning to fly and having your flight instructor grip the controls every time you tried to do something, never allowing you to just get up there and muck about with the skills he’s taught you. Would that be any fun? Sure, you’re in an airplane, and that’s great, but learning to fly has no purpose if you never get to apply the skills you’ve been taught beyond flight training.

This is how Valve seems to approach its single-player games. It says “you! I want you to ride these rails. I want you to see what I want you to see when I want you to see it. Every choice you think you’ve made, I have predetermined.” Do you see why that’s terrible? Gaming, at its absolute best, is all about putting the player into the world and letting them experience it. That’s why games like STALKER and System Shock 2 are some of the best games ever, and games designed to control your every behavior, like those titles manufactured by Valve, are not.

I’m not suggesting that these games become non-linear open-world experiences (though I do think the industry could use a lot more of those); I’m saying that it’s a good thing to let players think for themselves and use the skills they’ve learned in the game. There’s nothing wrong with an incredibly linear game like Max Payne that teaches you everything you need to know up front, then lets you loose with the skills you’ve learned! Even the original Half-Life is great precisely because of its linearity. Instead of drip-feeding increasingly advanced puzzles, linear games should be designed more like the original Half-Life. If the player comes along and finds an obstacle in their path, they should have to try to solve it, rather than simply instinctively know what to do because they’ve been subtly trained how to think.

Manipulating the audience is one of the worst things any artist can ever do, but Valve seems to believe that it’s the only way to make games. To their credit, it has worked well, and if their ultimate goal is to make lots of money, then designing addicting games is a good way to make money. But… I’m a gamer. I want to play my games, to experience the worlds that game designers have crafted for me. Manipulation is anti-art and anti-game, but it’s just a symptom of something far, far worse.

I’ll cover it in Pt. II.

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