The Ant Nest

 

Just let me play

I want to play a game! But you must wait for me to turn on!

I want to play a game! But you must wait for me to download and install these updates!

I want to play a game! But you must watch our logos and splash screens and interact with our slow-to-load front end filled with complex layouts and deep menu trees!

I want to play a game! But you must play through our lengthy tutorial, which we’ve spruced up with some boring story content!

I want to play a game! But you have not mastered a dozen new game mechanics yet!

It’s absurd that games are the killer app for everything - smartphones, social networks, selling Wiis to non-gamers by the million - everything except so-called proper games consoles, which are increasingly held up as an endangered species.

In this golden age of entertainment, I am fascinated by how frequently I say “not now” to a game - for weeks, months or worse. And it really comes down to that delay. How long do you keep me waiting before I can start playing.

It’s hard to think of examples of another medium treating its audience so badly. Thirty second anti-piracy ads before DVDs were rightly ridiculed, but I’ve lost track of time spent looking at download bars, of the number of times a friend says “yeah, you’ve got to give it a few hours, and then it gets good”.

Really, my favourite thing about the PS4 announcement was hearing about the dedicated hardware to deal with the first two problems above - instant-on and background downloads.

That’s a real reason for me to buy your console instead of the competition. That’s a real reason for the wider world to try your console, rather than using it to distract their sons from fighting or talking to girls. Rather than whatever they’re doing now they got fed up with Zynga wasting their time (where the answer to I want to play a game! was But there is no game, I am merely a plant, please water me so that I can grow).

However, that’s not the whole list. The rest of it falls on developers.

Yet so often, those features - the first-load time, the front-end, the level-load time, the tutorial - are treated like second-class parts of the product. Something that sorts itself at the end of the project, something that is done well enough to pass certification.

It’s easy to get away with that when you’ve got a hostage audience - a customer who desperately wants to see some return on their £40 or $50.

But digital distribution will get better on consoles, this time around. That inevitably means a lower cost of market entry, more choice, and lower  prices on the door - most likely free.

When I have limitless choice of what game to play - a point we’re almost at - what choice will I make? I will play the games that let me start playing the fastest. Console or not, the developers that let me do that will be the ones who get my money.

Defending an Airport

Much has been said about the Airport level in Modern Warfare 2 (where a player stands alongside a small squad of terrorists committing mass-murder, with the freedom to join in). However, I haven’t heard much attempt to defend its presence in the game.

I like to ask myself why developers made their games the way they did, so - What are the positive aspects of the Airport level? It’s easy to say “they did it for the publicity!”, so in particular, what did it bring to the game itself? What are its artistic merits?

The game’s intro speaks of a desire to portray the realities of modern warfare, small caps. Undoubtedly, however awkward, terrorism is part of that reality.

Some acknowledge this, but suggest that if it has to be in the game, it should have been presented as a non-interactive cutscene. I strongly disagree with this. A cutscene is the medium of film, not of games. It does the medium a disservice to suggest there are things it should not try to portray. Our culture rightfully celebrates writers and film-makers who push their medium to tackle difficult subjects. We should extend the same respect to games, especially if, as some say, they need to “grow up”.

As a piece of art, the level has a unique contribution to make, compared to other media. The toughest challenge terrorism offers Western culture is the utterly alien frame of mind it suggests. There are two parts to such evil - the process of deciding to kill innocents, and the point at which a perpetrator stands in front of their victims, sees the whites of their eyes and pulls the trigger.

Setting the former aside, a game offers an incomparable perspective on the latter, the moment of acting. No other medium can put someone in a position to directly experience that instant of final choice, however terrible. There’s genuine artistic value in that.

Infinity Ward should also be recognised for the level’s contribution to game storytelling mechanics. Other storytelling media have well-established methods for giving their audience an early close-up of their antagonists. This is of critical importance to engaging an audience emotionally in the fiction.

Games typically struggle with such close-ups, instead dishing up their antagonists in fleeting glimpses, or behind panes of glass or monitor screens, or as ethereal voices through radios or headsets. It’s a language that’s been put to excellent use in System Shock 2, Portal, etc., but it works best as a cumulative effect, a sustained assault over a period of hours. In terms of density of impact and immediacy, it’s ultimately limited.

The Airport level is a serious attempt to move beyond that, to provide a proper close-up of an antagonist. It will creak badly if put under enough pressure, and it’s not without peers (notably the similar, less developed sequence in the prequel). However, in the main, it’s immensely successful, and its achievements relative to its ambitions are significant. And for even the most callous player, the “personal touch” at the end of the level cements players’ direct relationship with the Makarov character, with compelling speed.

A major criticism directed at the level is the contrast it makes with the closing moments of the previous level, where the player bombastically leaps a canyon on a snowmobile. The suggestion is that this destroys any artistic credibility. It’s certainly a jarring change of vibe, but it feels justified.

The first two levels aren’t casually chosen. They’re a self-conscious retread of the two gameplay and story strands of Modern Warfare 1. The effect is akin to Panic At The Disco opening their second album singing reassuringly ”You don’t have to worry, cos we’re still the same band”.

Once that familiarity is established, it’s entirely appropriate for Infinity Ward to push such a strong shift in tone. It gives contrast and context to the Airport level. It’s a valid and strong transition to the story’s second act. It clearly signals an intent to go somewhere new, somewhere different.

Finally, contrary to surface appearances, the level is intensely moral. Its message is neither immoral nor amoral, despite the lack of immediate consequences for killing civilians.

Every part of Modern Warfare 2's single-player campaign, from high-level plotting to moment-by-moment gameplay, is deeply rooted in a theme of family and companionship, and the power of acting together. The special forces missions form the backbone of that theme, with their genuinely affective father-and-son vibe.

However, it is the Airport level that provides the theme’s most important statement. When the characters act together, they are successful. Here, by contrast, when they act alone, it goes disastrously, horrifically wrong.

The irresistible lure of hidden value

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the first multiplayer trailer for Modern Warfare 2 is this screen:

Every other clip in the trailer is actual gameplay footage. This sticks out as the only one that shows the game’s menu screen. Beyond its role as establishing shot, what is it doing there?

The answer for me lies in the large bank of icons on the left. There are fifteen of them, but only one is revealed. What does this say? “If you think this one is cool, wait till you see the other fourteen!”

I guess you could say I’m on a quest to understand the “missing five million” - why Call of Duty games are selling so many more copies than other top tier action games. This seems like a good candidate for reason number two.

This one screen successfully signals what I’d hamfistedly describe as an immense amount of hidden value. J J Abrams would call it the power of the mystery box.

Like the GTA games (which also achieve that extra five million), the message is “Come with us and you can drink from our chalice of fun until you’re full, until you’re sick. We’ll keep surprising you and entertaining you long after you’re done.”

Against the backdrop of identikit action games where you’ve seen all they have to offer by the time you’ve finished a level or two, it’s a powerful message.

Gaming archeology

The return of LucasArts adventure games fills me with joy. Like many, it’s a question of where to start, and like many, I chose The Dig. There are many things I could say about it, but then I found John Walker had said most of them already.

He chose to look at the game without its context, which is certainly a worthy thing, but it did skip over the angle I found most fascinating. Despite six years in the oven, the dish served up most closely resembles a response to Myst’s stunning success, two years prior.

The geometry focused puzzles are surely meant to give the market what it seemed to want. Yet here, they are nestled within the beautiful storytelling at which LucasArts were so very good, and for which they were so fondly loved. It’s a sharp piece of design, but I suspect that it was ultimately commercially unsuccessful, since it lacks the ultimate feature of 1995 - 3D.

The Splinter Cell: Conviction gameplay video from this year’s E3 contains all sorts of things to get excited about, but I think perhaps I most enjoyed this small detail. Rather than get the HUD involved, objectives are projected directly onto the environment.
It’s my favourite kind of design solution: It’s simpler than what it replaces - it’s doing the work of two HUD items, the objective text and then some compass/minimap to show where the objective is. It’s hiding a fair bit of subtlety in its execution - it isn’t straightforward to make sure players see it in the right place at the right time. And it’s so very stylish.

The Splinter Cell: Conviction gameplay video from this year’s E3 contains all sorts of things to get excited about, but I think perhaps I most enjoyed this small detail. Rather than get the HUD involved, objectives are projected directly onto the environment.

It’s my favourite kind of design solution: It’s simpler than what it replaces - it’s doing the work of two HUD items, the objective text and then some compass/minimap to show where the objective is. It’s hiding a fair bit of subtlety in its execution - it isn’t straightforward to make sure players see it in the right place at the right time. And it’s so very stylish.

About

I'm Giles Hitchcock. I design video games
in London and I write about them here.

I work for Rockstar Games, most recently
on Max Payne 3.

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