I recently ran across an interesting article that Tom Bissell wrote about his experiences playing Rockstar’s L.A. Noire, and one comment in particular stuck out to me. “When I stopped thinking about him as someone with whom I was supposed to feel any kinship, Cole Phelps became a deeply compelling character,” Bissell writes of his experience, saying that the game became much more enjoyable once he’d divorced himself from the illusion of “being” Cole Phelps (“Press X for Beer Bottle: On L.A. Noire”, Grantland, 8 June 2011). Having spent some time playing L.A. Noire myself, I was surprised to find that on the whole I agreed with the sentiment. While originally I had indeed sat down to play the game so that I could become the weary cop, the One Good Man on an overworked and corrupt police force, I quickly stopped thinking of the game that way and started thinking of it as a way to get to the bottom of who Cole Phelps was and what, if anything, caused him to be such an aggressive, angry guy all the time.
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Games are difficult to begin. I don’t mean that in the ‘sitting down to play’ sense, although depending on how much free time one has on their hands, that may indeed be a problem. Rather, the beginning of a game has to convince the player that it’s worth playing, draw the player into the game’s world, explain the game’s mechanics, and do it all in a way that’s not so slow and plodding that players give up before even getting to the meat of the game. A good example of this problem is in Final Fantasy XIII, which has taken a lot of heat, deservedly so, for taking so long to get to the actual parts of the game which feel like a Final Fantasy game. Games need to fill players in on how to play them, but at some point it becomes tiresome. Not only that, but a constant interruption of instructional windows can break the flow of both gameplay and narrative.
It may be safely said that most people with even a passing interest in the video-gaming hobby have at one point or another heard of Metal Gear Solid. It is one of the iconic games released for the PSX—a game so well-liked that it was given a complete overhaul and update with the release of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes for the Gamecube. Now I will freely admit—cheerfully admit, even—that the visual style of the old Metal Gear Solid left a bit to be desired.
I was reminiscing the other day about my intense love for Conker’s Bad Fur Day when a peculiar thought struck me: namely, that when you get down to it the end of the game is a real bummer. Sure, Conker saves the day, discovers a glitch in the game, and gets the programmers to solve his problems, rewriting the world in which he lives, but he completely forgets to bring back his girlfriend while he’s at it. So despite the best efforts of the player, the main goal of the game (win back Conker’s girlfriend) goes unfulfilled. Conker fails and sinks back into a deep depression. The game ends as it began, a drunken squirrel stumbling off into the night. No happy ending, just a failed attempt to get back home.
Watching the end of the game, I remember being surprised at its downright depressing conclusion—a group of my friends and I were playing at the time, and none of us realized what a vicious kick in the pants the ending of the game had in store for us. We sat through the credits in shock, quietly hoping that there would be something afterwards, such as a last sting where the game told us ‘just kidding, she’s actually okay, he’s actually okay, happy endings all around,’ but it never came. Conker had gotten distracted from his main quest (get home to Berri) and when the game had given him the chance to make everything right he’d forgotten to actually fix anything beyond the immediate problem of the xenomorph in front of him. It was one of those moments where a game actually felt mature, and not just because the characters swore and there were a bunch of jokes about tits (the measure of what was ‘mature’ and not to a teenager). Hiding behind the singing pile of feces was a black comedic sensibility, and while we all were more concerned with the tit jokes as kids, a second look at the game reveals a far more sophisticated plot than we’d given it credit for having.
Every once in a while there is a moment in a game which becomes the defining experience for the player. That moment which, if it is good, makes the player forget they are playing a game, and if it is bad, it breaks immersion or proves such a frustrating experience that the rest of the game becomes tainted by association. Mass Effect is a game that is arguably made with these sorts of moments in mind, but a lot of those moments seemed telegraphed—your crew’s disappearance, for example, was clearly supposed to be a Big Deal which would stick in the player’s mind. I knew better, of course, which is why I acknowledged that my crew was missing, yes, but no big deal. I would rescue my crew after I finished all the missions still waiting around for me. The crew could wait. This would prove to be a mistake that would haunt me for the rest of the game, although I didn’t know it.