A couple weeks ago I wrote about how breakable weapons in Silent Hill: Downpour allowed players to feel vulnerable without making them weak, but the game evokes horror in other ways as well. In particular, through its smart level design (“The Combative Horror of Silent Hill: Downpour”, PopMatters, 7 June 2013).
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As I wrote in my post about Journey, I love the contradictory nature of video games, their use of cold hard programming logic to create an emotional reaction that’s not logical at all. It’s a wonderful contradiction, and I’m always amazed when a game gets it right. As such, I love breaking games down into their mechanics. I love tinkering with their systems in order to better understand how this process works.
I couldn’t do this with Telltale’s The Walking Dead. I’ve tried playing the game again. I’ve tried breaking it down to its core components. I’ve tried to analyze it from a distance to figure out how it’s able to so effectively hook my emotions, but I can’t break it. Every time I try to replay an episode, I am drawn to the same choices that I made before. They felt so right, both morally and logically, that to make another choice was to betray myself.
There’s a pervading school of thought in gaming that says good combat is an anathema to good horror. In other words, having a character that’s capable with a weapon automatically makes a game less scary. After all, horror is about being vulnerable, and we can’t feel vulnerable if we can slice our enemies into pieces. But I think games often mistake vulnerability for weakness, that a character must be physically weak for us to feel in danger. Weakness does result in vulnerability, but feeling vulnerable doesn’t have to stem from physical weakness. There’s a way to make combat fun while still making it tense and terrifying. Silent Hill: Downpour finds a solution that seems so obvious in retrospect I’m shocked no one has done it before: breakable weapons.
Monaco is a great cooperative game and a great single-player game. That combination is sadly rare, but Monaco balances both playstyles with ease. It’s all thanks to the exceptional level design and how the game presents the player with obstacles.
I think there’s a right way to play a game, a way of approaching the game that the developers intended for and designed around. Unfortunately, the word “right” carries certain connotations of value that I don’t think are appropriate when talking about games. If you want to play a game other than how the developer intended, you’re not wrong for doing so. You can play however you like, but you also have to admit that some games don’t cater to some play styles.
Sadly, it seems to be getting harder and harder to play some games the “right way,” especially when the “right way” involves other people. What if none of my friends have the game or want to play it? Thankfully, a game like Left 4 Dead advertises its emphasis on cooperative play, so if I suspect I won’t get the best experience because no one else I know will be playing it, I just won’t buy that game. But it’s getting harder and harder to tell, ahead of time, whether I’m going to get the best experience out of a game or not. It’s trendy to integrate social features into ostensibly single-player games, which is fine in theory, but it becomes a problem when single-player games suddenly include so many social features that it ceases to be a solo experience.