Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - GAMES SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­

Steven Poole pon­ders how, in games, ig­no­rance can be bliss

An in­ter­est­ing fea­ture of games is that, given any par­tic­u­lar ex­am­ple, you can construct a metagame around it, and that metagame might even be more fun than play­ing the game as the de­sign­ers in­tended. Some­times this takes the sim­ple form of set­ting one­self ridicu­lous chal­lenges – beat­ing a level of Gold­en­Eye us­ing only karate chops, say – or some­times it in­volves a more so­phis­ti­cated de­ci­sion to play with style rather than purely for vic­tory. You can in­vent a drink­ing metagame around pretty much any as­pect of an­other game. Or you can make a game out of try­ing to fig­ure out how to play the game at all.

That’s the spirit in which my reg­u­lar co-op part­ner and I re­cently spent a highly amus­ing hour play­ing NBA 2K16. I say play­ing, but we had made a pact not to look up what any of the con­trols were, and be­sides nei­ther of us un­der­stands the rules of bas­ket­ball. So we just dove straight in, pick­ing teams at ran­dom, and be­gan to play the metagame of ‘Who can fig­ure out how to play this game first?’, ran­domly but­ton- and stick-mash­ing to see what would hap­pen. I can smugly re­port that it was I who first started scor­ing bas­kets, and my friend’s in­creas­ingly in­cred­u­lous fury at not even be­ing able to fig­ure out what the shoot but­ton was – “But I’ve tried ev­ery fuck­ing but­ton!” – be­came a deep and sat­is­fy­ing source of hi­lar­ity. Nat­u­rally, we both ac­ci­den­tally called un­skip­pable time­outs all the time by press­ing the wrong but­ton, dur­ing which time my friend the­o­rised cre­atively that maybe his con­troller was bro­ken or I had pre­vi­ously sneaked a look at the con­trol scheme. Even­tu­ally, with as much pa­tro­n­is­ing pa­tience as I could muster, I ex­plained how I was pwn­ing his skinny ass, but by then it was too late for his team to mount a come­back. And once we had fig­ured out how to play the game (sort of), our own metagame came to a nat­u­ral end.

It was silly, but it’s also closely re­lated to how many of the best videogames work. The beauty and mys­tery of games such as

The Wit­ness or Jour­ney de­rive ini­tially from the fact that part of the game is learn­ing how to play it – learn­ing what it even is. Hav­ing put away our bas­ket­ball, my friend and I loaded our saved game of Hy­per Light

Drifter, which is of course a glo­ri­ous tri­umph of ab­stract art di­rec­tion and colourism, and a rock-hard but fair and sat­is­fy­ing homage to 16bit RPGs. But it’s also a game that doesn’t tell you how to play it; which has no text at all, only evoca­tive im­agery and iconog­ra­phy. As a con­ces­sion to ac­ces­si­bil­ity, Hy­per Light Drifter does have a menu screen show­ing the con­troller map­ping, but even that is not much help in the early parts of the game, as one is grad­u­ally learn­ing its un­spo­ken vocabulary of cause and ef­fect. Each such game thus con­tains its own metagame of “What is this, and how do I play it?”

It stands to rea­son that a great game should be one that works in this way, where the player at the be­gin­ning doesn’t know what she can or should do, and creates and re­places hy­pothe­ses about the world by in­ter­act­ing with the en­vi­ron­ment. This in­duces a child­like sense of ex­plo­ration and learn­ing – it is, af­ter all, how ac­tual chil­dren learn the phys­i­cal rules of this uni­verse, both by just watching and feel­ing what hap­pens around them, and by play­ing with toys specif­i­cally de­signed to en­tice the user to learn what each but­ton or knob does.

It seems per­verse, then, that this beau­ti­ful and mys­te­ri­ous way of in­duct­ing a player into the videogame world graces, al­most ex­clu­sively, only the art­house in­die ti­tles. With the big-bud­get block­buster games, by con­trast, it is all swollen tu­to­rial lev­els, text prompts, and con­stant hand­hold­ing through­out. The player there­fore never re­ally gets to dis­cover any­thing for her­self. Sure, you might dis­cover a ‘se­cret’ area by creep­ing up a back pas­sage, but the grander sense of dis­cov­ery is that of dis­cov­er­ing what is pos­si­ble, when no one has yet told you. Such “Aha!” mo­ments may sur­vive in the ringfenced me­chanic of the boss fight, where you have to dis­cover the cor­rect tim­ing and tar­get of your attacks, but they are van­ish­ingly rare oth­er­wise. Ter­ri­fied lest any cus­tomer spend more than a few sec­onds in confusion or puz­zle­ment, the triple-A de­vel­op­ers re­lent­lessly in­fo­dump on the player, ex­plain­ing ev­ery­thing at least three times – but in do­ing so they steal from us one of the great­est po­ten­tial plea­sures of the art­form.

A great game should be one where the player at the be­gin­ning doesn’t know what she can or should do

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