Just like every other nerd on the internet, I’ve been playing lots of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain recently, and like all those other nerds I started out aiming to get the best rank on every level. That meant perfect stealth. That meant never killing anyone. That meant restarting every time a guard caught a whiff of Big Boss’ sweaty underwear. It meant not enjoying the game.
The Phantom Pain features one of the most impressive, reactive worlds in gaming. It features a million different toys to play with and freedom in how to complete every mission. Playing properly, the game does an excellent job of making you feel like Big Boss. You start slowly, sneak into a base, come up with a plan, then as it goes wrong you fight your way out with an arsenal of weapons and a garage of tanks and trucks. If you play for a high score, you’re playing Pac-Man with angry Russians for ghosts and Spandau Ballet tapes for pills.
This is true for most videogames. I think as they’ve developed from brightly coloured arcade score attacks into the beautiful storytelling medium they are today, those of us who play have failed to develop with them. We can’t handle failure but failure is an integral part of storytelling, of life. Rocky lost but Ryu has to have a perfect victory on every round. The X-Men are a rag-tag family but every Pokémon has to be bred for the best stats. John Mclane bled before he could save the hostages, but gamers can’t handle a single guard knowing they were there.
I don’t want to say everyone’s playing games wrong, but everyone’s playing games wrong. Sometimes, to win you have to lose.
The original, and best, Pikmin game sees Captain Olimar stranded on a planet with only 30 days to find the 20 parts of his spaceship. As the sun goes down each night, he writes a diary that reacts to what happens. When the first Pikmin dies, his entry is stuffed with guilt. When no shop parts are found, he forlornly remembers his children and wife. When things go well, the diary is hopeful. This emotional core is key to making the game such an experience. If the player reset every time a day started to go wrong, where would the drama come from? It would probably be a pretty dull game.
I was part of the generation that was absolutely swept up in the Tamagotchi, Pokémon and Digimon craze. The idea of these creatures as friends and allies was super appealing and the personal element of having my own squad always gets to me. They might be pixels on a screen governed by code, but they always felt alive. I remember how I met each one, and I grow to like them through battle after battle. If I bred 200 of each one, callously abandoned the ones with the wrong stats and nature, then trained to a dull repetitive regimen I’d read online they wouldn’t feel so alive. I’d win more often, sure, but I’d lose the whole reason I want to play the game.
The beauty of Dark Souls is the holistic approach to story, character, worldbuilding and gameplay. The Chosen Undead returns from each death with a lesson learns, and only loses when the player gives up; when they turn hollow. This constant battle, losing twenty times to win once, helped make my first time through the world so memorable. Replaying the same sections, learning them, helped me to see the little details and the beauty in Lordran. Unfortunately, from around the point I killed Ornstein and Smough I found myself too powerful. My stats were high, my sword was amazing and I’d become pretty good at the game. I still enjoyed myself and I still have memories of the latter parts of the world but those lands and bosses are not as indelibly imprinted on my mind as the earlier sections I struggled and fought against. For all his majesty, I beat Gwyn on my first go. And I feel pretty guilty about it.
X-Com: Enemy Unknown and similar games like Fire Emblem and Massive Chalice are famed for “perma-death”. For a long time, the fear of losing a soldier named after my friend or a cool anime dude I’d found on a farm meant I’d switch my game off every time things looked grim. Like Phantom Pain though, I found it easier to feel for the characters and experience the events as if they were real when I forced myself to play on, live with my mistakes and adapt with things as they happened.
There is a joy that comes with seeing a big “S” rank on screen, or hearing Miller tell me what a legend I am. But chasing that feeling without experiencing the world properly is an empty experience. Playing properly, fighting my way out of situations with quick thinking instead of starting again, means those successes feel real.
I don’t want to say my way of playing games is better, but… my way is better.