“Oh great,” she spits. “A chase section.”
My wife is playing The Last of Us and she isn’t enjoying it, and that seems impossible to me. She sat through the opening section with a blank stare on her face. She keeps remarking on how frustrating the controls are, how much it relies on an existing bank of knowledge about stealth games that she simply doesn’t possess.
“How am I supposed to know where that enemy is looking? How am I supposed to know how to move around them so I don’t alert them? This is assuming too much.” She stumbles through encounter after encounter in the first proper level of the game. When she gets stuck in a firefight, she just sits there and stares at the enemy’s cover, waiting for them to come out.
“You can go around the side to flank them,” I say, hopefully.
“If I do that, he’ll shoot me.”
DRIVE THE MINIVAN
She tries, and she indeed gets shot a bunch of times as she shuffles behind an air vent not quite fast enough. She plays this tense stealth-shooter the same way she does every game – slow, measured, exploratory. She seems hell-bent on going the wrong way, to getting lost and frustrated in relatively simple rooms. She can’t read the signposting in the game. She often ignores instructions that the game gives her, either implicit or direct.
(We stayed up for the midnight launch of Grand Theft Auto IV, and we brought it home and played it that night and there’s a mission fairly early on where a man runs out the back door of a building and into a car and you have to give chase. The vehicle they give you to chase him is a godawful minivan, but it gets the job done. Mary refused to use it. Mary didn’t want to drive it. Mary wanted a better car. Mary would run past it and out onto the intentionally empty road and look for a different car and not get one and fail the mission. She did this three times and I said that maybe stealing the minivan was the way to complete the mission, and she said she didn’t want to drive the minivan and that having to do so was frustrating for her. There was a kind of victory for her in breaking the game with free will.)
“It’s a twin-stick shooter,” she says, putting the controller down. “I’m no good at those.”
BREAKING LINES OF SIGHT WITH OBJECTS
In part, it’s because I’m watching her. She knows how much it winds me up, and I wish it didn’t, but here we are – my wife is not very good at action games on consoles. She never spent years training to use twin-sticks to navigate a world, because she had a PC growing up, and it shows. She used to play Quake online, and she was pretty good at it. She’s not bad at games – rather, she can’t use the controller as proficiently as games designers expect her to. Watching her struggle isn’t fun. She stops playing.
It’s a revelation for me; I was in love with The Last of Us, taking joy in the way that it built on existing tropes in the stealth-shooter genre. I hadn’t paused to think that I was only enjoying it because I already knew how to play it. That Hitman had taught me how to evade guards. That Farcry 3 had taught me how to navigate a location full of hostile people and kill them without being noticed by throwing objects to act as distractions. That Uncharted 3 had taught me the rhythm of close-combat.
That Gears of War had taught me how to use cover. (Fuck, that Goldeneye had trained me out of circle-strafing and taught me instead to rely on breaking lines of sight with objects, because projectiles stopped being slow-moving fireballs in space and instead became raw damage output moderated by accuracy and line of sight.) That Half-Life 2 had taught me how to navigate broken urban areas without obvious signposting. That countless iron-sights shooters had taught me the optimum strategy for snapping into aim to fire and snapping back out again to move.
UNIVERSAL DEFENSIVE STATE
That’s not all! I’ve been taught which spots of the map enemies might come from. I’ve been taught that modern games rarely say “shut up and listen, this is a tutorial section” and instead spread that section out through the story, expecting you to understand from visual cues that this is a tutorial and you have to do what they say to progress in the game. That you should reload your weapons after every fight. That cover provides invulnerability in a certain direction and can be counteracted by enemies out-manouvering you, that it’s not a universal defensive state. That you should stay mobile.
That red streaks on the screen indicate the direction in which the damage originated. That you must be aware of sides of the battlefield that you can’t necessarily see right now; that you must hold the whole three-dimensional space in your head and make accurate predictions about how it will change based on the behaviour of enemies you have witnessed in similar games.
These are all assumptions. They’re second-nature to me, now.
This is the world of action games: an exclusionary one. Developers assume that we are well-read – well-played, maybe – and that we know about a lot of different things; not just “Press B to reload” but more “from the look of your character and the way they move and the amount of bullets we’ve given you and the damage output of your gun, you can assume that stealth is a primary goal and cover-based shooting is a secondary, less-efficient tactic.”
If you’ve not got that literacy in games, you can’t keep up. You have to work out what’s going on while you’re being shot at or having your face bitten off. I imagine that could be pretty frustrating.
Of course, it’s not just a problem with action games – almost every game released today requires some literacy, some awareness of the medium, to play properly. There are vast swathes of games that I’ve never played and never intend to play because I’m simply not literate enough with the genre to appreciate the nuances – sim games, sports games, MOBAs and RTSs. When I play those, I end up somewhere between bored and frustrated. I can appreciate how some of them are great games, but I can’t feel it. They’re not for me. (Mary plays a bit of DOTA; she’s better than me by a long shot.)
I don’t feel like I’m missing out, though, by not playing them. I think I’ve managed to understand the core concepts and that they don’t excite me, and that’s cool. But games like The Last of Us – action games – are our big names, our massively-promoted titles, the things that everyone talks about. To not play those is to miss out on a big part of gaming culture. (And, also, it’s a beautifully-written and acted story, which deserves to be experienced. As Mary said, “I’d love to watch the film without all this gameplay getting in the way.”)
Is there a solution? I don’t know. I’m not even sure if I want one. After all, I’ve played my fair share of action games, and I’m confident enough with the tropes therein that making assumptions of prior knowledge on my part is probably going to make for a better game, as far as I’ll experience it. There’s a market for media suitable for advanced users, of course. But I think we need to remain aware that the more gaming grows as a culture, the more we’ll assume the average player knows, and the wider the gap will grow between the competent and the frustrated.
For now, I’m playing it for her as a stuntman while she watches. I’m not great; I mess up a lot on stealth sections, but I’m learning as I go. She goes on her phone whenever we encounter Clickers, because she doesn’t like them very much. I can’t blame her.
When I recommend that someone plays a game, it’s because I want them to have the same experience I did with it, to love it as much as I did. Even though I want to give her the sensations I’m getting out of it – the frantic shooting, the desperate melee combat, the heart-racing stealth, the frequent swings from power to powerlessness – this will do. Maybe this is the only way I can give that to her.