The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Fooling the System

Gutter Guest
Posted July 1, 2010

splinter cell conviction 80.jpg“Fisher,” they’d cry, “we’re going to find you.” They were looking in the wrong place. I was already somewhere else. And as they approached the last position they saw me,
that somewhere else was right behind them. Either a clean bullet to the head or some other form of quick, close, personal death, they slump to the floor, and I leave them for their friends to find.

And so the cycle would
begin again.

***

Video
gamers so greatly enjoy playing heroes whose main trade is in the
cloak and dagger. Heroes who hide in the shadows, distract their
enemies, confuse them, surprise them, or just kill them without them
ever knowing. For years, the hero was the one who would allow his
opponent time to pick up his rapier and compose himself; the villain
was the one who would wait till he had turned his back to strike. Not
anymore.

Splinter Cell:
Conviction
, developed by Ubisoft
Montreal, recently released for Windows PC and Xbox 360 and from
which my anecdote above comes, is only the latest in a long line of
“stealth action” titles where the player’s skill is defined
by their ability to fool their opponent rather than face them head
on. Before that, I played
Batman: Arkham
Asylum
, where Batman picks off the
Joker’s minions one by one, hanging them from gargoyles. Before that,
Mini Ninjas,
where even in a cute world where you quest to save Japan’s furry
animals from an evil Samurai warlord, you’re still encouraged to stab
your enemies in the back wherever possible.

splinter cell conviction 250.jpgI suppose it’s the kind of
thing that would worry other generations that video games are
breeding a generation heavy in a very specific kind of sociopath, one
that’s always lurking in the shadows, holding something sharp. A
generation where an argument between two men over a favourite
football team in a pub would, instead of spiralling into a brawl,
lead to one hiding in the air ducts, ready to drop on his opponent.
The other hiding in a drain, ready to pop out.

And yet I
don’t, particularly, plan on hiding in the fridge of anyone who
judges me for enjoying video games, ready to spring out with a knife.
After all, where would be the pleasure in that?

As strange as it might
sound, the pleasure isn’t in the kill. The pleasure is in fooling the
system. That you’re cleverer than it. IBM always missed the point in
their brute force attempts to defeat Gary Kasparov at chess with a
mainframe. There’s no honour in an enemy who knows all the moves in
advance, far less than there is in a hero who knows that against some
odds he’d better hide in the shadows.

Even in a heavily
story-based video games, like
Conviction,
where we think we’re helping Sam Fisher on a quest to work out who
killed his daughter, it comes down to us against the machine. But
yet, unlike Kasparov, who viewed a board and chose where to move his
pawns, it’s really us that are the pawns. The computer knows where we
are at all times; yet it spits out enemies, that, by design, are only
so clever. That rely on their own in-built movement routines and line
of sight to find us.
Conviction,
even, shows us where they’re looking with a “last known
position” outline; we can actually observe how well we’ve
“fooled” our electronic opponents before we snap their
necks or shatter their cranium. We’re so proud of being so clever,
doing just what the computer already knows we’ll do.

Even the
challenge isn’t our own. The game provides a meta-layer of “P.E.C.
Challenges” that ask the player to kill enemies by throwing them
off ledges; disappear after being discovered without a kill; kill a
group of enemies with a grenade. A cornucopia of (usually) murderous
directions that incline the player to not only beat the computer but
truly toy with it. Don’t just kill that enemy while he’s standing
there; lure him over to a railing and pull him over. Wait until a group stand together, stun them with a flashbang and execute
them before they can see what’s going on.

Were a hero in a
film to act this way, it’d be monstrous. Hang on a minute, he’d say;
before we escape I just need to hit this man against a wooden door
until he
dies.
But it’s a game, and it forms that perfect storm. The reward of
feeling so clever that we’re beating the computer—or failing and
knowing that we should. But all at its own whim.

So in the end, maybe we
shouldn’t feel so clever; video games have become a big brother
rather than a big blue; not playing quite as well at the game as it
should to keep it fun. But neither should we feel worried about our
own bloodthirstiness. We’re only doing what we’re told.

~~~

Mathew Kumar is a Scottish, Toronto-based freelance journalist who has written extensively about games for publications including
Edge Magazine and websites such as Gamasutra. He publishes his own
independent games magazine, “exp.” available from http://expdot.com.

Comments

One Response to “Fooling the System”

  1. NefariousDrO
    July 1st, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

    All of these are reasons I enjoyed playing games like DOOM and Quake against my friends on a network back during the late ’90’s, but are also reasons why I haven’t played any of these types of games in the last 10 years. They’re structured in a way that really limits how you can approach the game, and that frustrates me. What I used to enjoy about playing Marathon was luring my opponents out into an open arena where we each had rocket launchers. Then it was a question of who could dodge more effectively while shooting more accurately. And yes, the bloodthirstiness of that is a bit scary, no?

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