Who on Earth is the DARPA Chief Donald Anderson?

You know the person, I know you do. That person who’s choosing to watch somebody else play video games live over the Internet. That person who enjoys games so very much that when they’re not playing them themselves they like spending (some of) their time digitally peeking over the shoulders of others whilst they play. That person who is electing to forgo personal input into a participatory form of entertainment in the pursuit of an alternative means of consuming said entertainment. That person who must accept all of these things in order to arrive at the destination at which they find themselves, yet still feels the need to tell the object of their scopophilic attentions that they are “playing it all wrong?!!!??!” You know the type.


The first and only time I completed Metal Gear Solid I called upon the assistance of a Blaze Xplorer FX cheat cartridge. ‘Cos I was eight or nine at the time, I wasn’t really of the mindset to try particularly hard with ‘adult games’, though I of course wanted to appear as mature as possible around my friends, hence the imperative to play MGS to its almost certainly thrilling and undoubtedly not-for-kids finale. My boxy deciphering chum had helped me out on countless earlier occasions, not least the time it granted me infinite lives in Croc: Legend of the Gobbos (I’ve never understood them in non-coin-op games - they just add hollow, unnecessary stress and make me anxious). Even with all the help I still never bested that hot-ticket adventure; it just seemed to go on forever, with only palette-swaps and ever more bottomless pits to signal my progress through its swampy offering.
The Xplorer’s help with MGS proved to be much more potent, granting me the wonderful items one gains from completing the game two (!) whole times. There was a bandanna which gave me infinite ammo, great for the few instances you’re forced into combat, and an invisibility suit which served its purpose the rest of the time. Basically I had the ESPIONAGE and ACTION aspects of the game locked-down, to the point where the TACTICAL part withered into insignificance, which was just the way I wanted it: less game in my game, if you like.

There was, of course, a downside to my imprudent and less than reverential handling of the game. It’s worth stressing though that it wasn’t in the obvious robbing-myself-of-the-experiential-aspect-of-playing-one-of-the-more-celebrated-games-of-the-last-twenty-years way you may at first expect. I’ve been back a few times over the intervening years and never fail to deem the controls clunky as a box o’ rocks, so I’m pretty confident in saying that my young self didn’t actually sacrifice that much in not straight up playing it properly. No, my Xplorer reliance had much further reaching - some might even, quite rightly, say damaging - consequences. It killed all of the cutscenes.

Instead of bobbing about leisurely amidst hours and hours of non-interactive story sequences - remember, the series is renowned for its liberal implementation of put-the-controller-down-for-a-bit-and-watch-this sections - I was left with glitchy messes comprising of skipping video and garbled audio. For a game I was ‘playing’ entirely for the story, I really was cutting my nose off to spite my face at that point. But still I persevered, blindly convicted of the thought that if I finished MGS, even without any knowledge of its story with which to use as evidence of my achievement actually occurring, I would still be able to hold my own amongst my peers.

Through a rigorous system of feigned memory loss for the minutia and strategy guide consumption for the general stuff - I pored over my MGS copy of PowerStation magazine - I think I got away with my audacious ruse. I’ve since further familiarised myself with the happenings of the game, to the point where I actually feel like I’ve played it properly at some point in the enshrouded past. Take me back to nineteen ninety nine and ask me who Donald Anderson or Decoy Octopus are, however, and I’d be hard pressed to give you anything more than a remarkably swiftly delivered rebuttal. I certainly wouldn’t be able to indulge you in the involving tale of how the former was accidentally (or otherwise) dispatched by a gun-swinging, duster wearing, surprisingly well coiffed cowboy/terrorist/military deserter, and that the latter used his uncanny mimicry abilities - supposedly learned whilst he was a jobbing actor in Hollywood of all places - to don a mask of sorts and impersonate the deceased in an attempt to bluff weapon activation codes out of the protagonist. I couldn’t say any of this because a) I couldn’t physically follow much of the story at all and, more upsettingly, b) my backup magazine turned out to only cover the back half of the game, leaving me mentally hobbled like so many hastily written heroes. (I’d actually bought it for a guide to Gex 3: Deep Cover Gecko, a game I probably have fonder memories of than any Metal Gear I’ve ever tried to play.)


In my childish impatience to appear the master of MGS I basically achieved very little. I can of course still say I’ve played it to its feverish crescendo, but I, and now you, will forever know of the compromised nature of this besting. Likewise, That Person calling for a more clinical and hardline approach from the broadcaster behind the stream they’re part of is similarly missing the point. Most games are no longer simply cases of binary win/lose states - even if underneath all the superficiality many still kind of are. Brute force mainlining a game with even the most cursory interest in its own world building and storytelling, I feel, is a waste of your time. 


Older games, I’m thinking arcade and early console ones, were simple enough that they could be considered cumulative experiences. By that I mean that they are wholly collections of mechanics and challenges that can be fully mastered through repetition and thus a steadily increasing proficiency. Take the mapping out of Donkey Kong levels (see the picture) as seen in the film The King of Kong, where players derive all of their pleasure from the slow and deliberate trudge towards unpacking and ultimately understanding the very building blocks of the challenge. These games don’t offer us stories or trinkets in an attempt to pull us through them, they simply exist - their purity of experience being their entire raison d'ĂȘtre - whether we sidle up and accept their proposition or not.
Contrast this with more contemporary fare; games which are much more experiential in nature: I’d deem these to be aggregate experiences. That isn’t to say that these games don’t hold challenge as a fundamental constituent part of their design (though some of them don’t), rather that it is indeed a part of a larger composite. Story, place, lighting, traversal, dialogue, music and countless small distractions are all commonplace within the makeup of the modern big-budget game, with no single aspect of a production dominating - contrary to what we saw in the earlier games of the medium’s formative years. The merits or otherwise of this shift from a focused, challenge-based design to the sprawling affairs of escapist entertainment we know today is a discussion for another time; it is enough to simply acknowledge this occurrence.

Trying to play an aggregate game as you would a cumulative one is a fool’s errand. Whether it be a lazy young me with Metal Gear Solid or an upstart livestream viewer urging the host to hurry up because they themselves have already played the game in question and so know the path of least resistance, you’re going to come up short. Many, many modern games, especially the kind you buy in a box or leave downloading overnight, are not designed to ever be mastered in the historical sense. This would require a purity of focus which is simply not present in most big-budget games, ‘specially those aimed at the console market. Simply put: running headlong at the end credits in the most efficient way possible is going to bring disappointment.

I’ll leave you with this. I once went into a fairground fun house, the kind filled with ball pools, revolving barrier doodads, wobbly floors and slides. So excited was I that I ran through the whole thing trying to grab a piece of everything at once, taking about a minute to get from start to finish. Once I stepped outside the fun was over, with the burly proprietor waving me past in the same swift, blasĂ© motion he used to flick the ash from the deliciously smouldering end of his Lambert & Butler. I went, in a terribly dejected fashion, over to my Mum and asked her why I felt so short changed after paying to run through that lorry full of painted plywood and gaffer tape. Her response was typically grounded: “because, Leigh, you didn’t spend enough time playing in that lorry full of painted plywood and gaffer tape. Next time - if there is a next time - you’ll know to appreciate it more.” I reckon everyone could learn a little from her pointed assessment of that particular situation. 

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