10 October, 2002
video (mind) games
on being toyed with by a ps2
a l e j a n d r o c o r r e a
Many of the things we do require us to purposefully fool ourselves. Artistic license has been responsible for lovers who speak in iambic pentameter and action superheroes that never run out of bullets; Shakespeare and Schwarzenegger can be excused for these seemingly unrealistic aspects of their work because audiences can distinguish between what happens in real life and what can happen in the context of a movie or of Elizabethan theater. These fictions have distinctly unlifelike characteristics.
Video games, like all other games, also require that we move away from the realm of Newtonian physics and associate the mechanics of gameplay only loosely with reality. The game makes its own rules: enemy corpses blink twice and disappear after they have fallen and if you scroll the screen too far you might not be able to go back. And if you can go back, you'll usually find the things that you changed are undone, reverted to how you originally found them. To an experienced video game player, these things are no more unusual than the shape of a poem.
Shoot-em-up games, in which the point is to destroy as many enemies as possible, require players to accept many of these "conventions" (unrealistic plotlines, dialogues, etc.) so that they can advance to the parts where they get to blow stuff up. When I played Metal Gear Solid 2 on the PlayStation2 over the summer, I expected nothing to be different, and judging by the opening scenes and the first levels of the game, it certainly didn't seem like Metal Gear brought anything new to its genre. The game puts the player in the role of an impossibly adolescent, special agent/Navy SEAL type who sneaks around narrow corridors and shoots bad guys before they can call for help. The hero receives orders via an ultra-high-tech, cutting-edge, state-of-the-art gizmo from an anonymous colonel (Colonel Mustard perhaps?) in the NSA. The orders are as inane and impracticable as one might expect; basically, one player is supposed to accomplish, in true super-hero fashion, what would normally be asked of an army.
There comes a point in the game when the hero begins to mistrust the orders being sent by the Colonel; it seems at first to be a not so subtle setup for a contrived surprise ending. I kept blowing stuff up, but the truth would turn out to be more twisted.
As I (or rather, my character--the distinction is sometimes superfluous) shot my way through a hijacked oil rig, I was supposed to upload a virus to the computer that controlled the bad guy's operations. Fine, I thought. This was undoubtedly another example of how games clumsily incorporate high technology to give the impression of novelty.
But when the download was completed, the game changed. Orders stopped coming from the Colonel, and when they started coming again, the Colonel appeared as a baby, a woman, and a skull. He spoke incoherently, and suddenly the strictly enforced linearity of the game ceased, and I was left without a clue of what to do next. The oil rig, where the majority of the game had occurred, suddenly and without explanation became a strange and sinister complex of sci-fi horror. The Colonel began to communicate messages like, "You are sitting too close to the TV. Sit farther back or you'll hurt your eyes" or "Haven't you been playing this game too long? Don't you have other things to do?" This is when I realized that Metal Gear was not the tame, mindless game of pixilated violence I expected. The virus that I uploaded to the computer was affecting the PlayStation itself: in one stroke, the game had transcended its particular reality and had invaded my own. It had become a metagame, acknowledging its existence beyond its own plot, recognizing me, its audience, and making a comment about our relationship.
I inferred from the ensuing dialogues that the game up to that point had not really occurred. It had all been virtual reality; I (my character) wasn't really shooting bad guys to save the world, but instead I was in a contest designed to find the most skillful and ruthless fighter from among a wide-ranging selection of characters who had been pitted against each other in the game. The winner would be used as an ultimate weapon of sorts.
After I beat the game, everything became more "normal." Regular communication between me and the Colonel began again. He congratulated me profusely and mentioned that all that "weird stuff" that had been happening was caused by "enemy interference." The hero walked off into the sunset, and I had the distinct impression of having been fooled by both myself and the game. I had been thoroughly mocked by a seemingly inoffensive, innocent video game, rated PG-13 for animated violence.