WHEN SUCKING IS FUN

It’s easy to get attached to certain habits. But I'm not just talking about smoking or gambling or shopping. The way we do things becomes habitual too, the way we walk, the words we use, the thoughts we have. I think, with games, no matter how many we play, we bring a set point of view to all of them. We have a generalized set of attitudes about what is fair, what is fun, and what we’re supposed to get out of our play experience.

Look at MTG’s brilliant player profiles. These are the outcome of extensive market research on the minds of people who spend exorbitant sums of money on glossy squares of printed cardstock, and they reveal four essential “types” of players of their game. The research might have been for Magic, but I strongly feel these identities, these horoscopes, apply to players of all games - single-player, online, strategy, tabletop. For instance, meet Timmy. Timmy likes fun! Which is not to say that the other types don’t like fun. It’s just that this is all Timmy cares about. Timmy equips gear that looks cool, regardless of the stats it gives him. Timmy probably buys all the DLC, even if he doesn’t play it — he’s just enthusiastic about the brand! Timmy is satisfied just to participate, to push all the buttons, to see all the cool cutscenes. Johnny likes to… well, there’s not really one word to describe what Johnny likes. Johnny fucks around with the game-files to turn all the dragons into Stone-Cold Steve Austin. Johnny specs his character to do all and ONLY unarmed damage. Johnny tweaks and articulates his play experience to make it as unique to him as possible. Johnny is satisfied just to innovate, to push the buttons nobody pushes, to accomplish tasks in unexpected ways. Thirdly, we have Spike. Spike likes to win! Spike plays the best guys with the best stuff. Spike is the first one to hit the level-cap and guides his friends through dungeon raids. Spike writes comprehensive guides on GameFAQs which intentionally spread misinformation to improve his odds of winning. Spike is satisfied just to hit the leaderboard, to push the correct buttons, to speedrun on Nightmare difficulty. Fourth of all, and rather tangentially, we have VORTHOS. Vorthos knows all the lore and backstory for games he’s never played. Vorthos can list the villains from this year’s top 10 games in order of power level. Vorthos spends 4 hours designing a new Sims family and then immediately closes without saving. Vorthos is satisfied just to ship characters, know the backstory behind each of the buttons, and to see every alternate ending.

As an overexposed gamer, I’ve always had trouble distinguishing which player type I fit into, exactly. I’m each of them, sometimes. In Dota 2, I loved playing off-meta heroes just because I was attached to them, I loved their unusual playstyle. In Hitman I just wanted to see and do everything — all the obscure kills and goofy props made an absolute Timmy out of me. Beer-league matches of MTG often derail into lore disputes, or more often, monologues. I saw myself as a Spike least of all, until this past week.

My lifelong friends Rush and Bo recently signed a lease on a downtown apartment together. Their respective gaming rigs have migrated together and they've been hotseat gaming with me lately (Bo's PC is shit). One round of Overwatch with "them" left me... moderately frustrated. They mostly play on console, and Rush in particular has this bizarre fascination with ranked play in spite of not giving a shit about improving or climbing the ladder, or the meta.  He sees a Ranked match as a gamble, with a victory being like a slot-machine win. He is probably the most blatant, pureblooded Timmy gamer I know. Anyway, we moved onto something else: Rocket League. God dammit that game holds up — not least because of the loopy, kinetic gameplay itself, but because of the nearly universal appeal of tiny physics. Everyone understands the basic gravities, masses, and trajectories depicted in Rocket League. And even Rush, who is not among the sharpest tacticians I’ve met, has quickly picked up many of Car-Soccer’s core skills.

However… every time Bo settles into the hotseat I can see it in the stunted movements of the car. He dithers and strays. I’ll nitro-boost up the wall and rappel off, pushing into an acrobatic diagonal nose-corner twirl-hit to centre for him down on the field, only to realize he’s inside our goal, facing the back wall. This didn’t aggravate me, per se, but it made it more difficult for me to enjoy myself. It felt, more or less, like I was playing alone. Mild resentment - the resentment of old friends - bubbled up, and since then I’ve been needling the guy about his lack of skill. 

 WILDERNESS STUDY: THE GAMER, IN ITS NATURAL HABITAT, SPEAKS IN A BINARY SEQUENCE OF CLICKS AND WHIRS WHICH SCIENCE HAS YET TO FULLY UNDERSTAND.

WILDERNESS STUDY: THE GAMER, IN ITS NATURAL HABITAT, SPEAKS IN A BINARY SEQUENCE OF CLICKS AND WHIRS WHICH SCIENCE HAS YET TO FULLY UNDERSTAND.

Bo came back at me to say that, obviously, being mocked for sucking at a game he rarely plays makes him feel shitty. This hit me with some perspective: I’ve Spiked the guy. His not being good enough, in my mind, was a higher priority than his being my friend. And that was sort of embarrassing to realize — that to some degree, I’d rather be slightly pissed-off and winning, than losing, but totally chill. It’s okay to suck if you can bring out your inner Timmy or even Johnny. With the right company, in the right game, sometimes, it’s fun to suck.

I mean, look at The Last Guardian, which I was able to play for a few hours with my brother and a friend. Reviewers have mocked the wobbly controls and aloof behaviour of the feathered chimera-cat. A core mechanic is chucking barrels of food around, but the klutzy controls make it nearly impossible at times to make the barrel go where you want it to. Using your gigantic pet to reach certain locations is oftentimes literally a matter of waiting for 10 or 15 minutes until the creature gets around to leaping or burrowing or whatever you want it to do. But this is the point of the game. All these small frustrations were intentionally coded — the game is designed to make you feel, to use a Spike term, like you suck. Your avatar is a preteen boy in a sprawling, ruined temple. It seems only natural that his story should be one of physical awkwardness, of slips and stumbles and tiresome misfires. And the cat-beast is, well, a cat-beast. Cats don’t lend themselves well to obedience, and Triko’s (the creature’s name) reluctance to a cooperate more often comes off as hilarious than infuriating. Sometimes it works with you. Sometimes, it does specifically the opposite. And sometimes it does literally nothing at all, leaving you to contemplate the scenery, your existence, your purchasing decision. Taken together, these two breeds of suckage kind of illustrate the main theme of the game: relationships can be difficult. In the three hours of Last Guardian I was able to experience, it seemed to be all about the relationship formed between two thinking creatures of totally different background and ability. You are going to disagree. You will definitely get pissed off at each other - probably quite frequently. Few and far between are the relationships between people that are completely devoid of sucking. There is no leveling up beyond the unpredictability of the other intelligent people in your life. But the glue that holds people together tends so much more often to be patience and forgiveness — and a willingness to accept that, sometimes, sucking is fun.