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Dispatches, Part Nine; Or: Okay, Where’s the Cheese? (Actually, I’m Allergic to the Stuff Myself, But That’s Neither Here Nor There)

I don’t know how much I have to say this time, pleasant dreamers. I’ve gone through two hours right now, and have reached the Architect’s Tomb. Basically, this gameplay session has involved a whole lot of the foreshadowing of the level design paying off in some pretty impresive set-piece puzzles, and slowed down by some other, far less impressive set-piece puzzles. Combat’s constant, of course, but mostly just in terms of clearing away paths and hazards so the player can concentrate on the tasks at hand of collecting skulls and necklaces to be put in their proper places, pushing blocks into perfect Tetris formation and generally using the Ape-brain, rather than the Lizard-brain. Even this playthrough’s sole boss–the Hades Minotaur– is a challenge that’s more about finding the right time to pull a lever than it is about fighting in the traditional sense. Basically, this whole series of temples has been culminating in some nice climaxes, but basically, I’m feeling less like a near-invincible Ancient Greek superwarrior and more like something else, and even more primitive:

A lab-rat.

Now, this is what games are all about, honestly– putting the player into a maze and telling them to go and find the goal, or the way out. In other words, we’re all turned into mice and sent scurrying into the labyrinth, desperate to find the exit, or more importantly, the cheese. Sometimes a cat’s put on our tail, making it more of a chase than a quest of strategems, but other than that, we’re usually locked in the safety of being quietly lost in these computer generated jungle gyms, jumping to and fro in the hopes of finding our way to the next set of obstacles. Every piece of cheese in a game– the Tri-Force, the Card-Keys, the Power-Pellet– is just another word for MacGuffin, of course, and the big daddy I’ve been chasing all this time is Pandora’s Box, which still doesn’t seem quite within reach.

And you know what? I want some fucking cheese, already.

Now, I’ve been running this maze for a while now with the pleasant distance of a patient, objective observer, no matter how subjectively plugged into the gaunlet I am, simultaneously. In other words, I’ve been doing my best to remain both the mouse in the maze and the scientist in a lab-coat, dilligently taking notes. However, all this build-up has been slowly eating away at my finely-honed scholarly shields, which I suppose means the game is really working. I’m tired of all the preamble– I want Pandora’s Box, already. It’s a good thing that the game’s encouraging me to want what it’s offering, but at the same time it’s an incredibly frustrating experience, which begs the question– are games designed to be little pleasure dispensing machines, or when done right, do they instead become little desire dispensing machines?

This is elementary, I know, but think about it– In Ico, how much did you want to protect Yorda, and not just out of the fact that she’s the key for all the magic doors? In Metal Gear (pick an episode), how much do you want to fight the robot, fight the traitor and generally find out what the fuck is going on? In Shadow of the Colossus, how much did you want to resurrect poor old Mono, no matter what the cost? Pick any series, there always winds up some weird demand, one often the game doesn’t even explicitly state up front that the player is actively encouraged to overcome– in the Katamari games, I often find myself wanting to impress the King of All Cosmos with the best ball of stuff I can possibly roll off, sometimes because I want his praise, and sometimes just so he’ll get off my back (Katamari tends to bring out the pissed-off teenager in me). At any rate, games are designed to make us want to do something, and then to make that thing we want to do as hard as humanly possible, just so that after we’ve finally done it, we feel as good about ourselves as possible.

Games aren’t pleasure dispensing machines– not directly. They’re difficulty dispensing machines. Really, what we keep talking about as games aren’t, really, when you get down to it– they’re puzzles. God of War and Metal Gear probably have more in common with the Rubik’s Cube or the Gordian Knot than they do with Tennis, Chess or Tic-Tac-Toe, to be quite honest (actually, I’m not being honest– this is one of those Devil’s Advocate moments again, people, and I have mostly no idea of what I’m talking about, here). When a game is a solitary activity, it’s less about competition with a living person than it is about proving to one’s self that one can solve the problems in front of them, no matter how hard they turn out to be. All good games require active, simultaneous use of the Ape-brain and Lizard-brain– the strategic, analytical mind in conjunction with the instinctive, emotional mind. Right now it seems GoW is mostly an Ape-brain game, once you clear away all the Lizard-brain bad guys and boss challenges.

Really, it’s a game that encourages you to rewire your brain to be able to think creatively, rationally and strategically even in the midst of overwhelming do-or-die challenges. When I think about it in this regard, it becomes a very impressive game. The constant surges of enemies prevents the game’s puzzle-solving content from occupying the same foreground as in the minimalist Ico, where battle is more about freaking the player out into moments of sheer terror and panic which one never really gets past. GoW tries to dull the player with everpresent threats, training them to get used to always being attacked, rather than their being rarer, and therefore that much more frightening experiences. By flooding the game with continual warfare, but keeping the main progress nodes, both level and boss-based, on the terms of puzzle solving, Jaffe does a good job of hiding and complimenting its true challenges. By this time, the player can feel as numbed to the experience of battle as Kratos, thus making those fights almost peripheral before the questions of all the different temple challenges. There’s more genuine difficulty to be found in solving the puzzles than fighting the bad guys, and the really challenging bad guys are only that way because their patterns have been built to become puzzles themselves, especially in how they interrelate with other bad guys and how the player weighs each threat at once. If you don’t get their rythms right, you’re likely to see the battles become very one-sided– some fights almost become turn-based if the timing isn’t done right at first.

At its heart, GoW is prompting players to think more than to react, which at a design level is an impressive feat. Still, some of this is beginning to wear thin, and right now I’m just hoping I really am that much closer to finding the goddamn cheese, already. I appreciate how much of a mouse this game is making me feel, but is it too much to ask that it pay off already? If games require us to think in terms of the Lizard and Ape-brains, then they also require us to feel with Rodent and Reptile-hearts. The cold-blooded counterpart cares only for the short-term gain– as in finally beating a minotaur and claiming its juices. The warm-blooded critter, however, keeps looking to the horizon and hoping for the long-term satisfaction.

That’s what I keep hoping for with Pandora’s Box, and I’ll say this much– it’s certainly gotten me curious to see what they’ve got inside, at the end of this road.

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