This is the third in a series of posts labeled "Hindsight" that discuss games you may have thought we were done writing about. Last time: X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This time: Wolfenstein.
I make it hard for video games to be unpredictable.
Not that I make games. I play them. And by playing them, I try to examine them and test their resilience, as if tapping their fender and poking the tires, slamming the doors a few times to make sure they don't stick and assessing that, okay this thing is sturdy, before I've ever driven it.
I am, while doing this, hoping for a surprise.
I want to know everything about a game before I play it but also be caught off guard by it as it unfolds, and I don't want anyone calling that a paradox.
I want to know the scale of the thing and its scope. I check menu screens and Trophy lists to determine how many levels the game has. I start a game, just barely, and I check what percentage the game says I've completed, to determine how much more I've got. I check level lists. All in-game, of course. Consulting outside sources would be cheating. Through these means I determine that New Super Mario Bros. Wii has at least eight worlds and that Assassin's Creed II employs a rarely-seen level-counting trick.
This is, I believe, the psychology of the experienced gamer: he or she who can size up a game before having started it. It is, I propose, part of the act of playing a game. You will agree if you recognize playing a game as playing with the systems a game developer has created, and if you consider a key part of playing with systems the act of understanding them, testing them, looking for shortcuts or exploitable faults.
But that's not entirely fair, because it may be out of bounds. Few would deny that prodding at a gameplay system is the good sport. It is the act of getting better at playing a game and exposing faulty, porous game design. But prodding the level-numbering system of a game may be nothing more than an elaborate way of turning to the last page of a book, if not to read how it ends, but at least to size up the novel by measuring it, crudely, by a count of its pieces of paper.
This is a reflex that might best be turned off, because there is little gained but disappointment to know just when a game will end or how many hidden items it has tucked away in its corners. Therefore, you must understand how I can desire to know the whole thing and yet still hope to be surprised.
I can't turn this instinct off. But, like a good advocacy group, I can lay the blame for this part of my behavior on video games.
It was the draws-itself-as-you-go map of Super Metroid that teased to me the idea that a game knows how big it is before it will tell you. And it was the inventory screens of the Nintendo 64 Zeldas that taunted with a framework that showed me how much menu space there was to contain all that I could discover in the game, inviting me to guess at the items that would fill it and forcing me to recognize when I had reached a quarter, then halfway, then sadly, near-completion (already?) of a wonderful adventure. If only, I began to hope, I was being tricked and a new, empty menu would appear at the last minute, to reveal that this game still offered more.
(Main item screen of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, as seen at the beginning of the game)
(Main item screen of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, further into the game. PIC)
So we're at Wolfenstein, a first-person-shooter from August for which I had negligible expectations, a game I was certainly not studying in advance to know its scale and its scope nor one that I expected to, finally, thankfully, surprise me.
I played the game because it was out in slow August. I played it because a first-person-shooter with super-powers feels worth trying though, for me, seldom worth finishing. I tried it because it was being made by major studios, Raven and id, but oddly being disowned by the latter party and maybe neglected by its publisher. Such is the drama that makes a game more interesting.
I played it and enjoyed it and dared to tell people that I preferred its campaign to that of Killzone 2 and F.E.A.R. 2 and the rest of the 2009 first-person-shooters I had played by then, leaving a caveat for Modern Warfare 2, though I'm not sure I needed to.
And if I had to explain why I liked it so much — me not being someone with an endless need to virtually kill supernatural Nazis and me having no affinity for earlier Wolfenstein games because I never played them — I'd have to say it's because I had tried, early, to size this game up, and better than anything else I played this year, it tricked me and surprised me.
I praise Wolfenstein because it fooled me.
The game isn't simply a first-person shooter. It is a shooter linked with a hubworld, an oddly unusual design for a game in the genre. It's built less like a Call of Duty — broken into levels you play in order — and more like Super Mario 64, with the Nazi-controlled city of Isenstadt taking the place of Princess Peach's castle. Doorways in that city to new shooter levels substitute for the paintings in Peach's castle through which Mario could leap to enter his platform-jumping levels. In Peach's castle and in Isenstadt you have some choice as to which level you'd explore next and you could have some fun just exploring the hub geography that connects them.
You'd think this would be a game structure a veteran gamer could accurately size up. It would feel all the more knowable if you saw in Wolfenstein's mini-map the implementation of a poor-man's Grand Theft Auto. Little icons appear on the lines denoting Isenstadt's streets and alleys, identifying locations where new major missions might be assigned or begun. As side goals emerge as well, the GTA scheme seems apparent: There will be essential main things to do and unessential though possibly fun tributaries to explore.
That's what I thought. That's why I was wrong.
There is something games could do but seldom do, and that is confound a gamer's level-size expectations. I played a few missions in Wolfenstein and assumed I had the measure of them, that I recognized the number of minutes and Nazis involved in each. Then I reached a level set at a farm, which I guessed to be an average-sized level and which, as it was unfolding, appeared to consist of a battle near a barn, a fight down a road, and a one-man breach of a farmhouse that would culminate in a stated goal to reach a basement. I even had to shoot a rushing horde of enemies from a second story window, which is often the sign that a level has reached its climax. But in that basement of destiny, which I fought hard to reach, was an elevator. And down that elevator was a vast military complex and the level's second half. I was radically off in my sense of how big this level would be. I'd been fooled and was happy for it.
(Concept art for Wolfenstein. PIC)
As I played more of Wolfenstein I realized that the game offered few clues with which I could guess the scale of its levels. I might as well have been predicting earthquake magnitudes. Some of my missions might have been side missions, others main, but I couldn't distinguish even when they were about to begin.
Down one street of Isenstadt I found a door to a building. Entering it started a new level, called the Officer's House. Having fought through that massive farm, gone through some other large levels set in a hospital and an archeological dig site, I guessed (wrong again!) that this level would be big. You play a level in a game based on an "officer's house" and you just assume you're going to be fighting through, maybe, a 25-room house? Or taking the battle out of the house across rooftops? Or up in a blimp? Or into the sewers? Anything to make it bigger than the terrain you'd cover just fighting in one officer's house. Except that's all it was. Just a short level. A short shooting mission in this guy's house. Just a couple of stories tall, nothing big, nothing that lasted too long. I was fooled again.
I don't think the Wolfenstein development team could have gotten away with sizing their levels so differently from each other had their game been structured like a Call of Duty or a GoldenEye or many of the other major first-person shooters. It'd seem like one level designer was lazier than the other or something.
But this game, dare I uncork some over-praise, could do this because its hub-city structure allowed it to unfold with the pace of a life.
When I wake up on a November day in my apartment I don't know where and when the major missions of my day will begin. The subway steps of Brooklyn may lead me to a brief trip to work or an odyssey involving crazy beggars, mechanical difficulties, and a painful stumble on the stairs. The door to the bank could lead to a quick withdrawal or a sudden inward-turning mental scramble to calculate credits and debits. Even that trip to bed and the drift to sleep might lead to a level of unknown size and scale, maybe a brisk dream or a restless night.
These are the rhythms and surprises of our days that games, no matter how realistic they supposedly have become, so rarely recreate.
Wolfenstein could well be a game whose parts are not as good as its whole. I can't tell. I can't see those parts as separate from the delight I took in being tricked by them. I've become confident that I can see a game from across the horizon and know what it'll be when it gallops to me, that I'll at least know how tall it stands. But not this time. And I was happy for it.
Maybe, after all, this is a valid way to play a game on top of the other ways you're playing it. Maybe it is part of the game to poke around the game to see how big it is and to think you've got it figured out before it has even begun.
That is all legitimate, if the designers play back. That is all fair if the designers recognize that innate zeal among gamers to know, understand and master — and if the designers assert that just when we think we have it all figured out, they have something new to throw us off.
I'd rather not be able to know a game in advance, despite my best reflexes to try. I yearn to be tricked.