The Bravest Game, Mistakenly Neglected

This is the fourth in a series of posts labeled "Hindsight" that discuss games you may have thought we were done writing about. Last time: Wolfenstein. This time: Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.

How often do gamers commend the bravery of the people who make games for them to play? A gamer might respond: How often do the games they play give them reason to?

How often, though, do gamers, myself included, have trouble distinguishing bravery from stupidity, innovation from mistake?

Bravery is a value developers seldom promote. Bigger, we hear. Better, we're told. More badass, it's hyped.

Bravery? That commodity goes unsold. Yet last year I found bravery through another B-word: Banjo. I found it in a game that I mistook for stupid, for which I was stupidly mistaken. This was Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, a sequel from Microsoft-owned Rare studios, a game no one thought was slavishly copying its predecessors or other games, but a game that was possibly an evolutionary error. Again, my mistake.

The early Banjo Kazooie games, made in the 90s in the shadow of Super Mario 64, were character-based platforming games. You controlled Banjo the bear, who ran around in yellow shorts and a blue backpack that contained his bird-friend, Kazooie. You jumped. You squashed enemies. You collected shiny gold things. And while that all made the game a lot like Mario, it wasn't until Banjo's fourth game, the 2008 Nuts & Bolts, a game I played in 2009, that I realized how those early Banjos weren't just similar to Mario but similar to just about every other game. To put it another way, when I played Nuts & Bolts, I realized how different this new one was from just about every other game I'd ever played.

The difference between Banjo new and Banjo old wasn't what you'd think it was, had you tried the game early like I did or seen an ad or read a preview. The new game was bigger and — here's a nice b-word — beautiful, offering players some of the most vast and gorgeously designed cartoon 3D worlds ever rendered in a video game. Vast as the game world was, it wouldn't make sense to force the player to run through Banjo's world. While the game would require the player to squash enemies and collect shiny gold things, the player would be abetted in that adventure with vehicles: Cars, planes, tanks. Just as the railroad, the automobile and the passenger plane made our great Earth small enough so that we could traverse it like 17th-century settlers in a village, Banjo's vehicles would make his great world down to the scale of his earlier ones.

Nuts & Bolts would be a platformer with vehicles — that was the innovation, yes? Or, to some, that was the ruin. Change our games for sequels, gamers chant, but the backlash sometimes betrays them: Don't change them too much. Banjo needs a floating platform on which to jump to, right? Cars don't jump onto floating platforms, not well.

Rare pitched another innovation with the new Banjo, one that easily aroused suspicion. This new game, they showed, would let gamers create their own vehicles, opening access to a garage of collectible fenders and engines and wings and egg-shooting guns. Wheels, tired, fuel tanks, springs, armor, chairs, trays, rear-view mirrors and rocket engines. Plug them all together and don't think too much about how user manipulation of content might interfere with tight, careful level design. For those of us who liked being led through a Banjo Kazooie obstacle course of a level, it now seemed we'd have to do more of the work ourselves, not only going through the course, but constructing our means to do so.

Rare conceded one cheat: They'd make some vehicles for the player, make it easy. You don't need to build your own, they said. You don't need to customize your cars, trick out your rims, pretend you're playing LittleBigPlanet or do your own mash-ups. Just play with what we give you, if you must. That's how I decided to play.

The Bravest Game, Mistakenly Neglected

So early last year, I put Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts in my Xbox 360 and started to play and started to get disappointed yet again. This was not the Banjo of old, the one I knew I liked and had recognized it wouldn't be. But it was also something that didn't feel like a good change. First impressions, thankfully, can be wrong.

I played with custom vehicles, driving my Banjo car or flying my Banjo plane across a field or through some giant innards of a computer, collecting shiny things and hauling stuff. I found some racing levels, and frowned. Rare had said that we shouldn't worry that Nuts & Bolts was a racing game, despite the addition of racing levels. But, oh, here was racing.

Then, a turn happened, both in the game and in my attitude. And it happened on a racing track. The old way you play games — the way I first attempted to play Nuts & Bolts for a few hours — is that you try a level or a mission and, if you fail, you try it again. Maybe you gain experience points, your character levels up and it gets easier. Maybe, more often, you just try it and try it and get better, learn the intricacies of the mission or level, and finally you get it. That's how it normally works. That's how I've approached Mario games. That's how I've approached Banjo games. That's how I've approached racing games.

In Nuts & Bolts, however, in one mission, I kept failing. I couldn't win a race. The other racers passed me every time. I messed up the same turns. And I probably could have overcome all that by trying and trying and trying again. But the lightbulb went on. I went into the Nuts & Bolts garage. I started rebuilding my vehicle. You construct these vehicles as if you're making Lego builds, bolting on cubes and cones, latching one part to the next. I was having trouble making a turn? I'd reshape the fender. A guy was passing me on the sides? I'd add a gun on the side to shoot him away. I was falling behind? I added an extra engine, some extra fuel and then lightened the chassis so I was still swift enough.

I didn't get better at the game. I made myself better at the game — by making something better for myself.

And I didn't only have to do it in racing levels. I could do it in collection levels. I did it in aerial dogfight levels. I made planes when I think they thought I'd make helicopters. I made an absurd transforming boat when I think they thought I'd use a car. I mad a vehicle that could bounce over my enemies instead of fighting them. I took glee and breaking things apart and solving problems my way.

The Bravest Game, Mistakenly Neglected

That's how I discovered the bravery. This wasn't a game designed for me to sit back and play it, nor was it a game that allowed me to make some simple tweaks. This was a game that presented some problems and, in a manner of speaking, gave me the ability to break it, to hack it, to re-set the rules by re-setting what my character could do. It would be like allowing a player to give Mario a gun or offer Lara Croft a jetpack. Or, it would be like allowing Master Chief to suddenly be a foot shorter if there was a level in Halo where he needed to be harder to hit or if, in Madden, I could change the shape of the football to match my technique and get the bounce I wanted.

My Banjo discovery changed the way I played the game. It also changed my view of the kinds of problems we face in games and the ways with which we might be given the opportunity to address them.

What I thought was a mistake of design revealed itself to me as bravery, as a developer willing to concede control to its player, willing to let its player mess with its game. This wasn't classic Banjo. This wasn't classing anything. This was new. This was bold. This was brave and maybe the best thing about 2008 gaming I experienced in 2009 or any other year, a breakthrough I couldn't appreciate in an hour of playing time, but that I found at long last.