You know how people ask where you were when something important happened? Usually it's for really huge things—a big baseball game, an assassination, a presidential election. They tend to be generation-defining things, stuff that permeates our cultural consciousness.
For games it might not be so much "where were you" but "what game were you playing?" And last night, it happened; I had one of those moments where I became particularly aware of something important, something that captured a shift that's happening in games right now.
I had a choice between two newly-released games: one, a highly-lauded triple-A game. Far Cry 3. The second, a Facebook game. The Friend Game. I'd been playing both that day, so I had a good sense of what both offered. At first glance, they are absurdly different games that might not seem equatable: one is an open world first person shooter. The other is a Zynga game where you get to know your friends.
Maybe not so different, though. Last week while speaking to Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton the subject of feeling a designer's presence and humanity in a game came up.
You ever play a game that you can just plainly see where a developer is hooking you? A calculated feel. All games are designed, yes, but I mean this veneer of superficiality that some games have. Famously, that's what we often point out in Facebook/Social games. But we weren't talking about social games. We were talking about Far Cry 3. Kirk elaborates:
"A game like Far Cry 3, say, is kind of an ultimate focus group game—it is AMAZING, but it's also like, perfect, like if you'd just asked 100 gamers to describe their ultimate shooter and then made it really, really well. It's not bad (at all), but it isn't magic in the same way as a Persona (or a Tokyo Jungle or a Papo and Yo or a Journey or a whathaveyou. Or hell even Far Cry 2.)"
Not a knock on Far Cry 3, to be sure. It seems weird to criticize a game for giving you exactly what you ask for, but in a sense it's kind of like having a stranger just kind of nod and fake-smile at everything you say, giving you exactly what you want to hear, versus having the rough moments of tension with an actual friend. Which do you value more?
Here's the rub: a game that gives you what you want? Wonderful. There is nothing wrong with that, even though personally I feel bored of jumping into a game and kind of knowing exactly what I'm about to get. It's kind of indulgent like that, playing these focus-group games.
We might have rolled our eyes when the phrase "It's Skyrim with guns" came up as a description of Far Cry 3, but the fact that idea can exist is a testament to the ‘safe' heritage Far Cry 3 pulls from. Take a proven, successful game (Skyrim). Okay, tweak it a little bit and, tada! Far Cry 3. It's a good game, but it's also kind of boring—paradoxical, I know.
The Friend Game, meanwhile, also gives us 'what we ask for,' at least inasmuch as it has tried and true social-game design elements. In this case, those elements are being used in the context of answering questions about one another. Think questions like "Does [friend] sleep naked?" Stephen breaks down how it works in his article about the game.
Answering questions like those about yourself and your friends is how you play The Friend Game. Correctly indicating how your friend would have answered the same question—about herself or about you—is how you win.
The Friend Game works because it appeals more to the things we like to do on the internet. Get connected, absorb information—particularly, things where we get a glimpse of lives of other people.
Not just any people, but our friends. We have a pre-existing personal investment, so when the game gives us an opportunity to learn more factoids about each other through quizzes, the pull extends well beyond the game. The game just streamlines what we might typically gather about someone through social media, hanging out with each other, and gossip.
Interesting things happen, dynamics-wise, in my relationships with the people playing The Friend Game with me. For example: when the game asks me if a friend would trust their life with me, these are the questions that arise.
Would she? I don't think we know each other that well. I don't think she would...
Well, I wouldn't. Why would someone else trust their lives to me? Woah. Woah.
But wait. What if she says she would out of courtesy? Hell, to what extent is what people say about me how they really feel, and to what extent is it something they say because answering in specific ways might be upsetting? Cripes, I don't know!
It's perfect for Facebook, really, as Stephen told us. I can't help but think of the original purpose of the site, where people judged how hot other people were. Facebook has always been about judging other people. Now there's a game around that, only we're juggling what we really think with what the other person wants to hear versus what type of relationship we actually have. Who am I the most honest with? Why? I'm fascinated that a game is making me ask these questions.
Zynga might've designed it specifically to keep us playing, but the wider social aspects of the game are things they can't really control. These messy things are, for me, what give the game a charm that Far Cry 3 doesn't have.
Tim Rogers, friend of Kotaku and one of the writers for The Friend Game, joked that we should wait until "it starts asking you if such-and-such friend would live out the rest of their life in solitary confinement if doing so brought about world peace... and you say no and the friend unfriends you because they are so offended."
And, yes, he's not being serious, but still—I could totally see something like that happening. And, more importantly, it reflects on what happens after we play—when I'm thinking, huh, really, is that how people see me? Why did they answer that way? Are we as close as we thought? Closer, maybe?
That's the beauty of it. The Friend Game plays with us more than we play with it. So, when I had the choice between Far Cry 3 and The Friend Game last night, it actually didn't really feel like a choice. Far Cry is a reminder that all highs fade, and soon enough we'll move on to another game—maybe "Far Cry with wands" or something. And not to overly-hype it up or anything, but The Friend Game has the potential to stay with you—make you think, maybe. Or, more interestingly, actually alter your relationships a bit.
I played a Facebook game instead of a triple-A game yesterday. I look forward to being able to say that more and more, in the same way that this year saw me playing more indie games, more not-quite-games, more personal games, more mobile games. This year was strange like that, wasn't it? Exciting, but strange.
So the choice between Far Cry 3 and The Friend Game felt significant—like, you hear that these new-fangled social and mobile games are taking over, but maybe at best you've seen it happen around you or, maybe at best these new games are but a temporary distraction from the ‘real games' we're meat to return to. For me, that wasn't the case last night.