From the moment I broke Mario through the ceiling of Super Mario Bros. World 1-2 to bypass the next few levels of that game, I've assumed that an essential part of playing video games is being subversive.
I've assumed that not following the rules was part of following the rules.
I've believed that to play a game partially involves playing with a game, shaking it to see if it breaks, poking it with a stick to see how it reacts, and, of course, always shooting the character who is talking to you in a game to see if they even pause their speech (usually, they don't).
The people who use cheat codes or exploit Modern Warfare 2 to fight dirty surely agree that subversion is a valid arrow for the gamer's quiver. So does anyone who likes to take a shortcut in a racing game or use a single play that works every time in Madden.
I recently had reason to wonder, though, if defying the directives of game designers is the "right" way to play.
In a speech back in February, Sims and Sim City creator Will Wright cast his vote for subversion. He was talking about toys in a conference room located below one of the biggest toy expos of the year, New York City's Toy Fair. He brought up the movie Toy Story and declared this his favorite character in the film was Sid, the kid who took all the toys, broke them apart, glued them into new things and essentially menaced his action figures when he wasn't terrifying his Tinker Toys. "He was presented in Toy Story as the villain, which I didn't understand," Wright said. "It was me. It is me." So says the man whose Sims games can either be used by players who want to manipulate a dollhouse of domestic bliss or see what happens when you lock a virtually living Barbie in a room with no doors and plummeting control of her bladder and ability to stay still.
How do you argue with Will Wright's obvious endorsement of rule-breaking and boundary-pushing subversive play? How do you argue with the fact that the only time I ever played Super Mario Bros 64 DS' four player mode the only game developer in the world who is popularly considered superior to Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto, spent his time punching my and other players' characters rather than using his to grab the star we needed to fetch?
Not long after I saw Wright's toy speech I got a look at an upcoming action-role-playing game called Nier. The public relations man showing me the game warned me that the game was weirder than I already thought it would be, that it didn't just feature a wise-ass talking book that shoots lasers but that it was genuinely odd. He also explained that the game had the rare emotional video game hook of pitting the player as a father trying to save their daughter. Except, he mentioned, in Japan, the people who made the game had made one different decision. The girl you need to save in the Japanese PlayStation 3 version of the game, seemingly the native version made for the developers' home audience, is still a girl. But the player isn't her dad. The player's character is her brother. The PR man could only guess as to the reasons for the change in the American Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, which both make you the dad. He theorized it could deal with how relationships are viewed or what it is assumed Americans want, but he wasn't sure.
I've been conflicted about that Nier detail ever since I heard it. What is the "right" way to experience Nier as its developers intended? Is being the dad, which seems more interesting to me, actually a defiance of the Nier creators' true intentions? Would playing as a dad mean I was playing the game the "wrong" way?
Or does it not matter what Nier's developers intended? Does it not matter which role they wanted for their Japanese players or their American audience?
I interview video game developers for a living. I appreciate hearing what they have to say and I consider knowing their intentions to be important for understanding the totality of what a given game is. But it doesn't mean that a game developer is always right, and I have it on good authority that the best way to play a video game may well be to ignore what the developers intended, break a wall, not follow the rules — it might be to know what the developer thought I would be doing, and do the opposite.