Sunday, November 9, 2014

Press R1 To See Jack Cry

Let’s get it out of the way: “Press F” doesn’t work in Advanced Warfare and “Press R1” does work in Metal Gear Solid 3 primarily because AW is written by hacks and MGS3 is written by probably the most singularly talented game director working in the industry today.

That being said, the interactive mourning also works better in MGS3 for a specific design reason.

As highlighted in George Weidman’s video review of the game, “Press F” distinctly fails because it locks all actions to the same action button. The same button you use to vault yourself over cover is the same one you use to “Pay Respects.” This is recurring, as this great blog post about the failure of a similarly emotionally charged moment in Bioshock: Infinite points out. For whatever reason, there seems to be a strange disconnect between the universality of our own human limbs and the universality of an “action button.” Pressing the same button to open a door, punch a dude in the face, and place a hand on our friend’s coffin robs the latter of it’s emotional weight through some mysterious mathematics by which the repetitiveness of pressing the “action button” for each solitary action begins to rob those actions of their impact.

I’m uncertain as to why this is. That we use the same hands to scratch our butts as we do to cradle the lifeless husk of a dead pet doesn’t rob the latter of it’s impact in real life. But I do think that I largely agree with the criticism. For now I simply want to note that there does seem to be an emerging problem with the universal action button and move on, because other games, particularly, Metal Gear Solid 3, already seem to have figured this out for themselves.

In MGS3, R1 performs one function and one function only: first-person view. Mechanically this serves the practical function of allowing players to line-up anatomically sensitive precision shots to dispose of or tranquilize enemy guards or bosses. However, in a cutscene, MGS3 will sometimes prompt the player to Press R1 to see through Snake’s eyes, and this has a variety of effects from titillation to canon shoutouts to helpful tips. When the game came out, this was seen largely as a way to chip away at the perceived non-interactivity of the game’s cutscenes which, in true Kojima fashion, were even longer than the cutscenes in MGS2.

This, in contrast with the back-and-forth embodiment politics that defined MGS2, gave gamers a fuller sense of embodiment and control of the player character, Naked Snake, whose real name is Jack and would come to be known as Big Boss (I’ll refer to him as Jack.) Through this, the player builds something like empathy with Jack, by allowing us to look through his eyes and collect information or admire the craftsmanship of a well-constructed handgun . . . or ogling a woman’s body. (Hey, I didn’t say it was all good.)

Something interesting happens here, in that by encouraging the players to tap the R1 button, curious players find themselves occasionally pressing R1 when not prompted, and on occasion this is rewarded with unmarked first-person view opportunities. The marked ones, along with the regular use of first-person in regular gameplay, build an empathy with and an embodiment of Jack such that we become curious about him during the cutscenes where theoretically first-person view isn’t an option, and that empathy is curiosity is rewarded with yet more things that strengthen that empathy and that emobdiment.

We live through this character’s eyes for a significant portion of the game, and when Jack loses an eye, we notice this as well, our vision permanently dimmed by the loss.

This sense of embodiment becomes complete during the game’s final cutscene, wherein a defeated Jack goes to mourn at the grave of The Boss, who he had been forced to kill during his mission. As he stands and salutes, our empathy may lead us, yet again, to wonder what Jack is seeing, and if we press R1 here, we can see tears rolling down his eye and blurring his vision. We have taken part in many victories and many discoveries with Jack, but here, we take part in loss, and we do so because of an organic interest in the care, not because we are commanded to pay our respects.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

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