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Dead Head Tiger

Dead Head Tiger

This week I picked up two PSP titles entirely at random: Dead Head Fred and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008. I’d never heard of either. Both are third-person three-dimensional games with complicated controls that require an in-game tutorial to learn, and despite golf clubs wielded in common, you would never confuse the two. That’s because of what I’m calling their divergent “play paradigms.”

Caillois and Sutton-Smith would no doubt place each of these games within a larger historical or sociological tradition of games and play, and I’m willing to accept their categorizations without argument. I’m more interested in the next level down, in how these games fit into the ecosystem of modern console or PC-based video games. The first thing I noticed playing each for the first time this morning was how much my role—not as character but as player—differed between the two and how much more extreme the distinction felt than when playing, say, two different board games.

In Dead Head Fred, you navigate through a series of half-assed environmental puzzles and button-intensive fights to reach really long cinematic cut scenes filled with snappy dialogue. The play paradigm is fundamentally narrative, much like a movie. That such games miss the point by porting an atavistic choose-your-own-adventure narrative style in favor of the native capabilities and dynamism of code-driven narrative is irrelevant. What matters is that you the player are principally an audience. Your play drives the story forward, yes, but the story exists whether you play or not. The game is an excuse to make you work for a story. The complicated key combinations are the equivalent of a very hard-to-use DVD remote.

On the other hand, the controls in Tiger Woods, though just as complicated, are configured thus to mimic the physical complexities of real-life golf. With the notable exception of Wii games, most video games can’t rely on direct physical analogues for their input. A punch becomes a button press; a tumble is reduced to a tap on the top of a handheld controller. But the frustration of hooking a drive is the same, and that’s because in real life and in the game alike, it’s the player’s less than perfect motion that sends the ball off course. All the Tiger Woods stuff is just icing EA Sports uses to up the fantasy quotient: “I may not be able to beat Tiger in real life, but on my PSP, look who’s fifteen under par.” The play paradigm in Tiger Woods is based on mastering an abstracted simulacrum of golf. You play to improve your game and to beat your own records.

On a rainy day like today someone might suggest playing a board game. Though the play differs significantly between individual board games—the slow painful burn of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit as opposed to the speedy fun of a rousing round of Pictionary—given two hours, there’s no real reason besides personal preference to choose one over another. Their play paradigm is the same—turns, a board, somebody wins. That’s the whole point.

It’s much harder, however, to imagine someone really in the mood for a round of golf choosing instead to watch a movie. Though they both can be construed as play, their paradigms diverge drastically—being entertained watching an imaginary story versus chasing after a bouncing ball with a racket. It’s the same with their video game counterparts; if I’m in the mood for golf, I’m not going to want to shoot zombies while searching for my misplaced head.

What all this boils down to is that the video game is simply a medium, an interface like the printed word. The disparaging parental “he’s up in his room playing video games” misses the point, and provides as little information as the equivalent but much rarer complaint “he’s up in his room reading.” What is being played or read is the important thing, what I would call the “play premise.” And that, dear reader, is what I will touch upon next week.

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