Cahiers du Multijoueur

At the end of last year, Mitch Krpata wrote a near throw-away paragraph amongst a series of paragraphs on the games he played in 2010 that didn’t quite make the year-end best-of lists. The paragraph is reproduced below in its entirety:

Battlefield: Bad Company 2: I don’t think I ever wrote about this game. I am generally tired of military-themed shooters, but I dug the big maps and the vehicles, and I want to apologize to the dozens of teammates I inadvertently murdered whenever I was driving.

The key is in the sentence right at the start (and note, in the original context, the lack of a hyperlink in the title) “I don’t think I ever wrote about this game”. Every other game on the list of Krpata’s honourable mentions was written about at least once and had a hyperlink directing readers to the relevant piece of writing. But not Bad Company 2.

This is a reasonably insignificant observation but let’s ask ourselves: is this occurrence fully explained by Krpata’s declaration of military-themed shooter fatigue at the time? Perhaps partially, but I think there may also be another, perhaps an even more compelling factor to consider. For help, we turn to Robert Yang and the footnotes of an article he wrote about ‘On level design, hookers, cybernetic architecture, Tony Hawk and all that converges’. In a footnote to his excellent piece comparing Tony Hawk levels to Thief maps we find this comment:

(…game critics wonder why there isn’t more scholarship on non-MMOG multiplayer games? Well here are my excuses for shying away from the subject: (1) they’re all basically rock paper scissors at their cores, (2) popular strategies emerge over years of play, so scholarship actually becomes “obsolete” and relegated to history as key players change the way the game is played, (3) almost all abandon any pretense of narrative, (4) to write adequately about the highest level of multiplayer play, you have to be a really fantastic player, which you probably aren’t.)

Think for a minute – how often in the critical videogame blogosphere has someone written about the multiplayer (and more specifically, the competitive multiplayer) of a game that wasn’t an MMO? If you don’t believe me, consult the Critical Distance game writing search engine for mentions of “multiplayer” – the results are few and far between.

It’s a truism that to be able to talk about multiplayer gaming and have anything useful to say one needs to be highly skilled at a particular game, and David Sirlin has argued that time invested =/= skill, most memorably in his post ‘World of Warcraft teaches the wrong things’. But I want to write about Battlefield Bad Company 2, not only to help fill the critical vacuum around the game (which I’ve attempted before, to little personal satisfaction), but also because I believe that this truism about multiplayer gaming is in high need of challenging.

I want to try writing about multiplayer gaming, and BFBC2 is my first (and perhaps only) target, but I need to presage this with an acknowledgment of the fact that a) I’m not very good at multiplayer gaming, and b) I don’t often enjoy multiplayer gaming (see point a) as to why. So how do I write about BFBC2 without being a high-end player (my personal stats in all their insufficient glory; woeful K/D ratio and all) and without the kinds of tactical insights that someone playing in the upper echelons of the game can bring, how do I say anything useful about the game? I think I have my answer, but before we get to that a brief detour is in order.

One of the things I wasn’t completely happy with in the reactions ‘Rhetorical Questions’ provoked was how often it seemed as though people believed I was advocating a retreat from specifics, or details, in my fight against analysis in favour of persuasion. Persuasion and details, however, should not be enemies; On the contrary, they should be fast friends. There is little as persuasively strong as cold-hard facts.

In response to RQ, David Carlton expressed some reservations, deploying the efficiency of the list format to convey a few of them. One point (number 4) that stood out for me was a comment he made in reply to my slighting of the GDC 2010 talk about the change to the Halo 3 sniper rifle reload time (which I didn’t actually attend but heard great things about). Carlton asserts that: “talks about the effects of changes in sniper rifle reload time are fabulous. Embrace details!

And I find myself agreeing with him. But in the comments I added my own reply, saying that, “Details are great! A mere assemblage of details does not make a Dr. Zhivago, however.” So I still think there’s more to it than just having ‘more details’, a point that I think Adrian Forest picked up in his own critique of ‘Rhetorical Questions’. Forest said in his ‘Rhetorical Answers’ that,

What Ben seems to be arguing is that while analysis of games is good and worthy, it’s not enough. We need to be more persuasive in our writing about games, he says. Games writing should be more persuasive than analytical. But to me, that immediately raises the question: what should we be trying to persuade people of?

Which on the surface seems like a good point fairly made, but it’s actually contrary to the position Bruno Latour would take. For Latour (following the post-structuralist tradition) every single ‘thing’ is made up of components, other things that go together to make up whatever the thing is. These components of the ‘thing’ are in turn made up of other components and so on ad infinitum, the result being that everything is a ‘network’ of relations. Therefore, what we want to know is what goes into making a thing, Latour says. For him,

…the opposition between description and explanation is another of these false dichotomies that should be put to rest… Either the networks that make possible a state of affairs are fully deployed [i.e. fully described] – and then adding an explanation will be superfluous – or we ‘add an explanation’ stating that some other actor or factor should be taken into account, so that it is the description that should be extended one step further. If a description remains in need of an explanation, it means that it is a bad description.

Reassembling the Social, p.137

So here’s my assessment of the situation: (competitive) multiplayer gaming has been hard to talk about unless you are something akin to a top-tier player. But that may only be the case if you are trying to add an explanation of things – anyone should be able to attempt a complete description of a multiplayer game regardless of their skill. The compulsion to explain so exemplarily embodied by the critical essay and its relentless push towards the ‘conclusion’ is a habit from the English department that we perhaps aught to consider jettisoning alongside the Comp. Science faculty’s reliance on ‘concreteness, definitiveness and finitude’, as I put it in Rhetorical Questions.

Latour’s approach, which I am hoping to make my approach, will be to stick to description. Description that will come, mind you, from a very specific and embodied perspective – that is, from my own. In this way we get to hold onto the best of the Sciences reliance on ‘facts’ and ‘objects’ and concrete things while maintaining our commitment to relativism, rhetorical persuasion and… beauty, I think.

The kind of game writing that I am going to be attempting in the coming weeks (and maybe even months – yes, it may take that long) is going to be ‘mere’ description. I’m going to describe Battlefield Bad Company 2 from the bottom up, rather than the top down as a critical essay might. For example, I may describe the subtle dynamic feel of the ‘USAS-12 Auto’ shotgun with 12guage slug and upgraded magazine attachments by talking about how the reticule begins in a tight bunch of four white rectangles at the centre of the screen, before exploding outwards following the concussive blast of the weapon, noting also how quickly it springs back to re-centre into that tight bunch in the middle again. I will be doing more of this type of description than I will be saying things like “Battlefield Bad Company 2 is a First Person Shooter, which means that it comes from the tradition of XYZ…”

It’s quite a striking, and crucial difference. It means that I will be writing much, much longer posts (in fact, a series of posts) and perhaps it will not hold the interest of many people. But to those that it does appeal – readers interested in what this kind of approach can do for game criticism, and to those who write game criticism – I invite you to join me on this journey into the wilds of description.

Post-script: Since writing this piece and it’s publishing I’ve read the conversation hosted by Paste Magazine between Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari. Cf. Simon: “Precious few writers know enough about descriptive writing to make an experiential account of a singleplayer experience in any way exciting to me…” Hmmm.