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Soap! How Many Toothpicks?

November 12th, 2009

I was giving some Idle Thumbs a second listen the other day, and I've been thinking about a guy that wrote in with a Far Cry 2 story. He had started a second playthrough, and began preemptively shooting people he already knew he was going to have to shoot later on, even though the game hadn't yet asked him to and had even randomized them to be from different factions and nationalities. He described that it felt like the character he was playing was someone who had gone mad in the bush and was "seeing enemies everywhere."

What strikes me is that even if you do exactly what you're supposed to, and the game is as agnostic as possible about your avatar's personality, the design always elicits something. You're always playing some character.

Gordon Freeman, despite being a mute that the player is supposed to project himself onto, winds up taking on certain characteristics anyway, because the combination of Valve's particular modes of design and storytelling wind up producing a common theme in the player's emotions. Everyone else in the world thinks he knows exactly what he's doing, but he doesn't - he's just lucky and good at improvising. The best part is that he isn't letting on.

"The dark matter reactor is critical! Gordon, you've got to stop it. Surely with your advanced knowledge of theoretical physics and combine technology you should know what to do. Good luck, we're all counting on you."

I picture Gordon nodding stoically to Alyx, then as soon as he turns around, the mask comes off and he begins to look something like this - D: - because that's usually how the player feels at that point. There's a throbbing black hole in the center of the room, and it's not like you (Gordon) have any idea at that point what to do with it. You (Gordon) can't even tell there's something wrong with it, but you stride forward anyway and just wing it, and eventually your random fumbling with energy balls works. Because it always works. And you strut back out again and Alyx cries "Good job, Gordon! You're an expert!"

Gordon is more than happy to stay mum and leave her with that preconception.

(I like that meanwhile, Barney is the only one who knows Freeman's secret, ie that he actually has no idea what the hell he's doing. "Yeah, that MIT education's really paying off, Gordon.")

The first time I listened to that episode (of Idle Thumbs) was shortly before I finally played Modern Warfare, and the same thing was on my mind throughout. The results weren't pretty. Infinity Ward's habit of glossing over weaker storytelling with shouting bravado inadvertently painted Soap McTavish not as a feckless boob who lets undeserved praise go to his head, but as an autistic person. Yes, really.

On the one hand, you have deep and specific knowledge about any and all US Military hardware. You're always the guy with the anti-tank weapon and the anti-air weapon and the explosives and the sniper rifle, and the specifics of their complete operation comes to you preternaturally. They keep you around just for that reason, in fact, but never without Lieutenant Daycare close by to chaperone. Most of the time he just sounds irritated that he's the one stuck babysitting you thanks to the disgustingly liberal Commander in Chief's new equal opportunity enlistment policy, but when you do something right (usually with everyone standing around watching) he heaps on praise in that half-genuine, half-patronizing tone reserved for dog trainers or parents who've just successfully taught their four year old how to do something mundane.

You doggedly follow everyone along, pleased as punch to be out and about and having such fun, completely immune to your handler's ire. Sometimes their decision making doesn't seem to make much sense to you (why are we invading this country? why did the nice man shoot himself?) but you're not really thinking about that, because guns!

On the other hand, you have absolutely no idea how to cope with an ordinary door.

If you get too far ahead of yourself and are confronted with one, you stand there a moment, confused. How do I get out of this hallway? Is this a dead end? Oh, no. Then Lt. Daycare arrives and says "That's ... it's okay, Soap, just, follow me," then opens the door via some means that by the end of the game are still a mystery to you, and you immediately forget all about it.

I bet Soap would kill at the blackjack table.