I’ve talked about developing a relationship to a video game’s avatar before, and it’s come up again in Skate. My usual problem is that I don’t tend to feel properly ‘involved’ in the world of the game, and thus often feel somewhat dispassionate about what’s going on. My usual solution has been to try harder to role-play.
Skate spins the issue around for me. In this case, I actually do want to be involved in the world of the game, and feel like I could if the game would actually let me. Skate is just a bit let down by the narrative behind the amazing technical simulation of skateboarding.
It has the usual “guy with amnesia and a new face” start (hit by a bus, plastic surgery). You do get to shape your avatar, but not enough to make it actually look like you – neither physically nor with clothing. But the real issue is just that the game is great, and hints at possibilities for feeling like you’re reall in there.
Most important on that front are the challenges in which you do tricks for a photo-shoot and then choose the photo which will be submitted to (and inevitably accepted by) a skate boarding magazine. Seeing you ‘self’ in these photos, even in the tiny little icon they actually show you, is quite a remarkable feeling… but it’s the only instance of that immersion, for me.
Having finished Skate as a ‘version’ of myself, the obvious thing to do was to start playing it again as a big black dude with a shaved head, called Airmail. The game is actually sufficiently great that I feel like playing again just to have more (well, the same) challenges to do and the narrative to run through.
The most interesting thing about doing this, though, has been the way it’s rammed home the importance of player skill in the game. By way of example, on my first playing the first competition I entered took me quite some time to win, many restarts. This time, the second place person had a little under 2,000 points. My guy, Airmail, had over 10,000. There’s no other difference than that I’ve been playing the game a lot.
So, this is a game that rewards skill and dilligence more than any other I’ve seen. It most seems to come down to spatial sense: of the movement of the analogue sticks for performing tricks, of the spatial relationship of the avatar to the environment, and of the environment’s suitability for particular sets of tricks.
I finished the narrative aspect of Skate today, which involved eking through a couple of challenges I was having some real difficulty with. In the end, I had to get help from the internet-people to understan what was going wrong:
I was in the wrong place.
That’s not to say that you can only achieve challenges in the game in particular places, but selecting the right kind of place makes all the difference in the world. It’s a kind of unspoken skill of the game, and one I didn’t develop all that well as I played. This seems to reflect the idea of skaters having an eye for the terrain that’s different from regular folk.
Even though it kind of tripped me up as I played, I like this very basic emphasis on a particular kind of spatial intelligence in gameplay.
All games are obsessive to some extent – you want to finish them in whatever way they dictate. Some of them are too easy, and some of them are too hard. Skate appears to be just right. I’ve developed a very complete addiction to the game in a way I think is unprecedented.
I’ve been obsessed with a game like Madden because it rewards skilful play, but you can set the difficulty level to suit yourself. I’ve been obsessed with a game like Tecmo Superbowl, but chiefly as a representation of my team (Dallas) winning. I’ve been obsessed with Super Punchout for NES, but largely as a pattern memorisation exercise.
My obsession with Skate concerns the desire to learn and perfect the techniques and the motion required to clearly demonstrate a mastery of the game’s representation of skateboarding. This is a kind of “learning experience” I don’t feel I’ve encountered in a game before and it is allowing me to understand much better some of the rhetoric about “games for education.”
Started playing Skate last night and now today too. I find myself horribly addicted to it. The most interesting element, as others have commented, is that it gives you “everything” right from the beginning of the game. Your character can execute any maneouver you can input using the control.
And there’s the rub, because the inputting is not exactly easy. Especially when you’re moving along, trying to hit a grind down a rail over a gap with a security guard about to push you over.
The promise of mastery of the control system and smooth transitions from one trick to the next is an extremely powerful one. It’s both refreshing and a torment to have the skill of a game belong chiefly to the player and not almost entirely to the avatar.