Barring some truly unexpected change in circumstances, games like Call of Duty 4 and STALKER are the closest I’ll ever get to a shootout in Chernobyl. Video games have trained me for that eventuality, though, and if I ever end up in the Red Forest or squatting by this ferris wheel with an MP5, I know exactly what I’ll do.
This is Call of Duty 4, and I’ve carried my crippled superior officer to this extraction point in Pripyat. I put the Captain down by the ferris wheel, where we’re supposed to wait for a helicopter to arrive and get us out of there. Until then we need to hold our ground against the approaching Soviet 1st Respawn Division.
The Captain checks out the buildings across the courtyard and instructs me in a level whisper to lay some claymores around the area, then find some cover and take up a sniping position. He starts a timer.
I nod stoically and walk past him, past the ferris wheel, past all the cars, up the steps, back the way we came, into the previous level, until I get to this little corner of an apartment complex where I sit down and hide. Back at the ferris wheel, I start to hear gunshots, explosions and an orchestral score climaxing. The Captain barks over the radio that we are heavily outnumbered. I look at the red dots on the minimap: yeah, definitely.
The chopper takes six and a half minutes to arrive. Six and a half minutes sitting under the sliding window of someone’s abandoned apartment is a long time to think.
To begin with, I notice that I’m speaking in the first person as I go through this story in my head. The reason, I think, is that my character, Price, would never do what I'm doing. Lieutenant Price so absolutely would not desert his comrades at a critical point in battle that, accordingly, the game refuses to recognise it. Captain MacMillan, crippled, abandoned and under fire, keeps calling to me to hold on, hold on for just one more minute, as if I was right there with him. Clearly I've thrown Call of Duty 4 into denial. In this game that’s so scripted and so linear, for the first time I’m calling the shots.
I think about how much I’ve disengaged from the fiction of this game. I’m willing to disregard so much about this heroic fantasy by taking advantage of a cheap exploit.
My Gamertag ought to be scarlet-lettered for what I did, but the game has no idea. This is embarrassing, to a degree; clearly I’m not very hardcore. I’m no Price, for example. But I have lived this exact moment before, multiple times. I’ve tried taking shelter, I’ve tried planting explosives, but no matter what I do, in seconds grenades are landing at my feet, bullets are hitting me in the back and dogs are leaping at my face. I liked Call of Duty 4 and I wanted to continue, but I couldn’t last one more minute in Pripyat.
I’ve been in this kind of place before, in other games, and this is how I know instinctively that a setpiece like this is so far beyond my ability and what the game has required from me to date. It's clear that the only way I can beat a mission like this, with its sparingly-issued checkpoints, is to spend almost the length of the full game on it, being shot in all the same places, hearing all the same soundbites, trying out little variations to come unbearably close to the finish line only to fail once again.
I'm at a loss to explain Call of Duty 4's difficulty spike. The heightened pressure builds tension, sure, but unless a player implausibly succeeds on their first attempt, the ensuing repetition and frustration erases it completely. This is not an issue with challenging games generally, but the incongruity of suddenly raising the bar so unusually high and out of nowhere to ratchet up in complexity.
My heart’s not in it, and so I cheat. I’ve cheated before and I know that if Call of Duty 4 has a second mission like this, I won’t hesitate for a second to bail out – and probably wouldn't try as hard to complete it as I might have otherwise. I've established a precedent whereby the rules hold no meaning for me, and my investment in the game’s fiction is pretty much gone. I deliberately screwed up my lines, but nobody noticed. This isn’t real anymore. Right now, the narrative, the atmosphere, the fiction are all losing their power over me. This isn't Pripyat and I'm not Captain Price -- this is just a video game and I'm trying to get through it any way I can.
In this case, I’ve outsmarted the game, and in doing so, I’ve disengaged from it. This game is beneath me now, 'cause I’m not going to give it the courtesy of playing by its rules. I think that this is much the same thing as when I turn down the volume on a video game and instead listen to music or the radio as I play. Even in a game like Far Cry 2 that places a premium on immersion, I’ll do this. It can’t otherwise keep my interest for the 40-hour investment that it asks of me. At these points, I’ve decided that it’s not necessary – or that I’m bored – of the environment and the story. The game becomes nothing more than background entertainment. I tune out the surrounding texture and reduce the gameplay to a series of entirely mechanical and plainly geometric challenges à la the Mirror's Edge time trials.
The change in soundtrack is about gradually being less and less enthralled by a game. Here, in Call of Duty 4, it feels like my hand is forced. I violated reality because of a difficulty spike, and because I’m not good enough to handle it. I broke up with the game, but I don’t believe that it was entirely my fault. I thought about how much I was going to lose if I committed to my cowardice; and conversely how much I cared about investing seriously in the world and fiction of this particular game. Maybe I'll have a change of heart and a genuinely heroic moment, maybe I'll storm into the fray with guns blazing.
No, I won’t. After six and a half minutes, the helicopter lands and I crawl out of my hiding place. Picking up the Captain and carrying him into the ‘copter, everyone treats me like I’m a war hero who stuck by his allies and survived against impossible odds. It sounds good, what they’re saying. Maybe next time I’ll try to live up to this kind of praise. Then again, I seriously doubt it.