Thursday, June 20, 2013

Would I Lie to (Wii) U?

Finally had a chance to play with the Wii U when The Girlfriend and I stopped at my friend John's house on the drive across the country.

The thing that most appealed to me about the console (we mostly played NintendoLand, although John and I did fiddle for a bit with the Rayman Challenge App, which I might write more about later) was the way the asymmetric gameplay provided by the GamePad allowed for one of my favorite flavors of gaming: Deception.

I like lying. Telling a lie well, and convincing the people around you to act on its information, is one of the great social challenges that exist. Unfortunately, in most situations indulging in that challenge makes you an asshole or a sociopath, and the negative consequences almost always outweigh the benefits (insert witty comment about politics, business, and all other profitable lines of human behavior here.) Which is why some of the games I love most are ones in which lying is a codified part of the experience, where such normally vilified behaviors are encouraged and rewarded.

This can either be lying through game mechanics (the first example that comes to mind being bluffing in poker, although my personal favorite is Letters from Whitechapel, where one player is invisible and must cross a large game map while being hunted by trail-sniffing detectives), or through outright social manipulation (Werewolf and its cousin Epic Mafia are probably the best examples of this, where successful manipulation of the other players is a key strategy for both sides). It's fun to lie, because lying has stakes, and you're tricking the human mind, one of the greatest bullshit-detecting computers in existence. When you pull it off, the rush of adrenaline is incredible (I may have just outed myself as a psychopath).

Lying in video games has historically been much more difficult. Early games were played with two players on the same screen, meaning that secrets were impossible to keep, even if you 'totally for sure pinkie-swear' not to look. The only example I can think of with successful same-screen secret-keeping are the play-choosing modes in sports games, where the cursor can be made invisible so that the other player can't see your choices. Playing via network made this much easier, of course, leading to all sorts of games where controlling access to the other player's information was a key part of strategy (Starcraft and other RTS games that use fog-of-war come to mind). But there's something empty about beating someone over a network, about lying to them from across a hundred miles instead of being in the same room. It lacks... intimacy.

That's what made the Wii U so fascinating for me. Playing Luigi's Mansion in NintendoLand as the ghost (who is invisible on the main screen but visible on the GamePad), I had that thrill of sneaking up on someone, of misdirecting them and then suddenly striking. Trash talk (and communication between the other players) becomes a key strategy of manipulation and coordination. When playing as one of the non-ghost players, I had the thrill of anticipating the movements of an invisible foe and taking him down just as he was prepared to strike.

I've played a lot of games where people sitting in the same room never broke eye contact with the screen, never talked to each other. That's not possible with the games we played in NintendoLand; communication is key. The WiiU has the potential to change the way we game together, adding elements of social manipulation and teamwork to same-room gaming. If the software is there to support it (eh....), this could be a new dawn of the fine art of lying through games.

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