Despite being a full-on action game, I played Far Cry 3 very conservatively. It may be a first-person shooter with lots of guns and pirates and unfriendly animals, but just about all of my actions were well calculated in my mind before I acted upon them. Each outpost would require scouting both within the camp and from a sufficiently high or far vantage point. Only risks worth taking were even considered; otherwise, it was nothing but sure bets all the way. I would rarely drive vehicles in hostile territory for fear of being seen and getting caught in a firefight while a tiger or leopard or god damn Komodo dragon attacked me from behind. No, I would slink my way through the jungle, taking cover from road patrols and using my silenced weaponry to eliminate hostile wildlife.
Far Cry 3, somehow, was the slowest game I played this year. And it was fantastic.
But there’s something to be said about playing recklessly. It’s a way of going through a game without a single thought of consequence in your head of what might happen should you fail.
No, that’s not quite right. It’s not that you don’t care about the consequences; it’s more like the consequences won’t stop you because they can’t stop you. Of course they will matter and of course they are important, but they are not going to be the single factor that halts you in your tracks. You might fail and then feel deflated, but it’s nothing more than a personal vindication of success.
This almost necessarily means that the consequences are also seriously affecting. That was probably the single most glaring problem with Assassin’s Creed III. For most of the game, stealth had pretty much zero impact. If you were caught, you could fight your way out and just be all the same. In most instances, you wouldn’t even fail any of those annoying secondary objectives. Instead, you would just spend 15 minutes playing this mission instead of 10 as you axe dozens and dozens of red coats. And then when stealth did matter, if you were caught, you would just be shuttled back to the checkpoint and it would be as if nothing had happened. You were taught a lesson, you learned, and now both you and the game can move on. Sure, it’s a consequence, but is it one that matters? Not at all.
For that reason, blazing through Assassin’s Creed III is not playing recklessly. Instead, it is just playing fast. It’s not that I’m throwing caution to the wind but rather there are no cautions to be thrown. Nothing is insurmountable (save for that last chase sequence, but that’s a different story altogether) and the results are only either easy or frustrating.
Playing recklessly, instead, is more like how I played Dishonored, how I would at certain points just go for it, leaving the safety of my vent to choke out a guard, pick up his limp body, and blink back up to a hiding perch where I can stow away his and all his friends’ bodies. It’s more like how I played Mirror’s Edge, how the only way to play that game is to glaze your eyes so they can more easily see the clear running lines ahead of you. It’s more like how I would play through the Matter Splatter Galaxy in Super Mario Galaxy, jumping with precision and confidence onto materializing platforms that only existed in the world of optimism and assumptions.
More than anything, it is like how I played Hotline Miami. At first, you may approach the game from a very methodical camp. You’ll wait out multiple guard patterns just so that when you open the door in front of you, you’ll have time to run back after beating down a thug before his comrade sees you. It’s a classic stealth approach where patience is generally valued above all.
Everyone, though, seems to reach that point where they keep dying on the last two or so dudes, right before you get to walk up the stairs to the next level. And eventually your brash side comes out. You’ll soon just bash down doors without thinking twice of where the far guard might be. You’ll pick up and throw firearms and knives and bats as quickly as you knock them out of the henchmen’s hands. You know what failure means and you know that to die is to start the gauntlet all over again, but you don’t care. A feckless run may be the winning run.
It works on the heedless front because on one hand, every guy you come across is an equal, a peer in death-dealing. That lends the macabre proceedings a sense of weight so that you don’t feel like you’re a big kid playing in a kindergarten sandbox. It allows what you’re doing to be considered reckless, but also because every reload is a slightly off-kilter randomization of a predetermined level setup, you can begin to appreciate what the madcap technique brings to the table: improvisation.
It feels most like playing jazz, improvising your way through a solo. There’s a structure there and a framework you have to work in and there’s nothing you really can’t do, but there’s plenty that you shouldn’t do. You can play every note and chromatic the shit out of your limelight moment, but that would pretty much be a failure in everyone’s book. That’s just like how you can run up to the first guy and shoot him with a shotgun, but should you?
But as you go on, previous decisions begin to inform you later ones. Maybe you stumble across a lick that you particularly like to rip on your saxophone or your guitar or whatever, so you try to do variations on that, or you try to avoid it again so you can use it later. In Hotline Miami, your decision to throw a knife at a faraway guard leaves you with just your hands and precious seconds to use them as two inconveniently spaced bros come ambling down the hallway.
And that’s the heart of playing recklessly: you are improvising, testing your quick wit and understanding of how to operate within that foundation, within that C-minor scale. In Assassin’s Creed III, you are playing to yourself. There are no restrictions and no band, so the improvisation feels like noise at best and like a travesty at worst. In Hotline Miami, you can see the consequences of your actions—playing a wrong note, rushing the beat, repeating licks—and you still go for it. It’s exciting to watch and perform, and there’s a certain level of admiration on the part of the audience. They know you are succeeding without knowing how, that you are landing on the path as it appears before you.
As you blink and climb ladders in Dishonored, narrowly avoiding vigilant guards as you realize you can’t stop moving forward since you don’t know what’s behind you. As you intuit when to jump off your wall run in Mirror’s Edge, only feeling when it is right to shoot for the hanging ladder lest you lose momentum and lose grip. As you pull back on your long jump in Super Mario Galaxy, realizing the splattering matter is moving in a direction you didn’t quite expect and guiding you towards a death you don’t want.
As you run into the last room in Hotline Miami, blasting your solo and hitting every note.