Finding the Patterns

Video games and I grew up together. Sometime in the early eighties, my parents bought an Atari 5200. Over the years, we accumulated a handful of cartridges for it, including Frogger, Dig-Dug and Pac-Man. These games were all about finding and exploiting patterns. For that reason, I tend to think that they were incredibly beneficial in the development of this particular skillset, which would later translate to a lot more than just being good at old-school video games. After all, music, comedy, narrative and metaphor are also about working with familiar patterns and then diverging from them in interesting ways. That is to say that I think much of my skill as a writer has been nurtured by playing video games over the years. I'll explain.

In Dig-Dug, there would be a certain path that I would take through each level, and the key to doing well in this game was to memorize those routes. In a similar sense, Frogger was about negotiating your way through a series of patterns in order to get your frogs home safely. There might be three logs, then two, all moving swiftly to the right, while just past that was a row of sea turtles in that same basic pattern, but moving in the opposite direction and with two of them disappearing at regular intervals. Pac-Man was more or less the same idea: find the most efficient route to take around the screen in order to eat all of the pellets while avoiding the ghosts, except immediately after you've eaten a power pellet, when you can then turn around and eat the ghosts. 

This was all pretty rudimentary stuff. In the decades that have passed since I was a kid playing Atari, of course, video games have gotten considerably more advanced, and the patterns within them have become far more complex. It really has been amazing to witness firsthand the evolution of video games. The technological advances made in this industry over the past forty years has been nothing short of incredible. 

When I was in college, I had an original Playstation, but I gave it to my brother after Final Fantasy VII called me out on the load screen for having played it for over a hundred hours. At the time, I thought that was crazy and that I shouldn't spend that kind of time playing this and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (which, incidentally, is also largely about finding and exploiting patterns in the environment. So is Super Mario Brothers, for that matter). As a general rule, I still try to avoid video games for the most part when I'm in deep with a big project that I'm working on, including my two stints of graduate school and the two years that I spent abroad. That said, now that I am an advanced scholar of media and culture in my own right, I still recognize the intellectual value in playing them, now perhaps more than ever. 

I have long been a huge fan of the Legend of Zelda games. In my opinion, when they work, they work exceptionally well (the original NES game, Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild), and when they don't (the rest of them), well, I just don't play those games. That in mind, one of the things that I most appreciate about this series is the developers' willingness to take chances. Sometimes they pay off, and sometimes they don't. This is the nature of experiments. When these experiments are successful, they fundamentally advance the idea of what video games can and should be. I also like these games because they are full of puzzles. Personally, my favorite part of Breath of the Wild (other than maybe the cooking) is probably the shrines. I love how the designers of these games are able to incorporate the puzzles seamlessly into the action. 

There is only one series of games that I probably enjoy even more than the Zelda games, at least in terms of replayability, and that is Hitman. That might surprise people who know me personally, especially since I'm not generally a fan of violent media. In fact, the most recent screenplay that I wrote was essentially a war movie in which no one is hurt or killed in the entire thing. That said, I like the Hitman series for many of the same reasons that I have already discussed, plus a few more that I shall explain shortly.

I first came upon this series by doing a web search for a type of game that I thought should exist: something with secret agents, disguises and special gadgets. When Hitman popped up, I thought that I might need to refine my search, but then I got the 2016 Hitman game for cheap and played it. What I had expected to be a brutally violent game isn't really that, exactly. I mean, it can be, if that's how you play it, but in my experience, I find that it's usually best to avoid a gunfight or anything like that. In fact, if you kill anyone other than the bad guy who is your intended target, then you lose a massive amount of points, which is one of many ways that the game developers incentivize strategy over unadulterated violence and mayhem. 

There are a number of things that are quite brilliant about these games. Among them is the fact that you can play the same level a thousand times and do it differently every time. It's kind like a choose-your-own-adventure book in that sense, and I tend to think that games such as this actually do use the same part of the brain as that which processes narrative. After all, when I'm writing a story, I am basically trying to get a character from point A to point B to point C in the most interesting way possible. Engineering a plot is creative problem solving, and for me, that is precisely what is so appealing about these games.

Every level is its own detailed world full of thousands of variables to be affected by a player's choices -- an expansive sandbox in which to create the story that that individual player wants to experience. Do you disguise yourself as a guard to get in close to your target and then throw a screwdriver at this person from across the room? Do you make them sick with poison and then follow them to the bathroom in order to avoid retaliation from armed observers? Do you use a sniper rifle from the next building over? The possibilities are nearly endless, and many of them can indeed be quite creative.

On a personal level, having each of these vast worlds to explore also helps to fulfill my sense of wanderlust, which has otherwise been all but rendered dormant by the pandemic. When I play Hitman, I get to travel to Italy, France, China, India, or any of the sixteen other locations, where I walk around in a simulacrum of this environment, like a form of virtual tourism. In fact, I think that this is probably why I have played more of these games during the pandemic than ever before, too. It's the next best thing to leaving the house, plus it's kind of fun to walk around in a world where I can have almost complete control over my environment. It's certainly a stark contrast to having to wear a mask everywhere I go out of a legitimate fear of microscopic organisms. 

Hitman 3 just came out a couple of weeks ago, and from what I have seen of it so far, it seems perfectly worthy of being a part of this series. In the same way that Hitman 2 took the basic ideas at play incrementally further than in the first installment, the third and final game in this series does this as well. In short, it appears to be everything that I hoped it would be: a good way to vicariously explore digital representations of the outside world while crafting an engaging and immersive narrative as I go. As an added bonus, it provides a challenging intellectual exercise that uses the same part of my brain as writing. 

Much like Pac-Man, the Hitman games are fundamentally about finding and exploiting the patterns of non-player characters, but this time around, how you approach the tasks at hand can be significantly different every single time. Are these games violent? It depends on how you look at it. In Pac-Man, you killed the same four ghosts over and over, whereas in Hitman, you usually have one or two targets per level. In both cases, however, I think that it's worth remembering that they're just pixels. Parents were just as worried about Pac-Man back in the day. The Hitman games don't train people to be assassins any more than Dig-Dug teaches kids to dig tunnels in their backyards and shoot dragons with some kind of air hose or whatever. Playing Hitman develops players' ability to recognize patterns in their environments, as well as the abstract thinking skills necessary to solve problems creatively. These games are also a hell of a lot of fun.


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