There’s something to be said for when things go according to plan. It feels extremely validating when machinations are perfectly executed and go off without a hitch. Every single thing happens when it is supposed to happen or not happen and you arrive at your goal without so much as breaking a sweat, literal or figurative. Being the mastermind behind some plot is its own reward in many ways.
Sometimes it can feel a bit like riding down some snowy slalom course, pivoting and carving out hard turns at an exhilarating speed as powder kicks up all around you. At times you feel like you can’t see the way forward, but you know the plan, you know what you need to do, and you know how to do it. It’s the smoothness of the operation that provides the ecstasy. It’s the inability to pick up anything so much as a bump or kink as you glide down the mountainside. It’s that perfect run.
There is, however, also something to be said for when things go horribly wrong. In fact, there are a lot of somethings to be said about that. Almost every story you’ll ever hear is only about how things go sideways. No Country For Old Men is a story only about how everything goes to shit, just like A Series of Unfortunate Events, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, every play ever written by Shakespeare, and almost anything else you can think of. When was the last time you saw a heist movie where everything went according to plan?
This is largely where video games succeed. Movies, books, and cave paintings all tell a very specific and inherently static story; the author has pre-conceived notions of who does what and when and it’s all laid out in words and images for you. Nothing changes. Even in Choose Your Own Adventure books or the theatrical release of Clue, the beginning, middle, and end are all already set in stone.
That’s why I only say “largely” succeed; video games also tell stories, and the nature of stories is that they start in one place and end up in another and we’ve yet to reach the point of truly and totally dynamic storytelling technologies. What they can leave up to the player, however, is the middle, which is usually the most exciting part of stories anyways. Blake Snyder, screenwriter and author of his seminal how-to book Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, actually calls the middle shenanigans “Fun and Games”, so it should be pretty clear that the middle is open to be manipulated in its most pliable form.
Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, the latest from Andy Schatz’s Pocketwatch Games, is an excellent example of this. It is a heist video game wherein you and optionally three friends (or enemies or strangers; I won’t judge) attempt a series of robberies. Played from a top-down perspective, you assume one particular role such as a locksmith or lookout and put your special abilities towards aiding your team.
For the most part, each level plays out like a little video game story, a digital and malleable novella. You start out in one place and have to go to another, but the actions you take between those two steps are entirely up to you. You can explore dark hallways and vents or charge straight through from goal to goal and call it a day, opting for the speedy run. The plan is, after all, very simple: get in and get out. Plans, as we know, have a horrible tendency to go awry.
Guards are watching over whatever establishment you’ll be burgling, and they, much like people, rarely act in a predictable manner. They’ll cause you, after minutes of careful observation and patient waiting in the corner, to scream and run away like a spooked child in a game of hide-and-seek. They’ll chase you and you’ll look for a door. You’ll pick the lock and they’ll close in on you. You might make it and you might not. Fuck it just run but oh wait you just ran by your mole and crap there’s a guard chasing him.
The steely cool demeanor of something like James Bond with the slick, quick, and efficient stealth bits shown in mere seconds of jump cuts quickly unravels into that of a Benny Hill skit. It is the little bits of nonsense that permeate the Ocean’s heist movies like the malfunctioning charges and the botched theft of the pinch taken to the ludicrous extreme.
Of course, none of that is exclusive to Monaco, though it does tend to pull it off better than most. Splinter Cell games are fantastic at offering up a rapid succession of tests of chaos management. Hotline Miami thrives on putting you in unpredictable predicaments where your improvisation techniques are just as important as your point-and-clicking skills. Literally flying by the seat of your pants in Super Mario Galaxy as floors and walls evaporate and appear under your feet at some third party’s whim is thrilling in every sense. And all of those offer the same setup and execution: you start at one place, head to another, and then muck about with everything in between.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “One must still have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” Chaos is necessary. Problems are natural. It’s not so much that we must strive for what Nietzsche says but rather accommodate it in our lives. Plans are fine. Plans enable you to get a lot of things done, to check off your entire to-do list. But the fun in books, movies, video games, and life is when things go wrong. And boy do they go wrong.