This is the third in a series I have been doing on cooperative experiences in gaming.
Every medium has its hard drug.
Music has its John Cage. Fiction has its David Markson. Faulkner’s Finnegan’s Wake is publicly known for being opaque. Listen to anyone bring up film director Terrence Malick in conversation and start counting the seconds before the listener’s eyes roll in the back of their head. It can’t be helped: for those who have been with an art form for long enough, someone will decide to push the envelope.
And push it they should. When I was in college, I did not get so much major in History as get a film studies degree. At our university, our freshman dorm sat next to the media library, a place that was tantamount to Mecca before the advent of streaming services. On average we must have watched six or seven movies a week. On the one hand, we were just young men trying to stay out of trouble, while also being almost totally unequipped for what higher education had to provide. On the other hand, we were genuinely curious about movie making. We started with Transformers and continued on through Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I myself made documentaries with a small digital camera of those months. In each of those films, I saw myself change dramatically, being away from my parents and finally having the opportunity to think and articulate what could be called “fucked up” ideas. But, on the other hand, I got through it, and the months of reading Ayn Rand and imagining a language of Objectivism on screen drew to a close as quickly as it came. This is simply the art of education.
Back in the 1980s and 90s, playing games at all was considered avante garde, lonely, masturbatory, and it was generally frowned upon. The social cohesion of the arcade transitioned to at home gaming, breeding what many considered to be backwards and anti-social thinking and behavior. However, drug use, alcohol use, and sex among the young was declining rapidly, and all of a sudden every youth group in America at some time or other most likely had “system link” parties, where members would bring their Xbox’s and gather in front of CRT television screens, while wires lined the hallways of Sunday School rooms and blue light flooded the dark after hours. Paradoxically, young people shot each other in videogames to stay out of trouble.
Many of the games played back then were shooters, and even with the advent of Xbox Live, much of the technology had not been democratized among young people in America. Shooting games were much easier to play en masse than fighting games and sports games, which were more tournament and match based. Combined with the violence of shooting games, the unsure ramifications of playing games for long hours in a day, and the eventual divide in time played between rich and poor families, for a long time shooters catered to fans of the military, history, and science fiction and pushed the limit of what the technology would do, while parents still considered all of it in total as the new hard drug.
But by the time games like Halo 2, Call of Duty 4 – Modern Warfare, and Fortnite appeared on scene, that old world of shooters was over. Now every game had what these games had, whether it was the arcade shooter focusing on weapons, grenades, and melee (Halo), sprinting, aim-down-sights, and loadouts (Call of Duty), or the battle-royale mode (PubG or Fortnite), most people have heard about shooters as top multiplayer game to play. Kevin Spacey playing Call of Duty in House of Cards no longer engenders confusion, but understanding. When Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote of his addiction to Wolfenstein in My Struggle – Volume 5, I let out a sigh of relief. It seemed as though everyone had played, was playing, or would eventually play a shooter.
But when a form becomes democratized, and when you gather enough players who have a desire for something harder, that is where the fun really begins. All of a sudden, the old mantra of “live, die, repeat” did not fit into the mold of what a shooter should be. Suddenly dying was not enough for players. They wanted each moment to have impact and repercussions. They wanted to tell stories with their lives, rather than simply and repeatedly end them. Shooters have long been hailed in neuroscience, particularly twitch shooters like Call of Duty for their ability to increase gray matter in the hippocampus. But suddenly the question of what to put in that increased ability to form memories was suspect. “What’s the story here?” gamers questioned, not just of the games they played, but of gaming in general.
I bring all this up to give context for what Escape from Tarkov is as a game. Games like Hunt Showdown or Escape from Tarkov are the hard drug of shooters, and the reason why we got here has much to do with what we have previously discussed. In both of these games, you have a character that you bring into a map. On these maps, you have a certain time limit to get what you need and get out. The areas are huge, compared to typical FPS standards. Along your way are Scavs: computer-controlled bots that have every intention of shooting on sight. Other players are not your friends either (unless you drop in with friends of course) and they will be working hard to kill you so they can take your stuff. If you make it out alive, you keep your stuff, and you can use your winnings to buy better stuff, or upgrade and reinforce what you have. If you die, you lose what you wore, and must reequip yourself with whatever you have in order to go in again. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, this is a shooter where you have “skin in the game.”
The game is a 90s throwback with modern sensibilities. There is no tutorial, and it is practically required to have a second screen to look at maps so you know where you are going. There are buttons for standing, crouching, going prone, leaning left and right, checking the remaining rounds in a magazine (because your screen wont tell you), checking whether you have a round in the chamber, shoving your gun around a corner to blind fire, letting you walk slower or faster, checking your inventory, inspecting your weapon, equipping and unequipping modifications to your weapon on the fly, checking how much time you have left on your objective, checking where you need to go to get out of the map…
The color palette of the game fluctuates from green to brown. The interface of the menus is miserable, and involves combinations of left clicks and right clicks and the sheer levels of menus goes on and on and on…
Supposedly, when neuroscientists did research on the power of rest, they often had people in FMRI machines lay and respond to stimulai based on sights and sounds. The brain’s responses were not so remarkable, as certain cortex’s of the brain lit up. But sometimes they detected huge explosions of activity, and they discovered that these eruptions were not from when the subjects were being exposed to stimulai, but rather it was when they were doing nothing, when their mind was free to wander, where the brain really started to do interesting things.
For a lot of shooting games in the early 2000s, they tried to implement more and more. More guns, more high-intensity action, more vehicles, more action sequences. What Escape from Tarkov does well, after a player manages the incredibly steep learning curve, is actually the opposite.
Tarkov accesses the wandering state of consciousness by being quiet. Playing a round, entering the map, when a person hears a gunshot, it is a big deal, because every sound is diagetic. It comes from a player on the map, shooting at a particular place and time, and how that applies to you is information that you have to work with. Moving in the game creates sound, and by having the overall audio palette be so low, with barely the wind or air-conditioning in a room as the low bar for sound, when a player hears the crinkling of shattered glass, they know something bad is about to happen. The game breaks down the preconceived notions of shooters and builds them back up, rewarding creativity and focus.
In Tarkov, unlike traditional shooters, everything matters. Every decision could lead to a successful run or a silly death. And ironically, Tarkov is a game where shooting is one of the smallest aspects of the game. As Sun Tzu’s Art of War repeatedly proclaimed, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Success in the game is creating the conditions to have overwhelming superiority, or in getting out alive to fight another day.
Battle-Royale games have never really been able to match this, as the dominant strategy to making it far in the round is to simply run and hide, and no matter how they close the circle to force people into conflicts, some miscreant can hide in a bathtub and take the winner winner chicken dinner. Tarkov changes the paradigm by not making surviving the dominant strategy, but simply making it a story the player can tell about themselves.
Tarkov is the crystal meth of shooters because it has a steep learning curve, it runs like shit on computers, it makes people audibly angry and upset when they lose precious time and resources in the game, and yet people keep coming back to it. That is because Tarkov creates stories that have not existed before for shooters. Those moments when you find yourself in a gunfight and somehow, despite all odds, you are able to get out under the strangest and most harrowing of circumstances. Tarkov is the “thinking man’s shooter,” as the game has much more to do with knowledge, with crystallized intelligence, than it does being quick on the uptake (though that certainly helps too).
What good experiences are had as a lone player are magnified in cooperative play, as a shared story is the hallmark of a good cooperative game. You cover each other, share medical supplies if you’re wounded, deliberate whether to fight or run away, and you drunkenly vie for revenge only to be gunned down.
Does the game have problems? Plenty! When a friend asked what kind of a computer he would need to run the game, I simply responded, “Call NASA.” It’s not that the game looks like it is demanding, as its drab atmosphere and textures immediately date it. It is that the game is not optimized nearly as well as it should be. Another problem is its relation to the public. Because of its benefits as a storytelling simulator, it is a game that is fun to watch people play on services like Twitch. Yet because of this benefit, often the developers of the game think that famous people who stream are the only people playing Tarkov. Much like the current economic state of the United States, the developers are only paying attention to the elite of the game, and the way the elites play the game, and the way everybody else plays, is not the same game at all.
All that being said, the differences between the mainstay of Call of Duty and the hard core drug trip that is Escape from Tarkov are too large to be ignored. With the rise of “tactical” shooters growing in the market, and with the recent popularity of “authenticity” in conflict resolution like that in John Wick, it appears that the market has matured. Fans of shooting games will continue to push creators to bring about a bestseller that is articulate and sophisticated in the methods for delivering bullets to bodies. Escape from Tarkov will go down in history as being a watershed game delivering the high that users so desperately demanded.