In games, as in the fridge, there is cheese and there is cheese. I had a chance to reflect on this over the last few days. Partly because my daughter has finally found a video game she really loves, and partly because I have been struggling to make progress in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Let's tackle this in reverse order. Sekiro is a wonderful game. As ever, when it comes to From Software's output, I am savouring the early moments, knowing that there is a point coming up when the shutter will descend and I will be locked out forever. I love the stuff From does: the elliptical storytelling, the circuitous, ox-bow maps, the precision - above all else - of the pacing, as you move this little lens of progress over the surface of a complex and evocative world. But sooner or later a boss will turn up and end my fun for good. I am still stuck just past Blight Town in Dark Souls, facing a hill that reminds me of the inside of a very old person's ear, with a spider-lady waiting at the summit to do me in. With Sekiro, I am advancing through the burning remains of an estate with a boss ahead of me who... Well, let's just say it's not going to plan.
But at least I made it this far. And I made it because of cheesing. Cheesing, I gather, is the act of making progress in a game through unfair or semi-illegal or otherwise not strictly legitimate means, often using cleverness to bypass something that has been designed to hinge on skill. In Sekiro I cheesed my way pass an early mini-boss, the Chained Ogre (and if you're early in the game, the rest of this paragraph probably counts as a spoiler), and I did this first by back-stabbing him after he'd gone searching for me and then turned for home, and then by standing on a ledge he couldn't get to and hitting him on the head for what felt like forever.
The classic cheese, I suspect, should make you feel like a terrible cheat. It should be repetitive and unsatisfying to perform, and this was certainly that. From's designers had gone to great lengths to make the Chained Ogre fun to fight against, and I was sidestepping all that for the mindless slog of whacking away at someone who couldn't whack me in return. Even worse, to do all this, I had simply gone online and tracked down videos that showed me what I should do.
But it was not without its pleasures. The pleasure here, besides progress, was that I was reminded of how these From games are truly massively single-player entities. They take a village to beat sometimes, because beyond summons, you can play in the intellectual company of people who have been there before, who have worked things out, and are willing to show them to you. In cheesing the Chained Ogre I had the help of the community, a community inspired and nurtured by a game that goes out of its way to hide its mysteries in a way that makes their uncovering worth sharing. I hit that ogre on the head to do him in, sure, but as I did so I was playing my part in a great tradition.
Still, as cheese goes this wasn't great cheese. I wasn't proud of it. It wasn't my own, and all I had to do was Google it.
On to my daughter's favourite game, which is a sort of endless runner built around the Shopkins licence. It's simple, colourful stuff: you race along a road switching between three lanes to collect coins and candy and balloons and avoid obstacles. My daughter's been slow to embrace games, but this is the first that has clicked - clicked to the extent that she has her own terminology for the things she encounters in it as she plays.
The more you play this game, the faster it gets, and sometimes it gets too fast even for a master like my daughter. But when I bumped into her in the living room the other day, I realised she was doing something quite odd: pausing and unpausing the game and laughing to herself.
What she'd worked out was that when you pause the game and then unpause it, the game gives you a moment of grace: the action kicks in again at half speed for a few seconds to allow you to get back into the groove. Perfect for picking up a game after you're out of the zone, sure, but also brilliant cheesing potential, because when the going gets tough you can simply pause and unpause and then enjoy a moment of unofficial bullet time.
My daughter's first piece of cheese! She was delighted. And delighted for all the right reasons, I think. Here was something sneaky she had discovered by herself. And with it had come a much greater discovery: the game is not just the explicit rules, but the implicit, even accidental rules. It extends past the screen and deep into the mind of the player.