I celebrate Gone Home more than I like it. I celebrate Journey more than I liked it. I even celebrate the end of Mass Effect 3, despite hating its fucking guts.
OK, I didn’t celebrate that at first. But I’ve come to.
So, why? Why celebrate bad games? What do I even mean by ‘celebrate’(1)? Well, it’s just like celebrating a birthday. You may not be happier about being another year older, another year closer to the grave. But it’s a marker. It’s something you acknowledge with joy and happiness because it represents something good: Another year survived. Acknowledgement of yourself. A belief that you, in your existence, are a good thing.
And sometimes it’s like that with games.
Gone Home was a bad game. Let me be emphatic: Gone Home completely and utterly failed on its own essential core engagement. It sought to entertain and challenge the player through an exploration mechanic that allowed them to discover an engaging story on their own, but the exploration felt shallow, the discovery felt artificial, and the story was flatly not engaging. It was a failure on many levels, and while I believe there’s a good game to be mined in that space, Gone Home is not it.
Journey attempted to engage its players through a mixture of engagement mechanics, using beautiful visuals, the appeal of a real life yet anonymous compatriot and a reduction of the monomyth to game mechanics. Yet I found it cold and unwelcoming; its deliberate pace and frequent stops ruining its momentum. I preferred Flower, with its glorious mix of colour and movement and sound.
Mass Effect 3 did its damndest to try and end the series right. Took me a while and a lot of persuasion to see it, but I accept that it did. It understood the essential thematic note of Mass Effect is “cycles”, and that the game consistently adhered to a structure of “destroy, control, or subvert” as to how we approach those cycles. At the end, the series chose to lay that bare, to reduce itself to its most basic truth and asked the player to value the choice, not the result of that choice. The ending fucking failed none the less, don’t get me wrong. The cycle it chose to hinge its ending upon made not a whit of goddamn sense, because any cycle worth the kind of wholesale, galaxy changing grandeur the ending aspired to really did need to be utterly insurmountable by normal means, and the one they chose flatly wasn’t. The original “dark energy” cycle issue would have been a better one, since ‘dark energy’ could have stood in for the original (and better) version of the Reapers from Mass Effect 1: A problem that couldn’t be argued with, couldn’t be subverted and could barely even be fought. (I think this solution was even better, since it was all of that and tied neatly into the mechanics of play.)
But look at all this. Just look at it. A non-violent exploration game about coming out got made, not just as a tiny garage thing but as a decently sized independent release. Can you imagine that even five years ago? This is worth celebrating, even if you don’t like it. It also sold half a million copies. Celebration is called for!
Journey didn’t win me over, but it represented one of the best attempts to explore what you can do with pure mechanics, a defiant middle-finger to the likes of Bioware and David Cage, a refutation of the notion that games must follow books and television and film. That right there? Worth celebrating.
And finally, a giant studio, even in the midst of being fucking assholes about so much else in that game (Looking at you, Chobot; looking at you, bullshit multiplayer mode; looking at you, arrogant DLC ending message.) genuinely attempted some fucking art. Fine, it failed. Failure happens. Hell, games flub pandering cheap endings too. But at least Bioware tried. At least it actually gave a shot at it. At least they looked at their own game, and said, “Y’know what? No. A boss fight versus the Illusive Man? That’s cheap. That’s unworthy of this. We need to end this right.”
How often do you think that kind of call gets made? How often do you think a game company is prepared to take that kind of risk?
And hell, the reverse is true all too often. I enjoyed the hell out of Batman: Arkham City, but can we please admit the thing was the most pandering pile of bullshit we’ve seen in ages? Here’s Arkham Asylum, but bigger! With more characters you recognise! Oh shit, we’re killing them all off! Crazy! No, not crazy. Bullshit.
Hotline Miami? With due respect to Campster and his excellent commentary, I don’t see it. Here was an indie game that aspired to nothing more than the lurid kill-thrills of the AAA world on a smaller budget. I enjoyed the hell out of it, don’t get me wrong. It was a well-executed thrill-killer, sure. The mechanics were tight and the gameplay addictive. It got that right. But I see nothing to celebrate about it.(2)
Here’s to you, Fullbright. Here’s to you, That Game Company. Here’s to you, Bioware. I fucking hated your games. You did good.
(1) I did ponder whether I was using 'celebrate' here to simply mean 'admire', but no, that's not accurate. I admire and celebrate Gone Home. I celebrate, but do not admire Mass Effect 3's ending. I admire, but do not celebrate Hotline Miami. Admiration is about the content, celebration about the context.
(2) That said, I’m open to persuasion here that there was more going on. I’m not about to write it off completely.