Grouchy, mean, and just plain old critical. I love games second only to philosophy, and I loved games before philosophy. Yes, you could say games brought me to philosophy, and seeking a higher human purpose. Therefore, I want to point out the greatness of games, and that they may yet bring the slavish lot of us to to something higher then distraction.
To spread the joy of gaming through concerned and loving criticism. This is my mission.
Last week I randomly indulged in a nostalgic whim and picked up copies of Super Star Wars and Super Empire Strikes Back off Ebay. If I remember correctly, I used cheats on these when I was a kid, and I think it was justified.
These games have something that we simply donít get anymore, and I donít think it would be allowed. They are punishing and unforgiving. You do not want to die, and you will die. Both games are not amazing, but play fairly well, probably averaging a low 80s in my book. But even on easy these games are hard. You miss a jump, you die. Bosses will kill you if you are not damn careful. Enemies hurt you bad, and only the plentiful health-power ups prevent you from dying. There are occasional cheap deaths, Wampa freezes you, then whacks you, you slide into spiked pit an die. Yet I donít feel totally cheated, as it was my own stupid ass fault for getting frozen and trying to frontally assault a Wampa. Yes, this game says ďbe careful, take your time, there will be no coasting through this game please.Ē
And I like that. Itís been a long time since I have screamed Ďdamn it!í and other stronger words, and cursed the game. But itís my own damn fault. This was what most of gaming was like in the 2-d era, especially Nintendo. Yet the negative reinforcement of punishing a playing for being stupid doesnít really exist anymore. Odin Sphere is hard, but death is of no consequence, you just restart the stage, and you die a lot. But I certainly donít feel there is a penalty for death, except maybe having to play for 10-15 minute to beat a stage.
Least to say there might be a wider cultural thing going on here, with positive reinforcement being the way to train your dog, children, etc. Not that I disagree with the method, but the absolutism against negative reinforcement seems a bit much to me. Itís useful and quite necessary here and there, and yes I want my games to punish me for playing badly. I do not want to automatically reload after running and gunning to the moment just before I went running and gunning (yes Halo I am talking about you).
In the Super Star Wars games, if you die, you lose all power ups, both health bar expansions and blasters. On each new level you start with minimum health, through retaining blasters. And often bosses are way harder to beat without blaster power-ups and health extensions. Even on easy. So basically, DO NOT DIE. And I like this brutality, it keeps me interested, it keeps me challenged, it makes me want to prove myself by going back and beating the game on hard. There is a real sense of accomplishment when there is more at stake. Beating Halo and games with the similar instant respawn mechanic just becomes more of a chore than something worthwhile. Game death is a passive experience, with nothing at stake but some time.
Perhaps look at it this way. Why is gaming so damn addicting and rewarding? Because so much is at risk. Yes, risk is a fundamental gameplay mechanic that seems to be dying, and I think I am sad to see it go. Sure itís not for casual gamers, who would be turned off by the frustration, but this i why I keep going back to my SNES and NES. There is just something there that I canít get in games of the past 10 years, something really rewarding and satisfying, feeling like I conquered a game, rather than just played through it.
The termination of Jeff Gerstmann at Gamespot has erupted quite a response. As it should, and fortunately it is opening dialogue about game reviews and game critics. Some of it is rather interesting, most of it is just bitch fest and a lot of ĎI knew game reviews were all lies anyway.í But I think it brings up the discussion of how game reviews have evolves, and that the stakes regarding game reviews, and game sales, are at a point where they are uniquely high, especially since the purchasers of games are more likely then ever to read reviews.
Here is a bit of speculative history. Go back to the 80s and early 90s. When the majority of gaming was a market for kids. Video game reviews were sparse, precisely because there was little market for them. Children, and their parents, didnít want to read reviews of games, they just got they wanted. Game journalism emerged as Ďtips and tricksí, I remember subscribing to Nintendo Power in 1992, why? I wanted the level maps, the cheat codes, and also a heads up on what new cool games was coming out. The reviews were something I never paid attention to.
But today, I have a plethora of game reviews. So many I donít bother to read them, I just go to an aggregate like Metacritic or game rankings and base my judgment on that. Primarily however, I focus on 3-4 reviews. EGM, IGN, and Gamespot. And I will usually go in and read these reviews, especially if I am debating purchasing a game. Why? Well I know these sites, and their style of review. IGNís generous scores are offset by Gamespotís more critical perspective. EGM, with their three scores for an average, I trust the most because of a long history of reading that mag, and the fact it is an average of three reviewers, so if it gets a 90 or an 80, that is of three opinions, not just one. But fundamentally it can be said that game reviews work, they are not bullshit. And with the perspective that meta review sites give you, you know when a score is out of whack. But all this anger over what review scores mean is another topic of passion. But in my own world it goes something like this.
10- an amazing experience, virtually technically flawless, will probable be a classic, breaks new ground
9 - excellent, perhaps not ground breaking, virtually technically flawless, merits purchase, but does not break new ground
8 - solid, some technical flaws, somewhat generic, probably worth the purchase if you have vested interest
7 - decent, has technical flaws, highly generic, not worth purchasing, but perhaps renting
Thatís my rough and 7-10 scale, and anything below it is just degrees of badness I donít want to articulate and wouldnít touch. I must admit I donít will spend by money on anything below average of 9. But Iím a snob. Games to me arenít about the satisfaction of playing at being some movie character, they are about creating mesmerizing works where I can obtain deep satisfaction from playing. Hence I find a lot of games that are technically brilliant, Final Fantasy, Halo, etc pretty disappointing, but I wont argue on their scores too much. Though Halo 3ís 10s were a bit over the top. I chock that up to vested interest, which is really the bread and butter of the whole gaming industry.
Vested interest? The excitement, expectation, and desire that go into a new game. Low review scores shatter this, pre-ordering makes it all the stronger. And the industry banks on it, totally depends on it to an extent that is mind boggling. MGS 4 has to sell a million copies in its first month of release? YeahÖ when we hear that this is vested interest. And itís across the board, both for game makers and game consumers. Fanboyism can be often chocked up to vested interest, and I myself have suffered form it (Xenosaga). But it is the vested interest that is the center of the debate, especially for those who purchased game before the review and want to have their investment justified by others. Game journalism sells itself secondarily on reviews, and primarily on vested interest.
Indeed, why is the previews section before the reviews in a gaming magazine? Itís all about generating excitement and informing the public about a new and upcoming product. The reviews are a sort of secondary, but necessary function. They are also the staple of the game journalist, the reason his job can be full-time, and really the bulk of the service he provides the reader. Playing and evaluating the games, so you know if you want lay down your money to do the same. He gets paid to do it, and you can bet itís one hell of a chore. Previews are the candy and dessert, reviews are the meat and potatoes. And we live in a sugar crazed world.
Now Gabe of Penny Arcade recently pitied the poor reviewers for Assassinís Creed. As much as a enjoy Penny-Arcade, and the great things they do. I do not take them seriously as game critics, and game reviewers. They do satire and sarcasm, and their bites are often precise and sharp, but their comments on games tend towards citing annoyances and sustaining the hype. I have to say I bought Puzzle Quest on their word once, a game I never would have looked twice at, and yes itís pretty good, but is not nearly as fantastic as I interpreted them to believe. They arenít game critics, or journalists. Their essentially political cartoonists, who do a heck of a lot of good in the world with their charity and PAX. And the political cartoon is a wonderful, if unfortunately dying, thing.
But we expect objectivity from how game reviews, for them to see their the hype and tell us how it is, that is except when we want them to justify our hype. And game makers want to sell their games, regardless of how crappy it is. They would love to go back to the days when games were nothing but hype, and reviews were non-existent no doubt. But this would be horrible for the industry, see early 80s Atari. But with all this vested interest, especially this high-stakes financial interest, it is natural that people will get angry, and people will get sacked.