Posted by: Chris | January 11, 2011

Better than a GOTY List

Slate annually runs an end-of-the-year discussion amongst leading game journalists that consistently contain great if tangential discursions on the state of the medium (I believe I have linked to them before, sans fanfare).  This year’s entry is no different, covering a wide range of topics from the qualities of Red Dead Redemption to the place of fun in video games to the evils of “thumbworms.”  I especially liked this bit from Chris Sullentrop on the place of novelty in the industry:

While I’m airing my video-game nightmares, I might as well mention a third concern that has been weighing on me this year, which also relates to John’s desire for a new new thing: Am I interested in video games only for their novelty? I asked myself this question most of all while playing Heavy Rain, which is—in so many, many ways—a bad game. I don’t mean that “it’s not really a game, it’s an interactive experience.” It’s pretty clearly a video game by the contemporary definition, and a crummy one at that—the acting in particular is painful. Yet I was transfixed by it, because it offered me an experience that no other video game ever had. When I cut off Ethan Mars’ finger, it felt agonizing, like I was cutting off my own finger. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever experienced, in video games or any other medium.

I’ve often wondered, how could a game that bad be so good? In part it was because, like the Kinect, Heavy Rain contains the promise of other, better games to come to fulfill its proof of concept. That’s how I took the final line of Seth’s review, that the game “put the world on notice that the future of video games may be closer than we thought.” Now that Seth is upping the ante and writing that Heavy Rain is “storytelling of the highest caliber for adults,” I have to respectfully dissent. Rather, I would say that no other game this year better illustrates Tom’s perceptive observation in Extra Lives: “If I were reading a book or watching a film that, every ten minutes, had me gulping a gallon of aesthetic Pepto, I would stop reading or watching. Games, for some reason, do not have this problem. Or rather, their problem is not having this problem.”

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Responses

  1. I was poking through those Slate end-of-year articles (which, incidentally, you may have forgotten to link to; here: http://www.slate.com/id/2277778/entry/2277779/ ).

    As I’d just finished ME2, I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only person disappointed by the plot (as Seth Schiesel put it, “Once you assemble the A Team there is basically one big concluding level and that’s it.”). Some of the loyalty missions and associated story were interesting, but that’s about it.

    Actually, I was fairly let down by ME2 as a whole. Apparently I’m in the minority in this opinion, at least judging by game reviews… but I just can’t see it as 10/10 quality. As a TPS, it’s significantly worse than any of a number of contemporary and even earlier shooters: the UI isn’t as good, the weapons aren’t as responsive, the battlefields are more bland and repetitive, and your team is just too stupid (despite vast improvements there over ME1). As an RPG, it lacks badly in character development (yes, your character gains some skills and gets some upgrades… but the difference in playstyle between a level-10 who’s only finished the first third of the game and a level-30 character wrapping up a second play-through is negligible). You’ve got basically 1-2 practical strategies for any given class, and once you’ve chosen your class you’re locked into those for the rest of the game. On the other side of the RPG spectrum, it’s main story is the weakest of any Bioware game to date, and many of the side-quests are so light on exposition that they might as well just be a series of algorithmically generated random fights.

    Glancing through the high reviews to try and understand it’s “darling” status, though, I saw a quote (here: http://darkzero.co.uk/game-reviews/mass-effect-2-xbox-360-pc/) by Sean Bell which I thought crystallized a major strength of a LOT of excellent games – “Movies are slaves to dramatic pacing, and you can’t interrupt one to shove a load of text in the audience’s face and say HEY, READ ALL THIS SHIT ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE MANDALORIANS, IT’S REALLY INTERESTING. Videogames, on the other hand, can sort of get away with that, by leaving information for you to find as and when you feel like it.”

  2. JJ – yes I forgot to link again. Thanks for the catch.

    I totally agree. Mass Effect 2 has waned considerably in my mind over the past months, especially the more I play Dragon Age. The main storyline, outside of the end run parts and a few loyalty missions, were straight up abysmal, and, despite the much ballyhooed individually crafted side missions, many came off as just as bland as ME1’s.

    The RPG elements were quite disappointing too. The armor and weapon upgrades were so anemic and transparently vestigial that I am not sure why they bothered including them at all. The power trees for most characters had few interesting decisions and were poorly balanced (Warp and Incinerate were far better than their respective counterparts). Plus, most of the upgrades were of the make current power marginally better variety; even most of the “evolutions” did not measurably change how the power works.

    Bioware tried to justify these simplifications as necessary to streamline the game and emphasize the action. But, as you said, the shooting/actiony parts are just not up-to-snuff with the rest of the genre. There was little weapon variety, little enemy variety, repetitive set-pieces (Bioware really seemed fascinated with the “fight in a big metallic room where everything is explosive” idea), and the actions themselves still felt stilted and unsatisfying. Because the RPG elements were so weak, they could not make up for these shortcomings. I fortunately played a pretty versatile class, so I always felt I had a bunch of different options available, but watching Nick play another class really drove home how shallow the some of the game mechanics were.

    I love me some color text (and it was quite ample in ME2) but I do not think it explains the disconnect between the game and the reviews. I think the high praise was a function of three things (in addition to pretty graphics and a great score):

    1. ME2 culled a lot of elements that people did not like about its predecessor and vastly improved on some UI/combat elements. Since ME1 was itself highly praised, the thinking naturally goes that this one should be even better.
    2. ME2 did attempt to do a lot of interesting things with their characters; trying to tell strong stories and force hard choices. To an extent, one can disagree about how well they suceeded, but I think many of the people who praised the game will point to these as reasons why.
    3. The game does arrive at quite the strong finish, which naturally colored the reviews and people’s opinions upon completion.

  3. The quote about color text and dramatic pacing was perhaps introduced poorly. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with points 1 and 3 for why ME2 actually was so highly reviewed. I simply found that quote an interesting idea – it presents pretty much the only manner I can conceive of in which a video game has a competitive advantage as a narrative vehicle. It also tied in to an old discussion on The Lure (your “Going Overboard” post), for whatever that’s worth.


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