September 13, 2013

This Plot is Awesome! Also, the Game's OK

(An edited version of this article can be found on GamesBeat.)

Everybody wants to play a game with a great story and strong characters, but when these aspects take precedence to gameplay, something is lost. About misplaced priorities in game reviews, and why you shouldn't stand for them.

The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are hitting stores in less than three months, and you know what that means in the minds of video game magazine editors: "Best Games" lists! Yes, prepare yourself to be bombarded with lists of best PS3 games, best Xbox 360 action games, best multi-platform tactical shooter games, and any other variation on the concept where a writer or two summarize their magazine's review of ten to twenty games instead of writing something new. The opening shot was fired by IGN, with their list of Top 25 PlayStation 3 Games.

It sounds like I'm belittling it, but actually, publishing a Top Games list takes guts, because you're basically guaranteed to piss someone off. If you write about Uncharted, someone will complain that you left Arkham City out (and really, how dare you?). Write about Mass Effect, and it's "what about Killzone 2?" It's a game where the only winning move is not to play, and really, given that today anyone can go to your website's review archive and sort reviews by rating and genre, I don't even see the point.

But far be it from me to judge the choices made by hard-working editors. No, I'm not here to discuss the idea of a Top Games list, or even the specific choices made by IGN, but rather, how these choices are made, and by extension, how video game reviewers decide which games are worth our cash and which aren't.  And if you, like me, live in a place where gaming culture is underdeveloped, rental stores are unheard of, and games are severely overpriced, this is something you should definitely care about.

To see what IGN's list has to do with this, just read the top entry for (you knew this was coming) The Last of Us. Of two paragraphs devoted to explaining why it "isn’t only very easily PlayStation 3’s best exclusive... [but] arguably the best game of the generation on any console", half a paragraph is devoted to introducing developer Naughty Dog, and the rest is a summation of the game's plot. Oh well, can't go into too much detail with so little space. You really shouldn't dwell on minor things like, you know, what you actually do in this game.

This is probably the biggest problem with the mainstream gaming media today, and it's a big one: the shift in focus from gameplay elements of a game to its cinematic aspects, i.e. plot, characters, graphics and what-have-you.

It's not an accident, and it's not just IGN. Barely half of IGN's original review of the game is devoted to the gameplay; in its summary, gameplay is mentioned in passing. The same is true not only for most favorable reviews of the game, but also for the more critical reviews. Reviewers for GameSpot and Polygon, who gave the game scores of 8 and 7.5 out of 10 respectively, based their criticism more on the nature of the characters than any gameplay issues.

Now, don't get me wrong: I don't hate The Last of Us. I actually like it a lot (even though I also think it is vastly overrated). I'm also very much in favor of plot taking a more important place in video games. But the fact is that back in the old days, this could never happen. You couldn't cover up significant problems with your game by packaging it with pretty graphics and interesting characters, because you just didn't have the technology to put these elements into the game. Your only way to get good reviews for your game was to make a good game, and surprise surprise – that's the era that gave us Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear. Games from that era are not only still loved and played by many today, to the extent that more than one person made a career from reviewing and discussing them and other NES games, but are also the inspiration for basically everything we're playing today. Will anyone watch The Angry PS2 Nerd videos 10 years from now? I doubt it.

Before I come off as some old cranky guy telling you young people how things were better in my time – I love a lot of modern games. In fact, my favorite game ever is Arkham City, with Mass Effect 3 and Skyward Sword close behind. But what all these games have in common is that they combine ingenious, fun and fluid gameplay, taking all the great things from the classics while getting rid of all of the tediousness and broken gameplay, with beautiful graphics and a compelling plot (well, less so in Skyward's case, but still, you could do a lot worse). AC even has great voice acting for the most part, and ME3, well… ME3 has Jennifer Hale.

I get it: games like The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite and Mass Effect deal with political, social and philosophical issues that TV and film just don't touch nowadays. Ironically, the fact that video games aren't considered a serious storytelling medium by the public at large has actually improved their ability to tell an interesting story by making them less scrutinized (although neoconservative and white supremacist nuts have still raged at some of the games I've mentioned, but how can you avoid pissing those people off, right?). That's great, and developers should continue to take advantage of that fact. But that need not and should not come at the expense of gameplay.

The bottom line is, we don't need to sell ourselves short. You can have a great plot and great characters while still insisting that your great story also be a great game. Otherwise, what you get is just an overpriced DVD. By pulling attention away from gameplay, the gaming media serves us all ill; it makes it easier for developers to sell us an inferior product and cover it up with cinematics. 

Anyone who grew up during the 1990s remembers how common it was to rate games according to visuals when 3D graphics first came around. Let's not let something like that happen again.

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