The Question of Game Previews

aliens

Last week, Gearbox’s highly anticipated and heavily delayed Aliens: Colonial Marines was released to widespread critical disgust, which was a surprise to many because the game had previewed so favourably. It turned out that the demo shown in advance of the game’s release wasn’t actually a part of the game itself; it had been created as a standalone showcase of the game’s best features. Many games journalists found this dishonest and hammered Gearbox for it, and then the community lashed out against these same reviewers for supposedly not calling out preview builds of the game for looking awful (the truth is, they were specifically engineered to not look awful). Then some journalists began turning on each other, claiming they’re everything that’s wrong with honesty in the game industry because previews are inherently dishonest. Then Jim Sterling performed his usual dramatic white-knight Internet King gesture and claimed that Destructoid would no longer write previews of games, and many writers agreed with his stance.

In light of this, I’ve had to ask myself whether game previews truly serve a purpose. Do I actually appreciate a sneak peek at upcoming titles, or do I feel like I’m just being sold something? As someone who was raised on Nintendo Power propaganda, I think my answer is yes to both, and I’m okay with it. The main point of a game preview is unquestionably to drive up hype for the game in question, thereby increasing sales upon release, but buried underneath all that evil corporate darkness is the fact that we still get an impression of what the game is like without having to wait long months until the release date. Hopefully it’s not an exclusive preview so several writers will weigh in on the same demo, and by comparing notes between their write-ups, one can piece together a pretty accurate picture of how the game is coming along. As someone unconnected to the games industry, I appreciate getting that sneak peek, however secondhand it may be.

When a game is coming out that I’m eagerly anticipating, I absorb as much prerelease information as I can. This includes demo previews, since they generally give the best idea of how the overall gameplay is looking (isolated media like screenshots, feature lists, and soundtrack snippets can only do so much). More often than not, it’s not whether the game looks glitchy and rough that prevents me from putting it on my to-buy list; it’s simply whether the style of gameplay is compatible with my own interests and gaming prejudices. Nine times out of ten, the bugs will be hammered out of a preview build before release, but even if a game looks great in a preview, I can still decide against I watched the Sony PlayStation 4 reveal tonight (more on that in a few days, once I’ve had time to collect my thoughts), and even though Watch Dogs looks fantastic, I’m still not sure it’s a game I want to play (still haven’t gotten on the sandbox bandwagon quite yet).

I try not to get carried away, though. There was a time when I would unquestioningly buy any new game on Day One if it was in a favourite series (Zelda, Fire Emblem) or developed by a favourite company (Kojima Productions, Bioware). I’ve become more wary in my advanced age, and if there’s a game that I’m harbouring even the remotest of doubts about, I’ll wait for the reviews before pulling the trigger. Reviews, like previews, are flawed and dubious pieces of criticism, but get enough of them together and you form a pretty accurate picture of what the retail build is like; this is why Aliens got crucified last week. I was on the fence about Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, but was relieved to see that it got good reviews, and I imagine I’ll pick it up at some point this year; conversely, I was skeptical of the Wii U as its November launch rolled around, and once reviewers ran afoul of its firmware issues, I decided to wait until the launch bugs had been ironed out (this turned out to be a prudent decision anyway, since, you know, it seems like we won’t get a killer app until 2014).

In the case of Aliens, it’s been said that the Gearbox was dishonest for providing an unrepresentative demo, and the media was lazy for not doing their homework.

Attacking The Backlog

atom

I’ve built up a sizable backlog over two years of Humble Bundles and Steam Sales, and now that I find my console and handheld options depleting (I’ve been working through a string of good-to-great DS and 3DS titles lately, like Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Pokemon Conquest, and the incredible Fire Emblem: Awakening), I find myself turning to my PC for entertainment. You’d be hard-pressed to find a platform more devoid of quality JRPGs than the PC, and honestly, that’s just what I need right now after playing through a whole string of JRPGs in a row. For my next game, I’m looking for something that’s either not a huge time investment, or something that’s fast and visceral. Here are a few games I’ve been considering, so perhaps anybody that’s played these can help me out:

Atom Zombie Smasher – Picked this up in a Humble Bundle I don’t know how long ago, and I’ve always felt oddly compelled to try it. I only have a vague idea of what the game is about, but the screenshots look fun enough.

Darksiders – I love the heavy metal art style, and by all accounts, this game was a pretty decent Zelda clone. Got it for, like, a buck in that THQ Humble Bundle Fire Sale.

Fallout: New Vegas – I got this mainly because it’s made by Obsidian and written by Chris Avellone. The guy is just a master of morally ambiguous writing. The nuclear wasteland Wild West setting is also appealing. Even better: I’ve never played a Fallout game before, so there isn’t really any bar that I’ve set going into the game. Exciting!

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD – I got The Oddboxx in a Steam Sale a few years back, and have since received a free upgrade to the HD version of Stranger’s Wrath. Many call it a cult classic, creator Lorne Lanning calls it “sabotaged,” but who knows. It looks quirky and actiony, which could be a good combo for me right now.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale – I’ve actually beaten this game already, but after playing the addictive Game Dev Story a couple weeks ago, I’ve been bitten once again by the simulation bug. My goal this time would be to collect all the adventurers, since I mostly focused on the store last playthrough.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – It’s a classic action platformer, right? Surprisingly, I’ve never played it or any of its gritty, Godsmack-filled sequels. I wonder if it still holds up ten years later.

Brutal Legend – This game was very flawed. I’ve beaten it once and really didn’t think I’d ever revisit it, but almost three years later, I feel like I want to just experience that world one more time. For all the awfulness of the RTS segments, it really does have a fantastically stylized world, and I’m a diehard metalhead, so they get bonus points for the best licensed soundtrack since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Still, surprisingly unfunny for a Tim Schafer game, especially in the second half of the game.

Star Wars: Empire at War – Another game I’ve already beaten countless times, but pummeling Rebel scum with a well-coordinated fleet of Star Destroyers is so damn satisfying.

We Need More Real Games Criticism

extralives

Finishing up Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter the other day left me somewhat hollow and empty, not because the book was bad, but because I was saddened that there were so few pieces of literature like it in existence. Extra Lives is a collection of critical essays penned by a war reporter who just happens to also be a severe video game addict; unlike a lot of games writing, Extra Lives is extremely well-written, thought-provoking, and sincere. Bissell, as wordy and educated as he seems, is just like the average hardcore gamer in the sense that he’s sunk hundreds of hours into a library containing games as diverse as Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, Eternal Sonata, and Braid, and he alone seems to be moved to actually dissect these games in a meaningful way and explore what it is about them that is so compelling. I’ve tried reading a lot of books about video games over the last few years, and they seem to be evenly divided between rote histories of the industry’s origins (All Your Base Are Belong To Us by Harold Goldberg) and pseudo-sociopolitical analyses of gamification written by “game designers” who aren’t really game designers (Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal; anything by Ian Bogost). Neither is as compelling as the critical-yet-personal essays presented in Extra Lives.

So why is Bissell the only one in the industry (and he’s not even in “our” industry; at the end of the book, Bissell admits he’ll likely never write about games again) attempting to write semi-serious games criticism? I love reading stuff like this, and you can find tons of similar material in the film and music industries, so why is “intellectual” games writing mostly limited to historical accounts of the industry and discussions of the associated culture, neither of which is really about the games themselves? Sadly, Bissell provides the obvious answer in his preface: on the Venn diagram of people who enjoy reading criticism and people who enjoy playing video games, the overlapping section is very small.

I suppose another problem is exactly how to critique video games without relying on traditional methods of criticism more suited to other media. You could talk about how emotional and uncharacteristically soft the music is in the JENOVA fight immediately after Aeris dies, thus ensuring that the boss battle is merely an afterthought, and your attention remains focused on the surprise death of a pivotal character only minutes earlier as you go through the motions of JRPG battle conventions, but that’d be music criticism. You could talk about how stirring the cutscenes are in Metal Gear Solid 4, or even how stirring the lack of cutscenes are in Half-Life 2, but those both require criticism of cinematography. You could talk about how Wind Waker‘s art design is loaded with expression and timeless to the point that the upcoming HD remake really doesn’t look like much of an improvement, but then you’re critiquing the art. How do how argue about how one’s game’s design is superior to another, especially when genres of games typically have far less in common with each other than genres of music or film? 95% of films share common themes of story progression, dialogue, and the actors’ portrayal of characters, while 95% of music is about melody and key. Video games, however, are a bit harder to pin down. Do Super Hexagon, Pokemon, and Uncharted really have that much in common in terms of gameplay? And how can you comparatively critique a bunch of games that are so dissimilar in their design?

About the closest thing we have now to “critical essays” (my preferred form of video game criticism) are the typical game reviews you see on IGN, Gamespot, and the like. As vapid as this type of writing tends to be (often the fault of the writer, not the medium; I find “professional” game reviewers to be far worse writers than film or music reviewers), I’m not totally against it; I think it serves a good purpose in telling the reader whether the product is worth buying. As long as the skeptical reader understands that game reviews are business and marketing tools first and critical literature second, a well-written game review has a welcome place in the pantheon of games writing. But for games writing to transcend the layman’s “review” and become actual intellectual criticism, we’ve got to be able to examine these games beyond whether this year’s iteration is better than the last and, as is becoming increasingly common now that the $60 retail standard is being muddied by the digital marketplace, beyond their price tags and their supposed hour-by-hour “value” to the consumer. We won’t be able to do this until we can write about games the same way top critics have been writing about other forms of media for the better part of a century.

Some say all criticism should be objective, and for the most part I agree. What made Bissell’s book so compelling, though, was that it was equal parts objective analysis and personal anecdote. He would explain why the unique mechanics or presentation of a game made it so fun to play, then go on to recount exactly which emotions said game stirred in him over the next thirty hours of gameplay. This particular style of criticism was a poignant reminder that no review or essay should ever be treated as anything more than one person’s opinion, no matter how far they go to remove all traces of themselves from the argument. Now, if we want games criticism to be at the highest level of pure, “serious” criticism, then we can’t write this personally (Extra Lives doesn’t shoot for the “serious” peak anyhow), but I still consider this objective-anecdotal blend to be a far more real, intellectually stimulating style of writing than any game review from IGN. At the very least, it tempers its philosophical extrapolations with entertaining contextual side-stories, thus expanding the pool of likely readers.

My search for intelligent games commentary is actually what initially led me to WordPress. After a lengthy internal debate about whether I could successfully defend my opinions against the vicious Internet hordes (previous interactions with legendarily savage communities like GameFAQs and Kotaku had soured my outlook on online discussions), I finally decided I just wanted to share my opinions and practice my writing, and if people didn’t like it, I could always turn off the comments and operate in a vacuum (which admittedly defeats the purpose). Fortunately, the community here turned out to be composed of enthusiastic, intelligent, articulate, opinionated people who shared my desire to discuss the games industry in a meaningful way, and it’s become my most positive experience with an online community to date. I’ve found blogs that have delivered both scathing objective criticism and deeply personal accounts of gameplay, both of which were exactly what I was looking for from “real” games writing. Games bloggers seem to write for their brethren; they understand that most of their followers watch the industry as closely as they do, or have played as many games as they have, and their writing skills are good enough to deliver an articulate, thoughtful response. It’s this kind of passionate, well-informed writing that I truly wish would make the jump to professional literature.

Extra Lives was an excellent book, but it shouldn’t be the only one of its kind. We need more people who actually understand the ins and outs of the industry to write intelligent, critical essays designed to be read by other people who follow the industry extremely closely. There needs to be a tacit agreement between the author and the reader that they both understand the topic at hand, and thus can they both dive into a dense, difficult critical article headfirst without wasting time explaining game mechanics that are universally understood among hardcore gamers; no more of this condescending “In Super Mario Bros., the goal is to jump and grab coins…” stuff. In fact, one of my favourite parts of Extra Lives is in the appendix of the second edition, where Bissell posts an excerpt from an interview with Leigh Alexander in which she attempts to dissect the metaphors of Metal Gear Solid 4. Recognizing that no book would be long enough to explain MGS4‘s massively convoluted plot, Bissell simply prefaces the interview by warning that the next bit is “for Metal Gear Solid brown belts only.” If you’re writing a book about games criticism for intelligent hardcore gamers, that’s how every essay should be prefaced. The game industry is still young compared to other types of media and its fans are still being dismissed as mindless, antisocial, violence-loving drones, so perhaps once we finally break out of this stereotype (and we’re inching ever closer to it as games continue to permeate mainstream media), we’ll finally have proper, thought-provoking games criticism of an intellectual nature.

I’m Not Dead, I’m Just Playing Fire Emblem

FireEmblem

It’s been a while since I last posted, although that was certainly not my intention. See, a wonderful thing came into my life last week, a true blessing from on high. Nah, it’s not a baby; it’s just Fire Emblem: Awakening, only one of my most-anticipated games ever and possibly the best game I’ve played in the last year.

I’m still young enough to be within that coveted 18-25 year-old male demographic (the one that likes all the violence and the sex, apparently), but as I age, I find I’m getting less excited by new game releases, even ones that I undoubtedly would’ve lost my shit over as a younger man. After buying Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D Land in November 2011, I didn’t beat the former until late this summer, and I didn’t even play the latter until May. I didn’t feel sick with anticipation in the months leading up to their respective releases, and I wasn’t caught up in the pre-release hype machine that usually resulted in me checking for new screenshots, trailers, anything, several times a day (I couldn’t sleep the night before Pokemon Stadium came out because I was rewatching all the commercials in my head all night).

But then Fire Emblem: Awakening released in Japan last year, and my interest went from cautious curiosity (the last two Fire Emblems, one of which was Japan-only, were both lazy remakes that threw away much of the series’ steady progress) to desperate need once I saw all the features packed into this game. I’m a Fire Emblem diehard and a jaded, fairly negative person to boot, but even I thought the game looked damn impressive. As the game neared its February 5 release date, I wondered last Tuesday how I could ever wait another full week.

Then came the rumours: Canada broke the street date a week early. Fuck Canada. Hey wait, I’m in Canada! Do you think?…nah, I’m never that lucky. Still, I called my local EB Games just to be sure, and the slightly surprised clerk on the other end told me that she hadn’t gotten to calling me about my preorder yet, but yes, they had them in today and were going to be selling them today, street dates be damned. A half-hour later, I couldn’t believe it: my most anticipated game in years, and I had it a week before I was supposed to. I let myself cackle, just because it felt like the thing to do.

Sooo… this is actually what I’ve been doing instead of writing: playing Fire Emblem in some nega-universe where someone fucks up, every EB Games in Canada gets the game shipped a week early, they sell it the next day, then they stop selling it the next day once the hammer comes down (guess the House of Mario wasn’t too happy about it), then they tell everyone who was unlucky enough to not buy it during the Great Street-Date-Breaking that they have to wait ’til the 8th due to “shipping problems.” That fucking sucks, bud.

I hate to gloat, but usually I’m never quick on the draw for things like this. I miss every great Steam or Amazon sale because I don’t find out about it until a day later, and I never get those free game codes that devs sometimes tweet. But finally, my luck came through when it mattered most (to me, anyway).

So here I am, about to beat a game that comes out in a few hours. I’d like to thank whoever got fired in EB Games’ shipping department for allowing this to happen. Your brave sacrifice will be remembered by Canadians for all time; we’ll erect an ice sculpture of you in our parliamentary igloo, right next to the throne from which Celine Dion holds high court.