Thursday 31 May 2012

Old Games Journalism & Diablo's Grind Problem

Thinking about some of the backlash around Diablo 3 recently - without having the somewhat masochistic urge to play it myself - some thoughts started to slot together around objectivity in video games criticism, and the ways in which we judge and award certain mechanics.

It seems to me as if, awesome a pursuit though it is, New Games Journalism has not achieved widespread adoption (not that Kieron was necessarily seeking as much). If the emphasis in games criticism were on subjective response then the Gamespots and IGNs of this world would be giving games like Diablo a far broader spectrum of scores that reflect opinions like Walker's, rather than the full house of scores in the 80s and 90s it's currently sporting. No, games criticism tends to make some claim to objectivity.

As long as we're treading this path, objectivity needs some rules, and top amongst them must be that a critic's job is to report the actual quality of the actual game. When he awards a game 90% it's because the game was good. Obvious enough.

In order to do that, reviewers tend to avoid referencing (explicitly or otherwise) anything that isn't common to their audience (or a decent chunk of it). Tractor Sim can't be a great game because I grew up on a farm and found it enticingly authentic. Unless, that is, I run Sim Tractor Fan and can safely assume my audience shares those interests.

Critics also tend not just to report their subjective response; they identify it, analyse it, and report the facts about the game which causally underpin it, so that they can explain to an audience with similar tastes what it is about the game that they will or won't appreciate.

When we consider what it is about a game that contributes to its quality the interesting thing that crops up is that it can't be anything that isn't relatively unique to this game. When the first talkies were made their dialogues were rightly praised for all the obvious reasons. Years later, when almost all films feature speech, it would be ludicrous to praise a film for doing so. This is not, of course, to say that the dialogue contributes nothing to the film.

I'm going to argue that there are techniques in games that are analogous, and there are techniques that are still on the cusp of familiarity. We would no longer praise a game for simply featuring physics; but we're still at a stage where a game's physics may be such a step up that it makes sense to laud them critically. Presumably there will come a time when no more advances can be made in that area.

The techniques I have in mind, though, are exemplified by Diablo 3, but also by a growing number of other titles, not to mention the vast majority of successful Kongregate games. Levelling up, RPG elements, character progression... whatever you want to call the steady grind of selecting and unlocking new toys that's a part of everything from Saints Row to Infinity Blade to Farmville - I'm arguing their critical heyday ought be over.

These systems are powerful models of psychological manipulation. This in itself is no problem - manipulation is what we do in games. But these mechanics are so effective - and hence so widely used - that just like using physics in your game, their critical impact ought to be zero. If this game can be rendered engaging in just this way, what can we really say about Diablo 3 other than that it's the same sort of thing with prettier graphics? What is there in Diablo beyond the grind? Why should this sort of entertainment be identified as anything that's even vaguely unique to a particular game?

Diablo was a great game. It did something other games hadn't done - at least not so well. Diablo 3 doesn't exist in the same environment. The major publications may be tied to an objective way of doing things that promises to tell people how fun they'll find the game rather than how much the reviewer liked it, but that need not mean they must award five stars to any game that entertains regardless of how it does so.

Saturday 26 May 2012

Games Are Stories: The Final Word?

This post originally published at GAMESbrief.

Nicholas Lovell argued recently that 'games are not stories'. As much as he's obviously after a sound-bite the TV chaps will lap up, he justifies a slightly more considered version of the statement with reference to the (true) fact that story tends to be less important in games than in mediums like film or literature. I think Nicholas overestimates slightly how important story is to those other mediums - surely script in those areas is often just as susceptible to the whims of various directors, editors and actors as it is in our own - but I take the point. A movie, no matter how Hollywood it may be, begins with a script. A game, almost always, begins with gameplay and setting.

That's interesting in itself, though. I've never come onto a job where either of those two were particularly up in the air - it's always a sci-fi mmo, or a desert shooter, or a zombie RPG... The setting, it seems, comes in the same breath as the core gameplay. I'd argue that this suggests an alternative take on games - that, in fact, they revolve centrally around their narrative contexts, that these are chosen to work in harmony with the mechanics and that every scrap of work done after that decision is t its best when it works toward both of those goals.

There is a reason that we play cowboy games, and football games; and not precision clicking tests or abstract tactical challenges. A random coloured shape serves all the mechanical purposes of a heavily armed nazi, but we prefer it when our actions in games carry weight and meaning.

I'm reminded of the various discussions that go on around games being fun vs not-fun. It's supposed by some that games need to break free from being fun in order to be important; to be what games are supposed to be. Others say fun is the whole point of games - why would we want to play anything else? Both sides seem to miss the point - a game needs to be entertaining. Like any other creative medium, if we wanted the bare facts we'd look elsewhere. But fun is just a subset of entertainment; not-fun games canstill be entertaining.

I think when we try to argue whether games are or are not about 'story' we end up talking about writing, and opinion is predictably split. Some love cutscenes, others hate them. That's not one we need to solve. But we should be careful trying to claim that games aren't about story, because without story we'd still be playing stuff that looks and feels like tic-tac-toe.