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Endings: A Descent

Batman Arkham City

Last week my second 360 core model died the death. The first suffered the dreaded red ring of death. This one caught the lesser known but equally terminal error 74. Thankfully it was under guarantee so I got my money back and trade up to a slim model. The guy behind the counter gleefully recounted the tale of one regular customer who’d been through 13 of the old models before the slims arrived. Shame on you Microsoft.

There are three things I’m annoyed about after trading up. The first is that I didn’t have The Last of Us on my radar and get a PS3 instead. The most serious is the loud “ping” noise the console makes when you turn it on or open the tray with the console buttons. It’s loud enough to wake my kids up, so now I have to turn on the console with the remote and make sure I have the disc I want to play already in there before bedtime. I’m amazed gaming parents the world over haven’t registered screaming outrage over this.

The final issue is the save games that I lost. Yes, I could have got a transfer cable but that’s additional expense. A save about half-way through Bioshock was a minor annoyance because I didn’t care all that much for the game. Somewhat more dispiriting was the loss of a three-quarter done save of Arkham Asylum, a game I wouldn’t rave over but was certainly enjoying.

So I will now never see the end of Arkham Asylum. And what struck me, the more I dwelt on it, was the fact that I didn’t particularly care. I’d had fun with the game but after maybe ten hours with it, I was actually pretty much done. I was going through the motions just to see the story, which wasn’t enormously compelling in the first place, conclude. And the sudden removal of that pressure turned out to be something of a relief.

It wasn’t so long ago that this idea was complete anathema to me. If I liked a game, I was damn well going to play it until it was finished just to get my money’s worth out of it. I pursued this goal doggedly even when the arrival of children seriously curtailed my gaming time.

I can recall in my one and only JTS podcast appearance (damn you, global time differences) relating the tale of how I replayed and replayed and replayed the notorious Meat Circus level of Psychonauts well beyond the point of enjoyment and well into the realm of fury and frustration. I felt compelled to overcome the challenge simply because it was there.


It’s a bit like staying with a film you’re really not enjoying until it’s done, except that it takes much longer to complete a game than it does a film. So while psychologically it might be the same, in reality it’s far more tedious and damaging.

And it bears repeating that, in spite of what repeated consumption of highly cinematic AAA titles might make us feel, videogames are not films. What differentiates them is the degree of interactivity and challenge that a game can give, making you feel part and parcel of the story rather than passively consuming it.

And that differentiator is key. Film started out like theatre, but evolved into its own art form when pioneers began to think about what it could do differently, and exploited those differences to make great movies. Games, whatever they share with cinema, are no different. What makes a great game great isn’t in the cinematics, it’s in the dialogue between the choices and actions of the player and the game.

So if the story isn’t the ultimate arbiter of the quality of a game, why do so many of us feel the need to unreel the whole thing to the bitter end in order to feel we’ve properly finished a game. Surely the correct measure is the point at which we’ve become bored with the play mechanics.

When viewed through this prism a lot of other slightly troubling things melt away. It explains, for instance, why people carry on playing games even when they’ve finished them, whether it’s a replay on a harder difficulty setting, installing a mod, or just carrying on with goal-free experimentation in sandbox games.

It also throws into stark relief one of the ongoing issues with cinema-style games which is only going to get worse with the next generation. For a long time I’ve felt there was life in the AAA model going forward simply because there was so much cinematic space unexplored. Even the most thought provoking games at the moment are pathetically immature compared with the artistry of the best movies. And Hollywood has demonstrated time and time again that tired old formulas can remain surprisingly entertaining if delivered with enough flair and skill.

But my increasing disinterest in games for the sake of their plot alone suggests this isn’t going to be enough. The interactivity with the unfolding story that a game allows us is hugely powerful, and it strips storytellers of some of the most effective tools they have for engaging the audience. The challenge that’s integral to that interactivity has to be there too, properly integrated, and it’s here that AAA games are increasingly failing to provide innovation.

The mobile model that’s been eating chunks out of consoles in recent years is precisely the opposite. It doesn’t lack in terms of mechanical creativity, but I find the lack of narrative and detail, of old-fashioned art, means many titles have terrifyingly short shelf-lives. What we need is for the next generation of consoles and PC games to grow and mature in both mechanics and cinematics, and perhaps most importantly of all to master that strange gray space that unites the two.

The forced ending to my time with Arkham Asylum has actually started to feel like a lifted weight. I can finally lay to rest the nagging ghosts of many other games that I almost played to completion but, for one reason or another, had to abandon. I just hope that it isn’t the seeds of an excuse to abandon the narrative appeal of games in their entirety.

Terminal State ===>The Doldrums


In case you haven’t noticed, there really hasn’t been Jacqueline frackin’ poo-poo coming out in terms of console games lately. It’s almost like we’ve reached that stage where all that releases for the major platforms are movie tie-ins and half-hearted sequels that are too early for the next-gen boat. But we’re still a year or more out from the Xbox 720 Netflix Player, which will have a credit card reader attached for you to pay for every bullet you fire in Call of Duty, and the PS4, which will debut at a thousand dollars retail with a new Crash Bandicoot game designed to really show off that hardware. To quote Belgian EBM masters Front 242, we’re in the doldrums.

Sure, there’s a load of stuff coming later this year. Are you read for some football? Of course you are. There’s Borderlands 2: Bride of Borderlands, Call of Duty 7: Black Ops 2: Son of Black Ops., and Assassin’s Creed 3: Exio versus Frankenstein.  Do I want to play these? Sure. With a shrug, because there’s not much else shakin’. Maybe Dishonored. I hope it’s good. The only things I’m unapologetically excited for are Platinum’s Metal Gear brawler and Bioshock Infinite. And Anarchy Reigns, if it ever releases in the US.

Maybe it’s just my own ennui talking, but it seems like we’re hitting a wall, scraping the bottom of the barrel. Stop me if I’m wrong, but was anyone genuinely excited about Max Payne 3? Or the new Ghost Recon game, which I liked but almost completely lost interest in less than halfway through its duration? It’s as if The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition appeared and made everything else seem terrible by comparison. I’ve come to really love Dragon’s Dogma, but it still feels like it’s in the shadow of CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece.  Looking over at my Forever Shelf, those are the only two 2012 releases I still own.

It’s almost like console games are done, stick a fork in ‘em.  But maybe that’s just me. One thing’s for sure, we’ve gone for months now without an “event” release. You know, The Game Everybody is Playing. What was the last one, Mass Effect 3? Lately, it seems like every release has been The Game Everyone Is Waiting to Go On the  Steam Sale. I’m actually relieved that I’m not professionally obliged to review any of the current trickle of tripe.

Oddly, I’m finding myself retreating into areas of video gaming that are pretty foreign to me. I’ve been playing- get ready for this- JRPGs.  Yeah. Even Final Fantasy XIII, which far more innovative than you’d expect and not nearly as bad as some have made it out to be. I’ve been poking around with Persona 3 Portable, Crimson Gem Saga, Yggra Union, and Xenogears.  Classic SRPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Front Mission 3. Even more marginal but potentially interesting titles like Resonance of Fate and Star Ocean: The Last Hope have my attention. I thought I had sworn off any game with random encounters and text windows with deet-deet-deet typed out dialogue. I thought that the story about the kid waking up in some backwater fantasy town with amnesia was over for me.  But now, I’m finding this genre terrible and terribly comforting in an age where console gaming is apparently in a steady decline, about to crash on a rock called Ouya in a ship commandeered by clueless game company execs.

Playing these old, frankly quite obsolete games is refreshing. There’s no hype, no marketing, no additional purchases required.  No online drama. No crybabies whining for endings to change and signing petitions. Just slow, meticulous pacing in an handcrafted world with completely unique rules and systems between each game,  occasional extraordinary art direction given the technical limitations, and the comfort of numbers popping out of pixelated monsters in camouflaged spreadsheet combat.  I’m relishing in the almost unfathomable depth and promise of tens of hours of play at the outset.  It’s totally reactionary to the video game design paradigm circa 2012, I know this.


These games- even some of the most recent ones- are reminding me of some of the qualities that are being lost in the march toward DLC everything and the decline of the Japanese games industry. Qualities that I cherished, took for granted, and now miss. I miss the weird esotericism of games, the idiosyncrasies of design and interface that have been refined out of existence. I miss the sense of craft and world building that games like Xenogears accomplished with simple not-Hollywood-at-all writing, ancient graphics, and memorable music. There was a handcrafted look and feel to some of those games that you just don’t see anymore when they’re stamped out of the Unreal Engine 3 master mold.

It’s also ironic in a way, diving into this very niche genre to escape the mainstream stagnation as we approach the terminal state of this console generation. There was a time when JRPGs were a major draw. But these days, they’re like bullet hell shooters. A very specific, very rigid, and very formal kind of genre that just isn’t as approachable to Joe Console as linear third-person adventures, golden ledge platformers, multiplayer shooters, or directionless sandbox games are. Hard, opaque, detailed…all traits I’m more interested in than polished, expensive, and accessible right now.

There’s also the fact that I am increasingly disinterested in the direction that console games are heading in the next generation- the Casual Games Armageddon was greatly exaggerated, the problem is the sales models and marketing schemes that we’re about to be subjected to. As many industry folks have said, this longer than usual console cycle is at the stage where it’s squashing innovation and as profits tumble, the idiots in charge are looking for ways to monetize the garbage they’re already making. Instead of getting back to the notion of providing quality games, value for the money, and creating consumer loyalty.

I never thought I’d find a way out of these doldrums in JRPGs, let alone a Final Fantasy title. But there it is, and I find myself wondering if I’ll bother to pick up any of the Fall AAA releases, knowing full well that if I wait until Christmas I’ll be able to practically buy them two or even three for the price of one on launch day. But by that time, when the breeze picks up, I might be lost in a Ys game.

The Function of Criticism

Criticism - do we review games or do we critique them like art, and what's the purpose of doing either

It’s rare that I hear about a game and decide that it’s a must-buy. Rather, I prefer to take the softly-softly approach: wait, see what the community consensus is, read some reviews of the game and (if it’s a board game) the rules and then make a decision. Often, however many reams of text I end up digesting in the course of this process, it’ll be one paragraph, even one sentence that makes me choose one way or the other. Increasingly, I’m asking myself why I bother.

It’s also come to my attention that a lot, probably the majority, of people don’t choose stuff this way. There’s much more of a tendency to impulse buy stuff. And if you read a lot of the comments that people make on game reviews you’ll notice something else: it’s quite clear that a lot of the people who read reviews and comment on them have already played the game in question. They’ve come to the review seeking either validation of their own point of view, or the opportunity to disagree publicly with the opinions of the reviewer. And this begs the question: what’s the purpose of a review? Perhaps more importantly, is the perception of what most people want from a review the same as what reviewers believe they want?

I’ll tell you what I want from a review. I want to get a sense of what a game feels like to play, what the experience is like, what sort of emotions it engenders in the player(s). I like a bit of logistical information too and I want a clear reviewers slant telling me whether they think it’s a good game or not, and why. Personally I think you can do all that and still provide people who might not agree with you with enough information to help them decide whether they might think it’s a good game or not. That’s what I’d look for, and so obviously that’s what I’ve tried to provide in my reviews. I’m not sure I succeed all that well, too often getting sucked down into the mechanical detail needed as a foundation to explain why I think certain things about certain games, but I try. And frankly whether I’m happy with what I write or not, I do think it’s better than a lot of other stuff out there which seems to boil down to some mixture of verbatim instructional re-write, comedy value or “New! Shiny! Awesome!”

There’s a reason for this. I can’t claim the insight for myself, but our very own Michael Barnes has been pointing out for several years that professional criticism of all sorts of games is a relatively new phenomenon. In the video game sector, progress has been held back by a pathetically patronising long-time perception that games were for kids, and kids didn’t need proper reviews, although it’s finally starting to come of age. For tabletop games, a stubborn celebration of amateurism seems to have become entrenched, no doubt partially due to virtually zero professional coverage of the genre. And without a professional attitude, you can’t have the self-examination necessary to ask what the purpose of a review is, and thus how you might go about improving it.

But perhaps unsurprisingly if you turn to the more mature formats of books, films and plays, vast amounts of ink have been expended on the subject of the purpose of criticism. Equally unsurprisingly given the subjective nature of the material, little agreement has been reached. At the heart of the discussion seems to be the tug between wanting to help and inform readers whilst avoiding preaching to them. On the one hand, it’s likely that any given game reviewer probably knows a bit more about games than the audience in terms of insider industry information, the longer history of gaming and wider exposure to different current generation games, and therefore is in a better position to explore whether a game is not only any good but also genuinely innovative than the reader. On the other hand taste is of course entirely subjective, so how does a bit of education and eloquence give a few elite authors the right to dictate that something is good or otherwise, often in the face of popular opinion?

All opinions are equal. But some are more equal than others.

It seems that one of the common answers to this is to say that criticism is an art form in and of itself and so has no particular rights or wrongs outside the eye of the observer. I can see the attraction to this as a way of answering the dilemma of whether a critic should inform or preach, but it’s a get-out clause, an unsatisfactory answer for a number of reasons. For starters, in any form of criticism, it’s circular: it the work of an art critic is itself art, then that makes the criticism a valid target for other critics and so on. And whilst this is true, it turns a subject and its critics into a closed circle, which is liable to stagnate and is useless and impenetrable to outside readers. Which is pretty much what’s happened in the modern art world if you ask me, but I digress. It also comes no closer to answering our initial question. And when it comes to games there’s another problem, which is the question of whether a game is art in the first place.

This is a complex question that’s been tackled by others elsewhere and I can’t properly do it justice. In the past I would have argued that all game design is inherently mathematical, and that makes the status of games as art dubious. But more recently with advances in AI technology, emergent gameplay and multiplayer collusion it’s become far more of an open question. Nowadays I would say that they can be art. In video games the existence of titles like Journey bridges the gap between games created deliberately as art pieces and those created for playability. Board games have been skirting round this territory for longer, and in rather different ways, but arguably politicised games such as War on Terror or GMT’s Labyrinth and story-telling games like Once Upon A Time or Tales of the Arabian Nights fulfil a similar function.

But of course just because some games can be art, doesn’t mean they all can. I’m reminded of the chapters in American Psycho where the narrator offers in-depth analysis of rubbish pop bands such as Huey Lewis & The News. A lot of games, the majority, are just empty-headed shooters and platformers after all. But if some games have the potential to be art, even though many are not it strikes me that perhaps they have to be reviewed as though could be art. After all, one can write a clear and compelling review of mass-market rubbish while comparing and contrasting it with more rarefied examples because both, ultimately, spring from the same source. Film critics make much of their money doing exactly that. And if that’s the case perhaps a review can never be truly helpful in guiding people toward relevant purchases. In my years of reviewing I’ve struggled hugely with trying to address the question of how best to do this, continually being thwarted by the amorphous nature of my subject matter and the wide spectrum of taste in my audience. A lot of art critics don’t feel that advising readers is a key part of what they do and perhaps its part and parcel of game criticism maturing that authors and audience alike abandon the pretence that reviews are a realistic way of helping people decide what to buy.

Not all critics are good writers

So if we’re not in the business of giving commercial advice, why are we here? One of the things that I enjoy about writing reviews is that the process of organising the text helps to get my own thoughts into a coherent, sensible order and perhaps more importantly to explore them more deeply and see where they lead. That seems very insular as a stated purpose for something that is intended for a wider audience, but perhaps reading a review serves the same function, to offer clarity to the jumble of concepts we all carry around in our heads as we think about and play games. The existence of reviews has a further advantage of particular use in the internet age and that’s to engender discussion on the subject which hopefully leads to new avenues to explore and, in extreme cases, to new concepts being adopted by designers, developers and publishers. But you can achieve these same goals through editorial-style content such as this very piece: it may be that the thoughts they clarify and discussion they engender lack focus in comparison to the effects produced by a review of a specific product, but that seems a poor reason for reviews to exist as a stand-alone concept. You’d get the same effect sooner or later from a succession of opinion pieces.

So it seems that a good way to answer the question of why we write and read reviews would be to look at what – if anything – makes a review distinct from a less focussed opinion piece. And I suspect that the answer is actually in the question: focus. By forcing the writer to concentrate on a specific piece of work and comment from their, it means that what could be an opinion piece is actually an analysis piece. Instead of offering airy-fairy thoughts, they have to anchor what they’re saying in reality, provide evidence and reasons for their opinions. You could do the same in an opinion piece of course but you don’t have to, and I imagine most of us are familiar enough with the more extreme forms of fact-free journalism promulgated by the tabloid press, and the manner in which it is often swallowed wholesale, to understand the value of being rooted in reality. Furthermore because that analysis is focussed down on particular, individual products, the discussion that it engenders has a much higher chance of resulting in something equally concrete, feedback that a developer or publisher can take on board, react to, use to improve the quality of their output. Reviews and criticism entertain and inform readers certainly, but their final purpose may well be their ability to push the envelope of design, development and publishing. The ongoing furores over the re-sale of used games and the lack of creativity in AAA titles suggest that without people capable of articulating what’s right and wrong with existing games and starting meaningful discussions around those subjects, the industry has little hope of delivering improvements for their own sake. But sadly, it seems to me that the current poor state of reviews on far too many outlets has little chance of managing to making a lot of difference. At the moment, that’s still up to the fans, and the fuss over the ending to Mass Effect 3 demonstrates that it’s not always desirable that fan power should win over artistic integrity.

I suspect that the answer to my original question that we have arrived at is a lot less interesting than the journey we took to find it. And that highlights the final point I want to make, which is that although we may have found it reasonable to suggest that games reviews share a lot of common ground with the critique of high art there is a long, long way to go before we can meaningfully compare them on the same level. But there is hope that one day we might get there. And perhaps most importantly of all there is certainty that in the exciting, gruelling process of forging this new art, there is room for all of us to contribute and to help shape whatever it is that rises from the flames into something we can hold up and be proud of.

A big thank you to Jesse Dean of who started the ball rolling in my head on this subject. He’s posting his own series of pieces about it, starting by wondering why the flawed A Few Acres of Snow got a free ride from reviewers.

GAME Saved

GAME shop front - bought out from administration and will now continue trading

If you’re in the UK you’ll be aware that the high street’s only specialist video games chain GAME hit the buffers recently. If you’re not then you might have caught my post about it a few weeks back. Either way, some limited rejoicing is probably in order because on the brink of liquidation, it’s been bought out and will resume trading. Well, I say “bought”, but given that the company is £85 million in debt, the actual price was probably pretty nominal.

The reason why rejoicing is to be officially limited is because it seems to me there are still some pretty big questions that have been raised by the failure of the chain which have yet to be answered. GAME was certainly insanely profligate, buying up rivals and retaining their stores even if it meant outlets only a few yards apart on the high street, but is that the only reason for their failure? You’d have a hard job arguing, I think, that the advent of bigger downloadable content, online retailers and deep discounting by supermarkets hasn’t had anything to do with it. Indeed right after GAME collapsed, the UK’s biggest supermarket, Tesco, tried to aggressively position itself in the marketplace as its heir apparent.

But some smart retail brains clearly think the chain has a future, otherwise they wouldn’t have been willing to take on those millions of pounds of debt. I’m guessing this is partly down to the release of a new console generation somewhere in 2013 or thereabouts – there will certainly be significant high street demand for that. Beyond that things look rather more difficult, especially if the rumours about Sony demanding consumers pay a mark-up to play used games turn out to be true and Microsoft and Nintendo follow suit. That would probably virtually destroy the trade-in market, and then you’ve got the spectre of full games being available as downloadable content eating into physical disc sales. I guess someone thinks they can make £85 million profit before DLC takes over the market.

I hope this isn’t true, and I think there’s a glimmer of hope of the horizon. It seems to me that alongside its acceptance into the mainstream, increasingly video gaming is becoming like most other mass-market media split along a line between dedicated hobbyists and the general public. You see the same thing in art-house cinema versus the multiplex, in massed ranks of airport paperbacks versus deliciously dusty specialist booksellers. I can see a future where the casual market still wants to buy new games in a physical store and is interested enough to want advice from keen hobby gamers. In my personal experience the staff of GAME, who’ve been the ones to suffer most through this whole saga, and many of whom will now hopefully keep their jobs, fit that bill, being enthusiastic and knowledgeable without being scary or overbearing. It seems they’re well placed to send GAME into the one market niche where it might survive, and prove into the bargain yet again that a firms’ greatest asset are it’s people.

I wanted to take this opportunity to apologise publicly for the atrocious puns I employed in the titles of both my articles about GAME stores. Sorry. I know it was wrong, but I just couldn’t help myself.