Having a review assignment go spectacularly wrong feels a bit like being John Dortmunder. Dortmunder was the protagonist of Donald Westlake’s comic novels, a brilliant but hopelessly unlucky professional thief who always had the best plans for pulling down a huge score, but who always watched it all go wrong in slow-motion tragi-comedy. While the general arc of the stories was formulaic, the adventures themselves were not, and it was always a joy to watch the new and horrific ways it could all go wrong. But of course, to Dortmunder it was all deadly serious.
I went through a similar thing with this last review. I thought I’d identified a good job, something that would be quick and rewarding, and I sold a a few people on the idea. Then, once I got to work on the assignment, it started to turn on me. In the meantime, other work was sliding away from me because I was furiously trying to extricate myself from the debacle. Now I’ve managed to pull off my daring escape, and the review will go up sometime in the near future, but in the meantime it’s left me in some deep trouble with other assignments.
Still, there is a part of me that feels suffused with virtue. I knew, within an hour of starting my first game, that this game was in trouble. Not too much longer, I knew it was nothing I could ever enjoy or recommend. But I didn’t entirely understand why, which meant I hadn’t yet completed the review process. Anyone can tell you what he likes or doesn’t, but that reaction won’t help anyone unless the reviewer can explain where he’s coming from and why he had the reactions he did. So I continued my grim death-march toward understanding.
I suspect it’s probably a good thing to, every once in awhile, find yourself locked in a room with a bad game. Not because it helps us keep other games in perspective, but because it underlines the bromides and truisms that critics and designers like to throw around. Meier’s “series of interesting decisions” description of a game means a hell of a lot more once you’ve played a game that’s a series of pointless, illusory decisions. It’s easy to wonder why a game doesn’t have certain features that might make it more historically accurate or interesting, until you see how verisimilitude unbound from design discipline can send an entire game cartwheeling into an abyss of incoherence.
Still, it came at a cost. It’s Wednesday morning and I still feel like I’m shaking off a bender. There are sources that must be harassed, editors that must be appeased, stories that must be written, and games that must be played. And there’s not enough time for any of it.