Posts Tagged ‘ criticism

Alan Wake Reconsidered

I said that this year I would try and stretch myself a bit as a writer, and that’s always a fraught endeavor when you’re doing it on someone else’s dime in front off a big audience. Fortunately, The Escapist came through as it always has in my career and gave me space to do a close, critical reading of Alan Wake in order to provide a revisionist view of the game.

It’s the kind of thing that sounded awesome as I was pitching it and playing through the game for a second time, but was easy to start doubting once I began working on it. By the time I sent back my final draft, I was convinced that the response was going to be a collective eye-roll. I liked my analysis, and I thought it was pretty damned sound, but I know there are a lot of people who resist reading deeply into videogames, especially ones as flawed as Alan Wake.

Fortunately, the article got an incredibly warm reception both from the audience at The Escapist and my acquaintances on Twitter. No piece I’ve written this year has given me as much satisfaction, with several people writing to express how thoroughly my article changed their view of the game. There is not much more that I can ask of my work.

While I stuck pretty close to what is actually in the game, and I can readily defend just about every claim that I make in the article, I will admit that my interpretation still owes a great deal to my own experiences. I have written several times over the last year about the difficulty of balancing my emotional investment in my work with other aspects of my life, and how sometimes work seems to be crowding out the other things I love. Approaching Alan Wake with those fears weighing on my mind, it was not hard for me to make the connection between the game’s plot and the conflicts I face as someone doing what I love for a living, dependent on steady stream of decent ideas and good words, and the pain I feel when they seem to dry up.

A few people raised their eyebrows at the connection I drew between the savior figure in Alan Wake, Thomas Zane, and Bioshock. I think the use of an old, porthole-covered diving bell is too heavily associated with Bioshock to be accidental, but I will readily grant that once again my own experiences inform my analysis here.

2007 changed everything for me, and Bioshock was a major part of that. It was the first time I really heard the kind of serious, intelligent discussion of videogames that I had long wanted to have, and Bioshock was the topic of discussion that year (as it has remained, in many ways). Bioshock didn’t sequester itself from intellectual life the way so many games do. It was in dialogue with the books I read in college on history and political theory, and critics were receptive to that. There have been other games that could make you think, other games that didn’t flinch from asking harder questions or engaging with their historical moment, but Bioshock was the first time that the stars aligned and serious critical discussion of a videogame entered the mainstream.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Alan Wake started production in 2005, Bioshock came out in 2007, and the character in the game has not been able to accomplish anything in two years. The game itself did not come out until 2010, and it’s not hard to imagine that 2007 might have been the year when the Alan Wake project finally started to gather some momentum after lengthy delays and creative struggles. And from my own experience, I can see where Bioshock might have played a role in the story.

Anyway, I hope you go and read the piece. This kind of analysis isn’t something I’ve done much, but I had an absolute blast with it.

Discussing Extra Lives

Over at Gamers With Jobs, I write about my mixed feelings after finishing Extra Lives. One thing that I couldn’t work into the piece was that many of my problems with the book are effectively an occupational hazard. Bissell is writing for a more general audience, and he takes as his subject some populer, widely-discussed games. All well and good, but it does mean that someone who has spent years reading detailed dissections of all these games is going to have a hard time finding anything eye-opening in Bissell’s account.

This isn’t a problem with Bissell so much as it’s indicative of how confined and sometimes groupthinky that games writing can be. It’s not that we all think the same things, but we swarm around certain games and drive them into the ground, while a lot of other good titles come and go with scant comment. Bissell wants to talk about Far Cry 2? Sorry, I just went screaming from the room. I can’t hear or read another word on that game. Choice in Mass Effect? Oh, God, the pain is making me delirious! No matter how well Bissell treats these subjects, they all gave me a bit of a hangover before Extra Lives even began.

Clearing the Rubble

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.

Reviewed – Napoleon: Total War

My first-ever review is up at GameShark, and it’s a fairly positive one for Napoleon: Total War. This assignment was something of a treat, and is probably a poor representative of the reviewing experience as a whole. Napoleon: Total War is a good and very enjoyable game, and I’m still wrapping up some campaigning in it even though the assignment is over. I was happy to have an excuse to plow over 40 hours into the game.

I am sure I’ll jump onto the “I hate reviews” bandwagon the moment I have to review a real dog of a game. But for now, it’s a fun change of pace.

As I was in the process of assigning a score to this game, I found myself thinking about the kind of reviewer I want to be. It would be nice to have a reputation for being tough but fair, but somehow I think most reviewers probably aim for that. It’s maybe more important to have come to terms with how I react to games.

On the Three Moves Ahead before last, or maybe it was during the after-party, Tom made the comment that he got the feeling there weren’t too many games I hated.  On reflection, that’s very true. I actually like most games I play. I’m the sort of person for whom a lot of things just don’t get old. Sometimes, when I’m putting my car key into the ignition, I still kind of marvel at the fact that I can drive. I got my learner’s permit ten years ago, but the feeling of privilege hasn’t entirely gone away. I feel the same way when I sit down to play videogames, especially when I can say, “It’s for work.”

So it takes a lot to make me dislike a game. Huge disappointments, like Rebellion, Rome: Total War, or Empire: Total War, can usually get me there. Pissing me off is another good method. I thought GUN was a good game until it all went to shit in the third act, and that final act erased just about every ounce of goodwill. I’m a little allergic to hyperbolic praise and self-importance. I enjoyed Far Cry 2, for instance, but I can’t say I really like it. It was a beautiful and exciting open-world shooter, but it was also murderously repetitive and kind of shallow. I end up judging the game more harshly because of how it was received, and for its own very limited ambition. I have not been kind to Modern Warfare.

But for the most part, I love gaming and like most videogames. I just don’t think many of them are excellent. I really loved playing Napoleon: Total War, and really do think it’s probably the best Total War title in quite awhile. But when it was time to consider flaws that really bothered me, I didn’t have to look hard to find them.

I’ll have more to say about Napoleon. I really did like it quite a bit. So I’ll close with the reviewer’s typical request: read the text. The score doesn’t perfectly reflect how I feel about the game, or how I personally weigh the game’s elements. It reflects a slightly more cold-blooded assessment.

Conferences, Trade Shows, and Hype Fatigue

This wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t force myself to read, listen to, and follow so many sources for videogame coverage. I am over-saturated with gaming news and commentary by choice, and it makes me cranky. Still, I hate announcement season. I hate the Kremlinology that takes place in the weeks before every conference or trade show, and the endless parsing that immediately follows.

Do you think Sony is going to reveal its motion controller at GDC or hold off until E3? How will Microsoft respond? What does Nintendo have to do to maintain its lead? What games will they announce at GDC, and what will Microsoft keep under wraps for TGS? How’s that going to play in Japan?

And these conversations repeat for nearly all of spring, summer, and early fall, as publishers and manufacturers parcel out hints and teasers from week to week. Stock analysts offer running commentary to help us keep score at home.

“Oooh! It looks like Take Two’s holiday line-up is in bad shape, Peter. I really don’t know what they were thinking there.”

“I’ll tell you what they were thinking, Bob. They were thinking, ‘Boy, I wish GTA 5 would come out already!’ Hahaha! But seriously, it’s going to take a big E3 announcement to keep this from turning into a rout.”

Then there is the self-congratulation that marks so many major announcments: Hideo Kojima sneaking onto the Microsoft stage during the E3 presentation while the MGS alert sound played, Cliff Bleszinski showing up to Microsoft’s GDC press conference with a Lancer and a promise that Gears 2 would be “bigger, better, and far more badass.”

This is not to say I find announcements boring or pointless. You think I wasn’t squealing with school-girlish delight when John Davison said that the next GamePro cover was going to be Civilization V? The day Valve announce Episode 3 (or Half-Life 3 as the case may be), I will probably pour myself a celebratory cocktail and start reinstalling the entire series.

But the wheres and hows of announcements don’t interest me in the slightest, and I don’t care that much about the details, either. I’ve learned to be skeptical of preview coverage and developers’ pre-release promises, which means I’m mostly content to wait for an actual game to be released before talking about it. I dislike the way we’re all co-opted into marketing campaigns as we press for details on an upcoming release (“Tell us about your co-op campaign!” “We’re going to do something interesting and different with co-op.” “OMG, they’re going to do something interesting and different with co-op!”).

I suppose I’m also troubled by the way announcement season often seems to degenerate into a thinly-disguised form of money worship. So much of what passes for industry analysis isn’t really analysis at all, but a series of ‘attaboys for people who are releasing new entries in product lines that have already made a mint, and tsk-tsks directed at publishers and manufacturers who aren’t as flush with exploitable properties. Then, with a nod vaguely in the direction of criticism, the question is asked: “But how is it going to innovate?”

And perhaps that’s why I’m a bit snarky this morning. The idealist in me says that GDC is a time to discuss what works in games and why, and to consider possibilities for the future while revisiting lessons from the past. But we end up talking about which ideas can be copied and whether or not the copies will sell. Then, without a trace of self-awareness or irony, we demand innovative games and “new IP” from companies that are never quite so happy as when they are releasing the same game over and over. And we have turned GDC into yet another platform for them to make their sales pitch.

With the exception of Gamasutra, so much GDC coverage seems focused on the commercial side of the industry. There are far too few pieces like this one from Destructoid’s Anthony Burch, covering Soren Johnson’s discussion of theme. In fact, a glance at Johnson’s Twitter reveals that he seems to be attending a different GDC than the one I’m reading about.

If I’m wrong, if there’s a lot of exciting, thought provoking material that I’m missing, please tell me so in the comments, and feel free to throw in some links. Still, GDC is a good time to rant and air grievances, especially if you remember what GDC is supposed to be about: serious art.

One Move Behind – Year One

Troy Goodfellow celebrated the anniversary of Three Moves Ahead with Episode 53 last night, and we spent an hour or so talking about the last year and our relationship to the podcast. My own anniversary with Three Moves Ahead will not arrive until Episode 94, but I have been listening since week one. And believe me, that first episode was not easy to listen to.

Long before I had even the inkling that I might be a panelist, Three Moves Ahead was one of my favorite gaming podcasts. It was different in style and content from the other podcasts I listened to, and I valued the contrast. After GFW Radio went silent, there was a dearth of intelligent, PC-oriented gaming discussion. Especially for someone who played as many strategy games as shooters and doesn’t give a damn about the Japanese game industry. Three Moves Ahead arrived in the nick of time.

More than the other podcasts I listened to, TMA was about ideas and understanding. At its best, the show is closer to a seminar than a gaming podcast. The panelists arrive with different areas of expertise and slightly different views on what strategy games should be, and each is legitimately interested in what the other has to say. I came away from most episodes feeling like I understood games a bit better than I had before.

Last night they talked about the Mark Walker interview / “debacle” (as Troy called it). But kidding aside, I’ve never understood why they felt that conversation took a wrong turn. It was an intense discussion about game design with a game designer, and they weren’t trashing his game so much as they were offering a strong critique and interrogating him about some of his core design decisions. It’s the kind of thing I wish I heard more of, not less. On a lesser podcast, with less informed and passionate people, an interview like that might have degenerated into rudeness. On Three Moves Ahead, it remained a spirited discussion from beginning to end. And by the time they signed off, I was intensely interested in Lock N Load, a title I had not cared about at all only an hour earlier.

If you asked me what I think separates Three Moves Ahead from its peers, aside from its strategy focus, I would have to say that it’s the panelists’ impatience for having their time wasted. Between their diverse interests and their often busy professional lives, they do not need games merely to stave off boredom and make the hours pass. They demand engaging and thought-provoking experiences.

As a listener and a fan, I think Troy and the other panelists have done a great job of holding Three Moves Ahead to that same standard. I am grateful that he gave me the chance to be a part of it, and to the listeners who helped him decide that I should remain a part of it. I look forward to Year Two.