Monday, March 21, 2011

No medal for you!

The debate around "what are games?" comes up a lot, and today, elsewhere on the web, Roger Ebert came up again.  We all know how that goes.
But that conversation brought me back to something I've been thinking about for a long time.  (Blogger's draft archive says that I, in fact, started this post originally over two months ago.)  The thought applies to film and to modern TV as well as to gaming, but we're talking specifically gaming here now.

I would love to see reviews (which are different from analytical criticisms) split up like Olympic ice skating scores are split up. "Technical" and "Artistic" are both important elements of visual storytelling, and they each deserve their own mention.  The graphics and mechanics of a game are its technical merits; the writing, mood, and storytelling of a game would be its artistic ones.

When it's working, you get a product where the two play off each other.  The framing of shots tells you part of the story: who's in the foreground?  Why is there a crazy angle?  What's with all the shadows?  Those elements are narratively relevant.  Similarly, in gaming, player control or the lack thereof can have an enormous impact on the story.  The way Heavy Rain tries to have the player mimic the motions of the characters is one example; the infamous moment in Bioshock is another.

Meanwhile, modern narrative games are stories of both breathtakingly intimate detail, and shockingly epic scope.  Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, Half-Life, Uncharted, Bioshock, and Fallout are all telling wildly different stories, but they're all doing it spectacularly well.  Whether it's trying to save one child's life or whether it's trying to save the entire galaxy / world / kingdom, modern games sweep us up into a narrative, and that story is conveyed through writing first and visual means second.  Even in a game that doesn't rely on dialogue (Shadow of the Colossus), the story is still a tale being told by some means, and that tale can be judged on its own merits as well.

When well thought-out, the technical aspects add something to the overall feel of a game.  When poorly thought-out, they subtract.  But even when a game isn't really working in that fluid, seamless sense, it can still achieve in one way or the other.  A graphically stunning, bug-free, easy-to-move-in game can be one that doesn't tell a story worth the hearing... and the world's most compelling tale can also be wrapped in bad performance, memory leaks, terrible graphics, and F-grade mechanics.

So I'd love to see reviews broken up into Technical and Artistic, with an overall weighted determination based on both.  (But of course, I'd treat them like I always treat reviews and read them after I'd seen the movie / played the game and formed my own opinions, haha.  I like not to be biased going in to something new.)

Fallout: New Vegas pissed me off because although I wanted to give it excellent marks for artistic merit, I had to flunk it on technical.  To extend the skating metaphor, it fell on its ass every time it tried a jump.  It fell on its ass skating laps around the practice rink.  It just plain fell on its ass.  This was not a new outing for the engine, nor for the dev team, nor for any part of it.  This, in a technical way, was Fallout 3 in a different location and with a better script.  So why didn't they just hold it for a month or six until it was ready?

This rant has been brought to you by my new playthrough of Divinity II.  This patched version, which I got through Steam at the Holiday sale, is technically about a million times better than the disc version.  And given that I had bugs in the initial release so bad that I had to send my save games back to Larian for repair multiple times... why didn't they just do this in the first place?!

The technical and the artistic -- the form and function -- are inseparable in a gaming in a way they are not in other media.  The existence of patching makes studios lazy here.  You don't get to sneak a chapter 14 rewrite into a book someone has purchased, and you can't go tweaking Act II of episode 4 a prime time TV drama after the whole season is already in the can and delivered to the network broadcast center.  But games have constant patching, all the time.  Constant DLC.  Constant implications that the creators of our art throw it at us before they consider it to be their finished, or even functional, product.

You can take a high technical score and a high artistic score and still be played, or observed, or talked about -- but no Game of the Year, no game that will place in the Canon will ever exist that doesn't master both.


  1. I love the metaphor! I used to watch ice skating with my mom all the time, so I totally get it. LoL It is said to see a game with a great story lose out technically, and vice versa. While I also generally don't read reviews before I play a game (and even if I do, I'll play it anyway, because I'm stubborn like that), it would be nice to see these things treated in the way you describe.

  2. Why should games be different from any other software?
    Going all the way back to the first versions of Windows and Novell in the early 90s (maybe even the late 80s) new software was always shipped with the understanding that there were bugs to be discovered and fixed - and worse, *known* bugs to be fixed.

    No other product group - not cars, not toasters, not anything - was allowed this particular freedom in the marketplace.

    Perhaps we need a version of UL for software?

  3. I think the technical issue has come to the forefront with the current console generation. Before the XBox360/PS3/Wii, if you shipped a game with bugs in it, you were pretty much stuck with it. Yes some manufacturers started issuing discs with version 1.1 or whatever instead, but the people who had the original copies were pretty much stuck. Therefore publishers made sure that what they were shipping out wasn't going to crash. PC ports of these games usually were better because of this as well.

    Now, because everything has online connectivity and you CAN push patches out, that's made developers and publishers a lot more lackadaisical about polish and more interested in meeting release deadlines.

  4. I'm willing to accept a certain level of bugginess, I must admit. I don't think we've yet discovered flawless software. Just as your car battery will drop dead if you leave the lights on all night, there are some ways you can abuse a program into shutting down, and I don't mind that.

    The kind of errors I've encountered with these games, though, are in the vein of, "vital character to story, without whom you cannot progress, falls through the plane of the world and ceases to exist," or "crashes every single time I open my inventory or map." Those are more akin to your engine randomly vanishing at randomly determined intervals.

  5. I'd have to disagree that cars are not allowed this particular freedom in the marketplace. Cars ship with known bugs all the time. Either a design flaw bad enough to be recalled, a design flaw that isn't recalled but a car company fixes for free without the customers knowledge, or they just put the person on the hook for the repair.

    It's more that bugs in individual cars are able to be fixed by a large number of people, while a bug in a particular game must be fixed by the company itself.