I’m Probably Too Nice To Video Games. Maybe You Are, Too.

I’m Probably Too Nice To Video Games. Maybe You Are, Too.

Do we grade video games on curve? Do we patronize them? Do we pat them on the head and praise progress over performance? “We” as in me, you and everyone else who loves games. Maybe we’re too nice.

I know that I’m nice. I’m an optimist. I like games creators who try. I like games that are a little bit messy. I don’t mind if parts of them fail. Many of the video games I enjoy are sprawling. They contain miles of virtual terrain and hours of stuff to play through. They can’t be entirely great.

I can’t expect perfection. I don’t expect perfection. I don’t wait for perfection and get angry when it doesn’t arrive.

That’s why I can’t hate last year’s Assassin’s Creed III, despite all its flaws. That’s why I can’t deny the excellence of this year’s Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds despite my nagging feeling that it repeated too many design elements from its predecessor, A Link to the Past.

I tolerate more flaws in the games I love than I do in the books and the movies I love. I wonder sometimes about what that means. I wonder if it means that gaming is just a younger form or a more raw form. I wonder if it means that games are inherently less tidy form and a form more difficult to get right.

I tolerate more flaws in the games I love than I do in the books and the movies I love.

Which video game is perfect? Which game even approaches perfection?

I appreciate smaller games. By trying to do fewer things, these games can do a greater percentage of things well. Advance Wars. Portal. Tetris. Few frills. Fewer flaws.

And then there’s Gone Home, the stellar indie game this year that did more with less. It’s a game that might be Game of the Year among people who agree that, sure, it is a game. But there’s something about Gone Home that keeps bothering me. It’s a well-told story that is unlocked through interaction. Is it, however, a great story? It’s certainly a true one in the sense of depicting the real, believable emotions of a 17-year-old girl in conflict with her parents. Would I cherish it if it wasn’t a game? Would it seem special if it was a short story or a movie or a play? I wonder. Dumb question? I don’t think so, not when the best game story of the year — and, there, I’m saying Gone Home had the best story in games in 2013 — feels like it might not be the 15th best story told in any other medium.

How much credit does Gone Home or any other game you think has a great story get for telling a decent story in a medium that hasn’t told stories this way this well that often before? Or is that a ridiculous standard? How do we measure achievement?

I wonder if we are wowed by things that aren’t at the core of what games are about — their interactivity — and forgive their deficiencies as games because of it.

See why I’m wondering if we’re grading on a curve? I wonder if we are wowed by things that wouldn’t impress us as much if they were in another form of entertainment. I wonder if we are wowed by things that aren’t at the core of what games are about — their interactivity — and forgive their deficiencies as games because of it. Yet we want all aspects of games to improve, I think, story included. Music included. Voice-acting included. Graphics included. Controls included. Multiplayer connectedness included.

Or maybe the things that would be ordinary in another medium are genuinely extraordinary in games because, somehow, some way, some smart people figured out how to wrangle them into an interactive experience. Somehow they packed them in there and trusted us to unpack them. How can we not admire that?

Or maybe the things that would be ordinary in another medium are genuinely extraordinary in games because, somehow, some way, some smart people figured out how to wrangle them into an interactive experience.

Maybe, sometimes, we’re too mean about the games we grumble over.

BioShock Infinite. First it seemed great, then came the backlash. Great world. Great ambition. Good enough story? Good enough gameplay? Good enough graded on the curve that recognises that games are rarely this thematically sophisticated and rarely this beautiful. Good enough without it? I’m still not sure.

Grand Theft Auto V. Great world. Great ambition. Good enough story? Good enough gameplay? Good enough with the curve. Good enough without it? My gut says yes. But my gut knows that I’m okaying some flaws. I’m living with a storyline that took some disappointing turns because, damn it, I loved flying a helicopter through that world and stealing a tank.

Maybe games can be great at everything. Is that ok to admit? Is that some form of defeat?

This is the one thing I’m sure of when it comes to assessing how good a game is: the less a game has to do with any other form of art, the easier it is to judge. Boil it down to gameplay. Cut the fluff. Make a racing game about lines that race against each other. No garnish. I can tell you how good that game is.

I can more confidently tell you that a story-less game is a great game than I can a game with a story. If it has a story, I’m usually making excuses for that part or criticising the game for that part (which is worse?).

We, the critics and the gamers, are pioneers. We are explorers. Our joy and our interest is relative to a medium’s jolts this way, that way and, ultimately, forward.

The svelter a game is the better sense I have of whether it really, truly is a great game.

And then a year like 2013 throws a game like Gone Home at me, and I’m at a loss. Great story? Or a story we pat on the head because, hey, it showed up in a game? Great game even if the gameplay is so simple and even if you can’t really lose? (Hey, in Tetris, you can’t win!)

To play games and to love playing games feels to me, today, like loving being in the middle of a transitional period. We all know games are getting better and better. Video games today excel in more and more different ways. Their creators are trying more and more things. We, the critics and the gamers, are pioneers. We are explorers. Our joy and our interest is relative to a medium’s jolts this way, that way and, ultimately, forward. We’re moving ahead. And, yes, we’ve had some classics, but we’re going to leave a lot of today’s greats behind.

Among the great games of 2013 or any other year, imperfections abound. So did niceness. Too much? Too little? Probably too much. But I don’t want to be too mean to the games that pleased me this year. For now, they get credit.


  • Too much niceness? Come to the online gaming community and witness the worst in negativity, pessimism and straight bitching that people have to offer.

    Although I understand what he’s saying here, sometimes I think the niceness is a defensive response to the rampant dickery most of us have to put up with these days. Like some last ditch attempt to keep from being drowned by the rabble-rabbles.

  • I don’t “hate” games/publishers that are released in a “not exactly perfect state”
    Sometimes, those quirks can be quite endearing and add a momentary lapse into humour that was entirely unintended.

    On the other hand, I do “hate” games/publishers that present an idea in concept that is loathed and detested right from the very start, but they persist with it anyway, and then upon launch, basically break any enjoyment that could have been garnered if they just listened to their audience, I’m looking straight at EA and Sim City here!

    No one wanted a purely online, DRM, Microtransaction riddle piece of garbageware, yet they persisted and fell flat on their stubborn faces!

    I know that change is inevitable, and usually, warranted and welcomed, but sometimes, just sometimes, we the gamers, do know what we want, and what we don’t, it wouldn’t hurt to actually you know, listen to us occasionally.

    Most of us have had many, many, years more experience than the average programmer/publisher
    I alone have racked up about 32 years, and I’m not alone

    /end rant

    • And yet… I like to think that EA are somehow learning.

      To point, their cancellation of C&C:Generals 2.
      They came out and said: ‘This game is not the game our audience wanted to play, so we’re gonna go back and look at it, and we’re going to start over’.
      And that’s the right idea. No one wanted a free to play Generals game…

      • I’d like think that even the most ignorant of publishers can still learn from their mistakes :o)

      • With EA, as with most large companies, what they say and what they mean are usually two different things.
        Remember they said that DRM Simcity would be impossible to achieve, only for one person to prove them wrong in under a week of release. Remember they said that a lot of stuff was being computed server side, only for an insider to claim it a lie.

        Chances are they realised that a Free to Play C&C would not meet the same earnings projections as a full price title with DLC

  • I’m actually fairly kind to videogames. I can forgive flaws, even terribe ones, if there was something to enjoy with the game or even if I can tell what they were trying to accomplish.

    …except for Halo 4, because how dare they.

  • “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” – Kurt Vonnegut

    This, but for games.

    • I completely agree on the “creative license”
      Game breaking bugs due to lack of/non-existant testing is another matter though

  • Once a year I’m too nice to FIFA and foolishly buy the latest version and very nicely tell myself it’s completely different from last years.

  • I’ll happily overlook flaws in games I love, as long as said flaws aren’t game-breaking. Meanwhile, for games that I don’t enjoy, those very same flaws piss me off and make an already crappy game tedious. So yeah, I guess for the most part I’m a “glass half full” kind of person.

  • If anything I think we’re too mean.

    “Great story, immersive environment, interesting lore, but the graphics were a bit jaggy and my girlfriend just dumped me. 7/10.”

  • I think the most important thing is to judge games in context, like you would with anything else.

    Games have the ability to develop a world in a way a movie, or even a television series, can’t.
    They also offer choice that nothing but adventure books have come close to offering.

    If a game makes you wonder how it should be classified, then its probably trying something new, which is good, but don’t go comaring “To The Moon” to “Call of Duty”, because they’re not the same. Neither is a book and music.

    Most importantly, reviewing is a point of perspective. Just because AC3 received a caning, doesn’t make it a bad game, just bad in respect to the rest of the series.

  • I think there’s just a weird problem that most reviewers don’t score games honestly. It’s either really good, or really terrible. Only if it’s a low-profile game can it get an average score. Coincidence?

    *Puts on robe and tin foil hat*

  • I do like the broad rating of ‘Should I play this’ or not…

    The fact that many folk squabble over a 0.2 difference between games is rather trivial…

    And having said that, the fact that the usual ‘out of 10’ rarely makes use of the numbers 1-7, and therefore having to fine tune those ‘9’ ratings to things like ‘9.1’ or ‘9.8’ makes me think such a rating system could do with an overhaul…

    Maybe a little OT from the original article, but just wanted to chime in on how I like the way Kotaku does their reviews, may not agree with the finer points, but i think it’s a better setup than the standard scoring system.

  • Would I cherish it if it wasn’t a game? Would it seem special if it was a short story or a movie or a play?

    Probably not. But the strength of a story comes in no small part from its delivery. Would Gone Home have been an amazing, emotional novella? To some people, perhaps, but it’s not really a genre I’d read. Would it have made a good short movie? Probably not – the delivery would need to change drastically to fit the new medium, and I’m not sure if that could be done elegantly.

    Why can’t we just say, “Yes, it had a middling story that was made amazingly evocative through its delivery method and constant sense of atmosphere. It had mild gameplay elements, which perfectly complemented and reinforced the theme of self-discovery in the story through more literal exploration. This thing, whatever it is, is intensely focused on the story it is trying to tell, and uses every fibre of its being, from sound design, to gameplay mechanics, to visual design to further immerse and engage you in that story. And it does that splendidly.”

    But, back to my original point regarding media portability: Has there ever been a movie you’ve seen and said, “Wow, that was much better than the book!”? It’s pretty rare, because books are written to take advantage of the medium of the written word. Characters are able to coherently share their thoughts, or convey complex intentions and motivations, immediately and unambiguously – something that’s clumsy or difficult to achieve in cinema. Why should we expect games to be transferrable to other media, when it is so immensely difficult to do it with media we’re already far more familiar with?

    Gone Home is a great interactive experience, because it knows precisely what it is. Too many people are trying to tilt their heads and squint, and say “I guess it’s kinda a game…?”, and then criticising it for having to squint to see it as a game, rather than just looking at it.

    • Gone Home was fine but it’s existence is useless if someone doesn’t scrutinize it to a mature degree. The game wasn’t perfect, the story was only possible with stereotypes that move in a single direction. Not everyone who’s gay is a rebel who feels like an outcast and not every father is emotionally distant. The game went pretty far in exploring the surface of complex issues but almost nothing beneath. That’s not to say it wasn’t a great interactive experience, it was and I enjoyed it and was interested by it through several playthroughs. I just don’t think it does anyone any good to mask criticisms with asskissing at the end. If you’re a good writer, you can be critical without being offensive.

  • I agree, almost every person i know or every reviewer is far too easy on games GTA V is the pinnacle of this absurdity in recent memory.

    The game was absurdly average by any other mediums standards yet some how everyone is foaming at the mouth for its mediocrity. The story didn’t exist past the very first heist, the heists left ALOT to be desired with almost no actual choice they were just pick which entirely scripted event you want.

    The gun play was still so bad it needed auto aim to make the game non rage inducing, the controls for all air vehicles was the worst in the entire series and was just mindbogglingly bad. The stats were irrelevant, the AI was still awful (so many cars literally veering into me), the stealth mechanics were equally as bad.

    I could go on about the forced torture scene, how the online was a shallow mess geared towards being a dickhead. That the actual online death match style game play was utterly skill less with the inclusion of auto aim that the game was shorter than most people would have liked.

    The game was riddle with terrible ideas and in an honest review should really never have exceeded a 7.5 score. Yes it could be fun and there were no game breaking soul destroying bugs or flaws, but every 20 minutes there was something new, not just wrong/off or an annoyance but literally ruining what could have been a great games.

    Hell even right now im playing the Witcher 2 on 360 and I quite like the series. Yet it doesn’t nearly deserve a score of 88/100, its score along with all other games is outrageously inflated.

    I think alot of games have scores easily inflated by upwards of 2/10 some more some less, but the outright majority are given far too much praise for the many problems they have and it seems the further our technology advances the worse games are becoming and more “Acceptable” these myriad of flaws are and I for one can’t stand it. ITs why im buying considerably less games, because the quality is just not there.

    Especially for reviewers, games should be judged without bias or personal influence. Its purpose is to be a subjective look at the content, not a ” Im easily impressed and overlook these glaring flaws that would irritate most people 10/10 game”.

    Its one of the reasons the only site i look at reviews for is polygon, they are how other sites should be MUCH harsher and they actually use the full 1-10 scale not just 6-10.

    • Disagreeing with a review doesn’t mean there’s a problem. I disagree with on almost every point you made and have to question whether or not you just don’t like things because they’re popular. The forced torture scene in particular had some pretty clear subtext and no amount of childish whining will measure to someone who actually scrutinises a game effectively and maturely.

      • Nothing that I wrote was childish and you look like an idiot trying to dismiss an unneeded and un-warranted over the top torture scene that existed for no other reason the cheap shock value (any other claim about references to US torture is a piss poor excuse, this is a video game not a fucking expose about Guantanamo bay).

        Your equally stupid claim assuming some absurd correlation between popularity and my gaming enjoyment is laughable, I provided a myriad of reasons ALL valid, all real problems within the game. So in the end you just come across as some petty nerd who doesn’t like his game being treated as anything other than gospel.

        So if you’ve finished making stupid accusations and contributing nothing at all to the actual topic at hand, please give your self a preemptive Darwin award and do us all the favour of taking your genes out of the pool.

        • I think review scores are as arbitrary a measurement as assessing a game in centimetres. Some sites/magazines establish a criteria, but obviously each section of that is as subjective as an overall score. “Was gameplay good?”

          I liked Kotaku’s “Should you play this game?”, however I’m in games for the experience, whether it’s an awesome hour or an awesome 20. Is the experience worth whatever the time investment is? That’s how I would love “Should you play this?” answered. If it’s an awesome hour and then becomes boring, I’d probably still give it a go. If I have to fight through five hours to get to a good few, I probably won’t. But for some reason there is still that perceived correlation between length and quality.

          I agree with you about GTAV. It was inarguably more Grand Theft Auto, and I’ve already played Grand Theft Auto, quite a few times. The universal praise was surprising, and got more surprising the more missions I played. (The tow truck was not a good time to experience investment.) There was little in the game that couldn’t have easily been in IV, and while it was technically (literally) ‘bigger’, it was just more of the same. Complete with the same flaws (Shooting in particular, as you mentioned.) “I love it! 9.6 out of 10, obviously!” vs “Play it if you like GTA, and want lots more.” A lot of people want more GTA, so great! That aside, I am definitely surprised that people critiquing the game are in the minority. I’ve only read a single editorial (That I think was on Kotaku) about its flaws.

          All of that being said, nothing you wrote was childish, up until your reaction to losturtle1. Your original post was passionate, your follow up was rabid, and that reduces the credibility of both. When people wind you up, take a breather. Don’t be the person that introduces swearing into an argument, and no matter how valid an opinion, telling someone to off themselves will always lose your audience’s respect and attention. (Also ‘nerd’ is a tired insult, don’t reduce yourself to name calling.) Like I said, and like you know, your original points were valid, but subjective, as are everyones. So respond properly, don’t rise to aggression. They called your opinion in a forum environment whining, which is already the sign of a weak arguer, so work out if they’re worth a retort, and if they are then do it with the same thought of your original post. Not like a kid who’s been ticked off and is ready for blood. You started in front. Stay there.

  • I have been playing almost nothing but Elder Scrolls IV- Oblivion for the last 18 months! I know I could get Skyrim but I am still enjoying Oblivion despite the bad saves and the animation bugs and the crashes I just can’t go a day without a few minutes in Cyradiil.

  • I honestly hate the pessimism online I think that many people aren’t that nice online. I think we should be positive and not act like a dickhead when were’re playing a game or that we’re too good for the game cause if you feel that way don’t play. I play to enjoy myself and have a good time and not play with people who just want to criticise

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