Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The challenges of reviewing Dead Space, and why I had to call it good

One time when I was doing some interviewing at Disney Avalanche, a game developer drily told me that for them "an 8 is a 10". It prompted a brief discussion on reviewing game for what they are and what they're trying to accomplish rather than using a universal standard.

We wouldn't rate juvenile literature as poor because it has a lower level of vocabulary and doesn't have new and super-complex themes; we rate it as art (and sometimes morality) for the kids, tweens, and teenagers. It has a different purpose, and is reviewed and judged by different standards than what exists for adults.

This has led me to judge a game by whether or not it accomplishes what the designers intend it to. At best are games in which every single element, design choice, and design execution supports the game's overall intentions. At worst are games that have no intention but to simply exist and be purchased, such as 10-minute DS games that are worse than browser-based Flash games. Some games don't even seem to have figured out what they are trying to do.

Almost all games fall in between these two extremes; the phrase "tacked on" is applied when a part of a game does not mesh with the whole. A game is more than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts have no business mixing with the others. Many a game has a pointless multiplayer that just seems included to extend replay value and sales. Sometimes there are minigames that serve as diversions from everything else enjoyable about the game. Even if they're good, in actuality they're often a hindrance, like an unnecessary poem, letter, journal entry, or story within a story that has nothing to do with the real story.

This led me to some huge problems when reviewing Dead Space, dubbed as both a shooter and a survival horror game. First, it doesn't do either of those well. Second, shooters are my specialty, the genre I have reviewed the most and easily spent the most time playing. Dead Space is not much of a shooter. The only challenges for me were instant deaths, ammo issues, and cheap surprise attacks that take one third of your health. Any time I knew they were coming, they were slow and either poor shots or easy to dodge; I just had to line them up and shoot. This made Dead Space feel like work. And the survival horror stuff wasn't there that much; it's space, everything is in the open, it hardly even got dark, and it was more or less predictable; and you can upgrade your weapons and armor! To add to that, at the outset almost every single freaking part of it I could attribute to other games. Far Cry 2. Half Life 2. Bioshock. Doom 3 and Quake 4, even, which were mostly generic and looked to be a last hurrah for terrible, icky monsters in space that you shoot at close range with powerful guns. Bad + bad + derivative = bad, right?

I started to get excited. I, Michael Walbridge, would convincingly break down for the masses why Dead Space is overrated; and even if no one would read it, I'd have a good sample for a heavily-hyped game; I want a well-rounded selection to draw from when I start pitching for reviews. I must be getting somewhere if I didn't like what everyone else did, and can make a convincing and persuasive case as to why.

I got farther into Dead Space and my review thoughts and worried I was being unfair to the game. How many people are so aware of every single other freaking game, even all the shooters? What would a typical reader think of the game? That's something I want to respect. They don't give a damn about all those games combined or about narration or whatever, they just want a game that's "cool."

I played with headphones and I often played in the dark. I thought of what Dead Space was really aiming to be, a standard I promised I'd live by and had temporarily forgotten. Did EA say it was supposed to be a shooter and survival horror? No, those were attributions others had given it to summarize it. Dead Space was supposed to be Dead Space. But what was Dead Space supposed to be?

On the horror front, it still disappointed, and that is criticism I didn't change. It is predictable and it is really more gory and gross than it is scary. A lot of average guys would still want to play it because of the production values. And it did have some challenges that were not related to shooters or horror; the instances with zero gravity or zero air, or both were crisply presented, unique, tense, and they didn't seem "tacked on", or simply there just to be cool. They blended well with the whole package.

In fact, as I got into it very few of the elements seemed to be pointless, even the ones I didn't like. So what did I do in my review? I mentioned why some people (me, really) might not like it, and tried to say why everyone else would.

And by being patient with it, I found it is a little deeper than many others have given it credit for. Dead Space is a subtle horror story and manages to do something new for silent protagonists and game narration. Gordon Freeman, Jack, and Chell are you, and that forces you to feel as if you are part of their world. In Dead Space, Isaac is a silent protagonist just like them--or so you'd think. He actually has his own opinions. All his objectives have texts with his own opinions, and you see him on the outside. He rarely shows his reactions, but there is one time where he does which is rather poignant. And some of his decisions look obviously stupid. They often do not feel like decisions that I, the player, made.

Most subtly of all, on the last two levels, you, the player, gain a big distance from him. There are plenty of plot bombshells that surprise Isaac, but a couple of them are revealed to the player and not to Isaac. This is the game accomplishing something new: it draws you in as close as possible without making you the actual character. You don't feel like you are Isaac, you just become convinced you know how he feels. Then the game jerks you away from him; you now know how he feels but you also know something he doesn't. This is a blending, to me; you have your Bioshock/Portal element combined with something classical and effective, dramatic irony. You know that Romeo isn't really dead, and that Juliet doesn't know what's going on, and it gets to you. Isaac becomes a Juliet. And in the end, there are a couple parts people call plot holes that are in fact not holes but simply missing information. There are a couple of parts that, after you beat it, don't make sense (biggest bombshell, without spoiling it: if a certain person at the end of the game knew a certain thing, what did that mean for the beginning of the game?); but there are plenty of possible, rational explanations, none of them which aren't freaky or shocking.

This is Dead Space's saving grace as a horror story: it masterfully tells you plenty without telling you everything, and it isn't until you sit back and think about it that the lightbulb hits you and you have an "OMG! Why?" moment. You, like Isaac, don't have the answers you want, and you are left chilled.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Where I've been

I've been quite busy; I guess I should take it as a good sign that I have something other than my blog to pour writing into, though, yes? I've been writing airy, proud stuff on GSW for a while and have been wanting to expand my reach and range of topics; other than an article for Eurogamer and some links to my GSW/GamaSutra/Blog stuff, I've not got much to brag about. I've also been receiving some encouragement from a writer or two and came to the realization that I don't know how to review, or at least have not had much experience at it.

At the same time, Snackbar Games has been growing a bit and its owner, Chris Rasco, finally got a lot of personal life stuff in order and has been spending a lot of time on the site. Chris Rasco and I had talked for a long time about really pushing the site. Get it enough traffic to make money, and we'll start paying people, he says. I've been the editor there for over a year; over 90% of all the final stuff in that time period is due to my amateur editing. Some mom and pop sites don't do much, or get anywhere, but then again some do. It's true Snackbar is just some little volunteer site, but it's way ahead of all the others. First, it used to be etoychest (technically making SB 6 years old), a metacritic-indexed site that people had actually heard of, headed in large part by Jason Dobson, who is now a respected writer for Joystiq and other places. Second, our traffic is so big we get unsolicited games we get over 20 games a month. We're in good with THQ, 2K, Activision, EA, and others. Not bad!

Anyway, Chris's efforts have had me doing a lot more editing and grabbing a lot more staff, so content here will slow down and I'll probably be posting on there more. I have written four reviews in the last two weeks, a news post or two, an interview with the devs for League of Legends (the first one they've given that I know of, coming later this week), and a first impressions piece on Call of Duty: World at War.

To anyone who reads (or writes!) reviews, I'd love feedback; I wonder if and why these are good enough to use as samples when I approach other outlets; if I have style weaknesses, I need to overcome them. The other editor, Graham, has thankfully been taking some of my workload and recently begun editing my stuff; before that, I wrote it, I usually didn't get any other eyes on it and then edited it, then it was posted. Feedback on the SB site is welcome, too, as Chris is making a lot of changes to it.

So that's where I've been, and that's where I'll be much of the time.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Protoss: "Snobbery Has Arrived"

Good 'ole Kieron recently said that game critics are starting to move in the direction that other critics of other media are. He points out that one of the practical uses of critics is that they turn us on to titles we may not otherwise have heard of.

I mentioned it in chat with him the other day and he said he may have changed his mind about it. The money isn't really in that kind of criticism, at least not yet. But we still have it. It's still in operation. Braid is a game many would not have heard of had the critics not jumped out and said "OMG BRAID! LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL!" Maybe not everyone is an artist, and maybe not everyone looked at it for very long, but many people went to the exhibit.

King's Bounty and World of Goo. Man, World of Goo has been all over my twitter feed and were it not for Michael Abbott or RPS's frequent references to it, I'd have not known about it. I once saw a trailer for it a very long time ago, but I'd long forgotten the name. And how would I have found it? Little Big Planet? A bit bigger scale, yes, but the buzz and prereviews have to have boosted its reach. Partially due to shows, events, and meetings that only game journalists and writers get to go to, sure, but still.

Blogs like Leigh's, Mitch's, Tom's, Michael's or N'Gai's will sometimes politely and quietly turn me on to hits before many people, even Internet readers, hear about them. And the Twitter feeds! Oh man. Yakuza 2, a recent PS2 exclusive, fits this pattern. Note the comments and where people say they are hearing about it.

Onion AV, Paste, Variety and of course Penny Arcade are financed operations that will still cover some of the bigger titles, but also make sure to find gems for you too. As in, "Hey, here's this one. Did you guys know about it? It's actually quite good. I don't see anyone talking about it. Sad, because I need some to talk about it (or play it) with."

There are plenty of "gamers" who have played so much that they are demanding and wanting to see the new big thing. This isn't because they are picky (even if they are), but because they have seen so much that they have a vampire's hunger for the blood of the new and sensitivity to the blindness of the redone or reused. Whenever another freaking first person shooter comes my way, I am always sniffing for the difference.

Game criticism has really gotten somewhere. If you say "I didn't like Braid," that's like saying you don't like the Dark Knight or that you didn't like Ulysses. This may sadden us, but really, if we've gotten to game snobbery where it's cool to like or dislike something, it means games are being taken more seriously.

Obsessed with innovation? I think not. Games are not nearly as broad or diverse as other forms of entertainment. They are also expensive. Why would we use money, time, and even perhaps emotion or curiosity on something so similar to what we already have? This type of criticism may not have the money in it, but just wait; the demand for this will inevitably grow.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Warhammer Online Recap

So! I've been writing an awful lot about Warhammer Online lately. I also wrote an official normal review for it over at Snackbar Games, the tiny site that got me started that I'll be doing some more reviews for shortly. This is the last new thing on it I have for you. But wait! There really is more and it's not my fault.

Someone dugg my post about why WoW players go to WAR; that has easily been my most read post to date.

Lastly and most successfully is my piece on the community side of Warhammer. EA/Mythic: improve the text and chat system. It's highly outdated and it's sad that such a small and easy thing does so much against a wonderful game. Good thing MMOs are about huge changes and improvements, because you need it.

Anyway, this piece also got hosted on Gamasutra and WorldsInMotion, then linked to on Slashdot and then discussed by Tom Chick, the god damn king of games writers, on his personal site Fidgit. I'm a big fan of Jerry Holkins' writing, so by virtue of his love for Tom Chick, he technically likes me back. If I ever meet him in person, I will use this as my first piece of evidence should he not understand my reasoning.

Monday, October 06, 2008

DRM: the Hate Continues

I think it's going to be non-stop from here, really. Mass Effect for PC had a bad time of it, and I also stumbled upon a certain new release while at Amazon.

EA et. al: it's not going to get better from here. Every single place on the Internet is covering this, and its pouring gasoline on the flames. Unlike console games, you can't rely on the ignorance of the many whose soul sources of gaming info are huge game sites, Game Informer, and Gamestop employees.

Because PC Gamers spend lots of time on the Internet. Because they have a PC, and they game with it. Get a clue.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Mega Man 9: Modern, Meet Retro. Retro, Meet Modern.

Okay, so I've gotten to play Mega Man 9 a bit and I think the game is a great specimen, gaming's first meta-period-piece. Some people call Upton Sinclair's The Jungle a snapshot of culture and a piece of history, but not a very literary or entertaining read. It maintains its importance as a cultural artifact, a turning point, something that matters. Mega Man 9 doesn't innovate or call itself art or revolutionary, but it is a great piece of our period, something that will help old gamers understand new and new understand old.

Mega Man 9 may not have consciously meant to do that, but it had to be in the developer's minds. The thing I love most is that it manages to display the developers' opinions (or at least, the opinions they're allowed to express) of video games in an open state. What I mean is that while the message Mega Man 9 sends is not readily apparent to those not critical of games, it's not exactly invisible.

Mega Man 9's differences aren't limited to its place in time and its salute to the past. It is also a carpet ushering in the era of the new. It's similar to the first 6 editions, but should not be properly regarded as part of the old series. It's paying respects to gaming's past while admitting that we've moved on.

The first difference is the required integration into current game systems. This includes a traditional Mega Man menu with "Go Back To Live Arcade" written on it and a save feature that doesn't feature passwords, but simply a hard drive. These are simply requirements, though; the game itself doesn't necessarily have to be different based on this. But it doesn't end there.

The level and boss designs in Mega Man 9 are very different, and so are the ways you beat them. The levels are shorter and the difficulty concentrated. In the former Mega Man games, the difficulty was smooth and buttery. Here, it's chunky and not evenly spread. In a Mega Man level, there is only one objective: get to the end. It was always hard, but here it's a different kind of hard: single, isolated points of concentrated insanely stupid challenge.

There are basically two kinds of levels:

1. Easy, then a difficult miniboss (or series of bosses) battle in the middle, then a moderately difficult section to finish. (Magma, Concrete, Jewel, Hornet. Concrete has 3 elephants instead of a singular mini-boss.)
2. Easy, then an extremely difficult section filled with difficult-timed jumps and plenty of instant-killing pits or spikes. (Tornado, Splash, Plug. Galaxy Man is this pattern, too, though his level is much easier than the other three of this type).

The bosses are different, too. Previously, the bosses would follow set patterns. Here, the bosses follow patterns, but they change depending on your position. In Mega Man 3, Snake Man ran back and forth across the screen no matter your position. These bosses will stay on one side if that's where you are. The bosses are thus more difficult because their A.I. is improved. They go from being wind-up clocks to responsive, auto-attacking land mines. Their attacks are based on your position.

But here's the catch: they still do the same amount of damage. They have to run into you about 8 or 10 times and then you're dead. And there is no power slide, no chargeable mega buster as introduced in Mega Man 3 and Mega Man 4; nothing to help compensate for the increased dodging difficulty. I wonder if dodging some of them is impossible. Hornet Man is extremely difficult but possible to avoid, but I see no way to dodge Magma Man at all.

Yet, Magma Man is one of the five bosses I've defeated. And I didn't beat him by using a secret weapon, a gaming feature that can only linger in the past. I beat him by using screws I'd collected over my lives to purchase energy tanks. I kept refilling my life, and then I beat him. It takes a while to earn those tanks, but I got them.

Mega Man thus goes the way of the future: it turns out you really can just muscle your way through the game as if it were another XBox 360 game with regenerating health and save points. The achievements, awards, and time attacks are there to give you bragging rights and assure you there's still a reward. If you want to see the content, the story, the world, that option is surely open to you. Games can be difficult; that is allowed. However, to see every part of the game's content, including the ending, is guaranteed as long as you put in the time. That's now considered a right in the games of today, a right that was never demanded in the 80s or even the 90s.

Yes, it's difficult. Sure, you have lives, sure, the save points aren't as convenient as most modern games are, and sure there are extremely difficult bosses, jumps, and landings, but really, Mega Man 9 isn't a remake of the past; it's a tongue-in-cheek admission that we've moved on while maintaining respect for the path paved before. It's "what happens if we make the past meet the new?"

The story at the beginning has a key line from Dr. Light that prefaces Mega Man's design philosophy: "Be careful, Mega Man, you haven't done this in a while." Almost none of us have, and we are likely to never do so again.

(Update: I revised this on the 10th because some of it was very poorly written.)

New GSW Column: Warhammer Online

This week I attempted to summarize the community at Warhammer Online. It's my first time being in an MMO at launch, so I found it interesting and exciting. As you know, I'm a convert to the game, so I was motivated to give it some more coverage.

Really, I wanted to demonstrate that I can write on the fly and get to the heart of a game community without years of extant casual forum discussion floating all over the place. I think I managed to be fair and capture investigators' hesitance and the participants' exuberance at the same time.

Things Muschie says, III: How to Get the Female Vote Edition


"She's so beautiful."

"She's so beautiful, though."

Later: "She's so beautiful." (She says this three more times; she's never really seen her before.)

Palin: "Nuke-ya-lur." (She says this about 4 or 5 more times. Muschie grimaces each time.)

Me: "I find it humorous that one of the points which is a minor point for those who don't like her ends up being your major point. Mispronunciation."

Muschie: "She's so pretty though!"

Me: "You're going to vote for someone pretty, even if she's dumb?"

Muschie frowns. Then grins.

Muschie: "Yes I am, just because you said that. Hah."