How Do You Solve A Problem Like Games?
Looking at your online bank statement, you grin with anticipation, guard your extra cash closely like Leon the Professional, and wait for the moment when it is appropriate to unleash your debit card. What tools do you use to ascertain the perfect target? Which game will become The One? Tools at your disposal: 3am rant from your best friend about something they’ve recently played, or a review by your favourite writer (a SquareGo reviewer, naturally).
Both of those open channels have undeniable power over us: between them we can be persuaded to buy a little disc for money that, otherwise invested, could have fed us for a month. I’m a freelancer, and recently, for example, I had a significant dilemma – LA Noire or food? (The answer was LA Noire, but my PS3 did attempt to eat the disc.) The popularity of LA Noire meant there was plenty of material coming from both friends and the internet about the game, so I had lots of information to base my decision on.
Sometimes we’re not so lucky. The reports conflict.
The Power of the Review Score
Between those two recommendations, personal or written, which is the more persuasive? A rant from a friend, or a review from a reviewer whose opinion usually converges with your own? I’d like to think the former, because I’m always that friend. I’m always the girl who turns up at a party full of gamers and proceeds to tell everyone about this game that I played recently that is by the way pure dead brilliant and you should all play it at once go-go-go!
But there’s always this killjoy who wades in Captain Mal-like and says, “Well I read this review of it online and they gave it one star out of ten”. Medic: I need a martini and a bandage for this gushing wound in my side.
I’m a huge hypocrite, because I’m a big fan of reviews, and I trust them much more than I do a friend’s recommendation. We all have a favourite journalist who puts stuff down on paper that we just couldn’t express about the love or hatred of a game. I am just much more likely to trust a professional review than I am a friend who played an hour of a game and thought it was hot. Because it’s a reviewer’s job.
The Complexity of the Videogame Form
I came across a problem trying to review a particular game recently, and I often wonder how everyone else solves this problem I encountered.
Sometimes, there comes a game that can’t be put neatly in stars, out-of-tens or percentages. If you have to put a score at the bottom of your review, this one game can make it become problematic. I’ve had long arguments on Twitter about it with journalists I respect. I have concluded that this is not to do with the weaknesses of reviews: this is to do with the strength and complexity of games; how diverse and complex our chosen medium is and that we struggle to put them in a box. I think we should be proud of games for this – extremely proud.
The game I’ve had significant problems with recently is Deadly Premonition.
I love this game, and yet it is rubbish. Its quirks and foibles and pure idiocy, overegged voice acting and appalling control system somehow come together to make a game that has had a huge impact on how I look at games as a medium. I loved it. It made me think about how mainstream games lack mystery and a certain extraordinary quality. And at the same time it was so badly made I laughed uncontrollably. But the creativity and imagination that burst the seams of its badly-put-together frame? Hard to deny. For the first time in my life, I became genuinely confused about whether things in the game were a bug or a feature.
The question is, when I come to put the stars at the end, do the stars reflect how much fun I had playing it (five stars)? Or how technically polished it is (one star)? Do the stars indicate how much the game has achieved (five out of ten)? Or how good the gameplay is (two out of ten)? Are the stars representative of how good the graphics are (very poor, PS2 era)? Or are they representative of how creative and interesting the game is (massively)? The animation, the control system, the HUD, the graphics, the story, the audio – so many little things make up a game and make it so complex and diverse that sometimes when the quality of the diverse elements clash it’s hard to tell what side you’re on when you surface, gasping, from your little voyage into the deep.
How Can We Score the Unscoreable?
I personally tend towards scoring to indicate my enjoyment, but this would never be seen as ‘objective’: and I want to be taken seriously as an objective reviewer. I wonder: is that a problem for readers? For me, when I read a review and the reviewer heavily criticises a game and then slaps on a 70%, it seems ludicrously incongruous and I start to distrust it. With SquareGo’s Ross Adams, his review reflects his score on Deadly Premonition: a 2 star – a fair score considering that it seems that he didn’t like it very much.
He states, “Deadly Premonition represents a problem that is far too common in games with interesting stories and concepts; the actual game part is a bit rubbish”. A succinct and spot-on observation, but it is clear which part, for him, is important – he has placed weighting on the basic nuts and bolts of the game and how those are flawed – but it’s not unplayable because of that. Perhaps if we look at it as “as designed” and forget how we expect the game to play, we can look at what the gameplay forces us to do.
Player Difficulty As Part of the Experience
A short tangent, if you will. My favourite horror game of all time is the Gamecube remake of Resident Evil (the first). In it, everything is shiny and brand new – apart from the control system and movement. Jill still drives like a tank through treacle. She reverses at the pace of a geriatric snail. She has three places she can point her gun. At a zombie’s head, at the ceiling, or at her toenails. Let me remind you that this was a game that, even if you’d played the original, the designers were playing you like a banjo. They pulled a fast one on us: they’d put in super-speedy Crimson Heads, a zombie who’ll wander into your safe room (the ultimate betrayal), and overpowered monsters we liked to call ‘Bandersnatches’. And all we had was Jill with her delayed reactions and a one in three chance not to shoot out a light fixture instead of a zombie, whilst you mash buttons in a blind panic.
I’m not gonna lie. I totally keeched myself all the way through that game. And the poor controls: the cherry on top of the cake of fear.
Now I don’t know if the designer of Deadly Premonition Mr “SWERY” intended his gameplay to be so broken. I suspect he didn’t. But forget what the maker intended here, and think about only the experience – as a horror game. Are you terrified? Are you scared that your input will not be reproduced in the game sufficiently? Are you worried that your character won’t be able to run away? Are you frustrated that your gun won’t aim at that damned zombie’s head? You bet you are. How does that make you feel? It makes me afraid. But I can’t stop, because man, Frances York Morgan has a really freaking weird case to solve, and I’m pretty sure he needs to buy more of that mystic coffee.
Metacritic is Also Very Confused
It’s still undeniable rubbish, but because I enjoyed the game’s idiosyncrasies so much, I find it really hard to put stars on this particular crazy game, when I wouldn’t have thought twice about awarding LA Noire a nice 4 stars exactly like Tom Hillman, who rightly said that LA Noire “will go on to influence the way in which animation is created for years to come”. Whereas Deadly Premonition has the graphics of a severely arthritic PS2, and could inspire only another season of Twin Peaks, if it’s lucky. And I’m pretty sure Kyle Maclachlan’s busy. Handsome sod.
Metacritic shows that the majority of reviewers are hugely confused by Deadly Premonition. At the time of writing, 20 critics were positive about it, 14 critics had a mixed reaction, and 5 flat out hated it. The general public, on the other hand, treated Deadly Premonition like it was Marmite. Metacritic’s public scores show that they genuinely adored it, or they really freaking hated it. There were no in-between or ‘mixed’ reviews. I thought perhaps this was the norm for the public reviews – I mean who would write a lukewarm review about something on the internet if they weren’t getting paid? Usually only those who are passionate about something will pop their heads up and type something out. But actually, having a perfunctory scout-about on Metacritic, the public often seem to knock out ‘mixed’ reviews for a game. So Deadly Premonition again seems to be an unusual case in that respect – no one felt like Deadly Premonition was a ‘middling’ game. Mixed reviews: 0. Love or hate, all the way baby. And that’s the sort of game you should want to play. The vision it took to make Deadly Premonition was immense, and boy, it also took balls.
At the time of writing, Metacritic gives Deadly Premonition a 68%, which to be fair is quite high. But it still seems kind of awkward to slap a mere score on this particular game when I personally feel it’s dividing our gaming loyalties in half. It’s black versus white, brilliant and idiotic, clumsy but beautiful all at the same time. Perhaps, if we reviewed Marmite, it would come out with a 68%? But then, I could never review Marmite objectively. I completely and utterly adore it.