What the Hell does 8.6 Even Mean? My Personal Rating System and Why I’m Right

There’s a weird trend in video game reviews for the sheer numbers to become more important than any actual discussion. Fans of a series cling to Metacritic, outraged that the new masterpiece earns anything less than a perfect rating, verbally attacking or even sending death threats to reviewers for an 8/10 score on what they see as the second coming. Which means ignoring that an 8/10 is a very good score and a high recommendation. Numbers become gospel, and an average score of 95 is interpreted as the game being objectively better than one with a 94. People skip entire reviews and instead use the number at the end to determine whether or not something is good, innovative but flawed games get ignored, and we usher in a whole new era of homogenized mediocrity.

Or maybe I’m exaggerating. Nonetheless, game review scores are some of the most unreliable and skewed things you’ll ever see. There’s a huge bias towards inflated scores, there are weirdly specific numbers complete with decimals, and somehow wildly subjective opinions get squeezed into a precise score and somehow expected to make sense. Games that get rated highly are done so because the reviewer enjoyed it a lot despite flaws, games that have great ideas but considerable flaws get shuffled down into the numbers where people ignore them. The dreaded 7/10, or worse, 79/100 is for many the point of no return.

With all this in mind, I try to stick to a four-point rating system at all times. No half scores allowed, ever. Even at that level, it’s still cheating a little bit. The most pure rating system is a simple yes/no, or thumbs up or down, but I think that has a few flaws that need clarification. ‘Yes’ can apply to many things, from a decent fun romp to a masterpiece, and ‘no’ can be said in absolute terms, or as a ‘probably not’ to all but the fans who eat up that kind of game. A negative review isn’t going to stop someone who’s very interested in the game, and a positive one isn’t necessarily going to persuade anyone who isn’t. With that in mind, my preferred rating system looks something like this:

4: Highly Recommended

Either an all-around excellent game with quality in all areas, and minimal flaws, or just a game that does one or two things so exceptionally well it transcends its own flaws. This category can include the usual 95/100 on Metacritic, classic for the ages, AAA titles, or it can include something so innovative and passionate that it simply needs to be played. Games with this score are by no means perfect, and may even still contain major flaws, but there’s something about them so distinct and memorable that I consider them essential for anyone with an interest in games.

Examples:
Batman Arkham Asylum – An absolute classic that nails every single part of its design and makes the most of its license, overall one of the very few games out there that’s exceptional in every area.

Hotline Miami – A weird, niche-appeal, experimental game that is so memorable, so unusual that it absolutely must be played, even if you end up hating it.

3: Recommended

Either a good game that doesn’t quite amaze me, or a great game with such major flaws as to keep it from achieving full marks. Games in this category can vary wildly in “actual” quality, from the all-around solid experiences that do everything well but aren’t huge standouts, to the ambitious but rough projects that didn’t quite work, but earn a recommendation to experience what pieces they did get right. A lot of very good games are going to get this score, even some of my most-played games, because while they might do a lot of things right, they’re not incredible to the point that I would gush about them to anyone looking for a game to play.

Examples:

Alan Wake: Fun ideas and some great segments make for an enjoyable experience, even if there are some bumps along the road in terms of gameplay and story.

Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines: A very messy game that didn’t quite get finished, it’s one of the most involving, atmospheric action-rpgs out there and while gameplay is clunky and imbalanced as hell, it’s so damn stylish I still love and recommend it.

2: Not Recommended

This is actually quite a broad category and isn’t necessarily even a ‘no’. These are the games that have something good about them but don’t succeed at an overall pleasant experience. These are the bad games that tried. If it’s here, there are some redeeming qualities that will be noted, but not enough to earn my recommendation. Those who are strongly interested in the content or the genre will quite possibly be able to see through the flaws and enjoy it anyway.

Examples:

Anna: A messy but pretty horror game with some memorable scares and interesting ideas, but a very clumsy overall execution that lacks direction.

Clive Barker’s Jericho: A truly embarrassing game with some terrible design choices, ugly visuals, and poor AI that is still a weird amount of fun just for being unique and creative in a stupid kind of way.

1: Crap

Exactly as it sounds. It takes a lot for a game to fall into this category, and I’m not going to give out this score lightly. A game I didn’t like, that has huge design issues, or that simply isn’t very fun isn’t going to get a 1. No, this score is reserved for the games so bad they feel actively malicious. Be they cash-ins, ripoffs, awful mobile ports, or simply games that aren’t what they say they are, these are the games I can’t recommend to anyone. They accomplish nothing, they offer nothing, and the only reason to spend time with them is to see how bad they really are.

Examples: And Yet it Moves, inMomentum, Bad Hotel, and various other excruciatingly bad games that probably infiltrated your collection via Humble Bundle or other means.

With all that said, stay tuned as I now tackle the grotesque, writhing behemoth that is my Steam library, with many reviews to follow.

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From Ladies to Lizard People: Why Playing as Someone You’re Not Is Pretty Alright

Some people, when given the option of building and customizing their player character in any way they want, put together an idealized version of themselves. When companies take polls or collect stats on their players, inevitably the vast majority of players have created a human male to play as, whether the other options are as limited as human female, or as broad as robots, demons, undead, or freaking lizard people. It’s tempting to call this horrendously boring and uncreative, but there’s obvious appeal in self-inserting into another world as an idealized version of yourself and going on adventures. You don’t have to slip into another mindset and can react to situations and decisions as you really would, and let the escapism flow freely through your veins as your digital self conquers monsters and defeats everything that was ever evil.

I would never do this. And I don’t intend to textually masturbate by implying this makes me in any way more creative or intelligent than people who do. It’s just that when you get down to it I’m not really a tremendously interesting person and putting me into a high fantasy world or a space adventure or whatever isn’t really going to be any fun for anyone involved. The only way to make me interesting would be to give me some kind of cool backstory or personality quirk that makes sense in the setting, but isn’t true in real life. And then, it’s not really me anymore, is it? Just someone who looks like me. And given I’m by appearances … some guy, I’d be about as memorable in a video game world as Sam the Shopkeeper, Purveyor of Pantaloons.
Usually, there’s not much choice aside from playing male or female. You have to be human, and the choice doesn’t really mean much. The first time I decided to try out the “other side” was the first Fallout game, some years after it actually came out. The only reason I did that was because I read somewhere that female characters don’t take critical damage when they get hit in the groin. Yeah. Armed with my iron crotch, because that’s how women work, I set out into the wasteland and found it somehow a little more compelling to be a heavily armed woman righting wrongs in the post-apocalypse than some generic man, merely because it was a woman holding the gun and not being a sidekick or love interest of any sort, something you so rarely see in the mainstream entertainment industry as a whole. There are plenty of action movies starring women, but how many can you name that were good and aren’t Aliens?

It’s fun to play as a more unusual protagonist, and it was especially nice to see a female action hero who wasn’t sexualized and didn’t have the mandatory “vulnerable and helpless” scene at some point. You know the one. Some of the more assholeish NPC’s would make some vulgar comments towards you, but these fit the rough setting just fine. Most of the dialogue was the same, but there was that special feeling of discovering an Easter egg whenever a character would have the stunning observation skills to notice you were a woman. It’s a minor thing, and the game was old enough that you were mostly just a fuzzy sprite on the screen anyway, but at least seeing that the developers bothered to acknowledge my choice gave the sense of the character really being mine, rather than just Joe Generic. If nothing else, it’s interesting to play as a woman to see if the devs bothered to throw in any little extra lines or solutions to problems like dumb guards who will let you in because boobs.

What really solidified my decision was the excellent voice acting of Jennifer Hale as Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series. And I mean nothing against Mark Meer as the male version, as I think he’s a pretty cool guy. Rather, instead of the usually annoying or over-sexualized female hero voices of years past , Hale had a very convincing, powerful voice which really evoked the image of the elite commander you were supposed to be. The role, for both Shepards, was one of the biggest ever in video games at the time (citation needed), and you heard your character speak a whole lot, so it was easy to become attached. That voice automatically made any female character I created automatically interesting , and getting so into the role simply made playing female a natural choice after that. It just worked, and not because I secretly want to get a sex change, piss off.

I have heard complaints that Hale was far too emotional in her delivery, and opposite complaints that Meer was flatter, but I don’t agree with either side. Though it is worth considering that a less emotional delivery on the male’s side of things may have been a directorial choice to allow people to project into the role easier. Meer in other things tends to be a very dynamic performer, and as the game series progresses it seems like he’s given more free reign to really bring himself into Shepard. In theory, somewhere in the design process, someone decided that making the male protagonist too distinct and memorable would ruin everything for those guys who always just create themselves and want to slip into the role easily. Mass Effect 1’s Shepard is as blank slate as they get, but by the third game he or she has begun to develop as their own character, which has also been complained about. Because what do I even DO with these character traits that aren’t mine?? Jesus christ he’s showing emotional depth get me out of here.

While it’s not mine to judge how people like to play, what bothers me for some stupid reason is how close to the typical video game protagonist most people play when given all the choice in the world. Lists of top-selling games inevitably star tough, gritty, well-muscled white dudes with a frowny face and short brownish hair as if it’s simply the rule. I know mentioning this has been done to death and I’m not saying player characters automatically become more interesting if they look different, but it’s got to the point that it’s a little weird. I mean, I struggle to name more than three main characters with blond hair who aren’t from a Jrpg. Never mind those of different races, genders, physiques, ages, or personality other than “gruff” and probably “troubled by loss of wife/child/best friend/socks”.

Even in games where character customization is front and center, usually forcing you to do it before you even set foot in the game world, there is a default character who you will see first, featured on the box and in all promotional material. In every case I can think of, he is as generic as any other character in other games, some white dude with no defining features. This makes some sense I suppose. If the default option were especially distinct, then it would make you feel like you were doing something wrong by creating someone totally different. Still, it does seem odd that the developers seem to subtly suggest you play as some bland dude but, you know, if that’s not what you’re into that’s cool I guess.

There are a handful of games starring female protagonists with no male option, most famously Tomb Raider and Metroid, but these are rare. Most of the time, there will be a lady or two as a selectable character – no more than one for every two guys, as a general rule – but the ‘leader’ of the team will be a guy and the ladies are usually resigned to the sneakier or more indirect roles if it’s a class-based game. Archers, snipers, mages, thieves, that sort of thing. You will never see a woman as the driving physical force on a team unless you make it that way yourself. She will never get the biggest gun, or the heaviest armor, or be able to take the most hits, so if you play as her you’ll end up adopting a more careful playstyle that avoids being hit and usually fights enemies from afar, saving the aggression for the burly male characters because getting smacked in the face repeatedly while murdering something with your bare hands is for men only. Come on, women can be stupid brutes too, just give them a chance.

It’s not just a matter of gender, either. Fantasy games and others set in fictional worlds unlike our own tend to offer a wide array of interesting-or-not races to play as, usually depicting humans as the most generic choice with no particularly unusual traits. Good all around but no specialty. There are the usual assortment of pointy-eared folk and short, beardy types, and then there are those games which are set in a sultan’s menagerie. We get the undeniably cool (lizard people!), the strange and unusual (dead people!), and then the awful attempts at passing something off as creative (a human but with horns/a tail/weird eyes!). Yet still, most people prefer the human option, or the elf if their stats are better, and avoid everything else because “they look weird”. I was getting to something but now I can’t even finish this paragraph. Why would you ever not want to play as a lizard person. What the fuck is wrong with you. Out. OUT.

One more thing. There’s also all the sexuality stuff. It’s not something which comes up all that often in games, and it probably shouldn’t most of the time. When it does it’s usually more awkward and out of touch than a flirty old professor, but now that games are maturing and tackling stories and settings we’d never dream of in the bleepbloop days, this is becoming more relevant. There have been a few awkward fumbles with the gay ball before, usually just letting your female character be a lesbian by not bothering to change any of the dialogue, but in terms of gay male player characters, it just doesn’t happen. A few rpgs – usually made by Bioware – offer the option of a gay romance, but in most cases it’s just the straight romance except now you’re the same gender and nobody bothers to mention it. Which sounds refreshingly progressive but is mostly just lazy. The one exclusively gay male Bioware ever wrote was Steve Cortez, a pilot in Mass Effect 3, who requires emotional support for his recent loss and cries more than once with you. He also isn’t actually part of your main fighting squad, and just flies you from mission to mission. Still, he wasn’t terribly written, but there did seem to be a lack of commitment to actually giving you a gay guy who was an equal to the straight ones.

There aren’t many games I would outright defend as works of art. Some have a lot of style or artistic flair, but taken as a whole, most of them I’d simply call entertainment. What video games as a medium do have over anything else though is interactivity. Anything else, and you are simply watching the story unfold in a fictional world, but in a game, you are there living it. So when you project yourself into the role of your character, you may be able to go on adventures you would never really have, but you’re missing out on the opportunity to be someone you’re not. Games will always have heavy elements of escapism, and what greater escape is there than be someone who is unlike you in every aspect? If you’re a massive dork like me, you usually find yourself creating an inner monologue after getting familiar with your character, seeing the world through their eyes, understanding and responding to things in a whole new way. You probably won’t achieve enlightenment because you quantum leapt into the disturbed mind of Urkja the female orc warrior for a few dozen hours, but you can’t possibly be anything but better for the experience.

-OV

Ragdoll Physics and Murder Obsession: Why Games Are Kinda Creepy Sometimes

“Jeez. She fell funny”
(Laughs at dead bodies)
-Frank Costello, The Departed

In many modern video games, someone on the development team spent a good amount of time being paid to ensure that recently killed people collapse to the ground realistically, adjusting the joints of digital models so they bend convincingly when the character goes limp and flops over. This has now become more or less a standard feature and is among the creepiest uses of technology since whoever it was decided that female game characters’ breasts needed to bounce realistically as they moved. Sure, ragdoll physics look a lot better than seeing the same pre-animated death every time you kill someone, but let’s stop and consider what we’re saying here. Ragdoll physics exist because most video game protagonists kill enough people that the developers worry there won’t be enough variety in the ways their victims die. Murder gets as boring as folding laundry with enough repetition.

Ragdoll physics work just fine in games that sell themselves as silly, balls-out action. The Saints Row games, especially from 3 on, benefit from having exaggerated ragdolls flailing about everywhere whenever there’s an explosion, or being able to punch people so hard they go tumbling down the sidewalk. It looks ridiculous, and adds to the chaotic, Loony Tunes violence. In a more serious game, adding in ragdoll physics is just begging for them to go horribly wrong just when the most dramatic thing is happening. There are endless youtube clips or screenshots of characters ending up in silly positions, and it doesn’t matter if they were a major character or some random enemy, it will always be hilarious. At the end of the mediocre shooter Rainbow Six Vegas 2, when you draw your sidearm while the villain threatens you and explains his motives, I happened to have the Raging Bull magnum equipped, and the big final shot that ends the story hit the villain so hard it left his legs curled up over his shoulders and his face stuck in his own ass. So that wasn’t very dramatic. Not that that game had an especially involving storyline, but still.

Video games may be earning more artistic merit, but they will always be video games. To be a good game, a game still has to have some form of gameplay and the expectation is that even a straightforward point A to point B game should take a lot longer than a movie’s runtime to finish. Five hours of gameplay is considered a disappointment and a waste of money, while taking forty hours or more to complete a more involved game isn’t considered excessive. So, whatever the game happens to be about is going to be stretched over a whole lot more time than a movie ever would be. If your game is designed around shooting bad guys, you’re going to be doing that for hours, and you can’t just have one intro action sequence followed by two hours of buildup towards another final shootout. If there’s combat in a game, be it shooting, stabbing, punching, or otherwise, as a general rule you’ll be doing a lot of it, and the game needs to keep throwing enemies at you to defeat.

What usually results is that even in games that try to sell themselves as realistic, with protagonists you can identify with, you inevitably end up playing as a mass murderer. Even if they’re noble and trying to do the right thing, how much would you admire a real person who had personally killed hundreds of people? You have to imagine someone like that would be a little fucked up by the whole thing. Some games try to touch on this, giving mention to the guilt the protagonist feels over having killed so many people, but it’s often so minimal it’s comical. They fuss about it or have a look in the mirror with those “what have I donnnnne” eyes, but give it a few minutes and they’ll have killed ten more people in slow-motion kill sequences and forgotten about the whole thing. Really, the only kind of convincing game protagonist is one who is unashamedly completely psychotic, and so many games try to justify their starring psycho by giving him some kind of sympathetic motivation that really drives him – Kratos of God of War has his dead family, Alex Mercer of Prototype his girlfriend, and so on. This is supposed to humanize them even when they’re utterly brutal to people who don’t even threaten them.

One of the main reasons for all this killing is the assumption that whenever you are faced with an enemy, the conflict should end in death for you or them. I’m not talking about lighter, softer leaning games with more ambiguous fates for villains, calling them “defeated” or “KO’ed”, but rather the obvious, instant death of enemies who dared get in your way and threaten you. Whether your enemies are monsters, aliens, evil soldiers, or just security guards doing their job, you usually have no choice but to be ruthless, because they will be just as ruthless and won’t stop trying to kill you no matter how minor your offense was, be it killing another enemy or just trespassing.

Sometimes enemies at low health will try to run away, but if you want the experience points or loot they’ll give you, you actually have to chase after them and kill them before they escape. Some games will have enemies surrender, but for the most part there isn’t really much benefit to not killing them. I remember in Skyrim when a bandit fell to his knees, wounded, and said he’d had enough only to get up a few seconds later and come charging after me again, get smacked and surrender again… and repeat until I hit him just a little too hard and he died. Skyrim’s bandits apparently have very short memories and minimal self-preservation instinct, and I was disappointed I couldn’t actually show mercy.

One way some games avert the mass murder quotient is by adding stealth as a central or side mechanic. Stay out of sight, and you’ll avoid setting off an alarm, and won’t have to kill an entire military base worth of bad guys. I’m very fond of stealth games, though they too have an odd relationship with murder at times. Most of the time, you’ll be loaded down with various weapons or tools or whatnot which will make silently eliminating the enemy and clearing the way ahead much easier, and not given any particular reason why you ought to murder every guard who just happens to be protecting the area – whether it’s an evil government soldier or just a paid guard working the night shift. Some games reward you for finding non-lethal solutions and dock points or cash every time you kill someone, but this just strikes as taunting the player with a bunch of shiny kill tools and then scolding them for using them.

Dishonored, while an excellent game, was one of the worst for this, with most of the awesome powers being lethal to enemies, and the story darkening for every enemy you killed. There were creative ways of punishing your targets of vengeance that didn’t involve killing them, though they were so cruel you might as well have just killed them. Characters in the game reacted positively to you if you were merciful, which was nothing new, but as well the city of Dunwall itself started looking up if you went the good route, while it went more and more to shit if you killed a lot of guards, explaining it as causing more chaos thanks to panic and spreading the deadly plague with more corpses. Ultimately, you progress through the same plot and levels until the very end, but a few things in the levels change and the tone of things shifts quite a bit, heading towards a hopeful ending or a dark, cynical one. A cool idea, and I actually preferred the dark ending, but it forces those going for the good route to miss out on a lot of the fun.

In a very specific case, the assumption you’ll kill at least few guards just ends up being hilarious. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has an available upgrade for robotic-armed super-spy Adam that allow him to punch through weak sections of wall to find new paths. If an enemy is standing on the other side, potentially one you the player wasn’t even aware of, he just instantly grabs them and snaps their neck without pause, as if that’s the obvious thing to do. This happens whether they’re a evil mercenary, a street gangster, or just some random cop. It’s not like Adam is prone to murder in the rest of the story – it fully acknowledges you for playing peacefully and even has an achievement at the end if you didn’t kill a single person. An achievement which can be ruined by punching through the wrong wall and letting Adam’s murder-tourette’s take over.

It’s cropping up more often now that games will sometimes present you with a peaceful solution to certain conflicts. Usually, these involve talking your way out of it, in games that incorporate RPG influences and allow your character to have skill in persuasion or intimidation tactics. The problem is, these moments only happen periodically, and the rest of the game you’re just confronted by enemies who attack on sight and can’t be reasoned with in any way, which makes negotiating for peace seem kind of silly when you’ve already killed fifty of them. Social skills in RPGs end up usually being a side skill to compliment your combat prowess, and creating a weak character intended to be purely diplomatic is just going to get you killed. Some older, more complicated RPGs almost let you do this – Fallout 1 and 2 or Planescape: Torment come to mind – but that kind of depth usually doesn’t exist in more modern equivalents.

Most games throw so much conflict at you, and have you kill so many people or other enemies simply because you are a lot stronger than each individual enemy and therefore need a lot of opposition before you’re actually threatened. Where enemies go down in a hit or two, you can stand there like a tank, maybe duck down and regenerate some health or soak up some health packs or healing potions, allowing infinite wounding and recovery that doesn’t affect you over the long term in any way. A man with a gun or a sword isn’t very scary, because those weapons probably don’t do very much damage to the number that is your health, and you can probably easily recover that number without even flinching. Even the more realistic protagonists end up basically becoming The Terminator when shit goes down.

No game has ever actually presented a realistic damage system, involving injuries and long-lasting wounds, well enough to avoid being annoying or seeming tacked on. It would be a lot of work, but probably feasible at least to some extent. A few games have touched upon it. Metal Gear Solid 3 had the recovery system for patching up injuries like bullet wounds and broken bones, though it basically just meant you needed four items to heal yourself rather than one, and was a gimmicky way of attempting to seem realistic. The original Deus Ex had individual health meters for each body part, and damage to them would do things like throw off your aim or force you to limp or crawl, and a similar system shows up in the Fallout series. This adds a layer of risk to combat, but also to some players just ends up an annoyance that punishes them for playing the game their way, which may be why this kind of thing isn’t implemented often.

Horror and survival games usually have you kill few or no enemies, in order to reinforce the feeling of helplessness and vulnerability the protagonist is suppose to be experiencing. Many horror games lean to one side or the other in terms of too much or too little conflict, and end up dividing audiences depending on what they prefer. A game like Amnesia or Outlast has no combat whatsoever and forces the player to run and hide from every threat, a design choice both scary and a bit lazy. Something like Dead Space never stops throwing enemies at you, ensuring you’re always threatened but also making you numb to the horror after a while. There needs to be enough time between threats that the player is able to build up a sense of dread and anticipate the next encounter. Too short a time, and there’s no chance to immerse the player in the world and really make them afraid to go through that door. Too long, and there’s the risk of the player no longer caring, and just rushing from place to place until something finally tries to kill them.

One of the prime examples for this is Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. It was not nearly as well-received as its predecessor, The Dark Descent, and some criticism leveled at it mentioned that it hardly even counted as a game. Enemy encounters are rare, there is no inventory to speak of, no health meter, simply you and a creepy environment to navigate where occasionally you will be chased around by squealing pig-man monstrosities. It was definitely an attempt at a different kind of horror, one where the anticipation is dragged out for as long as possible before finally paying off. It’s easy to dismiss as empty and boring, but I felt the atmosphere and writing kept me entertained and full of dread just long enough to bring me to the next encounter. The best moment came when I stood staring at a monster on the other side of a fence that I was confident was just there to make me think I was in danger – at which point it walked right around that fence and came after me, having been a real threat the whole time. The game had toyed with me for so long that I was growing smug, and then threw that back in my face just when I thought I was safe.

Making enemy encounters rare and very dangerous can almost make other games feel like horror games. Take older tactical shooters like Rainbow Six 3 or SWAT 4, where room-clearing and careful corner checking is mandatory, and an enemy who sneaks up behind you can kill you in a second. Careful movement and quick reaction times are required, as you’re just as fragile as the enemy, and one slip-up can mean the whole mission fails. These games were especially tense when the level had been mostly cleared of enemies, but there was still one roaming around, somewhere. Suddenly, every open door, every corner could be a deathtrap, and whatever direction you went could let him get the drop on you when you turned your back. This sense of danger, and the empowering feeling of overcoming that danger through careful planning and caution, goes a long way to make these games feel memorable and immersive, and I’d love to see that general philosophy implemented in other kinds of games as well.

Killing a lot of stuff in a video game isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I’m not trying to be a moral guardian here. It’s become a joke to bring up the fact that game protagonists kill a lot of people, as hilariously demonstrated in the epilogue of the brilliant indie game Gunpoint: “I, er, may have killed more people than I actually avenged here.” (Achievement popup: ‘Acknowledged Ludonarrative Dissonance’.) If the game’s going to be about shooting guys, make it about shooting guys. But if you’re trying to sell your game as a free and open adventure where you can be anyone you want, then let us really play as a diplomat, as a merciful warrior, as a sneaky expert who leaves no traces without making us feel like we’re missing out on a major chunk of the gameplay. We’re off to a good start for certain, but a lot of games still fall back on the old way, and it cheapens what would otherwise be great protagonists. Everything being a threat was the infancy, and now we’re in the somewhat awkward adolescence of video game conflicts, where some things work and some things don’t. Here’s hoping some great games take some big risks that really pay off, and we can explore some new ideas and have new experiences before we stagnate in mass murder.

-OV

Sometimes, I Play Games

I thought a lot about the tone of this first post. Pretentious, self-deprecating, insufferably witty. Then it occurred to me how important it is to someday have something to look back on and cringe over as my awkward starting point before I’d really found my voice. As if that’s just a thing you do someday. Suddenly, a voice! Grab it before it goes gabbing away!

So I’m just going to go with it and fuck the haters. That’s a thing people say, I think. It means they don’t care what other people think except I definitely care what other people think because I spent time out of my life researching what the accepted spelling of video games is so that nobody hates me on the internet. Turns out it’s two words, usually.

Anyway. The Overvulture: Watching Video Games Die. There are a lot of implications behind a slogan like that and only about half of them are that I’m a pretentious dickhead. There is something inherently wrong with the current state of the video game industry as a whole that threatens something I’ve always loved with total extinction, leaving me feeling like I’m picking through the bones of a once mighty beast looking for the juicy squishy bits. There’s no worry that video games as a concept are just going to vanish at any moment and we’ll just have to play our backlogs forever, despite what some alarmists may say. It’s just that video games are creeping away from what they used to mean, from who they used to entertain, and finding a new, terrifying audience the likes of which nocturnal, pasty creatures like me shun as filthy heretics.

I have enjoyed hours upon hours of video games since I was a tiny idiot who didn’t know how to draw his sword on the first level of the original Prince of Persia but loved playing that one level again and again. From the bleeping bloops that were the hand-me-down late 80’s to the token-guzzling arcades of the early 90’s and through a handful of home consoles and then computers, it is a pastime which I’ve always been just a little weirdly passionate about compared to my peers and have probably invested more time in than anything else in my life aside from sleeping. And even then that’s a probably.

Something I’ve done that much is probably important to me, something which at least partially defines me as a person. Which is a reality that makes me want to cry a little or at least look in a mirror and whisper “fuck you” for a while. Like most technology, video games have advanced exponentially by the year and are nearly unrecognizable compared to those that I and other 20-somethings grew up with. While they certainly existed before the 90’s, this generation is the first that grew up alongside them, and caught them in their prime making leaps and bounds forward instead of meandering around for a decade. It’s a special part of our lives and we love to cling to the idea that we somehow understand them better than the kids today who don’t know what SNES stands for, like the one asshole friend who can’t stop talking about how watered-down the movie was compared to the book.

Video games are a relatively young industry that has changed tremendously over the years, and as more body parts get sloppily Frankensteined onto the bloated, staggering monster it has become, the less recognizable it is to those who have had it all their lives. Said monster is still pretty fun at parties and tells a better story than he did when he was human, but has a tendency to rifle through your sock drawer for change and tell the same joke that was funny the first three times just to see if he can still get a chuckle and I should be dragged outside and kicked mercilessly for dragging this metaphor out. Point is, where once there was a shining, central beacon of ignorance-filtered gaming joy shot straight into our underdeveloped little brains, now there are a lot more pieces to pick through, with potentially more discoveries and even more potential for disappointment. Something has changed, something fundamental in the philosophy of what really defines a game.

Maybe it’s just us, getting old. This thought and all the existential horror that comes with it never quite leaves me. Maybe my brain just isn’t wired the same way it used to be, no longer getting those sweet, sweet zaps of Pavlovian pleasure from the moment I press start. Maybe I’ll never again really know the higher state of being that was trying a shiny new game for the first time. The greatest games ever released could come out tomorrow and I’d just have to sit back and criticize the uneven storytelling or the slightly imbalanced mechanics instead of screaming with joy until blood shot out of my ears.

Maybe that’s part of it, but it can’t just be that. I still feel that childlike glee when something really tickles my fancy and I still gush like a stomped blueberry over my favourite games and gaming moments and so on. When I like a game enough, the smallest stupidest details on it dwell in my thoughts even while I’m away from home and I start planning out my next playing session hours or even days before I actually get back to it. It’s the kind of creepy, obsessive behaviour I’d hesitate to tell a therapist but here I am professing it for all the internet to see. There’s still that part of me which just shits when a game is just really, really good, but that feeling comes less often than it used to.

It’s not that old games are simply better. Sure, some of those old games we regard as masterpieces of their time still hold up to day for being just really well designed within the limitations of the technology. But now we have more games, bigger games that do fancier things we’d never even dream of as kids. Games can do more than they ever could and they sometimes even do. If I could send a few choice games back in time to my childhood self I would instantlly vanish from existence because my head would have fucking exploded in the past. I remember when being able to go left or right was a goddamn adventure and now I can just drop into a massive, relatively living world and explore anywhere I want without running out of time and dying for some reason.

There are still some new, fantastic games that get released every year, but the industry as a whole has simply moved on from us as a consumer base and moved onto younger, newer gamers. As technology advances, new things can be done with games, but not necessarily things we like. Whereas old RPG’s demanded a lot of imagination to make that big fight seem epic and really bring the world to life, now things are action-packed and beautifully rendered and you needn’t imagine a thing. I sound old when I decry the short attention span of modern gamers, when I remember it taking hours just to figure out how to progress through the first section of a game because I was kind of awful at games when I was a kid and games were kind of awful at letting you know you were doing the right thing.

I still play games a whole lot, but only half at most of what I play could be considered a major release. The indie game boom has been a wonderful thing for gamers of all ages, even if the huge increase in volume of games also means huge increase in crap and bandwagon jumping just like the big releases. A lot of them are a whole lot simpler than anything that cost millions to make, and definitely don’t make the most use of your fancy console or gaming computer, but I usually end up more often hooked on something simple and creative than something that promises hours of epic action.

Let’s not get pretentious and start adjusting our thick-rimmed glasses too quickly here though. I’m not saying indie is the way to go in all cases – there’s a lot you can’t accomplish on a small budget and you need to be creative to milk fun out of less. It’s silly to say that you never play ‘AAA’ games anymore because they all suck. There are some fantastic big releases, but almost every single one of them is somehow smeared by the sweaty taint of compromise, of company expectations, of deadlines and bottom lines to meet. If I named off a list of ten of my favourite big titles of the past few years, almost every single one of them has been surrounded by some controversy or other, and has a group that passionately hates it for whatever reason. Most of them can be enjoyed despite their flaws, but there’s always that -something-, that always comes up in every conversation about it. “Great game, but….”

The end result is there are plenty of good games still around that probably deserve more praise for what they got right, but fewer GREAT games, those that will last for years and that we’ll still be talking about far beyond the time anyone still cares. Games have made massive strides forward in gameplay, in visual design, in storytelling and atmosphere, but it’s a very rare game that gets them all right, all in one go. Wonderful story and world but meh gameplay, or great action and combat but fucktarded story set in Genericland, or so on. One or the other ends up grinding on us long enough that quite often these games we paid so much for don’t even end up getting finished, because for all its positive aspects, something about it just sucked enough to make us stop caring.

I don’t think this is the doom of gaming as a whole, but I do think that games have changed, and that we just need to accept that some things won’t happen anymore while being excited by those things that do. Maybe we won’t have games that are as tightly designed and perfectly planned out as the old ones we love, but we can marvel at the freedom games give us now, even if that means they’re a little rougher around the edges. Maybe we don’t have big companies working on old-school platformers or rpgs and such anymore, but we do have smaller, more creatively free companies making things we’d never even dream of 20 years ago. It’s a time to be excited as a passionate and/or obsessive gamer and it’s a time to bid farewell to old things and accept that they’ve died. Maybe a phoenix will rise from their ashes, or maybe they’re just a bunch of fucking ashes and stop staring at them like that, weirdo, nothing’s going to happen.

-OV