Today we venture into the subway system of a post-apocalyptic Moscow to fight bandits, scrounge for gas masks and soak in an atmosphere rarely seen in typical Western games.
Today we venture into the subway system of a post-apocalyptic Moscow to fight bandits, scrounge for gas masks and soak in an atmosphere rarely seen in typical Western games.
How can I possibly eulogize a man I didn’t know? How could I honor the memory of a man who didn’t know I existed? Why do I still feel like I should try? Let’s take this step-by-step.
The first thing I should do is explain the circumstances. Ryan Davis, one of the founders of the video game news site, Giant Bomb, passed away suddenly on July 3. He had just gotten married and was on his honeymoon. The tragedy of this situation is lessened somewhat by the knowledge that Ryan must have passed away happily, having found the woman of his dreams and enjoying the height of his career doing what he loved most: playing, reviewing and talking about games.
The second thing I should do is tell you to stop reading this blog post, at least for a little while. Instead, you should read the articles linked below, because they do a better job than I ever could to show what kind of effect Ryan Davis had on the gaming industry, and more importantly, its people–ranging from developers, consumers, media and beyond.
The third thing I should do is tell you to go to YouTube and search for Ryan Davis and Giant Bomb. If you’ve never heard Ryan tell a story, do yourself a favor and listen to a random clip of him talking. He was an amazing storyteller. He made over a million fans feel like they were his buddies, having a beer and talking about arcade games with such detail, you could swear your feet were sticking to soda splattered floors, leaning against the dim glow of melodic pinball machines. Here’s a good start:
The fourth thing I should do is much harder. I want to explain why the death of a stranger has impacted me in such a profound way. Every week for the past several years, I have listened to the Giant Bombcast, Giant Bomb’s podcast discussing the news of the week, but usually devolving into arguments about 90’s hip-hop, energy drinks or vivid recollections of the absurd corporate-tainted press events that often define the video game industry.
When you spend so much time in your life listening to the same group of people talking so candidly about their lives and passions, you cannot help but feel connected with them. For years I have listened to Ryan and the rest of the Giant Bomb crew talk about games in a way anyone could understand. And honestly, even though Ryan didn’t know me, he still helped me, often in profound ways.
I’ve gone through a number of changes in the past several years. I’ve been in some relationships that are now former relationships. I’ve spent time in faraway places with only an iPod for company. I’ve worked hard to get in shape and bring my life together. And all the while, Ryan has been there, making me laugh and making me think. I still recall spending a lonely winter day in Beijing a few years ago. I was studying thousands of miles away from home. My Chinese was not very good so it was hard for me to express myself easily. And my girlfriend had just dumped me a month earlier. Sad times. I decided to take a late night walk to Houhai, a lake district with few people walking about for the chill in the air. As I walked, I felt profoundly lonely and missed my home very much. To cope, I popped in my ear buds and clicked play on a podcast I had just been introduced to:
And everything was OK. For the next two hours or so, I wandered, oblivious to the cold, smiling at Ryan’s endless banter. This stranger had brought me home.
When you try to talk about video games to people who don’t care, they cannot appreciate the impact games have on your life. Ryan’s view toward games reflected his passion, but also showed that a passion toward the medium does not equal an obsession. He was a man who loved life and never let games become something they’re not supposed to be: a burden.
This is why I want to talk about Ryan Davis and honor his memory in my own way. Maybe you don’t like video games. Maybe you do. Either way, you should remember Ryan Davis because he did something few have accomplished. He lived his life with passion and a sense of fun that infected everyone around him. Another member of the Giant Bomb staff, Drew Scanlon, said it best with this tweet: “Forget Disney, the general vicinity of Ryan Davis was always the Happiest Place on Earth. I wish I had the ability to share joy like he did.”
This leads me to the fifth thing I’d like you to do. Stop reading this. Do something fun and enjoy it. We only get one shot at this living thing, so we might as well make this shot count, right? Ryan may be gone from this world, but his memories live on in those of us lucky enough to have heard him speak and make us laugh. His honesty and spirit should be examples for us all, regardless of our opinion of games. We should be so lucky to live twice as long as him, and make half as many people happy.
Go on now. Stop reading! You’ve got a life to live!
Rest in Peace, Ryan. You made the world a better place through your laughter.
Last year, it occurred to me that I was an adult. Living abroad, earning my own living, and paying taxes and rent. These were all things that adults did, so it finally dawned on me that if I wanted to properly embrace adulthood, I would need a plan. I would have to answer the question: what kind of man should I be?
So on a humid summer day in August, sitting in my new apartment, I wrote a list of five professions that I felt every man should strive to become–or at least adopt the positive traits associated with those professions.
Surprisingly, I developed this list rapidly. Each profession, or “aspect”, simply made sense to my own worldview. Here’s the final list (in no particular order):
I will talk about each of these aspects in a moment, but overall, they all share a common quality: each one can be exemplified by a historical or literary figure. In other words, each aspect has at least one historical figure and one literary figure who serves as a paragon of that particular virtue. For instance, when I considered the Prince category, I immediately thought about the example of George Washington. Now obviously he was not a literal prince, but he fits the virtues of the category.
I admit that when I made this list, I was not thinking about video games. In fact, in my own way, I was developing the list to escape the pull of virtual worlds in favor of conquering real life. But as I think about the list, and as I think about the fact that video games are developing into a more mature art form, I also realize that characters in video games might make acceptable role models for my five aspects.
To explore this point and to discuss the rationale behind the professions I highlighted, I present the Five Aspects of a Man in historical form and video game form.
“Capability is Divinity”
The Warrior was the first aspect I identified, for reasons I imagine are fairly apparent. Basically, I believe that a man (or at least the kind of man I would like to be), should be physically able to deal with challenging situations and mentally strong enough to engage with these challenges effectively.
Note that I am not claiming that a Warrior must be good at swinging a sword or able to bench press twice his body-weight. I defined the aspects according to their applicability in the real world–a real world in which fighting a dragon is extremely unlikely.
Having said this, sometimes we find ourselves in situations that require a certain physical dexterity to succeed. For instance, we may witness an accident that requires the strength and endurance to carry someone to receive medical aid. We might encounter a dangerous situation, which requires our speed or agility to escape. We may even encounter a situation in which retreat simply is not an option; a fight requires a Warrior’s physical ability.
The Warrior must also maintain his health and have ownership over the things which might present trouble down the road. A healthy diet and disciplined exercise regimen are qualities which benefit the Warrior, and ultimately, the complete man.
Lastly, a Warrior must also have the mental fortitude to use his physical capabilities effectively. It’s not enough to deadlift 150 kg. One must also be able to do so under extreme stress, otherwise the man is nothing but a gilded husk–impressive on the outside, but empty on the inside.
Historically, we can see the example of a great Warriors as generals or strategists. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War gives the reader a window into the worldview of a great Warrior. Sun Tzu’s strengths as a military tactician weren’t born from raw strength; instead, his brilliance was his understanding of the use of efficient applications of strength and the overall maintenance of discipline across all ranks.
We might think of our bodies as an army, and apply Sun Tzu’s understanding of warfare to our physical selves. From Chapter 6 in The Art of War:
“To be certain to take what you attack, attack where the enemy cannot defend.
To be certain of safety when defending, defend where the enemy cannot attack.”
In other words, pay special attention to strengths and weaknesses and apply the strengths to situations as they arise. A quick man must use his speed and a strong man should use his strength. The quick man should know his limits though, especially with respect to strength. The same applies to the strong man and speed.
In video games, there is no shortage of Warriors, but the one who stands out for me is Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood and Revelations.
While not the most physically imposing of video game characters, Ezio is an excellent paragon of the Warrior’s virtue. He is incredibly healthy, able to scale urban environments using a combination of floating grace and raw muscle. He’s also aware of the fact that his strengths do not lie in an open fight. Using quickness and agility to his advantage, Ezio picks out his targets carefully while managing the rest of the external environment so as to not get into an impossible fight. Capability and efficiency are core values for the Warrior–and Ezio is a fantastic exemplar of this virtue.
“Knowledge is Power”
The second aspect I developed, the Scholar, is another fairly obvious choice. Whereas the domain of the Warrior lies primarily in the physical world, the Scholar’s world is devoted to the advancement of the mind.
Everyone can be a Scholar, regardless of intellectual potential (i.e. IQ), because just as the Warrior need not be strong or fast in the conventional sense, a Scholar need not be intelligent per se. Of course it’s helpful to be able to memorize and apply facts, but this is not an absolute requirement.
A Scholar’s most important trait is his innate sense of curiosity in the world around him. It is not important that the Scholar remember every detail, read every book or study every subject; what IS important is that the Scholar be willing to accept knowledge from all sources as being potentially valuable.
Ignorance is a condition in which all of us live, but the acceptance of ignorance is unacceptable because it prevents us from seeing opportunities for improvement. Scholarly pursuits drive us to better ourselves, and perhaps more importantly, understand other people’s positions in a less-than-superficial way.
From a historical standpoint, Scholars have advanced knowledge for the benefit of humanity and for the benefit of themselves. Ben Franklin is an excellent model for a Scholar’s better qualities, particularly since he was not the kind of person who would absorb information and do nothing with it. He was an inventor, a statesman, theorist, scientist and politician–and what’s more, his undying sense of creativity and curiosity have defined a critical part of the American psyche. In other words, for many Americans, Franklin serves as a model for intellectualism and tenacity, all in service of patriotism.
Excerpts from Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac shed light on his brilliance and his worldview:
Hunger never saw bad bread.
Fools make feasts and wise men eat ‘em.
Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.
Poverty wants some things, Luxury many things, Avarice all things.
The Doors of Wisdom are never shut.
Franklin here teaches us another important virtue of the Scholar. A good scholar does not carry with him pretension. Being smart is one thing. Being able to educate others in their own language is quite another. What value is there in having a brilliant teacher who cannot find the words or the manners to impart wisdom? A true Scholar, like Franklin, can teach effortlessly, using the right mannerisms. In Franklin’s case, humor is the gateway to the mind.
Video games are not havens for Scholar characters. Whereas Warriors can devastate foes with unrelenting force or beautiful choreography, Scholars are mostly limited to background support roles. They are viewed as tactical liabilities, who exist only because their specialized knowledge makes them a necessary–if unwelcome–addition to the battlefield.
One notable exception to this trend comes from Mass Effect 2. Mordin Solus is a Salarian scientist and an superior Scholar. Not only does he assist with the back-end scientific research required to defeat the main Reaper antagonist in the game, he is also a potent soldier, capable of leveraging his knowledge of technology to great effect in combat. Furthermore, Mordin sees value in all knowledge, not just facts that can be easily and directly applied to battlefield technologies. One of the most memorable moments in Mass Effect 2 happens when the player character interacts with Mordin in his science lab. Mordin admits to having studied Earth’s great musicals. He then proceeds to sing his rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Major-General’s Song”. Why would he do this?
While Mordin probably understood that the value of such knowledge would be un-quantifiable, it would allow him to better understand the human species, and as consequence, work with them on future pursuits–including the destruction of a Reaper. A true Scholar understands that knowledge in service of building alliances is as valuable as knowledge in service of advancing tangible pursuits.
“Born to Lead”
The third aspect I identified was the Prince, and he is the first that requires a bit more explanation. Essentially, the Prince is the aspect who can lead men and assume responsibility for his own life and his own career. The first question that should be addressed here is: Why the Prince? Why not the King?
Perhaps the answer to that question is a function of my own upbringing. I did not come from wealth, and I do not expect to be awarded a noble rank by some long lost uncle in the near future. All that I’ve attained, I’ve attained as a reward for work, or in some cases, luck. Under no circumstances however, have I been given something purely because of who I was. I was not born a king, so it seemed to be an inappropriate aspect to assume.
More importantly though, the Prince must learn to act like a King. A Prince is not born with the capabilities of a King; he must learn how to lead in order to earn the respect of those who follow him. The Prince must learn diplomacy, strategy, persuasion and a whole host of other talents in order to advance in standing at Court (i.e. the real world).
Furthermore, the Prince never stops being a Prince. In life, we must always learn to cope with new situations and strive to prove ourselves to the world, before we are ready to assume the proper throne. The fact that the “throne” does not really exist is of little consequence; it is the drive to improve our station in life that defines us in a fundamental way.
Historically, there have been many princes, but far fewer “Princes”. The aspect of the Prince need not be represented by a literal prince. In this case, we can look to George Washington as a Prince, even if he was a founding father of a country which rejected the monarchistic tradition wholesale.
Even though George Washington was not the most brilliant military leader the world has ever seen, his foresight and demonstrated fortitude still won him the affection and admiration of a new nation. On December 23, 1783, after the British Army had retreated from American shores, George Washington officially resigned his post as Commander of the American Army, an action which shocked the aristocracy in Europe. Why would a man give up so much power if there was no threat to it?
The answer, whether he intended this or not, was that by giving up power, Washington’s reputation as a selfless leader of the Revolution was cemented forever. His mediocre record as a military commander paled in comparison to his virtuous leadership potential in the political arena. By making one small sacrifice, Washington gained enormous power and prestige.
To quote historian John Shy, Washington was “a mediocre military strategist but had become a master political tactician with an almost perfect sense of timing and a developed capacity to exploit his charismatic reputation, using people who thought they were using him.” Shy’s quote is an excellent summary of what it means to be a Prince. To lead through coercion or bribery is unsustainable. To lead through subtle and well-timed action is the path to enduring success. After all, how many other presidents won all of the Electoral Votes at election? Only a master leader could accomplish such a feat.
We should return to Mass Effect to understand the Prince’s virtue; this time, we must look at the protagonist himself (or herself), Commander Shepard. Interestingly, unlike other characters in Mass Effect, Shepard’s past and present are determined by player choices. Shepard could be male or female (I will use masculine pronouns for the sake of simplicity though), have an array of military/origin backgrounds and act extremely aggressively or exceptionally diplomatically. And yet, despite all of these variables, Shepard always displays the qualities of a Prince.
His actions speak volumes. He is able to lead a team to defeat a galactic threat, the likes of which no living creature had ever fought before. And when you consider the types of people he was forced to recruit, the success of his mission seems all the more unlikely. How do you lead a group composed of mercenaries, soldiers, scientists, superheroes, robots and other powerful (and opinionated) crew-members? You become a Prince.
Shepard does a couple things through the Mass Effect series that are true reflections of the Prince. First, he always demonstrates authority. Although he is often willing to listen to his crew’s opinion, his decision is final. There is no second-guessing the Commander’s authority. This authority has been earned not merely by title; after all, what respect would an ex-convict have for a military officer? Shepard’s real authority came from demonstrations of competence. He didn’t just give his crew orders; he gave them a reason to follow those orders.
Second, Shepard always presented the mission as a challenge that, if failed, would affect everyone equally. This wasn’t about one man or one species; the mission required the resources of all sentient life, otherwise all life would be destroyed. This common purpose approach allowed Shepard to frame his orders in such a way that conflicting opinions within the crew appeared petty by comparison. A true Prince can manipulate social structures and expectations to ensure a positive outcome.
“Eloquence for a Chaotic World.”
And now we get to the weird one. The value of strength, intelligence and leadership ability are self-evident. What about the Poet?
Not every person in the world will put together the same list of aspects. An individual’s chosen aspects are reflections of his or her own preferences and what he or she values most. For me, the ability to speak clearly and beautifully is a virtue worth its weight in gold. Not only does the Poet represent this clarity of expression, he also represents an appreciation for art and the possession of a certain kind of charisma needed to persuade people. Unlike the Prince, the Poet does not persuade to lead; instead, he persuades to move people’s emotions. Think of a man trying to convince a woman to give him her (real) phone number or someone trying to get an audience of friends to laugh at a joke. These emotions are powerful motivators, and can build enduring, fulfilling relationships. Where the Poet goes, his friends follow.
The Poet is a synonym for the Bard, otherwise known as William Shakespeare, the greatest Poet in English–and possibly human–history. His command of the English language is reflected his Folios. How can one man paint so many portraits of such an array of human emotion? It takes a genius; it takes a Poet.
A Poet does not drown himself in imprecise and vague language. Just as the Scholar must be able to teach, the Poet must always be able to communicate to his audience. If we look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet #29, we can see that the meaning of the poem is as relatable today as it was hundreds of years ago:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
The ability to talk about emotions is lost on many men. The ability to talk about emotion in a way that gets the listener to relate is a rare feat. To inspire emotion is to inspire action.
A keen understanding of art is a valuable pursuit for a man because it allows him to understand the manner by which we might express emotion in powerful and meaningful ways. The study of art also helps defend against the temptation to only value pursuits which hold tangible value.
Unfortunately, the Poet is often lacking in video games. This might be a limitation of the medium, or it might just be that developers haven’t had as many opportunities to put in extremely well-written characters who themselves appear eloquent.
But when such characters do appear, they are quite striking. The Engineer (Engie) from Valve’s Team Fortress 2 is a good example of a Poet in games. Violent, intelligent and speaking with a distinctive Texas twang, on the surface, the Engie does not seems to belong in the same league as Shakespeare.
That is until you watch this video:
“Everything has a Price.”
I’m not just talking about money with the Merchant, although that is certainly an important factor. Of all the aspects, the Merchant is the most practical, and in some key ways, the most important. The Merchant focuses first and foremost on efficiency and the concept of limited resources.
As human beings, we have access to a limited world and a limited amount of time to interact with that world. The greatest crime in the eyes of a Merchant is not spending money recklessly; at least that could yield some pleasure, which is presumably a goal in life. The greatest crime isn’t wasting physical resources; it’s wasting time, which once spent, can never be recovered.
In order to improve the four other aspects, a time investment is required. Training at a gym, reading a book, studying how to be a better leader and practicing speech all require a time investment, one which might be wasted on more short-term pleasures. A Merchant understands the relationship between the value of resources. For a Merchant, every action is an investment, but every action also has a price.
When I was in primary school, Thomas Edison was held up as an icon of American ingenuity and creative intelligence. He invented the light bulb for crying out loud! We would be crouching in darkness were it not for his brilliance! Edison has fallen out of favor in recent years however, mostly due belated internet outrage at his actions against Nikola Tesla, a man who was genuinely brilliant and probably should have received more recognition in his lifetime.
Having said this, just because I wouldn’t say that Edison was a Scholar, I would definitely say he was a Merchant. He was a very smart man with a keen sense of business knowledge. One does not hold over a thousand patents by not understand the value of such knowledge.
More importantly, Edison understood the value of the resources at his disposal, both in terms of material and manpower. Whereas Tesla had a brilliant mind, Edison knew how to tap into the brilliant minds of all those who surrounded him. Herein lies the Merchant’s greatest strength: an appreciation of the fact that everyone and everything is valuable in its own way; the trick is to know when to bring those resources to bear.
Video games often present merchants as actors who help the player protagonist achieve his or her objectives by offering services, information or goods in exchange for money. Pretty much every role playing game has merchants who, in spite of not having particularly memorable personalities, serve a critical role. Fallout 3′s wandering merchants, such as “Crazy Wolfgang” are typical of this archetype.
Beyond the regular merchant characters, we can also talk about the entire player experience as being an exercise in playing the role of the Merchant. Any game that gives the player limited resources is forcing that player to pick an optimal path through their avatar’s life. Do I spend my credits on a new piece of armor or do I use that money for skill training? In this way, we see a direct analog between games and life: everyday, we must choose to place our time and resources into certain tasks, which can help or harm us in the long run. Along the way, we must also find time for fun, lest we lead a joyless life.
As we have seen, the complete man is a combination of things. He should be strong, smart, able to lead, eloquent and resourceful. These are the qualities I view as being important, but others may add or subtract various parts. Perhaps some men think that true manhood encompasses the “Servant”, “Architect” or “Diplomat”. These people might be right, but the point of this entire exercise was not to figure out exactly what the perfect man is–as if such a thing could even exist! The purpose of this exercise was–and is–to create a framework upon improvements can be built. So far, in my own life, the framework has held together nicely, yielding a number of positive outcomes including weight-loss, promotions and a new sense of purpose.
Now when I play video games, I think about them as being a possible source of inspiration. Frankly, it’s a small goal of mine to be as capable as possible, so that if I were ever placed into a situation that called for a hero, I might be able to respond effectively.
But as we have seen, video games do a great job at focusing on some aspects of the ideal man (i.e. the Warrior), while ignoring other important aspects (i.e. the Poet). This raises the question as to whether or not games as a medium have room for these more subtle characteristics. Novels and film have both done excellent jobs bringing complex and nuanced characters to life, but these characters are still extremely rare in games.
While I continue to work on improving myself, I will look to video games to see if there are any major shifts in character portrayal. Maybe the introduction of the next generation of consoles will give developers the technical freedom to do some spectacular things in storytelling. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, I’m looking forward to the future of gaming and examining portrayals of characters as ultimately being reflections of the values society holds most dear.
Until next time.
Let’s take another look at a WW2 first person multiplayer shooter: Rising Storm. From the developers of Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad.
In the video, I talk about:
Feel free to leave a comment!
Today I play Mirror’s Edge, a fantastic first person free-running game that shows that games can strive to be so much more than mindless shooting.
Filling in the gap here with Episode 7 (I skipped 7 earlier)
With SimCity’s recent troubled release, I decided to play another city building game: Anno 2070. Enjoy!
I am thankful that SimCity did not have a successful launch. And that makes me a bad person.
We should always hope that games will be embraced and beloved by gamers. Every successful game is another step forward for the medium. And yet, I often find myself hoping for big titles to generate criticism from the gaming press or from the internet community at large. This is a very selfish and cruel thing to hope for, and it’s certainly not my dominant opinion of games, but still… Sometimes, I want games to fail.
I don’t want games to fail because I’ve got a vendetta against the industry or for fear that I might be wasting money. I want some games to fail because I’m an adult now, with less and less time to actually play. In other words, I am utterly jealous of people who have time to enjoy games. These people have time to play. I do not. And that’s a real bummer.
From the time I was a small child to the time I graduated college, video games have been a significant source of my attention. Finished my homework? How about a few hours of Half Life? Time between classes? I could blow through a couple of TF2 matches. Girlfriend wants to hang out? Before I go, I can squeeze in a quick game of Sins of a Solar Empire, right? (Turns out I was wrong about this particular situation. My girlfriend (now ex-) didn’t appreciate the severity of the Vasari threat… or the fact that “quick games” can go well over three hours. Oops.)
But things are different now. My life is fulfilling and I certainly enjoy the time I spend at work, with friends or at the gym. I even have some time to spend gaming. My last 30 minutes of consciousness at night are often spent playing FIFA 13 and trying to not throw my controller at my TV.
The trouble with gaming now as a busy adult is that I can no longer devote major sessions of time to gaming. To do so would be irresponsible. When I see news of a major upcoming release, I cannot help but experience an inner conflict. My inner child froths at the mouth while my inner adult is busily cross-checking projected game time against my work schedule.
As a result of this conflict, I feel a bizarre sense of joy when a game like SimCity is released to so many technical issues and such critical condemnation. By not even having enough time to commit to a good game, I feel relief that that I didn’t waste what little time I do have on an inconsistent and—by some accounts—broken entertainment experience.
But this joy is not healthy.
I understand that the demands of adulthood are not a burden; rather, they are an opportunity for a more careful appreciation of games. I no longer need to play a bad video game for hours on end for want of other options. I can discriminate against poor games in favor of the quality releases that actually deserve my time.
And I think that this is an important early lesson in adulthood for me. Not every game* is worth a 40 hour commitment. I don’t need to chase every game* or hope that every new release* fails. I should simply enjoy games when I can, as they suit me.
Just because my inner adult is in charge now, does not mean I can’t let my inner child enjoy himself from time-to-time.
Life’s too short to worry about what you can’t have.*
*these are probably metaphors.
Today I play the alpha version of ARMA 3. Action! Adventure! Discussions about the implications of realism in video games!
Video games are a confusing medium, especially with respect to game reviews and criticism. Every video game journalist has his or her own opinion on what video game reviews are and what they should be. Some believe that game reviews should primarily serve consumer interest. These reviews ought to answer the question, “Should I spend my limited financial and time resources on this game? Is it worth it?” Other reviewers value reviews as artistic critiques of games’ many gradable qualities, ranging from story to graphics and everything in between. For these reviews, the most important question is, “Is this game advancing the form?”
Most reviewers however, take the middle road. They review games by touching upon gradable qualities, spending equal amounts of time discussing gameplay and story. At the end of their reviews, they will often include a score. 4 stars! 90/100! Two thumbs up! These scores are the indicators of whether or not a consumer’s money would be well-spent on a new title.
A gulf sometimes forms between the content of the review and the final score the game receives. Commenters are often quick to point out the discrepancy and reviewers are just as quick to deliver a common refrain: “Don’t pay attention to the scores; read the review itself for what I actually think of the game.”
Why include a score at all if you don’t put any value in it? The response to that question is, of course, that many people don’t read the reviews too closely, and that the score is there to satisfy a certain segment of consumer. What the reviewers seem to ignore however, is that those scores are important to at least some people, and that those scores should be a measured reflection of the review’s content. So why is there sometimes a gap between the review score and the content of the review itself?
I contend that there is a fundamental flaw in video game reviews that has not been addressed by any community of game or mainstream journalists.
To illustrate this problem, let us look at a recent review of Far Cry 3 from The Polygon. In his review, Arthur Gies praises the game’s mechanics:
“Ubisoft Montreal has in turn built a world that allows for creativity and emergent strategy to unfold. The entirety of the game world is open to you as soon as the tutorial is over, though Far Cry 3 does a great job of slowly introducing it all to you via the early story missions. After that, though, you’re given carte blanche to wander or progress the story as you see fit.”
After his initial praise however, Arthur focuses his attention on what he considers to be a troubling aspect of the game: its story.
“…the story fails to sell Jason’s growing detachment or discomfort over that detachment, and what’s left often felt exploitative and pointless, dotted with misogyny and homophobia that only works for shock value. Is this ham-fisted presentation of problematic imagery and, honestly, gross stereotypes, an issue unique to Far Cry 3? Well, no — see Resident Evil 5, for example. It’s not even unique to video games. The portrayal of post-colonial themes and Western encroachment on other cultures is something that storytelling aimed at mass markets has had a lot of trouble with for decades. But that doesn’t make it easier for me to swallow it here.”
His appraisal of the story seems damning. Here is a game that contains themes of misogyny and homophobia. Arthur highlights these points, noting that he finds those themes to be hard to swallow.
His final verdict?
“The story’s sour notes mar what is, otherwise, one of the best games of the year. If you can look past its thematic problems, Far Cry 3’s story isn’t without genuine invention and surprise — there’s a hallucinatory aspect that allows for surprising, disorienting sections of narrative and character development, as well as gameplay moments that defy the basic reality of the rest of the game. When the story isn’t standing in its way, Far Cry 3 sees enormous success with its wide-open world and all the numerous things there are to do therein. Ubisoft has created a mechanically ambitious, exciting game.”
Even in the final text of the review, Arthur once again highlights his reservations about the story.
For reference, here is The Polygon’s review policy:
“Games are not scored until a review is written and finalized. Once a review is complete, the reviewer meets with a group of senior editors to determine which score on our scale properly reflects the text as written. We do not write with scores in mind.”
In other words, the score is supposed to match the content of the review, but there is a notable gulf in this situation. I believe that this gap between the content of the review and the final score can only be explained in one of two ways:
In both cases, the score is still clearly a misrepresentation of the content of the article.
It’s not hard to think of other situations where the score does not fully account for the gameplay and the art of the game. Think of a game with a terrible story, but amazing gameplay. Now think of a game with an amazing story, but terrible gameplay. Which game should get a higher score?
The answer is neither, but given the current review landscape, one of those two games would certainly get a higher score. In the eyes of the gaming public, one of those games would be quantifiable better than the other.
The best critics offer solutions, so here is my idea.
Games are fundamentally divided into two parts which are combined when reviewed: the curated art experience and the emergent gameplay experience.
The curated art experience includes everything that a developer presents to the player, but the player cannot manipulate through typical gameplay mechanics. These components include music, sound effects, graphics, art direction, narrative, characters, setting, themes and other artistic products. When we look at a painting, a sculpture or a building, we are consuming a curated experience. That is to say, when two people look at the same work, they are seeing the same colors, lines and patterns. Now, their impressions of the work are likely to differ—dramatically even—but the two observers can compare their experiences in a one-to-one manner.
The emergent gameplay experience is what sets games apart from art, but that quality is not limited to games alone. Sports and games have sets of rules in which players interact with each other or with the gameplay environment. Even though the rules are the same, the player experiences will differ dramatically. In video games, components of the emergent gameplay experience include all mechanics which the player must use to engage with the game world (i.e. control fidelity, non-aesthetic level design, ect.) and all mechanics which the player may affect or interact with directly (i.e. weapons, score systems, AI, skill trees, ect.).
These two distinct components of games must be accounted for in review scores. How? By separating them entirely.
In order for a review score to accurately reflect the text of a review, the score should consist of two scores, which are not to be averaged because the two parts are distinct and impossible to compare accurately. They need to be separated.
Using the Grubber Review Scale,each game will receive two scores between -50 and 50. Think of the scale like a coordinate plane. (0,0) is the vertex of the scale and represents a game that is average in terms of both gameplay and the curated artistic experience. The x-axis represents the gameplay value of a given game; the y-axis represents that game’s artistic value.
Let’s look at games and see where they might fall on this review scale. Bear in mind that I believe that the value of a game is fundamentally subjective. Everyone has a different definition of “good” and “bad.” It is therefore completely reasonable for people to view my placement of certain games on the scale as being incorrect. My system is designed to expose a reviewer’s opinion more accurately, not to uncover a game’s objective worth—as if such a thing actually existed.
The absolute worst of the worst. Completely lacking in coherent plot and without art direction that even comes close to standing the test of time, both of these games are artistically bankrupt. Add to this the fact that neither game has sensible mechanics, and you have the anchor of this scale.
An artistic triumph with wonderful level design, a fascinating plot and compelling themes not often explored in the video game medium, Dear Esther was a critical darling on linear review scales. Those scales were misleading however, because the game was almost completely devoid of mechanics. The player could walk around the world, but interaction was limited to such a degree, that the entire experience might very well have been a movie rather than an emergent player experience. I loved my time with this game, but I do think this example illustrates how my system might handle “mechanics-lite art house” games.
Pong does everything it sets out to accomplish. It is the perfect gameplay experience, especially for its time. Having said this, the game is completely lacking in narrative and only offers rudimentary art and sound design. Some may argue that this minimalism would itself warrant a higher score, especially given that it is such an old game. However, I want to take into account the fact that the designers of the game were working with a limited palette and were more interested in creating a game as a proof of concept for mechanics, not in producing an art piece. I don’t think Pong is “saying” anything; I think it’s just trying to be a game.
I’m putting Portal as the ideal game on the Grubb Review Scale. Its art direction is minimalistic and sanitized, but the player understands that something ugly is going on behind the scenes. This contrast and duality are intentional artistic design choices. The main antagonist, GLaDOS, is a brilliant villain with a wicked sense of humor. The gameplay is unique and executed well. I believe that Portal is proof that the pinnacle of my scale can be reached, but as you might imagine, it does not happen often.
And what belongs at the vertex of the Grubb Review Scale? What game is so average that it can’t force itself away from the x or y axis?
Largely forgettable in every way, but also not particularly insulting in any way. Sniper Elite V2 was fun for a few levels, but got repetitive quickly. It also had some interesting set pieces but again, the entire experience, both from a gameplay and an artistic experience, was not exactly inspired.
The irony of a game about snipers sitting at the vertex of my scale is not lost on me.
Will my system “fix” game reviews? No, absolutely not. There are a myriad of factors which contribute to a game being “good” or “bad.” I’m merely introducing two variables that I believe to be equally important to the overall worth of a game. Some people might only value multiplayer and polygon count. And those people are not necessarily wrong . After all, reviews are subjective.
I also believe that reviewers will likely not approve of a two-score system; they will think that it is too confusing for the average gamer. That might be true, but I like to believe that the average gamer might understand why two scores present a clearer final verdict.
Too many reviewers complain about scores and then resign themselves to the shortfalls of whatever system they are using. Even if reviewers disagree with this proposed alternative, I would still challenge them to improve existing scales. The consumer and the reviewer both have nothing to lose.
Ladies and Gentlemen, that does it for me for 2012. It’s been a pleasure writing, recording and drawing this year. Stay tuned for 2013. I’ve already got some great things planned!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
P.S. Follow me on Twitter @kpgrubb
Episode 7 is MIA for the moment. Here’s a hunting simulator. Enjoy.