Apart From the Crowd

Every year we slink into this dim reach of days after the glitz and glamors of the holidays have passed and there is little left to do but catalog a reckoning of the year. Particularly for those of us who have crossed a chronological and mental terminator beyond which New Year’s Eve holds little meaning, the howling freeze of late December is less a call to celebration as it is just a damn cold wind.

At times like this what is there to be done besides tally up the days that have come and rank them for posterity? What was the biggest news story of the year? The best film, crappy pop-music album, incoherent sports-star tweet or character death on a episodic prime-time show? And, of course, what was the best/worst game of the year?

I don’t mean to imply that I’m somehow above it all. If there is any hypocrisy to which I’ve not become comfortably accustomed, then assume that I just haven’t thought of it yet. I have no qualms with being at one turn critical of a thing, and then in the same sentence an active participant. But, what strikes me as we circle back ‘round to the Best Game of 20XX discussion is how far away I am from the norm on two key games.

Civilization V and Heavy Rain.

Judging by some of the criticism circling the web as regards the storied Civ franchise, the classic Star Trek law that every odd-numbered iteration is infused with concentrated, perhaps lethal doses of disappointment may be manifesting itself in the House of Firaxis. Anyone who has sat through The Search for Spock and The Final Frontier will know the pain that some Civ players seem to be enduring in the semi-reboot that is Civilization V.

I just seem to be that odd bird in the crowd, wearing my Vulcan ears and Federation Insignia who thinks that a character like Sybok is just the sort of thing the franchise needs to get moving in the right direction.

Hexagonal board, non-stacking armies, sea transport for ground units, culture tech trees, elimination of spies and religion -- these are all a big check mark in my big-book-of-good-ideas. And, I admit that the launch AI was patently non-spectacular, but maybe I’m just playing Civ for the wrong reasons, because I found my classic one-more-turn zen as quickly and easily as I ever did with Beyond the Sword.

I realize the disenfranchised will argue that I am underplaying the woeful AI, and that may be true. The issue at hand probably dissolves down to the shameful secret that I view Civilization more as a pseudo-sim than I do a competitive game. I am content to see my kind flourish across a grand landscape, and more often than not I’m more put-out than engaged by an invading civ. Examined through that distorted lens, it’s hard for me to find complaint against Civilization V.

Which, happily, leaves me extra scorn to heap upon Heavy Rain.

Heavy Rain, to me, feels like a movie that you leave feeling as though you should have enjoyed it, but the longer you ruminate on the experience the more you discover you hated the whole damn thing -- a movie like Pitch Black. (Pitchforks and fiery torches will be distributed in an orderly fashion.)

I choose Pitch Black, because like Heavy Rain it is a perplexingly beloved piece of poorly acted narrative with plot glory holes of obscene dimensions that seems to get a pass for style and a vague sense of uniqueness.

I understand the whole diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks concept, and that’s the whole point here. I’m clearly the outlier, the raving lunatic, but I look at Heavy Rain and where others see an exercise in innovation, I see an overindulgent exercise in tedious gameplay, counter-pointed by a non-sensical and questionably written plot. Yes, it had some very affecting moments, but I’m pretty sure cutting off my actual finger would be affecting as well, and I suspect that I wouldn’t like that much either.

Thing about Heavy Rain is that I think I actually liked it more in the moment of having immediately finished it than I did at any moment after. It is a game that does not sit well in my memory and that is openly grotesque when viewed from afar. While so many others seem to have locked the strongest vignettes into their mind, it’s the tedious busy work, awkward conversations and ridiculous conceits that stick out in my mind.

I don’t expect much agreement at the end of all this. This probably isn’t a popular opinion, which is part of why I bring it up. Not to be contrary, but I always find it interesting when my perception of a game, which is so traditionally in lockstep with a certain kind of model, strikes off stubbornly on its own, because here’s the thing -- I should love Heavy Rain and I should be disappointed in Civilization V. I totally get why people have the opinions they do on these games, and I don’t quite get why I don’t share those opinions.

I'm not standing around saying here's how I feel about these two games and you should feel the same way too. I'm saying that I'm just as surprised as you that I feel these ways about these games. And, it's kind of nice to be surprised that way every now and again.

Comments

We all know the real reason why you don't like Heavy Rain, Ely. It's obvious that the protagonist's model was built after you.
IMAGE(http://lh6.ggpht.com/_Wt-wYS_metc/TSH0my39TcI/AAAAAAAAANQ/a9MUPKr_dMs/ely%20hv%20rn%20hate.jpg)

detroit20 wrote:

What I found disappointing in retrospect (that is, immediately after coming across the two scenes in which Madison is menaced) is that none of the reviews that I had read mentioned this lazy cliched writing and - frankly - the moral repugnance of these scenes. I think the game reviewing business really dropped the ball on that one.

You need to stop reading mainstream coverage then, and get thee to the Border House.

Hm. I'm not a Civ player so nothing to say there.

Heavy Rain is on my maybe list. Indigo Prophecy is still in my Steam backlog, so I figure if I ever get around to it, that will let me know whether I have the patience for HR or not. Some of the other comments here make me question whether I have the stomach for it though. I hate most of the current horror movie trend of gore-porn. Saw isn't scary, it's just gross. Same with the awful Texas Chainsaw remake a few years back. Ugh.

But Pitch Black? Come on, man! When viewed against other movies of the horror genre which get pretty ridiculous, it's practically a masterpiece. When viewed against other action movies, it's somewhere in the middle, more passable than a lot, more flawed than some. But still, fun.

Star Trek V... I will admit that I liked it when I was 10 or so and it used to come on HBO. To a 10/11 year old, the level of humor in the movie was pretty funny. All those swear words that apparently no one ever used until after a short visit to the 20th century but now everyone in the future uses... yeah, funny stuff to a kid. But then I grew up. And really, the badness of ST V has been covered, this thread doesn't need to rehash it all. Man...

wordsmythe wrote:

You need to stop reading mainstream coverage then, and get thee to the Border House.

@wordsmythe,

Thanks for this link. It's good to see at least one reviewer expressing doubts about the content of the game. That's definitely a site I'll be visiting again.

I think Heavy Rain's questionable content and the lack of comment on it by most/many reviewers raises issues about reviewing generally. As the medium matures, review/criticism needs to mature with it. It seems to me that acres of space is dedicated to detailed critque of games' technical strengths and weaknesses, but comparatively little to narrative. Other forms of arts criticism tend to be more balanced, and gaming criticism needs to catch up.

I'm not sure that the people currently reviewing games have the knowledge, skills and experience to do this, however.

Just my two cents...

detroit20:

I am absolutely 100% sure that nearly all reviewers at present do not have the resume necessary to review games. For instance, many reviews of Muramasa are almost 100% wrong. It's not an RPG, it's a brawler, it needs to be played at Shura to appreciate properly, and its artistic inspiration was Japanese wood print art, not frickin "watercolors," for crying out loud.

If it's too much to expect reviewers to get even basic facts right about the content of our games, how can we expect them to, for instance, evaluate the aesthetic sense of how Muramasa combines classical ukiyo-e sensibilities with that of modern anime conventions? It's utterly hopeless.

In yet another example, many reviewers were questioning the artistic sense of putting samurai and "ninja" in a Western setting; as if The Magnificent Seven and other Westerns were not inspired by Kurosawa classics.

In Uncharted 2, does ANY reviewer note how stilted and cliche the dialogue and how bad the acting is? No. They're just happy there's any attention to cinematic technique at all. How can they possibly know better? They're not BAs. They really ought to go to college first.

@LarryC

I cannot comment on Murasam or its reviews, but I entirely agree with your basic point. As games mature and draw on wider influences (wow! @ Japanese wood print art, btw), reviewers need to expand their knowledge too.

However, I think suggesting that they need to head to college is a bit harsh. Instead I think that they could make better use of the opportunities provided by the preview process. For example, recent previews of LA Noir have focussed on the technical advances in facial motion capture. This is interesting to know, but I suspect it will be a minor consideration for most potential purchasers like me. What I want to know is whether its the kind of game I'd like to play, and that means making reference to other games and other artforms.

My view has always been that reviewers/critics should be trusted friends, telling you enough about an exhibition, performance, film or game to enable you to decide if its the kind of thing you'd like to pay money to see.

detroit20 wrote:

It seems to me that acres of space is dedicated to detailed critque of games' technical strengths and weaknesses, but comparatively little to narrative. Other forms of arts criticism tend to be more balanced, and gaming criticism needs to catch up.

The Border House is a collection of writers from around the internet who wanted to draw more attention to largely unaddressed issues (mostly issues of privilege) in games. It's a good site run by good people.

LarryC wrote:

They're just happy there's any attention to cinematic technique at all. How can they possibly know better? They're not BAs. They really ought to go to college first.

Not everyone writing about games has a BA, but many do, and there are even a few notable writers who have or are pursuing advanced degrees.

And so, in the spirit of the the Border House link above, here's a quick list of places and people you may want to check out these folks:

Just about everyone teaching at the NYU Game Center has a blog.

Sometime goodjer Roger Travis is a classics professor at UConn. Roger heads the Video Games and Human Values Initiative, which they let me claim to be a part of when I need cred somewhere. Also part of the VGHVI are David Carlton, (PhD in math from MIT) and Michael "Brainy Gamer" Abbot, Associate Professor of Theater at Wabash College. Just about everyone posting in the comments at BrainyGamer.com is worth paying attention to, as well.

Ben Abraham is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney. Ben also heads Critical Distance, which does a great weekly link-dump (and with which I'm tentatively affiliated).

Everyone talking about games from GA Tech is a genius, but the most active writers online seem to be Simon Ferrari and Ian Bogost.

And I don't know who has what degree at Pop Matters (OK, I have an idea, but I'm lazy), but you would likely enjoy their games writing.

wordsmythe:

With all due respect, I don't believe education has improved the timber of the writers you're referring me to. I just read a rather long article about Bioware's storytelling technique. I've considered that angle earlier this year, and I've no doubt I'd be interested to have that writer over for dinner, but he still isn't critical of the work.

For instance, both Mass Effect and Dragon Age have awfully long lines of dialogue where you've basically viewing a talking head, and the blocking for some of those instances can be just downright terrible. Granted, this was notably improved in Mass Effect 2, but there's still the awkward "reset" after many specific responses that kill narrative tension in scenes that could have been very affecting.

An early Renegade option in a dialogue tree should proceed to other Renegade-ish options and lock out other potential Paragon options. It sounds downright stupid for my character to be bossy one statement, and conciliating the very next! She sounds like she's suffering from some psychiatric disorder.

LarryC wrote:

wordsmythe:

With all due respect, I don't believe education has improved the timber of the writers you're referring me to. I just read a rather long article about Bioware's storytelling technique. I've considered that angle earlier this year, and I've no doubt I'd be interested to have that writer over for dinner, but he still isn't critical of the work.

For instance, both Mass Effect and Dragon Age have awfully long lines of dialogue where you've basically viewing a talking head, and the blocking for some of those instances can be just downright terrible. Granted, this was notably improved in Mass Effect 2, but there's still the awkward "reset" after many specific responses that kill narrative tension in scenes that could have been very affecting.

You're expecting film crit. from a Latin teacher now. Roger's forte is in looking at epic stories in games and how they mirror epic storytelling in classical oral traditions.

An early Renegade option in a dialogue tree should proceed to other Renegade-ish options and lock out other potential Paragon options. It sounds downright stupid for my character to be bossy one statement, and conciliating the very next! She sounds like she's suffering from some psychiatric disorder.

Now you're stumbling into my bailiwick, where I get to ask you just how static protagonists are supposed to be, and how much designers should assume motivations for their player-characters. I find that dynamic characters are more interesting, and I further find that the more a design team assumes they know why my character chose an action or response, the more often I'm frustrated by the designers not allowing for the possibility that I had another motive.

wordsmythe:

Have you played Mass Effect 2? In Mordin's loyalty mission in Tuchanka, Shepard can vacillate between moderate statements and condemning Mordin for being a murderer in a manner that suggests that she's mentally ill.

This has nothing to do with freedom of choice or the breadth of the material and everything to do with just making two response lines that sound well each taken exclusively, and downright ludicrous when interspersed with each other.

Restricting a response cascade so that Shepard isn't castigating Mordin for something she's already forgiven him for isn't unreasonable, nor artistically bankrupt. I'm sure that in some rarefied work that's trying to comment on the insanity of normal life, this could have a place. In ME2, it just sounds like bad dialogue.

Some game makers seem to be unable to decide what type of experience they want to make. Either a cinema style, pre-planned, guided experience, or a much more variable player controlled experience. RPGs also throw into the mix that you're meant to have control over the character, how they develop and varying degrees of who the actually are.

Mass Effect seems to be mid way between them, Shepard is partially pre-written, and the fairly dull morality system as how you control the character of Shepard, except as noted, you can just go right back on what you've chosen (in ME1 more than ME2, there are some checks that require a certain threshold of paragon/renegade to pass and access an option). There's little consequence for your character for your choices.

No, I haven't played ME2 yet. Seems a fair amount of back-and-forth in YouTube playthroughs I've seen, though. Maybe the individual lines of dialogue could have been better handled, but I appreciate that Shep can change her mind or respond differently based on nuances of context. Maybe she said, "blue," before, but that shouldn't mean she can't say, "red," an hour from now. Maybe that run down the hall gave Shep time to reconsider, after all.

wordsmythe:

I do not object to that at all. That Shepard can change her mind is a good thing. That she occasionally sounds like a lunatic is something else entirely. To give you an idea how it goes:

Mordin: This is part of the experiment where we turned red into blue.
Shepard: You monster! Don't you feel any remorse for all those reds you turned into blues. You monster! I abhor even the sight of you.
Mordin (defensively): It was necessary. If we didn't turn the reds into blues, it would have bled into the other colors.
Shepard: You don't know that. You never even gave them a chance! It was not your call to make!
Mordin: (sadly) I did what I thought was best.
Shepard: (shrug) Sure, I get that. (sympathetic) Don't be too hard on yourself, man.

If you want something that's perfectly cinematic, Larry, might I suggest the cinema? I mean, it's not that I don't get where you're coming from, but Bioware struck a delicate balance between giving the player agency to make conversational choices-- including choices that might seem contradictory--and a polished, cinematic presentation. They could have chosen to allow the player a single choice, Paragon or Renegade, at the beginning of each conversation and left it at that, and it's certainly true that this would have made the conversations play out in a more natural manner, but it also wouldn't have offered anything substantially different from dozens of other games before Mass Effect. That's not to say that there's no room for improvement in the implementation of the design choice they made, but it's important to recognize that it IS a choice, not a flaw.

Judging video games against films the way you seem to want critics to do is an inapt comparison, because films don't need to try to take player agency into account in the same way. Games are properly judged against other games, just as films are properly judged against films and not books or paintings or pop albums.

hbi2k:

I have to point out that I'm not judging the game in comparison to a film. I'm judging it on its own merits and compared to what I see as possible.

Is it good that choices are not solid at each expository instance? Yes.
Is it possible to create a conversation tree where Shepard doesn't sound insane? Also yes.

As such, it is possible for Mass Effect to have been done better, and the way it's currently done, while entertaining in various ways, is not what I would call good.

What I want is for critics to be aware of things which I feel are basic knowledge for informed discourse. When I reference Shakespeare, I want them neither to be completely ignorant, nor jeeringly dismissive. Hell, I want them to do it from time to time. When a critic reviews Muramasa, I want him or her to have done simple, basic Internet research on what the hell a Japanese woodblock print is. Being able to play it competently would be required, too.

I don't want reviewers covering Super Street Fighter IV and dismissing it as too hard and obtuse because they can't even do a Hadouken reliably.

"Good" is relative. Mass Effect 2 handles the issue of a polished, cinematic dialogue system that incorporates both player agency and top-notch voice acting arguably better than any but a handful of video games (if that): I'd argue better than any video game that I've personally played. Does it take a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to enjoy? Sure, but no more so than any other video game's story and considerably less than most, which makes it above the curve.

Judging it against what's "possible" is just plain silly. It's "possible" that I could implement a better solution tomorrow, but unless I actually do it, it doesn't count for much. If it's closer to perfection than the competition, that makes it praiseworthy in my book.

Good is not relative. There haven't been a whole lot of shooters on the Wii at all, but that doesn't suddenly mean that The Conduit is worthy of every praise in the book.

Likewise, the general forgettable quality of action brawlers doesn't make Prototype better than it was, nor does it make God of War 3 longer than it was. Prototype was still mediocre, and GoW3 was still short (even for a brawler).

ME2 does have one quality, ever since it's release it's managed to divide people. It's an odd cookie, because no one will say it's a piece of trash, but it's stayed in discussion for most of the year about it's virtues and flaws.

LarryC wrote:

Good is not relative. There haven't been a whole lot of shooters on the Wii at all, but that doesn't suddenly mean that The Conduit is worthy of every praise in the book.

The Conduit does not (by reputation at least; I've never played the game myself) push the envelope: by all accounts it's merely a competent shooter on a platform not known for competent shooters. The difference between the Wii and other game systems as platforms is immaterial compared to the vastly greater difference between video games as a whole and other mediums. This is, simply put, a bad analogy.

hbi2k wrote:
LarryC wrote:

Good is not relative. There haven't been a whole lot of shooters on the Wii at all, but that doesn't suddenly mean that The Conduit is worthy of every praise in the book.

The Conduit does not (by reputation at least; I've never played the game myself) push the envelope: by all accounts it's merely a competent shooter on a platform not known for competent shooters. The difference between the Wii and other game systems as platforms is immaterial compared to the vastly greater difference between video games as a whole and other mediums. This is, simply put, a bad analogy.

Perhaps that is why I saw it fit to support the assertion with other examples. The absence of good material does not elevate the mediocre beyond mediocrity.

Lead does not assume the material characteristics of gold even when gold is unavailable. It stays leaden.

The other analogies were bad as well, as is your lead and gold one. Lead is not bad or imperfect gold: lead is lead. Lead is good for what lead is good for and gold is good when you need gold.

Likewise, Mass Effect's dialogue is not bad or imperfect movie dialogue: it is a new thing which pushes the boundaries of storytelling by allowing for player agency in shaping its outcome. It is not to be blamed for not being as natural and flowing as dialogue in a movie or a book any more than written dialogue is to be blamed for being poorly acted: look at how monotone it is, with the same amount of emphasis on every word in every sentence! The criticism simply does not fit. It's nonsensical: it insists on an impossible standard.

When you want gold, you use gold. When you want something to put in a pencil and write with, you use lead, and you don't bitch because it's not as shiny. The right tool for the right job.

hbi2k wrote:

Likewise, Mass Effect's dialogue is not bad or imperfect movie dialogue

But it is bad dialogue. It's decent dialogue in the ghetto of video gaming, but considered on its own it's clunky and bland. This is partly due to the fact that it swings so wildly between very different topics, tones, and attitudes.

Does it require some willing suspension of disbelief to reconcile the occasional shift in tone? Sure. It also requires some willing suspension of disbelief to read written dialogue and suss out any tone at all from the context, since taken by itself it's pure monotone. The reader invests it with tone, reads tone into it. Likewise, the player of Mass Effect invests the dialogue with context to explain away the abrupt shifts. They could make those shifts more natural, but ONLY by removing options from the player, which would be contrary to its nature as a video game, which is an interactive medium. It would make it LESS good as a video game to make it MORE cinematic. There are PLENTY of options for that if all you want in your video game dialogue is a non-interactive cut scene that imperfectly apes the conventions of film.

I don't want the dialogue in video games to be more cinematic or to remove player choices. What I would like, however, is for the path through the conversation to be more carefully written so that the choices I make earlier in the conversation affect what follows. If you charted most of the conversations in Mass Effect, they would look like flowers: a central point with many loops coming out of it. You can trace along those loops as often as you'd like, be a nice person or a sour person depending on how you feel at the moment, and the rest of the loops are unaffected. If I'm a complete jerk to someone in a conversation, I expect that that choice will make them less kindly disposed toward me and will affect the sort of conversation I have from that point onward. Player choice is meaningless without consequence.

The problem in that case is that writing and recording a new conversational variant based on EVERY possible turn the conversation might take, which never loops back on itself, would become exponentially more expensive the more variations you account for. Again, it comes back to a choice between allowing more player agency at the expense of allowing for abrupt shifts in tone or for the player to create repeating loops, or reducing player agency to allow for a more natural, cinematic conversation.

If some developer is able to find a better balance than ME2 had tomorrow, I'll celebrate as hard as anyone, but in the meantime, ME2 has done better than I would have believed possible the day before it was released.

hbi2k wrote:

The problem in that case is that writing and recording a new conversational variant based on EVERY possible turn the conversation might take, which never loops back on itself, would become exponentially more expensive the more variations you account for.

So is it a good thing to look for in depth conversation systems in expensive to produce AAA games? The two would seem to be in opposition.

Scratched wrote:

So is it a good thing to look for in depth conversation systems in expensive to produce AAA games? The two would seem to be in opposition.

I'd say that Mass Effect strikes a good balance between the opposing demands of cinematic polish and player agency, and I'm excited to see how/whether they're able to improve on it in ME3 and whether other devs will be able to expand and improve on it in other titles. That's speaking entirely for myself, though.

The thing is, they reduced the impact of player choice between ME1 and ME2, or at least they reduced the consequences of choosing a renegade or paragon path.

I can't say I played enough ME1 to agree or disagree with that; I critical-pathed it because I wanted to have a save to import to ME2 but I disliked the shooting mechanics and Mako sequences enough that I didn't linger. I don't recall much difference in the conversation systems other than ME2 having a more dynamic camera and more character movement during dialogue, but it was a while ago so I'll take your word for it.

Quite early and often you would get locked out of dialogue choices if you didn't have the necessary alignment. It had a downside though that it promoted the hitler/ghandi extremes, I guess you could say it's like a whole load of other differences between the two that the pendulum went too far the other way in ME2.