"Is that the new Godzilla game?" my friend asks, looking at the case resting on my rather cluttered coffee table. I nod my head and respond in the affirmative. "Is it any good?" he predictably inquires.
I breathe deep. It is not the first time I've been asked this question recently. Within my brain I'm reaching into files and folders, retrieving every scrap of information on Bandai Namco's Godzilla that I can: the controls, the game's objectives, its varying difficulty levels, and how the goal of absorbing energy encourages mass destruction on an apocalyptic scale. Within milliseconds, the data is sorted, reviewed, and a conclusion is reached. A tiny, tiny man-thing presses a button in my cerebellum, notifying my mouth to open up and spout its conclusion.
Translation: I don't know.
It is important to note that this friend of mine plays video games, but he's not “like us”. He doesn't follow the gaming news regularly, nor does he hang about on web forums discussing the latest title to hit disc trays and hard drives. He's not aware that this game has an abysmally low MetaCritic.com score. He's no “filthy casual”, but he's no enthusiast, either. He likes video games, but does not carry a passion for them. Which is fine, as the same can be said for most of the people living in countries privileged to have access to video games, film, and other luxury media.
However, this also means I have to reconsider how I go about recommending a game. What does he want in his gaming experience? Does he discern between the differing levels of tactile response in one game from the next? What are his expectations? I suddenly realized that, any time we discussed video games, he'd be the one asking the questions, probing me for my thoughts – which I eagerly gave out to someone who'd listen, rarely stopping to inquire deeply about his own interests. He's the sort of fellow that's always so pleasant, so eager to know what's on your mind that it's easy to be ignorant of just how much you're speaking about yourself.
So when this laid-back pal of mine asked me if the new Godzilla game was any good, my mouth hung open, hands gesturing in the air before me until my uncertainty emerged in a long, awkward, drawn-out sound. The best explanation I had – the only explanation I ever have for this title – is that die-hard fans of the Godzilla franchise will no doubt have something to love. It's not a monster mash or Godzilla-skinned fighting game, but it more or less acts as a Giant Kaiju Simulator 2015. You bash buildings, smash skyscrapers, and tackle titanic terrors with clunky controls designed for cinematic camera angles rather than over-the-shoulder observation.
“It's for the fans that can appreciate the exact, precise recreation of Mecha King Ghidorah's entrance, pulled straight out of the film,” I noted.
My buddy decided he wanted to give it a try for himself, and despite any misgivings, I am not one to turn down someone's desire to try a new game. Even if I think they won't like it, I'd rather them try it and talk about why they don't like it. It is quite possible that I'll greatly disagree with their assessment, but knowing how people think is perhaps more valuable to me than knowing what they think.
The first lesson I learned: Don't assume that, just because someone has played games before, they know what the buttons on a controller do. My pal is used to the Xbox 360 controller, so when the game asked him if he wanted to proceed with erasing all of my saved data in the process of starting a new game, he selected “X” – he thought "X" meant "cancel".
It was my first reminder that night of how all of these devices, all of these design conventions that I've adjusted to over the years, are essentially a second language. They become instinct. I see a title screen and I'm pressing the “confirm” button to jump into a new game. That button could bear a cross (X) shape, it could be the letter “A”; it could be the letter “A” in a completely different position, depending on whether I'm using a Nintendo gamepad or not. It doesn't matter to me. My brain sends the signal, and my thumb automatically knows where the "confirm" button is placed.
I know that the Xbox 360 and Playstation 4 controllers have the “confirm” button located in the same spot. I know because I've been playing games on Sony and Microsoft platforms for almost fifteen years now. He, on the other hand, was not used to a Playstation controller. When confronted with the prospect of clearing all of this data, he panicked. He looked at the controller, and he chose what he thought was the “cancel” button.
I didn't freak out. I didn't even express disappointment. I laughed. I laughed and reassured my friend that it was alright, that the save data wasn't all that important anyway. Instead, I found myself fortunate to have witnessed this accident. It not only revealed how much I had adapted to current design choices – such as the counter-intuitive use of the “X” button on Playstation games and systems as "do it" rather than "close it" – but how these habits can act as blinders.
One of the reasons I don't easily recommend Godzilla to other players is because the controls are “unconventional”. Godzilla's hulking mass does not slowly shift with the camera as so many third-person games these days do. You have to use the R1 and L1 shoulder buttons to turn Godzilla left and right. The game is speaking my language, but a completely different dialect. I have to fight my natural instincts when I'm stomping through Japan's metropolitan cities.
That's just the first conventional sin of the game. It is also repetitive, counting on you to want to go back and replay levels with different monsters. The early move-sets for each monster are limited, making each stage a samey-slog through a jungle of skyscrapers. The only defense against opposing monsters is a roar, which merely prevents you from getting knocked back or smacked down.
These are all valid criticisms to level at the game, and I'm certain many critics and reviewers have written similar words in great detail across the Internet.
My friend didn't care. He played this awkward-to-learn game for over an hour, and he had a radioactive blast of a time. That he chose to play as the monstrously huge Godzilla 2014, the gargantuan variation that had appeared in last year's American film, certainly helped. The sheer size of the beast gives him an advantage that the comparatively tiny Mechagodzilla, Mothra and Hedorah just cannot match.
Now, just because my friend had a good time doesn't mean Godzilla is completely vindicated. There are still plenty of ways the game could have been better, plenty of mistakes that the game has made. Yet the common perception of the title is that it is “bad”, and I have to ask: Are we sure?
You might recall a piece I wrote earlier this year on overcoming one's own subjectivity. During my time with inFamous: Second Son I frequently found myself pausing to ask myself, "am I properly engaged?" Unlike Godzilla, the controls and plenty of other design conventions in Second Son were perfectly in line with what I've come to expect out of a triple-A experience. The question came to be: "Am I doing this simply because it's there to be done?" Gameplay additions were potentially included simply because players expect an open-world game to include a variety of random activities, padding the amount of time spent within the game world.
Observing my friend play Godzilla (following the deletion of my save data), I reached another epiphany. It is equally important to remember that, just as our games have been programmed to play a certain way, we ourselves have been programmed to respond in certain ways through common design conventions. Those that played Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee had become programmed to expect a Godzilla game to take similar shape: a fighting game where environmental devastation was a bulleted feature, not the primary focus. I've grown used to all games, be it first-person or third, adopting the right thumbstick as “look” and the left thumbstick as “walk”. Those standard thumbstick conventions were adopted by inFamous: Second Son, a game that I almost entirely progressed through without once considering whether I was appropriately engaged by spray-paint missions – missions included for no greater reason than because it was an open-world game. Conventions and expectations established by one title released ten or fifteen years ago that have now come to define the laws of the genre.
Godzilla eschews conventions like the standard thumbstick usage and decides instead that monsters most logically control like tanks – impossibly large, organic tanks, but tanks nonetheless.
This means that the nebulous, finicky, hypocritical breed of human known as "gamers" will cry and object to their tried and true laws of game design being broken. Why break what was perfectly functional in an effort to "fix" it? Why try a different method when prior "great" games offer a perfectly fine blueprint? Forgotten are all the players that have not experienced games before, or don't experience them often – the players that just cannot wrap their heads around the pressure-sensitive precision of two thumbsticks at once, yet may be able to adapt to binary buttons as the monster on screen stomps at a slow and steady pace – the players without assumptions about good and bad design.
So while I'm not about to give the new Godzilla any game-of-the-year awards, perhaps instead of grimacing at the controls and exclaiming the game to be terrible, we should fight to unlearn all we've established as “the way things are” and take a stab at a new method.
That is, after all, what my friend did. He had no idea what to expect, and instead of complaining how unlike other games Godzilla was, he found himself having a great time with what is.
Imagine all the things we could be missing out on simply because we “know” what a “good” game is and what a “good” game isn't.