Cold Dark Heart

Cold Dark Heart
I Got A Golden Ticket?

Mur Lafferty | 3 Aug 2010 12:58
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The absolute worst game I ever reviewed was Amazing Virtual Sea Monkeys. I grew up with ads for sea monkeys in the back of the comic books, where they showed the anthropomorphic royal family of little sea monkeys living in a little castle. The truth of the matter was that sea monkeys are brine shrimp that you can barely see and will likely die before they get big enough to do "tricks" like follow a light. So it seemed to me that a videogame could fill out the fantasy that the comic book promised - a little sim that could follow an aquatic family.

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It was the most boring videogame in the history of the world. I'm not exaggerating. Real sea monkeys are more interesting; this game had your virtual sea monkeys floating aimlessly as oysters grew pearls in the corners of the screen. When the pearls got big enough, you could "encourage" (you can't give them direct commands) your creatures to harvest the pearls to make you money so you can buy them food, toys, etc.

Now, if I'd been just a gamer, I could have played it for five minutes, cursed a blue streak for the waste of twenty bucks, and turned it off. But no, as a reviewer, I had to log the hours, see how the game played at different levels, see if the slog of begging your damn little digital shrimp to harvest pearls to the tune of plinky-plink earworm music ever actually paid off. (It didn't.)

Then I thought I hit the jackpot by getting The Matrix Online. I loved the first movie on a religious level (saw it many times in the theater, back when income was high and number of children was zero), and was forgiving of the next two movies' sins. I wanted to love this game. I tried to love this game. But it broke my heart with its sheer emptiness and lack of gameplay (see, designers, don't brag about every room in the city being interactive if they all look the same and no one is in 80 percent of them). Again, I had to play this for hours to get a good feel of the sad, empty Matrix world. It was a very lonely time - especially as I knew my friends were playing WoW at the time. I felt like I was inside practicing the oboe while my friends were outside laughing and playing.

I got back into game reviewing later when I got invited to participate in a family friendly gaming site. I thought it was a good way to check out games for my daughter, but it happened again. Every month, the editor would send out the email that read, "Here's what we have: I will take Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and all the Mario games." So I was forced to answer, "Well, I guess I'll take Sim Farm Hand with real-time stall-mucking action ...". Payment also came through site affiliate links, so you had very little incentive to give an honest review, because you're unlikely to make money from saying that a game sucks, but the reader really should buy it!

I think the thing that upset me the most about working with videogames was that it made games unfun for me. Beta testing broken games, and then reviewing the picked-over dregs of new games, took hours of gaming time that left me quite unwilling to play an actually fun game when I was "off work." Is it still the coolest job ever? Well, a cool industry, anyway. You're less likely to encounter someone who thinks it's weird that you play games, that's for sure. And clearly I'm still involved with it whenever I can be. But too many go into the work with the starry-eyed dream that it's going to be just like gaming at home on the couch, only your Cheetos are subsidized. It is still a job. And jobs can suck.

Mur Lafferty is the host of the podcast I Should Be Writing, and editor of Escape Pod magazine. She's the author of Playing For Keeps, and is a proud slayer of the Broodmother in Dragon Age, which her daughter calls "the ugly guy with boobs."

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