When you buy a game, you enter into an unspoken agreement with the people who made it and published it. In return for your cash, you hope they’ll give you a life-changing experience that you’ll write songs about, but all they’re really obligated to give you is something that works and that matches whatever description is on the back of the box. If they sell you a shooter and it turns out to be a card battling game, you’re pretty right to be peeved. You’re equally justified in being tweaked if your sixty bucks bought you a bunch of bugs. But not all bugs are created equal – and neither are all buggy games. I’ll toss some games aside with a sneer, pointing to their technical glitches as the cause of my disdain, but other broken games I’ll cuddle like teddy bear. Why? Am I just being blatantly unfair, or is it reasonable to forgive a bit of broken code here and there? (I’m speaking of my reactions as a regular player, by the way, not as a reviewer. Two very different mindsets.)
Skyrim is a buggy game, but it’s also enormous. It seems unrealistic to expect something with as many moving parts as the fifth Elder Scrolls, with thousands of NPCs, monsters, locations, and bits of environmental detritus to be absolutely perfect out of the gate. The variables involved with even the simplest bandit cave are staggering, so it makes sense that every now and again, something goes a bit crossways and you wind up with chairs hovering in midair or disappearing cheese wheels. So far, I’ve come out of my Skyrim play sessions relatively unscatched. I’ve run into a few bugs, but none of them have been particularly devastating. Sure, I was pretty bummed when Lydia poofed into nonexistence, but I’ve been spared the kinds of crashes, freezes, and glitches that have broken other players’ games. It’s easy for me to love Skyrim at this point, because it hasn’t given me reason not to, but if I’m really being honest about it, I’d probably give it a big fat pass even if it did lock up on me. Oblivion did that to me constantly, and I still consider it one of my favorite games of all time, so I have to assume that I’d do the same for Skyrim.
I give similar amnesty to Dead Island, which slapped me with bugs on pretty much a daily basis. Some were small, like zombies passing through walls Shadowcat-style, and some were huge, like the guide path taking me literally in circles or the game freezing. Like Skyrim, Dead Island is ambitious enough to make a certain amount of technical instability reasonable, but it crosses that line pretty frequently. And yet Dead Island is one of my favorite games of this year.
Contrast those two games with how I feel about Alpha Protocol. I enjoyed many of its elements, but ultimately its bugginess left me with a negative attitude toward it. Yeah, I liked its approach to conversation and the plot was pretty intriguing, but its glitches put me off it for good. I won’t fault you for playing it, but I won’t encourage you to take it up, either. Meanwhile, I’ll shove Skyrim and Dead Island – games rife with technical issues – into your hands any chance I get.
Drakan: The Ancients Gates is another game that I’d love to love, were it not for the presence of a single, game-killing bug. The game – high fantasy with a strong female protagonist and a talking dragon companion, how awesome is that? – will become irrevocably effed if you happen to walk through a certain cave at a certain time without your dragon pal. Which I did. And then saved. Thus ensuring that my only way forward was to start completely over and not go through that particular cave that particular way. Though I learned an incredibly valuable lesson that day – keep multiple save files, dumbass – I never did finish The Ancients Gates. I started over, and even got all the way back to that stupid cave, but my frustration over having to retrace my steps cast a permanent pall over my adventures. Even though it wasn’t actually broken anymore, Drakan had stopped being fun, and I put it aside for good.
So what’s the difference? Why do we forgive some games and punish others for committing, essentially, the exact same crime?
For me, at least, it goes beyond simple cost/benefit analysis. I could say that I forgive Skyrim its trespasses because the amount of time I spend dealing with bugs is vastly outweighed by the amount of time I spend enjoying myself – but I could say the exact same thing about Alpha Protocol. I think that when it comes to forgiveness, games are pretty much like people: You’re willing to give the ones you love best the greatest amount of slack, but by the same token, when someone you love does something really bad, it hurts twice as much. So I’ll overlook Dead Island‘s wonkiness because I’ve been won over by its other charms, but I’ll never speak to Drakan again because it wrecked something that meant a lot to me. Patches – the gaming version of an apology – will sometimes be good enough to let bygones be bygones, and other times will just be too little too late. It’s unfair, totally biased, and human nature.
But it’s also kind of a compliment to the games. The worst reaction a game can possibly evince is apathy, because that means it’s utterly failed to engage us in any way. When a game reaches us, we become attached to it, or are disappointed by it. When we form a connection with what we’re playing, we take it personally, for good and for ill, and react to its flaws with corresponding amounts of benevolence or disgust.
Or laughter. Because, seriously, that’s just hysterical. I hope that doesn’t get fixed. Ever.