When I do a negative column like the two recent tirades on Shadow of Mordor, I often get a lot of push-back. Some accuse me of hating a game while others insist I am focusing on all the wrong things. People always feel the need to jump in and somehow attempt to discount, discredit, or invalidate my thoughts. “That’s not a legitimate complaint!” Even if those thoughts are clearly subjective. When I complained about the story, people said I was overlooking the gameplay. When I complained about the gameplay people said I was overlooking the nemesis system. And I’m sure if I had dumped on the nemesis system somebody would have taken offense that I spent so much time on a “minor” feature when clearly so much of the game is focused on the Tolkien-based story.
Here’s the secret when it comes to game criticism: Everything is permitted..
No game is perfect. Even exceptionally good games have flaws. Half-Life 2, System Shock 2, Silent Hill 2, and Minecraft are some of my all-time favorites, but I could fill endless columns with problems, flaws, mistakes, and complaints. No part of a game should be off-limits for critical analysis. If you want to do a couple of thousand worlds on the environmental undertones of Sonic the Hedgehog? Maybe a column on the unresolved sexual tension in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time? Or do you feel the need to harangue a game because it fails to deliver the 60FPS 1080p experience you’re looking for? That’s fine. Why should any aspect of gaming be “off limits” to discussion?
All fandom suffers from heavy strains of anti-criticism, where opinions that are overly or insufficiently critical are denounced. We all like to have writers reflect our own views back to us. But gaming criticism seems to suffer from this more than other mediums. I imagine this is the Metacritic effect: Low scores can and do impact funding decisions and can convince execs to greenlight some projects and cancel others, and at the same time the whole industry is really sequel-driven. So if a game you love gets a low score you have an incentive to try and counter that opinion, lest it harm something you enjoy. If a game has a feature you hate and it does well, then there’s a very real worry that the next entry in the series will focus even more on the thing you hate. It can feel like you’re not just haggling over review scores, but fighting to see more of the stuff you love. Sadly, this is all rotten poison to cool-headed discussion.
But this isn’t a review column. Note the lack of review scores. This is (ostensibly) an analysis column. And in any case we can’t let the brokenness of the publishing process stop us from discussing what makes games work and what makes them unsatisfying. That’s what columns like this are for. It’s so we can have a conversation deeper than, “It was awesome. Good graphics. 6/10.” (I often wish standard 1,000 word review would have a 3,000 word sidebar that talks about all the issues more in-depth.) When you leave a movie with your friend and sit around the pub discussing the film, you probably don’t argue over how many stars it deserves. You talk about what worked and what didn’t.
Some people crank the difficulty up to maximum and skip all the cutscenes. Some people always put the game on easy and watch every cutscene. Some people want quick, easily digestible games. Some people want massive life-devouring escapism that will last for weeks. Some people want atmosphere and style. Some people want a way to globally measure their performance against the world. Some people just want to feel powerful, appreciated, and safe for a few minutes at the end of the day. Some people want Final Fantasy, some people want Minecraft, and some people want hidden object games. All of these activities qualify as “games”, and they’re all worth talking about.
This hobby is fractally more complex than movies. Regardless of genre, the vast majority of movies are consumed the same way: You sit and watch for a couple of uninterrupted hours until you get to the end. But games are all over the place. Some are played alone in a few hours. Some are played in bursts with friends. Some are played at length, over the course of months, with strangers. They vary greatly in how long it takes to consume them and what you’re doing during that time. Even the concept of “finishing” a game can be pretty murky.
We’re watching this massive global remix of story and gameplay ideas happening all around us, all the time. Shadow of Mordor has Arkham-style gameplay, Tomb Raider 2013’s artifact collection system, Lord of the Rings lore, a highly derivative story, an Ubisoft approach to exploration, and a completely new and interesting way of presenting an enemy force to make them feel real and interesting. That’s a new mix of ideas, even if they’re mostly ideas we’ve seen before. It’s all worth talking about.
(For the record: I thought the nemesis system is a great idea, aside from the randomized difficulty where lowly captains can be indestructible gods and warchiefs can be pushovers. It should have been at the center of the game, and not standing in the shadow of that lame, unfulfilling story.)
This is part of the whole “games are art” thing. If games are art (and they certainly are art) then there’s lots of room for this sort of analysis. In fact, we need it more than any other hobby. The medium is still growing and changing and being re-invented. Columns like this one (or other fine columns around here) are a great place to bring up these topics that don’t always fit into a typical “consumer advice” review. This is the perfect place to discuss long-form stuff like thematic elements, social justice, the evolution of genres, publisher machinations, new gameplay, graphics styles, or the fate of the developers who make the games we like so much.
It’s incomprehensible to me that someone would look at all of the complexities of gaming and the constantly shifting patterns of gameplay and public taste and declare that feature X doesn’t matter and critics should stick to Y. And I can’t imagine how tedious and useless criticism would be if we tried to be “more positive”, since flaws are where the interesting conversations come from.
Critics will dump on games you love and celebrate games you hate, whether you want them to or not. Don’t just tolerate this, embrace it. Better yet: Join in. Dig deep and try to figure out why you loved a game that someone else hated, or why you didn’t notice a flaw that seemed to ruin a game for someone else. It’s rewarding, it helps you understand the hobby better, and it’s way more interesting than shaking your fist at everyone who disagrees with you.