Updates Tuesdays and Fridays.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Game Day: Gone Home

I don't really want to review Gone Home, because a) the experience is significantly dampened by advance knowledge, and b) it's gotten enough attention that if you're interested in at least the conversation about games as an art form, you should probably play it for a point of reference if nothing else. Beyond that, it's an interesting story, told well, and worth your time for that reason as well.

That said, I feel like there's a lot to be said for engaging with the game critically, and I felt like listing a few of the thoughts I had about it here. I'm assuming with these points that you have played it, so take a couple of hours and go do that if you haven't. These points are more loosely connected than my usual, and just what occurred to me over the course of the game and some thinking afterward.


In its capacity as a storyGone Home doesn't strictly do anything special. It relates the experience of a teenager coming to terms with her identity in the face of family and peers who don't accept her. Though it relates it honestly and movingly, these stories - though still kind of rare in popular media - are not new. Similarly, in its capacity as a gameGone Home offers few new mechanics and its improvements on them are mainly refinements. The main thing that makes Gone Home noteworthy is that it tells a kind of story that's relatively new to mainstream gaming - which is either exciting or depressing depending on your level of optimism and confidence in the form. We haven't had many games in the mainstream whose primary story is based around a gay relationship, and Gone Home is an excellent incursion into this kind of story in video games. Truthfully, video games almost never achieve any kind of honest, emotional story of this caliber, and to that extent, Gone Home is a rousing victory. But other media can do better, and has; Gone Home is an excellent achievement but we should view it as a milestone, not the destination.


It's hard for me to engage Gone Home without looking at other recent games that exist in a similar vein. When I first played Dear Esther the concept of exploring a world and piecing together clues about a story in the past seemed novel. We saw something similar in The Stanley Parable, where the main gameplay is in making choices (going places) and hearing a story based on those choices. Gone Home excels in comparison to both of these games. In Dear Esther it was never clear what impact you were having on the story, or what you would find from exploring. Gone Home gives you a few clear threads to pick up on, and you usually have an idea of what you might learn where; you can tell that you'll find information about your sister in her room, about your father in his study, about your uncle in the spaces between the walls. It's easier to draw connections between where you go, what you interact with, and what you learn. In The Stanley Parable, it was usually evident when you were making a choice, even if it wasn't clear what that choice would earn you. However, the game's main conceit was to mock you for trying to exercise a right to choice, and while its smug tone is funny, it doesn't present any kind of cogent story and ridicules attempts to discern one. By comparison, Gone Home seems to trust its players much more, and its willingness to present you with a meaningful story if you look for it feels much more rewarding. Though there's little more to do in Gone Home than in The Stanley Parable or Dear Esther, the experience feels more interactive because the results are tied more meaningfully to your exploration.


For Gone Home and Dear Esther particularly, it's fun unravelling the story and coming to understand the place you're in, the people who've been there, and what role you play - and for me, that kind of experience inevitably requires comparison to the Myst series. In Myst, you explore a world and try to learn about the people there: how they relate to each other, how their machinery works, what happened to them. Learning about the world serves a fundamental gameplay purpose: you can solve puzzles and move forward in the plot. Additionally, learning about the world allows you to discern a hidden puzzle: that neither of the two choices presented to you at the start of the game are correct, and that you must find another solution to get a satisfying end to the game. By exploring, you learn that one of the brothers imploring you for help is a greedy addict, and the other is sadistic and violent, and neither should be saved. This lends a weight to your exploration that Gone Home just doesn't have, and to my mind, the gameplay experience is less satisfying for it. Though the house you explore is full of hidden details, and though the story is intricate and communicated subtly, the game itself asks little of its player but their time and attention, and at no point offers you an acting role in the story; only an observing one.


If Gone Home is valuable because it's a kind of story video games never tell, it is valuable because of the role of passive observation it asks its player to take. A depressing majority of video games are male power fantasies, wherein the character is able to overcome adversity, resolve his inner struggles, get the girl (see: most Final Fantasy games). You, the man, get to come in and save the day and emerge unconflicted, and since success is contingent on your ability as a player, your victory is all the sweeter. Gone Home takes a very different tack: it asks you to listen, to relinquish your power to solve problems and fix people. It is not your story, but your sister's, and all she wants is for you to listen and try to understand. If you explore discussions on game and game review sites too deeply, or if you just watch the kinds of stories that are produced for mass consumption, you'll see that gamers aren't really used to listening to stories about experiences that aren't their own, and certainly aren't used to an entire game constructed around those experiences. Gone Home is a listening simulator, an understanding simulator, an empathy simulator; this is what makes it unique and worthwhile.


All in all, I enjoyed Gone Home quite a bit, and I'm excited about the possibilities it suggests for games in the future. It sets an excellent standard for what sorts of stories games can now tell: sensitive, human, and not confined to a single perspective. Again: it's not a destination, it's a step on the way, but it's a nice step.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Rating Games

A friend of mine linked me to this rather scathing criticism of BioShock Infinite, which acts as a jumping-off point for a criticism of game reviews in general. In general, it derides the pursuit of "objectivity" in game reviews, and rejects the notion that games, particularly AAA blockbusters or indie darlings, start as 10's and get dinged for shortcomings, sometimes outrageous ones, to a still-quite-high 8 or, God forbid, 7.5.

Through sheer coincidence, I've also been mulling over this article, which discusses a societal trend to value a kindly-put sentiment even if we disagree with it, and - more unsettling - to dismiss any viewpoint that's expressed with cynicism, negativity, or anger. Since it's a new year, I'll admit that I've spent a lot of my life dismissing views for exactly this reason, and it's something I'm trying to get over. I hope people WILL display their emotions when they feel strongly about something, and whether or not I'm offended or hurt by those emotions has no impact at all on their validity.

Combined, these two articles have caused me to think a lot about the writing I've done for this blog, and I'm not as at-ease with what I've put down as I might like. I don't think I've been unfair to any game I've reviewed - except, perhaps, by being overly lenient in some cases - but I don't think I've been as deeply critical as I might like here, or allowed myself to come down hard on a game I didn't think was good.

In theory, the main thing I like about a rating system is that, if we approach it fairly and honestly, it gives us a way to say "I enjoyed this" without it having to be an artistic masterpiece. I can look Skyrim in the eye and say "You're a 6," not because it's four points down from perfect but because it's six points up from abominable. And that should be ok, because I'm a single person who had that experience with the game, and I'm not ranking it on an 8-to-10 scale but on a 1-to-10 scale, a scale that (at least personally) has to also accommodate Metroid Prime and Metroid: Other M and Braid and Tetris and Amnesia and Portal and Super Hexagon and Angry Birds and so forth. Because when we're ranking games, we're putting the same label on all of them, and if movies still haven't got over giving out three-and-a-half popcorns and only-one-thumb-up-but-you-get-to-pick-what-it-goes-up, then it's likely that games are going to have the 10-point scale for at least the foreseeable future.

To that end, I'd like to calibrate my own scales a little, partly for the benefit of you, my audience (whichever one of you it is this week), and partly because I've never done it before and I want to have something firm in place so that when I review Assassin's Creed IV: Stabbin' Sailors next week I'll be able to put it in context for the both of us.

10: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask - Majora's Mask has the mechanics of a strong franchise as its backbone, but also brings unique, fascinating mechanics - the masks, the three-day clock - to create a world that feels alive. The mechanics reinforce the central themes of shifting identity and a destined catastrophe, and the darker to compared to other Zelda games makes it feel a little more mature. It's not perfect, but to me it's pretty darn close.
  Others: Shadow of the Colossus, Metroid Prime
9: Papo & Yo - A story of a child and his monstrous friend, who becomes enraged and violent when he eats the poisonous frogs he is addicted to. A serious story told incredibly well, my only complaint is that its puzzles sometimes get old and don't always reinforce the story as well as I might like.

8: Minecraft - Build anything. Build everything. Minecraft did an excellent job of creating a simple premise with incredible possibilities, and was something of a cultural phenomenon as a result. To me, it suffers from the same problems as a lot of sandboxes: too many things to do with not enough reasons to do them. That said, even sans reason, it remains captivating for dozens or hundreds of hours.

7: StarCraft 2 - Apart from being an excellent tactical game with a lot of diversity in the gameplay, it's a remarkable sport that can be as much fun to watch as it is to play. Even though there's a lot that can happen in a game, I find it does get a little stale to play, some match-ups are less interesting than others, and there's a lot - a LOT - of grinding trial-and-error and memorization required to develop any kind of proficiency.

6: Skyrim - Big, pretty, lots to do. I have to compare it to Morrowind, though (which I'd rank around an 8, or higher), and its story just doesn't hold together as well. As neat as the mechanics are, the balance for the different skills is way off, and they're definitely not all as useful as would be nice. The PC version of this place probably clocks in around a 6.5 or a 7 because of mods alone, partly because of how much they can improve the game or tailor it to your needs, and partly because they do so much to create a community for the game.

5: Hotline Miami - I tend to be pretty unforgiving when a game's story let me down, and this one let me down hard. Its gameplay is frenetic and delightful, and it asks some questions about its own senseless, over-the-top violence that are interesting but never explored in any kind of meaningful or lucid way. It's a pretty dream, but an empty one.
  Others: Braid, Zelda: Twilight Princess 

4: Dishonored - Kind of like a combination of Skyrim and Assassin's Creed, but without the possibilities or freedoms that make those games successful. Yes, the combat is fun, but the story is predictable, the balance problems of Skyrim are present but worse, and even with pretty spread-out levels things still feel too linear.

Down here, things get a little murky. I don't play games for a living, and I tend not to finish games I don't enjoy. I could talk about why I didn't finish playing a game (Bastion, FTL), but I feel a little bad throwing a low number on it without getting the whole experience. That said, sometimes things just suck! Like...

1: Metroid: Other M - This game would be lousy if we could judge it on its own merits, independent of its pedigree, but we can't; it's in the franchise, and must be considered as such, which makes it a catastrophe instead of merely bad. Its gameplay has little to do with that of the series, its controls are awkward, its exploration muzzles the standard nonlinearity of the series, and its treatment of the protagonist - turning a strong, capable hero into a sniveling, pitiable creature with daddy issues - is criminal. I'm still pretending this game didn't happen and I really hope Nintendo does similar.

In the future, I'll still be trying to write about what I like about how a game works, but I'll try to be more honestly critical about what their shortcomings are and where that places them. In general: that scale up above puts games between a 7 and a 10 if they're excellent with a few shortcomings; between 4 and 6 if they provide a good experience but have some impossible-to-ignore faults, and 3 or below if they're too flawed or incoherent to hold together. Chances are I won't be rating games on a scale like this in the future, but I do intend to think a little more critically about how games rank up against each other, and what their shortcomings look like.

To be totally clear: I had fun playing every game on this list - even Other M, at points - and I've played a LOT of some of them. I will probably play more Skyrim tonight if I can sneak away. We're a little too used to seeing a score of 7 as a harsh rebuke, when it shouldn't be; if we're going to mark every game on the same scale, which we appear to be, we need to make decisions about what we value in games and rate them accordingly. In doing so, hopefully, we put our own perspectives above what appears to be muted consensus, and in the process continue to deepen our conversations about games.