30 November 2015

Like most people interested in gaming, I consume a lot of gaming media. I’m truly fascinated by how various gaming news outlets report things that occur in that world. From what I gather by reading articles, games journalism seems to happen in a strange vacuum where everyone is a liberal (in the American sense) comic book geek and where the same story can be milked several times over. I find gaming news websites to be both intriguing, entertaining and sometimes even unsettling.

But the thing that gets me the most is how games journalists, who are supposed to be at least slightly more neutral and objective than the average human being, are so eager to jump in the hype machine and gush about upcoming games being “awesome”. And that’s when whatever they write doesn’t sound like a press release. So, let’s talk about that hype, because Fallout 4 came out recently and the whole Internet lost their shit. And I think it’s time for an intervention.

Hype, hype never changes

The months leading up to the release of Fallout 4 was quite the rollercoaster. People were excited before they even heard what the game would contain. All they cared about was that it was Fallout. As for me, well, I was cautious. After all, Fallout 3 had numerous issues. Skyrim also had a lot of issues. New Vegas at least had a good enough plot to keep me trudging through the technical limitations. But if Bethesda ever had good writers, they left after Morrowind, as their more recent works are riddled with clichés and bad writing. Now, I’m not usually that harsh on the narrative design, but if your story sucks in a RPG, then it’s a big deal and it’s gonna detract from the whole experience.

Back to Fallout 4, then. The game came out and it predictably sold well. In fact, it reportedly sold 12 million copies in its first 24 hours, a number which includes preorders. Since reviews usually come out after that time, then we can guess that this means 12 million people purchased the game before anyone had the chance the play it and report about it. It is pure, unadulterated hype.

Now, I didn’t play the game, so I can’t tell how good it really is. I’m sure it’s at least as engrossing as its predecessors were. And I’m sure it’s at least as technically inept as Skyrim, which is to say a bit more than your average game. And I’m sure it has the same problems as any other Bethesda games because at this point I’ve stopped hoping for anything better. And why would it be otherwise? No matter how broken their games are, they still ship millions of units. Bethesda fans are telling them: we don’t care about what you make, just make it. You see, if nobody cares about a Bethesda game being buggy or unpolished, it’s because it’s business as usual. People have stoped caring about the technical quality of their games long ago. When an Assassin’s Creed game comes somewhat messed up on PC, people laugh at Ubisoft because the “Internet wisdom” is that they can’t ship a proper PC game unless it’s called Far Cry. And people got angry at Arkham Knight because they expected a good game and got a broken mess instead.

So, in the end, what upsets people isn’t so much the issues as it is the unpleasant surprise when they open up a game they thought was going to be fine only to realize is a can of radioactive worms. Fans expected Fallout 4 to be buggy, messy and funny, and that’s exactly what they got, so they just shrugged, and that’s why Bethesda got a free pass on the nitpick train. In fact, Bethesda games always get a free pass and most of the time their fans will defend them with claims that it’s because “their games are huge”, or that “nobody makes games like that anyway”, which was arguably be true… until this year. In 2015, we had both The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V, two massive open world games of similar scope and scale, but with a far greater degree of polish. And really, it’s fine. Being excited about something, even if it’s a minor improvement over an existing product, is quite alright. I may think those a pretty low standards, but then again that’s just, like, my opinion, man. EA has killed my ability to be hyped about anything when they’ve ruined SimCity, and now I’m always overly cautious about any game announcement. That being said, I’ll probably buy Fallout 4 anyway in a few months when it’s properly patched and modded.

So, again, I don’t care if fans just jump in it. I’m sure they love it, and they really should. There’s nothing wrong about being excited about something, except if your job is to review games. And in that case, I’m going to be a bit harsher.

Critical critique

The reviews for Fallout 4 are, for the most part, glowing, but they’re also peculiar. If you read them, you might notice something interesting: they seem to have been written in a strange parallel universe where the only game developer in existence is Bethesda, and the only games they made came out at most 10 years ago. Just like reviews for a Call of Duty game only seem to compare it to other CoD titles, Fallout 4 is mostly judged based on how much of an improvement it is over Fallout 3 and New Vegas.

Also, the writers are all fans. All of them. They write like they have been sold on Fallout 4 before they even tried it. And if they were simply fans, I wouldn’t care. I like when people gush about what they love and why they love it, because I like doing the same thing and I know how great it is to feel like you’re part of something big. But that being said, I also expect reviewers and critics to try to be a little bit more, well, critical, when they review a game. Because at the end of the day, you’re not writing for the fans. They already have bought the game, so they’re not the ones asking if it is worth playing. Your job is to tell the person out there who knows nothing about the game if they should spend their time and money on it. And reviews should also always approach a game from a broader perspective: not just its series, but also its genre, and both video games and culture as a whole. Games do not exist in a vacuum.

A review shouldn’t be a laundry list of the things you have done, seen or heard during the game. It shouldn’t be a summary of its plot. It shouldn’t be a bullet point list of its gameplay features or a description of its systems. It can contain those things, but only as much as they allow you to fully breakdown and analyse the game, and they should never be just that. On the narrative side, the review should evaluate how well the narrative design and writing take into account the fact that this is a game, and not a piece of non interactive fiction. Is the non interactive portions of the game trying to tell a different story than the interactive parts? How is the pacing? Hell, how is the writing itself? Is the game trying to take itself seriously when its plot is silly?

As for the gameplay, well, don’t just go listing bullet points. Talk about how all the different systems interact with one another. Is the game a cohesive experience or a mismatch of conflicting elements? Do those features feel polished or do they feel like they were rushed to meet the deadline? Is the game using a lot of one-off scripted set pieces that force the player to develop a new set of skills only for them to never use them after that point? As for the core gameplay mechanics, even are they deep enough to carry the whole game without feeling repetitive or boring halfway through?

Some games also attempt to be technical showcases, so they should be judged accordingly if so. A title that instead goes for a more stylized look and feel can also be criticized for how coherent the design is, and how well it meshes together with gameplay. Just as gameplay mechanics have to be well thought of, the technical aspects must also be well polished. While it is impossible to make something entirely bug free, it is reasonable to expect serious issues to be absent.

Really, good games are made with good attention to detail, at every single point of it. Talk about those details. A game cannot possibly be “exceptionally good” without a high level of polish.

And finally, the developer making the game must factor into the review. The author shouldn’t be as harsh on technical aspects and level of polish with a small indie developer with a low budget than with a large AAA company with massive funds. The standards must get higher as the scope and size of the project increases.

Rounding up

But maybe that’s asking too much. After all, you don’t need all of the above points to answer the question. Ultimately, a very personal account of the game’s events and ideas might be enough if you know you already agree with the reviewer on other games. If I have the same tastes as you, and I tell you “you should play this”, you don’t really need many more explanations. But I still feel like a good review should include at least some of the above, or at least explain why the game is resonating (or not) with the author, since, in the end, you’re making an argument for or against something.

I do realize I’m setting some very high standards here, standards that I for the most part don’t really follow myself. I mean, my own reviews are somewhat sloppyly-written opinion-riddled pieces, and they would require a hell of a lot more work to pass that test. In the interest of not sounding like a hypocrite, I’ll refrain from writing reviews on games for which I cannot formulate a well constructed opinion using the aforementioned criteria. As such, I’ll do so for my Game of the Year, which I’ll talk about on next month’s On the subject of.

So that’s it. I believe Fallout 4 deserves better reviews than the fan gushing we had. And I ever write a review for it, I’ll make sure to not eat my own words and follow the rules I’ve established here. But that will have to wait until I have actually played it, which will not happen before next year because there’s no way I’m shelling eighty bucks for a game that’s not even finished yet.

And so, I’ll see you next month, with my review of both 2015 and what is, for me, the best game I’ve played during the year. If you follow me on Twitter, you already know what it is. Otherwise, well, you’ll see!