Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Should Any Aspect of Gaming Be Off-Limits to Discussion?

Shamus Young | 4 Nov 2014 15:00
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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.

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