As is probably obvious from the frequency and content of posts around here I’ve been drifting along, game-wise, for a while now. I still play a fair amount, but it’s rare for something to get me particularly fired up, I feel a bit disconnected from the wider scene. I had a glance through the nominations for this year’s Golden Joystick Awards and found I’d hardly played any of the games, barely even heard of some of them. Perhaps I’m just getting on a bit, but the industry is shifting too; barriers to development and distribution have been plummeting, in general A Good Thing, but with some knock-on consequences. We’re spoiled with such an array of games, blockbuster games, indie games, new games, classic games, enhanced classics spruced up for modern systems, cheap games, free games… There was a piece on PC Gamer about the “pile of shame” and paralysis of choice; I was starting to feel the same with games five years ago, let alone other media as per Charlie Brooker’s more-relevant-than-ever stuff-a-lanche, and the increasing prevalence of bundles, free-to-play and suchlike in the meantime have hardly helped matters.
With such a backlog, and the inevitability of sales and such, I can’t really remember the last thing I picked up and played at the time of release. I did grab Far Cry 3 in the Steam summer sale and actually played it through to the end, something of a rarity in the Grand List of Stuff I Really Mean To Get Back To One Of These Days. Gameplay-wise it was generally excellent, though a few elements like the crafting system didn’t entirely gel; I spent altogether too much time wondering why, after using two Boar Hides to expand the carrying capacity of my rucksack, I couldn’t use more Boar Hide to expand it further, only Tapir Hide would do (and then Dingo Pelts, but only after the Tapir Hide, not before, that would’ve been silly), and furthermore why I couldn’t carry ammunition or grenades in that rucksack but instead had to make a Tiger Skin ammunition pouch and Deer Hide grenade pack. Also, what kind of bastard hunts down lovable tapirs just to carry a few more arrows? In the end I rationalised it as the considerable trauma suffered by the protagonist manifesting itself as a psychological obsessive-compulsive disorder requiring an incredibly specific set of luggage, and on the plus side it must’ve made things a lot easier in baggage reclamation, looking out for a cassowary-komodo-leopard-skin bag amongst a sea of black suitcases. Anyway, the general sneaking/shooting/exploring side of things was top-notch, but the story was a bit of a mess; I was aware of a fair amount of discussion at the time of release in 2012 but didn’t follow it too closely to avoid spoilers, and it seems a little redundant to return to it now. As so often, xkcd nails it in four panels. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, initiatives like crowdfunding and early access offer a deeper glimpse into the development process than carefully managed hype-stoking previews, but make the landscape more complex in terms of differentiating between impressions, previews, reviews and such, and while it’s a great opportunity for some players to get involved early and perhaps help a little in filing off rough edges to shape a game not everyone is always on quite the same page, as the producer of DayZ pointed out.
After the initial excitement and novelty of backing a couple of Kickstarter projects I have to confess it’s sort of blending in to the general background noise now; it’s nice to receive backer updates on the games in progress, but with the aforementioned pile of shame full of things I could actually be playing right now, I don’t spend too much time reading about future additions to the pile. Connected to not buying games as they launch I haven’t really been looking forward to games ahead of launch time, whether due to the general state of things, or my own jadedness, or a bit of both. A brief spark of hope, of the old excitement, is for Dragon Age: Inquisition; I’ve enjoyed every Bioware game so far, after all, and they’re always fertile ground for further debate and discussion (perhaps a little too fertile, in the case of the end of Mass Effect 3, but let’s not go there again…) I was having a bit of a look at Dragon Age: Keep, a site that will allow players to import save files from previous Dragon Age games and tweak things around before heading in to DA:I; that prompted a quick spot of digital archaeology to find previous save games, and to try and remember what sort of decisions I’d taken. The events of Dragon Age 2 were a bit hazy, so I dusted off my original Gray Warden save from the first game and used that as the basis for the start of a new playthrough. After only saying a couple of weeks ago that “I tend to play through story-driven games once”, I’d forgotten a fair amount of what happens in the game so I’ve been getting quite into it again. It has its flaws, a lot of quite obvious environment re-use, encounters that get a bit same-y (“Will there be three waves of minions in this encounter, or only two? To tell you the truth, in all this excitement I’m just going to leave the mages auto-attacking while I make a quick cup of tea…”), but I’ve missed a story-heavy game with characters I really care about. Far Cry 3 had some terrific NPC performances like Orphan Black’s Michael Mando but its protagonist was incredibly dull, and though Dragon Age 2 was criticised for its limited PC customisation options compared to the first game at least you have some choices over appearance and dialogue.
Speaking of criticism, flipping back through old posts to see what I’d said about it at the time I ran across one about the difference between critic and user scores on Metacritic: “Critic’s reviews are decent if not spectacular, currently averaging 81 on Metacritic, but we’ve all seen the stories of pressure on reviewers from publishers, reliance on advertising revenue from games companies, how can we trust them?”
Seems strangely pertinent, what with all the ‘gate’ strangeness floating around Twitter, a somewhat nebulous campaign about improving games journalism, though precisely how isn’t really pinned down as far as I can tell; depending on what you read then the main objective is to drive out some, none, one or more of: Corruption, Social Justice Warriors, Malpractice, Women, Collusion, Bribery, People Knowing Other People, Money, Fascists, Communists or Reginald Maudling. Poor old Reginald. It’s closely connected with some people saying other people aren’t their shield while simultaneously taking great umbrage on behalf of all gamers; in the words of Terry Jones as an old peasant woman, “well, I didn’t vote for you”. There seems to be something of a semantic oddity in entertainment writing; we generally talk about “film criticism” or “literary criticism”, whereas it’s “music journalism” or “gaming journalism”; some of the more lucid Twitter campaigners, focusing on the “journalism” aspect, are pressing for objectivity and impartiality, which is perhaps fair enough for news-based coverage, but a lot of games writing, at least the stuff that I like to read, is far more in the mould of criticism, with different requirements, and gaming is hardly unique in having difficulty in adjusting to the changing times. In books, sci-fi in particular, some of the ‘gate’ business echoes the kerfuffle from this year’s Hugo awards that seems set to rumble on for a long time. In film, critic Mark Kermode wrote Hatchet Job last year, a book about professional film critics and the age of social media, of Amazon reviews and film posters bearing gushing tweets from untraceable users, with many interesting parallels. Getting dangerously far down the meta-rabbit hole (rabbit meta-hole? meta-rabbit meta-hole?), author Will Self wrote a review (itself later critiqued elsewhere) in a newspaper of the book about film reviews, and one contentious paragraph connects the pile of shame, role of critics and industries in flux:
“Now we have instant access to an unparalleled library of films, books and recordings, we are wallowing about, really, in an atemporal zone of cultural production: none of us have the time – unless, like Kermode, we wish to spend the greater part of our adult life at it – to view all the films, read all the texts, and listen to all the music that we can access, wholly gratis and right away. Under such conditions the role of the critic becomes not to help us to discriminate between “better” and “worse” or “higher” and “lower” monetised cultural forms, but only to tell us if our precious time will be wasted – and for this task the group amateur mind is indeed far more effective than the unitary perception of an individual critic. In my working lifetime I’ve already seen the status accorded to book and film reviews undergo a tremendous decline – not, I hasten to add, because there aren’t good reviews being written (this one is especially good), but because the media they are reviewing and the medium by which they themselves are delivered are both in a state of flux. All sorts of cultural production that was concerned with ordering and sorting – criticism, editing and librarianship – can now be seen for what it always really was: the adjunct of a particular media technology.”
I can’t help but think Self might revisit his opinion of the group amateur mind after reading the user reviews of Dragon Age 2 on Metacritic…