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Is it OK to Hate Great Games?

Illustration for article titled Is it OK to Hate Great Games?


If you asked Meterora3255 if he liked Uncharted 2 he'll tell you he never played it, but that's a lie. You see, Meteora3255 has a dirty secret. He didn't like Uncharted 2. He tried to hide his true feelings at first, but as we all know, the gaming community can be cruel and shamed him into silence, until now. So what games don't live up to the hype in your mind and how do you deal with this form of gamer adversity? Don't worry, you're safe here. Kind of.

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Have you ever played a game that everyone praises to high heaven and you just don't see why? How do you deal with it? For me, most recently, that game was Uncharted 2. I bought a PS3 specifically because of Heavy Rain and Uncharted 2. After all the praise and hearing about how Uncharted 2 was a must play experience I threw down for the PS3. I was so excited to finally have a chance to experience this jewel of gaming. When I finally played it I came away so underwhelmed and disappointed that I actually ended up selling my PS3 for $150 and a DSi as Uncharted 3 no longer appealed to me (nor did any of the other exclusives).

At first I just didn't tell anyone about my feelings on Uncharted 2 as the response was always some variation of "You don't know what you are talking about," usually worded less politely. Eventually I got to the point where I just pretended to have never played it because I felt that not playing it hurt my "hardcore" gamer cred less than disliking it. Now I can finally stand up and say I don't think Uncharted 2 was anywhere near as good as the hype and praise say.

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So how do you deal with it when you don't like a game that everyone else loves and praises?

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Basically, it's... hm. I'm not sure how to put this. There are a couple of them, so I'll go with the easiest first: lots of people like something online. When you're on the internet, it's easier to disagree with someone than it is face to face. Humans lose a large part of their guilt when they can't actually see the person they're communicating with.

Last night, I was called fucking stupid and a fanboy for saying that I'd gotten to play FEAR 3, and actually thought it was one of the most fun FPSes I'd played in a very long while. I had expected some contrived co-operative campaign bullshit, and instead what I've got is a quite good campaign with some of the best controls I've felt in a long while. Cover isn't quite perfect, but it's damn close. The guns are mostly great, especially the Ventilator. It's a good game.

But, hey, the guy I was talking to doesn't really like FPSes, and is in the "they're all brown and regen health" camp (which, funnily enough, FEAR 3 is... just for the first level). With only the internet between us, it was easier for him to assert his opinion that I'm fucking stupid for liking things that he doesn't.

But there's this bigger problem, and I don't know what to call it.

It's an issue that we have with the gaming industry in general. Mass Effect 2 is the greatest RPG of all time, by critical concensus (and an important qualification to many is that RPGs have good stories and characters). Half Life 2 and Uncharted 2 also are said to have a great story and characters.

They don't. If anything, they're actually pretty bad. Go watch Uncharted 2's trailer, if you don't believe me—the one that came with the demo—it's basically just set pieces and cliches.

Why is this?

Nerds.

That was unpleasant to type, but let me try to explain. I'd wager that about 90% of people who go online to talk about video games (and I'm not talking about people who ask "how do I shot web" on yahoo answers or something) have played video games regularly for more years than I have. Oh sure, I played Age of Empires other games during the turn of the century, but it wasn't until 2007 that I actually started playing games on anything more than a semi-daily basis, let alone paid attention to the industry itself.

Most gamers, though, aren't me.

They've been playing video games since before they were socially acceptable, which sorta kinda makes them nerds. Now, there's a few things I know about nerds, and one is that they're internally focused, and the other is that they don't like change. I'll talk about the change one first, 'cause it's easier to address.

Look at the comics industry, particularly DC. They're very, very focused on continuity, and they write stories that cater to the fans. During the past few years, it's been quite hard to pick up any comic book published by DC and read it, because the fans that DC caters to don't want change. You've got fan-writers like Geoff Johns whose apparent purpose is just to retcon a bunch of changes that they didn't like (making Hal a victim of Parralax, getting rid of Kyle, etc).

The comics industry just doesn't want to change. It's too comfortable with the way things are, even though they're absolutely destroying it.

The same can be said for the video gaming industry.

As gamers demand more sequels (thus, familiarity), publishers develop more of that. Look at how many people are demanding, what... a seventh major GTA title? How many people are excitedly awaiting Final Fantasy XIII-2, which is like, I don't even know, the 80th Final Fantasy game or some such shit. It's crazy!

Can you imagine a film industry where Stephen Spielberg went on to make thirteen Jaws movies, a few direct-to-dvd sequels, some television shows, an anime, as well as some video game and novel adaptations?

But the video game industry is comfortable with where it's at. By and large, it isn't a fan of innovation that isn't graphical. It says "hey, I like this, and I want more of it." It doesn't want to be uncomfortable, like most nerds I know. They don't want to go rock climbing or go to parties or whatever because that's an uncomfortable experience, and they're totally fine with locking themselves away in their rooms and watching anime or playing video games, and never try to go beyond that.

In a way, they're like small children—I cooked burritos with refried black beans the other night, and one of my little sisters wouldn't touch it simply because it was different than what she was used to.

So, y'know, that's part of the problem. Look at the list I posted earlier of some of the highest rated games ever. They're all sequels. Did you know that, in Hollywood, very, very few sequels rate higher than the originals? The only ones that comes to mind are the Empire Strikes Back and Aliens.

It's indicative of an environment where people just want the same thing, and nothing else.

But then there's that big one I haven't got to yet.

It's... hm.

It's this unwillingness to look outside and compare itself to other things. I've criticized game stories before, only to hear this (extremely common) argument that "they're different things! You can't compare them!" It's absolute bollocks. Just because it's a video game doesn't mean that it doesn't share plot, characterization, pacing, and so forth with any other storytelling medium.

That's the problem.

The game industry isn't willing to truly criticize itself.

It's inwardly-focused. It doesn't want to say "man, we really suck compared to literally everything else, even radio plays! We should do something about that." Half Life 2, Mass Effect 1 and 2, Red Dead Redemption, any Metal Gear Solid game, the Uncharted series, and practically any other game that's been praised for good writing cannot compare to storytelling in any other medium. It falls flat on its ass and should be ashamed of itself.

It's sort of this nerd mentality—if you tell the average joe something he likes sucks, he's not likely to withdraw into his shell and say that you don't know anything. A nerd, though, will do exactly that. In part, it's due to training. A nerd may have grown up liking Lord of the Rings when it wasn't popular, so people made fun of them for it. I can't even begin to tell you how much my parents criticize me for liking the things I do, and I know that it's made me pretty defensive.

So when my aunt comes along and says "I don't like that you read science fiction, because it isn't true and can't teach you any lessons the way reading a book on first aid can," I can respond by discussing the importance of the role of escapism in human culture, or I can tell her how many of the books I read actually have something to say about human nature, or whatever. Rarely have I encountered a situation where I have been unable to defend what I enjoy as having any purpose, but in gaming, the excuse more often than not is a simple (and stupid) one:

"Well, I like it, and good and bad are all relative, so it's good, and I don't have to defend it to you."

It's an obvious fallacy, and I can disprove it easily: I don't like Mozart, but I can't deny that his music is quite good.

The only place I hear this argument made so frequently is in gaming. In film, television, literature, art, or anything else, if I say "what you like is bad," they won't just try to end the conversation by saying they like it.

They'll actually intelligently discuss it, and ultimately will either have successfully defended it, or have admitted defeat. And you know what? At the end, they may say, as I often have, "well, you know, it is bad, but I still like it." I got my intellectual ass kicked when I said I thought Mozart was bad, and now, I can't deny he's good, but I can still go on not liking him.

Gamers shy away from criticism and comparison.

Ten of the core Final Fantasy games are complete bullshit from a narrative and character perspective, but hey, you nerds played them as kids, you're comfortable with them, you grew up with their storytelling styles, and you'll do anything you can to protect them. I'd defend Thomas the Tank Engine, but unlike most nerds (and I hate to use that word, as I so totally am a nerd, just of a different sort), I wouldn't dare tell you that it's great storytelling.

It's an absence of game criticism that we've got. Most game journalists out there are looking for a scoop. Most of what they deliver is what PR drip-feeds them. We have a cycle that's built in previews and reviews, and then the games are forgotten, and we start previewing and reviewing new games.

Criticism, though? That's not really a thing we've got in the industry.

I mean real, solid criticism, not some guy with a journalism degree who's been playing video games since he was a tyke saying whether he enjoyed playing a game or not on a blog [Though this is totally valid and a lot of people have neat things to say about game design, and obviously I wouldn't be here if I didn't think there was some merit to it]. I'm talking about people who go in and rip out the guts of a video game and say "this works, that doesn't, the game just wasted eight minutes dumping info on me rather than drip-feeding it throughout the game, and the characters are simple archetypes who try to create a character out of your silent protagonist—which renders the silent protagonist pointless.*"

Instead, we've got people who go "OH MAN, IT HAS A SHINY GIMMICK AND THE FACIAL ANIMATIONS ARE GOOD AND THIS IS A UNIQUE SETTING THIS IS GODLIKE!"

Look at something: there are no stealth-action pulp mil-fi games like Metal Gear Solid. It's unique. There are no Indiana Jones-style video games aside from Uncharted. There are no sci-fi games at all that let you take a ship and fly around the universe. People are praising them because they're unique experiences, not because they're particularly good.

MGS has bad controls, bad characters, and a weird understanding of human emotion. Uncharted is a mix of boring shooting design and bad puzzles coupled with great set pieces and cliched banter (fun fact: Modern Warfare actually has better shooter design and set pieces, and gets called out for it. Why? 'cause it's popular with non-core-gamers, and thus, antithetical to the mind of the nerd-wot-stays-indoors. Also, it hasn't got banter.) Mass Effect 2 has bad RPG design, bad combat design, bad characters, a non-existent plot, and a host of other problems.

But because they're unique to games, they get shit tons of praise.

Bioshock Infinite is going to get a lot of praise, in part because of the banter between the characters. It might be a great game—it certainly looks like something special, and I hope it is—but it's going to get a lot of praise simply because it's unique and has lots of banter.

Dragon Age is one of the finest fantasy RPGs of our times. It's about guys who get elves, dwarves, and humans together to battle orcs while a bad guy tries to usurp the kingdom. Contrast this with literally any fantasy novel on the "finest fantasy novels of whatever" lists. It'd get laughed out of there for being trite and stupid. But we gamers seem to think it's a wonderful example of fantasy storytelling, with great characters (who are just recycled from previous Bioware games) and a great story.

Give a game high enough production values and make it unique to games, and gamers will defend it to kingdom come.

Ultimately, the issue is this: we have an industry (including core consumers) that wants to be comfortable and doesn't like to criticize. The industry acts like one giant nerd, and retreats into its shell of defense and defiance whenever someone comes along to poke a stick at it. We need an industry that's more comfortable with itself, and wants to make truly great things.

Unfortunately, we don't.

What we have are a bunch of people who want to be comfortable, who don't like to be criticized, and want to live in their little carefully constructed padded bubble, and they lash out at those (like Roger Ebert) who dare to say anything against them.

We need people who don't sequester themselves away and grumble about those who dislike what they do. We need people who say, "hey, mom, dad, look at this thing that I like! Here's why!" Hell, one of the biggest complaints I hear about video gaming from non-gamers is that that is exactly what video games seem to do to people.

Me? I can defend it to my parents. I can point out that they love playing Scrabble round the table, so what's wrong with some split-screen Halo co-op? It's just as social as Scrabble, and even moreso because it encourages the players to work together, rather than against each other (like Scrabble).

Most gamers I know can't do that.

And that's terrible. :\

*Basically, there's a game everybody loves that has a silent protagonist. The purpose of a silent protagonist is to allow the character to bond with and define the character. Unfortunately, that game goes out of its way to define the character as a very specific individual, by talking about that character's past, by allowing or not allowing the character to do certain things, and so forth.

Gamers basically have this idea that "oh, cutscenes are bad and silent protagonists are good, therefore, this game is good 'cause it hasn't got one and has got the other," but they don't seem to realize it's an absolutely shitty implementation, and contrasted with Halo, it's really quite bad.