Do we grade video games on curve? Do we patronize them? Do we pat them on the head and praise progress over performance? "We" as in me, you and everyone else who loves games. Maybe we're too nice.
I know that I'm nice. I'm an optimist. I like games creators who try. I like games that are a little bit messy. I don't mind if parts of them fail. Many of the video games I enjoy are sprawling. They contain miles of virtual terrain and hours of stuff to play through. They can't be entirely great.
I can't expect perfection. I don't expect perfection. I don't wait for perfection and get angry when it doesn't arrive.
That's why I can't hate last year's Assassin's Creed III, despite all its flaws. That's why I can't deny the excellence of this year's Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds despite my nagging feeling that it repeated too many design elements from its predecessor, A Link to the Past.
I tolerate more flaws in the games I love than I do in the books and the movies I love. I wonder sometimes about what that means. I wonder if it means that gaming is just a younger form or a more raw form. I wonder if it means that games are inherently less tidy form and a form more difficult to get right.
Which video game is perfect? Which game even approaches perfection?
I appreciate smaller games. By trying to do fewer things, these games can do a greater percentage of things well. Advance Wars. Portal. Tetris. Few frills. Fewer flaws.
And then there's Gone Home, the stellar indie game this year that did more with less. It's a game that might be Game of the Year among people who agree that, sure, it is a game. But there's something about Gone Home that keeps bothering me. It's a well-told story that is unlocked through interaction. Is it, however, a great story? It's certainly a true one in the sense of depicting the real, believable emotions of a 17-year-old girl in conflict with her parents. Would I cherish it if it wasn't a game? Would it seem special if it was a short story or a movie or a play? I wonder. Dumb question? I don't think so, not when the best game story of the year—and, there, I'm saying Gone Home had the best story in games in 2013—feels like it might not be the 15th best story told in any other medium.
How much credit does Gone Home or any other game you think has a great story get for telling a decent story in a medium that hasn't told stories this way this well that often before? Or is that a ridiculous standard? How do we measure achievement?
I wonder if we are wowed by things that aren't at the core of what games are about—their interactivity—and forgive their deficiencies as games because of it.
See why I'm wondering if we're grading on a curve? I wonder if we are wowed by things that wouldn't impress us as much if they were in another form of entertainment. I wonder if we are wowed by things that aren't at the core of what games are about—their interactivity—and forgive their deficiencies as games because of it. Yet we want all aspects of games to improve, I think, story included. Music included. Voice-acting included. Graphics included. Controls included. Multiplayer connectedness included.
Or maybe the things that would be ordinary in another medium are genuinely extraordinary in games because, somehow, some way, some smart people figured out how to wrangle them into an interactive experience. Somehow they packed them in there and trusted us to unpack them. How can we not admire that?
Or maybe the things that would be ordinary in another medium are genuinely extraordinary in games because, somehow, some way, some smart people figured out how to wrangle them into an interactive experience.
Maybe, sometimes, we're too mean about the games we grumble over.
BioShock Infinite. First it seemed great, then came the backlash. Great world. Great ambition. Good enough story? Good enough gameplay? Good enough graded on the curve that recognizes that games are rarely this thematically sophisticated and rarely this beautiful. Good enough without it? I'm still not sure.
Grand Theft Auto V. Great world. Great ambition. Good enough story? Good enough gameplay? Good enough with the curve. Good enough without it? My gut says yes. But my gut knows that I'm okaying some flaws. I'm living with a storyline that took some disappointing turns because, damn it, I loved flying a helicopter through that world and stealing a tank.
Maybe games can't be great at everything. Is that okay to admit? Is that some form of defeat?
This is the one thing I'm sure of when it comes to assessing how good a game is: the less a game has to do with any other form of art, the easier it is to judge. Boil it down to gameplay. Cut the fluff. Make a racing game about lines that race against each other. No garnish. I can tell you how good that game is.
I can more confidently tell you that a story-less game is a great game than I can a game with a story. If it has a story, I'm usually making excuses for that part or criticizing the game for that part (which is worse?).
We, the critics and the gamers, are pioneers. We are explorers. Our joy and our interest is relative to a medium's jolts this way, that way and, ultimately, forward.
The svelter a game is the better sense I have of whether it really, truly is a great game.
And then a year like 2013 throws a game like Gone Home at me, and I'm at a loss. Great story? Or a story we pat on the head because, hey, it showed up in a game? Great game even if the gameplay is so simple and even if you can't really lose? (Hey, in Tetris, you can't win!)
To play games and to love playing games feels to me, today, like loving being in the middle of a transitional period. We all know games are getting better and better. Video games today excellent in more and more different ways. Their creators are trying more and more things. We, the critics and the gamers, are pioneers. We are explorers. Our joy and our interest is relative to a medium's jolts this way, that way and, ultimately, forward. We're moving ahead. And, yes, we've had some classics, but we're going to leave a lot of today's greats behind.
Among the great games of 2013 or any other year, imperfections abound. So did niceness. Too much? Too little? Probably too much. But I don't want to be too mean to the games that pleased me this year. For now, they get credit.