Saturday, October 1, 2011

. . . Judging Video Games

Considering that part of what I do for a living is judge the relative merits and the "goodness" of video games, you would think that being asked exactly how I tell whether a game is any good or not would be a question that I should be able to instantly snap off a brief answer that is to the point and easy to understand, right? Well... Not so much, really.

This morning among the two-dozen new email messages that I usually get on a Saturday was one that asked me simply how I can tell when a game is any good? I should explain that I have a fairly complex set of filters and scripts on my email program so that the messages are sorted before I ever see them, with games related mail going in one folder, email from friends and relatives (and flagged as such) into another, with a cascading list of other folders sorted by the information in the subject line.

That filter system is why I always instruct the readers of my game guides to include the name of the game in the subject, since otherwise my email program is very likely to put their email into the "general > unsorted" folder, which is also where a lot of the span and unsolicited mail goes and which is the last folder I read each day, if I read it at all...

Back on the subject, the email was from a regular reader of my newspaper column, but they also read my game reviews and my articles on Gaming Update, and they mentioned that they liked my guides on SuperCheats and GameFaqs, so I either have a stalker or they really are simply following my writing...

As I sat and re-read the question I felt the urge to giggle in a very unmanly way. How do I tell if a game is good? How do I tell if a game is good?? To be fair that is an interesting question. It is also a difficult one to answer as I soon discovered.

If email was like writing on real paper, what you would have seen if you had come into my office this afternoon was me sitting at my desk surrounded by crumpled up balls of paper that represent the dozens of attempts that I made at trying to answer the question. Of course it is not like real paper, so there were no balled up torn-off sheets of paper surrounding me, but you get the idea.

How do I tell when a game is Good?

The easy answer to that question -- and a total cop-out -- would be to paraphrase United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his answer to the question of how to describe his threshold test for obscenity, which he wrote in his summary of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964): "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

That explanation has become one of the most famous phrases in the entire history of the Supreme Court, and even distilled down to a bare quote of "I know it when I see it" leaves it easily identified as Justice Stewart's infamous words.

It would be so easy to say I know a good game when I see one and leave it at that, but doing so would not only be disingenuous but it would also be avoiding answering the question at all.

Judging a Games "Goodness"

While it is by no means an official road map to the determining if a game is good, the right place to start is always with evaluating the story, plots, and the sub-plots that make up the story portion of the game. A good, well-constructed main story line is always a plus, even for games whose story is not its strongest point. Characters and their development is next -- obviously we are not very likely to end up immersed in a game when there is nothing for us to care about in it, and liking the character that you play (the protagonist) is a great place to start.

The next obvious point is the challenge level of play. It should be interesting, it should be original, and it must not simply recycle the same basic play over and over because that is the fastest path to boredom that I can imagine.

Every game is not going to have the depth of Final Fantasy XIII or the immersion of Fallout: New Vegas, but that does not mean that it cannot find its own way towards those two goals. It is interesting to note that sometimes when a developer is making a game that they know will not be able to hold up any story or plot using the foundation of its characters, the most obvious alternative is to find a gimmick to rely upon.

Take Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball as an example (AKA DOAX) and you have a game that relies almost completely upon a gimmick (near-nudity) as its primary vehicle. That it is a complete and total departure from the games in the DoA series that proceeded it to the point that it is largely viewed with rampant speculation by gamers the world over as something of a scam, and who not surprisingly, are convinced that its release as part of the DoA series was really a bald attempt at capitalizing upon the previous successes of the series to take what would otherwise be a lackluster beach volleyball game whose only attraction when it is judged purely on its own is the very well-drawn umm... Scenery?Well, you see the point?

It should be noted that the DoA series is a game series solidly embedded in the Fighting genre, and its following was largely teenagers into fighting games. Viewed that way, it makes complete sense for Tecmo to take this sexually-focused beach volleyball and present it to the traditional audience for the Dead or Alive games! The fact that DOAX is the first game in the series to obtain a Mature rating from the ESRB pretty much tells the rest of that story.

For the record what little actual nudity there was in the game occurs very early in the opening scene and is not an interactive part of the game. The ability of the player to zoom in and out, and position the center focus of the screen where they like when combined with the characters of the game who, save for a few exceptions, all pretty much sport uniforms that consist of the skimpiest of bikini’s pretty much illustrates the prurient focus of the game.

So here we have a game that uses a gimmick -- sex and scantily clad young girls -- and whose focus is not what the previous games in the series focused upon. It has a story -- the player selects a character and plays them through the two weeks of the fake tournament that the focal character Zack has organized in order to surround himself with scantily clad women athletes, and whose plot largely comes in two parts -- the awkwardness of the situation that Zack engineered followed by surviving the eruption of the volcano on 'Zack Island' immediately following the end of the fake tournament.

Is this a good game?

Well, reviewers and players overwhelmingly thought that it was! I never had the opportunity to review it because our reviews are reader-driven, and the readers evidently did not see the need for it to be reviewed and so never requested it, but games journo Aaron Boulding writing for the website IGN gave it a rating of 9.2 out of 10 with the note "Amazing" while Gamespot gave it a less enamored 6.0 out of 10 with the comment that it was "Fair."

A quick and dirty review of the reviews that the game received that contributed to its Meta ranking as well as its cumulative ranking on the website reveals that the title was one of those games that tended to get favorable reviews, with most of the reviewers agreeing that it was a pretty good beach volleyball game. Add in the nearly nude girls and the guns, and it is pretty obvious that the International Amateur Athletics Union that oversees the criteria used to judge the standards for games in the Olympics has clearly missed a sure thing. Yeah, that was rather sarcastic humor...

Still this is a good game to use to illustrate the question -- because it was a game that gamers (and critics) either really liked a lot, or despised. When you read the negative reviews that it received very few of them actually addressed the game play, simply because they could not get past the near-nudity and obvious objectification of women to see the game play.

The critics that were able to see past the obvious and offensive nature of the presentation of the characters agree that it is a pretty good beach volleyball game -- though of course this was in 2003. I played it recently and I can say without reservations that the stilted and very simplistic game engine would instantly get this game slammed by players and critics alike, and thanks to modern video games like the last few games in the Grand Theft Auto series, the last Duke Nukem game, and even the last few Tomb Raider games, the near-nudity of DOAX would simply not be enough even as a gimmick to save the game rating today.

. . . I Judge . . .

Since the end of the Summer Doldrums there have been some really good games hitting store shelves and gamer consoles, not the least of which are Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Driver: San Francisco, and Gears of War 3, and some notable DLC expansions like The Lonesome Road (for the established dashingly successful Fallout: New Vegas) and a few interesting expansions in the form of additional cases for the cult classic L.A. Noir.

With respect to the DLC, these were good game expansions laid on top of good games, though just because a base game is classified as a AAA title does not necessarily mean it is a good game or is going to be one.

One interesting system for determining whether a game is good or not is the system that is used by one of my good friends Jeremy Clark -- a veteran games journo who has been writing about and reviewing games for nearly 30 years. His personal system is very simple:

"If I have a hard time saving and quitting the game, then it is a good game. If I cannot bring myself to stop playing no matter how exhausted I am, it is a great game!""

Sadly that system and most of the one I use largely brings us full circle to the words of United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it.

And there you have it. Now if you will excuse me I am going to get back to finishing up The Lonesome Road so I can write the review for this very good DLC Expansion to a Very Good Game!

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