Monday, October 28, 2013

Grasping why people like some games and not others

One of the things that truly, really baffles me is how video games are judged.  Not by reviews and magazines - I understand those people are chosen, in part, because they are shills.  But by the public.  So, Bioshock Infinity is a greatly beloved game.  I didn't see it.  Bad shooter mechanics combined with having to comb an area for freaking apples and candy bars to restore health is simply bad game design.

I've had the experience, before.  Assassin's Creed III, Grand Theft Auto IV, among others.  People kept telling me these games were great and I just didn't see it.  On the other hand, games I thought were splendid, like The Saboteur and Alpha Protocol, didn't do very well . . . even if they had gameplay that was the same as or better than other, similar, games that did very well, indeed.

To me, comparisons between GTA 4 and The Saboteur are pretty clear.  The shooting mechanics in The Saboteur were crisper than in GTA 4 - the protagonist would just take cover if near cover without prompting, you could blind fire over cover and do aimed fire.  The driving mechanics were just about the same, too, with the exception that The Saboteur had more tanks, which was awesome, and fewer sloppy, unresponsive vehicles (?!).  So, in shooting and driving, the games were quite a bit alike except The Saboteur had somewhat cleaner and intuitive mechanics and driving around was more fun.  Which . . . you would think would make it a wildly popular game, especially give that you get to kill a bunch of Nazis.

But that's not all The Saboteur was.  Every building could be climbed.  You could use stealth.  You could adopt disguises.  It did everything GTA 4 did and then it added a freerunning stealth game on top of it.  Not a bad one, either.

You couldn't fault The Saboteur for being an insufficiently visually impressive game.  It was a very visually impressive game.  It was a well-rounded, well-designed, good looking game.

Yet, The Saboteur did poorly and GTA 4 was lauded.

With Alpha Protocol, well, the game comparison is really with Deus Ex Human Revolution.  Shooting and stealth were handled about the same in both games, with Alpha Protocol having a more cinematic flair than Human Revolution.  Both had different skill trees that could be developed over the course of the game.  In addition, though, Alpha Protocol had honest-to-god role-playing moments - tricking interrogators by getting under their skins, banging boots with spies (both foreign and domestic, if you get what I mean), actions bearing consequences stuff.  Which Human Revolution was supposed to have but really didn't.

I am without a clue why one did well and the other did not (though in this case, I liked both games).

The only thing that makes sense to me is that video game audiences basically do what they're told . . . though this should not be surprising, they do the same thing with movies, too.  (Talking about The Avengers movie is hard for me, because people will agree on all the things I think make it a bad movie and then conclude they don't matter.  Wooden performances, uneven characterization, frequently absurd characterization, lack of plot . . . I mean, these aren't minor issues.  If you agree that much of the acting was wooden, that characterization was bad and the plot both contrived and full of holes . . . and then go on to conclude that a few laughs make up for this?  Wow.)  This is the only thing that makes sense when considering Bioshock Infinite.  The game mechanics would have been considered uninspiring in 1995.  They were the game mechanics that made a bunch of people predict the death of FPS games as being tired and predictable.  "Go down this rail and shoot everyone you see."  The addition of some superpowers?  Please.  Go play Psi-Ops.  A cover-based third person shooter with stealth and psychic powers.  Three years before Bioshock came out there was a game with a similar game mechanics system just better.  But six years after Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite still plays like a game from the 90s.  A mediocre game from the 90s.

Yet, almost no one says this and few think it's important.  It's bizarre.  Sure, the game is pretty, but it's also downright crude with play . . . not very different from Doom.  But the game is fabulously lauded despite its mediocre and dated gameplay.

For me, the real fuss is . . . trying to find games I like.  There are no reliable narrators!  People tend to follow aggressive ad copy rather than trying to evaluate the game absent the corporate scripted message.  But that makes it hard to find games like The Saboteur, which does everything I want a video game to do and does it well.  When the waters are so hopelessly muddied that you can't tell good reviews from bad ones, how does one accurately find games you want to play?

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