Game Buzz is a weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday we’ll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart’s delight. This week, we ask if games are really getting better, or whether we're all becoming pushovers.
Whenever you review anything, be it a game or a book or a play or a film or whatever, I find that there's always something in the back of my mind, before that review goes live along with all of those of your critical contemporaries, a nervousness of sorts that begs the question 'Did I get this one right?' As a general rule of thumb if I'm writing a review I won't check out any reviews that have already gone up until I've completely finished and the beast has gone live, rather in much the same way that theatre critics will gather to discuss the weather or a new movie and talk about anything but the show itself in the interval, but there's always a certain sense of nervousness if doing things like this properly. It's not standardised of course, some games will blow you away perfectly naturally and stick a big, fat smile of satisfaction onto your face and some will make you cry with disappointment and despair and encourage you to stick the disc in a microwave or defecate in a bag, set it on fire and leave it outside the developers' offices in protest. You'd never do that of course...that would be terribly rude and logistically risky. The point is that often you'll generally have a certain sense of conviction with regard to what end of the scale, but the degree to which you praise or criticise a game, and that pesky score at the end, is often a cause of some severe hand wringing.
Which brings us along to Metacritic, the encyclopaedic monument to critical reaction. As Jon noted a few days ago, the beginning of this month has seen the release of Metacritic's report for the first half of 2010. It is a statistician's dream, three long pages of charts and graphs and tables and scores, and everything points towards one thing: games are being awarded higher scores more frequently than before. I've worded that statement very carefully because there are at least two potential perspectives on this, as Jon noted on Monday: are we living in a golden age of video gaming nirvana, or are reviewers getting a bit soft?
The present day, at any time, is arguably always going to be slightly more exciting than what has gone before. There's an uncertainty and therefore an anticipatory excitement that's at the very least technological if nothing else. Graphics are the perfect example of this: games simply look better than they have ever done before. I've mistaken FIFA 10 for an actual televised match many a time (though sticking around for 30 seconds of the commentary will swiftly disabuse anyone of that notion) and as much as some might like to shake their heads and swear that they're not affected by graphical brilliance at all suggests a worrying black spot in terms of technological appreciation. Visuals are a fundamental aspect of the video game experience, to deny their importance is just as idiotic as praising graphics above all else.
That said, graphics can be used as glossy, shiny masks to paper over fundamental flaws. Put simply, if a game isn't fun no amount of make-up is going to change that. You could try dressing Mel Gibson like Gandhi, but he'd still be a foul-mouthed racist bigot....Mel Gibson that is, not Gandhi. We love Gandhi.
However, I think graphics belie a slightly larger issue. The difficulty, as per usual, is the mid-range and by that I mean we have a perfect abundance of solid, unremarkable games that reviewers tend not to be able to place. In the recent competition we ran to win an iPad one of the entries was a simple yet effective take on one of the most ubiquitous brands in modern consumerism: Tesco Value. Sure, it's used a fair amount to riff on cultural concepts and objects, but this was particularly apt. Every single FPS these days seems to have a multiplayer section ripped straight out of Modern Warfare, and all of the singleplayer campaigns kind of blend into one another. But they're all perfectly solid games, none of them doing much wrong, but none of them particularly breaking the mould either, and it's these perfectly solid titles that have been clogging up the 7s and the 8s (multiply by ten if you subscribe to a publication that ranks out of 100).
Credit where credit's due we haven't seen many truly bad games this year. In fact, much I like ripping into a shitfest just as much as the next person, there hasn't really been a great deal of suitable material for such damnation. part of that is down to increased competition between publishers, which is no bad thing, but it does lead to tit for tat development. If there is a criticism to be made it's that developers and publishers are playing things rather safe but what that means for us reviewers is that it's time to think about re-evaluating how we evaluate our media.
The burgeoning online scene most certainly plays its part. Whilst print media is fiercely regimented by cyclical deadlines, magazines also benefit from a wider staff base and larger resources, one of which is time. They have a set monthly date for circulation that doesn't change regardless of game release dates. Online publications, though, tend to operate far more frantically. With content turnover being so high and staff numbers kept down to decrease online overheads, time is of the essence and the rush for one's review to be amongst the first wave of criticism for a new title can lead to poor time organisation...as in, you run out of it.
The other issue is, obviously, scoring. Part of the problem comes from reviewers, and I've certainly been guilty of it, handing out 6s and 7s and even 8s for games that are really just middle of the road fillers and glossy totems of mediocrity. Games reviewing, like so many other forms of cultural criticism, is based upon precedent and previous experience. We create our own criteria gradually and cumulatively and we can't help but compare and contrast to that which has gone before. But this needs to be tempered with looking for a certain amount of ambition and execution and bravery, and it is titles which truly strive to push gaming forward and remind us why the hell we play games in the first place which must be rewarded with the 9s and 10s. It is no longer enough to simply tick the boxes and it's no longer enough for us reviewers to play it safe.