Monday, November 24

Awkward Thumbs

Keith Stuart over at the Guardian wrote an interesting article a bit ago about Mirror's Edge and reviewer quibles. Stuart notes, aptly, that reviews of Mirror's Edge haven't exactly been exceptional. Many reviewers cite a clunky control system as a frustrating hindrance to what Mirror's Edge attempts to achieve: fluidity.

Sterling McGarvey of Gamespy writes, "Although its strict core gameplay becomes rewarding with practice, its combat system never gels with the rest of the experience. . . . The combat's unfortunately its Achilles' heel, since it lacks the spontaneity of the free-running and in many instances brings the action to a crashing halt."

Nate Ahearn at UK IGN writes, "The collision detection is off at times, punches and kicks are very redundant and to perform a true disarm you'll need to slow down time and wait for that brief window when the weapon flashes red to snap it out of your assailant's hands."

At GameSpot, Kevin VanOrd notes, concerning the trial-error frequency and puzzle points, that "you're torn from the experience and reminded that this is, after all, just a game."

But Stuart passes these comments of as "niggling doubts about core mechanics." He goes on to compare video games to movies, and in particular the practice of reviewing each media. He Writes:
For example, no-one complains that, say, Pan's Labyrinth or Eraser Head lack the formal, easily recognizable narrative structure of a conventional movie. Their aspirations exempt them from that requirement. So should we really be marking Mirror's Edge down for control issues – a game that aspires to re-interpret the very interface between player, screen and character?
I think his point is effective. What are we really looking at when we review games? What is more important: the overall picture, or the parts within the whole? Should we look past the minute aspects of a game in favor of the general result? Or should a game be accountable for its details? Afterall, a video game is composed of many, many various aspects, all of which contribute, for the better or worse, to the end result.

Stuart ultimately asserts the following: "And ultimately, what does it mean for games criticism, if we can't appreciate visionary moments, because of these weird little checklists of gameplay qualities, constructed and adhered to with near-autistic fervor?"

Here in Italy, I'm taking a photography class. Today, we discussed the photographer Dorthea Lange, who is famous for her "Migrant Mother" photograph.  Take a look see:
Good photo eh? Interesting subject, great composition, invites questioning and contemplation. Ultimately, an excellent photograph. But what you likely do not know is that the photographer, Lange, went in and edited the photograph after its initial print. Here is the original:
Notice anything? There's a left-hand thumb in the bottom-right corner. Maybe Lange's, who knows? Regardless, this thumb, and more importantly, Lange's decision to edit the photo has drawn quite a bit of controversy. I know, its just a thumb. But what does this thumb do to the overall image? Supposedly, Lange felt the thumb threw off the composition. And it does, actually. But is the edited photograph really that much better for it?

Let's say you were reviewing the original. According to Stuart's observations, you might write something like, "Dorthea Lange's photograph, 'Migrant Mother' is a beautiful depiction of life during the great depression. However, an unidentified awkward thumb in the lower right corner throws off the composition and detracts heavily from the overall image. Therefore, though Lange's photograph hits all the right spots of composition and subject matter, its message is ultimately hindered and degraded by a misplaced thumb. That's why I give 'Migrant Mother' a 7.0/10."

Sounds fairly ridiculous. But actually, its not far from the truth as far as today's game reviews go. Lange decided that the photograph was better without the thumb, and I agree. But if we rewind a bit, is the message of the photograph, or even the composition, really hurt that badly by the thumb? I actually don't have an answer; this one comes down to personal preference. And I think its time to return to video games.

Reviews of Tomb Raider: Underworld have been coming out the past few days. And the results are not so different from that of Mirror's Edge. Guy Cocker at GameSpot writes, "Lara will frequently clip into a piece of the scenery and then refuse to come out until you stop, turn around, and run out of it again. Add all this to an incredibly unruly camera, and Tomb Raider Underworld is still just as frustrating as its predecessors."

Gabe Graziani at Gamespy writes, "One of the major detractors to the enjoyment of Underworld is the unfortunate prevalence of a number of pesky bugs." He goes on to mention one particular bug:
Lara will also occasionally display bizarre behaviors such as holding her arms out as though she's jumping whenever you try to shoot her guns. That particular issue doesn't show up terribly frequently (it only happened once during one level and we weren't able to reproduce the error), but it combines with a number of other little programming missteps to undermine the overall integrity of Underworld.
 Honestly, it seems a bit odd to me to devote an entire paragraph of what is only a two-page review to such a minor quibble, as Graziani even admits himself. That aside, should "pesky bugs" be the foundation upon which judgments are made, or are they just pessimistic thinking?

Here's what I think. There comes a point when bugs and design issues are so prevalent, they detract immensely from the intended experience. When the photograph is full of thumbs is when we need to be seriously concerned. And I really do believe every aspect of a game should function cooperatively. Camera, controls, pacing, combat, you name it. Everything should fit together like a neat little puzzle. If you've got one puzzle piece made of square ends and twice as big as the rest of the pieces, which are made of ovular ends, then the understanding and enjoyment of the overall picture is damaged as a result. But at the same time, I think its OK to forgive a game its minor faults in favor of a greater appreciation.
Shadow of the Colossus has plenty of design issues, I think, including significant camera and control troubles, but these wouldn't stop me from labeling the game as one of the greatest of the last generation and a true work of brilliance. Sometimes we have to think optimistically. In a technology and Internet world rife with dissenters, including highly critical gamers, we have to support our games and industry. If you think back to memories of Goldeneye 64 or Perfect Dark, you're not going to remember the fairly obnoxious control scheme, because the game was freaking amazing and offered something truly fun, something you cherish from your childhood memories. Its alright to think optimistically, to look at how the game makes you feel on the whole. Of course, games would be better without bugs, but that's basically impossible with the amount of complexity in games these days. Sometimes we can look at the greater vision and just enjoy what the game has to offer.
Images from 1Adventure
Article at the Guardian via Kotaku

1 comment:

  1. This may be the best article I've read from you. Excellent work.