In a new Gamasutra editorial, Keith Boesky – “a long-standing game agent and attorney as well as former Eidos president” discusses the problems with game critics. Dismissing him immediately because he was in charge of Eidos would be unfair. I’m kidding, of course. The only reason he can’t be entirely ignored is because Gamasutra publishes his articles.
Boesky actually opens up with some insightful points. Contrasting the game industry’s critics to others, he observes that ours are nearly alone in frothing over huge budget, AAA material. We do not wait for art house games with bated breath, nor condemn anything that cost over 50 million dollars to make and is 90% spectacle.
His next idea is that people of my generation and older tend to mentally separate their passive and active media. I can’t speak with knowledge about children and the way they look at games versus TV, as Boesky does, but I have noticed that my girlfriend and friends who don’t game frequently have little or no patience when it comes to cut scenes and other passive sections in games. Whether this is due to growing up before nearly all media had an element of interaction in it or simply a difference between gamers and non-gamers I can’t say, but Boesky’s claim that it is the former deserves more discussion.
After these two interesting ideas, Boesky launches into a bafflingly stupid attack on critics, who are often bafflingly stupid themselves, which makes criticism of them easy and Boesky’s failed attempt that much more flabbergasting. He insists repeatedly that critics want pick up and play arcade-type titles because that’s what they grew up on. This would be a good argument if it were supported by facts. He chooses to use Metacritic for evidence supporting his position, but glancing at the top 20 lists on each system only illustrates that around half of each list is barely playable to casual gamers.
Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, Oblivion, Metal Gear Solid 4, Half-life 2, Dead Space, Ninja Gaiden, Mass Effect, Fable 2, Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime 3 and so on fill the lists of best reviewed games. On the other end, games seen as too simple like Wii Music are being ravaged by critics.
Let’s assume that he means critics want hard to play pick up and play arcade titles, as opposed to accessible (what everyone else on earth thinks of when they read the term “pick up and play”) titles and is thus not bringing the concept of casual games into his argument. Most of these titles still don’t support this assumed position.
Boesky complains that critics want shallow games without multiple hooks (plot, characters, etc are hooks, not just game mechanics). All the top games I listed have at least some semblance of storyline, and some are incredibly deep. His attacks that critics don’t want emotionally meaningful games falls short, especially considering he is entirely dismissive of Braid’s narrative.
Beyond the falsehood that critics don’t want games with plots is the sad fact that most games have shitty stories that are poorly told. Boesky seems to be advocating games as a whole package rather than game mechanics with plot, setting and character dressings. This is an admirable perspective. Unfortunately, game designers still do almost everything that isn’t gameplay very poorly.
Suggesting we deal with a mediocre shooter so we can hear a good story about World War II is silly. Why not read a great book on the subject, then play a great shooter? I agree that any game that has both great narrative and mechanics should be enjoyed by as many people as possible, but until titles like that flood the market there is good reason to ignore the plotlines of average games.
Overreaching to make his point that the total package matters more than the gameplay, Boesky makes the shaky claim that titles lacking other hooks (captivating setting, plot lines, character development) offer superficial gameplay. This is a devious move in that he has co-opted the term gameplay and attempted to redefine it as something that encapsulates everything a game can be. To him, a game without a plot is lacking in that area of gameplay. He is speaking a different language in order to insult straightforward games with excellent gameplay and he should be more forthcoming about his intentions.
Boesky closes by lamenting that critics are out of touch with consumers. Asserting this is a negative without offering much explanation why somewhat undercuts his entire editorial. At the opening of the article he is rightfully dismissive of pop music that doesn’t last more than a generation because it is crap. He points out that music critics tend to dislike the music of the moment. Music consumers generally have bad taste and game players are no different.