Some unfinished thoughts on novelty, iteration, and perspective

Note: This was written for my personal blog, so it's intentionally not too inside-baseball. Also, I'm not claiming my reasoning is bulletproof — this is just something I wanted to get off my chest while it was raw in my mind.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s been bugging me about a great deal of games criticism lately, and I think I’ve identified it: many critics put too much emphasis on novelty. I’m fresh from listening to Giant Bomb’s game of the year deliberation podcasts, and listening to well-regarded games like Mass Effect 3, Dishonored, Diablo III, Borderlands 2, Halo 4, Max Payne 3, and Assassin’s Creed 3 be dismissed in favour of games like FTL, Papo & Yo, ZombiU, Syndicate, Spaceteam and Asura’s Wrath — and to some extent even veritable classics like Journey and The Walking Dead — left a bad taste in my mouth.

I’ll be the first to concede that telling people their opinions are wrong is usually a fool’s game, but at the same time, I have a hard time taking seriously any critic who thinks Papo & Yo, ZombiU, or Asura’s Wrath are objectively better games than Mass Effect 3.

While I lack first-hand experience with Papo & Yo and ZombiU, I recently played Asura’s Wrath, and liked it way more than I expected to. I also recently finished Mass Effect 3, and could produce a laundry list of complaints. But let’s be serious here: the best parts of Asura’s Wrath are novelties: cute button prompts, ridiculous set pieces, and some cool fourth wall breaking (at the end of the “real” DLC ending). On a mechanical level, you’re pressing buttons when prompted, playing through some less-than-stellar third-person action sequences, and engaging in some clusterfucky on-rails shooting.

Mass Effect 3 is flawed: the DLC is a bit gross, I didn’t like being forced to play multiplayer, the ending was kind of dumb, some of the story arcs get wrapped up way too conveniently, and there are some ridiculous story beats (Kai Leng offended me more than anything else in the narrative). It’s also mechanically solid; looks amazing; has a much more dynamic, significant, and eventful story than Mass Effect 2; and generally improves on the critically-lauded second instalment in most respects. While I hate to bring Metacritic into the discussion, Mass Effect 3 is sitting at 93/100 — it’s by almost every account a great game.

I’m very glad that there are games out there pushing the medium in new directions, but when undue emphasis is placed on patting developers on the back for creating novel and/or “important” (and in fairness, good) games, I have to question the objectivity of critics. This is especially exasperating when the offending critics fixate on fairly minor flaws in the aforementioned iterative games while glossing over glaring issues in their darlings. I understand that many critics have played so many games that solid iteration can bore, operate in a bit of a bubble, want to give struggling indie developers recognition, and have their own totally-legitimate preferences — I don’t begrudge them for any of that, and nobody’s a machine.

If this were just a case of my disagreeing with a the quirky preferences of a critic, I wouldn’t be particularly annoyed, but listening to, in particular, Patrick Klepek gleefully shit on Mass Effect 3 (and even Assassin’s Creed 3, a flawed but well-reviewed game) while extolling the virtues (and totally ignoring the flaws) of Spaceteam, Papo & Yo, Slender and Asura’s Wrath, I can’t help but feel like there’s a severe lack of perspective.

8 Comments
9 Comments
Posted by GrantHeaslip

Note: This was written for my personal blog, so it's intentionally not too inside-baseball. Also, I'm not claiming my reasoning is bulletproof — this is just something I wanted to get off my chest while it was raw in my mind.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s been bugging me about a great deal of games criticism lately, and I think I’ve identified it: many critics put too much emphasis on novelty. I’m fresh from listening to Giant Bomb’s game of the year deliberation podcasts, and listening to well-regarded games like Mass Effect 3, Dishonored, Diablo III, Borderlands 2, Halo 4, Max Payne 3, and Assassin’s Creed 3 be dismissed in favour of games like FTL, Papo & Yo, ZombiU, Syndicate, Spaceteam and Asura’s Wrath — and to some extent even veritable classics like Journey and The Walking Dead — left a bad taste in my mouth.

I’ll be the first to concede that telling people their opinions are wrong is usually a fool’s game, but at the same time, I have a hard time taking seriously any critic who thinks Papo & Yo, ZombiU, or Asura’s Wrath are objectively better games than Mass Effect 3.

While I lack first-hand experience with Papo & Yo and ZombiU, I recently played Asura’s Wrath, and liked it way more than I expected to. I also recently finished Mass Effect 3, and could produce a laundry list of complaints. But let’s be serious here: the best parts of Asura’s Wrath are novelties: cute button prompts, ridiculous set pieces, and some cool fourth wall breaking (at the end of the “real” DLC ending). On a mechanical level, you’re pressing buttons when prompted, playing through some less-than-stellar third-person action sequences, and engaging in some clusterfucky on-rails shooting.

Mass Effect 3 is flawed: the DLC is a bit gross, I didn’t like being forced to play multiplayer, the ending was kind of dumb, some of the story arcs get wrapped up way too conveniently, and there are some ridiculous story beats (Kai Leng offended me more than anything else in the narrative). It’s also mechanically solid; looks amazing; has a much more dynamic, significant, and eventful story than Mass Effect 2; and generally improves on the critically-lauded second instalment in most respects. While I hate to bring Metacritic into the discussion, Mass Effect 3 is sitting at 93/100 — it’s by almost every account a great game.

I’m very glad that there are games out there pushing the medium in new directions, but when undue emphasis is placed on patting developers on the back for creating novel and/or “important” (and in fairness, good) games, I have to question the objectivity of critics. This is especially exasperating when the offending critics fixate on fairly minor flaws in the aforementioned iterative games while glossing over glaring issues in their darlings. I understand that many critics have played so many games that solid iteration can bore, operate in a bit of a bubble, want to give struggling indie developers recognition, and have their own totally-legitimate preferences — I don’t begrudge them for any of that, and nobody’s a machine.

If this were just a case of my disagreeing with a the quirky preferences of a critic, I wouldn’t be particularly annoyed, but listening to, in particular, Patrick Klepek gleefully shit on Mass Effect 3 (and even Assassin’s Creed 3, a flawed but well-reviewed game) while extolling the virtues (and totally ignoring the flaws) of Spaceteam, Papo & Yo, Slender and Asura’s Wrath, I can’t help but feel like there’s a severe lack of perspective.

Posted by Video_Game_King

I seem to remember making a similar argument earlier this year that originality should not be a component in determining the quality of a game. I'll leave it at "I argued averagely to poorly".

However, I will defend Asura's Wrath, since the things it does (Christ, the grammar on that looks hideous), it does very well. The button prompts are blended well into the game, and the actual gameplay is solid if ridiculously brief.

Posted by theguy

@GrantHeaslip said:

I’ll be the first to concede that telling people their opinions are wrong is usually a fool’s game, but at the same time, I have a hard time taking seriously any critic who thinks Papo & Yo, ZombiU, or Asura’s Wrath are objectively better games than Mass Effect 3.

I can kind of see where you're coming from though. I think because of this extra long console generation people are just tired of everything and innovation really shines more than it would have in previous generations.

I actually do think originality should play a part in judging a games quality. It is used as a factor in all other creative mediums. I think maybe originality should play the same part in criticism of games as it does in criticism of food. While innovation in painting and writing is hugely important a chef who can cook something pretty pedestrian with extreme skill still produces awesome food. An interesting new flavour can be a factor in the enjoyment of a dish.

Posted by JordanK85

In an age of sequels, prequels, remakes, and guarenteed AAA trilogies, I would argue that novelty is an even more important component to quality than it should be normally. To argue that novelty has nothing to do with quality is to ignore the effect of novelty on the experience of a game or anything else. After all, there's nothing like the first time.

Posted by tarvis

There is objectivity in journalism. There isn't objectivity in game reviews. Yes, there are valid criticisms to levy against poor design and broken mechanics. But at the end of the day it's just a question of how much fun did that person have. No one is saying Asura's Wrath is objectively better than Mass Effect 3. There are people saying why they subjectively feel Asura's Wrath is better than Mass Effect 3. If a person did say that one game is objectively better than another, they just don't understand the definition of that word.

Posted by GrantHeaslip
@tarvis You're right, "objectively" wasn't the best choice of language.

@theguy I agree, novelty is a totally valid reason to like something. My issue is more specifically that I think it was too much of a factor.
Edited by pleasedaddyno

@tarvis said:

There is objectivity in journalism. There isn't objectivity in game reviews. Yes, there are valid criticisms to levy against poor design and broken mechanics. But at the end of the day it's just a question of how much fun did that person have.

what people find 'fun' is subjective, hence your observation that objective reviews are lacking in gaming. fundamentally, though, it must be pointed out that the subject of journalism and the subject of game journalism are different; the former is our daily reality, while the latter is a closed formal system of a subset reality that represent a kind of temporary escape (from whence one invariably returns, with a different perspective or just questions about oneself, the world, etc)--it is entertainment. it is the best sort of engagement.

however, "poor design and broken mechanics" can very well affect how much 'fun' (i'd argue this word is somewhat misleading when used here, since people tend to associate this with only lighter, comic madness, and would be better replaced with something to do with how engaged a person is) a person has playing a game, since design and mechanics make up a good part of the playability. in order to form a relationship with the subset reality, the player has to interact. enough problems--of course, here, what constitutes 'enough' is problematic--results in a crash down to earth. 'suspension of disbelief' unsuspended.

a successful game, therefore, has a clear point of view--a destination, if you will--, with every element in the game geared towards immersing the player in that intentional world, and delivering him or her to its end--and beyond. just as in cooking, fashion design, writing fiction, or any other creative endeavour, if an element does not integrate and stands out so much that it is jarring and plays no clear role in achieving its mission brief, it takes people out of the experience. these people will call that something "a gimmick," "a schtick," "a novelty." being different just for the sake of being different is not looked at kindly. on the other hand, there is definitely a trend in unfairly dismissing an entire ontology of a game for what, only on the surface, comes across as "a novelty." players really, then, should ask themselves, "what is the purpose of this, and can it be taken out without undermining the goal of the game?"

@JordanK85 said:

In an age of sequels, prequels, remakes, and guarenteed AAA trilogies, I would argue that novelty is an even more important component to quality than it should be normally. To argue that novelty has nothing to do with quality is to ignore the effect of novelty on the experience of a game or anything else. After all, there's nothing like the first time.

yes...

striving for Something New is pivotal to progress--but it really isn't the same as "a novelty." in fact, one might say "a novelty" is what happens when striving falls short. personally, i welcome stuff that undermine or contradict generally accepted truths, and move outside the conventions of its genre--though, your argument that that is "more important [than] quality"...not so much. unless you meant to limit the parameters to our current console lull and subsequent "games stagnation"? "touched for the very first time" is something we can agree on; although, being touched with skill and experience for the up-teenth time can be just as exhilarating, i think.

video games are still so "young," in the greater scheme of Entertainment, and as such, video game journalism hasn't really established itself yet: a lot of what is out there, today, reads more like a Rotten Tomatoes User #3281's post. and this is largely due to reviewers confusing 'engaging'--where the game is viewed as a successful, engaging & entertaining whole--and 'like'--where the game is labeled "good" or "shit" depending on whether it aligns or appeals to the reviewer's own system of values, current mindset, and life experiences.

Edited by JordanK85

@pleasedaddyno said:

@JordanK85 said:

In an age of sequels, prequels, remakes, and guarenteed AAA trilogies, I would argue that novelty is an even more important component to quality than it should be normally. To argue that novelty has nothing to do with quality is to ignore the effect of novelty on the experience of a game or anything else. After all, there's nothing like the first time.

yes...

striving for Something New is pivotal to progress--but it really isn't the same as "a novelty." in fact, one might say "a novelty" is what happens when striving falls short. personally, i welcome stuff that undermine or contradict generally accepted truths, and move outside the conventions of its genre--though, your argument that that is "more important [than] quality"...not so much. unless you meant to limit the parameters to our current console lull and subsequent "games stagnation"? "touched for the very first time" is something we can agree on; although, being touched with skill and experience for the up-teenth time can be just as exhilarating, i think.

I was using the term novelty strictly in the sense of something new. And I meant to say that novelty is a more important component of quality, not itself more important than quality. Although I can see how what I wrote might be interpreted that way. Sorry about the lack of clarity.

I agree that polish as a result of iteration can also contribute to quality. My only argument was that considering novelty, or perhaps originality is more to your taste, is absolutely valid in a review of a game's quality. Which is something that you essentially agree with.

Posted by pleasedaddyno

@JordanK85 said:

@pleasedaddyno said:

@JordanK85 said:

In an age of sequels, prequels, remakes, and guarenteed AAA trilogies, I would argue that novelty is an even more important component to quality than it should be normally. To argue that novelty has nothing to do with quality is to ignore the effect of novelty on the experience of a game or anything else. After all, there's nothing like the first time.

yes...

striving for Something New is pivotal to progress--but it really isn't the same as "a novelty." in fact, one might say "a novelty" is what happens when striving falls short. personally, i welcome stuff that undermine or contradict generally accepted truths, and move outside the conventions of its genre--though, your argument that that is "more important [than] quality"...not so much. unless you meant to limit the parameters to our current console lull and subsequent "games stagnation"? "touched for the very first time" is something we can agree on; although, being touched with skill and experience for the up-teenth time can be just as exhilarating, i think.

I was using the term novelty strictly in the sense of something new. And I meant to say that novelty is a more important component of quality, not itself more important than quality. Although I can see how what I wrote might be interpreted that way. Sorry about the lack of clarity.

I agree that polish as a result of iteration can also contribute to quality. My only argument was that considering novelty, or perhaps originality is more to your taste, is absolutely valid in a review of a game's quality. Which is something that you essentially agree with.

it may seem like i'm splitting hairs on meaning when that word itself literally means "new," but the OP uses this word, also, and it is so often used with derision, nowadays, without any real distinction from its true sense. it invites misusage, used interchangeably with "gimmicky," and so on. just wanted to clarify. we have always been in agreement on the validity of including originality in evaluating a game.

in the short story, 'On Exactitude in Science,' Borges writes about a perfect map: the map is as big as the kingdom which it depicts. perhaps, the most perfect review of a game would entail addressing everything in the game, and would, in itself, be a review the size of the game.

forty-two gigabytes.