June 19, 2009

Prometheus Unlocked

For thirty seconds at the end of 2008 I considered putting together a list of my favourite games of that year. I found it difficult, however, to rank games by quality, because the titles I remembered the most fondly, or that produced the most personally affecting experience -- if either of those are an acceptable definition of "favourite" -- were not necessarily the games that I had enjoyed the most. The games I felt closest to that year were the ones that I had written about.

That could mean that it was a good game, or a mediocre one or something that didn't even come out that year. Neverwinter Nights 2, for example, fulfills the last two categories. Honestly, that clunky anachronism still means more to me than, say, World of Goo, a game that I like far better. 'Cause I wrote about Neverwinter Nights, and then, somehow, it feels like it's mine.

Having never been a professional game critic, I was never under the obligation to turn in a thousand uninspiring words about an uninspiring product. I never had to review a game that I didn't care a little about. The game might have even been okay, but for whatever reason, all you can ever do is limply summarise the kind of thing it was, and then agree that it's about as good as everyone said it is already. I think if I was a game journalist at this point in my life, I'd be the guy who walked into my editor's office a week after being assigned to review Infamous or Prototype (I only barely know the difference, but I can say with all confidence that whatever the difference is, it doesn't matter) and announce that there's no sparks between me and this game, I'm not feeling it creatively, and so I'm taking myself off the review. Fortunately that isn't my profession, because I would get fired so hard.

I only know what it's like to write about games that excite me, and for that reason, those are the games that stick around in memory. Some games are personally inspiring, an extremely unpredictable quality. There are some games, regardless of how much you like them on their own merits, that put a thought in your head. They make you think that you have the capacity to say something about them that has never been said. I can't underestimate how good that makes a person feel.

You like the ideas inherent in this game, you like its successes, or the potential that it implies in its failures. It makes you feel something new about video games. It doesn't matter how good a game it is, it can excite you in any case: about the medium and about discussing the medium. If you feel, truly, that you have something important to say, then you want to write it out regardless of whether you're being paid or whether anybody's reading it. Even if it's not important to some wider discourse, it's important to you, at least temporarily. Some games make you feel like that, and a handful made me feel like that over the last year. It's really something special, not least because you can't force it. You can't will inspiration into existence.

This brand of adrenaline can and often does manifest itself by a reviewer ripping a really terrible game to shreds in an entertaining, linkbait manner. That same enthusiasm can be more subtle, though, and I like it when it's more positive. Even a mediocre game can make you feel good about games in general, and make you feel good about things other than your ability to diminish someone else's work. You want, really, to talk about games in a way that feels like you're making a real contribution to a discussion less tangible than your review. You want what you write to be valuable, and there isn't the potential for that in every game that you play.

This is a weird relationship that develops between games and critics. It's a whole extra level on which to like a game. You get seriously sentimental about it. It's an extra echelon of appreciation, unlocked. I didn't know that I could feel this way.

The reverse of this is: are you only playing games looking for material to write about? They're more worthwhile if you can get that extra measure of enjoyment out of them. I.e., what are you going to do for me, video game? You'd better be more than just fun. You'd better be intellectually exhilarating on a very personal level, otherwise I'm wasting my time.

This is what four and a half years of writing about games for an audience has done to me, I think. What happened to just being able to play a video game like a normal person!

I can't simply "play video games" any more. I approach every game with a different, unusually eager perspective. In many ways, though, the feeling I get from writing about a video game is far better than the feeling I get from only playing it.

It ignites something in you, a sense of temporary purpose that makes you feel more talented and capable than usual. That's something special. It makes you -- the critic, the reviewer -- happy in a very self-centered and unsustainable kind of way that's completely at the expense of the game itself. It's a strange, egocentric relationship, but then again, what are these games meant for if not gratification? The joy of being driven to write about a game that everyone else finds unremarkable is what lifts that game out of mediocrity for you.

To this day, over a year after writing about it, I think back on Neverwinter Nights 2 with sincere and warm affection. Games like that, which I would consider mediocre and not appealing to me at all, still inspired me to say something, and that's where I found it meaningful. It was never fun for me on the terms that it proposed, but I genuinely engaged with it and am glad that I played it. It's a very condescending kind of compliment. I bet the developers can't wait to thank me.

The fact is, you develop a personal connection with games like that; the games that motivated you to write an impassioned editorial and post it on a section of the internet that you know nobody reads. The games you write about, you get inside them. You think about them so much more than anything else; you explore their strengths and their weaknesses because you care. You incorporate those games into your avocation and they become the stories that you covered.

The games you write about, the games you really cared about: they're really a part of you. This is why I can't rank games objectively anymore. Neverwinter Nights 2 is a part of my life. Neverwinter Nights 2 is part of my life? Get it out, please!

I can make jokes like that because, you know, I really do love it.


Anonymous said...

It's a level of emotional engagement above that of simply "Did I enjoy the food pellet I got when I hit the red button?" I think this sort of engagement is important, with both professionals and consumers making a connection on a level different from the typical task-reward satisfaction.

I just don't know how games could better effect it.

Ben Abraham said...

I wonder how many (if any) games writers out there don't enjoy the writing more than the playing.

Actually, I have no idea how many people IGN has on staff, so it could be just those of us who do it for the love.

(Completely unrelated note: have you been slowly increasing the font size on HSD, or am I just going mad?)

Duncan said...

The font size? The font size has always been the same unless I really have no idea what I'm doing (possible).

Ben Abraham said...

It's probably just a side effect of always reading via RSS. When I come to the site everything looks too big. I wondered if it might have been one of those experiments like where you shift the walls of your cubicle a centimeter every day until you eventually colonize someone else's space.

You're probably not that crazy...

qrter said...

Maybe you've been systematically and accidentally hitting CTRL and turning your mousewheel everytime you visit HSD..

Anonymous said...

I'd ask you to reconsider your position on Prototype, but really the game is just one big power fantasy. The enemies are functionally blind and stupid, but there are lots of them and the splatter so nicely. Really the only challenge to be had in that game are the off kilter side missions, most of which are damn near impossible to get higher than bronze.

Also: This is the point of the article.

And this is my head. I heard a whooshing noise as the point went by.

Andrew said...

"The fact is, you develop a personal connection with games like that; the games that motivated you to write an impassioned editorial and post it on a section of the internet that you know nobody reads."

Oh, yeah. Totally do that on my site. I write mainly for myself though - an important distinction of looking for something to write for others (although yes, I try and make sure to put down what interests me, which might interest others! I also don't speak to myself, but as to others, since that's ultimately how the internet works). As a journal of games I play and what I think about them, it's a useful memory dump as well :)

This post really resonates with me I guess, although I totally don't write creatively about games like some of your posts are. However, trying to remember or rate or bring up games I've not written a little about gets pretty hard with so many games around - putting something down really makes it concrete that you had some experience with it (be it good or bad).

As for objective ranked lists? utter rubbish of course! ;) I guess you've made a good statement that yeah, objective art? hahahahaha, that's worth 7/10.