Wednesday, October 27, 2010

EXP Podcast #101: A Subjective Story

While reviewers often strive for “unbiased” opinions, the impact of personal taste on one’s enjoyment of a game is unavoidable. In the current climate of heavily authored and story-based games, is it possible for a game’s plot to impact one’s enjoyment of its game mechanics? This week, we use an article sent to us by Sam Crisp and written by Kieron Gillen as a starting point to explore this question. We cover a range of issues including the search for objectivity, the original intent of designers, and the existence of the gaming wolf-boy. As this is a topic focused largely on opinions, we’re looking forward to hearing from you in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- For those folks who played Mafia II, did you enjoy the story and did your feelings towards it impact your experience with the mechanics?

- What games have either won you over or turned you off with their stories, rather than their gameplay?

- Is it possible to make any objective conclusions about game plots, or are we stuck in a world of relativity?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 36 min 19 sec
- “I Am The Mob: Mafia II, Subjectivity And Story,” by Kieron Gillen, via Rock, Paper, Shotgun
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. When I played Mafia II, I was trying to roleplay the story and act in game the way I thought the character Vito would. I didn't have a strong opinion of whether the story was good or not, it was just there. I hadn't played Grand Theft Auto 4, but I had heard a lot of discussion about it and the idea of being stuck in a commute actually sounded appealing to me. I thought Mafia II would give me experiences like that. But I don't think my problem was that I found the story impact my experience with the mechanics, but the other way around.

    I installed the bonus DLC I got with the game, which may have been a mistake on my part. In the early stages of the game Vito is poor and living with his friend. You start off with some cheap clothes and a crappy car and you have a little bit of money that you can spend on stuff. But because I had installed the DLC, from out outset I had a bunch of expensive suits and a whole collection of sports cars in my garage, "rewarding" me for preordering the game and getting the Collector's Edition. When the game told me to get dressed and drive to a place, I had these immersion breaking options forced on to me: to wear a suit from the "Vegas DLC" and drive a super fast shiny car that I'm pretty sure didn't exist yet in the context of the story. Sure, I could have just chosen to wear the cheap clothes and drive the slow, broken car to play along with the story (and I did), but I didn't appreciate that I had to make that choice.

    But perhaps someone would enjoy that because they don't care about the story and just want to play with the fastest cars and with the shiniest suits. So how does the fact that the choice is there affect the game? I subjectively think it made it worse, as if the game didn't even take it's story seriously. But I can see how someone would disagree. I think that's a subjective case. But I suppose that's more of an issue with DLC itself. I've been reading amusing reports on Twitter about Fallout New Vegas dumping bonus DLC items on a character in the middle of the game and over encumbering them. Maybe there should have been some option to turn it off. Or perhaps I should have realised and never installed the DLC in the first place.


  2. If it was Mafia II's intent to make me feel like a dude doing menial tasks, I don't find that bad. I didn't particularly have an issue with the deliberately tedious moments, such as packing crates onto a truck or scrubbing a toilet in jail. The moments that annoyed me were when there were missions that tempted me to engage with the mechanics of the game but forced some part of the "story" on me that broke those mechanics and pulled me out of the immersion.

    In one mission, I had to drive from one side of the city to another under a time limit. There are great little mechanical moments in Mafia II that made the experience worthwhile for me. Things like driving past people and honking your horn making them leap a fence to get out of the way, or crashing through a trash can to make rubbish fly everywhere. So as I was rushing across the city, I was doing all these things so I would get there quicker, so it would feel like a scene in a movie where the characters have to race across a city to get somewhere on time. The music was fantastic, encouraging the atmosphere of a race against the clock. A cop pulled me over, and I shot him, because I figured Vito's main concern was getting to his objective in time, and that he didn't have time to worry about being moral or following the law. These mechanics had me engaged in the story, even if I couldn't really remember why I had to get to a place on time.

    But the time limit was so strict that any distractions would cause you me fail. If I had time to crash through bins and shoot cops, I would run out of time and fail the mission. The mission was set out that I had to hit every corner perfectly with no other interaction. As soon as I hit any other car or wall, I knew I had to hit restart because I wouldn't have enough time to get there. This wasn't fun or engaging and I strongly feel this did not play the game's mechanics. It made no sense in relation to the story either. I had to replay that mission over thirty times, no joke. It may have been because I was playing on hard mode, but damn, it was ridiculous.

    I have a feeling it wasn't their intent to give me that experience. If it was their intent to make me play that over and over until I did it correctly, then as Jorge said, I can still say that their intent was to make a badly designed game. Either that or they have failed to accomplish what they set out to do.

    Or I just objectively suck at video games.

    Thanks for discussing my recommendation! I really enjoyed the podcast! It's objectively great, haha etc.

    Of course, we know there is only one correct way to play Mafia 2:

  3. I think the mechanical nature of games make their criticism far more objective than other mediums like film. Even The Godfather's story can fall flat for some, or American Beauty's cinematography can be acceptably deemed unappealing. Likewise, Paul Blart: Mall Cop could, by some, be considered a comedy classic.

    However, a broken game is noticably and forever broken. Mirror's Edge, regardless of the leeway you're willing to give it for originality, will always be too light on content and have crappy combat. The Club, whose audacity and style I greatly appreciate, will always feel like it came out at least 5 years too late.

    As you mentioned in the podcast, the subjectivity of story will always be there, but game review scores are always tightly grouped for a reason: games can have objectively good or bad mechanics.

    Oh, and if you want a movie that will totally throw off your "accent/language-o-meter," Valkyrie is absolutely ridiculous. American and British actors playing Germans, all while using what ever damn accent they please.

  4. The postmodern crisis for videgame reviews? Do we need to have it here?

    Are you really existentially torn about your role as 'reviewer' or just looking for another angle from which to approach your pet theses about what makes (your favourite) games engaging and artful and worthwhile?

    This scene has already embraced relativism. It's already come up with new theories and analytical frameworks and methodologies and canonical classic works. These views are infiltrating the mainstream, but not fast enough - there's still too many 'reviews' which anybody reading this would find TOTALLY USELESS in helping them come to a decision.

    You are only pretending to argue about 'objectivity' - in fact you both agree that it has a very limited role to play in the review.

    36 more minutes talking about why the Chrono Triggers and Bioshocks of this world are engaging? Discussion within a limited intellectualist circle and preaching to the converted, surely?

    If you want to use this idea to create a fresh angle, how about discussion techniques for a new practise of review? One which will distill the multiple and deep insights and opinions of a page like this into something a bit more focused so that those who don't have the time energy or expertise to take part in this discussion can have an easily digestible alternative to old school mainstream reviews?

  5. First, a kind word. I only recently discovered your podcast and site, and both have come as a breath of fresh air to me. I'm always on the lookout for curious minds who are trying to answer the hard questions about games—or who are at least trying to identify the right questions. I'll keep reading and listening! I'd love to have your eyeballs, and those of some of your readers, on my blog as well.

    That said, my honest reaction to this podcast was mostly frustration. Do you really believe that objectivity exists? The idea that there is objective value in an artistic work is a useful fiction, but it's absurd if you mean it literally. You used the example of science fiction, so let's run with that. Can you like a book that I didn't like because you were interested in some of the ideas, or because you identified with the main character in a way I didn't? Of course. And of course that's subjective. However, what you identified as an objective measure of said novel's value—good prose—is also subjective. What is good writing? Is it writing that is generally agreed upon to be good? Agreed upon by whom? Who is the arbiter of taste? You can make dismissive arguments that there's good art and bad art (not implying that you did this), but these arguments imply a shared cultural context that allows us to evaluate work in that way. Is a "good" American science fiction novel going to be understood as equally good by someone from, say, Sumatra? Is H.G. Wells objectively "good" to the same degree he might have been had you read him at the turn of the 20th century, or has the altered cultural context altered the "objective" value of his work? To take the argument to its logical extreme, is Citizen Kane necessarily of any interest or value to an alien from another planet, or is the worth of that work located largely in our understanding of its themes, historical value, and quality of production—aspects of the work that exist for us because we grew up in a context that allows us to interpret them?

    Is The Godfather objectively good? Catch me at the right moment at a bar and I'll say "Sure, it's brilliant! You should watch it." But what I really mean by that is that it's subjectively good, but in a way which is broadly defined. The things that are good about it are things that most people in a given population (film buffs, maybe English speakers) would appreciate as good. The things that you identified as subjective in the podcast are also subjective, and it's more obvious that they're subjective because they hinge on preferences which are more narrowly held or more narrowly defined.

    The blog's at, by the way. I'm in the middle of a series of posts about how games approach narrative.

  6. First off, awesome comments all around. Thanks for keeping us on our feet, especially you anon. Ouch.

    In response to mostly Anonymous, but also Max. While "existentially torn" is a bit overly dramatic, I have by no means found a happy stance on relativism. It's one of the reasons I don't actually write a great deal of reviews on EXP. I agree "this scene" has embraced relativism, and I wholeheartedly believe that is a problem. The reason I mentioned Chronotrigger is precisely because I believe that game is, objectively speaking, a fantastic work of art.

    I actually study politics, which has a far more difficult time dealing with relativism than many other fields. I am a staungh opponent of cultural relativism and the postmordern tendency to throw your hands up in the air and give up on objectivity entirely. Thus, when I think about games, I can't help but take a similar stance. Absolute relativism is a completely useless concept.

    That doesn't mean subjectivity doesn't have a place, nor does it mean an ostensibly objective reviewer does not make a subjective slip now and again. While I'm not quite prepared to write a manifesto, I genuinely fear that fully subjective reviews do the medium a disservice.

    So as for Max's question, yes, I do believe The Godfather is objectively good. You might not like it for subjective reasons, but that doesn't mean it isn't a masterpiece in many ways. If you want to go so far as to say even the things we value are subjective, then we could either delve into psychology and biology for an answer, or I can just ignore such claims are useless. :)

    Say what you will about Dan Schneider's writing style, but I think he raises some good points on the issues in this article: ( He has an even more staunch argument against it: "The whole belief that all is subjective is mere dogma, an ideology with no basis in the real world"

    Thanks for joining us by the way Max!

  7. You are already beginning to present caricatures of the postmodern postition: "Throwing your hands up" "Absolute relativism" and "Fully subjective reviews" - And both of you are already turning to film and literature to try and argue your point using logic as if this little socratic exercise is going to go anywhere.

    We've all studied politics, or something which has meant we've had to read decades of people wrangling over this. This is why, I believe, we find this particular entry so frustrating. It's going to degenerate into a deadlock unrelated to anything particular to our 'new' artform quicksmart.

    To be fair, your original question was framed in a limited way to contain this spillover. That's why I'm going to take my own advice and remain zipped up on this unless I'm talking about specific issues and specific examples or about how to improve practise out there in public-land.