Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Thoughts on Reviews and Missing the Bandwagon

Image from Dyadgame.com
I try to steer clear of coverage on games I'm reviewing in order to minimize my preconceived notions. I'm not a maniac about it, as it's nearly impossible to insulate yourself completely, and sometimes considering the larger context of a game is important to understanding it. Still, given the choice, I always err on the side of coming into a game without knowing too much about it. It strikes me as being fair towards the developers and it gives me the pleasure of discovering a game's surprises on my own.

My recent review of Dyad got me thinking about the popular opinion around high profile games. I ended up liking it quite a bit, but I was initially a bit worried: I had made the mistake of reading some of the pre-release hype and felt like I was missing something. A preview in Kill Screen made the game sound like a religious experience:
In short, McGrath has brought the life-affirming sensation of looking at a great painting, watching an incredible film, witnessing a rare performance; having your understanding of the world violently reinvented; whatever, they are all the one thing called art, into the acts of moving a stick and pressing a button. Videogames have made profound observations and statements, but as things for anyone to simply behold in wonder, they have faltered. This is a first for videogames.
The notoriously picky Tim Rogers starred in a promotional video that, while comedic, was a clear endorsement of the game. My Twitter feed was full of designers and writers singing Dyad's praises. I was having a good time (and I think Dyad is an excellent game), but I wasn't having the existential revelation that others seemed to be having. Amusingly enough, my review ended up being a fairly typical one: the general review consensus seems to have settled into a similar "great, but not earth-shattering" mindset.

For a minute there, I thought I might be entering "Tom Chick on Journey" territory. It wouldn't be the first time I missed the bandwagon on a popular game. For example, I found Limbo underwhelming. A more controversial example might be my opinion on pretty much every Sonic game I've ever played: I find them to be average (at best). Last year I revisited Sonic CD and came away with the same question: why do people like these games so much? Maybe it was just playing them in the right place, at the right time. Or maybe I'm still missing something, some key to unlocking their appeal?

Despite the risk of self-indulgent navel gazing, I think asking these types of questions is necessary from time to time. No one lives in a vacuum, so we might as well be aware of our influences and biases. What about you all? Do you bother insulating yourselves from chatter about games you intend to play? What games do you have a hard time "getting?"


  1. There are many games where I felt this way. I also found limbo to be very underwhelming, and the Assasin's Creed series horribly boring.

    It's a complicated venture to explain why some people just don't "get" some games. I think it leans deeply on one's expectations, level tolerance/patience, a willingness to appreciate more profound aspects, but also a relation. I think there's a certain kind of abstract, subconscious way that people relate with art that goes beyond preference or superficial relation (i.e "I know what it's like to have my car stolen," etc.). I think that serves a large part in split of enamour that can occur.

    Some think Flying Lotus is good trippy electronic music, but I find it's genius. It's carries a kind of complexity and nature that I'm very capable of appreciating. I don't necessarily know why.

    I'm not a fan of the Kill Screen statement, though. When I play a game, especially if I intend to make some kind of criticism of it, I feel like it's so important to keep focus of what I'm seeing. It's so easy to lose track and write sentences of pure enamour that gush with hyperbole and exaltation, that one loses focus. Enamour is fine, but if I write a piece that praises something, I can't just state that it's noteworthy, I need to communicate to the reader why it's so noteworthy. Otherwise I'm just spinning in circles, lost in my own world.

    Anyways, great post!

  2. I felt the same way about Red Dead Redemption. EVERYBODY was singing that game's praises, so I bought it last month. Played it and beat it. Turns out, EVERYBODY was wrong. Yeah, it has some very nice production values and an alright story. But the gameplay was pretty repetitive and lacking. I could not see why everybody thought RDR was such a fantastic game.

  3. Expectations and tolerance are definitely a factor; great point! As the years go on, I also feel like nostalgia and formative experiences play a big role in what people are drawn to. Played a bunch of Secret of Mana when you were in middle school? I bet you'll like Bastion...and so on.

  4. What?! You don't like RDR? GET OUT!

    Nah, just kidding, although you might want to steer clear of our 2010 Games of the Year podcast... :-)

    Honestly, it's good to hear people's specific reasons for not liking a popular game. Oftentimes with high-profile titles, I feel like there's an "emperor's new clothes" phenomenon that makes people go along with the popular consensus. Dissenting voices keeps everyone grounded!

  5. " What games do you have a hard time "getting?" "

    Killer 7.

    I'm sorry, guys. I'm so, so sorry. I really tried. It seemed like I'd like it. But...

    (whimper noise)

    I have yet to meet anyone else who threw up their hands at it, so, I guess it's not Killer 7; it's me.

  6. Alright: confession time!

    I started playing Killer7, but never finished! I can blame life for getting in the way, but the game's overall weirdness definitely didn't help.

    I think I'm going to jump back in and try it again before the fall season.

  7. Your podcast may have been one of the reasons I finally played RDR. Luckily, I'm the forgiving sort.