In which I discuss the Eurogamer review “controversy” and also mention the hamster in Maniac Mansion.
Does the fact that a game isn’t your kind of game, or the kind of game you expect, make it worthy of criticism? And how valid is that criticism, if so?
That seems to be at the heart of a recent review of Uncharted 3 over at Eurogamer. I’m sure you’ve read it. If not, give it a quick once-over. I’ll wait.
Welcome back. Now, while the reviewer makes some valid points, much of what he seems to be criticizing is Uncharted 3′s failure to be a different type of game altogether.
Uncharted 3 isn’t an open world game with tons of freedom. What it is, on the other hand, is a heavily cinematic, fast-paced, Hollywood-style romp. I’m sure you’ll get no argument there from the
But does this make it less of a game? That is to say, is it an 8/10 game?
Let me play a bit of devil’s advocate before I tell you what I believe. Think back, if you will, to a title that’s still near and dear to many today: Full Throttle.
A classic. Arguably a masterpiece (I’d certainly say so.) And yet… how much freedom did Full Throttle allow?
Not much. The game essentially forced you into a set series of static screens that you had to defeat so that you might proceed. Logic didn’t always enter into it. (Brute forcing — waving your cursor and ever item in your inventory over every inch of on-screen real estate –frequently did.) Navigation options were highly locked in; there was no deviating from the road or from the few possible paths the developers mapped out of each screen. In short, Full Throttle essentially funneled players into a straightforward adventure where they had little choice.
Yet we call Full Throttle a masterpiece — and rightly so. But clearly, not for the level of user freedom it allows.
And if you think Full Throttle predates the concept of player freedom of action coming into vogue (I’m just going to assume someone will make this case, inane though it is) compare Full Throttle to, say, Maniac Mansion.
Maniac Mansion, the original SCUMM-based hit, was just as desk-slammingly frustrating in its difficulty as was Full Throttle (more so, I’d argue.) Yet it was also incredibly supportive of a variety of approaches to solving problems — enough so that plenty of mainstreams titles today, which all too often make such grandiose claims of enabling user freedom, should blush. (It was also quite supportive of enabling plenty of imaginative deaths — showing the exploded hamster to Ed, for instance). So, where Maniac Mansion endowed the player with a variety of choices that all resulted in story progression, Full Throttle did so only haltingly.
As does Uncharted 3.
Now, how do we consider this game? The loss of agency in service to cinematic storytelling obviously limits the scope of what players can do in any given situation. To the reviewer, this also limits the actual fun of the game. (At least, that’s what I’m assuming drives the 8/10 numerical rating at the end of each review: Actual fun over fun potential.)
In other words, this appears to be the key assumption factored into this review’s numerical rating:
A game is less fun when it lacks as much user freedom of choice and action as can be found in other games
How correct is that assumption? How useful is it when it becomes a factor in a quantifiable ratings system? I’d humbly posit that it’s not all that accurate at all.
Instead, let me suggest we go about thinking about the success of a game in another way.
Chris’s definition of a good game:
A game’s level of success should be measured only by how closely it makes good on a single promise: To deliver enjoyment.
A good game can promise nothing else other than to deliver enjoyment.
There. Revising Eurogamer’s rating criteria around this core assumption does a few things. For one, it enables us to actually call social or mobile games “fun” without screwing up our ratings criteria, since so few of these types of games deliver on anything even remotely resembling player choice.
Similarly, but more importantly, it divorces player choice from the concept of fun. Repeat after me: You don’t need tons of player choice to have fun.
OK, so, let’s assume we’re all in agreement here.
Next problem: Does Uncharted 3′s lack of player freedom bode poorly for the maturation of gaming in general? (The argument here being that what sets gaming aside from other entertainment media is its ability to incorporate participatory elements — like freedom of choice and movement — into a gameplay narrative; unlike, say, movies, where the audience is locked in to simply watching events unfold onscreen.)
I won’t delve into this too much here, but I will summarize my reply to an argument like this:
a) People like movies
b) People like games
c) Even if more games become more like movies, there will still be a demand for games that support lots of juicy user-participatory action and freedom of choice
d) …as well as game developers ready to meet that demand
e) Because, as we already know, the gaming industry is huge and supportive of a variety of different interests
So, was Uncharted 3 actually fun?
Okay, I’m hedging a bit here. My screed above is not to say that the Eurogamer review itself is off-target.
Some of the design decisions in Uncharted 3 do seem rather unforgivable: A game shouldn’t lure users into thinking an area is accessible, and then punish them with instadeath when it is not. (A pet peeve.)
Seemingly arbitrary game-design decisions about when you can unholster your gun? Another huge peeve. A game should define its ground rules early on and not deviate from them (unless it’s going to add to the fun.) That is, if you can pull out your weapon at any time and suddenly for reasons unexplained, find that you can’t… lameness ensues.
Moving users around to, say, ensure they stick landing while jumping a ledge? Feels unsophisticated, sure. But not a real fun-killer, particularly if it keeps momentum flowing. (Right?)
Still, it’s inaccurate, or perhaps the height of hubris, to suggest that simply because Uncharted is not as open or as (to use a vaguely defined term, for no reason other than I’m getting tired of variations on “supportive of player freedom of choice”) interactive (ugh… I know) as other titles, Uncharted 3 isn’t deserving of being thought of as a wonderful game.
Here’s my take:
Uncharted 3 is a wonderful game since it delivers plenty of enjoyment (to me). If you like highly managed, Hollywood-paced, astoundingly good-looking games, this one is for you. If you require that your games support a ton of wide variety of user freedom and choice throughout, this one is not for you.
You’re welcome, Internet. A good review of any product should consider the product on its own merits: Does it succeed or fail in achieving its promise? A review of a vacuum cleaner shouldn’t mark down the SaundersCo UltraVac 16000 simply because it’s not a carpet steam cleaner. It’s a vacuum. And the only valid criterion to weigh in assessing whether the SaundersCo UltraVac 16000 is a success is whether it works, simply, as a vacuum.
So the Uncharted 3 review, then, is valid only in as much as it indicates the differences between what Uncharted 3 is, and what it is not. Does it succeed as a fun game? Yes? Does it stumble on technical or aesthetic hurdles? No? Well, then.
Further criticism, then, really seems unwarranted and vaguely useless, if not dismissive to a large portion of the game industry. I mean this in the sense that the reviewer’s comments on Uncharted 3 wind up disparaging every game that’s ever been made or that will be made that doesn’t support the kinds of freedom of action that he’d like to see in Uncharted. And as I pointed out a while ago, two of the fastest-growing areas of the gaming industry (social, mobile) don’t
place much of an emphasis on those concepts — at least in the way that the reviewer describes them.
Admittedly, the reviewer’s in a bit of an unenviable spot. He’s got to somehow incorporate the entire logic of his review into a 10-point scale that presumably indicates whether he feels the game’s either fun or worth buying. Or maybe both — I’m not sure.
What I am sure of, however, is that the 10-point Eurogamer scale is certainly not a measure of whether Uncharted 3 is the type of game that the reviewer expects. That is to say, it shouldn’t be used to quantify what the review appears to be saying: “Uncharted 3 may be hugely fun, but since it wasn’t a game that incorporated lots of user freedom, it only rates an 8 out of 10.”
What if we were to apply similar criteria to other top games?
Angry Birds: “Astoundingly, there seems to be no way to negotiate a surrender with the pigs. A major oversight that casts a pall over every other element of this title.” 7/10.
CityVille: “The game never lets players build arcologies that launch into space. Huge oversight in the post-SimCity 2000 era.” 5/10.
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood: “In defiance of every modern gaming convention, the game almost never lets Ezio go indoors. Building interiors have been available since well before recorded history, which makes me wonder where Ubisoft is getting its background information. A complete failure.” 3/10.
OK, enough of the slippery slope argument.
To recap: Heavily cinematic games, just like social or mobile games, may not appeal to everyone, but they certainly have their fans. And while they rarely do it for me, it’s still a slight against their makers and against the gaming industry at large to suggest they’re somehow less worthy of being called fun games.
(I obviously haven’t mentioned “art games” here, but their goal isn’t fun, per se. So, consider that these work under, and their achievement should be judged in the context of, a very different set of parameters.)
That Uncharted 3 Review Everyone’s Talking About [Kotaku]
My Take On Eurogamer’s ‘Controversial’ Uncharted 3 Review [DavidJaffe.biz]
The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for the Nintendo Entertainment System [crockford.com]