There’s a post over at GSW that made me a little nauseous listing the top five developers of 2007. The list doesn’t upset me so much as the reasons for including each. I like Simon’s posts, but this one I just find to be off-base, buying into some of the Big Lies of the year in games. That inspired this post. Here are what I think are the Top Four Lies of the Year. I was going to do five, but every fifth one I came up with paled to the other four. These are sentiments that are reflected in reviews or in the general word-on-the-street that in my opinion do not mesh with reality.
4. “Portal is a lot of fun, but just way too short.”
I kept reading this on message boards that while Portal was entertaining, it was only a four-to-six hour experience. Thank God Valve got to release this in the Orange Box otherwise they would have been pressured to make Portal something satiate gamers who demand an arbitrary number of hours from a genre game instead of letting the game dictate the ebb and flow. Portal didn’t outstay its welcome with one hundred lab levels before the Glados meltdown, which, let’s be honest, is why the game is getting Game of the Year nods. If you want more Portal, there are the advanced levels which are quite challenging. Also, on the PC, there are user-created levels, which show by comparison how sublime Valve’s level design in the original product was. If only more companies would worrying about games overstaying their welcome instead of stretching out an experience for the purpose of “value” (one letter off from Valve!), we’d see a lot more titles finished.
3. Rock Band is a better party game than Guitar Hero 3.
Now, I am whole-heartedly of the opinion that Rock Band is a better designed game than Guitar Hero 3. That’s not what this statement is about. The growing sentiment is that one should just throw out GH3 and play Rock Band exclusively. The problem with this, however, is that one of the ways that Guitar Hero achieved a meteoric rise to mainstream success is that folks could bring it over to parties easily. You can’t port the whole Rock Band experience easily. There’s too much stuff and the drums are cumbersome to assemble and move. One could argue that it is as easy to bring 2 guitars and Rock Band to someone’s house as it is to bring 2 guitars and Guitar Hero, but the real meat of Rock Band is in the four parts working together and everyone knows that. It would have been incredible foresight to ship a carrier inside the box that could easily fit the drums and maybe the guitars somehow. When having people over to your place, Rock Band easily wins, it just isn’t as portable as Guitar Hero. When just playing Guitars, I’d pick Guitar Hero, sloppy charts and all, simply for the song selection.
2.”Mass Effect is a gripping, original space opera.”
Mass Effect is a fun experience overall, but the amount of boundless hype over this game has lead to a tinge of disappointment. The “revolutionary” conversation system is ripped straight from Knights of the Old Republic, with the additions of queuing up answers and voice acting. There is a distinct pause between lines when other audio and animations are presumably loading, and it seems like the characters have a memory no more than two lines deep. Your main dialogue choices are generally “Be a Dick” or “Don’t Be a Dick” with little opportunity to steer a conversation in any particular direction but towards its pre-destined end point. The story’s flow is even similar to Knights. You have a largely linear progression until you open up to a choice of three different missions, and then you go back to linearity. Add a few side quests, an antisocial party member, your own spaceship (Ebon Hawk = Normandy) and viola, you have a Bioware game. It even has the patented Bioware bug of getting stuck in a railing and having to reset.
These are all game design and gameplay issues, I haven’t really touched on the story because I don’t want to cause spoilers. There are two really well-written sections of the game, but other than that you are given flat, one-dimensional characters 100% of the time. (A sadistic recluse? Check. Canderous Ordo in Knights or Wrex in Mass Effect. A somewhat naive spunky girl? Check. Mission Vao in Knights or Liara in Mass Effect. And so on.) The Citadel Council is portrayed expertly as you really feel palpable frustration dealing with the politics of the situations you end up ensnared in, so kudos to the writers team on that. But the overall story is the most generic of space adventures. It makes Star Wars look original. And when you get planet side, you are given the same narrow situations that you already played in Baldur’s Gate, Oblivion and every other RPG since Final Fantasy VII.
There are elements to praise in Mass Effect, but a renegade originality isn’t one of them.
1. “Bioshock has a deep moral system.”
I keep reading this and wondering if I played the same game as everyone else. The entire moral system in Bioshock comes down to a series of singular identical choices: save the Little Sisters or harvest them. But for a moral system to have any depth at all, your choices must have some sort of consequence. The degree of depth of the system is in the subtlety and magnitude of those consequences. In Bioshock, the consequences of rescuing the Little Sisters is that you have to wait for every third sister to get your Eve. Oh, and they will give you additional Plasmids for being such a good guy. What? Why be evil at all? Why be good? There’s very little difference in the game world at all that is a result of this choice. Big Daddys don’t get meaner. Nothing happens to your character. Nobody starts setting traps for you or opening up shortcuts for you if you are bad or good, respectively. There is no reward for being bad. The Little Sisters save you from Fontaine even if you’ve harvested every single one of them up to that point. The only difference between the two paths is some scripted animation at Tennebaum’s hideaway and the end cinematic. Even Mass Effect had a better moral consequence system and their’s was paper-thin: if you are good or bad, more conversation options will open for you for either of those temperaments.
Maybe Bioshock is subversive in this aspect. Somehow they engineered a system that purports to be revolutionary yet is simultaneously morally bankrupt. What an analogue to Ryan’s city under the sea!