This criticism is almost exclusively directed at so-called "art games", visual novels and story-heavy adventure games, so I place it at #10 because none of those things get much mainstream exposure, and thus this isn't a huge problem yet. But it's a growing problem.
The most common games I see getting this treatment are Dear Esther, Passage, and The Path - all games whose gameplay consists almost entirely of walking from place to place while a story unfolds around you. Now, I don't actually like Passage at all, I have a mixed opinion of Dear Esther, and I haven't played The Path, so I don't actually mind that these specific games get put down in such a way. The problem is that most of the people who dislike these games simply think "minimal gameplay = bad game", which is an incredibly narrow-minded view.
People forget that games can deliver on so many levels beyond "fun gameplay". Minimalism works by stripping away unnecessary elements so that the core essence of a work can shine even brighter. We've all seen the power of minimalist art and sound (there's a reason NES aesthetics left such an impression on 80's gamers, and it's not just nostalgia), so why do we seem to dismiss minimal gameplay entirely on principle?
To the Moon is a fine example of where this criticism falls completely flat. It's one of the best, most human stories in gaming, and it just happens to be progressed by walking and examining objects. And yet there are still people who tear it apart for having "shallow gameplay". No answers are ever given as to how traditional gameplay could be inserted into a game about delving into an old man's memories to find out why his dying wish is to go to the moon. Would it have improved the game to have the protagonists solve tired adventure game logic puzzles every few minutes? Of course not. The usual justification is "This could have just been a movie" - once again, faulty logic that assumes that just because a work could be in one medium means it should be. Counterpoint: any theatre production could be a movie, but I don't imagine Shakespeare will stop being performed any time soon.
The Walking Dead and The Stanley Parable are two other examples of games that occasionally receive this reaction, bewilderingly. The first often gets marked down for relying on quick-time events; never mind the fact that the entire premise of the game is about making quick decisions under pressure. And the second intentionally used its "walk and look" gameplay to deliver a brilliant commentary on choice in games...that some people just didn't ****ing get, apparently.
I despise the word "kiddie". I despised it when people were labelling GameCube games with it, I despised it when people were labelling N64 games with it, and I despise it now. Criticizing a game solely because it appeals to multiple demographics beyond your own is one of the most immature things you can do as a reviewer, and it's pretty paradoxical given all the "minimal gameplay" complaints I mentioned earlier. Apparently, fun is of paramount importance to gamers, but the only kind of fun you're allowed to have is hard-boiled, violent action.
Vibrant colours, cute characters, and light-hearted tone are perfectly valid ways to have a good time, and our unwillingness to accept that is another link in the choke chain tied around the neck of gaming's artistic evolution. Gaming spent so long being labelled by idiots as "kid's stuff", that many of us will now only give the time of day to a game if it's covered in death and profanity, lest they be called immature for liking anything they would've enjoyed in their childhood. The irony is embarrassing.
Obviously, no company is hit harder with this than Nintendo, with series like Kirby, Animal Crossing, and Yoshi under its belt, but no Nintendo property is hit harder than Pokemon. Pokemon is possibly the only series out there that I enjoy, but am still embarrassed to say I enjoy, even among other gamers. There are several understandable reasons for disliking Pokemon, but the most common problem the average Pokemon-hater has with the series boils down to "It appeals to kids, and I'm not comfortable with that." Never mind that aside from the family-friendly tone and accessible base gameplay, Pokemon has one of the most intimidatingly complex competitive scenes in gaming.
Not that Nintendo is the only target of this. Games like Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on PS3 and Mega Man Powered Up on PSP have both drawn ire for their child-like character designs, irrespective of how either game actually plays. But if we want to use "kiddie" as a valid insult, we should use it to draw a distinction between appealing to kids, and treating players as kids. No one, not even a kid, likes being treated like a kid. We should be hauling out the "kiddie" label for things like forced tutorials and glorified FIsher Price toys like Wii Music. Not for every time a bright colour makes you insecure in your own puberty.
This is a difficult one, because I don't actually believe we should stop criticizing bad graphics. If a game has poor animation or indistinct sprite art, those things are dragging you out of the experience and should be criticized accordingly. But I think we need to change our perception of what bad graphics are. Obviously, you should never decide that a game is bad because it looks bad. And it's also bad practice to assume 3D > 2D. But I think the only people who do that got into gaming in the last two generations, and will probably learn in a few years' time. What I really want to talk about is the criticism of stylized graphics.
The primary mindset of many players for years has been that photorealism is the ultimate goal of gaming graphics. But now that we're actually approaching it, we can see it having a horrific uncanny valley effect on us, where every slight flaw in a game's visuals is far more jarring than it would have been ten years ago. And it's gonna be a long time before we perfect photorealism to such a degree that that stops happening. The solution, at least until that perfect photorealistic graphics engine is built, is stylization.
Take Wind Waker, for example. No one is going to look at that game twenty years from now and say, "Ugh, these graphics aged terribly." Compare that to Ocarina of Time, one of the N64's graphical highlights, which is practically the poster child for "Did not age well". Beyond preservation purposes, Wind Waker's art style allowed the game world to feel exotic and fresh, and gave characters a wide array of emotion that would've otherwise appeared awkward and artificial with the technology of the time.
And yet, people didn't like it. People complained that it didn't look like Ocarina of Time, that it wasn't realistic, and that it was (ugh) "kiddie". Why? So we could struggle to recommend it to future generations who would just scoff at the polygon count and move on? We need to start looking at game graphics in terms of how they compliment the game, rather than as a hard scale of realism. This will even allow us to differentiate between good and bad stylization.
Team Fortress 2, for example, is one of the best-looking games this generation, because its caricature art style highlights the unreality of multiplayer shooters, while I would argue something like WarCraft III has a poor stylistic choice, because its oversized character portraits clash with the overwhelmingly grim tone of the story. Looking at graphics from this perspective also allows us to continue rewarding realistic-looking games if they're realistic for a reason; very few people will argue that the realistic style of Crysis or Call of Duty doesn't compliment those games, after all.
OK, breathe. This is probably going to be a hard one to take for many of the hardcore gamers out there, but just because a game is branded "casual" does not make it bad. And calling a game "casual" is not the heinous insult a lot of people think it is. I like my RPGs and strategy games as deep and impenetrable as the next gamer, but this mentality is just dripping with elitism.
The fact is that casual games target a different demographic than the standard gamer, and the standard gamer has trouble grasping that they are not the target demographic for everything. I get it - it's disconcerting when new people start discovering something you've put so much of your life into, from a different starting point than you did. But that's just it - people need a starting point for games, and casual games provide that. As much as I love, say, Xenoblade Chronicles, if I tried to use it as my entry point for games, I'd just feel alienated. Accessibility doesn't make casual games bad, just different.
I use Angry Birds to demonstrate this because it's pretty much the mascot of mobile gaming, and thus a beacon for anti-casual sentiment. This is despite the fact that the game is really just an innocent time-waster, with fun, somewhat unoriginal mechanics. It's a completely inoffensive game (well, until the IP was milked for every penny by Rovio), but it's despised by gamers because it also happens to be enjoyed by people who don't necessarily consider themselves gamers.
What we need to realize is that there are such things as good and bad casual games just as there are good and bad hardcore games. Yes, the vast majority of shovelware comes from casual games, Zynga is pretty much evil incarnate, and Nintendo has lost a lot of good will the last few years by dilluting their products with casual filler, but even all that doesn't mean the entire genre is a write-off. Classics like Tetris or Pac-Man would be considered casual by modern definitions, and really, who the **** doesn't like Tetris? Additionally, modern games like Triple Town or Auditorium are casual by every definition of the word, but both provide clever twists on established genres and are completely worthwhile regardless of their label.
This one's a little unorthodox, so let me explain. Obviously, if a game is boring, that's a pretty big problem, and it should be at the top of your list of criticisms against it. But if your criticism of a game amounts to, "I just found this game boring, I don't know why, that's just my opinion," then your opinion means nothing.
Entertainment is probably the most subjective thing in the human consciousness - I'd say even more so than beauty. I find poring over the details of my massive game-ratings spreadsheet hugely entertaining. I doubt anyone else would. If you can't articulate why a game is boring, then you may as well say you dislike it because of its box art colour palette; you'll be seen as nothing but a tasteless idiot or a troll. Either way, no one's going to take you seriously.
Is the game bogged down with poorly-made cutscenes? Is there one weapon that completely breaks the game's difficulty? Maybe it languishes too long in its first act before introducing any of its advertised features. Or maybe it does the opposite: introducing everything at once, then doing nothing new for the next 20 hours. There are hundreds of reasons why a game can be boring. Even if you can't put your finger on exactly why a game is boring, at least use a more descriptive word for it. Bland, repetitive, slow-moving...these words have connotations that gamers can relate to, and they offer much deeper analysis than just, "This game is boring because I don't know."
For those wondering, I chose Mass Effect to demonstrate this not because I see this criticism frequently used against it as I do the other games on this list (in fact, I've seen this criticism used on pretty much every game), but because I personally find it boring, for the following reasons: I didn't find the RPG mechanics deep enough to offset the sub-par cover-based third-person shooting; many enemies could survive fifteen shotgun blasts to the face, but could kill you in one shot; your AI squadmates got themselves killed far too quickly, negating almost all strategy; and the vehicle sections and side quests were composed of 90% empty space and filler.
There, it's not that hard. Maybe you disagree, and that's fine, but at least we can discuss the game on some concrete terms. Had I ended that paragraph at the word "boring", you would've dismissed my opinion, I would've dismissed yours, and no one would be satisfied. Incidentally, much of this write-up applies to the word "fun" as well, but since no one will be offended and call you a troll if you call a game fun without backing it up, I figure that's not as important a subject.
Here's an exercise for you: think back to your favourite games from the 8- and 16-bit eras. How many of them are non-linear? Some Metroid games, some Mega Man games, maybe a few early non-linear RPGs. That's it. Notice how you don't think any less of the many that were linear. That's because linearity is not a bad thing in and of itself. But because open-world sandboxes are more technically impressive, they've gained this "next-generation" reputation, and anything linear is seen as outdated.
While we may have been privileged with some excellent open-world games courtesy of Bethesda, Rockstar, and a handful of others, there's no denying that there are some bad sandbox games out there, and their growing presence is a sign of just how easy it is to screw up a non-linear game. Unless an open-world game is equipped with an engrossing atmosphere, entertaining modes of transportation, and lots of original non-repeating or procedurally-generated content, that world is just going to feel lifeless. Or worse, it will feel like a between-mission commute.
Linearity actually has a lot of benefits to a game, especially a JRPG. For one thing, it eliminates grinding, and assuming the developers are doing their job right, it cuts down on a lot of repetitive excess in general. This lack of variance in the player's experience means the challenge level can be kept consistent and finely-tuned across multiple play styles. Additionally, no distractions keeps you focused on the story; you experience only the events the developers intended. This may not sound enjoyable, but it allows for things like pacing and a logical sense of cause-and-effect, which are extremely important if a game is trying to engage you via narrative. You know, like JRPGs try to do.
It's for these reasons that I use Final Fantasy XIII as my example here, because this was the philosophy that obviously went into its design. Well, that, and the fact that I've never seen so much vitriol flung towards a game for its linearity, even before release - it's the only game where "I haven't played it, but I've seen a map!" is considered a valid qualifier for one's argument. Now, I don't actually believe Final Fantasy XIII used this philosophy very well, since its story didn't actually have the pacing or sense of cause-and-effect I mentioned, and its battle system had...problems, but the theory behind its design was correct, and it's being used by other, better games all the time. See: Final Fantasy X, the Half-Life series, and the Uncharted series.
Simply put, this is why we can't have nice things. We all love to tear apart Call of Duty or EA Sports sequels for being little more than map packs and roster updates, but when a developer tries to change up the formula of a series we love, everyone throws a hissy fit like a toddler being sent to his room without supper. Gee, I wonder why so many developers choose to play it safe with their IPs?
The usual logic behind this is "They could have just made a new IP". And I'm not debating that in a perfect world, that would be the best course of action. But the fact is that in our world, brand recognition is king as far as publishers are concerned. And if the only way for developers to get their cool game ideas with innovative mechanics greenlit is to say the game is part of an existing series, then that's really not a bad compromise. Assuming the tone of the IP matches the new mechanics, of course.
See, the reason game franchises get mined for sequels more than any other medium is because they aren't necessarily concerned with repeating stories and ageing characters. A lot of series, especially those that began early in gaming's history, operate on a principle similar to comic book time, and have characters that are practically ciphers so they can be projected onto as many situations as possible. In short, a lot of game narratives are vessels for their game mechanics, and as long as a new game matches the tone or aesthetic of the series, it can be reasonably said to belong to that series. This is why nobody batted an eyelash when Mario decided to spin off into a series of kart racers; the final product was so undoubtedly Mario. And people had less of a sense of entitlement in 1992, apparently.
I say that because a lot of mechanic changes are instead met with ungodly amounts of backlash. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, for example, was a great game; it was set in huge, imaginative worlds, its piece-by-piece vehicle construction feature was extremely robust and creative, it had a surprisingly good multiplayer component, and its art, audio, and sense of humour were all undoubtedly Banjo. And yet fans despise it for not being the Banjo-"Threeie" they were expecting. If you dislike the game, that's fine (I will concede that the platforming controls sucked, even if that didn't really matter since they were no longer the game's focus), but if your reason for disliking it is "It's not the safe sequel I wanted", then you're one of the biggest problems with the industry right now.
While the reception of Nuts & Bolts particularly grinds my gears, it would be remiss of me to not mention some of the more famous instances of this outcry. Metroid Prime turned out to be one of the greatest games of all time, but not before it met a whirlwind of hate because (God forbid) the camera changed perspective. We even have some series built on the idea of reinventing themselves every instalment (i.e. Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda), and yet some players still throw a tantrum every time a new game is announced that breaks some non-existent tradition. Google "zelda cycle" for a succinct and hilariously sad summary of this phenomenon.
This one is going to be very hard to phase out of our system, because it relies almost entirely on a reviewer's discretion. We can all agree that certain genres and mechanics lend themselves well to multiplayer, yes? If a Halo or Mario Kart game shipped without multiplayer and without any major mechanic changes to justify it, we'd all (understandably) beat those games into the ground. But a standard Mario game or a complex RPG will get away with having only a singleplayer campaign. Seems pretty straightforward, right? The problem arises when a game belonging to a normally multiplayer-ready genre is clearly designed for singleplayer.
Multiplayer, especially online multiplayer, is a nightmare to implement. Server upkeep is expensive, and the addition of all the extra modes and optimization required to keep the performance reasonable is a massive drain on a developer's time and resources. If a game has online multiplayer, it's practically a 100% guarantee that the singleplayer suffered in some way for its inclusion.
Very often you'll hear someone say that a game's excellent multiplayer makes up for its sub-par singleplayer. Alright, that's reasonable, but why isn't the inverse as common? When a shooter comes out that has a fantastic story or unique mechanic that would prevent multiplayer, why do we give it a lower score? Why don't we ever say the excellent singleplayer makes up for its lacklustre multiplayer? I know as game reviewers, we're torn between judging a game as an artistic work, and judging it as a product, but if we really want to judge games as art, we need to quell this notion that games can be reviewed via checklist based on their broad genre.
By far the biggest victim of this mentality is Spec Ops: The Line. This brilliant and subversive game has been hailed as one of the most important games of the year, if not the generation, and yet, its Metacritic scores are all mid-to-high-70s, because its multiplayer is nothing special. That. Is. Stupid. The game was specifically designed as a criticism of the cognitive dissonance and power fantasies associated with modern war shooters. It has, without a doubt, the most profoundly allegorical and sharply relevant plot of any game in history. And you're marking it down for not being the thing that its very existence attacks. Think about that for a moment.
Not that Spec Ops is the only game damaged in this way. BioShock 2 and Dead Space 2 catch a lot of flak for their crappy, tacked-on multiplayer modes, despite the modes only existing because a handful of other people complained that their predecessors didn't have multiplayer at all, even though they very clearly didn't need it. Similarly, one of the primary complaints about Vanquish is its lack of multiplayer, even though the game relies on a bullet time mechanic that just wouldn't bloody work with multiple players. And if you're thinking all this is justified because "multiplayer = replay value", well...keep reading the list.
"The main character of a series I'm a fan of has a different hair style! It's ruined! BAWWWWWW!"
There's not wanting your beloved series to change, and then there's nailing your beloved series' feet to the floor of a cell at the bottom of a ****ing Gulag. I get that the more rabid a fanbase becomes, the blurrier the line between "fan" and "hater" gets (once again, Final Fantasy fans, Zelda fans, Star Wars fans, I'm looking at you), but seriously, tone it down. If you, as a gamer, want a reputation as something other than a whiny ball of nerd-rage, you can start by...being something other than a whiny ball of nerd-rage.
The most recent maelstrom of petty loathing has been the Devil May Cry fanbase towards the Ninja Theory-developed series reboot. Every minute detail of this game's development was met with searing anger from a fanbase who now collectively strike me as the kind of people who would complain about the viscosity of their caviar. "It runs at 30 FPS! Ruined forever!" Do you know how little difference that makes to the human eye? "Dante has short dark hair! Ruined forever!" No. "Dante doesn't act like the old Dante! Ruined forever!" Except that Dante was always a self-satisfied, impossibly cool asshat. Why is it suddenly a huge problem now that he's a slightly different kind of self-satisfied, impossibly cool asshat?
At least now that it's actually been released, we can see the game does have legitimate flaws. The challenge level, which was a big factor of the previous games' appeal, has been drastically reduced, and the game's script is horrid (the infamous "**** YOU!" exchange is by far the worst offender, but the script as a whole is almost as bad). But you know what else this game has? Ingenious and imaginative level design, improved platforming to compliment said level design, and a unique visual flair that's nearly impossible to find in AAA games these days. None of which anyone is talking about, because "BAWWW, short dark hair!"
Of course, no discussion of the criticism of trivial changes would be complete without a mention of Metal Gear Solid 2. Because, had DmC not recently come out and filled me with so much righteous bile, MGS2 would be sitting in this very spot as the definitive example of a tiny problem that people gave entirely too much of a **** about. The thing that bugs me about MGS2's reception is that people weren't complaining about Raiden on his own terms; they were complaining about how he wasn't Solid Snake. And I don't know about you, but to me, the gamer community shunning a character simply because they could no longer live vicariously through his predecessor's testicles always felt akin to holding up a big sign, saying, "We are immature, don't bother taking us seriously".
Finally, one last thing I need to mention for the sheer irony of it. The fourth Devil May Cry actually attempted to do something similar to MGS2, replacing the much-loved protagonist with a new, younger counterpart. But to avoid the backlash that game received, they made the new character look, sound, and act exactly like the old protagonist...and it worked. So the message we sent with all this amounted to, "Don't worry, developers, as long as you change absolutely nothing, but make it look like you've changed something, we won't hate you." Outstanding.
There are a whole bunch of things preventing games from being considered art by the masses. Hell, I've touched on about five of them with the rest of this list. Some of them are going to be gradual changes, like the maturation of the gaming community and the broadening of the demographics that games reach. Some of them have no easy solution, like the corporate stranglehold on what direction the industry moves in, or the high barrier to entry associated with game development. But there is one thing that you can start doing right now to advance the medium toward this goal: stop criticizing games for being short.
No one would look at a classic painting and say, "That's really good, but I wish it lasted 20 hours." A movie is considered "too long" if it goes past the two-and-a-half hour mark. No multi-season show in the history of television has been consistently good across its entire lifetime. An album with more than 15 songs is almost guaranteed to have some filler that you'll delete off your iPod the second it's done. A large book will actually dissuade people from buying it. No artistic medium is judged based on its length. Except games. And it needs to stop.
By this logic, a seminal game with a thoughtful story and superb gameplay that only lasted a few hours would receive scores on par with an assembly line shooter with tired mechanics that happens to last 30 hours. "But games are expensive," comes the usual response. "I don't want to buy a game if it's not good value." Bull****. A DVD of a 2-hour movie costs $15, or $7.50/hour. That's the same price per hour as an 8-hour shooter for $60. An indie game that costs $10 and lasts 3 hours is $3.33/hour. And yet, according to so many people, a game doesn't reach a "good length" until it hits at least 20 hours. Why exactly is this need for excessive value such a pressing concern?
LIMBO is an easy choice to represent this problem, because (as far as I know) it was the game that sparked a broader discussion of why this criticism is used. "It's too short" is literally the only reason the game doesn't have perfect scores from many publications. Apparently, the idea of charging $15 for 3 of the most sublime hours of gaming this generation has to offer was seen as completely unreasonable by many potential players who seemingly can't do elementary school math.
When LIMBO was being unfairly criticized from all sides for its length, a team of indie developers (among them the creators of Braid, World of Goo, And Yet It Moves, and Gratuitous Space Battles) took it upon themselves to form a "Size Doesn't Matter" movement, with each one writing a small essay attacking the idea of criticism based on length from a different perspective. The injustice done to LIMBO was so great that more than 15 notable indie names, who had no personal investment in the game, and in fact, had products that were in direct competition with it, saw fit to go out of their way to criticize the broken review policy that prevented the game from receiving universal acclaim. Just let that sink in for a moment.
And just in case you dislike LIMBO for a reason other than its length (first of all, boooo), consider the following games: Portal, ICO, Star Fox 64, Mega Man X, Ikaruga, Katamari Damacy, or Secret of Monkey Island. Every single one of these games has a lower standing in the public consciousness solely because it wasn't a 20+ hour game. If the gamer community can become so aggressive over something as trivial as a character's hair colour, surely this broken, detrimental logic should strike a nerve in us. Right?
...Well, I did warn about being preachy, didn't I? I have a feeling this list will be somewhat controversial, even for a GameFAQs top ten. But like I said in the intro, my intention is to make you rethink your position on certain standards. Even if you don't fully agree with these points, I hope you'll at least give them some thought. It's always a good thing to get a fresh perspective beyond the rigid critical structure we've created, and if one person changes their stance on any of these subjects, I'll be satisfied.
And now, since this list is already kind of enormous and bloated, I'll just do a single honourable mention:
Gay Options - Mass Effect 3. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of an optional, fictional, barely-PG-13 homosexual relationship, you are a homophobe. I'm sure you have a mountain of excuses, and I don't care. That is the definition of homophobia.
Alright, done. I'll definitely be hovering around the Top 10 Lists board for a while after this, so feel free to come by and yell at me for calling you a whiny ball of nerd-rage in the DmC write-up.
List by SSpectre (02/20/2013)
Discuss this list and others on the Top 10 Lists board.