Friday, February 5, 2010

Call and Response - Exclusive Reviews, Family in Mass Effect, Racism in Left 4 Dead 2

 By Kirk Hamilton

We're working out a few regular features to do 'round these parts - an easy one is some sort of weekly-ish link round-up of some games writing we've been enjoying around the web. The outstanding Critical Distance has pretty much got that covered, however, so instead, we thought we'd frame our link collection in more musical terms - a "call" from the linked post's author and a "response" from us. It's like we're in a blues band with our favorite games writers! So, if you know what that picture's a reference to, then sing it with me: 


Call: On his (fantastic) blog The Brainy Gamer, Michael Abbott discussed the rising trend of early exclusive reviews and the ethical questions they raise. Pointing to a few early reviews of Mass Effect 2, particularly one in Nowgamer in which the reviewer signed an agreement with the publisher not to release specific facts about the game, Abbott asks:

I can't help questioning why a review outlet claiming to be 'reliable and impartial' should express pride at being first? Are we to assume striking a deal with a publisher - compromised by restrictions imposed by that publisher - is a praiseworthy act?
Response: I concur, but with a few extra caveats. At the end of the post, Michael says that "it seems to me there's a significant difference between an exclusive interview or preview and a final review," I really don't want to jump to conclusions or put words in his mouth, but that sentence reads like a suggestion that reviews should be held to a different journalistic standard than interviews or previews.

That, I do not agree with. News is news, and previews are news, and all news needs to be held to the same journalistic standard, regardless of its classification. Especially because gamers spend so much time pouring over screenshots and twiddling our thumbs in anticipation of games that by the time they finally release, many games are as good as already purchased.

Therefore, rose-colored previews have a huge impact on game sales, and it stands to reason that publishers use very sneaky tactics in order to get positive previews. While exclusive write-ups like IGN's GTA IVreview (which launched a full three days before any other publications) are shady, the truth of the matter is that I had pre-ordered the game weeks before, based mostly on glowing previews.

And yeah, GTA IV was good, but we see no end to the previews of games that were obviously not very good, framed in a way that takes a troubling "buy-it-and-see" approach. In my comment on Michael's blog, I pointed to a recent preview of EA's middling "The Saboteur" - there is no way that Alec Meer played that game with the EA rep and came away thinking "This game is going to be so sweet!" But you wouldn't know it from the preview.

And I'm sure you could find plenty of other previews that commit the same offense. It's gotten to the point that readers have had to adapt, learning to read between the lines, trying to interpret tone and use some sort of spider-sense to deduce that maybe Bioshock 2 and Dark Void just aren't going to be that great.

The line between corporate advertising and journalism is getting blurrier all the time, and money is tight for everyone. I know it sounds naive, but with games coming in at $60 a pop, journalists need to step it up and start just giving us the facts, disclose the circumstances of the preview (or review), and  be a bit more true to their honest impressions. I've mocked Kotaku for their far-too-late in the game "What should change" and "What should stay the same" previews, but it's actually not a bad first step.

Call: Over at Edge Online, Chris Dahlen (whose blog, Save the Robot, is totally groovy), beats me to a punch I had planned and points out that Mass Effect "isn’t a fight for the fate of humanity: it’s a game about meddling in a bunch of strangers’ family problems."  He even goes so far to compare it to a Joss Whedon show, which, rrrrr, I was totally planning on doing, too.

Response:  Well obviously, I agree. The fact that every single loyalty quest hinged on a party member's family is   no coincidence, nor is the fact that at the end of many of those quests, Shepard says something to the effect of, you know, "You're with me, now, Tali."

In very much the same way that Captain Mal begrudgingly adopted the crew of the Serenity as his own surrogate family, my Blade Shepard has become the gruff but ultimately caring father figure for the crew of the Normandy SV2. Jack is essentially a more-pissed off River Tam, Samara is quite a bit like Inara, Thane shares more than a few features with Shepherd Book... the comparisons go on. And I, for one, wouldn't have it any other way. I'm not through the loyalty quests yet, but I'm getting there, and they are so much more compelling than the main quest that I have all but forgotten to give a shit about the collectors.

And as I near the end of the game, I am really worried about losing some or all of of Blade's family. Something that Jade Empire did (and Dragon Age also) was force players to fight a multi-front battle, splitting up their party in an epic last stand... choosing who would go and who would stay was agonizing, and it'll be even moreso should we have to do it in Mass Effect 2. I have the feeling that I'll need to re-load some saves just to be sure that I can live with the outcome.

In keeping with this "big-happy surrogate family" vibe, something I'd like to see in ME3 is more members of the crew pairing off romantically, independent of Shepard. I think my Shepard is into Miranda (I'm so predictible. I'm also a fan of Chuck), and it would be cool to see, like, Garrus and Yeoman Chambers getting a little rack-time, or to walk in on Samara and Jack mid-canoodle... What's more, it would make the final confrontations and sacrifices that much more dramatic. When Wash was killed so suddenly and brutally at the end of Serenity, it was Zoë's love for him and her stoicism in the face of loss that made it so devastating, not just our own attachment to the goofy bastard. Love and romance in Mass Effect don't always have to be about Shepard and his/her fickle heart.

Call: At the (outstanding) minority-issues gaming blog The Borderhouse, guest blogger Alex Horn tackles the perceived Racism of Left 4 Dead 2.  In Alex's eyes, the game fails to address the systemic racism that led to Katrina, even though it frames its game as a disaster in the south, complete with FEMA (CEDA) trailers, botched rescues, flooding, and a run through devastated New Orleans. To quote the article:
Ultimately, Valve fails to create a work of liberation for the same reasons Capcom does (in Resident Evil 5). It seems Chet (Faliszek, Valve writer) is all too eager to admit that they weren’t trying to say anything political about Katrina, or the southern United States or the American government, or the plight of dark skinned people in the US, or any of that. And therein lies the problem. By trying to create a realistic game you are saying something whether you want to or not. Just as RE5’s depictions of primitive Africans was informed by a history of racist imagery, so too is a setting for a game if you are not in control of the message. Yet one could argue, according to Chet, there was no message, right? Wrong.
Response: I agree with this one, too, though I think that maybe the issue here is more that Faliszek is worried about the PR associated with saying anything about Katrina than the fact that he and the rest of the writers truly had nothing to say about it, FEMA, and the rest of the mess. By choosing to stage their game in such a loaded location, with such obvious real-world implications, I think it's clear that Valve was indeed saying something about Katrina and the way it was handled. Or, at least, allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

The recurring theme of "They've left us," the fact that the people have transformed into monsters and turned on one another (much like they did in the why-do-we-keep-acting-like-this-never-happened Superdome)... Whether the writers publicly acknowledge it or not, those are absolutely statements about Katrina. (Alex agrees, writing, "I’m sorry, “CEDA” was subversive commentary.")

What's interesting is that while the game attempts to distill the horror of a mass disaster in the south into a tense, run and shoot experience, it doesn't say much past that setting. I do think it's natural to want a less ambiguous statement, but I also think it's okay that they chose to leave it at how it is. It is, after all, in line with Valve's design philosophy to not get too heavy-handed with dictating how we should interpret the experiences they author.

Another "post-Katrina game" that I thought was both potentially very provocative and ultimately very shallow was Sucker Punch's Infamous. After setting the game in a disaster-ravaged city, walled-off and forgotten by the government, the game could have gone all sorts of interesting directions with their commentary, but instead decided to go with "The government is weird and shady, and now there are giant trash towers and time travel and... fin."  Oh, well.

I'm not sure we need (or are ready for) a video game version of When The Levees Broke, but all the same, it would be nice to see a game tackle this sort of topic with a bit more of a specific agenda. As Alex rightly points out, the fact that Valve left the game's interpretation to the status quo encourages us to "use the default without thinking about it."

But then again, Alex, you're thinking about it, and thanks to your article, now so am I.

Two short ones, let's bring 'er home:

Call: Rob Fahey at Eurogamer submits to us that Microsoft's MS Points system is misleading and harmful to consumers.

Response: Yes, it is, and the lawsuit against them is wholly merited.

Call: IGN's Greg Miller stirs up the fanboys by saying that "Mass Effect 2 is better than Uncharted 2."

Response: Yep, Greg, you're right.

(Drum solo!)

Have a great weekend; don't forget to tip your waitress.


Brittany said...

Very much appreciated the Serenity reference.

In response to your response about systematic racism, I'm glad you're making the point. Too many times, game developers decide that they're being impartial with what they create, without recognizing their own biases. I think it can be seen as the same challenge for any writer, artist, or designer. Just the fact that they chose New Orleans is a pretty big statement. All in all, I'm agreeing with you. Game designers aren't in glass bubble, sectioned off from the world around them, and they certainly shouldn't pretend otherwise.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Oh, Serenity. There was a line in ME2 that I just heard (can't remember who said it) about how we're all gonna go be "Big Damn Heroes." Pretty cool.

RE: Systemic racism; to be fair, I hadn't really thought of it until I read Alex's post at the Borderhouse. I really recommend checking out what they're doing over there (link is in the post, and on our sidebar) - it's interesting stuff, and approaches games with a demand for complex discourse that is really nice to see.

I totally concur about designers needing to eschew the glass bubble - for a long time, it's been easy for them to say "our #1 goal is entertainment" and leave it at that. Film directors try to get away with the same thing, and it's just as hollow when they say it. Now that games have become able to reflect the world around us, as well as to make relevant social commentary, it's time to up the level of discourse. Borderhouse is off to a great start.