The Gaming Club
Stephen, it's just like old times. Our old dialogue feature, Vs. Mode, is on extended hiatus, but there you go again, taking shots at me for failing to play Resistance 2 all the way through. Pity you didn't select a better target, as there are oh so many games and game modes that I never touched, but the co-op mode in Resistance 2 was not one of them. I played it for quite some time when it was previewed in NYC; you were there, but the open bar was open, so I'll forgive you if you can't remember too much from that event. But you're a loyal subscriber to Edge magazine. Didn't you read the column in which I cited, among other things, Resistance 2's cooperative mode as one of the biggest breakthroughs of 2008? An excerpt:
Insomniac built a separate co-op campaign for up to eight players, modeled after raids in massively multiplayer online games. ... [Its] approach is at once the most intriguing and the least fully fleshed out, mainly because it appears to have been designed with just a single strategy for success: soldiers out front, spec ops in the middle, and medics bringing up the rear. Whether the enemy AI or the encounter design is to blame I can't be sure, but if Insomniac can find a way to mix things up more it has the template for something both unique and special in the world of consoles.
So, yes, when I referred to Resistance 2 as a "staggering work of heartbreaking mediocrity" that I'm still struggling to explain, it wasn't based solely on the campaign. Still, you're my gaming sensei, so I won't take issue with your assertion that anyone who's disappointed with 2008 (hello, Mitch Krpata, author of the year's most essential blog series, "A New Taxonomy of Gamers") may not have played as many games as they should have nor as deeply as they should have. Your analogy to working out at the gym is nearly perfect; it's not just that games are work, it's that they also require you to learn. Every game, no matter how bad, is teaching you how to play it from beginning to end. And a lot of the time, I simply don't want to work at learning something new. (Is this the point where our more fanboyish readers say, cry me a river and give me your job?) Perhaps that's why a game's ability to quickly tap into my obsessive side is one of my key criteria for determining greatness: Without obsession, how many fewer games would I play, complete, or replay?
If it weren't for my trainer, I'd never go to the gym, and without you, sensei, I might not have finished the campaign modes in Halo 3 last year or Gears of War 2 this year. From this, I've learned that one of the best things about cooperative play is that it encourages me to finish what I start. I loved and was obsessed by Fallout 3, playing it night after night. But once I got into Gears 2 (particularly the Horde multiplayer mode) and Left 4 Dead, my obsession cooled, no doubt helped along by the fact that, at Level 8, I'd finally hit a stretch of the game where I'd have to grind in order to progress. Had Fallout 3 been co-op, with you and I walking through the bombed-out streets of our nation's capital, I'd probably have completed the game weeks ago. Thankfully, Gears 2 was co-op, and I could add it to The Handful of Games I Completed in 2008.
Seth, thanks for explaining to the readers and us why you actually have the best job in the world. Stephen and I still have to do reporting, while you play games all day and write about them. For the New York Times, no less! In an age when there's all but a dead pool for movie critics, not to mention those who write about books, theater, dance, and television, it's great that the Old Gray Lady has staked out this fertile critical terrain. I'm not sure any other outlets will follow, given our current Great Depression, but it's a good sign nonetheless.
Still, I'm somewhat surprised that either the Times required you to give up reporting and industry contacts or you chose to do so, simply because you became the paper's chief game critic. You cited Ebert as an inspiration; he writes profiles and features and Q&A's in addition to reviewing as many movies as he can. Do you really believe that you have to keep developers and executives at arm's length in order to be a good critic, or were you permitted to shed your reporting obligations because playing games takes a lot more time than watching a movie or reading a book?
Your point about professionalism also intrigues me. You're correct that, by and large, the level of craft in the video game industry continues to grow each year, and 2008 was no exception. I wonder if, however, by settling for the professionalism inherent in the acknowledgment that "we are those men, and we had fun with these games," we let games off too easily when they take the easy way out, interactively speaking.
Here's where I get my Totilo on and start taking shots. In your review of Gears of War 2, you rightly criticized the story by writing, "With its unintentionally mawkish story line—there's no winking here—and sophomoric dialogue, Epic Games, developer of the series, is clearly trying to mix some emotional depth into the franchise's established recipe of explosions and hot lead. It doesn't work." And you rightly praised the gameplay, saying, "[W]hat makes Gears 2 such a consummately enjoyable popcorn game, is pitch-perfect pacing melded with some of the most carefully calibrated challenges and consistently enjoyable game design you will come across." Then you conclude by writing: "Just ignore what tries to pass here for story and character. And please, don't think too hard."
The thing is, there's a moment in this all-about-shooting game where the folks at Epic decide to do the shooting for you, and in doing so, rob the game of a potentially compelling intersection of gameplay and character. I'm referring to the moment when Dom, wingman to series protagonist Marcus Fenix, is finally reunited with his wife deep in enemy territory, only to discover that her mind has been completely destroyed by her Locust torturers. (This time, it seems, it's personal.) The ensuing cutscene and its dialogue were mawkish, as you observed, though I'd argue that one line ("Marcus, I … I don't know what to do") and its anguished delivery managed the requisite poignancy. But Dom's subsequent decision to kill his wife, no matter how much Epic tried to set it up in a previous cutscene, struck me as implausible.
Actually, I take that back. Dom didn't decide to kill his wife. Epic design director Cliff Bleszinski decided to kill his wife, and they wouldn't even let Stephen, who was playing as Dom, pull the trigger. Compare that with the sequence in the first God of War, in which our hero Kratos, trapped in Hell with the wife and child he inadvertently slaughtered, must now protect them by alternately holding them to him (using the game's grab mechanic to share his health bar with them) and fighting off an army of Kratos doppelgängers. It's gameplay, not a cutscene, and nearly four years after God of War's release, it still stands as one of the best examples of how narrative and interactivity can be synthesized to create, well, art.
Was Epic's handling of Maria's fate a failure of craft or art? I say it's worth thinking hard about, especially when writing for a mainstream audience like yours in the Times and mine at Newsweek. Because when we avoid such questions, we're gulling our readers into believing that story and gameplay are mutually exclusive—or that games are just like other media. Seth, that's something I accused you of before, here. And, in fairness, I fell prey to the same temptation here.
That's my last shot. Reloading!
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N'Gai Croal is a general editor for technology at Newsweek and blogs about video games at Level Up. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Seth Schiesel is a staff writer for the New York Times. He currently writes about video games for the newspaper's Culture department. Chris Suellentrop reviews video games for Slate.Stephen Totilo is the video game reporter at MTV News and editor of the site's blog about games, Multiplayer.