Human beings have an interesting reaction to Things That Are Good. Instead of loving them and appreciating them for what they are, we tend towards finding flaws, looking at the things that don’t stick. We say we want something brilliant, but when something brilliant arrives, we pick holes in it and try to find something else even more brilliant.
When something is good, we tell ourselves that it sucks and that we shouldn’t appreciate it as much as we should.
There are hundreds of good examples of this. The most famous, in my book, is Led Zeppelin, easily the most timeless and gifted band of the 70’s, who the world decided it hated because they couldn’t stand to hear Stairway to Heaven another time. It’s what happened to Final Fantasy VII: Aeris dying was the most profound moment in video games, possibly ever, so we decided to tear it apart, decrying Cloud as a crybaby and Aeris’ death as a stupid incident of polygon on polygon violence.
Recently, we did it with Bioshock, a game of huge narrative importance, by slamming its narrative’s delivery through audio logs for not being immersive enough, and its Save/Kill mechanic for not being weighty enough. The most brilliant game of the decade, and we shat on it until it fell beneath other, lesser games. We did the same to Mass Effect 2 for not allowing you to play a full spectrum of character types, for having a solveable suicide mision. We slam Grand Theft Auto 4 for being dissonant despite having one of the best narratives of revenge in any medium.
In other words, we hate success. We hate that which is good because we can never be satisfied. And now we’re doing it again, with Portal 2.
No, it’s not perfect. It’s led a number of very smart people to write thoughtful and detailed criticisms of the title, focusing on very specific issues. Namely, the methodology of its storytelling and the lack of crunch with its new mechanics and with its narrative. Again, there is nothing wrong with any of this; particularly, Michael Abbott over at Brainy Gamer wrote a fantastic piece and while I wrote an article saying the exact opposite, I could see his point.
These are valid criticisms. If you look, you can see the paint on the canvas that is Portal 2, and you can see some of the brushstrokes aren’t particularly brilliant. Could they be better? Not particularly, no, not without a major fundamental restructuring of the title. But let us not diminish the work of this scholarly minority: it is important to dissect the flaws of any game, so that in the future us plebians can see the arc of games maturing into art, and so that developers can make better games.
The problem, of course, is the majority.
Portal 2 faces a pathway very similar to Bioshock in this regard. When Bioshock came out, it was the shit. It was praised from all corners for being a brilliant, illuminating title that gave light to a possible path game development could take. It was filled to the brim with incredible ideas, things that transformed the paradigm of the first person shooter into something different.
Then the critics came, with very intelligent commentary. Its morality system was lacking. The final boss was lame beyond reason, and violated the spirit of the game. The narrative structure, while excellent, was not integrated into the game itself. Again, very valid, very intelligent criticisms, the kind of work that we expect from the video game blogging sphere.
Unfortunately, as we learn time and time again, intellectual criticism isn’t quite at home on the internet. The problem is that, not to sound too ivory tower academic here, criticism is meant for an intelligent audience. Most of these posts were made with the caveat, This game is brilliant, but…. Conveniently, when these links were passed around by mainstream sites, talked about on message boards, that first bit was left out. It went from Bioshock was a brilliant game, but the morality system was lax, to Bioshock’s morality system was lacking so the game sucks.
Now, you might think this is all stupidity so far. Who cares if idiots think, after the fact, that a game is terrible? Intelligent people know otherwise, and love the game for its merits. Well, no, not really. Look at the gaming world, today: if we’re looking for influences passed along by Bioshock, we’ve got, pretty much, only Singularity to show for it. Bioshock was followed up by a sequel which solved a lot of the strikes we raised against it, and it turned out to be a worse game that the original. Everything else has sprung out of critically ignored games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, which are ignored and therefore loved blissfully by the masses. It’s much easier to love games when someone smart, someone you respect isn’t telling you the game is rubbish.
No Russian, from Modern Warfare 2, is the perfect example. It was a ballsy level to put in a mainstream game: the player was playing as a terrorist. Of course, a half dozen things were wrong with it: you never had to kill anyone, it wasn’t very shocking, et cetera. And we, the scholars of game writing, told them. We told this tale a hundred times for every one person who talked about the level’s positives. And you know what? There will never be a level like No Russian in a Call of Duty ever again, because it was critically panned. By providing criticism, by filling in the maturation of games angle, by telling people what we think, we’ve made sure that Call of Duty will never take another narrative chance in its single player. We’ve made sure no major publisher will ever publish something as risky as No Russian ever again, because there was much less backlash against the generic levels.
Of course, now you’ll cite the other examples, specifically Final Fantasy VII and Grand Theft Auto 4, and say, Well, these games were influential and people followed up on them! Well, no, not really. The elements cribbed from Final Fantasy VII were the ones that critics didn’t talk about, the stodgy gameplay and prevalence of minutes long cut scenes, which served to poison the Japanese RPG from then until now. Following Grand Theft Auto 4 we found two games, Saint’s Row and Mafia, one of which focused on the dissonance and making it the whole experience while the other focused on the core narrative. Wonder which one more people have played, and which one more people care about? Which one sold more? Which one have we talked about more, as critics?
And now we have Portal 2, a game of sublime brilliance that is being talked about as, at best, mildly underwhelming. Bear no mind to the fact that it was perhaps the best experience I’d had playing a game this year or even last year. That’s an unimportant detail, obviously. Far, far more important is that it’s not perfect, and therefore we must tarnish its reputation as quickly as possible, get as many folks to believe that the game is not equal to the work of other luminaries as quickly as we can.
It’s a depressing cycle. We play serious, well intentioned games, and we criticize them, so that people with far worse intentions can use these criticisms to justify those games not being the cream of the crop. We decry games like Dragon Age: Origins old fashioned gameplay and graphics and narrative techniques and then we’re surprised when the sequel gives us a shit sandwich? They fixed everything anyone complained about!
In the end, this concept evolved into Jim Sterling’s oft-repeated mantra: look at how fucking good we have it. We have incredible games, so why can’t we enjoy them instead of tearing apart brilliant games’ flaws while passively accepting the inconsequentiality of the games that are influencing the next generation of titles through our inactivity? Every flaw we do not poke at and belittle belonging to a Call of Duty game is another flaw we’ll put up with in sequel after sequel until we’ve come to accept that that’s how the world has to be.
Can we at least assert that while Portal 2 may not be the most brilliant game ever made, it’s at least better than 95% of the games being released today, and that it has very many important things to teach us about games? Can we scream it from the mountaintops so that no matter how much Chell isn’t the protagonist, or how much the game’s plot is told at you, or how there’s no integration, that at the very least it treats video games a thousand times more seriously than some other games and represents a step up the games writing ladder?
Most importantly, can we recognize our duty as critics of games is not to tear down the good and adventurous games that we play and instead build them up as shining paragons for future generations of games to follow? We’re too used to being idiot bloggers on the internet, and we have to accept that maybe, just maybe, we have some influence, and we should use it for the better.