Thursday, December 8, 2011

Commentary on Bonus Round (not a review)

I think I’ve lost my mind. Every year we have a myriad of game of the year awards. None of them really matter in the same way that the Oscars matter since the videogame industry can’t seem to organize in any coherent and meaningful way. There is no one award that really shows that anyone in the industry has accomplished something. Despite this, there are a few “game of the year” award celebrations that I pay attention to for no other reason than I visit the outlets that promote them.

Specifically, the site I seem to visit most often is and the award show that they promote is called the VGA awards. also produces a web show called Bonus Round. Bonus Round is a show which gathers reviewers and people from the industry to discuss gaming. It’s a bit unprofessional, the host Geoff Keighley interrupts as often as he starts conversations, but it’s a very interesting program nonetheless.

This week they’re discussing the game of the year nominees for the VGA awards. They’re discussing one game per day and whether or not it merits game of the year. It consists primarily of opinions and is far less interesting than discussions of the industry.

All of this isn’t why I think I’ve lost my mind, oh no. This is just a preamble. The reason why I think I’ve lost my mind is that I was watching their installment on Skyward Sword, and I couldn’t believe what was being said given the context.

It’s as though they weren’t paying attention, or I missed something entirely. Wondering which is true has driven me to the edge of madness.

Ok, let’s parse this down:
The first, and most common criticism levied on Zelda during the panel was entirely graphical. Being the only SD game on the nomination list really forces Zelda to stand on its art and not its shaders and polygon count. Many of those on the panel criticized the lack of HD and the art direction. This is one of those things that I just disagree with, but that’s just an opinion. Certainly, there is something to be said for HD visuals. So I acknowledge the criticism’s merit and move on despite disagreeing with it.
The second, and this is where my brain starts to break down, is a criticism on the lack of voice acting.

Let’s not forget about the last Nintendo franchise that added voice acting . Do we want this in Zelda?

Moreover, how important is voice acting to a game really? I’ve played through plenty of games that had voice over work, and what often ends up happening is I skip through most, if not all, of the dialogue. When I play Metal Gear Solid, I’ll often interrupt the voice acting during codec scenes and read through them. When I play RPGs the actor usually only has seconds to say the first two words before I’ve skipped to the next part of the dialogue because I’ve read everything he was going to say thanks to subtitles.

Voice acting, by and large, is a frivolous addition, and only really adds anything if the actor delivers it in a way that is interesting. I mention Metal Gear Solid as voice acting that I skip through. However, that’s only after I’ve played the game at least once. David Hayter’s gravly voice demands attention on the first playthrough, but beyond that he doesn’t really add anything to the actual game part of the fucking game.

Let’s face it, voice acting in games hasn’t always existed. Despite this, there are all of these established experiences where we were still able to connect with the characters in the games that we played despite the lack of voice acting. This is thanks in large part to the fact that people were actually literate in those days. Today, god forbid you be forced to read more than a sentence.

Hell, upon that realization, I wonder why I’m even writing this. The “TL;DR” meme isn’t even a meme, it’s a fact of modern discourse. (For those not in the know, TL;DR stands for “too long; didn’t read.” which speaks volumes about the modern attitude towards reading more than a paragraph.)

Ultimately, the necessity of voice acting is a matter of opinion, and it doesn’t really break my brain in the same way that this next thing does.

The final thing in this discussion that made my brain explode was the criticism on Zelda’s archaic game design. There seems to be this narrative that everyone has bought in to where Ocarina of Time stands at the pinnacle of Zelda design, and every Zelda has just tried to live up to that standard. This bothers me on a couple of levels.

I played Ocarina and Skyward Sword back to back. They do have a similar approach and there are moments in Skyward Sword which mirror Ocarina but they are distinctly different experiences. One game is not equal to the other. Moreover, Ocarina isn’t as good or as tightly refined as they make it out to be. Subsequent Zelda games have built upon, and made those ideas better. I vastly prefer Windwaker or Twilight Princess to Ocarina, despite the fact that these two games use ideas from Ocarina. These people’s interpretation and opinion of Ocarina is colored by nostalgia and there is no argument that anyone could bring to the table that would make me think otherwise.

Additionally, for the past two or three years I’ve been watching as project Natal became Kinect. I’ve been watching as Sony introduced Move. I’ve watched as every single company has been trying to introduce motion control to their audiences. Neither Kinect nor Move has offered games that use motion control in any significant and meaningful way. They’re trying to, but they haven’t. Motion control is so important to Microsoft that a significant portion of their presentation at E3 focuses on the Kinect. Yet, not only was motion control first made popular by Nintendo, so far the only game that uses motion control in a competent way is Zelda. And yet, even given this contextual fact, Zelda is somehow behind the curve?

Finally, here these reviewers are praising Skyrim, Portal 2, Uncharted 3, and Batman: Arkham City while at the same time saying that Zelda is just rehashing Ocarina of Time. Are these people even paying attention to what they’re saying?

First lets look at Elder Srolls V: Skyrim.

Now lets look at Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

hmmm… ok let’s look at Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
(skip to about minute 20)

It’s the same game. It’s the same goddamn motherfucking game! There are aesthetic tweaks, and graphical updates but it’s the same! Hell, Morrowind came out in 2002. It’s 10 years old, and it’s fundamentally the same as Skyrim.

Next, lets look at Uncharted 3. Surely a more modern game will give us a variety of experiences.

Cool, he’s in a jungle, I wonder what he did in Uncharted 2.

Ok, I’m sure Uncharted is wholly unique in comparison.
… goddamnit

Portal2 is a little more obvious

And here is Portal

Arkham City doesn’t do anything significantly different from Arkham Asylum except opening up the space to play in

Now, I’m not going to stand here and say that Skyward Sword is wholly unique. Far from it. Just take a look at the second boss in Ocarina in comparison to the second boss in Skyward Sword.


Skyward Sword

They’re both in lava levels, and you win by throwing a bomb in to the opponent’s mouth.

But if you’re going to levy the criticism that games should be entirely unique from iteration to iteration, then it’s a criticism that you should bring to EVERY game that does it.

Every single game on this list is a rehash. Every single game is building upon what its predecessor does. And Zelda is the ONLY one being criticized for it. The only things Zelda doesn't have going for it is polygon count and modern shaders. That’s it. End of discussion.

This isn’t about game design, this is about looks. It’s shallow, and it’s stupid. This isn’t what the games industry should be about. This isn’t the kind of thing that someone who considers themselves a “hardcore” gamer should be saying. Certainly, this isn’t something that those who are paid to review games should be saying. Skyrim, Uncharted, Portal 2, Skyward Sword, and Batman Arkham City are fantastic experiences despite reusing ideas. They've refined these ideas. They've made these ideas better. They're all worthy of the game of the year title.

Then again, I could be missing something. In which case… I’ve lost my fucking mind.