Musings and Memories of 2013: Learning My Craft
by Scott Nichols
Rather than a strict Game of the Year list, at Gamerly Musings I’ll be writing a series of articles about the games that were most important to me, personally. The games will be roughly grouped together by themes, qualities, or learning experiences that they shared rather than offering awards based on genre or release platform, which I think works out rather nicely for highlighting some under-appreciated games that would never appear on a “best of 2013″ list but deserve special recognition in their own right.
Reviewing and analyzing these three games – one good, one bad, and one somewhere in between – helped to develop my skills as a writer more than any other in 2013. Each of the games are very different, but in my effort to give them the reviews they deserved I grew as a writer. That could be growth in learning new techniques, refining old ones, or finding new perspectives through which to look at the games. Regardless of how it happened, all three of these games helped me learn my craft as a writer in 2013.
By the far the most challenging review I wrote in 2013 was the one I did for Gone Home. I already knew it was going to be something special, the 2012 IGF demo, just the demo, was my game of the year that year after all. And even just from that demo it was revelatory the way it used the environment to infer most of its story outside of Sam’s narrated journal entries. Even the “put back” mechanic, simple as it was, was a stroke of genius in depicting domestic exploration that didn’t devolve into ransacking the place. But most of all, it was Sam’s coming out story that sealed it. Sam’s story felt so true, but was told in such a distinctly game-y way, I still get chills thinking about it.
While playing Gone Home I felt like I was playing something important, a game that would become part of the essential literacy for game critics. The same feeling I got when first playing Bastion or Dark Souls, the feeling that it was a game people would continue to write about for years, dissecting it for every morsel of meaning.
And here I was supposed to review it? To be one of the first voices in that ongoing critical discussion? Yeah, I was a bit intimidated.
But also excited! After all, I had so much to say about Gone Home. The trouble was coming up with the proper way to frame it and organize my thoughts. And despite resisting at first, I ultimately settled on tapping into my own personal relation to the game, as a queer younger sibling who wished he could talk to his brother as easily as Sam writes to Katie.
While I don’t think reviews can be objective, my first instinct is also to resist putting too much of myself in a review. Imposing myself on others is one of my worst fears, but in order to properly review Gone Home I felt it was necessary. It was a valuable lesson to learn how to put such a personal touch on a review while still keeping the focus on the game rather than myself. Or at least that’s what I think I was able to accomplish. I think that my Gone Home review is one of the best things I’ve written, and all because I took a chance in expanding my review style.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct
Going straight from the best to the worst, let’s take a look at The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. What an abysmal train-wreck that game was.
It was a unique case for me because it was a game where I was assigned to review it late, and so I had already read some reviews by other critics. Actually, “assigned” isn’t so much the right word. After the negative reviews started coming in I joked on twitter that I could spare an editor from playing it and review it for them, and much to my surprise NowGamer actually took me up on the offer.
While I wish I could say that reading other reviews ahead of time didn’t influence my own review, I’m afraid it did. I saw all of the reviews that seemed content to say that Survival Instinct was bad, but I didn’t feel like I was getting enough analysis of why it was a bad game. So the influence other reviews had on me was to dig deeper, and rather than just say “wow, this doesn’t work” to try and dig deeper and figure out why it doesn’t work and where the game went wrong. Yes, this is the kind of analysis that I should always be striving for in a review, but it was more present in my mind than usual after getting the sense from other reviews that Survival Instinct was too bad a game to be worth the time for critical analysis.
As it turns out, I think I learned more while reviewing The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct than almost any other game. Yes, it only had about two assets that it just repeated endlessly, and yes the A.I. was beyond terrible, and yes it was riddled with bugs, but beneath all of the bad was a surprisingly ambitious design. It was set up to be like a first-person Oregon Trail, traveling between cities on a map rather than worrying about the driving, stopping and scavenging for supplies and fixing your vehicle, bringing along an expendable party who could contract strange conditions seemingly at random. It was trying so hard to be Oregon Trail, and there was a sort of tragic beauty in that.
Despite all it did wrong, there was a very clear vision behind The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, and I think that through finding that vision the review I wrote is among my best writing from 2013. A game doesn’t have to be good to be worthy of deeper criticism, every game can be worthy. As a critic, it is my job to look harder than any reader or reasonable person would look to find that thread of criticism in a game, and The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct helped keep me focused on that ideal.
If The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct taught me to dig deeper for my reviews, Knack is the game where I put those teachings into practice best.
My first reaction after playing Knack was that of confusion. It was positioned in the PS4 lineup as the family game, the Mario or Crash Bandicoot of the system that everyone could enjoy. And yet the difficulty curve was punishingly difficult and the dodging mechanic required Ninja Gaiden-like reflexes.
I started with that confusion and built from it, asking myself deeper and deeper questions to try and break through to the heart of what made Knack such a paradox. It was during my second playthrough that I noticed it, the line of dialog at the beginning where Mr. Shiftyeyes Badguy scoffs that Knack seems too “delicate” and I thought to myself, “yeah, he is pretty delicate actually.” Then Knack’s booming voice came in declaring that he’d beat an obstacle course to prove his worth, and I knew that would be the perfect analogy for the game as a whole.
Knack’s blind bravado in that scene perfectly summed up my confusion over how the game’s difficulty and niche play style conflicted with the way Sony marketed Knack for families. And while typically it isn’t a good idea to take into account a game’s marketing image when writing a review, for Knack it seemed perfectly appropriate.
The blind bravado of the character Knack fit too perfectly with Sony showing the same sort of confidence in their family-friendly launch title, to the point where I can no longer think of the game in any other terms. My hope is that for readers it was a useful and interesting way of contextualizing Knack that added to my critical analysis rather than detracting or distracting from it.