Videogame Ghosts

Lack of interactivity is something I’m noticing more and more in games. It’s not that the worlds used to be more interactive – it’s that as the detail in games has increased the level of interactivity has not kept pace. So while the Paris of Assassin’s Creed Unity is a really amazing thing – I’ve spent house exploring it – after a while I felt like a ghost. So many games we move though these amazing worlds without being able to really reach out and touch them.

Perhaps these lonely avatars wandering though Paris or Chicago of Watch Dogs are a metaphor for a lonely generation. Unintended of course. But I want to be able to give money to a beggar in Watch Dogs, or just talk to someone in Unity, tell a busker they are great, hold someone’s hand.

So many games with amazing game worlds and the only time we can touch them is with a blade or a bullet.

Driveclub, Forza Horizon 2 & Magic Computer Beans

This week’s announcement of Forza Horizon 2 for Xbox One has got videogamers on many forums spouting the same old rubbish we’ve heard time and again about frame rates. The nonsense intensified earlier today as Playground Games revealed Horizon 2 would run at 1080p30.

Come on guys, most of you are smarter than playing out this silly 60 vs 30 argument all over again. Playground Games has chosen to make this game 30fps, rather than 60fps. Why? Because it’s a good compromise for this kind of sim-lite open world action. You can put lots of silicon horsepower into making the game beautiful.

Could it be 60fps? Of course it could.

In every console you’ve got 100 magic computer beans as a developer. You can spend them on pretty, you can spend them on frame rate. It’s entirely up to you. Some games you’ll choose frames – because your game is a sim racer and response is everything. Hardcore racing fans will forgive a lack of visual splendor if response is the priority. Meanwhile the more casual crowd playing sim-lite or arcade racers wants amazing vistas, splendid sunsets and dynamic Another – and so a developer will use a higher percentage of the hardware’s available power for beauty rather than speed.

This is not a function of a console being low powered. These compromises and choices exist in any hardware generation. The original Gran Turismo had a technical demonstration track that would run at 60fps. Yes the original PS1 could run Gran Turismo at 60fps. But that was at the cost of losing lots of trackside detail. It ably showed why the game ran at a frame rate lower than this – Polyphony chose to lower the frame rate and give us better image quality and art on the regular circuits.

There isn’t going to be a point any time soon where some hyper-powered console hardware comes along that can run everything at 60fps. Because a developer will still look at his/her game and say “you know, if we gave up half the frame rate we could make out beautiful game look twice as beautiful.”

I’m not an apologist for games that run poorly nor am I an advocate for the stupid 24p cinematic game argument (which is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how film records motion). I hate judder and screen tearing. It’s sad that recent Gran Turismo games haven’t prioritised hitting 60fps over visual fidelity. The result has been a halfway house that hasn’t worked either way. And for sim racing games yes I want 60fps, by all means give me a 2D crowd if that’s what it takes. But for Forza Horizon 2 I completely understand the choice behind 1080p30 (and frankly I’m surprised we’re not getting 900p30).

I imagine most critics of Horizon 1’s 30fps update haven’t played the game. Playground Games’ debut was silky smooth thanks to a motion blur technique which blurred objects based on their size and distance from the player. The result was a very smooth responsive fun sim-lite game with a beautiful open world to explore and some of the cleanest image quality of that generation of hardware. Forza Horizon was an amazing technical achievement that vindicated the design choices behind it.

I expect Horizon 2 will be much the same.

So let’s not do the same old silly arguments about 60/30 or erroneously compare Horizon 2 performance with Driveclub, Forza 5 and whatever. These are all different games with different aims, audiences and priorities. And frankly it’s getting a very tiresome debate among people who don’t seem to understand the issues at hand.

What’s the point of games like Forza or Gran Turismo?

Here’s the great thing about games like Forza or Gran Turismo. What you should be trying to do is whatever you want. There isn’t a goal or aim, there’s no endgame. It is a toolbox for having fun with cars. Some people like to race online, others spend time tuning, taking photos, watching replays, some just paint, some just race against AI – or a combination of these.

I just like driving the cars. I fix on one for a while and will tend to hot-lap it in Rivals mode on my favourite tracks. I’m necessarily trying to beat the times of others – just learning and enjoying the car. I tend not to tune the car at first, but after a while will add some racing tires then maybe drive a bit more. Finally I’ll start adding parts.

This week I’ve been doing it with the original Mini. I started with it stock. Over the week it’s because a 4×4 race-turbo monster. And I’ve had a lot of fun flinging it around Circuit Le Sarthe.

The point of Forza (and GT and others) is having fun with cars. Each corner is an adventure. We scoff at phrases like “sense of speed”, people complaining that Silverstone is dull (because it’s not a neon lit adventure world) and obsessions about the number of spacial dimensions a spectator.

The gaming industry has become a crack dealer. People expect to be given things all the time. Unlock, unlock, unlock – a never ending reward of sweets for the rats in the box pressing the button in a Pavlovian frenzy. And so people play shitty games thinking these games are exceptional – as they are fed unlock, reward, flashing light, bonus after bonus.

But there are still places in gaming, all too few, where playing the game is its own reward. Even here things are being squeezed – the tears of a million non-playing crybabies bemoaning having to acquire skills – means the Forza economy has been rendered meaningless. But a truth remains, pick a car you love, a track with some thrilling corners and go out there and enjoy them. There’s a purity and thrill there that most games with their gaudy killstreak trinkets couldn’t match.

Just have fun.

Where are the expert game reviewers?

Hello folks, long time no see. Today I want to talk to you about game critics and their lack of knowledge and expertise. I’d like to do this in relation to the numerous reviews for Xbox One’s Forza Motorsport 5 that have appeared online this week.

Before I continue, some caveats. I have not yet played FM5 and I do not know whether it is a good or bad game. The issues I want to discuss are separate from the game’s ultimate quality. Turn 10’s track record and the footage I have seen it seems the core gameplay is as good as ever but the game has been widely marked down despite this due to lack of content and DLC whoring. That seems fair, Microsoft and Turn 10 are taking cynical route to monetising the game. But, that’s not what I want to talk about here.

What do I want to talk about? Know-nothing game critics that’s what. We can’t all be experts in every genre but I do remember a time when you’d expect a reviewer to be grounded in the core genres of gaming. By that I meant experience and knowledge of shooters, platform games, adventures, RPG, racing games and the like.

However this week has shown that level of expertise even among the highest profile members of the business has all but disappeared. Over the last few days I’ve watched many video streams of game reviewers playing Forza Motorsport 5. In many cases these videos feature that site’s “expert” who was writing the review and his dude-bro team members who were trying the game for the first time and needed the expert’s advice.

Oh lord, that expert would be nothing of the kind. How wrong can you get the pronunciation of well known car brands and models? Watch a mainstream game site stream to find out. Want to hear historic and famous race circuit names said by people who have never heard of them, tune into the most popular video review sites. Some expert eh?

Watch the videos to hear them talk of playing with at least half the game assists switched on including the racing line. Hear the derisory laughter as one of the team asks “have you tried it in full sim mode” as though he’d asked the expert if he blew goats. Who would play a racing sim in sim mode they laugh, only some kind of pathetic geek. I get it, you might not be skilled enough to play in sim mode. Honestly that really is fine. But guys, how about at least trying it for the sake of the review, eh? Gaming, once a ghetto, has gone mainstream and is building its own ghettos now for those who don’t conform to a narrow vision.

And oh God the lack of knowledge of the franchise thus far, of basic facts to do with the game they are playing and some of the most basic game mechanics common to the franchise. Has it come to this that one of the most popular genres in gaming is now too outside the mainstream for any of these sites to have someone who knows anything about them? Is this it now, shooters or nothing? I watched a video review of Forza 5 (which gave it 5/5 by the way) where the reviewer was gushing with surprise and delight about the main game mechanic as though it was new. That game mechanic has been with us nearly two decades thanks to Gran Turismo. To him though, it was brand new. Ten years ago if I’d walked into a job interview and displayed this lack of knowledge I’d never have got some of the jobs I was lucky enough to have. I wouldn’t have been hired as a staff reviewer – never mind making it as an editor.

During my career as an editor I tried to match games with reviewers who had knowledge and experience of the genre. Readers don’t want to know how crap a writer is at platform games, or how much she hates playing them. Readers want to know how good that platform game is, how it stacks up against the competition, how it subverts, evolves or reinvigorates the genre. When I was a site editor there was no way I’d have given Forza 5 to some of these “experts” at major game sites. Yet seemingly, judging by the even lesser knowledge of their dude-bro colleagues, they really are the experts in their office. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Gametrailers’ Kyle Bosman joked in his latest video column of how the ability to stream games will bypass the mainstream game reviewers rendering them useless. I can see that happening but not merely because there’s something better about watching the game being played. The problem is there’s a crisis in games criticism – the lack of expertise. Get the guys on the subject of Battlefield or Call of Duty and you’ll be fine, they play these a lot with their friends. But wander from the core shooter genre and you’re in trouble. That is why games reviews on mainstream sites will be bypassed – because they are light, inexpert, fluff.

I think what has shocked me most about the poor criticism and lack of reader service we’ve seen this week is that games criticism has become so narrow. Gran Turismo sells ten million copies but that’s still not enough for this to be an important genre anymore. Games like this are now looked down on, even among supposed hardcore gamers who work at big gaming sites? Really? So gaming is just Call of Duty and third person action games, anything else is just weird? Racing games are geeky and on the outside? There was a time when I was dismayed but understood this happening to flight sims, even casual flight sims like EA’s Jane’s series, but now we’re cutting driving games out of the mainstream. Where are we going with this guys?

I’ve hired many games writers over the last decade and there’s no way most of the Forza reviewers would have cut it on a site I edited. I read the reviews and wondered where the knowledge is, the depth, the real understanding of the genre. I’ve read tens of Forza 5 reviews this week, watched numerous video reviews, and I have yet to see one I’d have been happy to publish. From the ones scoring the game 10/10 to the scores much lower – the level of knowledge conveyed to the reader has been uniformly poor.

What’s the alternative, specialist sites? Not always. Then you enter the realms of the people who think their gaming experience is a real life experience, where their racing seat setup allows them to speak with the authority of a seasoned racing driver. In this world anything that deviates from being 100 percent realistic makes a game utter shit, where one bolt out of place on a car model renders it useless to them. No these guys aren’t the place to go for good games criticism either. Realism doesn’t necessarily equal good.

There’s an odd contradiction in gaming right now in that many gamers wish the genre to be taken seriously as an artform. At the same time though these same gamers say reviews are pointless. I strongly disagree. When we look at true artforms – fine art, music, literature, cinema etc. what sets them apart from everyday consumerist pastimes is the level and quality of written criticism. Good quality appraisal and criticism in art is exciting and important. I would argue that those art forms wouldn’t be as great without the high quality criticism that lives alongside them. Cinema is vital and thrilling not just for the images on the screen but in the intellectual depth the art form can be discussed, dissected and argued about by experts that know their subject and how to engage with the reader.

Are games art? They could be. But right now the top reviewers at big sites only seem to want and understand the Transformers 2 of gaming. They do not have the knowledge or vocabulary to discuss anything more nuanced. And this is a problem. A problem not just for consumers, but also a problem for the medium itself. Games cannot be art without experts to discuss them as such. When even the games that aspire to say something important, to make an artistic statement that goes beyond the medium of gaming, have to copy the gameplay of Call of Duty (BioShock Infinite) then we need critics capable of debating the issue. We will not get better art without better criticism.

If all you want is FIFA and Call of Duty then fine, have it your way. They are great games. But I have played and loved games for over thirty years, I have been paid to communicate that love for over a decade. For me games are as interesting, thrilling and involving as any book, movie, painting, poem or song. And yet, and yet, it feels like it is slipping away. Our geeky ghetto with its intelligence and nuance began a slow death when PlayStation became hugely popular. But I can’t blame the games makers. I blame the critics. The criticism of art should be an art itself, but today it is merely a commodity.

Right now the mainstream game sites barely demonstrate enough expertise to review the popcorn in the lobby, they are going to have to try harder before their views of the movie are worth listening to.

Children & Violent Videogames

Do you ever just read something and hold your head in your hands in despair? I did when I just read some online debates among tens of parents on whether they let their children play games rated for adults. Seemingly intelligent and well educated people can be seen trying to justify allowing their children to view the most violent of content. These people know how violent the content is, they can’t even plead ignorance of that. Yet out of some misplaced pride in their child’s ability to function as an adult or perhaps a typically modern and lazy approach to let their little darling have whatever he wants they would attempt to justify their reckless stupidity.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Many years ago – before I began a career writing about videogames – worked in a videogames store. We would often have parents walking up to the counter with a violent game intended for their child next to them. In such cases we would point out the nature of the content. In many cases – thankfully – the parent would be shocked and it would be clear the child had lied about what was in that game case. In all too many cases though – especially among the educationally bereft – the parent would reply that they didn’t give a toss (or something stronger). And in those cases we wouldn’t sell them the game either.

Some experiences are for adults, some for children. We have rules on movies, alcohol and tobacco that most intelligent adults seem to understand and respect. But why don’t they do so with videogames? Perhaps it’s still the widespread mistaken belief that videogames are meant merely for children. And that whatever their content, there is an expected child audience. So Call of Duty is for over tens, Mario for children younger than that.

I am dismayed when I walk into my local Game and see the number of what we might call “yummy mummies” buying violent games for their children. Amazing really. You might expect it of the thick and feckless, but not those who outwardly at least seem to show some respect for society and having had an education. And amazing the shops will let this happen. As I said, back in the 90s we’d just refuse the sale if we thought the item was for a child, just as a shop would with alcohol or tobacco.

It all comes down to being lazy parents. You see folks trying to justify their stupid decisions – oh yes we had a long family talk about the second world war and little Oscar (half of middle class kids are called Oscar) knows the difference between right and wrong. But the truth is they are just giving into peer pressure and their own wish for an easy life. Those of you who are happy to let their children play games that have a VERY CLEAR age rating well above their child’s age – do you do the same with movies?

Do you ever say “no” to your little darlings? “Awww mum, Sebastian’s mum lets him take a bottle of vodka to school, why can’t I?” Since when is peer pressure on your child by other children pressure on you? Show some backbone. Say no to your child, tell them their friends’ parents are wrong if you think they are. Don’t be such a coward. You are the parent. You might think giving in gives you an easy life, but that’s short term, and you’ll end up with much harder parental work later.

Any of you that have bought Call of Duty for your 12 year olds, will you be letting them watch The Human Centipede too, or perhaps The Exorcist. Will your 12 year old be able to down a few beers while he enjoys his violent game? Perhaps you’ll allow him to smoke a few cigarettes to help cope with the pressures of the modern warfare he is embroiled in. Perhaps he could wind down with some porn.

No?

Didn’t think so. You’re all lazy, delusional idiots.

You may get the idea that I’m anti-games. I’m certainly not. I’ve worked as a professional games writer/editor for over ten years. I love a good shoot ’em up (BTW Call of Duty isn’t a good one) and have plenty of violent games in my collection. But I’m over 18 and I deemed capable of understanding the issues surrounding such content.

Your child isn’t capable of making those decisions. Unfortunately many parents don’t seem to be able or willing to make those decisions either. That’s why we have legally binding age ratings on games. The 18 rating says that a store cannot sell the item to a child – nor should it sell it to someone buying it for a child. Do you know why? Because we have laws. We have laws because some people are too stupid and selfish to make the right decision, so we have to have a judicial system to do it for them.

Yet it seems no matter how obvious, how big and bright we make these age ratings, some people will completely ignore them due to some delusional misplaced pride in your child’s ability to absorb and intellectually process the horrific violence in front of them. Oh we don’t let your darling son play violent videogames in his room – he plays them in the lounge. Well thank heavens for that, that altitude, longitude and latitude shift of ten feet really will make a huge difference to the way his immature and easily influenced brain copes with the violent images it is being forced to process. Well done many of you. Parents of the year.

I’ll say it again. You are lazy, delusional idiots.

Oh and before I go a quick plea to those of you who do let their kids play 18 rated games. At least keep the kids offline. Stupid whiny kids are ruining online gaming for those adults who would like to enjoy it with our peers. I really don’t expect to go down to the pub at 10pm and have twelve year olds running around calling everyone a “dirty jew” or a “fag” in their stupid breaking voices. But you’re quite happy to let your kids to that in online games intended for adults. Thanks a bunch for sharing your bigoted idiotic offspring with us.