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The Managed Expectations of the VGX
Posted on Tuesday, December 3 2013 @ 13:44:43 PST

Is it just me, or do the game of the year nominees for Spike's VGX awards feel underwhelming? I mean, four of these games are critically acclaimed masterpieces, yet it feels like there is no fundamental difference between most of the nominees this year. Of course you can name some, such as genre differences or presentation, but that is honestly irrelevant to the issue at hand. There is this problem we need to address that is continuously growing in the gaming industry; many of the critically acclaimed titles for the year are just the managed expectations of the media, portraying what they think is good, versus what really is good. 
Well, that is really unfair to say. Out of the five nominees, only two of them I would argue actually have weight to them as a "good" video game; Grand Theft Auto V and Super Mario 3D World. For me, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider and The Last of Us pale in comparison to the others because of what they are emblematic of, this idea of managed expectations for the consumer base. It is not really a question of quality or talent, and not even the hype behind them that likely catapulted these titles to critical acclaim. It is simply a question of what people feel is right for the industry, when in reality it is causing stagnation over growth.
One could argue that those three games take no risks whatsoever in defining themselves outside of the experience given. Now no one is saying the design of these games is bad either; each game world is unique, dynamic, and rife with its own themes and conflicts that give their respected settings both texture and context that make them memorable. This provides great window dressing to set a story to as well, offering new ideas and experiences for the player to witness. Neither would I dismiss the acting in these games either, which deservedly so garners praise across the board for strong characterizations and dynamic relationships that add a level of complex storytelling to make us empathize with the protagonists.
Yet for all the praise of the story, the settings, the voice acting, and the characterizations we see in these games, there is one point where the critics seem divided when they write up their reviews, the gameplay itself. Steven Burns of pointed out that Bioshock Infinite had combat that “suffered from monotony through overuse.” Polygon’s Philip Kollar noted that The Last of Us “leans more on the traditional trappings of third person shooters…These sequences sit at odds with the rest of the game.” Justin Speer of Gametrailers chided Tomb Raider for a similar problem, saying “Lara feels preternaturally skilled at killing, and while she’s clearly emotionally shaken when she’s first forced to kill her first animal, subsequent killings treat furry bodies and human skulls like piñatas filled with experience points.”
Yet these three games were favorably reviewed, with each selling over 3 million for the year of 2013. Admittedly the dissenting voices are the minority, and this does reflect the quality of the overall product. After all, none of these games are “bad” in terms of broken, buggy or just shamelessly uninspired messes. We have beautifully realized worlds with gorgeous aesthetics, supported by strong scripts all coded into a mesh of dynamic cut scenes that can offer an exhilarating experience for the consumers to watch. However, the key word here is watch, not play. From the ludonarrative perspective, these titles are poor representations of what video games are because of this focus on watching the story unfold. 
In a way, the storylines in these titles is what is carrying games. Many fans have criticized the flaws in the gameplay of all the VGX nominees, unwilling to buy into the hype that surrounded them. It is a telling sign that a paradigm shift has occurred, a change in the focus of what game critics see as more acceptable for the medium. An interesting aspect of this argument is that up until ten years ago, video games were still marketed on their gameplay, over the storyline. For example, a title like Halo wasn't sold on its dramatic storytelling, but rather its shooter mechanics, with the advertisements reflecting the focus of the marketing. Most games released before the 7th generation followed this pattern of emphasizing gameplay, much to the derision of critics.
It did feel like for a time, critics pined for something more. Arcade-style games full of gameplay simply weren‘t enough, and for a period in the mid to late 2000’s, almost every game had a story mode, even titles that didn’t need it. It was a time for experimentation in this way  to see what worked, and what didn’t, but as the graphics grew more powerful, the ability to tell emotional stories became much easier for developers to create. This sort of “rose period” for the gaming industry has many benefits, and we see it in the labors of the forerunners that emphasized storylines as much as gameplay. Games like The Walking Dead, Mass Effect,  and the original Bioshock may not be perfect, but they are memorable for being the best at this new paradigm; this emphasis on dramatic storytelling while keeping up with the demands of providing adequate gameplay. 
Video game stories still have a long way to go before they reach critical acceptance outside of the industry, a key factor at legitimizing games as a visual, tactile, and storytelling art form. Even the very best of the past generation are from perfect, with Mass Effect, Bioshock and The Walking Dead containing flaws in their narratives and how it is presented to the player.  Perhaps this is why the emphasis on tight, constructed storylines is what journalists are managing. We are seeing more and more examples of games which have a high emphasis on story, but minimalist or sometimes rudimentary gameplay. Games like Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us and Tomb Raider are not compelling video games through gameplay, but compelling video games through their narratives, giving them more kinship to an interactive movie. 
Our expectations are tailor made to fit this line of thinking; we expect a good story now from a video game, and we expect to see a satisfactory conclusion without lingering issues or a thought-provoking finale. All the while ignoring or tolerating at best mediocre gameplay mechanics or problems with ludonarrative dissonance, we have our expectations managed to a specific line of thought on what makes these games truly great, when in reality they are not the perfect titles we once believed in. 
Considering the fact that the VGX awards are handpicked by a crop of journalists and personalities, including Brian Crecente, Geoff Keighley, Mike Krahulik, and Jeff Gerstmann, the media has the final say on which games are nominated for this award show, and which game wins. Yet the similarities that most of the nominees have does depict a telling picture, one that asserts to both consumers, developers, and publishers that these are the type of games the media favors. It is a case of commoditization through the control game journalists have, dangerously similar to the payola structure for the music industry which paves way to managing the expectations of the consumer base by carefully controlling what they expect to like for the goal of profit and recognition.
Now, one could argue that Super Mario 3D World is the exception to this rule, and you are right. It is an anomaly among the other entrants, being a pure gameplay experience over a story-driven masterpiece. Perhaps it was a token nod, or there is genuine love and respect for Mario that is filling the void to add diversity to the nominations this year. Or Mario  is simply filling the gap for a delayed title that journalists expected to nominate this year. I suspected earlier that Watch Dogs was likely to be nominated, again considering the hype behind the title, but its delay forced a quick replacement to the list. This is of course conjecture, but I personally don’t rule it out as a possibility. I would not be surprised if Watch Dogs was nominated next year however, as it would be again managing the expectation that the title will be good, regardless of the flaws it may have. 
As journalists and consumers, we need to be more critical in this new paradigm shift so that the standards of what a good game are continue to evolve. With the constant whitewashing of critical flaws within gameplay, however, many journalists neglect to remark how issues with gameplay transform the perspective of the storyline. You simply cannot ignore aspects of the gameplay that clash with the storyline anymore, especially if, from a narrative standpoint, it makes no sense for the player to be doing things the character on screen can’t or will not do. 
A telling trend of this is how numerous posthumous editorials continue to crop up after a critically acclaimed game is released. Pieces from professionals and contributors on sites like Kotaku and Gamasutra are all the more common now a days, often rifling through the negative aspects of these games with a fine tooth comb. These editorials are providing an almost investigative point of view of something that a critical review may have forgotten. Or, in worse cases, simply ignored when showering these titles with praise. 
We also need to be cognizant of why this is unacceptable. For many games we let these “game conceits” slide because we’re participating in the storyline. Through interactivity by pushing buttons, we show investment into the game by continuing to watch what happens, by pushing buttons when appropriate, and by interacting with the world at pre-determined times. It is a subconscious, near Pavlovian response, pushing buttons to see a desired effect. We allow game conceits to occur because we show interest in only advancing the plot or through enjoyment of the gameplay. Such conceits need to be taken into account now, especially if they begin to break the narrative flow of the game itself.
This is  a difficult balance to hammer out, yet we have seen some games that are more balanced than others. Issues aside with Mass Effect, it is one of the emblematic examples of interactivity as part of the gameplay experience since it drives the narrative through it‘s gameplay. The Walking Dead is an example of a "pure narrative" game, one that is designed solely on how you structure your narrative through your choices and to present the effects of said choices while playing. Other games, like Spec Ops: The Line, have a linear progression but narrative interactivity through devices that allow more complexity to your actions than what meets the eye.
Even recent titles can strike that balance and offer gameplay that improves the narrative, while emphasizing narrative interaction. Remember the torture scene from Grand Theft Auto V? That is another example of this, not just pressing buttons but interacting with the experience through the simulation, while simultaneously going through a major plot point in the storyline. It is gripping and shocking, and is designed to be this way because you’re playing it instead of watching it. You are pushing buttons and allowing the torture to happen, and despite any reservations behind the scene, it’s both compelling and interactive, allowing a moment of pathos that can't simply be watched from a cut-scene.
Truth be told, if I really valued the VGX, the game that deserves the win the most for game of the year is Grand Theft Auto V. While it is far from perfect, as everything really is, it has enough  of a balance between good gameplay and a consistent narrative structure to keep the players engaged, and doesn’t attempt to manage expectations as much as the other nominees. Major flaws aside, it is the only game that gives both the critics and the consumers what they want as well, a good video game all around. 
Through all of this though, the lesson that critics need to learn is that we need to stop managing expectations for what we perceive as a “good“ game. A storyline can be important, but they are not the only part of a game to focus on. The over-emphasis on story and visual presentation in the past few years has made games less about games, and more about expectations of what you’ll take away from it internally. Critics need to find that balance once more, that hook that allows them to critically analyze narrative and gameplay, and rate it accordingly. Otherwise the message, as seen by the nominees for the VGX, will remain the same, and any growth we can hope to achieve will forever be stagnated to what we always expect.
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