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There has been some interesting whirring about lately with the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Because it's been made apparent that this is necessary, let me add some qualifications to the below argument before beginning. I do a bit of writing myself. I've seen large games in production, and I've witnessed all kinds of struggles experienced by every group within a team. I know, like, and respect game writers. They don't have it easy, and they're a talented bunch. I didn't much care for Mass Effect 3 - despite some good friends having done some very good work on it. In short, this is not a vendetta, or an attempt to justify the hateful comments some people have thrown at the Mass Effect: Andromeda development team. Rather, this seems like a good moment in time to discuss one thing: criticism in games.
People tend to take criticism rather poorly. Creatives, such as writers in my experience, have such a hard go of it in the course of their careers that their tolerance for being prodded becomes quite low. When I was working in a bookstore, I was introduced to a punk-turned-poet who had published a fairly popular book in the area (uncultured as I was, I hadn't heard of him at the time) who assured me that he never listened to criticism. The reviewers were hacks - had nothing better to do. Failed writers. This is not uncommon - Martin Amis disclosed much the same attitude, and when you learn that John Williams has never seen a Star Wars film, you begin to wonder what it would be like not to wonder at opinion or at least the actual outcome of your work. I suppose in some respect it's an act of resistance against the constant fear that what you're making is no good.
If you think I'm overreacting, I once received this message after wondering aloud at the consistency of the use of the Oxford comma in an article authored by three people (unfortunately, I really can be this annoying), one of which was someone I admired quite a bit at the time:
"You've been a nuisance for ages. Blocking you here too. Go away."
I am sure that if any writer, film maker, or game developer could instantly send such a thing to their critics, a little hateful fortune cookie for their worst critics to unroll and scowl at, they would do so in a heartbeat - folks like the punk-poet and Martin Amis had the right idea even before social media came around.
Why the hostility? Well, I think the creatives are in fact on to something. The critic does want to be like them - that is, after all, why they are interested enough in the subject to write about it, isn't it? They are battling for the claim to expertise in the same arena as the creator, and this is often taken as a personal affront. Why else would this criticism come about, if not for the purpose of cutting down the author with a correlated rise in prestige for the critic? And so even bland nitpicking can grow to seem like a knife to the ego.
This leads naturally to another important question. Why is the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay so mad all the time?
I'll tell you why - and it's not just because he's loud and mean. Gordon Ramsay is always angry because he doesn't care what kind of problems you, his kitchen underling, might have. All Gordon Ramsay cares about is what customers see and taste. Does their food look and taste good, and was it delivered to them on time? If yes, then everything is peachy. If no, then he has a problem with you.
This same cold standard is enforced in the game industry at some faceless level by corporations - games must ship (mostly) on time, and they must pass quality assurance testing. Or no money comes your way, sadly. Had to death march? Stop paying your employees? Cut features? So be it. And at some level, all game developers have been forced to understand this kind of market logic.
However, individuals are quite different. People are tangible, relatable, and often well-intentioned. It becomes difficult for a critic to be mean when he or she have a relationship with a creator. It becomes difficult to attribute flaws in a piece of work when you know the person who worked so hard on it.
I've seen two competing hyperbolic narratives arise with the release of ME:A. One is the caustic, toxic chatter of the deep, dark internet. We picture nerdy, teenaged boys or unshaven older men in basements, constantly deriding your work and insulting or threatening you. On the other side are the developers themselves, drawing a protective shield over their own in an act of defiance. The masses don't understand our struggles - they can never know the intricate webs which wind their way through each game's lifetime in development and influence the end result.
Both, of course, are wrongheaded. The former fetishizes gaming and demands entertainment, while the latter derides the audience and pretends that good people must produce good work. I'm sorry to say that many - let's not call them "bad" - unsuccessful games have been staffed by very capable and talented developers. Games are indeed large projects involving many people, over some significant period of time - and no one person has much control.
If you'll excuse my need to inject some kind of battlefield history into everything, this makes me think of the curious case of the French Char B1 (bis) tank during the Battle of France in the Second World War. The traditional narrative of a hasty German invasion is not incorrect, but most people would be surprised to learn that locally the Germans suffered some tremendous losses that run counter to historical myths of "blitzkrieg" genius. At the Battle of Stonne, one Pierre Billotte alone destroyed around 11 German tanks in his Char B1, suffering 140 hits himself with no critical damage taken. Well no surprise, as the Char B1's armour was thicker than any German tank at the time. At the end of it, Germany suffered around 160,000 casualties (dead and wounded) as they "easily" took France.
So, who cares? Well, the German invasion was of course a huge success operationally - despite being plagued by local failures throughout. And conversely, the French enjoyed many local successes, but were defeated in record time. German success was attributed primarily to their use of radios in every tank, and concentration of forces. The same drama played out on the Eastern Front. The reality is that both the French and Russians had access to far superior tanks, and still lost in the initial bouts. You can do everything right and still get something wrong, and you can just as easily fail your way into success. Such are the mystical inner workings of large, complex groups of people doing things together.
From the admittedly limited dialogue I have witnessed in ME:A, there must have been some development drama responsible for some questionable choices in the text. This is nothing new, and neither is the PR-led developer silence in the game's opening week. What we have so much trouble doing as a community of developers, is separating the individuals from that work. Yes they created it, but not alone - and the game that results from years of work is not simply the sum of all contributions. There may well be not one single person to "blame". Yet the quality of the game does not rely on the good nature of the people involved, and the declaration that a game did not deliver in some respect does not, should not, draw a line backwards to disrespect the character of the developers who made the content.
Yet, just as there are those whinging in YouTube comments about some facial animations, some of our ilk are being quite defensive about the writing in ME:A, perhaps convinced that a dressing down of its dialogue is in turn a slight towards its writers.
Here's another example from my own life. I once flubbed a design interview by being content and complacent with a design. When asked "Well, what games are you playing?" I thought for a moment and answered "Alan Wake". Great. "What would you change?" I thought for a moment again "Nothing, I think they did the best they could with that concept". Cue game show buzzer - wrong answer. The example I received back as inspiration was "I would add trucks - some chase scenes. The player would...[etc]". That sounds arbitrary, and it was - but the idea that interviewer was trying to convey was that game developers are supposed to be trained to shred every little part of a game apart and have an idea about how to rebuild it and make it better. Even - or especially - with games they love.
Given that kind of experience, this is a moment in time which produces a lot of cognitive dissonance for me when criticizing a game, this one in particular. There are lines I can quote which are simply not good, which, handed to any writer without this context they would find a way to fix. Surely, nobody would retract their edits after hearing that it was Bioware which had produced the sentence they edited. "Oh my mistake, it was already to my liking." No, writers especially are not that kind of creature, no matter what kind of face must be put on in public. It is quite confusing to be humble and experience failure, and then to be assertive and experience reproach. Well, which is it then, game developers? We're frankly told to be vicious when working in order to create the best content, and lukewarm and pleasant when milling about in social circles where we pat one another on the back for our work.
The game industry has a criticism problem. Many other industries have such a thing, but so do we. That problem is mainly that if there is criticism, we don't take it. We deploy our interlocking shields (just picture a cool phalanx!), and mutter under our collective breath that they just don't understand. We intimate that you need not play it if you don't like it - pretending that we don't work for companies which publish games for an audience which funds our careers.
But. But...Despite my inclination to say that a company like EA, with the pomp provided by enormous advertising budgets and the acumen of a name like Bioware, shouldn't get an easy go at it...there is something to be said for those advocating a Lebowski-like chill in matters like these. While it can feel like a bit of a cop-out, we're all familiar enough with finding the golden parts of flawed games. These days, I'd much rather play something old-fashioned and independently developed like Days of Infamy over the next admittedly more polished Call of Duty. Yes the former will have more floating bodies, random crashes, and the like - but it has more spirit and comes without the whistles and shiny gadgets of the modern AAA shooter.
Perhaps then, those who are breathlessly crusading against the flaws of this game should cool it a bit. But, at the same time, maybe it's alright to call out mistakes, without conflating it with finger pointing. Let's not pretend that we don't care about how the game feels, and let's not pretend that we don't care how its creators feel when we speak about it. Both are vital to an industry that is of late constantly on the verge of becoming both a nexus for internet toxicity and one of coporate, ad-filled blandness.