Insomnia | Commentary

Sequel: The Videogame

By Alex Kierkegaard / January 12, 2008


The issue of "sequels in videogames" seems to be a highly problematic one in the world of game reviewing, and one which, moreover, I have not yet seen anyone discuss and explore in depth, and with any degree of understanding. Meanwhile, great games are regularly trashed as "rehashes" and "derivative" on both professional and amateur websites, whereas rehashes and derivative games are regularly praised as great. It's time, I think, to put an end to all this nonsense.

Underneath all the ridiculousness and the misunderstandings lies the half-conscious belief that electronic games are in all ways comparable to music, books and movies, and that it's therefore perfectly acceptable for us to review them in a similar manner. The same arguments used one day by a movie critic to dismiss a cheap Hollywood sequel as an uninspired cash-in of no artistic merit, the next day a game reviewer might use to trash the latest King of Fighters.

Oh, to what gross and unforgivable mistakes man's ignorance and stupidity can lead him! To what perversions of the simplest truths that even children know by instinct!

But how and where to begin unraveling this farcical perversion of reality? The immensity of the task is almost paralyzing.

My response, I guess, will have to come in two parts.

First, the funny part

Basketball (2007)

A review by Alex Kierkegaard

I was surprised to find that Basketball in 2007 remained pretty much what Basketball in 2006 was, and come to think it what it has always been since I first started playing the game as a little boy. I mean you've got a ball, a court, and a bunch of guys running up and down trying to stick the ball in the damn baskets. I mean sure, it's fun for a while, especially in multiplayer mode, but now that I've grown up and have money, a car, and a girlfriend, I don't quite see the point. What IS the point of Basketball anyway? Why ARE those big black dudes on TV dedicating their lives to it, and putting so much passion, so much effort in it? I don't get it. Moreover, since I pretty much gave up on Basketball sometime around 1993, and since I took up smoking, drinking and fattening up myself with junk food in the meantime, I am now seriously overweight and quite unable to chase these kids around the court. As a result, I never manage to score and the other players never pass the ball to me anymore, which means I just end up running up and down by myself, seriously out of breath. In the end, they even refuse to include me in their games, because, as they explain to me, ''you fucking suck you fucking fat-ass!"

So I've had it with Basketball -- it sucks, and the people who play it suck, and it has always sucked, and if I have some good memories of it from my younger days it's because back then I was wearing "rose-tinted lenses" or some shit. So if you play Basketball in 2007 you are wasting your time, and if Basketball is still around in 2008 and you are still playing it after reading my review then you are stupid. And by the way, this also goes for all those big black guys on TV.

ZERO STARS

Now the serious one
Electronic games are above all games, that is to say "activities or contests governed by sets of rules" (Encarta). Another way to view them is as experiences of particular scenarios, and yet another way as pieces of software designed to fulfill a specific function. Therefore Virtua Fighter 5 is not a sequel to Virtua Fighter 4 in the same sense as Pirates of the Caribbean 3 is a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean 2. This is because the essence of books, plays and movies is in the ideas they contain, and hence a rehash of old ideas should be rightfully trashed, especially if those ideas were not that clever, interesting or worthwhile to begin with. But the essence of the Virtua Fighter games is not in the ideas they contain (in fact they do not contain any ideas whatsoever) but in the experiences they provide. What is the experience the Virtua Fighter games aim to provide? It is the experience of two dudes slugging it out in three dimensions. In fact Virtua Fighter 5 and Virtua Fighter 4 should not even be regarded as different games, much in the same way as the experience of playing basketball in 2007 could not possibly have been much different to that of playing basketball in 2006. Does the number in the game's title confuse you? Ignore it. Think of Virtua Fighter 5 as "Virtua Fighter Ver. 0.2963b" if you find it helps you see its essence more clearly. Because that's all Virtua Fighter 5 is: a slightly more advanced version of the original piece of code. A piece of code which allows you to experience a particular scenario, and moreover a piece of code which we can keep almost indefinitely improving, much in the same way as the thousands upon thousands of other computer programs mankind uses every day are being constantly improved with countless updates.

With the above in mind, several things become clear:

1. A sequel to an electronic game remains, by and large, the same exact game as the original.

2. Differences between updates to a game are, by and large, of a technical nature, and can better be appreciated (or, in extreme cases, can only be appreciated) by those who have been following the evolution of the game for an extended length of time.

3. Reviewing these updates boils down to evaluating their differences.

But this approach to "sequel"-reviewing should not be merely limited to reviews of updates of a single game, but should also be extended to encompass reviews of updates of other games belonging to the same genre or sub-genre. Tekken, for example, is a game which aims to provide the same experience as that which Virtua Fighter aims to provide, namely the experience of two dudes slugging it out in three dimensions. Therefore, to the prospective player who is seeking out a game which provides this experience, the most useful (and therefore the better) reviews of Tekken updates are those which evaluate each update in light of the updates made in the same time frame to other games seeking to provide the same experience.

Indeed, it would not be too far-fetched to claim that every game which belongs to a clearly-defined genre or sub-genre is effectively a different version of the same game as all other games belonging to the same genre or sub-genre. This explanation accounts for the fact that people who don't like specific genres or sub-genres view all games that belong to those genres or sub-genres as extremely similar, and are therefore unable to distinguish their differences. What are the differences between Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, The King of Fighters XI, Samurai Spirits: Tenkaichi Kenkakuden, Vampire: The Night Warriors, Guilty Gear XX Accent Core, Melty Blood: Act Cadenza, Hokuto no Ken and Arcana Heart? Apart from obvious stuff like the graphics, no one who doesn't play 2D fighters on a regular basis can tell you. What are the differences between all those soccer games that line up the shelves of every game store in Europe? I've no idea. Far as I am concerned they are all one and the same game in different packages. What about all those bemani games I see in Japan's arcades? Apart from the obvious differences (guitars, drums, etc.) they all look the same to me. FPSes? A dude with a gun running down a corridor. RTS games? Little boys playing with toy soldiers. Racing games? Little boys playing with cars (or motorcycles, hovercars, etc. -- same difference to someone who doesn't give a fuck about racing in a virtual environment).

So don't fool yourselves thinking that the latest FPS is anything more than "FPS Ver. 1.96470760d" (or else "Wolfenstein 3D Ver. 1.96470760d", to put it another way). And this goes pretty much for every electronic game ever made, if you want to get right down to it, with only a handful of notable exceptions.

But it is in the nature of mankind and that of electronic gaming that these exceptions are not destined to remain exceptions for long. Hence an original new game will quickly spawn numerous slightly different versions, even if its designer OD's on cocaine or gets smashed in a car crash or some shit, because other men will come around wanting to improve it. Now, in sharp contrast to the best novels, plays and movies -- that is to say, in sharp contrast to art -- games can almost always be improved. But why exactly is that? To answer that question a little parenthesis is in order.

An imperfect hobby
It is a fact of nature that human beings enjoy playing games. Whether you think that this or that particular game sucks, the fact remains that there are people in this world who enjoy Basketball, Baseball, Soccer, Rugby, Tennis -- and Scrabble and Monopoly and Chess and Trivial Pursuit. Millions upon millions of people from around the world have played these games since the day they were invented, and will keep playing them until the end of time or mankind, whichever comes first. Indeed, there are thousands of people playing even Badminton and Cricket right this moment, and loving every minute they spend playing these stupid, boring, shitty games, and there is nothing you nor I nor anyone else can do to stop them.

And so people enjoy playing Virtua Fighter. Thousands of people play Virtua Fighter every day, whether in their homes or in their friends' homes or in tournaments or in Japan's arcades. And so Virtua Fighter is a game, much like Basketball, Baseball, Soccer, Rugby and Tennis, the only difference being that the latter are real-world games, with long traditions and rules worked out and perfected over centuries, and with graphics and sound and control that cannot possibly be improved, whereas Virtua Fighter is an electronic game, a piece of imperfect code running on a piece of imperfect hardware, both of which can be improved.

And so we improve them! Year after year teams of specialists sit down and work their asses off, half of them messing with the code, the other half with the hardware, so that the end result, the experience -- that is to say, the game -- can be improved. To become faster, tighter, more responsive. More complex -- and therefore more interesting. Better looking and better sounding.

And when they are done with each revision they take it to the arcades, rip out out the previous version and throw it in the trash, and stick the new one in. And the people who play the game, who have loved it and devoted so much of their time to it since the beginning, come back the next morning and see the new version and rejoice and plunge right into it, eager to find out in what ways their favorite game has been improved. The designers, meanwhile, take a short break to recharge their batteries, returning later to gather feedback from the players, who by that time have figured out all the improvements and formed opinions on their relative merits, and the process begins anew.

(This process, by the way, is essentially the same in the retail market as in the arcades, the only difference being the business model which publishers employ in order to recoup their investment and turn a profit.)

So where does the reviewer come in all of this? Where does the game review figure in this process? What exactly is its role, the function it is supposed to fulfill in all of this? It is clear that its objective is not exactly the same as that of the book or play or movie review, though it is analogous. The purpose of the book or play or movie review is to place the ideas that are presented in each work, and the manner in which they are presented, in their appropriate context and critically evaluate them, thus helping the reader/viewer appreciate their significance. But since games do not contain ideas but rules, the purpose of the game review is to examine those rules, as well as their implementation, placing them in the appropriate context and critically evaluating them, thus blah blah blah.

And so we come to the reviewer
We've already seen that only a handful of electronic games really exist: the RTS, the FPS, the 2D and 3D fighting games, the turn-based strategy game, etc. etc. Each of these games appeared at some point in the history of gaming, and have since been constantly improved with countless minor or major updates, remakes and revisions. Most of these updates have merely made steps forward, back or to the side, yet a few of them ended up introducing drastic rule changes, distinguishing themselves enough to create a different feeling, a different flavor and experience -- and therefore a different game. This is usually how sub-genres or altogether new genres are created, which is to say new games.

Now this process is really not that different from that of the creation of real-world games. Most ball games were invented by modifying an already existing ball game, for example, and the same goes for board games, card games, etc. etc. However, in real-world games, as we have seen, there is not such a great need for constant updates, since aspects like graphics, sound, interface and controls are fixed by nature and therefore unchangeable by man (until he becomes powerful enough to start messing with nature, that is -- think sports in artificial gravity environments, etc.) This is why no one really reviews real-world games. I mean what would be the point of reviewing French Billiards? "French Billiards is a detestable rehash, an uninspired, derivative variation of English Billiards, only with much harder gameplay. I mean you're supposed to score points by shooting your ball so that it hits both other balls in a single shot! I mean who the fuck can do that? I tried three times and failed. Only hardcore French-Billiards-hell players can do this sort of thing, and who gives a fuck about those geeks anyway? To add insult to injury, French Billiards has pretty much the same cheap graphics and sound as English Billiards, which is simply due to laziness on the part of the developers. Final Verdict: I hated it. 3/10" So yeah, joking aside, there's not much point to reviewing real-world games. Just give them a go, and keep playing them if you end up enjoying them. That's all there is to say about them. You could analyze how they work and trace how they were derived from previously existing games if you were so inclined, but then you'd be getting into Wikipedia territory, and who really gives a fuck about that sort of thing? Not I, that's for sure.

However, even though real-world games do not need constant updating, it is very important to understand that they do in fact occasionally receive such updates, both major and minor. This is a fact few people realize, because most real-world games that people play today are centuries-old, and have therefore already been refined to a disgustingly high degree. Having said that, the NBA rule changes for the 2007-08 season take up a whole page. As an example, here's the first one:

Rule 2 IV
e. If two officials differ on a block/charge foul involving the restricted area and/or lower defensive box, they will conference and share information in an attempt to make the correct call. If no resolution is reached it will be treated as a double foul (See rule 12B VI -f)

Sounds like Greek to you? It should, if you don't play basketball! And that's exactly one of the points I am trying to drive home with this whole essay, this point being that only people who actually play the game can tell the differences between its various updates, and therefore only they are qualified to evaluate them.

"Fair enough," some random gamer dude might say, "but here you are talking about tiny changes, which obviously will only be picked up by the experts. What about major changes, which even random people like me can distinguish?"

Yes, indeed. What about such cases? An example is in order, again from the real world (in order to help us gain perspective), but this time it must of its nature be an imaginary one.

Imagine for a second that the NBA suddenly decided to make some very important changes to the rules of basketball. We are talking drastic changes here, like doubling the size of the court or the number of players or the playing time, etc. etc. And imagine that a magazine wanted to run an article on this "new basketball", which would discuss the changes made, their relative merits, and the effect these have on the flow of the game. In other words, imagine that the magazine wanted to review this "new basketball" game. What kind of person would they employ for this job? Some random dude off the street who had hardly ever played the original basketball, or an expert with decades of high-level experience?

Case closed. This is what a game reviewer should be (both of real-world and electronic games) -- a fucking expert -- and all the rest is horseshit.

Interchangeable reviews
Another important issue pertaining to videogame "sequels" and the way they should be reviewed is how long-running series should be treated.

Basically, games belonging to a long-running series should ideally be reviewed by people familiar with most, if not all, of the different installments. Because otherwise what you get is what I like to call "interchangeable reviews". Take for example the Fire Emblem series, which at this point is composed of ten installments. Now these ten installments are not really brand-new games, but merely incremental updates, adding a feature here or there, improving the graphics and sound or whathaveyou, et cetera. In the case of the three GBA installments you can't even call them 'updates', because they have no noticeable graphical or sound differences between them, and the rule changes are so tiny and inconsequential that at this point I couldn't even tell you what they are without looking them up, even though I played and finished all three games back when they first came out.

Therefore, what the various Fire Emblem installments effectively are, is little more than additional scenarios to the original game. So what happens then is that the random reviewer approaches whatever installment the boss happens to throw on his desk as a brand-new game, in many cases not even aware that what he is playing is merely a new scenario for an old game. He then launches into detailed explanations of how you move the characters around the screen, which button does what, and then complains about the standard issues (no special moves, characters can actually die, etc. etc.), then slaps a number at the bottom, and that's his review. Most of his comments then end up being comments which could be copy-pasted into the reviews of any other Fire Emblem installment, which is effectively what ends up happening once the next installment is released, and a brand-new random guy is tasked with reviewing it. And of course the same exact thing happens with the Advance Wars series, the Street Fighter games, KOF, Madden, and countless other series.

Now, to avoid all this humbuggery, what you have to do is review at length the FIRST game, and then reviews of the "sequels" should just be briefly discussing and evaluating changes. But to be able to do this you must have followed the series from the beginning, which of course brings us right back to -- who else? -- the expert.

The added advantage of this approach then (apart from the fact that it spares the reader the ordeal of being forced to read page after page of the same copy-pasted dimwitted observations for every single Fire Emblem game ever made, in order to get to the two-three lines which talk about, and hopefully evaluate, the actual changes), is that the review of the expert ends up being -- surprise surprise -- much more valuable. Consider for example all the hundreds of Advance Wars reviews published in Western countries in 2001. Since that was the first Wars game all those people had played, all their reviews read pretty much the same. Now imagine how much more interesting, insightful, and therefore valuable, would be a review written by someone who had played all the previous Wars games (Famicom Wars, Game Boy Wars, Game Boy Wars Turbo, Super Famicom Wars, Game Boy Wars 2 and Game Boy Wars 3). Wouldn't it be nice if he explained the differences and discussed whether the GBA game is a step forwards or back, etc. etc.? Who knows, perhaps some of the older Wars games were much, much better, and therefore readers could be advised to avoid the latest installment and go for one of the previous ones. The random reviewer wouldn't know all this -- only the expert would. Wouldn't his review then have more value?

Now there is one exception here. Naturally, if someone has been following a long-running series from the beginning, chances are he is a big fan, which means his reviews of the different installments will most probably adopt a single, and rather favorably-skewed viewpoint. So a newcomer to the series could provide a fresh viewpoint, perhaps a negative one, but not necessarily -- in any case he might be able to bring some interesting new arguments to the table. However, as compelling as this argument against the use of experts for reviewing games might initially sound, it is in the end highly flawed. Just consider that all those random people who reviewed Advance Wars in Western countries in 2001 ended up making the same banal observations (trust me: I must have read almost every single one of those reviews -- it's called research).

In the end, this is an editorial issue. It is down to the editor of each publication to ensure that those tasked with reviewing games are not only experts, but also smart, insightful, open-minded experts, people who have sampled countless similar (and not-so-similar) games belonging to their genre(s) of expertise, and who will therefore not automatically love every new installment of every series which they have been following from the beginning. This, in the end, together with each reviewer's level of expertise, is what determines the quality of his work, and ultimately the quality of the publication he is attached to. Bottom line is that a professional publication devoted to reviewing electronic games should employ experts exclusively -- and if readers want the opinions of random people they can always ask their friends, or just go on some crummy online message board or some shit.

Ratings nonsense and the ensuing tragicomedy
I began this essay with the following paragraph:

The issue of "sequels in videogames" seems to be a highly problematic one in the world of game reviewing, and one which, moreover, I have not yet seen anyone discuss and explore in depth, and with any degree of understanding. Meanwhile, great games are regularly trashed as "rehashes" and "derivative" on both professional and amateur websites, whereas rehashes and derivative games are regularly praised as great. It's time, I think, to put an end to all this nonsense.

... and it is now time to finally explain what I meant by it.

As we have seen, the vast majority of videogame sequels are not really brand-new games, but merely incremental updates to the original game. Therefore, it is just as stupid to say that basketball in 2007 is a bad game whereas basketball in 1994 was a good game, as it is to say that The King of Fighters XI is a bad game whereas The King of Fighters '94 was a good game. This is because in each of these two cases we are practically talking about a single game. Therefore, the vast majority of videogame sequels should automatically inherit the rating of the previous installment, which should then be adjusted accordingly depending on whether the changes introduced improve or worsen the experience. Street Fighter II, for example, was an awesomely excellent game, a five-star, triple-A masterpiece of epic proportions, therefore Street Fighter II': Champion Edition starts out with the same rating, and only loses one or maybe two stars if it seriously fucks up. The same goes for Street Fighter II': Hyper Fighting, Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Hyper Street Fighter II: The Anniversary Edition, and even the forthcoming Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. To go even further, all these updates do not even deserve brand-new reviews, but rather one-minute reviews, as I have already explained elsewhere. If a publication really wants to review one of these updates at length, the only tenable approach is to have an expert player list the changes, and simply evaluate their effect in great detail. In view of the above, trashing the latest Guilty Gear just because it is still Guilty Gear is a sure sign that the reviewer is dumb as a rock, and that you are wasting your time reading his nonsense. And this goes for trashing the latest Fire Emblem for still being Fire Emblem, et cetera, et cetera.

This takes care of the first part of the opening paragraph, the great games are regularly trashed as "rehashes" and "derivative" part. Now for the second part.

The question here is, "Why are so many derivative games and rehashes praised as great in the mainstream press on a regular basis?" Take for example, Resistance: Fall of Man. Here are the scores this game received from some of the world's major videogame publications:

GameSpot - 8.6/10

NexGen Wars - 9.2/10

PSM3 - 89%

Game Informer - 9.5/10

IGN - 9.1/10

Eurogamer - 7/10

Official PlayStation Magazine (UK) - 7/10

Official PlayStation Magazine (Australia) - 10/10

GamesMaster (magazine) - 85%

X-Play - 5/5

Electronic Gaming Monthly - 8.5/10

I must have been the only reviewer in the world who came out at the time and said that the game was uninspired, extremely derivative, and more or less lacked any merit whatsoever. I ended up giving it 3/5 because it was not obviously broken in any way, and because, despite its mediocrity, it still delivered the bog-standard level of fun that one can expect from a random FPS these days.

So why was this completely unremarkable rehash praised as a masterpiece by everyone else?

Two reasons: 1. Because, unlike me, they were not experts -- i.e. because they had not played every FPS under the sun as I have, and therefore did not realize that this shit had been done two dozen times before, and much better; and 2. Because they get paid to lie to their readers, which is an issue I will leave for another day.

One last thing remains to be explained, before I sign off. Any intelligent person would by now be asking themselves why I am condemning Resistance: Fall of Man as a rehash, whereas I praise The King of Fighters XI as an excellent update. Am I not being a little biased? -- you wouldn't be blamed for wondering.

The answer to this question is a bit delicate, a bit subtle. I'll give it to you straight and let you make what you will of it, though my guess is it will go over most people's heads, and I simply do not feel like explaining it in-depth at the present time, since I've been sitting in this chair now for nearly half a fucking day.

Both The King of Fighters XI and Resistance: Fall of Man are games, in exactly the same way that basketball is a game. However, The King of Fighters XI is closer to basketball than Resistance: Fall of Man, in two important ways. It is essentially an issue of depth and evolution. The things that can be done to improve 2D fighting games are rather limited, seeing as the whole point of them is having two sprites slapping each other in two dimensions. You can't evolve them by adding maracas-shaking mini-games or Squeenix cutscenes, or any other random shit. The only way to evolve them is by messing about with their mechanics, which is what designers have been doing for decades, hence the high level of sophistication found in such games. They are, therefore, nearly as evolved and finely-tuned as real-world games, and hence as infinitely replayable and enjoyable. I mean, you won't see anyone play through Resistance: Fall of Man more than a couple of times (well, apart from lamefaqs posters that is, and they do not really count as people), whereas real people have been playing games like 3rd Strike and Battle Garegga for years and years, if not for decades. So the point is that 2D fighting games are freaking awesome because people have been perfecting them for decades (consider that these games have reached such a level of depth and perfection, that those who play them do not even care about the quality of the graphics anymore!), whereas half the FPSes on the market right now stink because their designers are lazy and incompetent, not even daring to dip their foot into the vast ocean of possibilities that are out there waiting to be explored by the kinds of games they are making.

So the Resistance: Fall of Man 3/5 score is not due to me being biased in favor of "old-school, hardcore" games or some retarded shit like that -- it's due to the nature of reviewing, which is necessarily comparative.

Oh, and one more thing
I forgot about the artfags in the audience. I am sure that by now they will have hit the roof so many times, that they are either dead (in which case good riddance!) or have broken through the roof and are languishing in jail. But anyway, I will respond to their concerns regarding the coming videogames, those distant mirages that will deliver unto us entire universes of moral choices and dilemmas, experiences equal in scope and magnitude and emotional impact to the stories of the best novels, plays and movies the world has yet seen.

So what about all those games?

Well...

Well!

Don't worry -- we'll talk about them when they get here.