At some unknown time in the distant past, the foundation was laid for critical convergence in movies. By the time I got my first dose of big screen escapism, the insubstantial idea of the ‘ideal’ film was well entrenched enough to be walking away with very substantial Oscars each time. Just chew on this for a moment: what would the critically perfect film look like? It would have very few characters for starters- offering plenty of scope for ‘character development’. There would be lots of conversation and minimal action. There would almost certainly be a traumatic experience of some sort underlying the protagonist’s role. It would have a narrative pace that would tick over slower than a blue whale’s heart, and it would almost certainly have been made on a shoestring budget. Humour would be rare, absent or accidental; any speculative or fantastical elements would just be absent. This movie would hit critical convergence with ease.
Would I watch such a film? I could describe several improbable circumstances which conceivably might force me to, but the short answer is no. In fact my ideal movie would pick the opposite of most of the ‘design’ choices made in the earlier description. But that’s not what I want to discuss here, because films today have achieved critical convergence to the extent that almost no prominent genre-limited critics exist today. Instead I want to talk about the same phenomenon, still only in the nascent stage but moving fast enough to make me fret, in the field of computer games.
Everyone knows Role Playing Games are the in thing today. It’s likely that even your average non-gamer has seen an online ad for at least one MMORPG flashing promiscuously in the sidebar, and in a completely unrelated website. But a lesser known fact is that critics love RPGs too. Like before, let me start off with a question: what would the critically perfect computer game look like? It would be an RPG yes, and possibly an action RPG, but not necessarily. Its gameplay would be non linear and it would have more side missions than anyone could care to count. It would have an absurdly complicated plot, and some sort of a dialogue based mechanism to manipulate it. Everything in the game world would be ‘explorable’. There would probably be an immense amount of character customization available.
Again, would I play such a game? Probably yes. In any case, the answer’s not an immediate no, because my design choices match the critically perfect ones in a couple of cases. No game is made worse by increasing the explorability of the in-game world, for instance. What’s worrying, however, is that no one seems to like the old fashioned game with the set-in-stone one path storyline anymore. For me, a significant portion of the ‘kick’ associated with gaming comes from simply progressing through a game. Non-linear gameplay often clouds the sensation of progress, leaving me dissatisfied even after hours and hours of play. Also, I do enjoy a bit of character customization, but why does every game need to have truckloads of it? I would love to play an action RPG that has awesomely depicted environments, but little or no character customization (weapon upgrades, skill upgrades, level upgrades, you get what I’m talking about). And then there are the dialogues – I wonder if I’ll ever get used to them? Right now I hate them like the Nazis. I really don’t care about altering the plot a tetchy bit by spending half my time watching my characters talk to each other.
Computer game criticism hasn’t hit critical convergence yet, but history suggests that it’s only a matter of time before it does. Is there anything at all that can offer, if not a cure, an alternative to this process? The answer’s an easy one: genre-limited reviews. Music today has become so diverse that the process of criticism is almost exclusively genre-limited. Although it makes it harder for you to find the right reviewer (rather than the right review), it works. I know that the review of a metal band on a metal review site will be fair, because there’s no prejudice against an entire genre there. It isn’t like people automatically judge metal music out of 7 because the popular opinion is that it’s not nice to listen to. I just hope that a genre based criticism culture grows quickly in the computer gaming scene. If it doesn’t, and it goes the way of cinema, I’ll be left with only one alternative. Pick the genre, and choose randomly from all that fit.