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Yes, Games Critics Understand Innovation

There are two things you need to know up front. First, this column is mainly in rebuttal to Keith Stuart’s thought provoking blog post over at The Guardian. Second, I haven’t played Mirror’s Edge yet as I’ve been too busy with other games and taking a week off.

For those of you who don’t like getting two self-gratifying columns for the price of one and who don’t want to read through Keith’s take on the critical reception to Mirror’s Edge, I’ll summarise it here. Titled ‘Do Game Reviewers Really Understand Innovation’ Keith’s column looks at the reception to Mirror’s Edge and asks if it isn’t perhaps mired in the small inconsequentialities.

Many reviewers have criticised the combat, the repetition, a smattering of trial-and-error moments. There has been a general compulsion to counter the sequences of innovative genius with niggling doubts about core mechanics,” wrote Keith, who believes it highlights an ongoing issue in games journalism.

Are games critics getting stuck in what he dubs the ‘better sequel’ mentality, forever looking at small and irrelevant flaws and not appreciating the larger picture? Keith points to the IGN review, which criticises the combat and controls in what is actually supposed to be a pacifist and streamlined game, as proof.

And for the most part, I agree – many games reviewers are heading down that way, convincing themselves both that the perfect game is an attainable reality (it isn’t) and that the games which come close (The Orange Box, Fallout 3) are fundamentally flawed.

Where I disagree with Keith though is with a few of the specific comparisons he draws between games and film journalism. If Mirror’s Edge was a film, argues Keith, it would be called visionary for the way it shirks the conventions of the genre and tries something new. Nobody would mind the shaky camera and so forth, because the product as a whole is trying something new and doing it well for the most part.

For me, this raises a couple of important issues and I’m going to go out on a limb and say first that the comparison is flawed because films are intrinsically more shallow than games. There are some truly deep and re-watchable movies for sure, but for audience involvement and commitment it’s hard to beat a good computer game.

Games make you interact with them and feel their brutal form of empathy through force feedback and a total lack of limitations. More importantly though, they are longer and require more commitment and love from the viewer.

I didn’t much care for Indiana Jones IV, for example, but I still watched the whole movie because it cost me less than a tenner and only took about 90 minutes of zero effort. That doesn’t happen with games because my brain does the same internal math and realises that even if my level of dislike is the same, it isn’t worth the effort.

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Joe Martin

I only have to hate Indy 4 for 90 minutes but I have to hate Twilight Princess for closer to 90 hours – and it’ll require a lot more from me in terms of monetary investment, dedication and ability.

To boil it all down; the lack of action in the fictional Mirror’s Edge movie might only annoy me for a maximum of two hours. In the game though it might annoy me for a good dozen or so hours, so it might be worth saying.

Shaky comparisons and differing opinions on the artistic merit of games aside though, Keith and I definitely agree on the fact that innovation isn’t prized enough in our industry.

There’s an argument too to say that it’s the role of the critic to explain the flaws of the game (even the tiny ones) so that the reader can make an informed decision, but in this instance I don’t hold much truck in that. If that were the case then the critic should be telling the reader that the game is about running away from fights, not that there aren’t enough fights in it.

I’m both lucky and biased though because I think bit-tech is a site which does this well, recognising and rewarding innovation whenever we see it and always giving honest and informed reviews. That’s why we were able to give Episode 2 a ten out of ten and an excellence award, but also weren’t afraid to tread the unpopular path and say that Gears of War 2 was little above a seven. It’s why we’ve only ever given three games a ten-out-of-ten score since I’ve been here, though many have edged that line and retrospect perhaps disfavours some others. This isn't a science afterall.

Do games critics need to understand how important innovation is? Obviously, yes. More important than that though is the ability to recognise when something really is innovative (and Mirror's Edge owes a lot to the chase sequence from Call of Cthulhu from what I've heard) and the wisdom to recognise that just because something is innovative doesn't mean it's perfect.

Simply; innovation isn't worth anything if you can't get the basics right - though that doesn't mean any developers should stop trying!

Oh, and we gave Mirror's Edge a nine and a recommended award by the way.

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