The Reformed Games Critic

Game design student Emily has new sympathy...

I've always thought that by dipping my toes in what some would call 'both sides' of videogaming; that is, journalism and development, that anything I wrote about in a review or preview would immediately give the reader new insights into the game I'm talking about, while in the (indie) game development process, I could bring different ideas, critical views, to the table. I've believed this quite firmly since I took my first terrifying steps into the world of programming (C++) and graphical mathematics. In a matter of weeks I realised I wasn't blending at all with the maths or programming (the latter I would loosely describe as learning an alien language where the tiniest mistake has massive repercussions), so I completely shifted my efforts into the realms of 3D art and design.

Drawing, script and story writing are all well and good, because almost the entire population has been forced to pick up pens, pencils and brushes since infant school; there's nothing new-fangled or confusing here. Using 3DS Max for the first time, however, is completely baffling. This particular piece of software retails at around 3000 GBP, and can create, texture and animate almost everything you see in a game: characters, environments, even those good old exploding barrels.

So, understandably the first time you 'fire it up' and see a screen filled with buttons and a back catalogue of menus and sub-menus, it's slightly overwhelming. The possibilities are infinite, and I was troubled with the same headache-inducing periods of utter confusion as programming. The important advantage I found with 3D is the ability to see you're creation - from all angles - to scrutinise your mistakes up close. Even the untrained eye can see errors in models and textures; anyone can see when a bottle of coke blatantly doesn't look like a bottle of coke, or where a texture isn't seamless.

Somewhere in the midst of my struggle to create the most laughable basic objects, my mind sunk. At this point I'd been reviewing games for two years, and like many, 'laying the smack' on fury-inducing, ugly, irritating, badly-designed games. Somewhat sadistically I revelled in pointing my finger at lesser games, and explaining to all reading why they shouldn't part with their money.

Learning the first few simple steps in making a game was a humbling experience, and suddenly I realised that the people who worked on the games I'd judged, no matter how bad, had put overwhelming effort into every aspect, even if the end result left a lot to be desired. Unfortunately if the final product didn't push my buttons, I felt utterly inclined to emphasise just how awful it was. Now I'm seeing a bigger picture, if you'll excuse the pun, a 'third dimension', and I feel pretty terrible. As terrible as Final Fantasy's Zidane when he realises the lady-boy he's being trying to kill all along is his brother; when we all saw that The Boss was actually one of the good guys in MGS3.You get the idea.

Today it is not uncommon for me to get swallowed up in a lesser game that I'd horrifically slate in the past. As one example, I recently had a two-day stint constantly playing a 'typical' movie-licensed game, and if I'm going to be my brutally honest self, the voice acting is the worst I've ever heard, the environment is dull and repetitive (just like the enemies), the whole thing looks ugly and, in totally backwards fashion, rewards you for razing the city's largest buildings to a pile of rubble.

I'd then look at the environment closely, thinking, "Yeah, I'd spend a good number of hours struggling away at the PC trying to make that myself". I scrutinise the enemies and understand it's much more feasible to keep the same models and alter the colours to create something 'different', and should I come round to it, it's a tactic I'd probably employ myself. The voice acting isn't good, but hey, I can't act at all, who am I to judge?

Learning about games development seems to gradually be turning my journalistic effort on its head. Back to my original point, I thought a wider perspective would be an asset. Is it?

Well, yes, to an extent. I'm not going to make any glaring blunders about the technology behind a game (I'd include examples, but I'm not out to shame anyone other than myself), and if something doesn't look right, I'm more likely to understand why. I'm no longer a Simon Cowell, I'm not going to slander a game someone has put together when I know I couldn't reproduce it myself. Today, I'm more of a Sharon Osbourne, an: "Oh, bless her, she can't sing to save her life, but she's trying, so I'll put her through to the next round". My current 'Osbourne' attitude is probably great for developers, because I'll be trying my hardest to praise them for their efforts. But for someone spending in the region of 50 pounds on a videogame, I'll be leading them on with a sympathetic review of something that isn't actually enjoyable and doesn't hit the spots a gamer would want.

Ultimately, the purpose of a review is to explain whether an item is worth investing in. Readers may not know or care about the process of how a videogame came to be, so techniques are most likely irrelevant; it's the end product that's important. Perhaps in the future, when I've put my knowledge to work behind a game that my former self wouldn't cast aside with heavy use of expletives, I'll be able to criticise what's genuinely bad, with the insider knowledge to back it up.

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