I don’t know whether your childhood days were anything like mine, but if they were, some of your favourite memories from those formative years may well include the enthralling stories your parents used to tell you just before bedtime. One such yarns, which has never quite left me, was the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Perhaps it was the toxic combination of lies, fraud and nudity or maybe it was the fact that it took a young boy to highlight to the proverbial elephant in the room; I don’t know. In either case, two decades of books, television and movies have failed to dislodge the narrative from my mind.
For those not fortunate enough to have heard the tale, the basic premise was as follows: two charlatans, feigning themselves to be weavers, dupe a gullible Emperor into believing they’ve made him a beautiful suit of clothes. In truth the “weavers have created nothing at all, but by telling the Emperor that anyone who cannot see the outfit must be stupid and unfit for their post, they play on his insecurities. Desperate not to appear foolish, the Emperor and all his subjects convince themselves that the clothes not only exist, but are of excellent quality. At the end of the story, the Emperor parades about town in his invisible suit and it’s only when a young lad cries out that he’s not wearing anything at all, that the people realise the embarrassing truth.
And the point of this reminiscing about fairytales? Well, I believe the gaming industry finds itself in something of a similar position. Let me explain; every time an important/much-hyped new game is released and one of the major magazines or websites gives it a glowing recommendation, the same chain reaction always seems to be triggered. Firstly various other magazines/sites, who are very keen not to be seen as out of step with one of their influential rivals, all start handing out ridiculously high score, then the hardcore gamers feel compelled to buy a copy and finally everyone who plays on the game goes out of their way to tell all their peers how much they love it. That would be fine, except sometimes they don’t love it. In fact, they don’t like it at all.
I’ve done it myself. Back in the days of Digitiser I used to religiously tune into Teletext each morning over breakfast. When they said a game was amazing, I took their word as gospel; if they found something too boring or repetitive, I told all my friends I thought it was too. Often I would be making my purchases based purely on Digitiser’s judgement and, in all honesty, sometimes it was hard to know whether I actually loved a particular game out of choice or because I thought I was supposed to. Unfortunately a brief dabble on any internet forum shows this behaviour is still rife amongst gamers today and not just limited to crazy folks like myself. It’s quite a scary thought really; your very opinions are being dictated to you.
Take the Fifa and Pro Evolution games as an example. A few years back, if you liked the former you were dismissed as a casual gamer who didn’t appreciate the nuances and subtleties of Konami’s superior product. Recently it has swung back the other way, and nowadays Pro Evo lovers are the ones who don’t know what they’re talking about. Other classic examples would be Football Manager or Civilisation (or even Gran Turismo, to a lesser extent). These games are hugely immersive experiences, but only if you had the necessary patience for them. The danger is that people see the very positive marks they receive and instantly think, “I must get that”, without weighing up whether it will suit their temperament. When it comes to the crunch, meticulously planning tactics/assessing opponents strengths and weaknesses/tinkering with settings is not everybody’s cup of tea. Some people just want to play.
Of course it could be argued that these problems are inevitable with any art criticism. Reviews are always one person’s view and there are bound to be times when readers will not concur, be it a film, a piece of music or even a painting. While that is true, we must remember that gaming is structured in a rather distinct way from these other mediums. If you look at film, for instance, the genres remain quite separate from each other. If you don’t like romantic comedies, you don’t go to the cinema to watch them, no matter how many stars they get. With games there seems to be this unwritten rule that if something gets 90% (or 9/10 etc.) all the “real” gamers must buy/download it, regardless of whether they‘ve always hated this particular style of game in the past.
Maybe it’s the fact that our industry caters to a younger audience, more obsessed with image. It probably also doesn’t help that every single genre gets reviewed alongside the others in video game magazines, rather than in separate, specialist publications (i.e. Chick-Lit get reviewed in Women’s Weeklies, Sci-Fi books get reviewed in Sci-Fi mags…) In all likelihood these things aren’t going to change anytime soon; the mentality of hardcore vs. casual gamer is deeply ingrained in our psyches and the gaming press seem to relish the opportunity to be extremely dogmatic on what should be subjective matters.
So what can be done? All I would say on the matter is that, as individuals, we need to be less obsessed with blending in with the crowd (even if that’s the small, “We’ve been playing games since the 80s” crowd) and more content to like what we like and hate what we hate. It doesn’t matter if you tired of Bayonetta after 20 minutes or would rather get trampled on by an actual horse than ride about in Red Dead Redemption; that’s your opinion and you’re perfectly entitled to it. The secret is to constantly ask yourself, “Am I genuinely enjoying this experience or am I wanting to like it because some “expert” told me “proper” gamers should do?”
It may be worthwhile testing the water a bit more in the future; consider renting or demos rather than plunging straight into an expensive purchase you might quickly regret. Above all, don’t be afraid to enjoy something that all the magazines positively loathe; there are no right and wrong answers, it’s what appeals to you. Better to be the little boy who told everyone how daft that naked Emperor looked, than one of the sycophantic advisors who was too scared to think anything other than the party line.
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