What makes a game good? Is it the experience we have of it? Or does each and every game have some universal values which make it good? How does a game age?
I've been recently thinking about these issues, and it seems like I'm not the only one (an article posted recently on The Escapist tackles the whole thing from a philosophical perspective). As a reviewer, it is my duty to be objective. But at the same time, I cannot be objective, because that review of a game is mine, and not somebody elses. I have my own tastes, my own likes and dislikes.
But consider this, for a moment. If we assume that video games are a medium in the same sense that movies, books and music are mediums (and they are), but at the same time they are a completely different medium than the other three, we can start seeing why video game reviews are more on the 'objective' side of things, then the 'biased' one.
Music is a medium which you cannot really rate objectively. Think about it. I may think that Hip Hop or Techno is crap, but what arguments do I use to back that statement? I could try to point out how it's not complicated, or dumbs down the whole 'music' aspect of music. But what about commenting on, say, The Beatles? Is "Yellow Submarine" a shitty song? You may say yes, or no, but you cannot say, for example, "It's shit because it's old.". I like old music. I enjoy jazz and blues, and well as big band era music, and a lot of other people do as well. I enjoy Tchaikovsky and Chopin, and these guys were around for quite more than a century. But still, you are able to rate a certain piece as being better or worse than another piece from the same genre, or by the same artist even. Not many Iron Maiden fans will say that Factor XI is their favourite album, or that "The Angel and the Gambler" is the band's best song.
But then, take books and movies. Both mediums are very much rooted in today's culture, and have been for something like a hundred years now (books were around for much, much longer, obviously, but the general rise in literacy and availability in the XX century suggests that books became a "public" medium only in the last 100 years), haven't really evolved much since their humble beginnings (maybe thematically and technologically they did, but otherwise - not really) and are quite more easily rated as good or bad. Tastes still matter, obviously. I probably wouldn't be able to get through a chick-flick book, even if it was very good, and I can't stand drama movies - in the same ways as my mum shivers at the very mention of reading a fantasy book and "doesn't get" any movie which challenges your perception even a bit (like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", for example). But I still can say that a drama movie was good, if it's REALLY good (I remember thoroughly enjoying 'The Pianist' and 'Good Will Hunting', even though both belonged to a genre I generally despise), and not every fantasy or Sci-Fi movie I've seen was good only because it was part of a genre I like.
See, books and movies are more 'technical' than music is. Sure, you can rate the music's quality by what kind of equipment the musicians used. But if a song is good, it may be of shitty recording quality, but is still good. It's not exactly the same with books and movies, if you take into account not the 'technological' side of things (so we're not focusing on the quality of paper the book was printed on, or whether or not the camera stayed in focus throughout the whole movie), but a 'technical' side of things. For books it's going to be whether the writer does his job well or not. The plot might be enjoyable, but if his sentences are clumsy, he uses wrong words to express what he means etc, the book itself probably won't be very good. The same goes for movies - crappy acting, a bad script, or even sub-par editing can ruin an otherwise good movie. Sometimes, this creates guilty pleasures - movies that are sooo utterly bad, you suddenly start having fun and seeing them as good, in a way. What about games, though?
See, games rely on that 'technological' part very much, and always have. Better graphics, better sound, better stability are all very important for reviewers. These bits do influence the final rating, but are very easily made obsolete by technological progress. But video games are not only that. They are also music. And cutscenes (movies). And lots and lots of written text (books). And stories. And one thing that neither of the former have - interactivity, or gameplay. So how do we review games - by taking all these into account, of course. And from all these elements which would you say are most important? I would say (in descending order): gameplay, story and technological issues.
Alright, but how do you review games? Are they prone to a certain bias and dependent on your tastes? Of course they are. I don't enjoy sports game, or arcade-style dexterity games. I do enjoy cRPG's and FPS shooters, which a lot people do not like. Video games share a certain something with both movies and books, namely that they can be, quite objectively, rated as to whether or not they are any good. Simply put, in 9 cases out of 10, if you give me a game I hated, I would still be able to tell you what is good about it - and most people who loved the game would agree. And the other way around, my main concerns about a game I love would probably be shared by people who thought it wasn't very good. Objectivity is what makes sharing your views about video games different from discussing music. How do games differ from books and movies then? Well, it's the technological thing. They don't necessarily age very well.
And so we come to the main issue at hand. What makes old games good, and how can you say if an 'old' game is good? With movies or books, there is no such difficulty. 'Casablanca' is a good movie, even though it was made around 70 years ago. Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' is a terrific play, in my opinion much better than anything written in the last 100 years, even now - after 400 years. But is Pac-Man a good game by today's standards? I would argue it's not. Is Pong or Asteroids a game you'd see yourself playing today as an afternoon activity - and would you choose it over Call of Duty or Titan Quest or The Sims?
See, I am kind of an old-school person. The majority of music that I listen to has not been recorded in the last 10 years. The music that I listen to and is quite recent, is mostly folk - again, thematically set in the past. When given the choice of watching a modern romantic comedy or a movie with Marilyn Monroe, I would choose the latter. When faced with reading a book on today's life and mentality, I would gladly exchange that for a 60's or 70's fantasy book, or any of Shakespeare's plays. But video games are a different matter. Or maybe they aren't, if you think about it.
Games get old very fast. And it's not because of the technological improvements, even though it is, to an extent. Great graphics and sound do not make a great game, but the general improvements allow games to grow and become more complex and innovative. There is a lot of old video games which are still great today. The Lucas Arts adventure games come to mind. Mortal Kombat immediately reminds us of itself. Warcraft 2, Diablo, Starcraft, Tyrian, GTA, Quake, Unreal - the list goes on. All of these are great, or at least good, even today. How is it, then, that, for example Quake stays a great game, while some more recent FPS' are already pretty bland? It may be the nostalgia.
See, when you played a game as a kid, you may have liked it and now, years later, when you revisit it, you can say why you did, and the experience of the game now is close to what you have experienced back then. But if you would pick a game from the late '90's which you never played, and gave it a go, you'd probably say it's not very good and you don't get what the fuss was about back when it premiered. See, only those GREAT games can stand this test of time. Only the best of the best can now be taken to hand by a young player and be commented on as "Hey, this is good, despite it's age!". And this is pretty much true about ALL mediums. Think about it. You probably heard about the "Maltese Falcon". Have you heard about any other crime noir movie made in the same period? Probably not. You know why? Because the "Maltese Falcon" was the best, and this is why it was carried over to present times. Sure, the other, not as popular movies may be great, maybe even better than the Falcon, but you will only know about them if you actually go out of your way to see them. In the same way, some video games survive as hidden gems - while others take their place in the Hall of Fame almost instantly. Because they made an impact. And they probably did, because they were good.
So, when I review Age of Empires 2, I can safely say that from today's perspective (the perspective of a person who reviews the game as a whole and doesn't much care for the graphics - it's the gameplay that's important) the game hasn't aged well - in the same way as I can determine that another game from the same period, like Unreal Tournament, for example, has aged like fine wine and is still enjoyable. Revisiting older games is tricky stuff - you have to know when your nostalgia comes in, and when you are actually seeing what mechanisms of a game are good and work. Those best games will stay ageless, like great movies or books. But most of them will wither away, having failed to leave an impact.
Finally, the title of this short essay (but long blog post!) is taken from a site which sells older games, optimised to modern systems. You HAVE to check it out. They have a mix of some titles every gamer should own, some you will enjoy because of the nostalgia... as well as some which are there only because somebody apparently thought that they can make money on them. Anyway, it's a great trip down memory lane, and it's very cheap, too! The address is www.gog.com