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The Broken Age of games criticism
by Tom Battey on 01/16/14 01:24:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Broken Age, formerly Double Fine Adventure, is for many the definitive Kickstarter game. It is for me, certainly; it's announcement in March 2012 was the first time I paid attention to Kickstarter as a viable platform for launching games. It was the first time I got excited about a game that only existed as a concept, a promise. It's the first time I dumped $60 into a game I wouldn't get to play for more than a year, for rewards that promised to be awesome but were just that at time; promises.

Broken Age Tim Schafer
Tim Schafer first introduced us to the idea that would become Broken Age as only the vaguest concept.

And now, finally, the first act of Broken Age is sitting on my computer, my early investment allowing me access a couple of weeks before the official January 28 release date. If you backed the game, you're probably playing it right now. If you didn't, you're probably sick of people talking about it already. It's okay. There's only a few weeks to wait. You'll make it.

At the time of writing I've only had time to play about an hour of the game. There are plenty of reviews out already that attest to its overall quality, and it's widely accepted that Double Fine have delivered on their original promise. Broken Age is good. But what struck me as I started the game was that this was a gaming experience I'd never had before, something unique to the relatively new crowdfunding scene.

This is the first commercial game that I feel I've been involved with. The first game where I feel like I have an actual investment in its success.

I should be clear; I've not actually been involved in the development of the game at all. I've not been active on the backer forums, I've not partaken in voting on any of the features of the game - that was never really why I backed the project.

The real reason that I backed the project - other than wanting to play another Double Fine adventure game, of course - was to witness the development process. I wanted to see inside Double Fine, to get an idea of how a studio I have a ton of respect for goes about building a project like this.

Broken Age Team
The documentary introduces the passionate and dedicated team behind the game.

And I got that, thanks to the stellar documentary produced by 2 Player Productions. Currently 13 episodes and who-knows-how-many hours long, it's a polished piece of work that's more than justified the money I spent backing the game in its own right. I hope that when its complete the documentary will be made available for non-backers as well, as it's by far the most intimate work on actual videogame development I've seen, and should be viewed by anyone who's ever wondered how these videogame things we play actually get made.

Thanks to the documentary, I've been able to watch Broken Age develop from scribblings on Tim Schafer's notepad to the finished (well, half-finished beta, anyway) article sitting in my Steam library. I've watched the characters develop from rough sketches to concept paintings to animated models. I've watched scenes blossom from a series of post-it-notes to interactive environments. I've watched Tim go through several different facial hair configurations and one juice diet.

I feel like I've gotten to know the people working on the project, even though I've never met any of them. I've watched them come up with ideas together, watched them get excited about new ideas, watched them get psyched when things were going well, watched them get tense when time or money got tight.

Broken Age design
It's a strange experience to explore environments I've watched being built.

And this means I enter the game itself with an unusual amount of empathy. I'm not playing a game that I've just seen an announcement trailer and some press coverage for; I'm playing a game that I've watched come to life over a year and half. When I'm walking around an environment and interacting with the scenery, I'm aware of the decisions behind the placement of that scenery, why the basket sits here and the beam of light goes there.

For the first time I can look at the elements of a game and put actual human faces to them. I know who designed them, what the thought process was behind them, what decisions were taken with them and why.

I'm aware that the experience I'm having with the game is totally different to that of someone who simply purchases Broken Age at the end of January without this intimate insight into its development. It's a point of view completely unique to the crowdfunding model of development.

And it makes it very hard to be critical of the game. I want to love the game because I've seen how much effort the developers have put into it, I've watched individual people agonise over certain decisions, and I can empathise with having to make those decisions, so I want those decisions to have been the right ones.

Now I'm not a game critic, so I'm allowed to love Broken Age for whatever reason I damn well please. I can enjoy it for pure sentimentality, its objective quality be damned, because that is, in a way, what I paid for.

But I know there are game critics who are also backers of the game, and this must make their jobs quite difficult. I wonder how many of the reviewers behind the current crop of reviews are also backers, and have followed the project as closely as I have these last few months. I wonder if this has impacted their reviews of the game at all.

Broken Age Screen
Few could argue the finished game looks anything other than lovely.

I know I'd find it much harder to try and objectively review Broken Age after the proximity I've had to it's development - even if that proximity is only simulated by the internet. It's like when a friend asks me to read something they've written - it's hard to be objective about a work coming from someone I know and like. I'm automatically biased towards it, because they're my friends, I know how hard they've worked on it, and I want them to be successful.

That's how I feel about Broken Age. I want the game to succeed because I've watched people I've come to like and respect sweat blood over it. If I was charged with writing a review of the game, I'd struggle; I'd be too aware of my inherent bias.

This would be more of a problem if Broken Age hadn't delivered on its promise. By all accounts, and certainly my own limited time with it, the game is a success. We can all breathe easy and enjoy the game, whether that's for its objective quality or down to our own sentimentalities.

But it raises some interesting questions about games criticism in the age of Kickstarter. We're going to start seeing more and more of these high-profile crowdfunded projects bearing fruit this year, projects that people have had both financial and emotional investment in for months before they can actually play them. In some cases, these will also be the people who get to voice a critical opinion on these games once they're released.

How much proximity to a project is too much - when does investment in a project run the risk of muddying a critical opinion? Should backers be prohibited from writing official reviews of games they have helped fund? Or, conversely, are we to take this new level of investment in a game as part of the product, and should the reviews reflect this?

Luckily for me I stopped pretending to be a videogame critic years ago, so I don't have to answer these questions. I get to go and play Broken Age and be as biased about it as I like. To the game critic community; you guys have fun working this out. I'm out - there are dialogue trees just waiting to be navigated.

Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at tombattey.com and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.


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Comments


TC Weidner
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I dont know, Im exactly the opposite. Im much more harsh. Just cause I saw how the sausage was made, doesnt mean Im not gonna tell you if it taste funny. Maybe its because Im from Philly, we tend to be very critical of those things we love. Go to any sports games, we boo our team more than the other team.

If you suck, we'll let you know, even if we like you.

Tom Battey
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That's one way to look at it. I know of backers on certain projects who get super-critical of the projects they've helped fund - mainly if the developers adds or changes something they don't approve of - so perhaps this mindset will sort of 'balance out' those like me who are inclined to be favourable towards things like this.

Ricky Bankemper
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@Tom Battey

Hopefully not, lol. I believe the industry needs a different mentality when it comes to criticizing a Video Game. It is what currently holds me back from pursuing the childhood dream of developing them. In most cases, you are putting part of yourself out there to the world and that is a scary thing.

It is my hope that gamers give a kinder eye when evaluating them. A game may not be for you, but that doesn't mean it is a bad game. Basically... the internet needs to be nicer lol.

Tom Battey
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Well I entirely agree that people on the internet should be nicer in general - but I think when it comes to criticism, there needs to be a level of objectivity. One purpose of the review process is to inform people who may never have heard of the game in question, which might become difficult if the reviewer has been intimate with the design of the game.

Still, I feel you on the 'putting part of yourself out there' front. Personally I prescribe to the 'this game didn't work for me because...' school of reviewing rather than the 'this game sucks, let's tweet abuse' one.

Daniel Cook
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The part that I'm fascinated by is how many (though not all) games are very much an activity the player participates in and thereby generates much of the resulting experience. These games are like soccer, tag or charades. They are based on systems like economics or politics or physical skill.

When I look at historical examples of media criticism that we reference as the roots of 'game criticism', it deals rather poorly with these types of activities. If such institutional entities like a media studies program had almost nothing actionable to say about soccer for the past 151 years, why would we imagine that an ideologically similar approach has anything worthwhile to say now?

When you see a game like Broken Age interpreted by fans through Kickstarter as ultimately an *active human process*, it should raise doubts that media-centric game criticism is valid and useful as a primary critical perspective. You've got a game that is on the surface is a very media-based title. It should be perfect to rip apart as a 'text' and gyrate verbally on its bones. You could deep read the shit out of it. Yet, if you ignore the systemic process of devs and players building the game in a feedback loop, you miss most of the point of both why it exists, how it was designed and what its broader meaning is within culture.

You know what I'd like to read? An economic critique of Broken Age. A multiplayer/community critique of Broken Age. An anthropological critique of Broken Age. Even a historical critique would be useful. Heaven forbid, imagine writers slip in a dash of systems design or science. Because it is there...at the foundation of the entire phenomena. And you don't have to look very hard.

(As for reviews: Reviewing games of any meaningful community complexity as media is like reviewing religions for conversion. "I give Catholicism a 4 out of 10. The first few releases had some issues with the Romans and then later the Crusades DLC. But there's a new Pope update coming soon and the exclusive preview really made me feel spiritual. I had a really good session the last Sunday, but match making on Monday seemed broken. I wouldn't convert right now, but maybe if there is a sale or after the next encyclical patch, it could be worth your time.")

All the best,
Danc.

Tom Battey
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It's an interesting point - our experience of game, and thus our ability to critique it, is usually limited to the game itself, and it's pre-launch marketing material. The marketing material can influence how we experience a game - we'll judge things as 'overhyped' if they don't live up to the expectations of their pre-launch hype.

But with crowdfunding, there's now so much more that can be incorporated into our experience of the game. Perhaps we influenced actual features in the game by interacting on forums or participating in polls. Perhaps we followed the debs on twitter, kept ourselves abreast of every twist and turn of development.

Regardless, this will affect how we experience the finished game. I'm very aware that the experience I'm having playing Broken Age now will be very different from that of someone who picks it up on official launch next week. We've never had such a broad scope of possible different ways to experience a game, and it raises interesting points about how we go about critiquing games, and experiences in general.


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