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[Former Edge EIC, acclaimed GDC speaker and current development director of social game/'playful experience' creator Hide&Seek Margaret Robertson begins a new column for Gamasutra in which she picks five minutes of play within a game -- here the meat of Geometry Wars 2's Deadline mode -- and finds out precisely what makes it tick.]
Here's something that someone in our industry, somewhere, says every day: "journalists ought to finish the game they review". It was Vince Zampella most recently, at QuakeCon, airing his very reasonable frustration at poorly-informed reviews, if perhaps not his ability to run on-the-spot mental arithmetic of what a 50 hour workload does to the average freelance review rate.
Here's something that no one in our industry ever says, anywhere: "I get all the time I need to finish all the games I want."
Literally everyone I know in gaming has a stack of boxes next to the TV -- probably a couple still in their cellophane -- taunting them for their lack of spare time.
Everyone I know goes through the five-stage cycle of game acquisition (anticipation, excitement, frustration, denial, guilt) as the release date finally arrives, the first thrilling afternoon is invested, the next dozen evenings fly by in a flurry of family and work commitments, and the perky pretense that you'll go back to it one day is gradually replaced by a glumly solid certainty that you won't.
And, as the game industry gets bigger and faster, more varied and more interesting, the cycle accelerates. I caught myself trying to form a coherent opinion on The Incident the other day, after around 38 seconds of play. I stopped myself and perkily promised that I'll go back to it, but... Well, you know how that one ends already.
But for all of us, whether we're being paid to or not, the pressure that we put ourselves under when we talk about games is immense. We take these mammoth, complex, changeable creatures and expect to be able to offer a definitive assessment. Is it any good? we ask our reviewers, our friends, ourselves. Is it better than the original? Is it worth $60? Did the publisher rush it out?
Damned if I know. Games are huge. Even little games are huge. There is great skill and valuable purpose in condensing a critical assessment into a thousand words, but it's an inherently artificial and incomplete way of exploring what that game consists of.
Now that I spend my days designing, rather than analyzing, I'm more and more aware of the millions of tiny decisions that make up each game, of the barely detectable intricacies which produce the general impression.
Because of that, I wanted this new series of columns to be about the finest, most granular detail of games. I didn't want to add to the slew of writing that tries to form overall value judgments. And -- much as I love it -- I also didn't want to add to the rapidly evolving tradition of experiential game-writing.
I wanted to dig as deep as I could as efficiently as I could, not in the effort to produce a summation of the game, but to air things within it that were interesting. So not, "is it good", but "what's in it that's good?" Or bad, of course. Or massively dumb or brilliantly silly. I want to see detail that you'd never see looking at the whole, and get time to talk about the things that normally get dismissed in a caption or an aside.
So, welcome to "Five minutes with..." The idea is to take five different minutes of a different game each time, and suck them dry.
Sometimes it might be the first five minutes. Sometimes the last. Sometimes one iconic scene, sometimes something boringly representative, sometimes something wildly uncharacteristic. All that they'll have in common is that interesting things lie within.
Except -- double dammit -- I'm now a third of my way through my column which, when you've only got five minutes to play with, puts you in a pickle. Unless, of course, you've had the foresight to pick a game with a name only an ex-journalist could love, and a truncated timeframe to match: Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2's Deadline mode.