Screen Peekers

Video Game News, Commentary, and Fist Fights

Judging Game Quality: Jeff’s Take

The way that these meshed together almost undermines my point. Cool, though, right?

A few weeks ago several very popular games came out, all at the exact same time, it seemed. Two of those games were both sci-fi first person shooters, where the player explores a rather large world, gathering a rather large arsenal of guns, while riddling a rather large collection of aliens, humans, and mechanical constructs in search of some rather arbitrary goal. Those two games were the Half-Life fan remake Black Mesa, and the sequel to 2009’s Borderlands, the cleverly-named Borderlands 2. And while they share several important genre features, that’s about where the similarity of the two games ends. And, after a rather full weekend of plugging time into Black Mesa, Borderlands 2 came out, and I happily started churning against that grindstone, instead.

What does this have to do with anything, you ask? Because, about thirty hours into my Borderlands 2 playthrough, a friend asked me a rather annoying question: “Which is better?”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, which is a better game? Borderlands 2, or Black Mesa?”

At first it seemed merely like a false diaspora, something to make me sit back and think for a moment before realizing the entire premise was absurd. I mean, Black Mesa is a platforming adventure game, really, with first person shooter as its main means of transportation, while Borderlands as a series is more about aggregating loot and leveling up and finding fun in the unique skill and weapon combinations you can come up with. There’s really nothing to compare, apart from mouse sensitivity and shooting mechanics.

But then I realized that we, as game reviewers, tend to put a lot of faith in assigning numeric values to thing. Heck, not a month ago, JD and I spent a bit of time going over our favorite music in all video game soundtracks, and somehow were able to compare music even though it ranged from classical to industrial to techno. Can’t we look at Black Mesa and Borderlands, assign various numbers to what they’re trying to accomplish, and then just compare those? Gameplay: 8, Music: 6, Story: 7. Look, an average of 7. It seems easy.

And yet, we all know it isn’t. Or maybe you don’t, and that’s what I’m here to tell you. It isn’t that it’s not easy, it’s just that there’s no purpose to it.

When it comes down to it, I think that Black Mesa will probably stand the test of time more than Borderlands 2, because it proves that merely by updating the engine, sound, and a few other things, HalfLife has hours and hours of life breathed back into it. And while I’ve already spent 58 hours on Borderlands 2 and plan to spend more, a lot more, I know that I’m the kind of person who really, really loves playing those kinds of games over and over and over again. By comparison, I, like, most other people who have owned a Playstation 2, consider Shadow of the Colossus one of the greatest games created in that generation, but I’ve spent much, much more time playing Kingdom Hearts.

So if I’ve invested that much time into these equally-costly games, and yet think Shadow is better, which has made me had more fun? How can we quantify fun? And is “fun” really the end goal in some games, or is the point emotion, or maybe just the nebulous word “entertainment”?

That’s the problem. Really, that’s it right there. Games mean different things to different people. Sometimes it’s an escape, sometimes it’s for a story, sometimes it’s to satisfy some love of hoarding and comparing without cluttering up a real-life storage unit. And whether it’s immersion, or a satisfaction of a long-winding plot, or the love of numbers going up, these are all different reasons to play. And it’s not just to individual people, it’s to each of our individual moods and whims. Sometimes we might be in the mood for a claustrophobic game, and willing to put up with frustrating controls because we feel that it accentuates a mood or carries on a gameplay tradition.

On that note, we were called out recently by a different friend, because we were being so hard on the Resident Evil 6 demo when we have only played the fourth and fifth games in the series. And while at first I felt the need to argue against a requirement to have played an entire series just to judge a recent game’s mechanics and style–maybe you do. I realized how much I was willing to forgive in Metal Gear Solid 4‘s plot and direction just because of how much it appealed to me as both a writer and a long-time fan of the series. If I had only played 3 and then moved to 4, would I feel the same way?

The bottom line is, the ability to unbiasedly judge quality is any reviewer’s white whale, or at least any reviewer worth listening to. JD and I try to avoid using numbers, but sometimes we just have to gravitate to that in order to give you our best, gut-feeling for a game or experience, because humans love the simple answer. But the real simple answer is that you have to judge for yourself, and understand that it’s sometimes stupid to put into words what makes a game better over another, because some kinds of quality just can’t be compared in a soundbyte. You have to get in there and shoot some stuff.

About jwaxo

I'm a web developer currently located in Portland, Oregon. I graduated with a degree in a wide variety of things that aren't very useful by themselves and do things I love on a regular basis. I grew up playing video games, and keep a blog about that.

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