By Kieron Gillen on July 17th, 2009 at 2:43 pm.
So, I reviewed an MMO.
Some director notes. We start with useful information, get increasingly meta.
Now, I’m traveling for the next 10 days, but a glance around the comments reminds me a couple more things I wanted to bring up. One positive, one negative.
Negatively, I catch someone talking about how altering the bindings improves the control system. Which is, of course, like saying “If I reprogram the game, it becomes playable”. You can fix Darkfall, but having something in an optimum position is the game designer’s job. The example I was going to use was the mysterious case of the run key. It’s – if memory serves me – Shift. However, swapping your hot-key bars default to SHIFT plus a number. So if you’re running away trying to switch to a more appropriate weapon – like your staff to allow a little healing or whatever – you actually swap what set of icons rather than to the weapon you may need for a little thing like saving your life. This is fixable – though notably the key I wanted to select for the task wouldn’t work for some reason – but the idea that a developer hadn’t even thought about it – or, even worse, thought that somehow it was a good idea - speaks volumes.
Positively, I mentioned the the joy of running for my fucking life the first time. There was a later time, when I was involved in a duel with an Orc Beastmaster. I’d lured him away from the pack, around the back of the castle, and was committing more energy to the battle than I normally would. He falls as the moment as another player in fancy armour on a mount comes careening towards me. I react immediately. I have to run. Of course, the castle is at the top of a peak. To escape, I throw myself off the cliff. I have more of a chance of surviving the floor than a direct confrontation. Of course, I die. The guy rides up and rather than doing the coup de grace which would send me back to whence I came, heals me then rides off. A lovely little vignette which comes entirely from Darkfall’s characteristics.
That’s the thing with Darkfall. Despite everything, it’s much more like an MMO I’d like to throw my time in than the anything WoW-derived. Its problem is that it’s just not good enough. To be charitable, you can say “yet”. But “Yet” doesn’t matter in reviews. Marking for potential is forever foolish.
It’s been an interesting gig. I knew it would be the second Tom phoned me late on Thursday night to ask if I’d be willing to do it. Of course, I was half-cut, so happily agreed. I was on contract with Eurogamer for a set number of pieces a month. I was off on holiday for a week, so was happy to take this clearly poisoned chalice. And, as I’ve told everyone who’s asked me about it, I ended up feeling like Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction. “There’s a dead review with a hole in his head in the Eurogamer car. Can you help us scoop up its brains”. Of course, I’m nothing like Mr Wolf, as it took me two months to get it done.
But I got it done. And it’s an odd gig.
Problem is that there’s so much bad blood. Aventurine didn’t want the review for a variety of reasons, but the obvious one is “whatever score you give it, doesn’t matter.” Give it the same mark, we’re just not budging. Giving it high, we’re a sellout and/or admitting EG’s incompetent. Give it a middling one and you’re splitting the difference. Of course, this is true. The job was trying to make it possible for the review to become something else other than just a straight review. Which is what attracted me to it. It’s a job that required both an enormous ego and a lack of one. As in, you had to be willing to deal with things no straight review ever could dare to while trying to keep the “you” relatively invisible.
Because, really, this was a scooping up bits of brain job… but instead of getting the body in a car-disposer, I had to go and perform a relatively tasteful funeral. Ed’s took a world of shit for this, up to and including threatening phonecalls demanding he be sacked to his not-videogames-connected day-job. (I almost brought this up in my recent piece for Drowned In Sound regarding the whole Death of the Critic thing, where I was comparing what music and games critics get up to. I decided to avoid it, as invoking Darkfall before the review came out would muddy the waters even further).
Conversely, I can also understand the outrage of the fans. While I didn’t read Ed’s review, I read a lot of the response to it. And more importantly, as I say in the review, the people who go native in an MMO have emigrated there. The response is at least partially a patriotic response. If I published a serious column in a newspaper saying the USA was shit, I’d get a similarly vicious response. This is about identity. And, as my time with Darkfall proved, most of the players were perfectly friendly. The actual rampage on the net had one major consequence – a lot of people who weren’t committed started to dismiss them as plain nutsoid. Why on earth would you want to play a game with them? Darkfall’s got many problems, but in my experience, the playerbase isn’t amongst them.
In other words, I wanted to try and do something which was about understanding – try and show what all the sides were thinking and why they were doing so, without actually not writing about what I think. So, the interstitial-essay approach, the (relatively) stripped-back prose style, and so on. Seems to have done okay.
Couple more things:
Firstly, I mentioned I was on contract with EG. Well, I’m not any more. I’ve too much comic work on right now, so can’t really keep it up. As such, it means that RPS is my sole ongoing games journalism commitment – and we don’t do reviews. As such, I could have totally have quit at the end of the review to amp up the drama-llamaism some more. But that’d be becoming the story, and betrays of the lack-of-ego part of the gig upthread. If I didn’t feel so sad over the whole thing, I may have been tempted. But this one mattered too much for stage-gestures.
Secondly, there’s one group I’ve been genuinely furious at over this. That is, a selection of my fellow journalists. Even with a slight amount of thought, you can see why Editor Tom couldn’t back down just from Aventurine saying it’s so. In private conversation, it’s pretty bad. In public conversation, it’s sickening. Seeing long term professionals – and, even worse, long term professionals who I could name reviews which if their editors listened to the reader response should have sacked their sorry asses on the spot – side entirely with Aventurine was the blackest hour of this whole adventure. When you could be the next one to have to deal with this shit, through no fault of your own, a little respect and faith in your fraternity is something you could consider displaying. And if that’s too much, shut the fuck up.
Finally: The Darkfall review was written entirely to the Gallows first album, the Bronx’s third and Sleater Kinney’s Good Things. All are lovely.