Kane & Lynch

IO Interactive’s Kane & Lynch is a strange game. It is the work of a very talented developer taking a break from their lucrative Hitman series. This clear talent shines through K&L, but primarily through the cracks in the game’s finish. The game that players of Kane & Lynch see before them is an absolutely incredible game utilizing a setting that almost no other game in the current game industry environment utilizes and, on top of that, it’s a setting that IO Interactive not only understands and embraces, but has a great deal of love for. K&L received a strange critical reception, in part due to controversy surrounding Gamespot and Jeff Gerstmann, but also simply a generally mixed reception concluding in the unfortunate final result of Kane & Lynch being colloquially/casually considered a poor game.

The idea of the ‘heist’ as a full-on premise is one that’s been lost on game developers (and maybe Generation Y as a whole), so it ends up appearing only in certain missions in larger games, such as “Three Leaf Clover” in Grand Theft Auto 4. The reasoning for this, as far as I’ve been able to piece together, is that bank robberies simply aren’t “epic” enough. That and there appears to be the belief that most gamers don’t want to play the criminal or the anti-hero, which are the kind of characters that are traditionally displayed in heist movies and stories. All of this runs contrary to the existence of popular television shows over the last decade having characters like Vic Mackey in The Shield and Dr. Gregory House in House, both of whom are morally compromised individuals doing objectively bad things for eventually-sympathetic reasons. Kane & Lynch is not only a heist game with an intimate (non-epic) story-line, but its two leads are vulgar, ‘bad’ people. Kane an ex-mercenary know-it-all who constantly needs to be take charge of situations and Lynch is a psychopath who, in fits of blind fury when he’s off his meds, goes into a violent rage. So, quoth the Gamespot review of the game, “[e]very single person you play as or encounter is despicable and wholly abrasive; thus, it’ll probably be tough for you to find anyone to latch onto and care about.” Lynch looks out for Kane and appears to be haunted by whether or not he was the murderer of his wife while Lynch indirectly got his wife killed and only wants to find his daughter so he can read her a letter. Maybe not the greatest characterizations ever, but certainly sympathetic to some extent.

The critical press indicate that Kane & Lynch is a ‘bad’ game. In most mediums, a 65 average would equate to a better-than-average product that is still well worth one’s time. Hell, RottenTomatoes considers a movie with an aggregate rating of 60 points or higher to be “fresh.” This is another tangent altogether, but the gist of the matter is that with an aggregate score of 65, Kane & Lynch was widely considered to be an “average” game at best and, with a score like that, more generally labeled as “bad.” This is, arguably, a semantic quibble, but the inflated notion of the meaning of review scores somewhat infuriates me as both a gamer and a developer. The mere concept that a game can be rated on a scale with 100 points of granularity, or split into its components (gameplay, audio, lasting appeal, and so on) is completely absurd.

When I played Kane & Lynch, I played a game that was, to some extent, marred by a variety of technical inconsistencies, bugs, and the occasional straight-up flaw. The controls are not as responsive as a shooter-heavy game like K&L should be, nor is the AI behavior excellent, and the gameplay spaces throughout the game are hit-and-miss (har). Ten minutes into the game, though, none of this really mattered to me. I found myself completely engrossed from the unexpectedly intense beginning through the ridiculously depressing end. I also found the game’s “exceptionally short single-player campaign” to not only be a well-sized chunk of game, but in the case of Kane & Lynch, I’d argue that the campaign was too long.

The structural arc of Kane & Lynch aims to convey its intensity much in the way that Portal conveys its focus. A game’s length is in direct relation to the experience in which it aims to provide. This does, at times, run contrary to the price, hype, or marketing of the final product, but to consider a game’s temporal length as a criterion for its overall value or effect is not only ludicrous, but irrelevant. There is an analog to movies in regards to the critical relevance of length, but often a movie is hailed as “too long,” rather than “too short.” Very few movies suffer from a short duration, a number of movies suffer from a long run-time. A long movie is, and I’m speaking in total generalizations here, more often to be reviewed as unfocused than it is to be reviewed as an appropriate length for the price of my ticket/DVD. Making comparisons from games to film is both annoying and error-prone, but as far as media comparisons are concerned, the movie/game parallels are the easiest to draw.

Kane & Lynch attempts to draw that parallel in its structure, form, and mechanics. It starts with the prison break, the confused, hurried introduction to the characters and the game world, and the frantic, hurried attempts at resolving it (that, naturally, ultimately go haywire). The character and aiming controls are not as fluid as third-person shooter gamers would like, nor is the cover as beefy and useful as, say, Gears of War, but the entirety of K&L’s combat system manages to from a cohesive ludic package: simulating the heist movie shootout. Whether it was intentional or not, it’s difficult to aim, enemies are often brutal in both numbers and ferocity, and the ‘solid’ cover in a given level is almost impossible to find. It’s frustrating, but fittingly so. And much like any ‘squad’ game, the system reinforces the role of your friends, and I use the term loosely for Kane & Lynch, in the experience. Ignoring a majority of the Havana segments for the moment, every part of K&L wants to ludically recreate the experience of a heist movie by providing the thematic framework and allowing the game systems and encounters to do the rest.

Thinking back on my playing experience, I am continually impressed at how well the night club scene worked out. The game is, at times, brutal with the details it puts in front of players and the resulting expectation it has of its players’ ability to react. When working through the night club scene in the mission after “shit has gone down,” the crowd of dancing men and women are oblivious to the fact that a knocked-out Asian woman is being carried on the shoulder of a long-haired psychopath trailing a man in a suit with a gun and a broken nose. A crowd in a busy, foggy, colorful night club would be oblivious to a thing like that, I suppose. So when an enemy is approaching the player through this sea of people, he blends in. What IO Interactive does to highlight these enemies is simple: give them a flashlight. One hand on the flashlight, one hand on a gun, that’s it. The player sees these men in suits with flashlights and, almost without thinking, opens fire on them. The game does not call this out, it allows this beautiful moment to play out: shots fired, men with flashlights fire back creating a blend of muzzle flare and a flashlight lens flare blending amongst the fog and laser lights, people throughout the club are running around in a panic, crossfire takes down random civilians, and all the while Lynch is in the back mere moments from a blind fury pyschopathic breakdown.

And that is the Kane & Lynch I played. Bits and pieces of the rest of the game touch on the brilliance of the night club ‘mission’, and they make the totality of the game an exceptional experience. If IO Interactive hadn’t lost their focus with the Havana endgame, they would have created a superb heist game. Instead it’s simply ‘good’, but games shouldn’t be wary of that word. There’s room for improvement, there is in every work, but just because it’s not ‘great’ doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

The Game Review Symposium: Review Scores

The first part of the game review symposium is now up and covers the topic of the scores attached to game reviews. You can find it here: http://shawnelliott.blogspot.com/2008/12/symposium-part-one-review-scores.html.

If there was any doubt about the usefulness of the symposium before I think the responses to this first part alone should quiet those — though I’d be interested in hearing from anyone that still doubts the value of the discussion. Over the course of a few dozen responses Shawn Elliott, Kieren Gillen, N’Gai Croal, Leigh Alexander, Jeff Gerstmann, and Dan Hsu — among others — debate the finer points of the validity and intent behind scoring game reviews. The question that starts it all off comes from Shawn Elliott himself:

How much is on our minds before we begin playing any given game for review purposes? Will we imagine a range of probable scores that a heavily marketed, highly budgeted, and hugely anticipated game will get? What when the game is branded “budget” or is the work of a lesser-known, less-storied studio? If so, how closely have actual scores correlated with our assumptions?

This is one of the topics of the symposium that I had the least interest in discussing personally so my response on this topic will be brief. I only spent about a year or so serving as an actual paid games writer. During that time I always felt that the actual score attached to a review was the least important part of the process. When I was playing a game I had a sort of “gut feeling” as to how much fun I was having playing any given game. The score I would assign to reviews was solely based on that criterion. Scores are, in my mind, a consumer reports metric that serve three crowds: people who go to reviews but only skim them, people who only care about the Metacritic Factor, and the publisher/developers of the game itself. I don’t mean to oversimplify the issue, but scores simply don’t mean much for any other reason.

I found one of N’Gai Croal’s responses to be the most fitting:

The explanation—or is it an excuse?—that I offer is that I don’t review games. We’ll get into this more in the Reviews vs. Criticism section of our symposium, but the way I see it, a reviewer answers the question, how well does this game work, but a critic answers the question, how does this game work? A reviewer helps consumers decide whether or not they should buy a game; a critic helps players think about a game that they’ve played—in its entirety /or/ in part—and that is the end of the spectrum where I believe my writing lies. (That’s also why, on a game by game basis, I don’t think I need to have completed a game to have some insights about it—but I do think that if I were advising someone on how to spend their money, I’d feel obligated to play most or all of the game.) Scores can serve as a valid form of shorthand for the work of the reviewer, but I’m not convinced that scores have much to offer the work of the critic.

The Game Review Symposium

Before he left his post at Ziff-Davis’ gaming publications (namely Games for Windows Magazine followed by EGM/1Up) Shawn Elliott was one of the best journalists in the game industry. His works at GfW Magazine were always some of the most well-articulated and reasoned pieces to be found in the industry. Elliott’s “claim to fame” in the game industry, though, came through his appearances on the GFW Radio podcast where he, Jeff Green, Ryan Scott, Darren Gladstone, Sean Malloy, Robert Ashley, and more held some of the most entertaining and intelligent weekly gaming discussions in the industry.

Now that Shawn Elliott has been out of the gaming press for a while (working as an Associate Producer at 2k Boston) deemed it fit to release some details of a potential game review symposium that was being discussed prior to his departure. Elliott provides topics such as review scores, the handling of casual, indie, and user-generated (?) games, reviewing ethics, and, one of the most interesting topics in my mind (as indicated by my last piece), reviews versus criticism.

Elliott’s entry seems to lament the unrealized potential in the project in its aborted state but, now, it seems like the project is underway. The list of participants includes people like N’Gai Croal, Tom Chick, Dan Hsu, Leigh Alexander, and Robert Ashley, all of which are superb writers who seem, to me, to represent the kind of evolution in game reviewing that I’d like to see be expanded upon. The symposium is a project that I’ll be closely monitoring both to see the participants’ opinions on all of the topics but also, more interestingly, to see the internet reaction to their discussions. Reactions like this one.

The Death of the Death of Game Criticism

Supposedly, there’s a problem with game journalism (part one). It’s worth pointing out that if you have an article entitled “The Problem with Games Journalism,” then the tagline of your site best not be “Independent game journalism.”

Yesterday, Kotaku published a piece by the site’s Managing Editor, Brian Crecente which is entitled: “Death of Criticism: The Death of (Video Game) Criticism.” The article is a response to a piece written by famed film writer/critic Roger Ebert entitled “Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!.” Ebert’s piece should be considered a must-read; his insights into film criticism and, in some respect, criticism on the whole are invaluable and he’s a remarkably talented writer. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Price for Criticism back in 1975. 1975. When reading an article entitled “Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!”, it may be easy to think that the contents of such a piece will be a doom-saying condemnation of the state of modern film criticism from someone who is over the hill and out of touch with the times.

That’s a trap.

Ebert doesn’t drop a theory then throw a pun or a joke in stylish prose and leave the meaning up to his reader. The piece may run long but each paragraph consists of substance. When detailing his thoughts on the “CelebCult,” Ebert gives his opinion on the matter, relates an example about the difference between the treatment of celebrities in the 1950s to those of a pair like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, gives a concrete example of a paper’s treatment of Twilight’s fanbase over the film, and then examples of writers whose time has come and passed.

I have a background in English and Creative Writing, not journalism or literary criticism. The goal of a creative writing is for an author to imbue his own meaning into his story so that others can glean the writer’s intended themes and messages while, at the same time, having a work resonate with them in their own unique personal way. This is a practice that, in my mind, is in stark opposition with the goal of a critical writer or journalist. Criticism is about an author bringing his/her interpretation of a creative work to light in a way that is both unique and thought-provoking. This is discourse that is inevitable in any industry based around a creative product; movies, music, film, and, yes, video games. Video games serve fundamentally different purposes than any of the other aforementioned media but they are creative works and, as such, will and should be open to critical discussion.

And this discussion does occur.

Given this mindset, the goal of Crecente’s response article eludes me. At first it reads like an homage to the sad realizations of a critical legend and then it transcends into a sort of “I knew this for years” swan song. Crecente waxes lyrically in concordance with Ebert, echoing sentiments such as:

“If you want to assign blame I suppose you could point a finger at USA Today, at how that national McPaper turned every story, no matter how important, into a glorified brief with colorful charts.

Over the years, papers across the country scrambled to follow suit, shrinking their stories to fit smaller and smaller holes in the paper. Sure, some of this was done because of the desire to run more ads in a newspaper, but most of it was the product of focus testing, of hitting the streets and asking people what they wanted. What they wanted, apparently, was not to think too much about anything.

So papers, first small, then large, begin to cater to the lowest common denominator, what they thought was a genuine desire for short, fast reads. I remember working at a large newspaper when an edict came down that all stories had to be a certain word count, that the first sentence of every story had to be only so long, rather short.”

Stylistically, it’s well-written prose but lamenting the death of critique by criticizing the lack of critique without constructing a valid argument of your own doesn’t seem the best way to make a point. Normally, I’d pay an article like this no mind, but the name of the piece is “The Death of (Video Game) Criticism.” Joining in Ebert’s sadness for professional criticism is one thing, but it seems irresponsible to join in Ebert’s sadness when referring to industry that’s never made its ideas known within the boundaries of traditional media. The death of video game criticism isn’t going to depend on the lifeblood of a newspaper’s features section; I’m still amazed when I see a story in the black-and-white pages of my local newspapers that’s even remotely connected to the video game industry. I’m more impressed when I see a story actually about the video game industry. And I’m amazed when I see a story about the video game industry that gets all the facts right.

The problem with games journalism is the focus on problems with games journalism and the idea that the existence of game reviews is mutually exclusive from the existence of game analysis and criticism. There was an article published by Keith Stuart which brought up the relevance of innovation in the scope of a game review. Leigh Alexander, a writer for Gamasutra, followed Stuart’s lead and added her own sentiments. Eventually N’Gai Croal, a columnist for Newsweek who runs the Level Up gaming blog, also enters the mix. These three articles may not accomplish anything in the physical sense: no customers may have been motivated to buy or not buy Mirror’s Edge as a result of their discussion, the lack of sensationalist headlines attached to their pieces may not have gotten a great deal of what I’m told are the incredibly important clicks, or anything like that. What these authors accomplished is more memorable than any of those individual feats (and is confirmed by the existence of “The Problem with Games Journalism: Part One“): people can get excited by the presence of intelligent game discourse beyond visual fidelity or amount of gameplay present for sixty dollars.

The fate of professional film criticism may hinge upon the fate of the goals of the Features section of newspapers around the globe, but as far as the gaming industry is concerned: the Internet is kind to writers. Keep it up. Writing about games is just getting started.