ODST and what might have been
On the case

The visit


Here's the scenario. You're invited to a developer's studio for an early look at a bunch of upcoming games. Throughout this 36-hour whirlwind you're treated exceptionally well. You're politely escorted from place to place; you meet smart, enthusiastic people in a workplace abuzz with energy, and you privately wonder if somewhere in this vast digital dream factory a legion of Oompa-Loompas are singing songs and playtesting demented hallucinogenic games that will never see the light of day.

All day long you attend demos, spend hands-on time with games, and pepper with questions the people who have devoted the most recent portion of their lives creating the games they're sharing with you. You tour the campus. You go behind the scenes. You see the cubicles, the whiteboards, the character renderings. You visit the gym where they work out and the day care center where their kids learn and play.

You have a terrific time, and you're genuinely grateful for the opportunity. You feel a certain affection for these designers, producers and PR people. They remind you of the restless quixotic creative types you ran with in grad school. You want to help them succeed. You want to reward their efforts. Yeah, you know the score. They want buzz for their games, and they want you to help generate it. That's why you're here. You get that.

Still, you walk into every demo primed to spring out of your seat and proclaim "That was awesome! You people are brilliant!" - partly in gratitude, but mostly because we never get to say such things to the faces of the people who make the games we play.

After you retire to the hotel room you could never afford, you catch your breath and look over your notes from the day. ...And you face it. Nothing excited you. Nothing stood out. Nothing made you want to run to your keyboard with an ebullient tweet or blog post.

Well, maybe one game, but I'll talk about that one after I finish playing it.

So now you feel stuck. You saw 8 games, and the best you can muster is indifference to 7 of them. What do you do now? Write a scowling roundup? An essay full of lukewarm impressions? Maybe a simple informational "here are some upcoming games I saw" post would be more appropriate. Or maybe you just walk away and don't write anything. Most of these games are still in development, so it's possible some rabbits could be pulled from hats.

And maybe you're wrong. Maybe you need more time with these games. Maybe you're not very good at evaluating unfinished games. Maybe we shouldn't evaluate unfinished games in the first place. There's a crazy thought.

I think I've come to understand why game previews tend to be glowing, or at least hopeful. I'm not a games journalist, so I don't make this kind of trip very often, but I'm not sure what purpose is served by slamming an unreleased game. Perhaps I have the luxury of a perspective that's detached from the news delivery imperatives of places like Kotaku or Gamespot. Maybe I'm missing something I ought to be considering. I don't know.

What I do know is that human beings make these games, and when we learn more about each other - when we observe first-hand the earnest hard work and hopefulness of these creators and producers - 'this game r teh sux' responses get replaced by 'it's a shame this game failed' responses, and I believe that's a good thing. It's possible to feel bitterly disappointed by a game, even a little sad perhaps, when you've met the people who worked hard on it and fervently believe in their project. I have a feeling the folks I met already know how the Metacritic beast will treat their games, and maybe that's another reason why doubtful previews serve no useful purpose here.

Please don't look too hard for a thesis here because I don't really have one. I'm writing this post as a way of processing an experience, and I hope you'll forgive me for using this venue in such a self-indulgent way. I'm keenly interested in the potential connecting points between critics and game designers throughout the design process. My little story captures only a sliver, but I'm intrigued by the opportunities inherent in this relationship and the sometimes awkward responsibilities we bear when we write about the games we play.

I plan to keep thinking about it.