GameSpot has announced that they'll be "revamping" their review system this week. The two main changes are: they're adding "award medals and demerits" to each review, and switching to a half-point rating system.

The first change will be positive, I imagine. The medals and demerits will be icons that apply to multiple reviews, acting as tags that specify the best and worst points of all the games to which they're applied. So, if I'm reading a review for, say, Metal Gear Solid 4, and see that it's gotten a medal for "Convoluted Plot," I might click the medal to see what other games have won that particular award. It's good for me as a reader, since it helps me find new games that I might enjoy (or hate) based on specific factors, and good for GameSpot I'm sure, since it would lead people like me to spend more time clicking around their site.

The second change is like a quarter-step in the right direction as far as I'm concerned. The decision to only score games in half-point increments does reduce the granularity of the rating system ("what's the difference between an 8.2 and an 8.3?" being the classic question,) but it still keeps GameSpot's outlook in the realm of fiddly, Consumer Reports-style analysis of a game's perceived "bang for your buck," which is kind of the gross thing about GameSpot in my opinion. I think that their relaxing the numerical score system is a function of Greg Kasavin stepping down from the site some time ago; when I interviewed him, he had the following to say about the GameSpot rating system:

I generally think that numerical rating systems are arbitrary and poorly maintained—they're like tools that aren't used with the proper care. I think the system on GameSpot is put under much closer scrutiny than most other, similar systems. I am exactly the sort of person who splits hairs over tenths of a point—how come this game got a 7.6 when this game got a 7.7, and so on. Since I personally edit every review that goes up on GameSpot, though, I'm able to apply consistent standards in all cases, which is partly how we make sure our system is balanced.
So, without that editorial influence (and personal vigilance,) the remaining editors at GameSpot were free to apply a new system. But why not take it a step further? Why not simply implement a school grading system, wherein games receive an F through A+ based on their merits? In my opinion, the half-point scale will still cause pointless arguments for the same reasons the tenth-point scale was (why does Game A get an 8.5 while Game B gets a 9.0?) and doesn't leave behind the Consumer Reports mindset. It also guarantees that the lowest rungs of the rating system will continue to go unused; almost no game is going to receive a 1.5 score, but I could see GameSpot being much more liberal with a simple "F." I think everyone understands the gradeschool system, they accept it, and it gives a much more intuitive picture of whether the game in question is "good" or not.

I know the real answer to why this won't happen-- GameSpot is the key arbiter of the standards that www.gamerankings.com and thereby game publishers follow to determine whether a game has reviewed well or not. To continue posting their reviews to gamerankings, GameSpot has to maintain a numerical scale; and if they simply converted the gradeschool scale to percentages, it would defeat the purpose, as well as throw off the overall scale compared to other review sites. If someday the review site of prominence takes up the gradeschool scale as their official rating system, I will be happy.




What value does a well-known actor bring to a film?

When you think about it, the whole practice of acting on film is sort of surreal. Famous actors are people we're familiar with as individuals off the screen, but when we see them in a new film role, we immediately accept their "being" this other, fictional person. But our knowledge of their off-screen personalities from interviews, and of their prior work on film, gives us expectations of what they'll bring to their new role. The person onscreen when you watch a film is both the actor you know as an individual, and the character unique to the film.

The interesting thing about games is that we play through all these stories revolving around human characters, but the element of the recurring actor is absent. The main character you see onscreen when you play a game like, for instance, Bully, isn't a role being played by a real person (beside the voice actor of course); the person you control onscreen is only Jimmy Hopkins, a unique entity to that gameworld. Even if a specific character carries over throughout a series, they exist only as that character (Sam Fisher will only ever be Sam Fisher.) When you want to go see the new Pacino movie, your expectations are formed to some degree based on what you know of Pacino the man, regardless of the character he's playing or the story the movie will be telling. In games, Mario may fill many different "roles" (kart driver, tennis player, doctor,) but he is only ever Mario, both the actor and the role, as it were. He only ever depicts himself.

So, for games to draw from this particular strength of film, I think there may be some value to the idea of a persistent stable of "digital actors," each of which maintains a consistent set of innate physical and personality traits unto themselves as individual beings, and who may then be "cast" in a variety of otherwise unrelated games, filling a unique "role" in each. When a new digital actor "debuts," you could get a feel for them in their initial role--their attitude, their features, their style, the archetype they tend to embody; in their next game, they would carry over these innate characteristics, but depict an entirely different in-game character, in a completely different gameworld.

When I think of a game that I'd love to draw digital actors from, Metal Gear Solid 3 is the first that comes to mind. Specifically, The Boss was a wonderfully realized character; she was so well defined that I could see her as an actual person, existing outside a game, which is the quality a digital actor would need to possess. Over the course of MGS3, you really got to know the characters, and I feel that bringing the essence of The Boss to a new game would be a huge draw to players, and give the creatives on the team a really interesting resource to draw from. We know "who" The Boss is, the essence of that person; if the same "actor" were playing a different role, what would she bring to it? Like going into a film knowing you're going to get Pacino, she would lend elements of "herself" to the new character she played. The same could be said of Eva, Volgin, and Ocelot. A completely different game featuring the same ensemble cast would be a very interesting experiment. Games have gotten to the point that their characters can convey unique, endearing, human personalities; who wouldn't want to see another game starring the digital actor of Frank West but without the zombies, or Leon Kennedy but without.. well, the zombies, or Cate Archer pulled out of the 60's, or Sam Fisher pulled out of the catsuit and goggles--the digital actors allowed to be separated from their "signature roles," and to live in new worlds?

It's been done on some level, and long ago-- over the course of 50 years, Osamu Tezuka's comics and animation featured a revolving cast of familiar characters that assumed new roles in each of his different titles. Tezuka's "Star System" did just what's described above-- each character existed unto himself, and could appear in any of Tezuka's titles as an entirely new character, but with a similar personality from role to role. Ochanomizu, Shunsaku Ban, Saruta, Tenma, Acetelyne Lamp, and others became familiar cultural images, apart from any single role they played. They were Tezuka's archetypes, and served as anchors for the readers of new properties in which they appeared.

Many elements of game development seem to suffer from either reinventing the wheel with every new title, or pumping out identical sequels that rely on the exact same elements from year to year. The star power of a beloved "digital actor" might be a useful compromise, a boon to an otherwise original IP from all angles-- the designer's, player's, and marketers' perspectives. Why throw away a perfectly good character you've worked hard to create?



Justification 4

Double Dragon
Arcade / 1987 / Developer: Technos Japan / Publisher: Taito

As a youngster in my early years of gradeschool, I was known to frequently haunt the video arcades of my hometown. Whether it be a dedicated game pit in the mall, the mini-arcade at the local movie theater, or the massive underground Tilt complex in the galleria downtown, I loved the experience of wandering the dark, cavernous spaces lined with dozens of flashing game machines. Playing here was a unique, public experience; you could suddenly be performing for spectators at any moment, or if you came across a multi-player game, you could jump in and instantly be fighting alongside a handful of other guys, working together towards each successive goal.

Though I loved playing many, many different arcade games from this era, Double Dragon remains the one that's stuck with me over the years. The game kicks off with an extremely lean setup, followed by simple, straight-forward action. When the first quarter drops, we are presented with a young woman in a red dress standing in front of a grungy brick building. A gang of men walks up, and their leader, with no warning, slugs her in the stomach and carries her away, slung over his shoulder. As they retreat, the garage door of the building in the background opens to reveal the player character (along with a flashy red Camaro.) The player begins to pursue the kidnappers but is confronted by thugs, and without hesitation ruthlessly lays down the law with his fists, knees and flying kicks. It's all right there in the first 20 seconds. It grabs you and doesn't let go.

Double Dragon stood out from its contemporaries by settings its story in our world, as a bare knuckle conflict between individuals on familiar streets. There was nothing fantastical about it-- no aliens, no lasers, no space ships or goblins or magic spells. Double Dragon was about men, in a city, fighting it out for the sake of the woman imperiled. It was something more visceral than the abstractions of Defender, Pac-Man or Galaga; it was something to identify with, and live vicariously through. As a kid who didn't get along with his classmates much, I'm sure for me it had a strong quality of playing out physical aggressions in a way I never could in real life-- my resentment or anger towards bullies in school could be easily superimposed over the power fantasy of being Billy Lee, grinding thug after thug into the pavement. I have to recognize this part of the intrinsic value the game held for me at the time, even though it's not the noblest reason to enjoy a game.

Regardless of its connection to a certain stage in my life, a time when I would beg my parents to drive me to the arcade just so I could play through Double Dragon again on a fresh five-dollar bill, I legitimately enjoy the game itself to this day, and feel that it's held up as the pinnacle of the pure 2D brawler genre. It's not muddled by extraneous features or a fantastical setting. It's still fun and quick to play through, as I do every so often on MAME, or most recently on the arcade-perfect HD port released over Xbox Live Arcade.

The rawness and immediacy of its setting and action haven't dulled in the least over the years; Double Dragon defined the high watermark for these qualities in games early on. The only true, modern successor has been Rockstar's The Warriors, an homage simultaneously to the cult classic film and the old-school arcade brawler. This is clear enough from the action of the game proper, but it's spelled out explicitly once you complete the main campaign and unlock "Armies of the Night," an arcade machine that appears in the Warriors' hideout. The minigame is a loving remake of the original Double Dragon, as evidenced by its opening moments, and the sidescrolling street fights that follow. Rockstar Toronto's affection for their source material really showed through in every aspect of the final product.

It's nice to see such talented people carrying the torch for one of my all-time favorite games.