The average video game is not good. The average game that most gamers play tends to trend in the upper echelon. After all, most of us make our purchasing decisions based on review scores, word of mouth, and past experiences with franchises and genres we are comfortable with. However, even after playing hundreds of (mostly) good games over the past decade plus, many tropes become pretty stale after a certain point. Open worlds no longer seem as novel as they did when they first hit center stage in the earlier eras of 3D gaming, great graphics aren’t really enough to carry an experience anymore, and we’ve come to expect a higher level of narrative engagement than we did when a few lines of dialogue constituted a story.
I’ll always look back to playing some of my most beloved games with almost a jealousy towards my past self. I’m not even coming at this from a nostalgic angle, even playing some of my recent favorites like the Witcher 3, Mass Effect series, Persona 5; at the time I knew I was playing something truly spectacular and above the average title in almost every single way. That’s what draws me to games, chasing that feeling and hoping that maybe whatever new game I pick up will somehow reach those standards. My metaphorical white whales. Perhaps that is an unrealistic standard to hold, and one can’t really expect every single new game to rock my world, but I at least would like them to try. This is why, personally, I hold pure polish in lesser regard than risks taken, either narratively or mechanically. Even if these risks don’t exactly hit, like in the Last of Us Part II, I somewhat still respect them for taking them. Meanwhile, while I enjoy playing games that are mechanically very polished like A Link Between Worlds or Metroid Dread, my parting thoughts with those games are that I don’t feel like they’ve done much to change their franchises or games in general beyond what their predecessors did decades ago. They feel better to play than ever before, but that just doesn’t hold much weight to me, when games like Super Metroid and A Link to the Past still are fantastic games using the same formula, and blew people’s minds thirty years ago.
A concept I frequently find myself thinking about is the correlation between time and the objective quality of games. Games are certainly getting better every year from a technical perspective, and unlike literature and to an extent cinema, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the medium’s possibilities, shedding limitations once seen as status quo. Loading screens, invisible walls, even the finite resources that could be put on the screen at once are being challenged as our handle on technology advances. Despite this, critically our medium is young enough that we often compare games made in the video game equivalent of the stone ages to more “modern” titles.
Stripped of its namesake and released in the modern day, would the first Legend of Zelda game be lauded by critics, or condemned for it’s innate simplicity and low technical quality? Conversely, I think it’s safe to believe that a game like Immortals: Fenyx Rising, while by no means exalted in its current climate, would be declared one of the best games ever conceived had it somehow wound up on store shelves in 1985. Even taking away the modern advancements we’ve made in graphics technology, the combat, transportation and open environments would be so far beyond any contemporary that surely it would be cited as a landmark achievement in the history of the medium.
This thought exercise brings me to the conclusion to at this stage, with how much the industry changes every day, the most honest way to critique games is by playing them as soon as possible, and even delaying a couple of years on a title may severely sway your experiences with areas that may have improved in the future. This seems absurd, no one would refuse to review books or even movies at such a constraint, but to me reviewing something like Ghosts 'n Goblins today, with all my current experiences seems impossible, and it’s extremely difficult to divorce myself from the countless modern innovations that we've grown accustomed to. Try to critically analyze such a game nowadays, and it feels very much like trying to study a relic from a forgotten time, like trying to analyze the Epic of Gilgamesh as a piece of modern literature. With games, even 10 year old titles show their age exponentially more than a book or movie from 2011, and this makes a video game an encapsulation of a time and place probably more so than any other medium out there. This necessitates the need to stay current, and this can be incredibly exciting or hopelessly exhausting.
Maybe the conclusion is patently obvious, but it’s part of what fascinates me about this medium, morso than books and movies, though those are perfectly good in their own right. Only in video games do you have the opportunity to see things progress as rapidly and standards change so frequently. I think if you would poll the average gamer regarding their favorite video game, the majority would say that their favorite is either a game they played from their childhood or one that they had experienced when they were first getting into games. Could be nostalgia, but often these games were an introduction to some brilliance that we had never seen before, and ideas that had not had a chance to grow stale. Maybe if I hadn’t played the Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker until today, I would be less enthusiastic, maybe finding the ocean overworld too barren, the dungeons too simple, or some other gripe that just wouldn’t have registered years ago. But when I first experienced that title, those points would be either nitpicks or just flat out unreasonable criticism given the current progression of the industry up until that point. At the time it was brilliant, and while it has aged notably well, some of the shine is a bit lost throughout the years, even with an HD update. Simply put, with games, you just had to be there.