Spoony Bard 8: Critical and Commercial Contradictions

Even the supposedly recession-proof entertainment industry has been forced by fiscal crunching into some fundamental shifts from progressive game design. But that hasn’t stopped some risky ventures from sneaking into the spotlight.

Unfortunately, two of the most spotlighted of this year’s original IPs are marked by muddled game design and narrative. Though both certainly deserve to be considered critically and are not necessarily bad games, they aren’t what they seem on the surface. On paper, both Demon’s Souls and Scribblenauts offer interesting narratives and intriguing game design. In reality, the former pitches a learning curve straight from the NES era, while the latter masquerades as a game without boundaries.

Demon’s Souls is hard. It’s probably the most difficult game of 2009. However, it’s not like the designers accidentally skewed the difficulty. It was meant to be hard, even being gilled that way until someone realized that they might be alienating some of their audience. With the industry’s recent emphasis on attracting the casual gamer, this was all predictable from a marketing standpoint. However, a second layer of contradiction emerged when reviews of the game starting coming in.

Demon’s Souls currently holds a Metacritic rating of 89, with a lone review of 60 from Gamervision seemingly keeping it out of the 90s. Yet the game’s worldwide sales are only 480,000 according to VGChartz, and that’s not just after ten weeks spent on American shelves but also after nearly a year spent on Japanese ones.

This dissonance between its critical and commercial performance seems to be about form versus function. Whereas journalists look at the game and evaluate it on a number of factors, including narrative distinction, most enthusiasts aren’t looking for a game that’s going to punish them mercilessly for each mistake they make. As much as I can understand where my fellow journalists are coming from with their reviews, I see Demon’s Souls as more of a cult game than anything else. Much like an art film, not everyone is going to enjoy or understand its complex narrative – and that’s okay.

Scribblenauts, contrastingly, is the most innovative concept to come out of 2009, and one of the most hyped to come out of this year’s E3 convention. But the gameplay becomes lackluster after you realize that each and every level has a maximum number of objects that can be summoned by a dictionary of set words. When you can see behind the curtain like this, the magic dissipates. Combine this with navigation issues – what the hell, stylus? – and it becomes more like a proof of concept than a game.

Scribblenauts falls into the trap where the intent and mission of the game isn’t in line with what you’re actually able to do. The game gives you a mission to solve, near-limitless boundaries as to what you can call into being and then castrates you by imposing a limit. Obviously the limit is there to prevent too many moving objects being in one place at one time, but the concept promises so much more. What we see in our first few moments in the game are what we get for the entirety of the game, which is unfortunate.

Both games have narrative issues. The narrative in Demon’s Souls is a lot like coal mining; it’s dirty, it’s difficult, and a lot of people are going to die but in the end you hopefully have something worth the time invested. Nonetheless, the casual gamer doesn’t want to spend an hour clearing an area only to accidentally slip off a ledge and wind up back where he started.

As for the narrative in Scribblenauts, that is beyond confusing. Maxwell collects Starites apparently because he can. In a way, there really is no narrative beyond the constant push to collect more Starites. Whenever I play Scribblenauts the Katamari Damacy theme song floats through my head as I try to juxtapose similar experiences.

It has been a year of interesting choices in a minefield of fiscal setbacks. But the contradictory nature of what games are to different people, like journalists and the typical gamer, has stood out like a sore thumb. Meanwhile, the industry has been pressed to make games that sell but also games that propel the medium as a whole. That sounds an awful lot like most other artistic endeavors, so while I may frown at the narrative decisions in 2009 I certainly look forward to 2010. 

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