on Westworld, Batman and Bioshock, and Bethesda

1. I’ve been out of commission for longer than usual; we were out of town for a family wedding, and then the bulk of my evening free time was spent getting caught up on Westworld, which I adore.  I’ve said here before that I don’t often watch that much TV, and most of what I do watch is stuff that’s binge-ready (either because it’s a Netflix series like Stranger Things or the Marvel stuff) or that I completely missed during their regular run and which is now, in its current form, binge-ready (stuff like, say, Battlestar Galactica or Breaking Bad or what-have-you).

So I’m in an unusual place, then, with respect to Westworld; I’m watching it “live” (well, to be literal about it, I’m watching it on Monday evening after the kid goes to bed) and so I’m stuck on the same cliffhanger as everyone else.  I don’t have popular critical opinions cluttering my own perspective, as I’ve made it a point to avoid reading anything about it until after I get caught up.  And so what I can say about it is that, for the most part, I think it’s stunning.  The acting is fantastic (even if Jeffrey Wright doesn’t know how to wear glasses)…

…the cinematography is stupendous, and the writing is terrific.  The show is smart and confident and, thus far, knows exactly how much information they want to reveal with each episode, and I’m totally hooked.  I’ve read some stuff where people are frustrated with the pacing, or that they don’t like the mystery because it’s obvious where things are headed; I disagree.  Certainly I can see a number of different places where it can go, but there are too many things that remain enigmatic, and I’m happy for them to remain that way for the time being.

2. As far as games go, I’m still in this weird thing where I’m feeling disconnected from the game-playing process.  I’m in this weird lull in Forza Horizon 3 where I’m kinda just roaming around; I’m not feeling pulled towards Gears 4, even just to cheat and play ahead of my co-op campaign.

I rented the Bioshock remasters, mostly because I was curious about how they looked.  As far as the Xbox One versions, I was underwhelmed by the first game’s port; but then again, I’ve played that introduction sequence so many times that it’s no longer very interesting.  I skipped looking at B2 entirely and went straight to Infinite, and… yeah, that game’s world and presentation are still absolutely stunning, but the minute I started having to kill things, I could almost literally hear my brain checking out.

On the other hand, I also got the Batman Arkham Remasters, and those games still hold up.  With the occasional weird graphical glitch (on Xbox One), they are still gorgeous and fun and totally absorbing.  I’m breezing through Asylum at the moment and it’s just as terrific as it’s ever been, and I’ll happily play through City when I finish Asylum.

3.  I should probably offer an opinion with respect to Bethesda’s recent decision to no longer offer pre-release review copies to major outlets.  I can’t comment as a member of the press, because I’m not a member of the press; I’ve paid for (or paid for the rental of) nearly every single game I’ve ever played and discussed.  (Indeed, I think I’ve only ever received 2 codes for the purposes of writing reviews, and I didn’t get paid for either of those pieces.)

Anyway.  Do I think it’s bullshit?  Yes, of course.  Do I think it’s intensely hypocritical for publishers to deny critics a chance to review a game while also using those same critical voices to write preview pieces?  Yes, without question.  Do I think it’s ridiculous that Bethesda isn’t allowing professional critics to review their games before release, but that they are giving copies to prominent YouTubers and other “influencers”?  Oh boy oh boy, yes I do.

Will other prominent publishers follow suit?  And do I think this could start an alarming precedent wherein traditional games journalism and criticism becomes irrelevant?

Mmmmmaybe?

I think there will always be a place for long-form written criticism – this is what I want, and this is what I’d have liked to have done professionally – though I suspect that the audience for that particular style will, sadly, diminish in time.  Game journalism is moving into all sorts of weird directions, and a lot of it is heading towards video streaming (which might actually generate some revenue) and podcasting (which almost always doesn’t).  I, personally, have neither the time nor the inclination towards consuming my criticism in those forms, but that’s neither here nor there.

The fact of the matter is that Bethesda is doing this so that slightly-less-than-great review scores don’t affect pre-order numbers.  And yet pre-ordering, in this age of digital downloads, seems largely irrelevant, doesn’t it?  I mean, in the past, I pre-ordered physical copies at a Gamestop because, if I didn’t, then I was shit out of luck for weeks until a new shipment came in.  Amazon made this a little easier, though in my personal experience “release-date delivery” usually still meant “a day or two later”.  Right now, the only advantage to pre-ordering a digital download is the pre-loading of a 50-60 GB file; you’re basically spending $60 for the privilege of instant gratification.

There are people out there with takes much more knowledgeable than mine, obviously, and so I have no idea how much this is going to mess things up for the press.  But if nothing else, the practice of taking games out of the hands of critics in order to maximize day-one profits should finally and definitively answer the question as to whether Games are Art.

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