the payoff

[EDIT:  I realize that, as I’d guessed in the first paragraph, I’d forgotten to talk about a bunch of things; those work-related interruptions did indeed screw up my train of thought.  Additional thoughts will be added below.]

I’m having one of those days where I’m not particularly busy, but I can guarantee that as soon as I start getting on a roll here, I’ll be given some work to do.  I’ve been wanting to write here all week, frankly, and the whole week has been in this same sort of vein; I’m terribly idle right up until the moment I decide to be personally productive, and then I’ll get handed a large project within the next 1-5 minutes of that decision.  If I’m stalling here in this introductory paragraph, it’s because I’m reluctant to suddenly lose my actual blog-worthy trains of thought.

As it happens from time to time, I’m starting to have trouble articulating this blog’s primary purpose.  I like having a blog, and I don’t plan on deleting this one; it’s just that I simply don’t have the time/inclination to do any serious criticism here.  I’ve noticed lately that to the extent I write anything even remotely critical at all, it’s mostly just “I like this, I don’t like that.”  Superficial, not particularly hard-hitting, shallow.  Again, it’s difficult for me to find time to write the way I’d like to, and I’m currently in this phase where I’m having trouble really getting into things the way I used to, which has a tendency to result in apathy.  I’m not sure if this is a side effect of my new head meds or not; one positive side effect of these head meds is that my ability to simply let things be what they are is a lot stronger.

  • Westworld:  I’ve started to notice (on Twitter, at least) that there are regular watchers of this show who are becoming angry and impatient at the show’s very slow doling out of information.  There are too many mysteries and not enough answers, they say, even though we’re only halfway through the first season.  There is now a struggle between the pleasure of anticipation and the need for instant gratification, and I can’t help but wonder if Netflix and the culture of binge-watching has ruined the ability for a television show’s cliffhanger to be effective.  Westworld reminds me a lot of Lost, in this way, but Lost suffered from a different problem; Lost’s mysteries overwhelmed the show itself to the point where there were no answers that could ever possibly be adequate.  I remain very optimistic that Westworld will not suffer this fate; each episode has been meticulous in its construction and I remain confident that the showrunners know exactly what they’re doing.  (The show’s only made one real blunder, as far as I’m concerned – the dopey and crude lab techs from this last week’s episode are gross and annoying, and their scenes aren’t nearly as well-written as everyone else’s.)  In any event, I’m just grateful to watch Anthony Hopkins kill it on a weekly basis.
  • Cubs:  I am no longer the die-hard sports fanatic that I used to be; among other things, I found my intense superstitious behaviors to be an impediment to the simple enjoyment of watching a game (i.e., if my team needed to score a run / goal / touchdown, I’d have to leave the room and pee; I could only listen to the Yankees on the radio, even when the radio broadcasting became abhorrent to listen to, etc.).  Also my wife and I cut the cable cord a few years ago and live sports, for the most part, became something I simply couldn’t watch, which made this transition into the non-sports-caring person I am today that much easier.  In any event, I’m still terribly superstitious, as it turns out, and so even though I was rooting for the Cubs, I was terribly afraid of saying or doing anything that might jinx them.  The most I could allow myself to do was to “Like” the various Cubs-related Facebook posts that my family and friends posted, and that was it.  I know it’s ridiculous, and this is why I’ve forcibly stopped myself from caring so much.  [EDIT:  So, anyway, GO CUBS!  Very happy for all my Cub friends and family.  I, of course, didn’t watch.  You’re welcome.]
  • Games:  It’s big-budget first-person-shooter season, and as such I’ve decided to give in and rent the big three.  I’m still in the first mission of Battlefield 1, and while it’s technically very impressive I’m not, like, craving it.  My rental copy of the new Call of Duty is en route, as is Titanfall 2; I ordinarily would be happy to ignore both of these games except that their single-player campaigns have been getting surprisingly great reviews, and that’s the only bit of those games that I tend to get involved with.  So be it.  [EDIT:  I also ended up giving up on XCOM 2I can tell it’s a good game, but I also know I’m far too intimidated by it to give it its proper due.  I may pick it up again during a release lull, but I wouldn’t expect myself to get much farther than I already did.]
  • Books:  Man, it’s been a while since I’ve talked about books here.  The last thing I mentioned was The Nix, which I adored.  Since then, I’ve read:
    KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money J.M.R. Higgs A-
    The Tresspasser Tana French A
    Death’s End Liu Cixin B+
    Pym Mat Johnson B-
    His Bloody Project Graeme MaCrae Burnet B

    I am now currently reading I.Q. by Joe Ide, and even though I’m in the early going I’m enjoying it quite a lot.

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.