Lots going on this week. There was the PlayStation 5 reveal, the country is torn apart by racism for roughly the 12,685th consecutive week, and The Last of Us Part 2 review embargo lifted!
I talked about the first thing on the GamesIndustry.biz podcast this morning, there are better places to hear more on the second thing, and now I'm going to talk about the third thing, but mainly by talking about The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Let's start with this Shigeru Miyamoto quote from the latest 10 Years Ago This Month column.
QUOTE | "I think this game will be remembered as a key turning point in Zelda's history." - Miyamoto, creator of the Zelda franchise, hyping up Skyward Sword during Nintendo's E3 2010 press briefing.
I don't know about you, but I certainly remember it as a turning point. It was the point where the franchise formula had become too fossilized and it was clear that a more fundamental revamp was overdue. Series producer Eiji Aonuma admitted as much in 2016 when he said Breath of the Wild's new approach was fundamentally a response to criticisms levied at Skyward Sword.
But when I look back at the Metacritic reviews for Skyward Sword, they don't seem that low. The game averaged a 93, which is a notch lower than its mainline predecessors Twilight Princess (95) or Wind Waker (96), but not exactly a reason to burn everything down and start over.
There's one review that stands out though: Tom McShea's 7.5 out of 10 score for GameSpot. (Disclosure: Tom is a longtime friend so don't expect me to be impartial about his review.)
It was a largely positive review that correctly identified some legitimate issues with the game and the aging Zelda formula, but Zelda fans cresting a years-long wave of hype when the review hit were not having it. Read the comments on that review if you need evidence.
No, wait, don't check the comments. Never read the comments.
Back then, critiques like Tom's for heavily hyped, heavily marketed triple-A games were few and far between. Certain parts of the review scale were just off-limits provided a game looked like it cost enough money to make or came from a big franchise or developer. But reviews like Tom's articulated many of the criticisms Aonuma was inspired by in making Breath of the Wild.
I should acknowlege here that Tom wasn't the only reviewer saying these things. For example, former GamePro reviewer / current USgamer editor-in-chief Kat Bailey used her four-out-of-five-stars Skyward Sword review to say "Zelda should be going back to its roots and becoming less linear, rather than moreso."
I'm not saying Tom and Kat are the reason we have Breath of the Wild (although in my personal games industry fanfiction, that is absolutely the case). I am saying that criticisms like Tom's and Kat's are healthy for an industry built on incessant iteration of what already works. They can help creators understand where their intent and the audience's experience aren't lining up, or—as in Aonuma's case—prompt them to rethink prior assumptions.
I think good criticism helps us look at things in new ways, from new angles, so that we can understand them better. It can challenge our understanding of something or deepen our appreciation of it. Good criticism is not particularly concerned about agreeing with us.
That brings us to The Last of Us Part 2, another heavily hyped sequel with a particularly "passionate" fanbase. The Metacritic average is a sterling 96. It seems like most reviewers loved it, but anyone who's been browsing the first wave of write-ups knows the game is not receiving universal acclaim thanks to the growing number of outlets who abandoned review scores.
"Like the nature consuming Seattle, or the outbreak consuming humanity, its ugliness overshadowed everything else," said Kotaku's Riley MacLeod.
"If you already think violence isn't the answer to many of the world's problems, the repeated lesson that killing is bad makes the game almost maddening," said Polygon's Maddy Myers.
"The Last of Us Part 2 feels complacent, yet also preoccupied with its predecessor," says Vice's Rob Zacny. "Every facet of the original game has been expanded and enlarged in the sequel, but not actually improved. It is as if its only inspiration is the original game, and the well of pop culture it was drawing from."
In short, these are the sort of dissenting views we didn't often see from major outlets when a big game came out a decade or longer ago. Pieces that dare to say it's not enough to be technically impressive and iterate on the last big thing; pieces that grapple with the themes and message of a game instead of (or in addition to) whether or not it plays well or looks pretty. In some ways it's a reflection of the growth of the games themselves that they are now better able to support that sort of criticism, but it's also a reflection of the maturation of games journalism in general.
Games journalism still has a ton of problems, including dire ones like how to fund it, but when it comes to the actual content available to people, the assortment of perspectives being articulated and approaches being pursued every single day through a variety of platforms, I'm not sure there's ever been a better time to be part of the audience.
QUOTE | "Many of our consumers are purchasing solely digitally these days. We thought that we would do what we typically try and do, and just offer choice." - Sony Interactive Entertainment's president and CEO Jim Ryan explains why the company is offering the PS5 in digital-only and disc-drive-equipped versions.
STAT | $977 million - The total U.S. gaming spending in May tracked by the NPD Group. The total was up 52% year-over-year, and represented the largest May total since 2008. It's down a chunk from April's $1.5 billion, but it seems the games industry is still benefitting from a pandemic keeping people indoors and limiting their entertainment options.
QUOTE | "We know that our core customer has long-since bought second devices and is looking ahead to the next-generation consoles in November. So we're certain that we saw new gamers come in. We don't have any reason to believe that it's a return to gaming—we think it's net new gaming predominantly." - GameStop CEO George Sherman believes the boost in hardware sales since the pandemic began has been largely attributable to first-time gamers.
QUOTE | "Due to the high volume of toxic behavior within some of our games, we have increased the frequency of reviewing offenses with the goal of acting more quickly to remove it from our games." - EA Sports says it will start doing more to clean up the long-standing problems with racist users and toxic players in its games.
QUOTE | "We demand the immediate removal of our brand from your channels, through social media companies." - The official Xbox Brazil Twitter account (translated from Portuguese) cuts ties with YouTube channel XboxMilGrau after reports emerged of how the channel's operators used it to harass women and minorities.
QUOTE | "It was insensitive and in this moment, it undermines the commitment we've made to stand against all acts of injustice, racism, prejudice, and hate." - Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent, explaining why the company's recently hired global head of consumer products resigned after sharing a post on his personal Facebook page about George Floyd, a black man killed by a police officer in Minneapolis last month.
QUOTE | "To all the other indie game developers out there, if you're interested in having an unsaturated marketplace, unlike Steam and Xbox and PlayStation, this is the platform to be on right now." - Armed and Gelatinous developer Rob Howland says arcades are the place for developers to be, in an interview conducted at PAX East a couple weeks before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and arcades around the country shut down.
QUOTE | "There is something incredibly powerful in being able to leave a workplace, commute home in whatever form, enter the front door, meet and hug the family who are missed through the day, and close that door to the workday" - Former Rockstar Lincoln studio head Mark Lloyd details his concerns about how crunching while already in a work-from-home environment could be even worse for developers' wellbeing.
QUOTE | "If you look at games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and look at how casual and social the interactive medium has become—the fact that people are treating games like Minecraft, Fortnite and even League of Legends as these social spaces. They're playing games, but they're chatting with their friends and they're hanging out. This is where culture's happening now." - Wave CEO and founder Adam Arrigo explains why in-game concerts could be the future of live music.