Reading Between The Lines: “Hidden Depth”

I’m writing this here because I like to think that those that will see it will have a greater understanding of where I’m coming from than in my work blog, where voices of reason are likely to be drowned by the average fanboy who assumes there’s more to a game review than absolute face value. When I write something in a game review, that’s the only value you should assign to it. I’m not indicting or promoting a console, or a download service, or a genre when I write a review. It simply exists, right then and right there, very much on its own terms. I’m pretty blind to the apparent console war. I prefer to think of any machine that lets me play quality games as a gateway to entertainment, art, and possibilities.

When playing and writing about Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King, I already had virtual naysayers squabbling in my head. This was WiiWare’s first appearance, and the Final Fantasy brand has loyal followers. I had misgivings about a $15 game that charged fees for additional content like buildings and costumes, but value is about more than just an arbitrary number, but about the the proportions between the money you spend versus the quality of the entertainment you receive. Of course, there’s no magic formula. If there were, we’d all immediately know if a car was worth buying, or if that $35 entree is $35 worth of culinary satisfaction.

Unfortunately, My Life as a King isn’t very good, but as a launch title for the Wii’s new download service for original content, attitudes were cheery and outlook was bright. For a $15 title, the game looks nice, and it moves along smoothly, with nice animations and a general sense of charm and wonder. It’s a Square Enix title, so of course that kind of polish isn’t surprising. (Internal standards don’t allow us to use that cliched term, but in this case it aptly describes the game’s general sparkle.) But it’s overall level of quality is the antithesis of the more common circumstance of a game that burgeons with potential and suffers under its own ambition and flawed execution. Instead, it is a fundamentally imbalanced city builder that hides its shallowness and major core issues with a hard candy shell that should be commended, but called out for exactly what it is: a mask. It’s the gaming equivalent of those Elizabeth Taylor White Diamond commercials, where Liz is photographed with a lens so smeared with Vaseline that an uneducated viewer might assume she’s attractive. All you have to do is remove the filter to see the–ahem–less appealing reality.

I think it’s easy for me to see through that because I’ve been playing city builders and strategy games for so long. But a game with four types of houses, a tiny number of other building options, and a linear path to a singular goal isn’t a strategy title. There’s a major missing component: player choice. The game is so limited that you have relatively few meaningful choices, and the ones that do exist are so exploitable as to be almost meaningless. You know how SimCity games give you all that information about your city, so much that it can make your eyes bleed? You can actually make meaningful decisions using that information. In My Life as a King, a good amount of it is window dressing. There is no underlying web of tightly bound connections where fiddling with one stat can have repercussions on multiple levels of gameplay.

Not that any of these aspects have to be present for a game to be entertaining, but that brings me to my next point. I’ve heard a couple of friends describe the game as having “hidden depth,” which strikes me as a new buzz phrase that I hereby publicly vow to never use in a review from this moment onward. I understand its connotation, and I may have used it in the past to describe a few lighter games that have a tight sense of strategy, even if that strategy is purely top-level stuff. Games like Desktop Tower Defense and PixelJunk Monsters jump to mind, because they’re fundamentally simple but do have a more complex layer of cleverly-planned mechanics that don’t directly involve the player on a moment-to-moment basis, but instead engage the player on a broader scale.

So I get the phrase, but what worries me here is that really, depth isn’t hidden. A game isn’t an underground tunnel buried a few meters under your backyard, left undiscovered as you mow your lawn directly above it. This is a game, and there’s a difference between a spreadsheet with statistics, and actual depth. And in terms of your average city builder, My Life as a King has none of this stuff we call depth. It is, actually, shallow at its very core. Square knows this. It’s the very reason why the game has so few buildings, no complex relationships between multiple aspects of player decisions, so few standard city building mechanics. It’s because the house of Popsicle sticks holding the game together would topple over from the weight of it all. You know all those stats you can look over? In other city-building games, did you know that this information carries a lot of weight? In My Life as a King, you can safely ignore these numbers and succeed quite nicely. That’s fine, but don’t call it hidden depth, because it isn’t–it’s actually quite blatant shallowness.

I’m quite fine with simplicity. Simplicity is the shmup formula, the success of Katamari Damacy, the joy of Bejeweled and Tetris. I’m no enemy to lighter fare. I have played so much Bookworm on my cell phone during my trips to the city that I see letter grids in my head. But I think there’s this “casual gamer” fallacy at work that I don’t believe gaming journalists should cater to; that is, that standards don’t apply.

That worries me. You might hear one journalist deplore the ever-growing supply of shovelware on the Wii one moment, and then glowingly praise a Wii game that wouldn’t get any attention on another platform. I am thrilled that we are welcoming new game players into our fold, and am thrilled that the Wii and DS have been at the forefront of this movement. But we’re not doing anyone a favor by lavishing praise on games that aren’t due any, and it worries me that we’re so quick to proclaim journalists that do so as champions of the “casual gamer,” a phrase that I despise and is, by nature, pejorative. Standards have been evolving; just because the newest owner of a Wii hasn’t been paying attention doesn’t mean we must ignore those standards.

I don’t know that this is an issue that can be worked out, and I think we do need to change to adjust for our growing audience. But I think dismissing progress is the worst possible thing we can do. It’s a scary tightrope to balance on, but I am not ready to assume that every puzzle game, or every title that features Wii waggling or stylus tapping, should be reviewed as if I am your 70-year-old grandmother. It’s hard to call Boom Blox a casual savior when fantastic game like Puzzle Quest, Lumines, and Meteos are better ways to spend money.

And in the end, reviews don’t matter to many of those folks, no more than Rogert Ebert’s opinion matters to my mom when she’s buying her ticket. Of course we want that audience, but we let them down when we recommend mediocre games; pandering to them is the ultimate betrayal. So yes, I do worry that misguided efforts to appeal to the supposed “new gamer” only hurt us and that audience in the long run. But I worry even more that the same “new gamer” will render gaming journalism irrelevant.

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~ by fiddlecub on May 16, 2008.

5 Responses to “Reading Between The Lines: “Hidden Depth””

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  2. The only time I think I’ve ever used “hidden depth” to describe a game is in the puzzle genre, where games seem simple at first and anyone can pick up and play. The “hidden depth” comes into play when devoted fans devise weird, convoluted strategies that the average player would never imagine.

    As far as your review for FF:CC goes, you can probably guess that the added downloadable content was an immediate deal-breaker for me. I was hoping for better things out of LostWinds, but I realized that it doesn’t really matter for me anyway, because I’m out of space on my Wii and I don’t want to have to deal with taking things out of my “refrigerator.” I know piracy is a big concern for Nintendo, but do you think it’s possible that they’re losing more revenue from missed purchases than they would on piracy?

    Also, I wonder if other entertainment industries have to deal with the kind of crap you talk about in your first paragraph here. I suppose it at least says something that games journalism seems more involved with their audience than, say, movie critics.

  3. Great read, Kevin. I’ve havn’t had a chance to play My Life As a King. This little game called Grand Theft Auto IV has been consuming most of my time. You may have heard of it. Well, since I’ve now completed pretty much everything GTA IV has to offer besides those annoying street races and vigilante missions. But fuck that. Well, anyway, I have Bloom Blox waiting for me, which I hear mixed things about. I guess you thought it was mediocre yourself. Also, I havn’t downloaded Wii Ware yet so I’ll do that and probably just download My Life As a King. The concept sounds so awesome and is just such a “Why didn’t they think of this sooner?” concept. I admit that the whole DLC races thing turned me off BIG TIME. But the release schedule is looking fairly thin in the next few weeks. So, eh, why the hell not? I’ll be sure to share some of my thoughts after I spend some time with the game.

  4. Fan-freaking-tastic.
    I love how savegly you called out the “hidden depth”. It’s perfectly describes why the Smash Bros. tournament scene is a joke.

  5. i think the platform is great .. puzzle games dont do it for me though

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