Tobold's Blog
Sunday, March 09, 2014
Toxic nostalgia

Stealth games are not part of the list of my favorite genres. I did play some, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Dishonored, but these are more the kind of games I don't buy on release but pick up for half price at a Steam sale if the reviews are good. So I didn't play Thief. But I read a couple of reviews on Metacritic, which gave it an aggregated review score of 68, not great. And of course every single review refers to the original Thief from 1998, which has a Metacritic score of 92. And I couldn't help but wonder if the review scores would have been different if the same game would have had a different name.

I am seeing more and more games which I would consider to be of medium quality released with names of great games from the past. There are a few games that end up being about as good as their predecessors from the last century (e.g. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Deus Ex: Human Revolution), but the majority look more like an attempt to sell a middling game with an appeal to nostalgia. I don't know if that has a positive effect on sales, but it seems to me that it has a negative effect on reviews: Expectations aren't met, and reviewers end up not being able to judge a game on its own merits, because the unfavorable comparison with a great game from the past gets in the way.

I'm not sure how many people buy a game unseen just because they are nostalgic about its name. What I consider far more deceptive is the use of nostalgia on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. For Thief I at least have the option to wait for the reviews. By definition your decision about whether to back a Kickstarter project can only be based on promises. And quite often that promise is based on past greatness, somebody wanting to make a game "just like the great ". Or even worse, somebody who was a developer on some great game and now claims that this game was great because of him, and that necessarily his next game will be just as great. To me all that sounds like a recipe for leading people into bad decisions they will regret later.

I don't believe great games are the result of a single great idea that is easy to replicate, nor are they the result of the genius of a single person. The history of gaming is full of names of developers who made a great game or great series of games, only to then create a bunch of unremarkable games. And it is full of bad clone games, where somebody tried to copy a great idea but failed to make a great game. Buying or backing a game because of a name is a mental shortcut that is statistically unlikely to lead to a good result.

I'd figured as much as far as Thief goes. I don't like stealth games or repetitive grindy maze games so from what I've read I would hate the original.

I got a cheap Steam key (19 euro's) of the new Thief and have been enjoying it though. It has some presentation issues but I am enjoying it more than Dishonored.

This is why I tend to watch the first few episodes of a "lets play" rather than take too much notice of reviews.

Reviewers by their nature are more likely to be swayed and have their judgement distorted by a name. I don't know why they have so much trouble understanding the difference between a sequel and a reboot.

For me personally the name just adds a bit of heritage to the games but makes no difference one way or another in terms of my expectations. I don't know why, but knowing that it has a bit of history and heritage (even there is little relation to the original) does make it more attractive than a new IP. So for me personally using the name of an old title can have positives but no negatives.

From the publisher/developers perspective it is indeed a risky choice that can go either way. I note that Tomb Raider (one of my favourite games of last year) kind of got marked down for the lack of old school puzzling and tombs whereas I never saw the same criticisms levelled at the (inferior IMO) Uncharted series that Tomb Raider was clearly based on.
I think there is a certain logic in buying a sequel, if the original is in a style you like, and you would be happy either with an objectively improved version of the original, or a slightly different variant of the original. E.g. if you like Civilisation you might be interested in seeing what happens when they add religion to the mix. Or just have cooler graphics.

The biggest problem is that nostalgia makes you expect too much, especially if the original was a long time ago. You can't step in the same river twice, as they say.

I think story-based games such as RPGs have the best chance of recapturing the magic. At least there's a legitimate chance that you no longer play the original because you know what happened.
Toxic nostalgia runs both ways....capitalizing on nostalgia is one thing, and constantly judging current games against the impossible standard of a fond memory is the other. I never played the original Thief games so the new game is pretty fun, albeit with a couple issues that can make or break it for some people. This phenomenon extends to a lot of genres now...and it does work both ways; devs might have better sales if they simply considered carefully whether they really wanted to make a sequel or try to create their own thing, too. Short term gain on sales from the fanbase that turns sour quick seems to me like a gamble not worth taking.....but considering that they do it again and again and again I guess the results must still pay off.

I am not sure if this is just a typo here or not Woody:

I note that Tomb Raider (one of my favourite games of last year) kind of got marked down for the lack of old school puzzling and tombs whereas I never saw the same criticisms levelled at the (inferior IMO) Uncharted series that Tomb Raider was clearly based on.

Tomb Raider as a series of games originally started in 1996 I think. I remember playing the original and enjoying it greatly. There have been many over the years.
If anything, I would argue that Uncharted is based on Tomb Raider, not the other way around.

" And quite often that promise is based on past greatness, somebody wanting to make a game "just like the great ".

In the case of Star Citizen, it is part nostalgia for the old Wing Commander game, and part blind faith that Chris Roberts will be able to make a great game. For example, one forum post in SC has a signature of "In Roberts We Trust"

I hope they are right and SC is a great game, but I"m more of a wait and see guy myself.
I don't know what's up with those people. The new Thief is very good gameplay-wise. Exploration and nonstandard approaches are encouraged. There is big variety in approaches to most of the challenges.

It does have technical flaws (framerate slows down sometimes), the plot is not on par with Torment (the whole three-faction concept was discarded), some annoying simplifications were introduced (like auto-map vs. hand-drawn map without Garret's position indicator in previous games).

All other flaws attributed to the game are imaginary. E.g., some people on Metacritic are complaining about linearity of plot missions, but I yet have to see more linear mission than following Mosely in Thief 2: Metal Age, to which the new Thief is so unfavourably compared.
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