Recently, two writers (perhaps the only two writers) I consistently respect in the video game journalism field both criticized things that I like in separate, completely unrelated articles. Since I just know they will rush compulsively to my tiny blog to dutifully endure my sage criticism when they see the pingbacks appear on their sites, I feel compelled to set them straight.
Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins finally compelled me to compose this post when he called Team Fortress 2 “twenty-four croquet balls banging around in a dryer,” which is such a hilariously apt description that I actually laughed aloud. But, to him, this is a bad thing:
Nothing that happens in that game ever made sense. … It’s FPS slapstick and it will not allow me to care about it.
What do you need to care about? It’s a bloody shooter. It is a highly polished pure game with one of the most balanced rule sets I’ve seen outside of Starcraft or … chess? Every ability has a counter, and every strategy has a weakness. Both twitch skill and experience matter. I’ll turn the rest of my praise for the game over to Craig Pearson and his love letter posted at Rock Paper Shotgun.
What doesn’t matter is motivation. If you think TF2 is pointless, then you shouldn’t play shooters. It’s FPS combat stripped to the core. No “leveling up.” No ridiculously overpowered earned items. If you can’t shoot (or backstab or engineer), then you’re fukkin’ dead. The story, what little need there is for it, is deeply subversive, almost nihilist. And the slapstick ragdoll physics make it impossible for you to take it seriously, which you shouldn’t be doing anyway.
But Jerry is just being Jerry. What actually torqued me was Michael Lowell’s bonkers review of Limbo over at Learn to Counter. I smell trolling here, and that’s beneath Mikey’s usual astuteness.
What people didn’t realize in championing Limbo as another head of the independent game movement and watching Limbo earn a stunning 90 on MetaCritic (with a ridiculous sixteen “perfect scores”) is that Limbo is just as bad as the games they despise, a game devoid of challenge or difficulty, a game devoid of proper design principles, a game that strips freedom and choice from the player in the hope of turning an interactive medium into a rigid and fixed artistic statement.
No, what people do realize is that championing Limbo helps to break the stranglehold that the Dumbass Manchild Aesthetic has on AAA gaming right now. Despite Mikey’s sniffing dismissal of the game’s brutally cheap traps and black and white presentation, I found them to push a unifying theme of helplessness and sadism. The game has a lot in common with The Binding of Isaac, which also radically alters player agency by randomizing powerups and levels, often presenting a nearly impossible challenge. Limbo is more focused, though, forcing the player to experience specific set pieces with a very limited skill set. Yes, the game is a trollercoaster from start to finish, but that is the point.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to make your own story with lots of options and a sporting chance, play TF2.