Slightly Broken Games and the People Who Love Them
What do we say about a great game with great, fixable problems?
I used to review a lot of games, and because I was a freelancer specializing in a lot of under-served genres, I was often reviewing games that might charitably be called mid-tier or budget titles. In retrospect, many of these games would be more accurately described as dogshit.
You don't know how joyless games can be until you've been a novice freelancer working that reviews hustle. There was the time I had to replay several hours of X: Rebirth because an early bug led to an un-completable, mandatory quest later in the game. Trust me when I tell you there was no part of X: Rebirth that you wanted to be replaying. Or there was my Lost Weekend with Legends of Pegasus, which I don't think you can even buy anymore it was so irredeemably broken. And the more disastrously broken a game was, the more time I had to pour into it just to try and fight past the bugs to find out what the hell the game was attempting to do so you could talk about that.
But what about those great—and greatly flawed—games that come around so often, particularly on the PC? To this day, STALKER is notoriously buggy and anyone playing it almost certainly has to turn to the game's extensive mod scene for relief. The same goes for most of the Besthesda-era Fallout games, particularly New Vegas. I'm not sure anyone is going to stand-up for Andromeda, but it also wouldn't surprise me if three years from now someone is lamenting the fact that the game never got a fair shot thanks to its poor technical reputation.
Now, just the other week, my old editor Dan Stapleton made some waves when he slammed Prey in his review for IGN and assigned it a low score due to a game-breaking bug that corrupted his save files and killed his playthrough (the score was amended following a major patch for Prey). That kind of situation was always my nightmare: a problem that I knew was unusual, in the midst of an otherwise good game, that nevertheless rendered it completely unplayable in some key way. It would certainly be fixed, but in the meantime, the game had completely derailed. That was the experience you could share with readers.
Sometimes I wonder at how the critical and technical discussions are intertwined in a lot of games writing. It's this apples-and-oranges conversation I was never totally comfortable with. With reviews that lingered over those technical problems, I sometime felt I'd painted a temporary and distorted image of a game. Honest and accurate for that moment in time, but also liable to suffer from fading relevance.
So I guess my question is: how much weight do you attach to a game's purported stability and performance, and do you want that to be part of the main conversation around it? How do you assess those games that are a little bit broken, but also a little bit brilliant?