Criticising Free Stuff.

raymanlegends

Sometimes it’s hard to be grateful…

 

I spent the weekend buried inside the Rayman Legends Challenges App.

To be fair, it’s the game broken up into chunks being released over the next few months. I’m surprised there’ll be a Wii-U version of the game at all, at this rate, because we’ll likely have seen and done most of the game by the time the newly-assigned end-of-August release date arrives. It’s also not bad at all. Very nice, actually, and terribly charming. It’s obviously a game made to take advantage of the Wii-U, and provoke mind-bending feats of focus and allow creative puzzles. I can’t imagine this being half as interesting with a normal controller, but that’s just me.

This doesn’t of course make it that interesting. We’ve seen this sort of thing with other games, more recently with Injustice: Gods Among Us, where a mobile app was released to generate some media attention and allow people to unlock costumes and bonuses inside the full game on release (whilst also possibly reassuring them that there are people who will buy the main game). Smaller offshoots of big titles for publicity, or as an apology, or even because it seemed like a good idea at the time are commonplace nowadays and this isn’t some radical conceptualised innovation at play. There is no Machiavellian Motivation underlining it. This is simply something in the way of an apology for the actual delay, allowing people to play the game and an admittedly healthy proportion of its levels to prepare them for an actual full-build release in August, that or simply good marketing that will get people to buy it. It’s a relatively uninteresting development. There’s nothing especially interesting about it.

However, what IS interesting is that a lot of people have criticised it. Some haven’t held back in their criticisms either.

Now, I’d like to clarify that I rather like the Challenges App. A brief review of it from me would probably go something like, “Whilst there is nothing especially new or daring about this title, it’s utterly beautiful, whimsically charming and well-executed enough that it will certainly provide a great deal of enjoyment from traditionalist platformer fans, especially those seeking a side-scrolling platformer that isn’t tied at the hip to Super Mario.”

Oddly, in that, I have fallen into the odd trap that plenty more are falling into. I have paid no money for the Challenges App. And yet, I have criticised it. Did you notice that?

“there is nothing especially new or daring about this title”

I didn’t mention that it was free. And it was the first thing that naturally came into my head when thinking of how to briefly review it. I like it. I enjoyed my weekend in it. But, notably, there’s that niggle in the back of my head. For me, at least, it’s the notion that this doesn’t exactly revolutionise or innovate platformers to any great degree. It doesn’t have to, of course. There’s no law stating it has to be a daring, fresh new take on the 2D Platformer. But whilst playing it, I didn’t feel it was a huge leap on Rayman Origins, say, or the more recent New Super Mario Bros. U – it’s a beautiful, artistic endeavour but it’s very content to tow the line and stay grounded in its roots. That’s both a compliment and a criticism, I am aware of that.

But plenty more went deeper than that, and criticised it based solely on the business-end of the deal which has delayed the game. Strangely, a good chunk of that criticism wasn’t even levelled at UbiSoft – the people who had the ultimate decision as to whether to delay or release the game as normal, and decided to wait until they could make X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3 ports of the title. No, the criticism was levelled at Nintendo, for somehow not fighting hard enough for the game, or their users, some of whom had bought a Wii-U solely for Rayman Legends. I don’t think Nintendo were terribly happy about the delay, but ultimately that decision is not up to Nintendo either. Think about it; would any ultimatum have been sufficient? Or would it have scared UbiSoft away from them, away from the company and the Wii-U – a console that UbiSoft have some unique content coming out for in the future. Would you put such a future at risk by demanding they release one game? I can see why Nintendo simply shrugged and muttered quiet obscenities under its breath over it. UbiSoft have content in the works exclusively for the Wii-U, with talk of a new Red Steel swishing around the Internet. That’s future money for Nintendo. Future press releases and content for a machine that is struggling in this rather odd “Gap Year” in which we’re not quite Next-Gen yet, but we’re somewhat closer than we’d expect. It’s not wise to bite such a hand when it’s likely to be feeding you a few months down the road.

Cry Of Fear - it's not as pretty as Resident Evil 6. But it might be scarier.

Cry Of Fear – it’s not as pretty as Resident Evil 6. But it might be scarier.

And in spite of that, I wonder – is it unfair to be criticising it at all? I mean, it’s free. I have wasted nothing but a couple of hours whilst waiting for my laundry to clean and dry.

It was a few years ago, but the late Steve Jobs got into a bit of a war of words with Ryan Tate, a Gawker Media blogger, who had criticised an Apple ad which claimed the iPad was “a revolution”. Ryan Tate argued that the word “revolution” was synonymous with freedom and on that basis, strongly opposed the notion that the iPad was revolutionary in any way. After a heated private exchange, Steve Jobs dropped the perfect bomb for any critic – “Do you create anything, or just criticize others and belittle their motivations?”

Now, it’s a fair criticism to make of a critic. Some of us do create things – I may not be the worlds best writer, but heck. I have seen a couple of pieces published, won a couple of competitions and I do this at least three days a week, if not more often five pieces in a week. As writers, we are fiercely protective of our work and I’ve sent more than my fair share of e-mails to unscrupulous individuals who are freeloading and reposting my pieces in a shameful display of plagiarism. It happens, and we move on. But I do criticise, often with a lot of love and understanding. I criticise sometimes because I love my hobby, I love the industry and I hate seeing things go wrong in it.

There are two sorts of criticism; Constructive and Destructive. Neither are mutually exclusive and both have their uses. Constructive criticism is based on the idea that people can learn from their mistakes, that things can be improved on. Constructive criticism is like a telling off from your parents, or a teacher, in that they hope that you’ve paid enough attention to their lecture that you’ll have taken something away from it. Not that everyone does – or that we all took something away each time. Sometimes constructive criticism simply falls on deaf ears. Destructive criticism is often frowned upon as it’s a very baseline angry “NO!” sort of criticism, the aggressive sort that is meant to underline never to do this again under any circumstances. It’s not ideal in terms of trying to improve someone else – it can simply end up with the person criticising looking like a real jerk – but it is a device not without its uses, as many games reviewers and people called Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw will attest to in their use of it for pronounced comedic effect. It’s getting the tone and balance right in many cases. If you are simply criticising for criticisms sake, then there’s no point. You can – and should – be called out on it.

But there are limits. And I wonder if sometimes, especially when what we are being given is free, if we are in any position to criticise.

There’s a game on Steam right now, called Cry of Fear. It’s an indie horror that has taken years to make, in the old Half Life engine, and you can go and download it for free right now. It owes an awful lot to Silent Hill, and that’s not an accusation because it’s pretty damned clear from the outset that this is rooted in that end of the horror spectrum. Not merely in tone either; there are randomised password puzzles, there are insta-death moments that the game gives you very little warning of and truth be told, some of the enemies lack much imagination. Some have accused it of being far too late to the world; that we have moved on, and that it’s a relic of a breed of the genre that died out when the PlayStation 3 hit the market. Some have criticised it for being too dark, or too complex. Some say it’s too hard, others say it handles a bit poorly, and others still argue that it’s not very obvious at times – indeed, in some places, it can be deliberately obtuse.

They’re all right in a sense. But, similarly, I too have been enjoying Cry of Fear. It’s not a fantastic survival horror, but it’s a decent stab at the genre. It’s got ambition. It works, and is very interesting. Sure, it can be cheap at times and yes, it doesn’t really tend to adapt to change of controls sometimes leaving you scratching your head. The hints can disappear too suddenly, the enemies can get stuck on the littlest things, and it’s all a bit rough. But – and here is the but – it’s free. Some people have dedicated years of their lives to this project, a game which is free and actually rather enjoyable once you get beyond the rough edges. They’ve tinkered with a game engine and done something quite remarkable in it. It does feel a bit like Silent Hill at times, but you know, I happened to like the earlier Silent Hill games. More than I like their rather bland and safe modern instalments, that’s for sure. Sure, having chainsaw noises in the background and throwing up shock-moments like a screaming face after a minute in pitch-blackness are cheap and clearly a one-shot deal in terms of thrills, but there is substance to it. A nicely crafted experience, plenty of cutscenes and narrative and all in all, it’s just a good bit of horror fun.

I paid nothing, I lost nothing, but I walk away from the game richer in experience. Is it perfect? No. But it’s free. And the people who made Cry of Fear clearly have a talent for this sort of thing. A talent that I would like to encourage. I would very much like to see more of this sort of thing. My worry is that if we all pile on and criticise it the way we would a $60/£40 purchase, we might scare them off. If you’re paying £40/$60, then yes. You’re paying a significant amount of money and you expect the product to be worth that money. Criticism of an expensive purchase is necessary in the world – a fact Steve Jobs never could quite grasp, in his idealised world – but similarly, if you’re being given something for free with no strings attached, why criticise? Why complain about it? It would be like getting the excess money back from your Water Company after overpaying for three years. “Oh, is this it?” Seriously, it’s A THOUSAND FREAKING POUNDS! What do you mean, “Is this it?” I… I can’t begin to describe the circumstances around that and how much I had to resist the temptation to call them out as an ungrateful little turd.

But we seem to be like this. We’re terrible at working out when and where is the best place to criticise and usually, when we do decide to criticise, we all seem to aim our fire in completely the wrong direction as well. I think we should all aspire to create something, often because in the process of creating something – be it a game, a portrait, a poem, a sculpture or a blog – you open yourself up to criticism. And learning to deal with criticism is an important part in our individual development. Learning to take it at face value, and correct yourself and allowing yourself to be open to the vague notion that you might be wrong is an important life lesson. Similarly, you will have to deal with those who will criticise you. Who will not like your creativity, for whatever reason. And learning to deal with them is equally as important, because these bottom-feeders will always be there in whatever walk of life you consider, always willing to put others down and wallow in their own smug self-superiority.

The thing is, a good critic can be a creator. They can create via their criticism. Roger Ebert is the obvious ready-made example of this and he will be sorely missed. Critics are necessary in the world. Without them, we can’t get better. Without them, we can’t move on. And let’s face it, without them, we’d have no-one to step onto on our frantic and ambitious climb upwards, would we?

It’s easy to say that these people can never be happy. To say that they’ll savage anything that falls into their line of sight and be jealous of those out of their reach. But we all have that inherently in us, at all times. Heck, look – I criticised two completely free things here. And I still often feel critical of other things I shouldn’t. I got a free T-Shirt the other week. The print all but came off in one wash. I found that very annoying. It was annoying. But to say, “Cheap sodding T-Shirts!” when it was as cheap as free does kind of demonstrate how we are. But thinking about it, it was a free T-Shirt. Yes, the print is no longer on it but it’s still a black t-shirt. It’s still wearable. And truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to walk around with an electricity boards logo emblazoned on the front forever anyway, so heck, the powers that be may even have done me a favour.

It’s when you take a step back and look objectively that you can see what needs criticism, and what needs encouragement. What needs change, and what simply can be left to slide. Many gamers are terrible at this, either with their heads wedged so far up their own backsides that they’ll keep chiropractors in business indefinitely or shoved so far up something else’s backside that they can’t see the wood nor the trees. Sony and Microsoft fans gloating at Nintendo’s recent misfortunes, candidly disregarding the criticism of a system that allows others to hijack your game for any reason, or the concept of an always-online console still pushing a technological novelty that we’ve all conceded is probably best left to drift from the gaming sphere into the experimental regions that can do so much more for it. Call of Duty fans mocking EA’s misfortune of late, yet forgetting that with a new generation, ActiVision are going to have to build a new games engine for the series. And such things can always go wrong. We sit and throw stones, all the while sitting in glass houses. And we’re surprised when we end up exposed and unable to manoeuvre around the surprise attack.

Sure, nothing is really perfect. But we need to choose our battles more carefully.

Or no-one will want to bother with free stuff at all. And that would be a shame.

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