Loaded Questions is a new weekly feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.
Taylor Vaughn: What games handle religion/religious belief (either real or fictional) in an interesting way as part of the gameplay (rather than just a theme)?
Jed Pressgrove: There are three main examples that come to mind (from weakest to strongest): The Shivah, Proteus, and Earthbound.
The Shivah is a 2006 point-and-click adventure in which you play as Russell Stone, a Jewish Rabbi who has lost hope and made questionable decisions regarding his congregation. He becomes a detective of sorts when he learns that a former member of his synagogue has been murdered. As in many other point-and-click adventures, you engage in dialogue as the protagonist, and when it’s your turn to respond to a character, the game gives you a few optional lines, one of which is always labeled a “Rabbinical response.” Although I like what developer Dave Gilbert was going for here, this element, which results in a rhetorical question from Stone if I recall correctly, often comes off as contrived or merely amusing. Do note, however, that many critics went ga-ga over Mass Effect’s stilted dialogue choices, as if they were innovative rather than reductive, when it was released in 2007. The Shivah’s handling of this approach was superior to Mass Effect’s.
Many critics see Proteus as a “walking simulator” or “first-person walker” or “non-game.” These are childish labels that trivialize the spiritual daringness of the game, which uses walking and flying to situate the idea of being a Christian disciple and lover of creation in a mythical context (Proteus was the name of a Greek sea god). People frequently recall the main section of Proteus in which you interact with different forms of life on an island. But at the beginning of Proteus, you’re literally walking on water, just as Peter wanted to do with Jesus in the Gospels, before you get to the island. After you start traversing the island, you can eventually move time forward and experience all four major seasons. During the final season, you ascend to the heavens, which, in terms of play, is a major departure from the walking and running you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s an ending of joy that evokes the concept of eternal salvation.
Last but not least, Earthbound’s climax involves a worldwide prayer to defeat an enemy who seems unbeatable. As Paula, the lone female hero of the main party, you could always pray during battle for a random effect, in the game’s joking way. Thus, I never prayed as Paula because of the unpredictability. But when you reach the final battle, you throw everything you can at Giygas, the final boss, and he just keeps surviving and growing more dangerous. The first few times I fought Giygas, I failed because I assumed I could beat him through normal attacks. Then, during one session, it hit me: why not try praying with Paula? It was the only thing I hadn’t tried in previous attempts.
Initially, prayer only does a little damage to Giygas, but as you perform the action round after round, the game cuts to other places of the world where characters you had met sense that they need to pray as well, and the damage steadily increases. By the final time you pray, you’re inflicting massive damage to Giygas, who fades away. Through this unique take on turn-based combat, Earthbound suggests that spiritual unity can help humanity overcome its worst fears and obstacles.
Jim Bevan: Has your opinion changed on any games that you were initially very positive or negative towards?
Jed Pressgrove: Yes. The best example of either case was my experience with Final Fantasy Tactics many years ago before I left home for college (I’m 33, for those keeping score). I remember trying to get into it twice and quitting out of frustration both times. Although I started playing turn-based RPGs at around the age of 7, I wasn’t as familiar with the turn-based tactical genre, and Tactics is unrelenting if you don’t think more defensively. I thought it was a miserable excuse for a Final Fantasy game. Thankfully, I tried it a third time and was blown away by everything you could do. I liked it so much that despite getting stuck at the save point right before you face Wiegraf/Belias (I didn’t have the right party to win the fight), I started the entire game over (a loss of 20+ hours) just to properly prepare myself for the Wiegraf/Belias fight. Beating that boss was a great feeling when it finally happened.
Ian Mossner: What do you think about the timing of your reviews? For example, Kingdom Come: Deliverance recently got a patch. What if you had reviewed the game after the patch? Your review would have been entirely different.
Another example: upon release, Dragon Ball FighterZ was unfinished, but now that certain elements have been added, if you were to review it, the criticism of it being unfinished could not be repeated by you.
Another example: in your review of Iconoclasts, you mention a dialogue segment where soldiers engage in “locker room” talk, but that segment has been entirely changed based on my recent playthrough. So people who play it now will not experience what you did.
So I guess my question is how important is timing in your reviews?
Jed Pressgrove: It can be important because it can give me the opportunity to show my values as a critic and human being. One of my beliefs is that if you’re going to sell a physical or digital thing, it should be finished. Bottom line, end of story. I don’t care if you’re talking about a car, a song, a shirt, whatever. I grew up in a poor working-class family, so I know how precious money can be. People should finish their work before selling it to anyone. Otherwise, it’s a ripoff, and it shows me that you, as a creator, have little respect for yourself, other people, and the state of the working class.
Here’s one tricky part: what is “finished”? With video games, if the game is in an alpha or beta stage, it’s unfinished. I’m against playing and reviewing early-access titles for this reason. I don’t want to pay for or play anything unfinished, and I don’t want to encourage other people to do it, either, because early access is a bullshit trend that needs to stop.
Although Kingdom Come: Deliverance wasn’t an early-access game on the day of its release, it might as well have been. I can forgive a glitch here and there. I can forgive some imperfections (though I can and will criticize those imperfections). But if just about every part of your game suggests that you didn’t put in the work to release the game in a state that wouldn’t rip off someone, you’re just as bad as the early-access grifters, and your game more than likely looks and plays like crap. And honestly, even though you mention a new patch in your question, I’m still not convinced my review would be that different. There was a patch for the PS4 version before my review was published, and the game still suffered from everything I mentioned in the review. That team of developers is so inept that I have no faith in the game.
But let’s assume Kingdom Come: Deliverance wasn’t the biggest technical failure that I played since last year’s abominable Troll and I. My review would have focused more on the game’s story and attention to realism. Based on what I could gather through my glitch- and bug-ridden experience, the game was still nothing to write home about on any front. From this angle, timing may not matter as far as whether I like the overall game or not, but it would certainly affect the thrust of my essay. Perhaps my review of Kingdom Come: Deliverance would have been more cultural or political in nature.
I haven’t played Dragon Ball FighterZ, so I can’t comment on it specifically. I will say that the trend for fighting games to be “live services” is annoying. The fighting game community never shuts up about tiers and unfairness, so as long as the cycle of player whining and patching continues, who knows what fighting games will look like. At the same time, I have played well more than 100 fighting games, so I can often spot a substandard example of the genre when I play it, even when it receives frequent patches, like Street Fighter V. With this in mind, timing of reviews might be less important for certain genres.
Your example of Iconoclasts is interesting and presents a different kind of potential dilemma. Changed dialogue can change one’s interpretation of a game’s theme or message. So timing in such a case could be extremely critical. Fortunately, that scene you’re referring to in Iconoclasts, if it is indeed different (I haven’t been able to confirm it yet due to my busy schedule), doesn’t play a significant role in my overall interpretation of the game. I just thought it was a fascinating scene that deserved to be mentioned in a largely descriptive sentence.