So, yeah, this happened:
As I said on Twitter, this was actively (nay, “authentically”) painful to watch.
Why? Bunch of reasons.
First, I don’t feel like this interview should have happened in the first place. It wasn’t even really an interview, or at least it wasn’t clear who was interviewing who. It LOOKED like a designer taking a writer to task for what he’d written about the game. If it really was that, then there was no reason for Gamespot to go through with this, because it opens the door for developers and publishers to gleefully intimidate everybody and anybody who says a mean thing about their games. Writers aren’t necessarily going to be the snappiest debaters, and that’s not what they’re being paid to do. McShea would have been better served by some sort of email exchange scenario…which would have been interesting to read.
Second, there was just a complete lack of communication there. Someone needs to tell Greg Goodrich that “authentic” is basically a synonym for “realistic”. Claiming that you’re being “authentic” but not “realistic” just doesn’t work as a defence. I’m not saying he was being deliberately disingenuous. How could I? I’m not camped out in the man’s head and have no idea why he’d make one argument over the other. I believe he was being honest, but never clearly communicated what he thought the difference was.
Third, though, was the fact that Tom McShea is a game writer who should know what the hell ludonarrative dissonance is. I feel like Clint Hocking needed to roll in from stage right, yell “LUDONARRATIVE DISSONANCE!!” and then run off or something, just to tell Tom what he’s on about. The thing he’s complaining about, and that Goodrich is avoiding, is that attempts to add in plot and characterization moments that are “authentic” mean absolutely jack if they’re being constantly undermined by the gameplay.
I can understand why Goodrich wants “fun” gameplay, and why he’d be following the Battlefield/Call of Duty lead. They’re popular and, yes, they’re a lot of fun. But those games aren’t remotely “authentic” in their combat in any way, shape or form. Attempts to try to make a serious, authentic, powerful story in the face of this cartoonish version of military combat is going to be so incoherent that it’s just going to come across as laughable. No matter how many real Marines or SEAL guys you base your story on, it’ll end up as farce.
Yet McShea never really brought that one home. Maybe he would have if Goodrich hadn’t been in his face.
Another thing that bugged me, though, is one that never really gets discussed that much, either in the McShea piece or in the interview:
What about the guys on the other side?
One of the reasons people were really offended and disturbed by Medal of Honor, from what I saw around Twitter and elsewhere, was that real-life tragedies were being served up as gaming content. The tragic situation in the horn of Africa that has given rise to the Somali piracy problem is not something to be treated lightly, and a lot of the people in those situations end up having little choice about who they can or can’t fight with. It isn’t just the stories of the western soldiers that deserve telling; there’s a lot of stories on the other side too, of people who are just as human as the men they’re fighting against.
Yes, the men (and it is almost universally men) who send them in are often brutal warlords and dictators. Many will be violent thugs. But you can’t blithely assume that most of the people you’re fighting are going to be like that. That was already somewhat of an issue with Modern Warfare, but Modern Warfare carefully subverted and leveraged the issue; from what we’ve seen with Medal of Honor, that isn’t happening here. It’s played straight.
That’s where these claims to “authenticity” completely fall down, unless there’s a whole lot more here that I haven’t seen. These are complex sociopolitical and geopolitical issues that sweep up a lot of people into conflicts that they don’t really want yet can’t see the means to avoid. If you want to be “authentic”, you can’t handwave that away and turn the opposing force into straw figures in a warmed-over shooting gallery. You can do goofy depictions of violence, and you can do realistic, disconcerting depictions of violence…but mixing them together ain’t gonna fly.
(McShea did touch on this a bit with the whole “headshot!” thing, and that’s where I thought he was strongest, but he didn’t seem to follow through on it.)
One last thing: I winced a little when I found out that McShea was making these critiques without first-hand experience of the game. Goodrich had a fair point in bringing it up; McShea probably should have made a point of trying out the game before sitting down to discuss it. In fact, a really great way to do this would be to have the discussion while playing the demo, which would have given McShea the opportunity to show what he was getting at. He needed to know what he was talking about, and it would have been good for him to be able to illustrate his points.
I suspect the PR handlers wouldn’t be okay with it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Goodrich were wary too; but if Gamespot had made it into a condition for the interview, it might have made for an excellent moment of game criticism, instead of the somewhat painful experience we saw here.