Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Merchant of Venice, Citizen Kane, and… Din’s Curse?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 22, 2010

We’re in Cedar City, Utah this week. It’s home to the Utah Shakespearean Festival which is going on now, so we hit The Merchant of Venice tonight. It was my daughters’ first live Shakespeare play, and I wanted them to see a comedy rather than a tragedy.

I don’t think we could have picked better. Tony Amendola (Stargate SG-1, Zorro, Blow, Dexter, and a zillion other shows…) played Shylock. He was amazing. Shylock is already one of the best kinds of villains – very believable and almost sympathetic. He’s a guy who has borne all kinds of hatred and venom, until his pride and thirst for vengeance takes him too far. Amendola’s performance really infused Shylock with even more humanity. You can’t condone his attempted murder, but you can understand his pent-up rage.

Okay – bringing it back to games a bit. Kinda. I’m kind of a lousy critic myself, but it occurs to me that if The Merchant of Venice was debuting as a new play or film today, it would probably get nitpicked to death by real critics. I’m sure it did, back in 1597 or so.I guess after standing the test of time, and especially after surviving the death of your original critics, you get something of a pass by all but the boldest critics.

I am old enough to remember when Raiders of the Lost Ark was new, and remember all too well one review in a San Diego paper (I was visiting relatives at the time as a kid) that just trashed it, giving it a no-star (“turkey”) rating. I wonder if he ever lived that down, or if he went through the rest of his career proud of his slam on thw movie. I mean, yeah, you could drive a dump truck through some of the plot holes and silliness of Raiders. Photo-electric eyes that can detect the breaking of a beam of sunlight in the ancient temple? And how do you hide in / on a German U-Boat on a trip along the Mediterranean, exactly? I saw Das Boot – wouldn’t that be kinda like hiding in a VW bug packed full of teenagers on a cross-country trip?

But hey, it was a hugely successful movie and I loved it, in spite of it defying all logic. It’s not as immune to nitpicking as Shakespeare’s most famous plays, but it’s bigger than any critic. As it should be.

The same applies – to a lesser degree – to computer games. I’m reminded of a hilarious review of Chess if it were reviewed by the standards we apply to video games. (I also recommend this old article by Jessica Mulligan that explains how “William Shakespeare was the Aaron Spelling of his day” and how this relates to Games As Art). You won’t necessarily get ridiculed for pointing out the imperfections of X-Com or Super Mario Brothers – well, okay, you will, it just won’t be universal – but they are pretty immune to criticism at this point.  Ya just can’t mess with the classics.

You have people like Roger Ebert claiming video games don’t have the legitimacy of capital-A-Art, and others asking when we’re going to see the Citizen Kane of video games. But from my rudimentary knowledge of cinematic history, I think they were still looking for the Citizen Kane of movies years after Citizen Kane.  It wasn’t really recognized as a landmark event until about a decade or so after its release. I figure nothing’s gonna help the “legitimacy” of video games more than the simple passage of time.

And so I, personally, have a problem being objective about these things when it comes to games. And why I think I suck as a reviewer, even though I do try my hand at it from time to time. I have trouble setting masterpieces on their appropriate pedestal for comparison. Sure, I’ll use ’em for comparison and all – the benefit of them being classics is that they are well-known and usually well-made. But I have a tough time explaining why Diablo II is superior to Din’s Curse other than – well, it’s Diablo II, it’s supposed to be the best, isn’t it? In spite of some basic similarities, and a clearly bigger budget and higher production values for Diablo II, there’s a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons going on there that are very hard to objectively quantify. Likewise, you can offer me a hundred reasons why Starcraft was superior to Rise of Nations, but it doesn’t change the fact that I played (and enjoyed) Rise of Nations tons more.

Don’t get me to compare Citizen Kane with pretty much any of my favorite movies, either. Or Merchant of Venice with The Foreigner. I love ’em both, but my enjoyment and appreciation of them isn’t in proportion with their age or critical acclaim.

Filed Under: General - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Calibrator said,

    Most games reviewers don’t have it easy – especially not in markets where the readers demand a 100%-scale (this is way more extreme in Germany than the US, I understand). This is practically the only entertainment sector where such a relatively precise evaluation is being done (“attempted” – as nobody guarantees you anything) by critics.

    Classics often aren’t rated that high, actually, and many 90+ titles get forgotten quickly. In fact, classics aren’t made by critics but the gamers by buying and/or playing them for a long time – and by other games companies: By more or less cloning them.

    With movies or books it’s the same, actually (look how many space operas came out after Star Wars and erotic thrillers after Basic Instinct), but critics have it a bit easier: They can judge the movie or book by words or use a very rough scale (go see it!, maybe see it, rent it, don’t see it!) and they don’t need to compare the movie/book to older stuff as the competition is what just came out, not the classics. Movie critics don’t recommend to watch Citizen Kane again, if a current movie fails in their opinion…

    Most readers will also read the complete review to judge the critics’ opinion and why he came to his conclusion. With games reviews this is often different: A greatly hyped game gets a 8,7 -> “Why bother to read the review? It got what it deserved!”
    A mediocre game according to the previews gets a 6,5? “Why bother reading the review in the first place – it’s a flop, isn’t it?”

    Of course the same thing happens at IMDb but there is one distinct difference: Here we have a combined score of many voters. 60,000 voters giving a 4.5 for a certain movie may indicate that it’s “less worth your time” than The Godfather. Problem is, the movie in question may appeal *more* to you than The Godfather, even if the majority of 60,000 people say otherwise…

    A final word about critics of yore: They weren’t the allegedly objective paid hacks of today but often simply competitors who wanted to discredit enemies in their field whether it’s the arts, sciences or -later- companies (see Edison vs. Tesla for example).

  • Tesh said,

    Tony Amendola, hm? This would have been a good year for us to have gone, it sounds like. I’ll be in the neighborhood this weekend, but it’s hard to do the ‘Festival on short notice.

    Oh, and Ebert is a sideshow. It’s baffling to me that gamers and devs even bother with the guy. Are we that hard up for validation?

  • Demiath said,

    Haven’t played Din’s Curse myself but Diablo 2 has an insane amount of depth and attention to detail in the loot-oriented character customization which is still virtually unmatched; not to mention that its gigantic user base is likewise unparallelled in the roguelike genre (making multiplayer much more of a realistic, long-term option for those who care about that particular game mode). Thus, it wouldn’t surprise me if Diablo 2 is still, “objectively” speaking, a better game than most of its clones…even though I personally would rather play Torchlight these days (for the colorful, professional visuals and the relative novelty of that game’s environments and enemies, if nothing else).

    As for StarCraft 1, while the interface has surely begun to show its age I’d say no RTS comes even close to the immensely enjoyable sci-fi epic that is SC1’s singleplayer campaign. Rise of Nations is an especially good example of a game that – despite great gameplay mechanics – feels like a pale shadow of earlier milestones in RTS gaming due to its virtually non-existent story mode. It might be a fluke of history that golden era RTSs were so heavily defined by their strong narratives (simply because Westwood and Blizzard happened to make a lot of effort in that department), but since that’s how it was I find it hard to care much about present-day realtime strategy games for which SP, at best, comes off as a mere afterthought.

  • John C said,


    “Early submarines generally traveled the oceans on the surface of the water under diesel power, which requires access to the air for inlets to the engines. They could only travel short distances under water, as this required electric propulsion and the battery power of the submarine did not last very long.”

    I’m not saying the movie was perfect 🙂 But that scene is at least *potentially* accurate (also assuming no crew-lookouts, as per the faq).