Coming to video games when I did, in the late nineties/early noughties, there were certain enshrined truths passed down from the mount by journos: Miyamoto was a genius, but Iwata deserves his due; GoldenEye 007 is the multiplayer experience to beat; Suikoden II is a classic, and you need to shell out however much money necessary to play it; Beyond Good and Evil is one of the greatest games ever made, and perhaps as a result of this unlikely achievement, we would never ever get a sequel. These were all things that had been decided long before I arrived, and were simply to be accepted as fact.
Along with these truths inherited from the British gaming press, I also ended up with a hereditary and deep-seated cynicism, something which seeped into my young bones (porous and brittle, like that of a bird, that’s how kids bones work right?) and remains there to this day. Sort of like damp. These writers were sarcastic, arch, providing a form of reporting which typified our nation’s outlook of ironic distancing and pessimism, especially compared to the unfettered enthusiasm and optimism of their American cousins, or the respectful no-questions-asked style of Japanese publications.
I was too young to have witnessed the offbeat heyday of Amiga Power, and our family desktop wasn’t up to running any of the titles lampooned in PC Zone, but many of those writers had held on or expanded their orbits, taking staff writing jobs at places like Computer and Video Games or Games Master. It was these writers — with their wry screenshot captions, in-jokes and cynicism — who helped form the vocabulary with which I approached video games in my youth.
As with any formative experiences, that vocabulary is largely still with me in adulthood, albeit deepened and expanded thanks to wider reading in the meantime. It’s a good thing I carry it within, too, since externally that kind of games writing is all but gone from the mainstream writing press; in British print publications, the last vestige is Edge, and even they are edging closer to the press release-regurgitation model closest rival GamesTM adopted a few years ago now. And rather than being the radical platform it once promised, the internet has homogenised voices to the point that certain sites are almost indiscernible from each other in the breathless, uncritical and personality-free writing they largely peddle (with some obvious exceptions!) Even Giant Bomb is, largely, positive and lacking in that almost bitter cynicism when it comes to everything from the triple-A to the indie. This may, largely, be a good thing.
The dominant trend in mainstream games writing, in the UK and beyond, has swung in the direction that developers probably prefer: reporting on announcements, releases and news with an overall positive, sunny disposition, lacking the barbs and sarky asides that got me through many a review on Teletext’s “Digitiser” pages. Again, this may largely be a good thing. At a certain point cynicism will metastasize into miserablism. You become blind to anything good. At that point, you might as well abandon video games altogether (with a side-note that there remains plenty to be cynical about in gaming, especially in the toxic culture surrounding it, and I completely understand the people who have indeed chosen to quietly disappear rather than weather that with a smile). The cynicism of the games journalism I grew up with was always tempered by the fact that the people behind it were, on occasion, disarmed by a new title. Their constant sniping was an agitation for games to be better, because they really wanted them to, and believed that they could.
Beyond Good and Evil, upon its original release, was one of those milestones. It’s almost the dictionary definition of a critical darling, in that praise for the game was near-universal, and nobody bought it. I had played Rayman 2, and enjoyed it, without quite comprehending the huge leap between the 2D side scrolling predecessor and its 3D platforming sequel. Beyond Good and Evil looked strange to me, in concept and in screenshots, with a games design that was familiar from that Ubisoft title but an aesthetic and narrative just different enough to be unusual. I didn’t play it at the time, but I did read all the usually-arch journos being as sincere in their praise as they were usually guarded behind walls of irony. This was an (almost) unqualified triumph, was the consensus, and everybody should play it. There were reports that the game sold so poorly that stores were discounting it by up to 80% in an attempt to shift stock. Instantly the game achieved the martyr status that those lauded-but-unsuccessful games before it had been given: like so many cinnamon rolls, this games was too good for this world, too pure. We did not deserve it. It appeared a miracle that we would get to play it at all. Asking for a sequel would simply be too much. Accept it. It’ll never happen.
Then I spent years reading those same journos, whilst accepting that a Beyond Good and Evil 2 would never feasibly exist, continuing to return to the original. It was never far from the lips of those happy few who had experienced it whenever the topic of best or most underrated games came up. The HD remake a few years later was heralded with excitement, but nobody took it as reason to get their hopes up for a follow-up. It was never going to happen. Market forces had decided as such. Even when Ubisoft announced a second game, all the way back in 2008, there were few who took the promise seriously.
The intervening years seemed to prove the cynicism correct. In almost a decade since then, director Michel Ancel had occasionally commented on the development or shared concept art through his social media accounts, but the fact that it was taking so long and acknowledged delays — like the entire team putting the project on hold so they could make Rayman Legends — didn’t bode well for this thing ever getting released. Duke Nukem Forever, possibly the most notorious example of a game nobody believed would ever come out, finally did go gold some fourteen years after it was announced. That seemed like the exception that proved the rule, however, rather than suggesting that delayed, mythic games may actually see the light of day eventually. Nope, Jade simply took Duke’s place on that abdicated throne, as the protagonist we would never see on our screens again.
Most of my video game criticism diet now comes not from print publications, as few people’s does. I buy an issue of Edge every now and again, but I feel the absence of a certain voice that was present before. Online, my outlets of choice are places like Kotaku, Waypoint, and Rock Paper Shotgun, who balance a critical eye to industry nonsense with still reporting all of that industry nonsense, plus a hearty dollop of analysis and cultural commentary on top. There’s optimism, and there’s cynicism, and they exist in a reasonably easy alliance, far more than they do in me. My favourite E3 coverage (besides our own, natch) has been Tim Rogers mumbling atop the EA conference, adding some personality to a disheartening affair of eSports, corporate speak (take a shot every time somebody says “influencers” and perhaps you will be free of this hell) and annual franchise updates. I came to the Ubisoft presentation with a similar remove, not interested in the heavily-rumoured return of Assassin’s Creed or an expansion to the profoundly broken and not-a-new-SSX-game Steep, or in the usual parade of uncharismatic chairmen spewing keywords on repeat like a broken automaton wearing a blazer over an Insert Coin tee.
Until that Beyond Good and Evil 2 teaser. Immediately there was a certain amount of nay-saying: no way this game actually ever comes out. The cinematic trailer looked beautiful, too beautiful to be in-game footage; we saw none of how the game actually plays, and the immediate assumption is that means there isn’t actually any game to play right now. As far as we know, all that actually exists of the game is this footage, completed especially for this event. Usually, I would be right there with them. But I wasn’t. The bone-deep cynicism completely left me for a moment, and everything felt a bit brighter. That pig’s moustache, that monkey’s South London accent and tics, the woman’s afro straining backwards as she pilots a flying motorcycle over a police ship in the sort of Fifth Element-style city you only see in European science fiction, where the class system and multicultural society is obvious from the impossible architecture and mish-mash of fashions and decoration. None of the characters from the original were there, and we saw no gameplay, and Ancel came out afterwards to confirm this was a prequel set decades before the original.
None of that matters. For maybe four minutes, this game broke through the usual barrier of nonsense that makes me wonder why anybody outside the industry willingly subjects themselves to the E3 livestreams — in structure, information and language used, it resembles nothing more than a presentation to stockholders — and made me remember that, along with cynicism, you need to allow room for those few gems to get through. Ancel nearly teared up as he took the stage. This guy has been working on this game for so long. It’s a passion project, and you just know he’s had to fight and fight to keep making it, it an industry where the overheads keeping getting lower and financial expectations keep getting higher. Fiscally, making a sequel to a decade-old game nobody bought in the first place makes no sense. This is a game being made by people who give a shit. We want games to be better. Maybe they can be?