Toxic nostalgia
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 March 2014, 5:02 am
Stealth games are not part of the list of my favorite genres. I did play some, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Dishonored, but these are more the kind of games I don't buy on release but pick up for half price at a Steam sale if the reviews are good. So I didn't play Thief. But I read a couple of reviews on Metacritic, which gave it an aggregated review score of 68, not great. And of course every single review refers to the original Thief from 1998, which has a Metacritic score of 92. And I couldn't help but wonder if the review scores would have been different if the same game would have had a different name.

I am seeing more and more games which I would consider to be of medium quality released with names of great games from the past. There are a few games that end up being about as good as their predecessors from the last century (e.g. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Deus Ex: Human Revolution), but the majority look more like an attempt to sell a middling game with an appeal to nostalgia. I don't know if that has a positive effect on sales, but it seems to me that it has a negative effect on reviews: Expectations aren't met, and reviewers end up not being able to judge a game on its own merits, because the unfavorable comparison with a great game from the past gets in the way.

I'm not sure how many people buy a game unseen just because they are nostalgic about its name. What I consider far more deceptive is the use of nostalgia on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. For Thief I at least have the option to wait for the reviews. By definition your decision about whether to back a Kickstarter project can only be based on promises. And quite often that promise is based on past greatness, somebody wanting to make a game "just like the great ". Or even worse, somebody who was a developer on some great game and now claims that this game was great because of him, and that necessarily his next game will be just as great. To me all that sounds like a recipe for leading people into bad decisions they will regret later.

I don't believe great games are the result of a single great idea that is easy to replicate, nor are they the result of the genius of a single person. The history of gaming is full of names of developers who made a great game or great series of games, only to then create a bunch of unremarkable games. And it is full of bad clone games, where somebody tried to copy a great idea but failed to make a great game. Buying or backing a game because of a name is a mental shortcut that is statistically unlikely to lead to a good result.
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