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Figuring out Brutal Legend

posted on October 13th, 2009 by christian

Brutal Legend is out this week, and already the praise and reviews are rolling in. That’s great, considering Tim Schafer’s Doublefine Studios has been around for ages with no apparent source of significant revenue, but I am not going to lie – I have no intention of playing it in 2009, and no idea when I might get to it in 2010. To be honest, I am not entirely sure what I am supposed to be getting excited for.

Is it because it is such an awesome parody of Metal? Between the works of Tenacious D, the show Metalocalypse, and even some of the jokes and jabs from Guitar Hero/Rock Band, I feel like this ground has been covered extensively in recent years. Hell, even Homestar Runner has taken a stab at it.  I have seen the arguments that this is something new and fresh, but that is only true if we limit ourselves to just games, which is hard to do when the aforementioned examples are often catered towards the same people who play games. The fact that Jack Black has had a tremendous hand in Brutal Legend’s development only adds to the feeling of retreading old ground.

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Is it because the game is a hybrid of Zelda adventure and real time strategy? That may sound great on paper, but genre mashups can be tricky, and it usually takes more than one game for the idea to solidify. To give a recent example, Knights in the Nightmare on DS is a mixture of several genres, which lead to a game that was either too confusing or astoundingly easy, depending on who you ask. Another good example is Patapon, which feels almost unplayable after seeing all the wonderful fixes that its sequel brought (and even then, Patapon 2 could use some work). I get the feeling that Legend is the kind of game that will frustrate as much as it entertains, and that the eventual sequel will feel like the experience we expected in the first place. During the usually pricey holiday season, that is a risk I cannot afford to take.

Perhaps the biggest reason why I am supposed to be excited for Brutal Legend is because it was created by Tim Schafer. I have a ton of respect for the man, but I think a lot of folks forget that we didn’t all grow up playing his games. I sure didn’t, and so all I have to go on are the memories of others. Well, that, and Psychonauts, which I found to be rather mediocre from a content perspective, while its story and art design were less impressive than what I have seen from his old adventure games.

I think it is a safe bet to say that a many of the people who justify buying the game because “it is from Tim Schafer” haven’t played any (or many) of his games either, but get excited anyway because they are told to by bloggers and readers who are desperate to look cool in front of each other. On Eurogamer’s online review, one commenter remarks

This reviews sounds like “Yeah, the game is short, shallow and repetitive, but it’s TIM SCHAFER!! 8/10!”. Very odd.

To which another person responds

Odd? Seems perfectly logical to me.

Which is exactly the kind of thinking that worries me.  Unfortunately, it is quite common when it comes to gaming’s “auters”, and I would like to see it diminish rather than be encouraged. It takes the focus away from those truly special games and places it on the people that made them. This runs counter to the notion that humans make mistakes, and creates the potential for every one of an auter’s games to be showered with praise, even when they make their inevitable mistake. One look at Hideo Kojima is all one needs to realize that this kind of success can get to a person’s head, and cause them to move away from the concepts and ideas that made us fans in the first place.

To give one final, personal example, I have recently peppered other VL writers with my excitement for the new Epic Mickey project, simply because of the involvement of Warren Spector. Thinking about Brutal Legend made me realize that no matter how much I loved System Shock and Deus Ex, the man also brought about Deus Ex 2 and Thief 3. There is great potential for his new project to work out, but there is also a real chance that it might not. The best thing to do, for now, is to remain hopeful and keep a critical eye when the preview content starts to roll out. This is exactly what I did with Brutal Legend, but fair is fair, and I need to make sure to approach every game this way, even if it comes from a favorite person or team. The alternative is something akin to the current political landscape, in which any dissent about your favorite figureheads is viewed with scorn. That isn’t a hobby I want to be a member of.

6 Comments

  1. SAGExSDX said on October 13, 2009:

    Thank you for writing this. I was thinking the same thing over the past year when people were gushing over the game just because it was made by Tim Schafer without knowing very much about it. I can’t state an opinion on the game since I haven’t played it yet. But seeing a large majority feeling lukewarm on the game post-release, it seems like the game is/was victim to what you’ve detailed above.

  2. christian said on October 14, 2009:

    Thanks for the kind words Sage. I haven’t payed too much attention to the reviews and opinions displayed since release, but I can imagine that there are some trying to scramble around and justify their excitement and a high score.

    In all my years I have seen one, possibly two pieces of games journalism that mentions The King’s Camelopard from Huckleberry Finn (link for those who are confused – http://everything2.com/title/The+King%2527s+Camelopard%252C+or%252C+The+Royal+Nonesuch)

    It describes exactly what happens when the community gets caught up in the hype cycle, yet we keep getting caught anyway (probably because, like music enthusiasts, we all want to be seen as the one who picks up on the next big thing before anyone else does, only so that we can move onto another when it gets popular).

  3. pat said on October 14, 2009:

    i guess ill play the role of tim schafer/brutal legend defense force.

    how can you reasonably make the claim that those excited about a schafer game haven’t played his previous work? for example, i know this guy (lets call him “pat”) who has played most of schafer’s games and by and large enjoyed them immensely. i have read complaints about the actual platforming in psychonauts, but i thought it was fine (if a bit too focused on collecting tons of random crap) and the characters and creativity and flesh of the world more than made up for any of its other shortcomings. grim fandango is among the best adventure games ever made; it is clever and interesting, and again, the characters are very likeable. full throttle, dott, and monkey island all deserve their places in the annals of adventure gaming history. with a track record like that, i will at least be interested in the man’s next project (even if, like you, i am somewhat skeptical about the metal setting).

    so far reviews have been mostly positive and if they remain that way i will likely end up making a purchase. thats not to say he walks on water and is incapable of misstepping, but early results seem to indicate that this game may not be the betrayal of target audience that some considered deus ex 2 to be.

  4. christian said on October 14, 2009:

    Good points all around Pat. In the end, I have no evidence, but I still think it is safe assume that the the vast majority of folks on kotaku, joystiq, destructoid, etc. have not played Full Throttle or Day of the Tentacle (to note, I still haven’t played them either). Either there was a huge influx of ScummVM users, or people are pretending to like things in order to make conversation. I can’t be sure about one, but I know I have seen the other.

  5. Bruce said on October 14, 2009:

    Complaints about the interactive content of Schafer’s games aside, his games are some of the only ones I’ve played in which I -wanted- to know what the characters were going to say next. His games aren’t a standard bearer for how to make great games by any stretch, but his writing and characters should make most game writers hang their heads in shame. It’s sad, yes, actually sad when I get a sense of anticipation at just plain listening to what a game character has to say in a Schafer game because IT’S SO RARELY ENTERTAINING and engaging to listen to the dialogue in games.

    What Schafer really should do is collaborate with someone whose design skills are well known and respected.

    And yes, I do plan on playing Brutal Legend.

  6. Cunzy1 1 said on October 22, 2009:

    Fuck me there is a Homestar Runner wiki?

    Unfortunately I cannot increase the size of the following Sad Smiley Face to effectively convey the true depth of my disgust :(

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