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Review of an Insecticide interview

posted on June 13th, 2008 by stefan
Now Playing: Chalk

Insecticide is a recently released adventure game featuring shooting levels. It was developed by a team composed of several of the people responsible for some of the great adventure games produced by LucasArts over the years.

And it got some pretty bad reviews. With a Metacritic score of 55/100, it’s looking less and less like an overlooked gem. Reviews so far have tended to enjoy the adventure aspects, and have almost universally panned the action/shooter sequences.

IGN offered Mike Levine (who worked on The Dig, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and The Curse of Monkey Island among others) a chance to respond to the negative reviews. The interview is available here, and reading it was one of the more disillusioning experiences of my gaming career.

Now I want to be clear. I have not yet played Insecticide, and this is not a review of the game. It could be worse than E.T. or the second coming of Jesus in cartridge form, and that honestly wouldn’t matter. This is a review of Mike Levine in the IGN interview, and the story of how a golden god of adventure gaming can very quickly fall from his pedestal.

The interview starts with the question that everyone involved should have been expecting. IGN essentially asks, “You’ve been getting bad reviews. Have they been fair? What’s your response?” Levine starts off strong, pointing out that some of the reviewers seem to have overlooked the existence of stylus controls, or–for instance–most of the levels in the game. This is a good response, since it actually makes me doubt the validity of some of the reviews, and starts me thinking, “Maybe if I used the stylus, the action sequences would be more fun than I’ve heard.”

The next paragraph of his response, however, threw me for a bit of a loop. Levine says, “I think it’s easy for reviewers to get into the granularity of it and lose sight of the fact that, wow, this is a real-time 3D action and adventure experience on the DS with full voice.” Did Mike Levine–one of the designers I have most admired over the years–just use the PS3 argument? Because it’s technically impressive it must be fun. People who don’t like it just aren’t looking at it as a tech demo. Unfortunately, as I read on, it seems he did.

When asked about the music glitches–particularly about the fact that the background music (done by Peter McConnell of Psychonauts and Sam & Max Hit the Road) doesn’t seem to loop smoothly–Levine responded “…we’re pushing a lot more than a typical DS title pushes. It seemed to me that our adventure sections were being compared to games like Phoenix Wright. Those games are completely 2D, almost text-driven experiences. Take a step back and look at the whole experience we’ve provided. It seems to be something you don’t see too often on the DS. So yeah, we pushed the limits of the hardware and that was pretty much all we could get out of it.”

I see. It’s the DS’s fault you got bad reviews. That and the reviewers had the audacity to compare your adventure game to today’s gold-standard of the genre, the best-selling adventure game series in the world today.

First off, nobody gets points in my book for bashing Phoenix Wright, at least not without some serious justification. Secondly, he’s criticizing it for being 2D? The cry of, “But we used 3D!” just doesn’t sound right coming from the mouth of an adventure game designer. That’s the attitude that helped kill off adventure gaming in the first place, with people screaming “But it’s not even 3D! Our game pushes the system to the MAX, and you can tell because of the audio glitches! Do you want people to hear your looped music and think you’re some kind of 2D loser?”

It’s the job of the developers to balance all elements of the game. If your graphics are so pumped that you can’t even play your music smoothly, then you need to think about scaling back the graphics (or, I suppose, doing away with music, but that would deprive us of Mr. McConnell’s generally excellent compositions).

In the end, I’m left with the impression that these guys are still suffering from the collapse of adventure games in the late 1990’s. Like old generals continually re-fighting the last war, they (or at least Levine) are still trying to figure out what killed adventure gaming, and make the game that would stop its death. He seems to be thinking, “Other games had flashier 3D action sequences. We need 3D action sequences.” Apparently he has not realized that the genre is already in the process of rising pure and whole from its own ashes. They’re embracing the thinking of the last console generation and tacking on mechanics from other genres. They’re trying to find ways to increase profitability by planning from the start on tie-ins with comic books and merchandising like Telltale did with Sam and Max, all the while forgetting that the freelance police were a comic before they were a game. Levine sounds like a pinball manufacturer during the video game craze as he glues together individual elements of successful games and wonders why they aren’t making his game successful. Meanwhile, companies like Telltale and Capcom are making unapologetically pure adventure games that are revitalizing story-driven gaming.

It’s a sad thing to see, since people like Mike Levine were heroes of game design when I was growing up, and I’ve always harbored the secret dream that one day the world would realize it is a mistake to spurn their games and the old LucasArts team would get back together and start telling stories again. Maybe they have, and maybe Insecticide really is their second coming, but this interview makes it sound like the torch has been passed, and if that’s the case I’d almost rather this game had never happened. Then, at least, I could have continued dreaming about what would have been.

6 Comments

  1. Christian said on June 13, 2008:

    What is it with Levine’s in the gaming industry?

    But seriously, this is a good dissection of the interview. In regards to Telltale, no one seems to get that their success came from a mix of sticking to their guns (in the sense that they wouldn’t quickly give up), and adapting their design and approach to each episode based on user feedback and their own opinions. There is an infrastructure to go along with the tie ins, and that is crucial to success.

  2. jay said on June 17, 2008:

    I’ve dug up more info on Levine and his co-conspirator Larry Ahern. Both of these guys worked on great LucasArts games but by and large they were filling technical or artistic roles unrelated to actual game design. Ahern is credited with co-designing Curse of Monkey Island and nothing else and Levine hasn’t designed anything according to Moby Games.

    So Ahern’s design is limited to a late 90’s sequel to Gilbert’s awesome series. He, Purcel and Shcaefer were really the design talent at LA and why the company was worth caring about, not the animators, programmers, artists, etc.

    They guys who made Insecticide are tech guys posing as design guys, which is why they are convinced FULL 3D ON THE DS!!! is more important than music that loops properly.

  3. pat said on June 17, 2008:

    thanks for telling me that after i bought the game. jerk.

  4. TrueTallus said on June 18, 2008:

    Is it that bad, Pat? Should I just wait for the review, or is it so flawed and unremarkable that a review isn’t planned on?

    I admit I went through half of this article before I realized that Mike Levine didn’t design System Shock 2. I read the novelization of “The Dig” a couple of years after the game came out, though, so I guess I’m still familiar with Mikes work:) Adventure games are a brave new world when it’s the DS that introduces them to you.

  5. pat said on June 18, 2008:

    TT – amazon tells me its in the mail, so i havent played it yet. i was more remarking on the fact that i bought the game assuming something from old lucasarts talent couldnt be all bad. of course, something from the guys who got lucasarts talent coffee probably could be bad. i will review either way. hopefully with something original or interesting to say.

  6. Stefan said on June 18, 2008:

    Once again with the disclaimer that I haven’t played the game, the impression I’ve gotten from reviews is that the adventure game aspects are actually really solid and well-done, so it appears that Levine et al can do adventure design, even if they got distracted by technical specs and interspersed them with 3rd person action/shooter levels of purportedly mediocre quality. That’s part of what makes the reviews and that interview so sad to read…I wouldn’t be nearly as bummed if talentless hacks got distracted from adventure games and made a shooter :)

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