I don’t really buy into the wine thing. I mean, I don’t think getting drunk on wine is about faith in the product, but being one of those people that swirl it around in a big, open-mouthed glass to active the tannins and release the fruity yet precocious melodic notes of honey sours is less than ideal. I won’t say pretentious, but I will type it in capitalized letters: PRETENTIOUS. There have even been studies that say wine experts really kind of don’t know the difference between a box of Franzia and that special here-comes-the-Pope wine you’ve been saving in the cellar.
I will say, however, that it is an acquired taste, as is all food and drink. You grow up with a certain set of flavors and then expand it as you get older. Pretty much any alcoholic or coffee-based drink, for instance, is just not for me at this point in my life. Neither the taste nor the pseudo benefits have come into favor with me, but the more I drink of ciders, for example, the more I can tolerate the very mild bitter bite. I’m slowly acquiring the taste.
But that doesn’t mean I know what makes a good cider. It’s not just an acquired taste but an acquired critical mind. If I were to grade ciders, they were range from Almost Acceptable to Fuck Off, whereas cider aficionados grade on a much more subtle curve, placing products all over a nuanced gradient.
The strange thing, however—and it’s something I’m sure any teacher or reviewer of any media will agree on—is that you have to have experienced both the good and the bad to know just how good or how bad something is.
If you only taste the best cotton candy in the world of varying flavors, you then are just ranking your favorite cotton candy flavors. You won’t know that the half-assed carnival that comes through town every October has cotton candy that will literally kill you with how horrible it is, and it has nothing to do with flavor. Without a baseline of worst and best, you turn an objective criticism into a subjective Oprah list.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I truly believe that reviews should be plainly personal and speak on your behalf with how you feel about a game or movie or album because I can get a comparison of bullet point factoids anywhere, but I can only get your opinion from you.
But the ability to objectively criticize elements of a game is fundamental to the process. Not only then can I know you can actively filter any prejudices but also remove any errant and reckless opinions from informed and culled thoughts. I need to know that your comparisons are apt and not baseless as your words may influence my own.
So imagine my trepidation when my friend’s fiancée texted me to say she was playing God of War III.
By all counts, she is not a core gamer. Whatever your definition of that term may be, it holds that she rarely plays games and wouldn’t even know what system she was playing them on when she does. To her, the amount of time and progress that has passed and transpired in the intervening years from Pong to GoW3 is five minutes and jack shit.
But she does still surprise me in her gaming. She played through the entirety of Final Fantasy VII for PC when my friend decided to go through it again, too, a few months ago. She used to just watch but since he works the super late shift at ESPN as a production researcher and she works during normal hours (ugh, “normal”), she decided to fill her time with something besides TLC reality shows. And FFVII it was.
I’m not sure why she chose that game of all games to play, either. If memory serves, the last video game she played was a little bit of Rock Band almost a year ago and the last game she beat was never. So maybe she tried it because her fiancé told her it was one of his favorite games of all time (mine, too). Who knows? But I can tell you why she finished it: she had the same experience everyone else did when it first game out.
My friend kept me abreast of all her trials and tribulations with the game. It was like a two-person Twitter where he wholly produced and I simply consumed. She escaped Midgar, flew an airship, and saw Aeris die. She went through all the things we all did 15 years ago and it was amazing.
But now she’s gone on to GoW3, probably for similar reasons (severe differences in work schedules, fiancé impetus, etc.) but now she’s texting me her thoughts directly. And that fact that she’s gone from one of the most revered games in all of history to the ending of one of the most successful franchises of anything seems to have jaded her.
She has not acquired the taste. She has not cut and examined a swath of games, explored the full chromatic scale of video games available to her. She’s gone from AAA to AAA and not stop in Shitville to appreciate either. Rock Band is a good game, FFVII is a good game, and GoW3 is a good game. Her baseline of video game quality is so high now, I’m afraid of what will happen if she plays even a mediocre one let alone a bad one.
Her first words about the game were, “it’s okay,” a sentiment I can totally get behind, but for her to say that, having none of the reasons or experiences I have had to influence my decision to label it as middling, is truly bewildering. My friend played the first God of War, skipped the HD re-release and handheld titles, and jumped straight to the franchise’s supposed resolution and he loves it. I played all of those games in between and found the trilogy capper to be the same shell but with no soul. She has played none of those and really no other video games between, after, or before and, when pressed, thinks, “it’s kind of neat.”
“Kind of neat.” Huh. Expand on that? Nope. And I’m not judging her because I mean come on, it’s essentially the third video game she’s ever played, but it is a prime example of video games being something you need to immerse yourself into, slowly acclimating yourself to the world view of the industry. She does not understand what parts of it are good (the absolutely mind-blowing scale, the stellar graphics, the still sharp-as-a-whip combat, etc.) and what is bad (the weird, meandering story, the oddly placed and tuned puzzles, etc.) and instead, as a whole, says it’s just all right. Even after the bonkers opening of fighting Poseidon on a Titan that’s ascending Mount Olympus, she was pretty much nonplussed. Even though my opinion of the game wanes after that, too, how can you not be affected by one of the most fundamentally impressive feats every achieved in video games?
Simple: by not acquiring the taste. To her every game is as fun and party-centric as Rock Band, every game is as engrossing and oddball-lovable as FFVII, and every game is as fine-tuned and sharp as GoW3 because those are every game she can meaningfully recollect. The moment when Kratos demolishes and then decapitates Helios and subsequently uses the detached dome to light a cave was as ineffectual to her as a KEEP OUT sign is to summertime ants. Even the first-person brutality at the end of the Poseidon battle had her yawning. As far as she knew, every action game is made to be as savage as a Japanese horror movie.
So acquire that taste. Even if you acquired it before, you can lose it again incredibly easily. You don’t want to be apathetic to cool things. That’s how celebrities snap and go crazy. They live in a world where everything is gravy boats and pastry chefs (god I’m hungry), so their spectacular lives no longer seem quite so shiny or glitzy as they used to. And then they go crazy. If you don’t make sure you can continually appreciate the finer things in games by contrasting them with the worst things in games, you will go crazy, too, and trust me, you don’t want to do that. You’ll end up licking fence posts or eating candy bars with silverware or not even caring when someone rips the head off a Greek god.