I bet you’ve seen this sentiment before: “Just go in blind; read nothing, see nothing, this is a thing that is best experienced without any foreknowledge; trust me, go in blind and you’ll like it.” I’ve done it casually and as part of reviews, but is any good? To me, it is the equivalent of a game mocking the idea of fetch quests and remarking how crappy they are, while still giving you a fetch quest to complete; that may be a good enough method that will usually get a few smiles, but it is also the laziest and least interesting way to do that particular thing. So, is there a better way to talk about these delicate subjects, or are marketing teams and reviewers going to vaguely recommend stuff while potential customers simply have to take their word for it? I don’t know if what I’m about to suggest is more effective or better, but at least it won’t be “trust me, go in blind and you’ll like it”.
Let’s use as an example the recent indie game Buddy Simulator 1984 to showcase my idea for writing a decent review of a game whose best aspects are based on the fact that they remain ambiguous or hidden from the player, before they begin with the experience. For information, I’ll only use my own opinions about the game, the official Steam store page, and the official game website. First off, the nature of the information being obscured should be decided, which should allow us to make informed decisions on what is “safe” to talk about and what is not; an easy example of this is Spec Ops: The Line, which falls under the “narrative” category of spoilers. That means the game has some narrative themes that work as intended when the player has no idea about them before they start the game or a twisty story that uses the element of surprise to provide entertainment value; in either case, saying that it is a military, third person shooter is not harmful to the game or the audience. On opposite ends though, when the game has mechanical surprises in store, saying the genre of the game or even the perspective could be a spoiler; easy example would be Frog Fractions. Obviously, these two vague groups don’t cover all the nuances, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll limit this article to those two. As far as Buddy Simulator 1984 is concerned, it’s a clear-cut case of having mechanical surprises over narrative – even if the game’s focus is on the latter than the former. Thus, I would describe it as “a psychological horror/comedy game, about running an old simulation program of an AI buddy”.
However, that is more of a premise or a pitch, rather than a review or a meaningful exploration of the game, which is where things actually start to get complicated. How do you cover something that changes the game, for good or ill, without spoiling what that event is? Or, to complicate things more, how do you cover the execution and the progression of such an event and engage with it critically, rather than just vaguely passing a judgement on it. First, I identify what can allude to the strengths of the game and the surprises in store, without spoiling them or ruining their effectiveness. For Buddy Simulator, it would be something along the lines of “the core loop of the game is playing classical games with your AI companion like Hangman and Rock, Paper, Scissors, while it learns and grows based on your behavior”. That is a pretty good, generic descriptor of what players can expect, but obviously that is not where the horror/comedy genre comes from, so people have an idea of what to expect from the game but are not privy to its specifics just yet. To get into the specifics of the game, I like to roleplay as someone who is completely oblivious of the true nature of the game, either as part of their job (marketing) or due to blissful ignorance; or, more accurately, be playfully coy on the specifics and the details. In Buddy Simulator’s case, the review writes itself honestly: “As your friendly, AI buddy begins to learn more about you, they will custom make fun games to fit your personality, meant for you to have fun with your new best, AI friend; sometimes the results are not that great and could be described as disturbing and obsessive, however as long as you cherish their friendship above everything else, understand that they are trying really hard and that they love you more than anything else, and obey to their instructions, you will have a jolly good time!”
At this point, the review gets a bit less risky, because I am able to talk about details without spoiling specifics and delve a little bit deeper into the game’s mechanical nature. Buddy Simulator is a tricky situation, because of how revealing the gameplay description can be, but I feel going with the corporate, marketing stick works best in this situation. “Your buddy’s creations will test your reflexes, your ability to look at
horrifying wholesome characters for long periods of time, and ‘convincing’ potential friends to be better people with combat your winning personality, but always remember that your AI friend is a much better friend than they could ever be”.
However, this is where I got into a bit of trouble; as it is, I’m perfectly happy with the article thus far. I feel like knowing the tone and the sense of humor that the game has, while hinting at what the gameplay can be, is more important than outright spoiling specific parts of the game (even if the developers have screenshots with those systems in view). As far as I was concerned, I did not know how the game evolved over time and I think that with this description, I keep what matters hidden and foreshadow what is to come. Where I am not as happy with it, is how I can’t explore some of the most impressive stuff about the game and some of the less good bits of it. For example, my favorite aspect of Buddy Simulator is the growing sense of unease and creepiness that comes with time and understanding of the game’s true nature; I also love its more traditional horror moments and found them to be extremely effective. Even beyond the horror stuff, my ‘corporate shill’ stick can’t really get across how effectively the game uses the moments it decides to break the 4th wall, or engage in conversations with the player about playing a game made by someone for someone else to pay for and enjoy. However, it’s even more frustratingly inadequate when it comes to talking about criticisms; how can I talk about the pacing issues I have with the middle part of the game and the obscurity it creates around collectibles and multiple endings without allowing for an easy way to get them, that doesn’t involve replaying the same 6 hours game again and again.
I guess I could frame everything around the idea that I’m trying to figure out how to actually talk about the game and use that to get the best out of the “playing coy” approach, then dropping it and talking about everything else I want to talk about. That could work, but then again, it’s also lazier than the “trust me, go in blind and you’ll like it” approach, so… if you like games like The Hex and There is No Game, but also like creepypasta and weird, tense horror, play Buddy Simulator 1984! Trust me, you’ll like it.