A couple of days ago the rhythm-based custom music-driven action roguelike Crypt of the Necrodancer was released in its alpha state on Steam Early Access. I usually don’t pay much attention to early access releases (I have my share of problems with the type of development that it implies), but Crypt of the Necrodancer had a concept behind that was interesting enough to make me really want to try it.
The game is, in fact, quite good, even in its alpha state. The core mechanic of rhythm-driven grid combat is fun andall of the content is elegantly designed to work with it (unlike games like The Binding of Isaac, whose content is purposefully designed to heavily twist the core gameplay). Even when played with custom music their import algorithm seems to do a decent job in detecting the beat of the tracks.
As the nature of an alpha implies, the game also has some problems, some “technical” (importing custom music is done through an extremely convoluted process), some regarding content (the zones in which the game is set seem way too short) and some others in the gameplay itself (The player is regularly introduced to massive numbers of new enemies all at once). Naturally that’s in some ways “forgivable” as we’re talking about the first alpha build and most of those problem will most likely be fixed as development goes on. But this bring us to the actual question: “how do we write about early access?”.
The agency-driven nature of the videogame medium has always presented critics with the conundrum of “how extensively should a videogame be played before talking about it?”. Engaging with a game until having experienced every different combinations of values that the variables in the system could assume is obviously not only impossible, but also far beyond the point. At the same time limiting oneself to just scrutinizing the core gameplay, regardless of the content built around it, seems like an oversimplification of the process that just ends up significantly reducing the meaning that can be extrapolated from a text.
Mostly it’s a matter of understanding what the game “wants you” to play, what’s the intended experience that the product is trying to convey. But now, with early access a new dimension adds to this, a new question in the back of our heads: “Is what the game want me to play even there yet?”. To the already ambiguous matter of “how much should we play” we add the even more unanswerable dilemma of “how much is actually in the game”. It’s not just about playing works that may have minor technical issues fixed (at this point a common practice after “patch” systems started being used widely), it’s about experiencing incomplete ideas, sketches of what the game will hopefully be in the end. How do we critique that? How do we even write about that? Or at least how do we do that without having our pieces read like a big list of things that the developer “should better fix” (because no, that isn’t what criticism is).
Reviewing it only when the gold version is released seems like the most sensible way to do it but obviously it fails to ride the initial buzz of those projects, and since the game is actually there, buyable and playable, it seems a bit off when taken into the broader context. Regular updates on the game? It surely works from a journalistic standpoint but they inevitably end up sounding like fancy changelogs, with bits of purely “technical” analysis stapled on the most poignant changes. Many just call it a preview, which apparently allows them to write very shallow or petty articles and get away with it.
What we’re seeing is the beginning of a new type of crowd-oriented creative process that can exist only thanks to the new technologies offered by the internet. It’s difficult to find a way to deal with it mostly because there has never been anything like this before (or not in such a widespread fashion). The thing that comes closest to it is probably performance art, where the process of making the text itself is open and usually coincides with it. Sure, early access and performance art are still miles away from each other, especially in the intentions behind the “open” approach, but it would be quite interesting to read some analysis focused on the whole development process and the audience interaction through the early access formula. This still doesn’t answer our question though, since the amusingness of the idea doesn’t save us from the fact that this approach would go entirely against the concept of “intended experience” we mentioned before.
Would criticism be even necessary when relating to early access? One may argue that the fact that the creative process itself becomes open to the eye of the public (to the point that it even gives them the power to influence the final game) means that no mediation is needed between audience and product. But this doesn’t take away to the fact that, after the big developing-event is over, it will still (hopefully) produce a finite videogame in the old-fashioned sense.
We come back to that first option then: talk only about the finished product, leave the developers to do their thing as they always did, and if for some reason they want to open their process to the public don’t get overly involved. Again seems sensible, but not very practical in the current environment.
The truth is that right now there aren’t any true answers to the question of how to critique early access games. I would say that we shouldn’t, that they are not really “videogames” in the way we usually use that word, but ideas, dreams, alphas and betas, big demos; then again, writing about Rust, or whatever is the latest fad, brings all the clicks to the yard, so what do I know. I wouldn’t obsess on it though (let’s ignore the fact that I obsessed on it for two pages) as for now we don’t even know how long this business model will stick around, and the massive succession of Kickstarter/Early Access controversies makes me think that in the future it will be a practice far less widespread than now.
What I can tell you though, going full circle, is to buy Crypt of The Necrodancer. It’s a mighty fine game, and the fact that it completely focus on one core mechanic makes it thoroughly enjoyable even though a huge chunk of the side content is missing.