I can’t say I was entirely thrilled when I heard about Bethesda’s panel at E3. As people who know me can verify, and as you can probably tell from my nom de plume, I’m somewhat of an enthusiast for the Commander Keen games. When I was a kid we had half of them on a floppy disk for use on our MS-DOS computer, which makes me sound and feel older than I am, and the day I finally beat them all on the hardest difficulty was like graduating from the university of being a weenie.
I did expect, or perhaps blindly hope, that if something was happening in the Commander Keen series, it would probably be the announcement of the long-cancelled third trilogy of the games (The Universe is Toast! Coming Christmas 1992).
This final trilogy never came, because id Software decided to more or less invent the First Person Shooter genre and that gave them a lot of things to do from thereon out. Since then, despite no new comment except a not great GBC game, Commander Keen has had an extremely active modding community. Fans have even made their own version of The Universe is Toast! using the base games from the second trilogy. It’s really good, by the way. Would highly recommend.
None of this ended up being the subject of Bethesda’s announcement on Commander Keen. As you may be aware, they instead announced a mobile game starring the twin children of the original protagonist, on an adventure to save the universe with gadgets. It was an animated cartoon trailer, so I’m not going to try and extrapolate what the final game will look like, aside from commenting on the notable stylistic difference between the originals and this new game.
What prompted this announcement now? I suspect that Bethesda was getting itchy fingers, considering the Commander Keen series has a devoted fanbase but no current avenue for profit. You can’t really sell software from 1991 for big bucks, especially not software that people usually get for free, and Bethesda has been creating other things for mobile as of late, like The Elder Scrolls: Blade. It probably wouldn’t be that hard to port or rerelease Commander Keen, but there’s not much money in that. Getting the id Software gang back together to make and endorse a true continuation of the series would likely be a substantial amount of work. The easiest way out is to make a tangentially related mobile game, and I say tangentially related because it doesn’t look like the original series, it doesn’t have the same characters or tone, and I personally don’t feel like it’s going to give us anything like what the Christmas non-arrival of 1992 promised.
My love of the series is because of the fun gameplay and level designs, plus the distinct visual feel. Never in my life have I thought the games would be improved by microtransactions or ads. Even the way people got their hands on the first Keen games was distinctive – they were part of Apogee’s shareware model, where the first game was free but you could pay for the other two if you liked them. The very first game was uploaded onto early online bulletin boards for people to play, and they could mail-order a floppy disk for the other two. Quaint, maybe, but people spending money on the game already knew it was good enough. Truly, the meritocracy of games was at play with the Apogee model.
Which brings me back to the con job. Bethesda. I feel like I don’t need to explain why Bethesda’s corner-cutting, cash-first approach has had a negative impact on their credibility as of late. I just need to say Fallout 76 or Skyrim port for people to consider how Bethesda seems to have lost interest in creativity and innovation (if they ever had it) in favour of … whatever they’re doing now. Fallout 76 is an easy target, but I’ll aim for it anyway. A beloved series with a unique taste and feel to it, made by a fairly specific creative team. Bethesda wants to cash in on the modern trends and makes a new game in the series that isn’t really the same style as the originals. Unless I’m totally wrong and a complete fool (not even remotely unlikely, in all honesty)(that I’m a fool, not that the game is good) the Commander Keen mobile game isn’t going to be any sweeter to the taste than Fallout 76 was for series fans.
Fallout 76 was not given to critics before its general release, in part because it’s an online game that’s active or it ain’t, and in part because Bethesda decided back in 2016 they were sick of critics, well, criticising their games before release. My problem with this comes back to the word I sneakily used earlier to bring your attention to real theme of this essay: meritocracy.
I’m not the first person to point out that not letting critics see your game before you release it feels like a fairly blatant tactic to get away with a shitty game, since the fans aren’t warned by critics of a possible terrible mistake before they eagerly pile their coins on the counter of your local video games emporium. For fans of Fallout, that was a lot of coins piled for a game that was incredibly glitchy, gameplay aside. If only there was some kind of system in place where a few people could play new games first to let everyone else know whether they’re worth it.
The only good Fallout games weren’t created by Bethesda (debatable, I know, but stay with me here) and they didn’t actually make the much-praised new Doom or Wolfenstein games. They made Skyrim a while ago, and, uh. They’ve made …
Dishonoured! That was a video game. Well, they published it. They didn’t make it.
What is more insulting with Commander Keen is that Bethesda doesn’t seem to be trying. There’s an entire fanbase out there they could have studied to see what the people want, and they didn’t do that. As is I don’t see any reasons why fans of the old games would be drawn to these other games that only vaguely resemble the classic series. I don’t doubt that people will play the new game, maybe even a lot of people, but I doubt those people will overlap with, or be converted to, players of the old games, considering the significant differences between them.
Not only has Bethesda tried to cut themselves free of the confines of making good games by not allowing reviews, but even game series that previously survived because they were really good like Commander Keen and Fallout are being subjected to the principle of cash first, good game later maybe. With the recent announcements around Fallout 76, ‘good game later maybe’ is closer to ‘maybe okay game soon’, over half a year since it came out. Commander Keen might be a good mobile game, I don’t know, but it’s almost certainly not going to be a good Commander Keen game.
So, my call to action from this piece is this: let video games actually be a meritocracy, and let video game companies be a meritocracy, too. Bethesda wants out of this system? Please, let them do that, and let them fail and lose money until they go bust or learn a lesson, I don’t care which. Bethesda has beloved properties and no apparent interest in doing them justice? Get dunked on. Scrolls games and recent Fallout releases, which are pretty much what Bethesda is built on, are famously buggy as all hell, so why bother paying for a half-cooked meal that might give you salmonella? Fuck’em. Buy games from creators who give a shit about you enjoying their products.
I’ll be John Romero’s bitch, but I refuse to be Todd Howard’s.