At least we score games out of 5. Calling your game 3 out of 10 is like a game of reviewer-chicken: ‘go on, we dare you to do the obvious’. That’s before main character Midge asks “do people even read reviews anymore?”, to which her co-worker Kevin says, “no, but it helps to boost my self-esteem”. We feel targeted.
But then again, everyone is targeted in 3 out of 10: Season One. At least, everyone in the games industry is, as this is a spoof comedy set in an indie-development outfit called Shovelworks. Fandoms get it in Episode One (3 out of 10 is split into five episodes, launched as an entire season here). Game Engineers are horrors who live in the basement. Managers set a timer for the halfway-point in a game’s development so that they can do a ‘pivot’ and feel good about themselves. And game designers get skewered for their gimmicky innovation, as the team makes Surfing with Sharks – an ‘endfull’ runner, as it’s an endless runner full of, you know, endings.
3 out of 10 is billed as ‘the first playable sitcom’, which is a bit of a stretch, since there’s nothing here that makes it a sitcom beyond what you’d find in a Sam and Max or Leisure Suit Larry (this sits somewhere between a Telltale game and graphic adventure in how it plays). We were expecting studio audiences, cold opens, or anything specific to an actual sitcom, but we’ve just finished Wandavision, so maybe we’re being over-demanding. The ‘playable sitcom’ statement is true in spirit, as 3 out of 10 is a comedy with a hit-rate that matches most sitcoms, including the very similarly themed Mythic Quest, and it has a degree of wit that you rarely see in video games.
3 out of 10 makes it look easy. Sticking it in print will always diminish things, but there are some fantastic one-liners: at one point, the designer and developer go to Canada for cheap healthcare, and infuriate a Canadian: “super nice and super polite are not the same things. Now, prepare to die, please”. In another situation, two of the team are locked up, and they ask an over-eager and nerdy intern to get them some keys. “Steam keys?”, says the intern.
As with most high-concept comedies, some episodes are better than others, and it’s mostly down to the comedic potential of the setup. There’s a complete standout in Episode 3: Pivot Like a Champion, which fans of the sitcom Community might recognise: the team argue over direction for the game, and resolve to solve it with an in-office Battle Royale, swapping shotguns for Nerf guns. It takes a swipe at Fortnite, action movies and office politics, and it’s one of the best individual episodes of a Telltale-a-like that we’ve ever played. But for every good episode, there’s an Episode 2: Foundation 101, which has a couple of fun jokes about the value of interns and university design courses, but stretches them too thin and ends with a potshot at faceless corporations, which are too easy a target.
The true test of a parody video game is whether it rises above the games it’s mickey-taking, though. We have scars from Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard and Family Guy: Back to the Multiverse, while South Park: The Stick of Truth may as well be the bar that everyone should try to Fosbury Flop over. 3 out of 10 gets more like a 6 for its gameplay, if we were to score it on that alone.
3 out of 10’s main game is fine and serviceable: you will be given the run of the office with a few objectives – find five of this item, talk to three of these people – that sort of thing. It’s an artfully cel-shaded 3D space and you’ll wander about, looking for interactables with an ‘A’ above them. There will be a few rewards for finding things off the beaten track, as rubber ducks and cereal boxes hide ‘stars’, which total up to be your score for the end of the episode. In terms of strategy or intricacy, it’s not exactly StarCraft, but it’ll do, and it lets the writing take main-stage.
You’ll find a couple of optional games around the office that can be played, with Shovelworks’ latest game, Surfing with Sharks, being the highlight. It’s a terrible endfull runner, with dodgy collision detection, but that’s kind of the point. The joke is in spotting the team’s awful design decisions, often trailed in the previous episode, including a cracking use of otters. There is also a retro Vectrex-like console where you can play alternate classics from a bygone era, which are fine enough but utterly avoidable.
Then come the minigames, which crop up when the story gets close to something resembling action. 3 out of 10 could have dropped in a single gameplay type and mastered it, using it as the vehicle for parodying the games industry; something like turn-based battling or beat ‘em up sequences (Wintermoor Tactics Club comes to mind), but Terrible Posture Games have instead gone big. They want to parody the entire breadth of video gaming, and that means serving up minigames that ape virtually every game genre. So, roughly three times an episode, 3 out of 10 will slot in a minigame that fits the story, parodies something, and tries to be a good game in its own right. The breadth of these games is crazy, taking us from puzzlers, to driving games to Time Crisis-style shooters.
That’s ambitious for a smaller studio to pull off, and the results are predictably scattershot. In one of the minigames, you’re carrying chai tea to the lead engineer, but other engineers are slender man-style horrors with a taste for chai (they mumble “sweet, sweet chai” as they catch you), so you’ve got to hide under desks in a gloomy office that reminded of scenes from Observer. It’s an unexpected tonal shift and it’s brilliant, and we were genuinely uncomfortable. BUT, in another minigame, you’re driving a car with interns balanced on the top, and you’ve got to make it to their university without losing too many on the way. Potholes, trains and other cars get in the way, but the handling is awful, the AI is bizarre and bothersome, and you’ll be cursing pixels that you manage to slam into, dropping yet another intern. It was at that moment we stopped chasing 100% completion.
The problem with the blunderbuss-approach to minigames is that everything has to be on-point. You’re only playing them for five minutes, so they have to be immediately understandable; they’ve got to wow you in a short space of time, so there’s no time for waffle; and 3 out of 10 has the additional burden of rising above the genre to take the piss out of it. It’s too much in the end, and roughly half of the games land, while the others don’t. A Zelda dungeon is great but short, while a ‘pose the action figure’ is awkward, with terrible controls. A beat ‘em up is fine if simplistic, while a game of stealth-golf (yeah, that one was a curveball) simply doesn’t work. It’s best to just brute force it, triggering every camera and sentry on the way.
The best you can say for them all is that they’re surprising, and always have something to say about the game they’re taking potshots at. Fair play to Terrible Posture Games, too, for being generous in wanting players to actually play their game to the end, and other games should take note: you can skip every minigame and every chat sequence. So, if you want to plough through a bad bit, you can. Equally, you can reverse back to play a sequence better, should you choose to (particularly useful if you bypass a collectible or want a better score on a minigame). It just feels welcoming, and is a surefooted decision from a studio that wants you to see its five episodes.
A note on the over-arcing story, as there is one. Kind of. Midge is sent into 3 out of 10 as a mole, an agent for a shadowy organisation that wants Shovelworks to fail. It never really leads anywhere, other than to supply a cliffhanger for Season Two, and Midge’s actions never reflect that narrative. It feels tacked on and better without. Everything else about 3 out of 10’s characters, setting and dialogue is top-drawer, which is probably why the limp plotting stands out so much.
Thankfully, 3 out of 10: Season One on the Xbox is good enough to dodge a too-on-the-nose 3 out of 10, and even a 3 out of 5. As a ‘playable sitcom’ it excels at the sitcom bit, delivering laughs that wouldn’t be out of place in a top-tier comedy. Where it falls down is the ‘playable’ bit, offering a 50% hit-rate on its minigames that will often have you reaching for the welcome skip button. But even when it misses, 3 out of 10 has always got something to say and will tickle a rib or two. Roll on Season Two.