October 13, 2005

Unfair Criticism

by psu

It is fashionable these days to gripe about the state of gaming journalism. The main complaint that is often lodged is that gaming "criticism" is limited to being a glorified buyer's guide to recent releases. I think this is a valid role for the gaming press to fill. After all, there are major publications in the areas of music, movies, theater, books and recordings of musical performances that are at their core a vehicle for telling you whether or not you should buy the items that they write about.

My complaint is that most game reviews don't really even fill this role well. They have almost nothing interesting to say about the game other than their final score. Looking at the Metacritic average score will generally tell you everything interesting that all the reviews of the game had to say.

Consider the normal template for a review of a fictional new game. Let's call this game Final Resident Condemned Devil Cry 7: Escape from the Mutant Swamp Navy Seals. The review will start out with material that establishes the genre in which the game works, perhaps with reference to earlier versions of the game franchise. This sets up the reader's expectations about whether or not the game will live up to, or improve upon, the earlier games in the series. Next there will be discussion of the high level gameplay. For example:

You take on the role of commanding a small squad of elite soldiers thrust into the role of defending humanity from the onslaught of the horrible swamp devil seals with the help of a small boy with a large sword and an unknown destiny.

The review will then launch into a long obligatory description of the technical performance of the game. The review will describe how well the game engine draws trees and such. Or it will provide you with an exhaustive list of all the weapons, vehicles and combat mechanics available in the game. You will read about the sound effects, the font used in the menus, whether or not the framerate is stable when you make the planet Mercury explode into tiny pieces, and what the teenage n00bs will talk about on the headset when you play the game online. If the game is by a 'famous' game designer, the review will be sure to mention how innovative and unique the game design is.

After all of this, you get a number between 1 and 5, or a slightly different number between 1 and 10 which is supposed to let you know if you should buy the game or ignore it.

Here is the problem: you never get any real idea of what it is like to play the game. Part of this is to do with the fact that it's hard to show gameplay video in a print or web page review. Here TV shows like X-Play have a bit of an advantage. On the other hand, well written reviews for other media, particularly music, can often draw a compelling portrait of the performance or piece being reviewed. When the writer is good, she is able to describe in fairly objective terms what she saw or heard in the performance and then give you her general impressions of its overall quality. This combination of objective observation combined with a personal and subjective value judgement is what makes good critical writing valuable.

Back in the realm of video games, I think X-Play does a good job of combining these things. The show makes up for its relative lack of sophisticated writing by making good use of its ability to utilize video. Is the gameplay boring and repetitive? Even if they don't come out and say it, the clip of gameplay that is repeated 15 times under the voice over will give you a clue that this is the case. More importantly, you get an idea of what the main game environments and mechanics are like just by watching the video.

It is admittedly a challenge to convey the atmosphere or personality of a game in text. But it seems to me that this is why you hire, you know, professional writers, for this kind of thing. If I had to ask the game journalism industry for just one thing this Christmas it would be to spend a little more time telling me how the game plays rather than how it looks or sounds, or how saturated the colors are in the foliage models. I'm not asking for any revolutionary change in the how we write game reviews. I'm not after a long and intimate treatise on how playing the game reminded the writer of cold, wet, winters growing up in Japan where he used to spend his lunch time running over to the arcade to blow his allowance on Pachinko. I don't care if interacting with the non-player characters in the Forest of the Night Elves reminds him of his long dead grandmother. I just want to know if the enemies in the game are worth shooting, if the side quests are plentiful and interesting to pursue, if the slam dunk shot mechanics are smooth or choppy, if the fog is really creepy or just a distraction that makes me motion sick. The ideal review should act as a proxy to my renting the game to try it out, and then tell me if the reviewer thinks that playing the game some more would be fun.

After all, it's only a game, and it ought to be fun.

Additional Notes

A couple of days after writing this, I realized that I had forgotten one important point. Lest you think that my expectations for good writing are too high, consider that the web comic Penny Arcade often captures the essence of a game more completely in 3 panels than most game reviews do in a thousand words. Consider these three classic examples:


God of War

Shadow Hearts: Covenant

The text they write about the games is also excellent.

Posted by psu at October 13, 2005 10:04 PM | Bookmark This

I tend to agree with you, although I don't tend to read reviews for games very often these days. I personally find two problems: Firstly that game reviews do not take into account the diversity of the audience very well (the very process of assigning a numerical score presupposes all games can be judged by equivalent criteria). Secondly, there are no critiques of games. The latter isn't wholly suprising, since the media of games is not taken very seriously yet, but the former is a little disappointing.

I suspect the problem is that many (but by no means all) game reviewers are in it because they want to be paid to play games, not because they want to be paid to review games. (And many internet reviewers are unpaid fans, I suppose).

That said, I have met several members of the games press who I felt were exceptional - but many of them wrote for European magazines that weren't published in English.

Posted by Chris at October 14, 2005 03:58 AM

I have divided feelings on this. There are indeed a truckload of bad amateur reviewers out there (perhaps I am one of them) but there are some good professional journalists - it doesn't take too long to find specific writers or even sites that are in tune with your way of thinking. For *professional* reviews (as opposed to amateur websites) I think the emphasis on the technical is probably overstated but of course, it does vary.

The scores thing is interesting...I think you imply that scores are of suspect value - but then what would be the point of visiting Metacritic?

Posted by Dhruin at October 14, 2005 07:14 PM

I do not think the scores lack value. I just think that in the end, it's the only thing that most reviews have to offer. So, almost all reviews can be boiled down to a single piece of information representable with 4 binary digits.

Posted by psu at October 15, 2005 09:52 AM

This one of the benefits of being about a year or more behind the gaming curve. I can just ask friends for their opinions of games that are almost guaranteed to have made their way to the used stacks at local game stores. If I ask people whose taste in games I know are similar to mine, and they still have good memories of a particular game a year later, I can be pretty sure I'll enjoy it.

I've only ever returned one game I've purchased in this manner (Metroid Prime) because it did something no other video game has ever been able to do: give me motion sickness.

Posted by rlink at October 15, 2005 07:26 PM

I've always been confused as to game reviewers' apparent inability to use any number out side of the 70 to 100% range. Why base your score on a percentage if you're never going to use the whole spectrum? Movies get away with a 5 star system, where five is great, one is poor, and three is average. yet game reviews treat 95-98% as great, 80% is average, and 70% is poor.
Which brings up another point: why are games rarely rated at 100%? 100% seems to be regarded as a 'perfect game', where all visuals, sound and gameplay elements are without flaw. yet how can you rate this? What about games with more abstract visuals, or games that excel in gameplay but have only better-than-average sound(yet not outstanding). As mentioned above different audiences will rate games differently, so an exact multi-digit score is inaccurate at best, and perhaps not necessary at all.
Not all moves 5 star rated movies are flawless, but they are awarded 5 stars because they are great movies. Perhaps games should try a similar approach - if a game achieves everything it sets out to do, and delivers entertainment far beyond the price of the game (i.e. outstanding value for money), shouldn't it recieve a 5 star score? a 100%?

Though perhaps rating games, essentially from 1 to 5 (or 1 to 10 if you use half-stars) is not accurate enough for rating something that costs a lot more than a movie - It's not enough to say rate two games 3 star, they need a grater range to rate exactly how much better game A is than game B (3.8 vs 3.2 for instance). People need to know exactly what they are getting when spending so much money. Yet, again this fails due to the differences in audiences.

I know i would gain a lot more from such reviews. I have read reviews (Half-Life 2 for instance) where it recieved a 98% or something score, yet the review focused on the technology and features. It told me nothing what it was like to play the game, and even with a near-perfect score - that still doesn't meant that i will actually like the game.

What's the answer then? well, the point of your article I think: more emphasis on gameplay and what it's like to actually play the game. Surely that's more valuable than an arbitrary and inaccurate 'specific' percentage. And then apply a five star raring to the end to judge the overall quality of the game: poor, below average, average, good, great.

Posted by Ben at October 16, 2005 09:32 PM

Damn you for reminding me about how sad I am that Games Domain Review is gone. They used to be a pretty reliable source of careful, comprehensive, reviews.

But now they're gone.


Posted by gregl at October 17, 2005 02:30 PM

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