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Reviewing, Criticizing and Games Media

December 1st, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 12 Comments · Blogs, Media

This year has seen a lot of chest baring and sackcloth wearing about the differences between reviews and criticism in game journalism. I’m from the school that says not all reviews are criticism and not all criticism is a review, but that the best of both have elements have each. In other words, a great review moves well beyond the pedestrian question of whether or not you will enjoy a particular game and a great critique leaves you in no doubt as to how you would likely feel about a specific title. Reviewing and criticism are different, but related.

Given all that has been written this year, driven by N’gai Croal’s inescapably essential meditations, it’s worth pointing to Shawn Elliott’s new blog where the first post is sort of a “what might have been” thinkposium about the nature of game reviews.

In the continual flight from Ziff Davis, it would be understandable if people lost sight of who has gone. Recently, Jenn Tsao and Damien Linn have left. I’ve already paid homage to the departure of Jeff Green, the grand old man of games journalism. Toss in Gamespot’s losses and games journalism has offered a huge body of talent to the development world.

In many ways, Shawn Elliott, now at 2k Games, was a peculiar talent, a man who earned the adulation of one audience from his stories of griefing and general jackassery on the Games for Windows podcast, but who would also offer some of the strongest critiques of cliche and boredom in games journalism. His preview of Postal 3 stands out as an example of his ideal, a portrait not just of a game, but of a developer’s mindset. I know from our email conversations that, within the brotherhood of journalists, he wore his “can’t we do better?” heart on his sleeve. And still made jokes about how nerdy gamers were, a cliche of its own.

His blog post is the beginning of a conversation all reviewers have with themselves and with their editors. His questions over-emphasize scores, which seems to me to be the wrong end. I’ve never really debated with myself over any more than a half star here or there. And, though I started my career worried that 2/5 would mean a blacklist of some sort, it never happened.

But he has some good questions in there. I’ll answer a few of them.

Do scores determine our tone? Can a “3” encourage us to explain an aspect of a game in clearly negative terms where our attitude is actually less decided?

This really depends. I think that a higher profile title will have a more negative reading 3/5 than an indie game will. It’s a matter of reader expectations. Why isn’t EA’s latest multi-million dollar game brilliant? Why should people give Garage Games’ latest a chance?

Often times we will have repeatedly played and/or previewed games in development prior to reviewing them. Does this familiarity with a particular game’s developmental process influence the scores that we assign to the final product in the way that a professor will take into consideration her students’ limitations and proven potential when she evaluates papers at the end of the semester?

Good editors will try to keep their writers from previewing and reviewing the same game.

This does not work so well where freelancers are concerned, of course. I can write a preview for one place and a review for another. A man has to eat.

But I think the biggest problem is not grading based on improvement or potential, but instead grading based on early enthusiasm. It’s easy to love something you see early on. You have access when few others do, are often treated very well by PR and developers and their general excitement about what they are working on will be contagious.This is why editors like to keep previews and reviews in different hands.

Given how many pieces of information and purchase points are available to consumers before a review is available, Elliott asks:

Do these circumstances suggest that our self-perception is, well, delusional – a throwback to a time when magazines and websites were gaming’s gatekeepers? If our audiences believe this, even if we do not, what are they really reading for?

What they always read for – self congratulation that they feel the right way about a game. Magazines and websites were probably never gatekeepers in any meaningful way given any single source’s relative distribution compared to the gaming population. I have a friend who is confident that he can trust Metacritic or a handful of sites even though those sites have had a lot of turnover in the last few years. Corporate consensus is often a bludgeon to wield in forum warfare, but it has always been thus. Or at least for the last decade and a half.

This is where criticism triumphs over reviews, where an attempt to contextualize a game could help move the pastime further than a “Buy It” ever can. I was chatting with a colleague a couple of weeks ago and he commented that he loves it when people start talking about a game’s strategies and options months after its release. What is the relative importance of naval power? What strategies work best in the early game? This is the sort of stuff you can never find in a review and will only find on game forums, and even then usually on forums devoted to the game in question.

Reviews and criticism that prioritize timeliness and immediate hits over insight will never be able to do that. Ever. As I’ve written before, there is a presentist and futurist bias in games coverage that assumes that all readers are interested in and in tune with the release calendar. Unless a new game comes around that explores similar issues to older titles, forget any effort at categorization or media critique beyond “the original was better”.

But this is a business. Though FoS gets a lot of hits for marginal games that I have mentioned in passing (Punic Wars, Pox Nora, Crown of Glory), I’m not sure how many sites with a larger overhead would want to waste time writing about them. So, the ephemeral gets the spaces, and the niche hit or eternal truths about a particular game get buried because it is yesterday’s news.

Spoiler-phobia leads to a lack of substantiation. Because we won’t cite specifics, we’re all fluff.

I’m not a huge spoiler guy. If I am reviewing a game, I try to avoid other people’s opinions. But plot twists don’t bug me all that much most of the time. As an old friend once told me, I know when and how Hamlet dies, but I keep watching.

But Elliott is right that criticism of how a plot develops is often highly dependent on so-called spoilers. If you haven’t seen the entire Star Wars opus, my comments on the nature of Fatherhood in Lucas’s magnum opus would be meaningless unless I could refer to particular moments. (Luke’s feelings for Obi Wan, Vader telling Luke who he was, the denouement of the third movie, the fatherless child in Phantom Menace, the paternal nature of Palpatine, etc.) Then there’s the whole question of a statute of limitation on spoilers. Personally, I think that after a couple of months, if I run into a spoiler that’s my own damn fault.

One of the great benefits of reviewing strategy and wargames is that I have no need of fancy footwork dealing with archetypes and general plot points. But, being of a literary bent, I can’t help but notice these sorts of things in RPGs, shooters and adventure games. So am I obligated to stick a SPOILER tag on everything I write?

Are we interested in talking about craft at all? I’m disturbed by the fact that the enthusiast press hires gamers first and writers/thinkers second. Not once in my career have I sat in on a serious discussion about how we do what we do.

I love this sort of thing and have had these conversations on and off with editors and colleagues for years, if not in a single co-ordinated session. But, for the most part, people are more interested in the scandalous stuff – how publishers “buy” good reviews, whether or not people are “teh bias”. There is no single way to write a review or a critique and some sites may prefer one over the other. And, even as readers pretend to care about “the craft”, it’s always the score and who is in whose pocket that generates forum and feedback noise.

It’s still a discussion worth having, though at this point even I am exhausted by the never-ending breast-beating about whether or not games writers are doing their job properly or intelligently or effectively. At some point, the circle never ends and it sometimes seems like we’ve been having this debate for years without any real progress, either in writing quality or in insight. The best games writing is usually not found in the review/preview morass and it’s pointless to look for it there at the expense of all the good feature, interview and analysis work being done elsewhere.


12 Comments so far ↓

  • James Allen

    I can say that I have been influenced by previews and publishers I like; that’s part of the reason I shy away from previews these days (that and time). Another influence is time: I have on several occasions given scores to games that were higher than they should have been if I had played them longer (two specifically…try to guess which ones!). That’s the balance between getting a review out in a timely manner and giving an accurate evaluation.

  • Chris Nahr

    Honestly, these debates bore me. As you (Troy) and a few others demonstrate in your blogs and articles, good game writing simply happens when good and insightful writers write stuff about games.

    How is Elliott’s symposium supposed to make bad writers better? Is this some Platonic idea that bad writers just don’t know they ought to be better? I should say that bad writers are bad either because they lack talent and diligence, or else “bad” is relative and they are merely writing for their target audience.

    Which in the case of games consists mostly of unsophisticated kids and adult casual gamers. If they care about game writing at all they want big colorful previews and early reviews with numerical scores, and they love to bitch about “bias”.

    They also wanted Elliott’s childish jokes and stories about griefing, and I think he quite enjoyed their adulation on the 1up forums. Now he complains that the same audience he, too, was playing to cannot appreciate subtle insights? You make your bed, you lie in it, etc.

  • Chris Nahr

    While I’m ranting, what *games* are these actually or allegedly lackluster writers covering? As you said yourself, many interesting and complex games that you cover on your blog are barely ever mentioned anywhere else. The standard fare for popular publications are shooters, shooters, and some more shooters. Perhaps some driving games and action-adventures, too, and some treadmill MMORPGs. How can you expect anything but stupid writing for a stupid audience if you only cover stupid games? One occasional Bioshock or Fallout 3 does not compensate for all the mindless dross.

  • Alan Au

    One of the big, BIG problems with game reviewing is that there are a ton of games, including a handful of sleeper hits and piles of mediocre filler. The inevitable result is that some titles get much more coverage than other titles, with the AAA games paving the way with their lavish marketing campaigns, while other good/bad/mediocre games get little or no exposure other than a gold/release announcement and a one-sentence reaction based on the genre, gameplay context, and developer reputation. Seriously, how many outlets are reviewing the stacks of GBA, PS2, and web-based games that continue to pour forth from indies and minor 3rd party developers? Naturally, this skews the already lopsided 7-9 rating scale, because more people are writing about the expected hits while the majority of releases are largely ignored. Of course, the numerical rating system is another topic entirely.

    The game industry is often compared with the film industry. At least movies cost enough (to make) that the total number is manageable, and the bad ones seldom run in theaters for very long. Perhaps a better comparison is with the music industry, where the hits pays for the losers, and old releases tends to stick around for a while. Going by that model the reviewing community would be better served divvying things up by genre, with publications catering to different markets. We’ve seen the MMO publications, and the FPS and RTS magazines can’t be that far behind. The online publications have already gone that way to some extent, but the big portals still insist on covering everything for everyone, a model that probably spreads the coverage too thin.

  • Troy

    good game writing simply happens when good and insightful writers write stuff about games.

    Yeah, this is really it, isn’t it Chris? Good games writing isn’t any elaborate mystery and, though I think it helps to think about your craft, too much analysis can obscure that there is a level of just plain talent and wisdom here.

    Not that there isn’t a lot of work, too. The best writers I know (and Elliott at his best is up there) are those that work damn hard at it, and the best thing about my work for Crispy Gamer is that I get edited by people who know what they are doing. (If you don’t like being edited, CG is not for you.)

    But at some point there is a “just do it” threshold, where the trick isn’t to debate what a review should look like, it’s just to write what you think a review should be and hope someone appreciates it.

    Not everyone will, of course. Some very prominent sites require a formula and a template and deviation, no matter how clever, is frowned upon. I will admit to having been spoiled by excellent editors all the way through.

  • Jimmy A. Brown

    I do think that there is merit in considering how much critical evaluation should be in a review. Some of my favorite games have had flaws which might have impacted the obligatory score. A reasoned critique of the game, however, would reveal those aspects that I would enjoy much more than the score would suggest. Conversely, I have read good reviews giving a game a good score, but mentioning things about the game that let me know I would not like it. We will never get away from scores; movie and restaurant reviews still use them. A good review that considers issues beyond the mechanical aspects of the game, however, can help the reader see beyond the score.

  • Dave

    I think one of the enduring challenges about game criticism is that, perhaps inescapably, *most games suck*.

    And unlike a movie, where even a bad movie is usually watched until the end (and can thus be evaluated fairly), many bad games are nearly impossible to finish– either technically so, or simply from a perspective of “I don’t want to play this any longer.”

    A bad videogame, especially a *technically* bad videogame, can’t be evaluated on its merits because whatever the designer was trying to achieve, they clearly failed– and not in a narrative sense (“George Lucas wanted The Phantom Menace to be epic, but he was a lousy writer”) but in a basic competency sense (Plan 9 From Outer Space).

    It’s like asking a movie critic to tell us whether the plot of the film is exciting, interesting, engaging– any good at all, really– when the *movie itself* is out of focus, out of frame, with no sound editing, or actors unable to read their lines.

    I think that this difference goes far to explain the “7 to 10” grade inflation we see in reviews. We’re still at the point that most reviewers– indeed, most *gamers*– score a game highly *simply because it is playable*. You can’t even get into a question of whether a game is good or bad unless you can successfully navigate the controls, menus, rules, logic, etc.

    Unfortunately, this pattern is unlikely to change as long as the highest-profile games continue to seek out and exploit new technical advancements. The lower-profile games (the iPhone apps, the Desktop Tower Defenses of the world, etc.) will get a fairer shake than most because their simplicity (and thus playability) allows for a balanced review. Alas, the very thing that enables such a review– their simplicity– also reduces the requirements for a review to generic “Is it any fun?” pronouncements. . . or, if you want to stretch the word count, a little contextualization (“This game clearly evolved from Tetris. . . “).

    Good game writing requires good writing, but it’s always going to be different than movie writing, book review writing, or writing about any other form of media.

  • Shawn Elliott

    Hello again, Troy. I appreciate the response (and am promoting it on my various web 2.0 pages). I hope to write back at better length later, but wanted to explain now that categories in the symposium itself were to include:

    Review Scores
    Reader Backlash
    Reviews in the Age of Social Media
    Reviews in the Mainstream Media
    Casual, Indie, and User-Generated Games
    Review Ethics
    Reviews vs. Criticism
    Evolving the Review

    Most questions on my blog come specifically from the Scores section, hence the apparent over-emphasis.

    PS, my new email address should appear for you, yeah?

  • Troy

    New address shows up fine.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of the pseudo-Symposium.

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  • Shaquil R. Hansford

    Wow, late to the party yet again. This was almost a year ago. Guess I’ll have to read more stuff from you guys to see what’s happening now. I’ve seen you on the videogamesjournos network, Troy. I thought I’d seen your name elsewhere… guess it’s time I read up on your stuff. Hopefully something more recent.