What’s the Matter with Game Criticism?

It's actually not as bad as it it looks.

As bad as it it looks?

Every several months, some kind of gaming journalism ‘scandal’ comes up. Sure, these events have moved on from firing writers for their review scores to more nuanced questions about journalistic integrity, but these moments still tend to confirm what we already think we know, repeating the same old themes: the critics are corrupt, in the pocket of the publishers; game reviews serve merely to rubberstamp AAA titles, with a scoring range from 80 to 100; no one, it seems, wants to seriously discuss a game’s flaws. Communal judgments upon reviews are enacted by a rabid but contradictory fanbase,  as willing to attack a reviewer for rating a game at 83/100 as to accuse another of blindly overrating a big budget title. The environment for gaming discourse, then, seems simultaneously corrupt and toxic, its critics caught between the money and power of the gaming industry and an implacable gamer public.

Many of the charges leveled against gaming criticism are correct. Just compare the review scores of a recent game to those of a recent movie or album. Nearly half of the reviews for Bioshock Infinite list perfect scores, the vast majority are above a 90, and not a single reviewer of the 67 listed dared to rate the game below an 80. This can reflect one of two things: either Infinite is a work of art that everyone can agree they dearly enjoy and believe is truly great, or there is a pervasive laziness or cowardice afflicting gaming criticism that prevents reviewers from stating any subjective opinion outside of the agreed-upon norm. This situation isn’t true of either movie or music criticism. The two works I linked above, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories are the highest-rated mainstream releases of the past three months, but neither has achieved such a definitive critical consensus as Bioshock Infinite – a level of critical consensus that is not uncommon among major game releases.

In the weeks since Bioshock Infinite was released, it’s become clear that this isn’t a game everyone can agree is wonderful. Even though many of its detractors admit it’s still a remarkable game, many of its fans and defenders also admit that the game isn’t perfect. The truth is that Infinite is a great but flawed game, which isn’t something its reviews really reflect. That notion has come out in many wonderful analytical pieces since the game’s release, but all of that analysis was curiously absent when the game came out.

Bioshock Infinite: is it really as good as Pulp Fiction or ET?

Bioshock Infinite: is it really as good as Pulp Fiction or ET?

I’ve seen three kinds of game reviews. The first kind merely describes the game; these are the kind of reviews that sound a bit like a product description or a press release, and while they’re useful if you only want to know about the game, they aren’t worth much if you want to know the good and bad of it. This type of review has become rarer in recent years, but can still be found on some of the bigger and older game websites. Take a look at this Gamespot review, for instance, and you’ll see what I’m talking about: lots of description of gameplay throughout, but scant and superficial critical judgment. A second type of review, probably the most common, evaluates the gameplay experience with the goal of rendering judgment on a game’s entertainment value. Brad Shoemaker’s Far Cry 3 review on GiantBomb.com is an excellent example of this. Note how Shoemaker finds fault in the game’s story, but decides the gameplay’s so fun that the game still deserves five stars. Compare that to the Gamespot review of Infinite, which holds the game back from a perfect score but finds nothing to criticize besides occasional glitches. It seems a bit arbitrary to take off points for such a minor issue, or perhaps just lazy that the author can’t identify more significant faults in an imperfect game. Though Shoemaker would be more than justified in taking points off for his issues with Far Cry‘s story, he sufficiently argues his decision, so that his final judgment makes sense despite his willingness to admit the game’s flaws.

Archetypical characters yes, but the film succeeds despite, and even because of this fact

Archetypical characters, yes, but the film succeeds despite, and even because of this fact

Shoemaker’s conclusion will still be troubling to some: even though the game’s story isn’t great, the game is so fun that it deserves a perfect score. This attitude is pretty typical of game reviews. Look at Blizzard’s recent titles, such as Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3, which have received widespread acclaim, including praise for each game’s campaign, even though the stories and characters of these games haven’t advanced far beyond Power Rangers. Similarly-rated movies with generic characters and fantastic settings – films like the recent Star Trek or Django Unchained – contain engaging stories and slick dialogue that far surpasses what you’ll find in a video game. And even our better critics are content to hand out perfect scores to any game that’s ‘fun’ enough. Admittedly, ‘fun’ comes with the territory; these are games, after all, and games are supposed to be fun, just as a good movie should have good dialogue. Ken Levine makes a similar point in defense of the shooter violence in Bioshock Infinite, arguing that it’s a necessary game trope, like bursting into song is in musicals, and it doesn’t have to make sense because it’s just a part of the form.

The third kind of review involves critical analysis. These kinds of reviews usually can’t ignore a game’s story, and instead of merely deciding whether this story is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, an analytic review considers what the story means and how the game expresses that meaning. Gameplay is still important, but rather than writing about how story serves gameplay, as Shoemaker does in his Far Cry 3 review, an analytic review is more likely to examine how gameplay serves the story. If you’ve heard the term ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’  lately, you have an idea what I’m talking about. The problem that term expresses is how Infinite‘s shooter violence clashes with the game’s story. Analytic reviews are rare in gaming for a few reasons. Good analysis requires not only more thought, but more time as well, and often a bit of discussion. It’s also hard to write analysis without spoilers, which game critics seem to universally agree do not belong in an initial review.

This man is not a serious journalist.

This man is not a serious journalist.

I can’t help but feel that this is only part of the reason analysis is so rare. Gamers seem very accustomed to the type two reviews I described earlier, which chiefly evaluate gameplay, to the extent that the only well-known critic that sometimes involves analysis in his reviews – Yahtzee – isn’t taken seriously by most gamers. Admittedly, Yahtzee is a satirical critic, but disregarding him still feels like dismissing Hunter S. Thompson as ‘not a serious journalist’ or Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as ‘not serious commentators’.  Yes, strictly speaking, they aren’t serious, but they’ve got much more to say than most of their more ‘serious’ contemporaries. In between jokes, Yahtzee is the rare critic who’ll sometimes consider the implications of a game’s story, as he does with Black Ops 2, for instance, spectacularly lambasting the game’s rampant jingoism, a subject other critics failed to consider in their reviews. Of course, Yahtzee should be taken with a grain of salt. But so should any good critic. The critic’s job is to offer his opinion, and he can do this better when he admits his biases rather than restraining them. This is another problem with gaming criticism, the reason why reviews are all so close in score and tend to repeat the same talking points: reviewers lean towards the communal consensus rather than their own independent impressions of the game. Yahtzee has his faults as a reviewer – he won’t touch multiplayer, and he offers an unsparing, pessimistic perspective – but these faults actually make him a better critic in the otherwise dull world of gaming criticism.

Yahtzee isn’t the only example, or even the best example, of a critic willing to engage in real analysis. He is probably the most well-known, since the bigger gaming websites tend to avoid analysis. Still, we’ve come a long way since ten years ago, when it seemed there were only three gaming websites, each spewing out the same set of press releases barely disguised as reviews, half for the benefit of the game publishers that sponsored them. One of those sites has dropped off considerably, and the other two are looking far less imperious with newer sites such as Giant Bomb and Polygon on the rise. We’ve also seen a shift towards Youtube, where the combination of easy streaming and a relatively unrestrictive marketplace have created a near perfect environment for both casters and viewers. You have mainstream critics such as Adam Sessler of Rev3Games offering top-notch gameplay reviews alongside smaller channels such as Errant Signal, which provides a wonderful combination of gameplay judgment and critical analysis.

This combination of all three aspects is exactly what many great critics achieve in their reviews. Watch how effortlessly Roger Ebert moves from description to judgment and analysis in his Django review, often blending two aspects at once, such as when he simultaneously describes the movie’s narrative while analyzing Waltz’s character in the opening paragraphs. A good movie is both art and entertainment, and deserves to be evaluated for its entertainment value as well as for its artistic merit. If we haven’t seen much analysis of games yet, it’s partly because it’s still a young and developing art form. Our reviewers maybe weren’t quite ready for a game as ambitious and flawed as Bioshock Infinite. The game offers a fantastic setting, solid gunplay, and excellent production values and art direction, all attached to  a fascinating mess of a story. A story which reviewers understandably chose not to engage. Why should they? The job description and the community expectation both are to evaluate how fun and smooth the game plays. Which is a fine and necessary pursuit. But if we want to consider games as art, we have to actively consider games as art. Which involves a different kind of analysis. A lot of which has emerged in the wake of Infinite, much of it in response to the glowing reviews the game has received. In the weeks following the game’s release, I watched a wellspring grow of both analysis and dissent. Our critics might just be ready for the next one.

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