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15 September 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:58pm

Criticism vs reviews: sometimes, it’s OK to care only about how a game plays

If some gamers want their reviews to be reviews, and others want theirs to be criticism, why don't we accept that the two don't have to be the same thing? 

By Phil Hartup

Video games have a weird tradition in how they are reviewed and rated. Unlike books, films or any other thing generally considered art, they tend to be broken down into their component parts by reviewers and assessed piecemeal. It is an approach that has lasted a good couple of decades as the industry standard, and speaks to the history of the video game as being less than art, as idiotic toys, full of sound and fury that signify nothing.

However, this has changed as games have become better presented and of greater cultural significance – but should this have changed?

Way back when reviewers would rate games for elements like their graphics, their sound and their “playability” – an idea coined for the reviewing of games that pertains simply to how much fun the game is once you get your hands on it – all it took was working out the average of the scores for the different criteria, and there was your total score. How good a game is, expressed in clear mathematical terms, and with the working-out shown like a maths question in school. It cheapened the idea of games as art (which until recently was something of a fringe view), but as long as the reviewer shared your tastes you had a good idea what to expect from a game.

More recently, games have been reviewed relative to more nebulous criteria, although the fixation on scores remains. This should be fine – it is accepted in films that a critic will slap a mark out of five on a movie and call it reviewed – but if the general disdain for reviews from the gameplaying public is anything to go by, this isn’t working for games.

The problem is that as games have matured into an artform their improved looks, scope and status on the cultural landscape have brought with them proper academic criticism. This can be fascinating stuff – often more so than the games which are the subject. To get a deeper understanding of the mechanics of a game, and to be able to read the themes and subtext, is fun. It is part and parcel of achieving a deeper understanding of an art form and, in a way, to get a deeper understanding of yourself through your experience with it.

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But there’s a problem with this academic criticism, and it’s that modern big budget games – the AAA titles as they are called – often don’t stand up to criticism very well. When you bring that extra level of scrutiny to bear on a Thief, GTA V or Watch_Dogs, they fall apart. Daft plots full of holes, stupid or unappealing main characters, absurd mechanics – AAA games are heaving with them.

This kind of criticism is important. Video games deserve academic criticism, and if it seems at times that much loved games are being painfully dragged over the coals then they just need to get good. Criticism is there in part to encourage the good and brutalise the bad, and video games has more than its share of bad. The crass portrayals of women and minorities, the endless repetition of hackneyed plots, turret sections – it’s all bad, bordering on the unforgiveable, and the medium deserves a lot better.

Of course it antagonises fans to see their beloved games disembowelled with ten dollar words, feeling as if their character is being attacked by association, and their outrage can be terrible above and beyond the point of ridiculousness – but that’s the price you pay for an art form reaching higher profile. The irony here is of course that it is the games industry itself that is insulting its audience with asinine, hyper-marketed drivel, not the critics for pointing this out. Nothing insults me as a gamer more than watching any given AAA developer pinch off yet another by-the-numbers sequel and offer it up like it’s a revolution.

Having reviewers approach games with this more critical eye ought to be good thing, and in a general sense an improved literacy in the language of games and media is certainly good. But it’s clearly problematic to attempt to apply this sort of in-depth criticism in reviews.

We are starting to see a schism as more and more AAA games are becoming worse from a critical standpoint while becoming better from a less critical, more general perspective. Perhaps the best example of this is Hitman: Absolution. From a critical standpoint this game is all kinds of a mess: the characters and story are nonsense, the faux grindhouse-exploitation movie style is tacky and absolutely wrong for a Hitman game, the mechanics of the game (which had been unique to the series) are gone, and what remains is an unpleasant and faintly embarrassing stealth shooter. Yet it’s actually a very entertaining unpleasant stealth shooter. So what does that make it, a five out of ten because it’s unpleasant? Or is it an eight out of ten because we don’t care about how gross the tone of the game is, as long as it’s engaging?

Another example of this is the now infamous GTA V review on Gamespot, where (to the outrage of thousands of fans) the game appeared to lose a mark out of ten for reasons not directly related to how much fun it was – or, at least not related to how much fun it was for its uncritical and largely white male audience. Of course, a game can be gross in such a way as to make it off-putting to a reviewer and, by extension, players at large – Duke Nukem Forever, for instance, was insufferable garbage – but there is a difference between the in-your-face wretchedness of a Duke Nukem or Watch_Dogs and the more subtle unpleasantness of a GTA V.

The expectation for a review is that it be out at the earliest possible moment, with speed of the essence. This means that, at best, any critical examination of a game, at least in that first review, is going to be half-arsed. (Maybe three-quarter arsed if the game is short.) Even less arse might be employed if the game is sprawling, and you’ll be lucky to find more than a sliver of arse for the specifics of an MMORPG. Movie critics have the luxury of time – it takes a couple of hours to watch a film – but a games reviewer has to soldier through hours of game, develop the core skills to play it, and ultimately finish it. All that, and submit copy to a deadline. The time considerations are ruthless, and do not lend themselves much to contemplation of the game itself. As such a reviewer should be more like a mining canary – you immerse them in the game, and if they’re still chirping away happily after eight hours then all is well. We can leave it to the critics to work out if the canary was chirping because it was happy or suffering low level hypoxia.

Perhaps it is time for games journalism to accept that it cannot have the New Games Journalism cake, with its crunchy and substantial filling of academic criticism, and still eat the traffic from the launch day fans looking for an immediate review of whether a given product will pass the Maximus Test. Perhaps we should accept that those ancient games writers from way back when, some of them now in their 40s, actually knew what they were doing and let the critics critique and the reviewers review.