Even as a gamer, I have mixed feelings about the phrase “game journalism.” This is a term that a lot of professional (read: lucrative) gaming blogs try to push for. I don’t disagree that video games, an increasingly popular and profitable entertainment medium, are deserving of serious attention. However, trends in the writing produced by gaming journalists are a mish-mash of industry trends, business reporting, and press releases. Content often focuses on the culture surrounding the development of games and is, at times, oddly divorced from actual criticism.
Oh, and game journalists have a bit of a PR problem. Mainly, the gaming community views them as a bunch of self-important pricks.
That said, there’s a lot great game criticism all over the web. It’s a challenging type of arts writing: how do you assess art that is designed to be interacted with? I mean, there’s no other entertainment medium where winning is the goal.
What is the most prevalent topic in game reviews?
There is no shortage of academic articles suggesting new critical methodologies for assessing video games as texts. In “Simulation versus narrative: Introduction to ludology,” author Gonzalo Frasca argues that when games are assessed by narrative, they are being analyzed as though they were film. Naturally, games are different mediums and, in the interest of being thoughtful about the uniqueness of the form, it is important critics instead focus on ludological approaches.
What the hell is a ludological approach?
A ludological approach focuses on the rules a game sets up and how a player must interact with these rules. Despite the high-brow term, it is actually where there is commonality between the academic field of game studies and the kind of game criticism consumed by a general audience.
Here’s a review of iOS game Enviro-Bear on TouchArcade.com that serves as a nice example. The game puts players in control of a bear who is driving a car through a forest trying to eat enough food to fatten up for the winter. Driving in the game is intentionally cumbersome because you are a bear and bears are terrible at driving cars. Although review mentions graphics briefly, much of the language is dedicated to the way the player is forced to (ineffectually) interact with the game.
We see the same thing in PCGamers.com review of indie-darling Monaco. As I started writing this, I originally wanted to block quote out any review content that focuses specifically on the interaction between game and player as opposed to “pure” aesthetic assessments of graphics or sound. I ditched this approach because most of the review would have been block quoted and I think that’s pretty telling.
What are some other topical commonalities in game reviews?
In addition to criteria like graphics and sound, I have identified some trends of analysis below. This is hardly everything in the topography of game criticism; I will also explore more criteria in the next post.
Thomas Apperley, author of Genre and Game Studies: Toward a Critical Approach to Video Game Genres, posits that game genres slippery things. His assessment that games should be categorized by the way they function instead of how they appear is not dissimilar to Frasca’s push for ludiogocial approaches to game criticism.
Both Frasca and Apperly should be pleased to know that game reviews generally focus more on how a game functions within a genre.Take this excerpt from GameRevolution’s review of Deathsmiles, a Japanese horizontal 2d shooter that was localized last year:
Deathsmiles is a side-scrolling 2D shooter. Those who may associate the bullet hell sub-genre more with top-down vertical scrollers—like Ikaruga and DoDonPachi—will see just how naturally the genre translates to a horizontal orientation. The mechanics are deceptively simple. You have a weak and a strong fire button, each with a right and a left direction, and you’re aided by a character-specific familiar who rains down additional fire on your targets.
This short excerpt manages to say a lot about how Deathsmiles functions within the larger 2D shooter genre. Even though bullet hell shooters have vertical movement and look like this, Deathsmiles still accurately functions within the bullet hell subgenre. One would not arrive at this conclusion if one were categorizing genres by the way they look instead of how they operate.
Replayability and Length
Replayability is basically the perceived shelf life of a game. Replayability focuses on reasons the player would pick up again after beating it. This is a criteria unique to the medium of games. It would be weird to assess a film on the merits of whether or not it gives you reason to watch it again. Presumably, if the movie is good that is your incentive to watch again.
Replayability is often intrinsically tied to a game’s length. Games typically require a larger time investment than the length of a feature film. If a game is short, reviewers will then typically assess what about the game warrants repeated playthroughs. For instance, IGN’s review of Super Meat Boy specifically mentions the game’s lasting appeal as a high point, citing the games hidden levels and leaderboard as evidence of this assertion.
Furthermore, replayability is not usually treated like something a reviewer can simply “check off” when assessing a game’s merifts. If a game takes 100 hours to beat and is largely a linear experience then, no, the game isn’t exactly inviting multiple playthroughs. At the same time, that’s not really a bad thing given the length of that first playthrough. I’ve written before about this trend in games to make games longer by adding a stupid amount of unlockables. Whether a game is long or simply tedious is a fairly common inventive space, especially for games that promise to deliver an endless experience.
Length seems like an arbitrary criteria if you’re writing about experience of playing a game. I’d take a quality 3 hour game over a mediocre 20 hour experience. But this concern is over length is ultimately consumer-driven: if you’re going to drop $60 bucks on a new game, you are going to be (understandably) displeased if it ends after six hours.
Online game reviews currently face the same problem that plague online film and TV criticism. The increased popularity of review aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are undermining thoughtful review content–and I understand that calling it a problem is a bit prescriptive on my part. Nonetheless, users look to these popular sites not for in depth reviews of games but to see a quantified judgement between 0 and 100.
It’s also worth noting that when Metacritic aggregates reviews, it converts whatever number the reviewer assigned to Metacritic’s 100 point scale. Is a 4 out 5 really an 80/100? Probably not. And what about reviewers that don’t use decimals? This distinction gets lost in the aggregate. Assuming that review aggregators are here to stay, someone looking to write reviews might want to consider using the 100 point scale proactively. At least that way your numerical assessment is not lost in translation if factored into the aggregate.
Even Steam, the largest digital distributor of PC games, has a Metacritic widget on every game’s store page. I understand that a numerical score is more of a genre feature than a topic to help with invention. That said, it’s a feature that is influencing the form and I would be remiss not to mention it.
Does online game criticism always mean a review?
Not at all. I plan to go into this in greater detail in my next post.
But, in the meantime: there is plenty of criticism that critiques gaming trends at large. As opposed to reviews, which focus on a single game, this type of criticism looks a wider range of games as well as the surrounding gaming culture. Like this feature on Gamelogical about why “gamifying” your life is equal parts underwhelming and stupid. Or this PA Report article about a developer’s frustration with other independent game developers.