Monday, September 22, 2008

An Attempt at a Creed for Game Reviews

A while back, Scott Jones posted a review of Bionic Commando: Rearmed, a recent remake of the NES classic Bionic Commando, on the Onion A.V. Club. In the review Jones made a point of faulting the game for not allowing you to jump. For him, frustration set in when Without a jump button—an unfortunate homage to the original—Spencer [the hero] drops like a stone if he steps off a ledge.” Now, I don't mean to bag on Scott Jones here. (I'll leave that to the A.V. Club's commenters, a colorfully malicious crew who neatly illustrate Rousseau's theory that the cultivation of wit and love of the arts breed moral degeneracy.) But dispraising Bionic Commando because you can't jump strikes me as wrongheaded: it's faulting the game for not being some other game it's not trying to be.

Jones' basic issue is that the game too slavishly imitates its 8-bit predecessor, and this is at least a more defensible position to take. But in my opinion Rearmed is, if anything, a good example of a remake whose creators gave careful thought to the merits and shortcomings of the original and made uniformly smart design decisions with these in mind. Eliminating the one facet of the game that distinguished it from a legion of similar platformers-- its total reliance on the grapple-and-swing mechanic for traversal-- would not have made Rearmed a better product. As Nathan Rabin said, you can't blame a five-touchdown game for not being a no-hitter. As usual with Rabin, this statement gleams with sound critical sense. For me it is a creed worthy of our avowal.

My larger reason for taking issue with Jones here is that his mistake points the way to Rabin's valuable critical principle. When we get about debating the merits of various games we run into all sorts of intractable problems with game reviews stemming from the critic's background: have they played all the previous iterations of the series, are they fans of the genre, are they competent enough games-acumen-wise to enjoy it, and so on. Since games are a participatory medium, the critic's personal frame colors their experience to a degree that is different from other media. In addition, years of playing Wii shovelware to completion on a deadline might turn anyone in to a soulless husk of a human being, incapable of honest pleasure. And this is all on top of the usual differences of taste that typify human beings as a species. (Some people like dill, and I'd prefer to eat regurgitated grass clippings.) Given all these problems, how can games criticism aim for anything resembling objectivity, so as to be useful to the public?

On one hand your own sense of fun will never lead you astray. You can be misguided or wrong about a lot of things in this life but it's difficult to be mistaken about whether you're having a good time. And if you're an average person with a decent range of previous experience, this sense of fun alone can be helpful to the public at large. But I don't think we need to stop at this.

The lesson to take from Rabin is that critical standards-- what makes a game good, in this case-- are relative to the game itself. The interesting thing to ask of a game is whether it is good as the kind of thing that it is-- does it succeed at what it tries to do. When you play a game, I think you can get a pretty objective handle on what its intentions towards the player are, and when we talk about a game's goodness we're talking about how well it achieves them.

I don't go in for the whole procedural rhetoric idea, but you do get the sense after playing a lot of games that they are structured so as to persuade you of something-- in tycho's words, a game has a thesis; a certain intention with respect to the player, something it is trying to get you to do and to experience. In most cases this thesis is just a point about what would be fun. Take Boom Blox: the game says, “we have this controller that is uniquely capable of translating physical throwing into a virtual world; wouldn't it be fun to destroy block towers by tossing shit at them?” And it is. It's really goddamn fun.

Reflecting on how different kinds of games go about making fun, scouring them for theses, is way to get a better handle on how different design decisions conspire together to create a certain experiences. In the case of the now-classic Xbox game Ninja Gaiden, the game's intention might be put thusly: unlike most character action games, the standard enemy encounter in Ninja Gaiden is almost always potentially fatal. The player just can't survive by mashing buttons, and so she is forced to master the game's incredibly deep combat system to progress. The resulting experience is difficult and tense throughout; you feel constantly vulnerable, and this gives the player a unique sense of accomplishment when they surmount the game's challenges. God of War, on the other hand, is designed to empower the player from the get-go. The player is made to feel like Muhammad Ali in 1975 for just mashing on the square button, or pressing X then triangle with proper timing. God of War doesn't want to humble you, even though it is appropriately challenging at points. It wants to convey the sense that you are a demigod let loose in a land of mere mortals, and it does just that.

The comparison of these games shows that there isn't one ideal of “good combat” that floats above all of these games, the adherence to which makes a game good; good and bad design decisions are relative to the way they fit into the overall form of the game itself. As my girlfriend found out, you can get pretty far in Castle Crashers by just alternating your weak and strong attacks really quick. And this isn't a deficiency; the combat is about as deep as it needs to be, and the depth comes in through other elements of the design. (In the same way, it wouldn't make sense to say Castle Crashers has unimaginative level design, but this is true of Ninja Gaiden.) I think reviewers go astray on this point and begin to hold other games liable for duplicating the exact successes of other games they superficially resemble-- they have this set of abstract “review categories” in their head, and then they go about reviewing by running down the list.

When you can articulate how well a game succeeds in its immanent intentions I think you have done the reader a service (when we talk about “consumer advocacy” I think we're just talking about how well the game does on this front) and also advanced the critical discussion. Because once we have a way to talk about how games go about creating certain experiences we can have the interesting conversation about whether the game's goals are worthwhile. Like: do we need another game that just tries to make me feel like just a little bit more of a badass? Don't get me wrong, I love this research program, but as a critic I'm always on the lookout for games that are trying to do new things, and creating new experiences.

I'm not an objectivity queen-- I don't want to eliminate the rich panoply of human responses to art, or lord my opinions over others under a thin veneer of impartiality. (okay, well maybe some of the latter) All I think is that if we can get around to talking about the excellencies of games in a way that is as shareable as possible we'll have more and more interesting things to say. The more public our language is the better chance we have of having interesting conversations with each other.


thesimplicity said...

Oh Lordy, I could rant for days about this.

So many people who write about games consider themselves critics (or "reviewers") without being able to articulate their criticism in a way that really says anything. *Every* periodical or website these days runs game reviews. Most of them are so poorly pieced together that they do nothing other than let you know if the game was "worth the hype." It seems that, due to the absence of a proper critical pedagogy, many people lack the vocabulary to discuss a game. I know that I myself have no idea; I just talk about games the same way I would talk about a painting. My experiences with it, what other works inform it, what it has to offer the medium as a whole... stuff like that. I think a lot of reviewers are in a similar situation. Go to and read any random review, then go to and do the same. I think it's mind boggling how games are critiqued compared to other mediums. Like you said... "Mario can jump, so why can't the guy from Bionic Commando?" I don't think you'd ever read a film review along the lines of "David Lynch should have more explosions, like Michael Bay does." Because film criticism has moved away from being about how the viewer can best spend their movie ticket money and towards discussing how what an individual film has to offer.

That's what I want from game reviews. Don't tell me if it's worth $60, tell me if it's worth experiencing. Yeah, Alone in the Dark had a bad camera system... but what about all the features that could potentially change how we interact with games in the future? Games have so much potential, and it's frustrating to see the people who champion them as art refuse to discuss them as anything more than entertainment.

Nelsormensch said...

I just rereading the games as architecture post and I wonder if the ... complications in modern game reviews are partially a result of this. I have absolutely no knowledge of architecture criticism, but I wonder how it compares to fine art and media criticism. As was discussed in that thread, there are both creative and constructive components of games. Maybe the disconnect in game reviews is the critic regarding these things independently instead of as two sides of the same thesis coin.

For art and films, the thesis of the media is prominent and the primary focus of discussion. While I suppose it's possible to take issue with some technical aspects of creative properties, it doesn't happen know. I certainly detest the "shaky cam" trend that dominates action films, unless it's explicitly tied to the content of the film itself (e.g. Cloverfield).

But by and large, technical objections to not compose the body of media criticism. In games, it's almost exactly the opposite. The technical issues are discussed at length, perhaps a little is directed towards the creative content if it's outstanding (either good or bad). But they're never regarded as two things working together to communicating a thesis. I agree that this deserves a lot more attention. Granted, there are lots of shallow, pandering games that don't have coherent thesis or at least not one worth seriously regarding.

As an aside, under this model, how do we take issue with a creative property's thesis? Can we acknowledge that it worked toward presenting its thesis well, but that thesis itself is somehow flawed?

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nelsormensch: if I had to think how to knit the two posts together I would probably say that problems with execution (all the craft stuff I talked about in the architecture post) are what usually prevent games from realizing their intentions with regard to the player. Like I heard this lecture on GDC radio about the combat system in God of War and it made you realize how complicated it is to realize the feeling of badassery it gives you. This is a sort of technical problem but issues like control and animation and the like are such a huge part of the experiences that games can produce.

Also, your last question is a really good one. When it comes to talking about what kinds of transport and experience are worthwhile I'm less sure how to proceed and I have a hard time thinking of a methodology or anything that would be helpful.

Part of what I'm inclined to say is that we should put a value on complexity and innovation when it comes to talking about the value of experiences. Like Braid, what Braid is trying to get across is very subtle and also interestingly thorny. And I think that's something we should value. Same comes to the innovations it introduces into its gameplay mechanics.

It's a really good question, I'm interested what you think about this one.

matthew said...

I've been sitting here mulling over this flawed thesis idea for a while, going back and forth on it.

To me a lot of this hinges on exactly what a thesis is. Is it just a statement? Or is it a point made specifically to be argued and defended? If the former, I am reluctant to say that a game's thesis can be flawed - maybe it would be more accurate to say it is a statement which can only be appreciated by a small group of people (or simply uninspired). Take braid as an example - I grew tired of braid the further into it I played. I could see what the solution for some of the more complicated puzzles looked like, but I didn't have the patience to solve them. However, that amount of solving and the nit-pickity challenge might be the exact thesis that was being put forth. So is it really a flawed thesis, or am I just not the target audience? Then again, maybe braid isn't the right game to help illuminate this issue, being scrutinized so much of late.

Does anybody have a game that they think might fill those criteria? Well executed technically but with a faulty thesis?

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure that "thesis" is the best term to use. It's most frequently (though not always) used to refer to a central argument or principal critical point of some kind, and games (like films, paintings, buildings...) *can* but do not *necessarily* always convey arguments, as such. Good films and novels, for example, often portray broadly familiar characters or situations in ways that invite the audience to reconsider their preconceived notions about these subjects. However, in my opinion, the most sophisticated examples of these art forms don't necessarily impose a fully-formed critique or viewpoint on the viewer/reader. Rather, they inspire independent critical thought. Similarly, even highbrow games don't always contain "arguments," although they often call into question certain established conventions or assumptions. Then again, maybe Iroquois doesn't adhere to such a pedestrian understanding of the term "thesis."

Anonymous said...

Oops-- I meant to sum up my point at the end there: maybe we don't need to ask whether a game has a flawed "thesis," which seems to frame a critic's evaluation as a matter of evaluating a game's logical coherence, but rather whether the game seems to have been a worthwhile project. The answer to this type of question will be inescapably subjective.

Steve Amodio said...

In an era when maturity in the "gaming press" is constantly in question with major outlets like Kotaku seemingly working overtime to prove critics right right, a complex issue like this always merits discussion.

I think the biggest problem these days with reviews is that they're trying to serve about eight different masters. They're trying to simultaneously offer a viewpoint from the perspective of a consumer advocate (as you noted), a gaming expert, a gaming industry/hype expert, a deep master of educated criticism, all the while operating on an antiquated framework that was established like 20 years ago to serve the needs of specific pulp publications.

I was getting close to the breaking point after the GTAIV review debacle, but looking at reviews of Mega Man 9 and Kirby Super Star Ultra this is an area where you're quite right, reform is sorely needed.

Nelsormensch said...

@Iroquois Maybe the way to start thinking about this is to consider in what ways a game's thesis can be found lacking. As you mentioned, a game's intent could be simplistic (simple can be elegant, simplistic is excessive simplicity), or perhaps it is derivative and uninteresting. Refinement of a given form could be just fine, but coarse retreading (think WWII shooter #17) isn't. As someone upthread mentioned, there may be too much subjectivity to say what makes a thesis good, but I think it still could be possible to enumerate what makes a game's thesis bad.

Part of the difficulty (and I don't think this is specific to games) is that it's unclear at times what the thesis of a game is supposed to be. For a poor game, is it poor because it achieved a poor thesis well, or did it fail to achieve a reasonable thesis? Is one of those things more laudable than the other?

@anonymous Using the term "thesis" in the context of games is really just a semantic shortcut for saying, "what the game is trying to be/achieve" or "a game's core intention or essence." It's cribbed from the PA post Iroquois linked. I remember thinking Tycho really hit the nail on the head when I first read that post and I hope regarding the "thesis" of games is something that will gain more traction.

pixelvixen707 said...

Appreciate your point that our experiences should be "sharable." But I wonder how many frustrated readers truly want rigorous reviews, and how many crave more intriguing reactions. Not to go all "new game journalism," but colorful voices making unique and even inexplicable arguments might be more valuable than objective, rigorous or even fair write-ups. Scott Jones may have been wrong to expect jumping in Bionic Commando, but I'd love to hear why jumping is the one thing the game really needs.

And while I agree that games should have a thesis or a point, my biggest pain point - especially with big-budget mainstream titles - lies in the way they fail to do even that, to make an argument or stick to their core themes or get across much of anything at all. Half the team made the shotgun blast look cool, the other half futzed with the mountains and the foliage. There is no vision to critique.

Scott Juster said...

It seems like every one is talking about reviews lately. It's refreshing to hear that a growing number of people are disenchanted with the status-quo video game review.

I think your points on evaluating a game's intent and commenting on what it is trying to be, rather than what you want it to be is very important.

Also, I think evaluating games within their historical contexts is essential. Before discussing a game like Bionic Commando, one must recognize the long history of the series and how it reflects its place in the world of games.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@steve: I think you're totally right that the consumer advocate idea and the critic idea tend to pull games reviews in different directions. But I don't think there's any intrinsic conflict between the idea of offering critical insight into a game and giving an opinion about whether or not it's something you should go see.

@anonymous and nelsormensch: I kind of agree that when it comes down to debating competing theses it partially just comes down to taste. (Like God Hand or No More Heroes, those games are really divisive sometimes you just love or hate what they're trying to do.)

@pixelvixen: I think the new games crit is interesting. Obviously people do things with games and have experiences that noone intended, and writing about them creatively is totally worthwhile. My only objection I guess is that the new games criticism feels like the end of a conversation rather than the beginning of one, and for that reason it's never be as interesting to me as other kinds of criticism.

@scott: Yeah I agree with you on this point but I'm not sure what to do with it. Obviously you want to go in as well-informed as possible. The pitfalls are where you are judging a game by just matching it against the expectations you have from previous iterations of the series or the development history, and this can go badly astray sometimes.

mtvernon said...

"I think your points on evaluating a game's intent and commenting on what it is trying to be, rather than what you want it to be is very important."

I completely agree with Scott Juster's above comment -- evaluating a game's intent is extremely important. But it seems to me that this is where things can get thorny. When a reviewer takes issue with the way a particular game is attempting to achieve it's goals (or support its thesis), then, in my view at least, s/he must suggest some alternative approach that would alleviate the problem. All too often these suggestions are simply blurted, with little to no attention paid the REASON for their proposed inclusion. I think this is where a lot of reviewers get off track and start discussing an entirely different game that maybe they'd prefer to be playing.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I'm not sure how active this article still is but...I'd argue that the bold standard you seek is not the product of a rigorous set of rules outlined by a group of people. It is the result of one critic grinding away for so damn long that people just start to infer that this is the "way" it's done.

Ebert is a child of Pauline Kael and his own take on film. She was a by-product of the French and other influences. Both of these people went at it for so long that they did not so much create an ideology as a standard. An approach that so many people had read for so long that it just became the norm instead of the exception.

That's my take anyways. I always get fussy when I'm told game reviews and critics are inferior after I dump so much time trying to turn the tide around. At least point out some reviews you consider *good* when you post a piece like this so I can get better by studying it.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@l.b. jeffries: keepin' it active! I actually agree with you that the whole "creed" thing is kind of misleading, in the sense that I don't think there's a need a set of rigid interpretive rules that reviewers should work off of, or anything like that. The sort of stuff I talk about here-- judging a game based on your sense of what it's trying to do, and all that-- comes from listening to people talk about games on podcasts and reading criticism online and the like, and trying to synthesize some collective practical wisdom.

Also, I didn't really mean to come off as negative. I'm not even really interested in railing against subjectivity (which is inevitable to some degree) so much as I am interested in trying to figure out what objectivity would consist in. And the only reason I'm interested in objectivity is that I'm like, "what could I tell someone about my experience with a game that they would find valuable?" And usually the first things that pop into my head are sentences like "what this game does well is X" and things of that nature.