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.