What Game Reviews Don't Do, and Some Suggestions
So we have a problem. Games writing and reviewing is useless (my term), recognized frequently even by those who actually produce it. Leigh Alexander put it best (make sure to read the link) in the midst of a lengthy response to some criticism from N'gai Croal:
"And as I illustrated at Kotaku yesterday, the large majority of game consumers do not currently read reviews because they don't find them useful or relatable. The disconnect between the consumer who reads reviews and the one who doesn't is just a precursor to the rampant disconnect between those tasked with communicating about games and those who enjoy playing games.
This particular chasm, I feel, is one of the largest obstacles to games attaining widespread cultural value beyond that of a plaything. And it's also one of the most addressable."
Reviewers of other products have a sort of use; growing up, I heard my mom say she likes Roger Ebert's reviews because he usually likes the same things she does. That is not something I can think of anyone saying about any game reviewer anywhere, ever. This difficulty is exascerbated by the length of time required to play, meaning that partaking of a game that someone recommends is a bigger deal than watching a movie or listening to some music. Music and movie obsessors can get together and talk while sharing music or movies with each other and the fact that it's much easier to share movies and music make it easier for them to have a discourse. We envy them for this, or should. (Sidenote: this is another reason I think that for critical purposes, games are more similar to books than they are to movies or music, but there isn't room for that here.)
People have not truly learned how to recommend games to each other yet, but reviewers should be the first to learn how to do so. There is no broadly accepted way to recommend them. Right now, it takes a personal relationship and intimate knowledge of someone's playing habits to tell a person whether or not he will like a game. There is no common notion that everyone wants to play even Smash Bros. Brawl or Madden or Halo; when asked, a guy at my work just keeps repeating, mildly, that he doesn't like Halo, and doesn't want to play Halo.
We need to evaluate by intent. While some reviews are blatantly prejudiced, most won't admit it. Dead Space (I wrote about why this was hard to review and why the discussion, even in forums, makes it difficult for people to explain it), Mirror's Edge, Far Cry 2, Left 4 Dead, Fable II (a lot of people hated its 5-hour story and Sims-based methods of exploring the world), Red Alert III, Braid, Mega Man 9, Warhammer Online, and Spore. These games are receiving disparate reviews and opinions, especially by users and consumers; their quality or lack thereof is justified for different reasons from person to person. If the reader has to do extensive research, what use is a review?
The main problem is pretended objectivity. Games may be programmed, binary creatures, but with the exception of perhaps controls, everything in it is a matter of subjective taste.
We could take the advice of someone who is much more experienced with criticism, my mom's favorite movie reviewer:
Provide a sense of the experience. No matter what your opinion, every review should give some idea of what the reader would experience in actually seeing the film. In other words, if it is a Pauly Shore comedy, there are people who like them, and they should be able to discover in your review if the new one is down to their usual standard.Game reviews don't really do that. Hell, even casual conversation on forums struggles to do that. Figuring out whether someone likes a game, even if everyone jumps in and tries to be as helpful as possible, is difficult. To figure this out, we need to take a step back and remind ourselves about how and why different people play games. Again, we need to evaluate by intent.
Ideas for Evaluation By Intent
These are some recommended do's and don'ts on how to evaluate by intent while trying to explain to everyone whether they will like a game. I admit some of these are more radical than others.
Do these consistently:
--Evaluate the single player and multiplayer as separate games. This doesn't necessarily mean equal time and space, but it does mean equal attention. Far Cry 2 sold well and received good reviews but plenty didn't realize it was more a single-player game than a multiplayer one and were left highly disappointed.
And when you mention multiplayer, mention if anyone actually plays it! Reviews do not mention this; this is why the XBox and Playstation forums are loaded with "Does anyone play this?" threads.
--How "economic" is it? Economics are only mentioned when a game gives a very small or big amount per dollar or if it has an atypical price (note how many console downloadable titles have the price mentioned in reviews). Make it a regular feature. You may have money and loads of free games as a game reviewer; your 20-something and 30-something friends may not need to buy used; but your average game player can only buy so many games and many are on a budget. Economics can't be ignored, and we are usually talking sixty bucks, not ten to twenty. It doesn't matter if it doesn't matter to you; it matters to too many people, parents, students, teenagers, and more.
--Evaluate how competitive and cooperative the game is. Changing trends show that readers want to know how much the multiplayer supports teamwork, competition, or both.
--In a similar light, make sure to mention how sociable the game is. Just because there's multiplayer doesn't mean it feels like you're playing with other people. It's unfortunate how little mention is made of how much a game brings people together, online or no. Culdcept Saga is highly competitive, co-operative, and sociable at the same time, making it an extremely unique multiplayer experience. No game reviews mention this but in the long run, that is half the reason a reader would want to buy it.
This issue has been brought to light by zombie modes in three new shooters that have come out, but it was always there.
--How well does the game work for deliberate and reckless playstyles?
I am not the first to highlight this issue--Penny Arcade and Mitch Krpata were on this beat long before I ever even thought about it. I'd like to review the differences and see what kind of effect it can have on reviews.
Reckless people go into the game with no set purpose. They want to see what it is, then make their choices. Some want to goof around, some want to explore; the key here is that they want to let go of their inhibitions while they play.
Deliberate gamers have already decided beforehand what they want; if the game meets their desires, they will keep playing. If not, they will either not like it or say "Gee, not in the mood for this right now, even if its good." This also boils down to immersion; deliberate gamers are the kind who like to forget they are playing games while taking themselves in; reckless players are aware they are playing a game and aware they are being someone else.
Most games allow for both of these playstyles; MMOs and creativity-based games such as Little Big Planet can be big dividers. Even learning LBP's tools requires recklessness that deliberate gamers lack, which is what made the opinions of it so intensely divisive. A deliberate gamer wants to play LBP and have fun platforming and playing the great levels others have made; they will be disappointed by LBP's awkwardness and the shortness of its "campaign."
Reckless gamers, on the other hand just viewed the campaign as a prelude, an introduction to exploration.
Each type lends itself to different genres; the problem is that some of the most popular genres allow room for both, making this another issue that is neglected. Some games are much more friendly only to one type. Survival horror is quite friendly to deliberate players but not reckless players, which is why opinions are so divisive on them as well.
And quickly, an opposite example where a reviewer expecting a reckless experience found Eternal Sonata to be highly deliberate, which yielded an atypically critical review.
These reviews are basically saying "I wanted this, but didn't get it, and feel cheated out of what I think I was promised" and "This game genre should adhere to these conventions I like, and it doesn't at all, so it fails." Instead, they could have said, in essence, "Creative gamers with no expectiations are more likely to love Little Big Planet, but gamers wanting a stellar platforming experience will be disappointed; that's not what it was made for," and "Eternal Sonata is an extremely linear RPG, so if the need to explore villages and continents is a requirement for you, that will turn you off."
--Don't make mention of every piece of control or features. Summarize. Go into specifics only if it's something that has not been mentioned in previews and advertising. That nifty new cover system? Everyone's heard of that. It's on the damn box. Don't waste your time doing what Gamestop, the game box, marketing, and most of the other reviews are going to do. This will be elaborated further down this list.
--Spend very little time on graphics, especially on sprites, characters, textures, and scenery. People who care about this will look at these long before your review was every written and already have made up their minds. Those that aren't don't want to read about it. Animation or anything that causes the game to glitch, slowdown, interfere with gameplay are fine since that spills over into gameplay and other parts of the experience.
--Don't review the music. You are reviewing a game, not music, and you don't have the room to review everything. Most game reviewers do not know a damn thing about reviewing music, and most readers don't know anything about music criticism, either. Talk about it on your blog or in a feature if you must, but leave it out of the review. Say what kind of music it is and move on. Offer a sample if possible. If it's obnoxious, has limited tracks, or strangely limited options, you can mention this.
Also, those who care about music usually care about graphics, and well, they've also made up their minds. Acclaimed Japanese composer? Mention his name. No need to say anything else.
--Don't spend much time on the story unless it's an RPG or text-based game. There are no other genres for which a story makes or breaks the game. None. Any game that is not an RPG that manages to make use of the story to enhance the game experience is just giving icing on the cake. Be brief when you mention voice acting and story arc and plot twists. The state of games stories is very dry. Anyone who wants to know more will either just play the damn game or read about it in forums. Simply mention whether it complements or detracts from the rest of the game's package.
Example: Grand Theft Auto IV's story was nice, but given way too much damn attention. Would it have still gotten the score it did if the action sucked? What about if the story were worse than it is? Hmm.