Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What Game Reviews Don't Do, and Some Suggestions

The Problem

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.


Blogger L.B. Jeffries said...

So many times when I read another 'Problems with Criticism' piece they harp about all the things going wrong without ever offering any ideas on what to expect or how they could be done better. Thank you for offering some suggestions.

I agree with everything but the last point about plot. The blanket statement that unless it's an RPG you should not go into the story seems a bit much. Games vary and it mostly depends on how much the game expects the player to care about it. Although it should never get more air time than the game design and player input, plot can be an integral part of a game if the design is relying heavily on it.

If you're going to gauge Ebert's "intent" of the game, then the plot is going to have to be factored in if it's a part of that intent.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Etelmik said...

Well, if any aspect spills over into the rest of it, it should be mentioned, which is why I tried to make caveats. But you got me on the intent part, and that's even a point I made on my Dead Space review! Doh.

But my point is that reviewers give the story too much credit and attention--readers want to be surprised and they want a fun game. Very few want a good yarn with bad gameplay.

This is not a challenge but an honest question: can you name me a game that isn't an RPG or text game where the story is highly integral? For me, Portal, Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, etc. etc. are popular with the masses not because of the story, but for other reasons, and the story is just a bonus. It's not at the core.

I guess it just seems that reviewers want something new and are tired of bad or non-existent stories and are just happy when one is there at all, and that it does nothing for readers.

As for the suggestion compliment, thanks, that means a lot. I wrote over a thousand words of crap that aren't going to see the light of day that didn't help; whether any reviewers or editors find it helpful is another thing entirely.

11:18 AM  
Blogger L.B. Jeffries said...

Honestly, I've puzzled over this problem for almost two years now and I'm still not sure if I've made any progress on how to properly analyze the medium. I do like you suggest mostly; I gauge what I think the developers wanted me to experience and then discuss how well they accomplish it. All any of us can do is try to write a different caliber of reviews and hope that people care.

And yeah, I know what yo mean about reviews obsessing over plot. You have the numbnuts complaining about how the plot and acting is stupid yet who never seem to grasp that it isn't supposed to be a movie with buttons. Then you have the game design gurus rattling off feature after feature yet never wondering if maybe those features need to have a purpose outside of bullet points on a box. And then there's my personal favorite, the player input junkies who manage to devote 1200 words to explaining why they aren't having fun in a game without wondering if maybe the problem is just themselves. Focusing on just one aspect creates mis-balance.

Hmmm...a game where the story matters that isn't an RPG or text adventure. There was a survey on gamers about 3 years ago by XEO Design that found about 1 in 4 gamers will pay attention to the plot no matter what. So there's that demographic to keep in mind. Off the top of my head: Silent Hill series, No More Heroes, Psychonauts, Beyond Good & Evil, or Metal Gear Solid (half a movie). Each of these games are either highly varied or minimal in their game design, instead relying on the player's interest in the story to keep going.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Etelmik said...

Ah, okay. Fair enough.

Still, they seem rare.

Also, good examples. All reviews I hate.

11:48 AM  
Blogger bawb said...

I enjoyed Krpata's analysis, but I'm not convinced that completionists, perfectionists, and tourists really cover the spectrum, even with a cartesian multiplication against the various game genres. For example, my enjoyment of gaming frequently comes from experimentation, which I don't think is really covered by his "new art" tourism concept. I also enjoy games that make me feel competent even when I know they're not actually hard, like Fable or playing Halo on easy or Rock Band on medium.

I think most people's enjoyment of games is more complex than any simple classification scheme, and I think most gamers know that and rely primarily on recommendations from friends for that reason.

Also, I'd disagree about Portal--I enjoyed it for the story more than for the game play.

12:58 PM  
Blogger bawb said...

It's telling, by the way, that his archetypical "tourist" is described elsewhere by ""he likes to win games and I like to play them." It's a pleasant scheme, but I doubt it could reliably recommend games for even a majority of gamers.

2:09 PM  
Blogger bawb said...

See also the classic "If you play videogames to express your dominion over others, they are impediments to your regime."

2:20 PM  
Blogger Mitch Krpata said...

Bawb, I don't know if it was intended to be prescriptive so much as descriptive. That is, let's look at the real motivations we have for playing games, beyond just "I like them." But there's room for a million variations on that theme, tons of different axes you could draw if you wanted, as Mike has done so well here. Reckless vs. deliberative gaming is something that I had never considered. Nor, until I played LittleBigPlanet, was content producers vs. content consumers. Sometimes I wonder if there's even a code to be cracked when it comes to writing reviews that are universally useful. You're always going to leave somebody out.

3:55 PM  
Blogger qrter said...

Interesting piece, although I think the "if any aspect spills over into the rest of it" caveat seems to undermine most of it - the fascinating thing about videogames is that all these elements seem to influence eachother (positively and/or negatively) and in turn influence the gaming experience.

For example, concerning reviewing a game's music. I do think a soundtrack should be reviewed as it generally has a big impact on the atmosphere of a game. I do agree with you that most game reviewers seem ill equipped to do this, but instead of saying "don't review music in games" I think more productive (in the long term) would be to say "learn how to review music in games". And I don't mean just namedropping a composer's name but give me an idea of how the music has an effect on your experience of playing the game. This doesn't have to take a lot of space within the review.

As an example, I was surprised to see most Far Cry 2 reviews never mention the soundtrack - it largely consists of a strange combination of spy-thriller-like electronic percussion tracks (think the Bourne films) combined with sharp bits of string quartet pieces, which gives the whole thing a filmic yet individual, quirky feel.

"Very few want a good yarn with bad gameplay.

This is not a challenge but an honest question: can you name me a game that isn't an RPG or text game where the story is highly integral? For me, Portal, Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, etc. etc. are popular with the masses not because of the story, but for other reasons, and the story is just a bonus. It's not at the core."

I really disagree with you here. Again, the thing about videogames is that there is not actually a core, it's a combination and interaction of different elements.

Imagine the same list of games you mention with the story aspect ripped out. Out of those three I think only Call of Duty 4 would remain mostly unaffected, but that's more because the story aspect isn't that strong in the first place.

A well told story told in a less inobtrusive way, peppered throughout a game can lift the whole experience tremendously.

But how many people playing games can actually recognise when this is happening? It's much less obvious than making your character do this or that and thinking to yourself "did I enjoy doing that". I think people do actually want a good yarn in their games but they might not actively know it (dangerous thing to say, I know, getting close to "you just dont understand this game" territory..), also because games generally are shit at telling a story. How many people have actually played a game with a great narrative and fantastic gameplay and experienced how wonderful that is? I mean, look at how many games tell a good yarn but have mediocre to bad gameplay and compare that to games that are fun to play but have a mediocre to crap storyline. I believe there is a deluge of the latter, in comparison. It's a bit like feeding people fastfood all their life and then saying "See? They don't want real food!".

Sorry for the endless post.. :)

I do agree with most of what you say in your original post and this is an interesting discussion to have. :)

3:39 PM  
Blogger bawb said...

Oh, hi, Mitch. Thanks for the reply, and sorry for the harshing. I do agree that it's useful to analyze what makes games appeal to different people, and I think that your accomplishment/experience dichotomy is a great place to start.

10:44 AM  

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