Monday, December 22, 2008

Backlog status

Any games you want to hear about?

What I'm playing or have recently finished:
Wrath of the Lich King
Left 4 Dead
Team Fortress 2
Gears of War 2
King's Bounty
Fallout 3
Lock's Quest
Tomb Raider: Underworld
The World Ends With You
Drill Dozer
Metal Slug 7
Geometry Wars: Galaxies (that's the DS one)

What I've recently gotten but haven't played or have barely played:
Space Rangers 2
The Political Machine 2008
The Witcher: Enhanced Edition
S.T.A.L.K.E.R Shadow of Chernobyl

What I still hope to get, in no particular order:
Far Cry 2
World of Goo
EDF 2017
Defense Grid
Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, Season 1 (35 bucks for the whole season now)
Immortal Defense
Some GBA games and DS games; I cannot access my Amazon list for a while
One racing game for the 360 (wouldn't want to get burdened with too many games to catch up with!) from the following list:
Midnight Club: Los Angeles (leaning towards this one)
Need for Speed Undercover
Burnout: Paradise
Baja: Edge of Control

I think that, apart from these lists, the list I have on Amazon, and the games I will receive for Christmas, I will be well-covered for the first half of the year. Yes? Also, hooray! I see patterns erupting. Someone needs to hire me to be the casual MMO guy. I don't know of any casuals who understand or care about MMOs. I also haven't seen anyone compare the vast range of tower defense games that came out in 2008. Along with the downloadable revolution, tower defense has really come of age recently; Lock's Quest is awesome so far and I'm enthused about chewing on the many others.

It's a good thing I haven't gotten a Playstation 2 yet.

Slight Update


I have not heard word back regarding some freelance offers. There is one more place I will take a stab at; I have discovered by reviews are pretty bad, and am going to be a bit more bold in my next three reviews. One of them is pretty much done. The games are Metal Slug 7, Lock's Quest, and Tomb Raider: Underworld. I only really liked one of them. Can you guess which one?

Upon writing these three (ironically, the one I like seems like it will be the hardest to write about), I'll send them as part of the samples to one more place.

After that, I'm going to take it slow, think about what I'd really, really like to do. Not really sure what it is I'm best at yet, and not really sure what to do with the blog, the idea of freelancing, or the time that I have to do writing.

Also, the post below was going to be up for my column, but my editor rejected it, for he did not get it. That doesn't mean it was his failing, it means that it sucks! Oh well.

Finding someone to play your game with: a guide for the lonely and/or obsessed

It doesn't seem like the reasons for excessive gaming zeal are mysterious are complex. If you want someone to read a book you read, you can at least join a book club, go online and discuss it, or ask someone to read who might pretend to, satisfying your need for book comraderie.

And movies! It's easy to get people to watch a movie; it's two hours. You, or someone else, can fake it 'til you make it through any movie of any genre. Men who have succeeded in relationships can tell you all about it: to endure a "chick flick" often means scoring major points.

Games, on the other hand, require not just an investment of time, but of effort. To play a game and then not really try or not really enjoy it makes it awkward. Finding someone else to play any game that isn't popular can be very difficult.

If you don't know anyone who likes your game it is imperative, therefore, that one of two things occurs: you either persuade people to like your game and make arguments on its behalf, or you learn to find people who already feel the same as you do. The first method is one that people are doing all the time; no doubt if you are online you are already able to persuade people to play something other than what they already do! Finding someone who already likes what you play is difficult, though.

That's why I've made a handy guide on how to find people to play the games you want to play. Can't find anyone who wants to play Band of Bugs, Quake 4, or Fury? NO PROBLEM! I, Michael Walbridge, can show you how. Not all options work, but for any system or game, there is a guaranteed method by which you will be able to find someone to play your game with you.

For just $9.95 a month or by continuing to read below, I will share my secrets with you about how to find people to play any video game with you, not just World of Warcraft or Gears of War 2!

Nintendo Wii

The Nintendo Wii can't be played online, unfortunately, but there is an option through which you can play with your Wii with other people, and it's the most important option there is.

The Wii Option

1. Find friends or groups of people who like to play video games, or who also have this system.
2. Send a communication of some sort to this person. Say something like, "Hey, have you tried this game? Want to play it sometime?"
3. Wait for a response.
4. Go from there, treating it like any other planned social event, such as playing soccer, going shopping, going on a bow hunting or hog hunting trip or a trip that involves both, drinking alcohol, drinking coffee, or drinking both alcohol and coffee mixed together.

The steps in the Wii option are a common and effective way to play games with people. Also, this option works for a surprising number of systems, ranging from as early as the Atari 2600 (earlier, some claim) and onward to systems like the Atari Lynx, the Atari Jaguar, and even more recent offline systems such as the Nintendo Gamecube. In fact, exhaustive studies have proven that the Wii option works for any system!

Playstation 2

Unfortunately, the Playstation 2 doesn't have online capabilities, just like the Nintendo Wii. See options for the Wii, listed above.

Playstation 3

The Playstation 3 has severely changed its method of social interaction; fortunately, I have delved the secrets of multiplayer success and am sharing them with you.

Option 1

1. Sign into Home.
2. Start up the game of your choice and go into a game lobby.
3. Wait.

Option 2

1. Walk around the town, displaying which game you'd like to play.
2. If no one comes, log out or go to a place where no one can see you and change your avatar to a female avatar.
3. A female avatar's effectiveness is reduced if your name is something like xXxDUDExXx. If a female avatar won't get anyone to play a game with you, option three will not work.
4. Remember to fake your voice or manage to pretend that you don't have a mic. Act feminine!

Option 3

1. Go to the official Playstation forums, or some other forum online.
2. Talk up your game, leave your ID and get the names of others.
3. Send and accept friend invites.
4. Try to get people on these lists to play with you. Send a message that says something like "Hey, do you have this game? Want to play it sometime?"
5. Go from there, etc.

Xbox 360

The Xbox 360 is home to some of the most disgusting version of male known to man. Fortunately, there are ways you can play games that are not Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, and Gears of War 2. Did you know that you can play card games like Uno and Texas Hold 'em? These games never have anything unpleasant occur in them; that's why the online interactions don't need to be rated!

There are other games, too, and the secrets to finding people to play with lie below.

Option 1

1. Sign into LIVE.
2. Start up the game of your choice and go in to the game lobby.
3. Wait.

Option 2

1. Go to the official XBox forums; look for the forum for the specific game you are thinking of. Add your name to the "Who plays this game anymore?" and/or "If you still play this game, put your name HERE" threads.
2. Send and accept friend invites.
3. See option three for the PS3 above.

Nintendo DS

The Nintendo DS cannot be played online, but there are plenty of places where a large number of people have a DS. There are numerous options for finding people to play the DS with you.

Option 1

1. Go to a place where it is known that many of the people have a DS. Make sure popular titles such as Mario Kart DS and the latest edition of Pokemon are on your person.
2. Attempt to socialize with these people.
3. It is likely this will be difficult; parents, teachers, administrators, or even the DS owners themselves might not approve of your attempts to play the DS with them. It is probably best to not even try this option, but instead to try the Wii option.

Important note: make sure that the person has the game that you do, because for every person playing you need a copy of the game!


The Wii option seems to be the only effective option for the Sony Playstation Portable. Rumor has it that watching movies is a more popular social activity than is playing video games; the PSP is often-touted as an effective movie-watching device, something that the other consoles do not boast of! This may account for why it is difficult to even find the mention of a PSP being used to play multiplayer games. This is still being researched and I'll reveal the findings as soon as they are discovered.


The personal computer is a complex device with numerous options. Sometimes the methods through which you will find people to play will vary depending upon the type of game you play!

Option 1

1. It is worth noting that the options for the Wii can actually work on the computer! Grab two controllers, Lego Batman, a bunch of ROMs (these are widely available and the gaming companies provide them for FREE) or whatever, sit yourselves down, and like magic you can have your own creatively created console experience! Right at home!

Option 2

1. Use the servers or network that the game features; this is particularly relevant for first person shooters or real time strategy games.
2. Wait.

Option 3

1. For MMOs, consult the instruction manual or one of many Internet sites on how to be in these unique game worlds.

Option 4

1. Use forums or websites in a manner similar to the options used for consoles.

Option 5

1. Go to a LAN cafe. You may need to combine the Wii Option with this option in order for it to work effectively. Get your LAN cafe's permission before installing games they don't have.

Option 6

1. Use game socialization software combined with the approach of forums and/or the Wii Option; Steam, MiRC, Xfire, Facebook, Raptr, GamerDNA, and MyGameMug are all examples. Combine with option number two.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lists. Everyone likes lists

Lists are so cool. Actually, I've seen a few I liked recently.

Here's one I wrote. I tried to be a little original. If you follow my twitter feed, I already posted a link to this.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Review Terms and Structure: The Experiment

I wrote a review, but decided to post it first so visitors would see this post at the top, the why before the how.

This is ambitious; I'm 1. proposing common terms and regrouping games' features and 2. demonstrating an alternative structure for a review. The first point has my stronger convictions, but the second could still be of value and open up thinking about reviews in a different light. The alternative structure is better for reviews than criticism since reviews are about being buyers' guides.

One huge problem with reviews is numeric scores. Why do readers demand them? Because reviews are too long to read, or because too much of it is redundant? By having categories like this, a reader is served; numbered scores can be removed with fewer repurcussions because (1) new readers can be introduced to the game while at the same time (2) anticipatory fanboys and enthusiasts can skip the parts they have already passed judgment on prior to release.

Instead of writing a 500-word newspaper/website article, I'm simply listing these new terms as categories and proceeding through them in a logical fashions. In order, they are Content, Gameplay, Sociability, Playstyle, Innovation, and Summary. Most of these are familiar, especially if you've been reading recent posts. The "graphics/sound/gameplay/multiplayer/presentation/replay" groups we often see are narrow categories that fail to address other important questions; I also think these terms could manage help tackle the problem of describing the game so that someone will be able to tell whether he will or will not like it regardless of whether you do or do not like. It will also indirectly address the problem of how long a reviewer spent playing the game. Some parts of a game take time to review; others do not.

It seems two goals everyone can agree on are 1. to judge the game by its intent and 2. to explain it well enough that the player will know whether he likes it or not whether the reviewer likes it or not. I think doing it this way meets those goals.

I am choosing to do a review on Atlus's Contact (below) and Jonathan Blow's Braid (forthcoming). Contact is a very strange and different game, the kind traditional reviews serve the poorest. The opinions on it varied widely and hardly anyone played it. It's hard to explain why you would or wouldn't buy this game; it is a game that would make a person tremendously happy or tremendously disappointed. It is a game that, if you like it, you hope everyone who would want to see it will see it, and that anyone who hates it will never see it. Braid is different, too, but it's recent and many more people have played it or are at least familiar with it. Reviewing Contact and Braid means I'll have both an obscure and famous game to display as examples. Braid also elicited divided opinions, and I also hope to write a review that would explain to those both new and familiar with the game why they would or wouldn't like it.

And now, a review of the categories:

Content: graphics, sound, story, presentation, plot, characters, voice acting, writing, campaign length, "ludonarrative dissonance", etc.

Gameplay: controls, option, game design, bugs, glitches, etc. The part game reviews are most likely to do right because they are simply mechanics and issues each player is forced to acknowledge no matter how seriously they do not take games.

Sociability: Multiplayer modes, communication and behavioristic design. It's one thing to have good multiplayer modes that play well because of good singleplayer gameplay; it's another thing to have a good match-making system or design choices that make the players more likely to stick around or more likely to be mean/helpful, etc. Most Game Anthropologist articles I've written are really just in-depth reviews of the unique multiplayer and sociability design choices that some games feature.

Playstyle: regarding playstyles, there seem to be two types, explained in a earlier post. This means I'm harping on it, but it's convenient to leave it in this post.

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, but some are very much only one or the other, making them niche titles that are highly hated and loved at the same time: Spore, Little Big Planet, JRPGs, etc. Either way, each game has to allow for at least one of these playstyles to be nourished. How well does it do it? Traditional ambiguous terms surrounding these playstyles are "freedom", "linearity," and "interactivity", which are all terms that are a matter of preference rather than standard.

Innovation: Does it adhere to conventions? If not, are the innovations inspiring, creative, and interesting and do they work well? If they do, are they polished and done better in anyway? Do they matter? Why or why not?

Summary: Does anything not mix well? Basically, do the failings of one area weaken the strengths of another or vice-versa in a way that lessens or greatens the game as a whole? Who would like this game? Who wouldn't?

One note on "replayability" or "game length": these are important, but don't warrant lengthy discussion; I feel they can be mentioned in content and sociability.

I highly welcome and desire feedback on the review, and the terms. Do you like the terms? Should these be the trees, terms, and umbrellas used? What about a review with each aspect written in a separate section, only loosely referring to each other?

An Experimental Review: Contact for the DS

Read the section(s) you are interested in.


Contact has one of the most unique openings to a complex, twisted plot laced with extremely subtle humor and foreshadowing. It is in fact so unforgettable that I wouldn't want to spoil it (thought most reviews and all comments threads invariably already have). If someone ever said to me, "rent this game, and you'll not regret the money spent even if you only played it for half an hour because the game is just so full of ideas and and creative storytelling mechanisms", I'd have never believed it. Now that I've played Contact, I find that a possible statement.

Contact is one of those games for people who want to see something different, and that's true of almost everything about it. The game's manual and the back of the box champion its willingness to be different, to be a different kind of JRPG. It is clever without being too blatant, for all its oddities, if you give it a chance you will find the premise (un)believably absorbing.

To be short, the main protagonist is Terry, a random silent protagonist kid of indistinguishable age. He gets into some trouble and ends up being abducted on a spaceship by a kind, absent-minded professor who likes like he could sub in for the Monopoly guy. The professor fails to fill Terry in on the details but tells him he needs Terry's help in collecting some organic cells that got scattered across the world; as they are potentially dangerous, it's imperative that Terry collect them.

He spends the entire game at the top screen except during some boss fights and when you are in the inventory system; these are perhaps the only two moments you're guaranteed to be completely absorbed in the game, anyway, so it's unavoidably disturbing that he sits at the stop screen muttering to himself through the entire game while Terry is in mortal danger ("don't let the insects bug you, Terry! hee hee"). They are also illustrated using radically different textures; the professor and his spaceship look 8-bit, while Terry and his environs try to look a little more simple and realistic in perspective, not unlike an improved version of Donkey Kong Country.

Terry gets called by his parents, who are extremely worried, looking for him. The professor shrugs this off in the name of the mission. The armor and weaponry and abilities are also contemporary; if you've played Earthbound, Contact feels similar, especially in its use of quirky soundtracks to enhance locale, but is so different it could convince you that JRPGs have a sub-genre that isn't about swords and magic but about baseball bats and aliens.

I haven't finished the game yet; I suspect the events and ending will highly impact how interesting or satisfying Contact is to the player in a subjective way. Contact is made or broken by its story even more than other JRPGs; playing it is almost like reading a book; it flows quickly, easily, and yet its unique combat system makes the game feel more like work than fun; the story is what will compel the player to keep playing.

Contact is approximately 15-20 hours long.


So the gameplay feels like work, because it usually plays like grinding in an MMO. Terry never gets a party; he is always alone. You can see his outfit and weapon in action, and fighting is a simple matter of entering combat while he and enemies hit each other every 2 seconds until they die. Combat is even avoided or engaged in the same way; if you get too close, they chase you and you can outrun them. If you don't, you can walk through an entire dungeon without being hit. Monsters occasionally throw projectiles; unlike in an MMO, these move in real time, and you have to dodge them the way you would in a 2D Zelda game. Money or items is not guaranteed upon victory; if you do get any, they appear on the ground and you walk over them.

Sure, there are special moves you can use at will, there are stickers you peal with the stylus, an interesting muscle-based, use-it-or-lose-it, Obvlionesque stat system with no levels whatsoever and a stomach-based food system where food doesn't just give health but takes an amount of time to digest while also taking up a certain amount of space in the stomach. Seriously, your inventory contains the outline of a stomach with tubes on each end and it gets filled up to a certain horizontal line; if it's full, you can't eat anymore.

It's easy to pick up after a while, but it takes a while to get used to. While an interesting diversion, it still comes down to grinding, avoiding enemies, and working your way through the story. The quirky inventory and systems (you change clothes and armor only on ship in the changing room, and before you can eat it, the meat that monsters drop on the ground must be cooked on the ship too.) It does manage to mix in with the world and the story rather well, though, so it manages to stay out of the way of the world and the dissonance between Terry and the Professor's world.

The saving is location based, which is unfortunate; were it not for that, Contact would take hold of you like a good TV show; the combat would simply be something you'd do just to see what happens next, like characters, commercials, side plots you put up with. Location-based saving makes it more work rather than going through the motions. Death is frustrating; you lose no money or saved game, but are sent back to the ship. These two flaws work against it; at least the combat is mostly easy and the save points are not brutally spaced-out.

Also, the save point is always a bed and it always has a bathtub with hotwater in it next to it; bathing in it gives you full HP. Contact refuses to do anything by the book.

Also, the bosses are more like bosses in Zelda; lots of dodging; it's awkward though; instead of dodging, then pressing a button and immediately seeing your sword swing, you must dodge, run up to the enemy, and wait for the auto-attack. This is challenging, but they are beatable enough to not crush the player into believing the next attempt will mean imminent defeat.


Contact is a single player game.


The plot in Contact is tightly controlled and highly deliberate; if you don't like anything, you can't ignore or destroy it. (You can actually kill any villager, but there are no repercussions, and they reappear once you revisit the area, even if it's by double-backing through a door five seconds later). There is no world map but simply locations you choose to fly or sail to. The ship then lands and when you walk out there is a town or small area or both. This makes the game technically composed of levels that you can revisit; the content and gameplay fortunately make it still feel like an RPG. And it actually has room for exploration; very early in the game you have the choice to visit an island that isn't the place the professor tells Terry to go to. So you go there, and there is a guy with no clothes on who explains he's washing them, sorry he's naked (see screen below, which shows the contrasting graphic styles). A monkey takes off with his clothes. You can then pursue it, and it gets attacked by a large carnivore; upon defeating it, the monkey gives you the clothes and follows you out of the cave.

Jean Pierre then lets you keep his chef's outfit, which gives you the ability to cook.

Again, exploration isn't necessary; the sites are interesting, but not more so than the main plot, which is a problem some RPGs possess. It may give the ability to beat the game more quickly, though, since money is not easy to get and food is important and expensive and the chef's outfit is necessary for cooking uncooked food you find.


Contact is literally the defining game on handheld innovation. Interesting, unnecessary, revolutionary, pointless, boring, barely noticable, head-scratching, incomprehensible--if there are styles and kinds of innovation, it feels like every single one is here. It manages to work because its most unique processes are the storytelling devices, narration, characters, story. What's fascinating is that the silly and stupid creative liberties taken with every single game feature still work in harmony with Contact's plot, world, and sense of humor.


Do you like weird Japanese stuff? Earthbound? Issues of narration in gaming? Studying "ludonarrative dissonance"? Atlus games? JRPGs for the story more than the combat? Quirky villains and characters? Games that are actually funny? Japanese humor? The more of these you love, the more you'll love Contact and put it on your secret list of games you'd put in your personal top ten but wouldn't dare to name in public.

If unique scenery, stories, music, and characters aren't enough to make the journey easier and you require RPGs that reward you with difficult, interesting or intense combat you will detest it for its simplicity, ease, and MMO-like auto-attack system.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Game Anthropologist Entry: Left 4 Dead

I think this is one of my better ones. Valve is so easy to write about.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Shawn Elliott's questions

Shawn Elliott put up some questions he was going to do for a symposium with N'Gai Croal; the first person I know of to answer them was Mitch Krpata; I do not wish to steal thunder, and will say he's been reviewing longer than I have, and he's done it much more profesionally, too. So! Read his first.

I interviewed all three of them when I was even more wet behind the ears than I am now, and ever since then I've pretty much hung on everything they have to say. Considering that the questions are loosely related to the stuff I talked to them about a while ago, I have been thinking about them for a while.

So I'm going to hop on the "me-too" train. I know that I'm not the most famous reviewer you've heard of, nor have I done all that many--I just counted and I've written 20 reviews at Snackbar (formerly, 12 of which have been in the last 2 months. I'm also the editor at the same place I wrote them, and have had to decide the policy on content, especially reviews; there have been 53 reviews in the last two months, all of which I've edited. So while I don't necessarily count as part of the "game reviewers club", I feel it's not outrageous to claim they are questions that affect me.

Take this as the viewpoint of a writer and a site that wants to "break in"; the kind that is getting PR copies in the mail, but not of every game; the kind with hundreds of page views every single day, but not thousands.
Question 1: How much is on our minds before we begin playing any given game for review purposes? Will we imagine a range of probable scores that a heavily marketed, highly budgeted, and hugely anticipated game will get? What when the game is branded “budget” or is the work of a lesser-known, less-storied studio? If so, how closely have actual scores correlated with our assumptions?
This ends up being a double-edged sword for us, because some of our reviews are of copies we purchased with our own money. Think free games have an impact on game reviewers? So does a lack of them--we get more of the less-desired titles and use them to trade-in for what we really wanted and anticipated in the first place. We did not receive a copy of Fallout 3, Fable II, or Far Cry II, but our writers purchased the first two mainly using review copies of games they didn't like.

On the other hand, these lesser-desired titles do a lot to fuel our content, so I like to think our self-consciousness ensures that we give them a fair shake; budget titles and indie-titles, if they're good, are more likely to receive attention from us.
Question 2: Ought reviewers settle on a score before, during, or after writing a review? How consistent are our practices with our prescriptions? Have we, for instance, revised a score after writing our reviews, even though we advocate against it, and if so, why?
I don't see why before should ever be a good idea; you should also be discovering the score in the writing process. While the number, if you use one, can be in your head at any time, it should be edited and reviewed like the text. A few times we've had a 4/5 or a 3/5 have inconsistent tone with the corresponding text; it's telling that the writers I have have been more willing to change the text rather than the number (though that may be due to the smaller scale we have).
Question 3: When possible, do we look at the scores that other critics give to the games that we're reviewing, as we review them? If so, are groupthink or iconoclasty potential problems?
I try not to, but confess I've had a couple games I reviewed that I read about much earlier. We got Silent Hill: Homecoming for the 360 over a month after it came out, and I'd already read all the conversation about it by Leigh Alexander and Variety's Ben Fritz. This made it much harder to review--I was then reviewing it in context of everything I knew that has been said about it. It was as if I were a literary academic being publicly asked what I thought about Finnegan's Wake.
Question 4: Often times we will have repeatedly played and/or previewed games in development prior to reviewing them. Does this familiarity with a particular game's developmental process influence the scores that we assign to the final product in the way that a professor will take into consideration her students' limitations and proven potential when she evaluates papers at the end of the semester?
This hasn't been an issue for us for obvious reasons. A few of us went to some shows once but I don't think any reviews correlated with any pre-release exposure since I've been there.
Question 5: Review writing carries real consequence, especially among members of the enthusiast press. Once-warm PR people and game producers can become cold upon our publication of undesirable review scores, diminishing or eliminating our ability to secure subsequent interviews and access. Postmortem discussions and exclusive looks at the publisher and/or developer's forthcoming products are less likely. Conversely, a few publishers will permit us to post reviews before competitors, provided our review scores are favorable. Do such pressures produce a subliminal background or even enter our thoughts as we write reviews and assign scores?
As a small site, we end up getting games last, usually. EA has recently warmed up to us and sent us Warhammer and Dead Space before release date, but they ended up getting good scores (by me, incidentally), so this has not become an issue, though it has the potential to. I already tell my writers to give more priority to reviewing the games we get earlier rather than the ones we get later; while this seems fair, it has the potential to be a problem.
Question 6: Is grade inflation an ongoing problem?
As a whole, yes. Not all outlets suffer from it, but many do. Metacritic and Gamerankings become problematic, especially in the 50-70, 70-80, and 80-90 range. Like, what's the big difference amongst them? Is a 74 average really mixed reviews and 75 really generally favorable?
Question 7: Do scores determine our tone? Can a “3” encourage us to explain an aspect of a game in clearly negative terms where our attitude is actually less decided? Example: Game X's camera obscures the action, combat is irritatingly difficult, and “save” stations are few and far between. In our reviews, is Game X's plot, which we're still thinking through, more likely to become miserable than plain?
Ah, interesting throwback to question 2. At Snackbar, the 5-point scale was introduced to be more practical and not have to deal with so many of these problems. However, since 1 point is a huge deal, the writers stick by their scores once they give them to me.

The process can become muddled, but at the end of the day the final version is what the reader will see, and for me the most important thing is that the score and text correspond and complement each other; it needs to be clear why the game ultimately got the score it did. If the review doesn't do this, I tell them to make them align.
Question 8: Do scores encourage our readers to conduct a sort of text-to-number calculus where the two obviously negative statements in an otherwise positive-sounding review necessarily translate into every point deducted from the “10” that the game didn't get? Does this make reviews with high marks more likely to overlook fault, and reviews with low marks less likely to celebrate accomplishment?
I agree that many reviews tend to have this problem. However, if it looks obvious that the game was simply a 3/5 or 4/5 because they started at 5 and docked it points for game "penalties", I send it back. However, due to our scale this usually hasn't been a problem.
Question 9: Which is more important to us, our scores or our copy? If the latter, have our responses revealed any inconsistencies between our attitudes and actions? Are we still convinced of the importance and power of scores?
The copy, obviously--I already ended up answering this.

As a small site, we have to place value on the number in some way because we fear the readers wouldn't accept a lack of numbers since we aren't mainstream with highly-experienced writers. Also, we (*sigh*) want to get on Metacritic so we can increase exposure. It's become this necessary evil; it seems like bigger sites have to set the example and thus a precedent before we could ever get away with doing differently. And the bad part is that I suggested we switch to a 10-point scale soon for the sake of getting listed because 20/40/60/80/100 seems too constrictive if we have to play with everyone else.

Related suggestions for Ethics section:
Have we ever submitted review scores to publishers prior to their publication? If so, why?

Have we ever submitted review copy to publishers prior to its publication. If so, why?

Have PR people suggested that specific critics review specific games? Have we complied with their suggestions?
No to all the above as far as Snackbar is concerned. We have, however, been asked when a review will be posted, but that seems harmless.

On the last question, though, I was once approached by a certain PR rep (through Facebook!) to cover a certain game because of an article I once wrote (not on Snackbar). That someone who has written as few paid articles as I have had already been singled out to cover a game because I would be predisposed to liking it was an uncomfortable wakeup call.

It's been fascinating how someone who has written as little as I have and done work at a site as small as Snackbar has already experienced firsthand many of the little dances that writers and journos have with PR. I'm convinced there other industry has an environment where newcomers can be so easily...uh, accosted.

Reviews Vs Criticism
Question 1: What is the object of a review? What are the review writer's obligations?
Right now, it seems like most are like an automobile review, doing a checklist of features and how well they work mechanically.

What it ought to be is something Ebert said, which I quoted in an earlier post:
"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."
For Snackbar, I want them to craft it around a thesis statement; basically "it is good/bad in this/that way(s); here's why" kind of thesis. We are actually trying to figure out what we want to do as a site that offers something of unique value to readers, making the issue of reviews a very fuzzy and haranguing one.

On a personal note, I am going to shop around an article I'm pitching on the 5 dealbreakers that can apply to every game: sociability, reckless and deliberate gaming, and (again, from Mitch) games that are rewarding in the areas of skill and content. The lack of recognition on these leads people to say irrelevant, useless things like Bionic Commando is bad because there's no jumping or an RPG or FPS campaign is bad solely because it is "linear" or a game is bad because the player isn't able to change the outcome enough. These are preferences, but not standards.
Question 2: If the purpose of a review is to suggest to consumers how they should spend their time and money, why do we avoid less-granular grading scales such as Buy, Try, or Avoid? Example: Giant Bomb founder and former Gamespot editorial director Jeff Gerstmann told MTV's Multiplayer blog that “'How can I save people money today?' is basically the kind of mentality that I tackle this stuff with.” Under Gerstmann's directorship, Gamespot reviewed games on a hundred-point scale. Is a 9.6 different than a 9.7 when the wisdom of a purchase is what the reviewer wants to communicate?
If reviews are serving the purpose of being buyer's guides, the scale should not be more than 1-10, and even those can be difficult enough. The closer the scale is to 10 or below, the better. Crispy's scale (buy it, try it, fry it) is not something I'd want to see everywhere, but it's a view I can appreciate; I'm always curious what their score is on any titles I'm interested in.
Question 3: Actual sales rarely correlate with review scores in cases where games are not also heavily hyped and marketed. Increasingly, gamers pre-order games prior to the publication of reviews. Interactive demos allow our audiences to decide for themselves whether or not a game will be worth their dollars. In addition, word of mouth and message board discussions inform our potential audiences' purchasing decisions with an intimacy and directness that we cannot provide. Finally, review aggregation sites such as Metacritic mute the bias of individual reviewers and provide a bigger picture. Do these circumstances suggest that our self-perception is, well, delusional – a throwback to a time when magazines and websites were gaming's gatekeepers? If our audiences believe this, even if we do not, what are they really reading for?
I don't know! This is the question that has gotten everyone talking and self-analyzing again, but I tackled it in my last 3 or 4 blog posts.

I find it telling that it takes a very long time for people to figure out whether a game is one they would like. Even forums struggle; Dead Space is still a game people most people cannot figure out by reading about it, and I wish the recent arguments on innovation had taken place around that title rather than Mirror's Edge, since it did not innovate that much but did have solid delivery. It really should be the other title mentioned (also by EA's push for a little bit more IP, interestingly enough) in these discussions, but I think everyone's burned out now.
Question 4: Can criticism (concerned with telling our audiences what they're spending time and/or money playing as opposed to whether or not a game is worth spending time and/or money to play) coexist with reviews? Is a competent review also a critique -- as is so often the case where lit, movies, and music are concerned -- or should we separate the two?
As with most elements of pop culture, it seems inevitable that the two will combine. However, the buyer's-guide-reviews will still exist without critique, so I hope criticism gets its own spot in culture at large later on. It drives me crazy that you can discuss music, movies, books or anything else with a stranger or in groups, and to talk about them as critical and cultural products, but not games.

One thing at a time, I guess; though ideally there would be space for all three types, with criticism and criticism/reviews in a state of growth. I don't worry about buyer guides, obviously, because economics is a stronger force here; they will obviously never go away.
Question 5: What can (or should) such criticism take into account? [Note: I don't want to jump the gun on the Evolving Reviews section here, so bear with me if you're wondering why I'm not yet asking certain obvious questions about the shape and challenges of videogame criticism.]
The framing of this question suggests this is a very, very big question. It deserves as much space as the rest of these combined, perhaps. However, to be uber-brief, I do wish for more analysis that is similar to literary criticism, the kind done by Ian Bogost, and for analysis of games as social systems. The latter is a space I try to tackle; I'm kind of bad at it, but I get to mumble about it elsewhere.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Amazon is Insane Right Now (Gaming on a Budget)

Spore and Far Cry 2 for the PC? Fable II? Star Wars: The Force Unleashed? Ninjatown? A DS with a breast cancer ribbon on it?

20, 18, 40, 30, 15, 99. Dollars.

This is the time to browse. This is even more interesting than the Gamefly store (though that's year-round) right now.

Like Fine Wine

Sometimes being late to the party is more enjoyable because you already know how to make yourself comfortable. I'm convinced that consumption of older media is the only honest way to enjoy it. If something is new, I get too caught up in wondering what everyone else's thoughts are; if a game is older, we know that everyone else made their minds up and that what's been said and done is over. And if anything to be said is new, it's more in the style where time is not urgent, the way it is with more academic topics. Fitting that an academic is the first one to treat games like books by having a book club of video games. I hope that's a trend that catches on. (Btw, Michael, there should be a link to it from the main page--I had to dig through posts to find a link to it, or would have had it not been referenced today.)

I've had a DS for 3 months and I picked up some GBA games; they are games no one plays anymore. I have no option but to enjoy them for their own sake. Also picked up the hard-to-find Contact, an invisible game that I suspect is much better than the reviews gave it credit for (I've only played it for 1.5 hours). Unforgettable beginning, and I mean literally unforgettable. I wish I could see some non-review writing on that title. Anyone know of anything?

When you want to enjoy games just for their own sake, what do you play? What would you be playing instead?

Also, an update on the last post: upon seeing some more writings that are far superior in experience and expression, I'll admit I now think the post below doesn't really mention anything original except the deliberate--reckless scale. Between that and Mitch's content--skill scale as reasons for playing, I think those two categories and four aspects (they aren't dichotomies because a game could have both, or even all four aspects covered) being taken into account would get rid of most criticism that is purely uninformed preference. Tired of "linearity", "freedom", "interactivity", and "narrative" issues being used as justification for negative criticism instead of simply the first elaboration of style? Me too.