Review Terms and Structure: The Experiment
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?