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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great explanation for reviews, but playstyle, in my opinion, is very subjective and does not need to be included.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Bemused said...

i'd like to see your definition for content expanded to include cultural expectations and definitions. There are two ways to look at culture in video games, both originating from a critical perspective.

The first is to understand how video game mechanics and conventions control interactions with the game world in ways that might not be feasible in RL. For example, the gradual healing of near death wounding dictates a certain lack of disdain for in-game death - all you have to do is wait long enough to heal and then retry the scenario again. Alternatively, the RPG mechanic of looking in people's homes for items or even looting corpses for goodies, plays hob with the idea of property rights and renders NPCs as objects, rather than as agents.

This type of criticism is starting to become more and more prevalent as the genre of game reviewing matures. In its least palatable form, reviewers will mention the problem of "grinding" or of "difficulty" and assume that their audience knows what to expect from their use of those terms.

The second critical take on culture is much harder to explain (and my prolixity has kicked in, so forgive me). ME and RE5 are the most recent examples, with GTAIV and GTA:SA as other relevant properties.

How does race, gender, and sexuality - as visualized by the creators, realized in the mechanics, embodied in the characters, and articulated in the dialogue - shape the game? it's not enough to say "well, this asian woman doesn't do combat because she's a runner" bears consideration as to why faith isn't characterized as say, Chun Li or Ada Wong, and how that affects the gameplay AND the story we're asked to believe in.

There are many similarities between science fiction and videogaming - particularly with the elision of POC characters or the use of "exotic" locales to impart sensual/emotional/cultural qualities to their all-white casts. Over the last few years, POC fans and writers have used the web to open up discussions about the lack of race and gender in scifi/fantasy. The comments ranged from "i don't see race" and "sci-fi has aliens" to "POC sci-fi/fantasy is racist because it excludes whites"...and those were the nice ones.

now, i'm writing an article on RE5 and race, and the one thing that crops up over and over again is that gamers argue that "they don't see race" in the game world. Unfortunately, the expression of those sentiments revealed a lot of color-blind ideology and even sometimes outright racism.

So it's interesting to me (and maybe much less so to others) that the mechanics, content and the "gaming" nature of videogames can work to reinforce racial ideologies of its users and designers. it would be nice to live in a world where race doesn't matter, but in videogames that world hasn't yet been created.

hope this helps...

7:08 PM  
Blogger Cameron aka Cam said...

Bemused brings out an excellent point. Race, culture, gender, etc. do oftentimes have varying effects on the actual gamer and gaming culture, myself included. RE5 I remember was receiving a lot of criticism from members of the gaming community about the African setting and the protagonist. Being African American I did at first become a bit offended but considered the background of the game and seriously doubted members of Japanese decent would provide these settings for any other reason than story. But I really do favor Bemused's ideas and would really enjoy reading such perspectives.However, including these views in a review would while critically received, be largely overlooked and would add a considerable amount of difficulty to those reviewing the games. While an excellent idea, game reviewers are supposed to review games, not disect them as one would disect a literary novel. But I do really like the idea and if included would take the time to read them.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Etelmik said...

They are very interesting points. I think there is a difference between game reviews and game criticism, though, and I was talking about reviews while I feel you are talking about criticism.

"Should I buy it?" / "Is it worth it?" doesn't really mesh much with the questions you ask or the people who ask those questions, in my mind.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Kirk Battle said...

I agree with D'Artiste about playstyle.

I'm also not sure about innovation, just because I don't really consider that a pro or a con in a game. If anything the criterion gets abused as a scapegoat by reviewers struggling to express why a game is bothering them. All of the reviews I've seen of 'Mushroom Men', for example, dock it points for being another platformer and then note that the art, music, and plot are all great.

Call me crazy, but unless there's a massive flaw in the game design why is using a reliable set of game rules a bad thing? Why is adding a few new ones that do nothing to improve the experience make them significantly better?

7:28 PM  
Blogger Jorge Albor said...

I also agree with D'Artiste's comment on playstyle, but maybe that idea just needs to be better defined.

As for Content, I think the category may be too large. Including audio/visual elements with the narrative components may be too much of an undertaking.

Have you thought about splitting this category into two? If so, you could also find a place for innovation within the resulting pair, depending on if its a mechanical or narrative innovation. It might also help you in those situations where a game is not particularly innovative, but a great game nonetheless.

7:41 PM  

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