Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sept. 11 and a Piece on Writing Game Reviews

I was going to write about the eleventh anniversary of September 11, but you are probably able to get that information elsewhere. Eleven years ago, in the morning, I was writing a paper for my physics class when I first heard the news. It was amazing how slowly news traveled in those days. Not only that, I'm not very good at writing about important topics and events. It is important to remember Sept. 11, but it is also important not to let any tragedy define and control your life. As a nation, we've come a long way from Sept. 11, 2001. We're still the same country; we still give record breaking amounts to charity and good will throughout the world. We are, at our core, good and honest people trying to do good in the world, for the most part. I think that's the most important thing to take away from that tragedy. And, now that I've written that, I feel kind of sad that I relegated it to a post script, so I moved it above the fold. The actual, less than important post, about writing appears below.

I've been seeing more and more pieces about how all video game journalists are sell outs and terrible at their job, the latest being from Locker Gnome. I think, though, there are other explanations. Namely, I feel that reviewing a video game is objectively different and harder than reviewing any other form of entertainment out there. Let me outline a few ways.

1. Time
First, it doesn't take that long, comparatively, to watch a movie. Even a "fast" game can take about 10 hours, if you assume an average level of gamer skill. Slow games or long games can take 40 plus hours, with some RPGs boasting hundreds of hours of games. How can you realistically review a game that you may have scratched the surface of? That's part of what leads to embarrassing bits in reviews where someone says something flat out wrong. We've all read that review, where the reviewer complains about something that is explained in hour 23 or that has a setting to toggle off if they just explored the menus. Movies and restaurants, probably the only other things that hold critics in any level of respect, are not nearly as time intensive.

3. Genre differentiation
This is probably the biggest one, so I saved it for last. Let's take a kind of movie I'm not particularly fond of, let's say romantic comedies. I don't hate them; I don't go out of my way to see them. I'm neutral toward them. But, I understand the conventions. If you sat me down to review, say, 27 Dresses, I could tell you with fair accuracy if the movie was a good representation of its genre and whether it would appeal to its target audience. These tropes work whether or not I like the movie; a movie can be objectively good, but not something I like, and I recognize that fact, quickly. With games, that's a much, much more difficult challenge. Another problem is that, with movies, I can recognize a so bad it is good type of movie. I invest so little of myself in watching a movie that I can acknowledge an objectively bad movie that I enjoy (my go-to example is Super Mario Brothers.)

With games, though, you are so much more invested in the experience of playing them that it is harder to see a game on its merits as opposed to directly how it influences you.  The more heavily genre'd a game is, the more likely it is going to get hurt if someone who is not a fan of the genre reviews it. This is especially true in purer genres, like Japanese RPGs or point-and-click adventure games. If you get me to review a first-person shooter or a fighting game, can I honestly give you an accurate review? Maybe. Will it be as informative and accurate as if you found someone who was conversant on the conventions of those genres? No, it wouldn't.

3. Art and things unique to gaming
I vaguely remember hearing or reading about the Disney or Animation Ghetto. Ebert, for example, recognized the genius in Grave of the Fireflies, despite the presentation style. It is much harder to get people to overlook that in a game. Getting adults to accept animated movies was a huge thing, I think, for the movie industry. Pixar and Disney were huge players in making that happen. Because, even if you have a great story to tell (like The Incredibles), if people disliked your presentation, they'd never hear the story.

With video games, there are even more ways to trip someone up trying to review the game. Games trying out new art styles (cel shaded Link says hello!) face issues with convincing people who are fans of the brand to give it a try. A wonky art style, unintuitive interface or any number of little things can turn a reviewer (or player) off. The problem is, that compared to a movie or restaurant, you have so many more ways to go wrong in a game. If the reviewer has more or less patience than the player reading the review, the review becomes useless. I'm fairly patient with figuring out input and control schemes; I am sure everyone knows someone who the first thing they do when getting a new game is to remap all the keys everywhere. Woe be to the game that does not allow this, for it will not be played.

4. Shared vs. unique experiences
Games, more than movies, books, etc., are unique experiences. In any game where the player has choices, I call this the Schrodinger's Jerkass phenomena. Mattering how you play the game, you may end up with NPCs acting in different ways (sometimes, radically so.) So much so that when you talk about the game with a friend, you end up relating entirely different takes on the same character. Not because you two picked up on different cues or have different opinions, but because the character legitimately was a different person in both play throughs.

In movies? The character's actions and lines are always the same. You and your friend see the same thing. Your different interpretations are just that; the experience is still the same. Games are different. Because of that, a reviewer may stumble on a set of choices that does not work for them. For example, in most games, I tend to play certain archetypes. This works for me; if I were to play a game that forced me out of that, I would probably find it a bit more difficult to like the game. Even the minor choice of being denied certain gaming freedoms such as who to bring in my party irks me. Do you want to see this unfold in front of your eyes in real time? Go on to any MMO forum ever and suggest developers spend more/less time on PvP. Go ahead.

So, yes. It is entirely possible that every game reviewer is just a hack or sell out. I'm not disputing that possibility. What I am going to say however is to stop and think about the other reasons that maybe the whole game review concept is flawed from the start. Maybe in the future we can try and discuss a better way to review games, but the only thing I could think of is "Late to the Party Games: The Games You Missed Last Year" or something.

... Maybe that's an idea for a Bad Ideas post in the future.

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