Game Critics Are Not Authorities

by Jed Pressgrove

Yes, it’s true: Jonathan Holmes of Destructoid wrote an embarrassing article about Smash Bros. Understandably, Chris Wagar saw through Holmes’ pretense. But instead of responding only to Holmes, Wagar wrote an article titled “Tripping on Air: Why Game Journalists Can’t Describe Games” that says game reviewers aren’t skilled and explains why the game journalism model doesn’t favor reviewers with skills. The conclusion is that game critics couldn’t write about the in-depth mechanics of a game if their lives depended on it.

I’m not interested in correcting Wagar’s generalization. Even though skilled reviewers exist, there are enough bad articles to justify his broad complaints. The more important point is that Wagar doesn’t speak for all readers when he says reviews don’t help people “determine if the game is likely to be something they are interested in.” Wagar is sorely mistaken when he suggests in-depth mechanics are what “average” gamers want to read about. For example, he criticizes “typical” reviews of Ultra Street Fighter IV that do not reflect the words of fighting game pros:

In a recent interview, six of Japan’s top players discussed the changes in Ultra Street Fighter 4. It’s not a surprise that the number of frames of advantage time comes up frequently in this discussion.

Wagar is either being ignorant or dishonest with the expectation that reviews should go this deep into Ultra Street Fighter IV in order to inform the “average” gamer. Street Fighter is the primary series that helped build a wide fighting game audience, and most of that audience is not comprised of “Japan’s top players.” No one could legitimately call me a “top player” in Street Fighter IV, but I have won the majority of online Street Fighter IV battles I’ve had with “average” players. Yet amateur Street Fighter players — and we must use the term “amateur” loosely, as many of these fans have been playing Street Fighter for years — show a genuine love for the game despite their numerous losses in competitive play. If Wagar really believes that all of these people needed reviewers to break down Ultra Street Fighter IV frame by frame, he is out of his mind. When Wagar says “average level players of these games are typically capable of discussing these things,” he neglects to mention that being “capable” of discussing such things is not the same as discussing these things on a regular basis or, further, seeking in-depth commentary on these things (as the pros might).

I’ve only been a game critic for about a year, so based on the majority of my life with all of my “average” friends, gamers don’t necessarily want to read piles of in-depth text in game reviews. In fact, early game journalism conditioned me and many others to be more interested in listing parts of a game — graphics, sound, control, etc. — and how these parts can affect a review score that represents the overall quality of the game. Given the success and influence of Metacritic, a site that averages and shares game scores across publications, Wagar’s insistence that in-depth descriptions of mechanics are what consumers need or want is highly suspect. (Many readers just ask for down-to-earth honesty.)

Wagar also lacks imagination when it comes to what game criticism or video games can be. His limited view of what games and game criticism should address (namely, in-depth mechanics) leads to the following statements:

Yet the problem remains that when I read the typical game review, I have no ability to tell from their writing whether the game is good or not and I am forced to rely on my friends or longer segments of gameplay footage to help give me an idea how the game actually works, and feels to play. Describing gameplay in an explicit way that people can understand is hard and not well explored, so critics and academics tend to fall back on elements of film or literature theory that have dissolved into the public consciousness, and vague opinions on whether the game feels nice or not. This is part of why there is a general trend of the gaming press highly praising works with large narrative content.

Oddly, Wagar says he is “forced” to talk to his friends or watch gameplay footage (is it really so bad to talk to your friends about a game?). At the same time, his last sentence contains some truth. Very often, bad games like Always Sometimes Monsters will receive praise just for containing or promising certain narrative ideas. However, Wagar overlooks that some people might simply prefer more focus on narrative. Wagar also overlooks those who might equally value mechanics and narrative. I also highly doubt that people who value “next-gen” graphics over everything would care about any of Wagar’s thoughts. Gamers have very different views about games, so it’s no surprise that game critics are not authorities on everything. In fact, game critics are not authorities on anything — I don’t care how knowledgeable or skilled they are. Critics are only there to be read, considered, and questioned.

So we should not be surprised when reviews and other criticism don’t reflect what we think. We should demand that they challenge the way we think!

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8 comments

  1. hmm i wrote a similar post many years ago on my blog, i’ll cut and paste it here for your enjoyment, but please take a gander at my blog (http://sixtyhertz.wordpress.com ), i don’t do reviews just post interesting mostly somewhat obscure titles and some of my own personal faves…

    Any where here goes (from here: http://sixtyhertz.wordpress.com/2006/08/01/5-things-wrong-with-game-reviews/ ):
    This is a letter to all review sites (which this is not one…):

    1. Give all games the same amount of attention. Why do reviews of big market games get three to four time as much content as a more obscure game? Is this fair to the smaller game, will the scores be more accurate when it’s obvious who gets the most attention? Is this fair to an industry?

    2. Get some experience making games. Most writers are just people who play games with an opinion. There is no reason to respect one writers opinion over another, or even over a buddy of yours. I’d value more opinions if i knew that this writer has spent some time behind the scenes, especially when most writers will make comments about “how long the game was in development…” or “the developers were lazy…” as if they had a clue. Get some credentials.

    3. Prove to me that you really played the game. Some games don’t blossom off of the first two seconds of playing, some games have an amazing 2 seconds then peter off. There have been several cases where games would get reviewed that weren’t even finishable because of a fatal crash bug. Should this game recieve the same score as a game that is playable? Think about it from a consumer stand point, when comparing what to buy, i’d guess you’d want to buy something you could complete.

    We feel reviewers should place their scores, their play times what ever meteric is needed to show us how much time they have put into a game. Games are not like movies, they are meant to be interacted with.

    4. Focus your review on gameplay! Why does story garner the same attention that gameplay does. Why isn’t gameplay broken down into sub categories, like: player mechanics, enemy mechanics, level mechanics, ramp-up? Art should be broken up as well: Art and Graphics. They are two different things. How many review sites even have a section on Tech?

    5. Cross Reviews. What happened to the cross review? Isn’t it somewhat inaccurate to have one person review a game? Isn’t it somewhat risky? Think about this: people want cross reviews – that’s why sites like gameranking and metacritic are so popular. If you had cross reviews on your site you’d get higher audience retention. I see a review of a game on one site, i check gamerankings to get an overall metric. People want cross reviews.

    1. ” Give all games the same amount of attention. Why do reviews of big market games get three to four time as much content as a more obscure game?”

      Well, the overwhelming majority of the audience wants to see GTA more than they want to see an obscure indie game. Simple fact. They get way more attention because it creates more content for their site for people to click on. Basic business, honestly.

      ” Get some experience making games.”

      I don’t know why you think this is a good idea. Your job as a games writer is to inform the audience if the game is good or not and if it is worth you time. Having experience making games does nothing to benefit that.

      “especially when most writers will make comments about “how long the game was in development…” or “the developers were lazy”

      Since when do games writers accuse devs of being lazy?

      “How many review sites even have a section on Tech?”

      You mean engines and the like? It isn’t needed. Some sites might cover the announcement of a new engine. But, informing the audience what sub-surface scattering does isn’t going to benefit anyone. It doesn’t fill a purpose other than for those who are curious. But, there are a bunch of sites out there already explaining it.

      “What happened to the cross review?”

      There aren’t a lot of editors at these sites. You put two people on a review, you take an editor away from creating more content for the site. Some more basic business.

      “If you had cross reviews on your site you’d get higher audience retention.”

      You make a lot of claims without providing any real tangible evidence. You just say stuff.

      1. [” Give all games the same amount of attention. Why do reviews of big market games get three to four time as much content as a more obscure game?”

        Well, the overwhelming majority of the audience wants to see GTA more than they want to see an obscure indie game. Simple fact. They get way more attention because it creates more content for their site for people to click on. Basic business, honestly.]

        That’s not quite a rebuttal for two reasons: Article size has nothing to do with click rate and two it doesn’t explain why all articles cannot be in the same magnitude (leaving some room for variation) . Of course I understand business but even movie reviews give approximately the same attention to small indie films as they do to hollywood blockbusters.

        One of the biggest problems i have with the idea that popular games need to be front and center is that it creates a feedback loop where popular games get more publicity while less marketed titles lose publicity. Every now and then a game may slip up and make it because it’s quirky enough to gain the eye but in general niche games are doomed to stay in the shadows. It’s like the curse of the appstore’s top 10 list, it only benefits the titles in the top 10 and apple is trying various heuristics to give other titles a chance to get some exposure. In the end it’s best if all titles are raised up, it gains us new players that would have never been exposed.

        [“especially when most writers will make comments about “how long the game was in development…” or “the developers were lazy”

        Since when do games writers accuse devs of being lazy?]

        Kat Bailey of 1UP.com found nothing to like about the game, calling it a “lazy, corporate-mandated cash-in.” (http://www.1up.com/reviews/mindjack-review?pager.offset=0)

        Joystiq called the My Career and My Team modes “uninspired and lazy” (http://www.gamesradar.com/nba-2k13-review/)

        I could find more if you want, but i think that proves it happens.

        [” Get some experience making games.”

        I don’t know why you think this is a good idea. Your job as a games writer is to inform the audience if the game is good or not and if it is worth you time. Having experience making games does nothing to benefit that.]

        Actually i believe it does, it’s like with any art form you gain a deeper understanding when you understand how it’s made and why it works. You can of course have an opinion, but i find it actually more impactful and important to have a knowledgable opinion. I’ve even met former game critics that started development and they have a whole knew appreciation for the craft.

        Using your argument film studies shouldn’t exist, or shouldn’t be taken if you want to be a film critic. I’m pretty sure you can see the fallacy in that logic.

        Explaining anything involves analyzing it, at least to some degree. Analysis is a matter of breaking up whole phenomena into relevant parts and showing how they work together. So understanding what those parts are would actually benefit the evaluation…

        [“How many review sites even have a section on Tech?”

        You mean engines and the like? It isn’t needed. Some sites might cover the announcement of a new engine. But, informing the audience what sub-surface scattering does isn’t going to benefit anyone. It doesn’t fill a purpose other than for those who are curious. But, there are a bunch of sites out there already explaining it.]

        I would say it is important, of course the level of depth you go into is a fair point to discuss, but to act like explaining why a certain technical feat is important and inspiring is’nt the job of a journalist is selling journalist short.

        It will also add a level of objectivity to a field that is dominated by subjectivity at this point. One example of this is the contemporary 60 frame debate, in some ways this is very technical, but how many critcs have explained why 60 frames is even important from an interactivity stand point? How does 60 frames affect game play? Why is that all popular fighters are at and have always been at 60 frames? 60 frames is more than just for technical show boating – it effects the play experience too… Perhaps there are some journos out there that have took a stab at, and that’s great, but i haven’t seen them.

        [“What happened to the cross review?”

        There aren’t a lot of editors at these sites. You put two people on a review, you take an editor away from creating more content for the site. Some more basic business.]

        Yep totally valid point but it’s also a matter of priorities – making money is important but if you set your sights short term you may not be around for the long term. I just think it’s very dangerous to have just one opinion determine a game (and it’s dev team’s fate), especially if you are one of the more popular sites where you could afford to have more than one critic per game. If you are not going to set up an objective framework then at least have different opinions weigh in, even if it’s a paragraph for each and one critic writes the main in-depth review (EGM, Diehard used to do this)…

        [“If you had cross reviews on your site you’d get higher audience retention.”

        You make a lot of claims without providing any real tangible evidence. You just say stuff.]

        Well yeah that last sentence was pure conjecture but it is playing out that way, ign has been usurped by more looser blog-likes. Some people have stopped caring about regular game critique and just use let’s plays, and forums determine their purchasing habits… People would also have critics they identify with that review (or at least mini-review) a wider spread of games, thus audience retention…

        keep in mind my post was actually written almost 10 years ago, hopefully i have clarified some of my positions. Thinking about writing an update to it but i’m even more extreme now then back then lol

        cheers.

  2. I think being a critic comes with certain expectations that one can’t just shirk off. For example: I’ve worked at companies that mandate an 85 metacritic or the studio will be in danger. The obvious assumption is that somehow critics are the thermometer for a game’s success (this is of course false, flappy birds is a modern example of this), the other assumption is that the company thinks it’s an objective measurement but it’s not though i believe it could be. Another assumption is that these opinions are worth more than anyone else’s, and in particular their own developers. So one can see why there should be an expected level of expertise, expected level of objectivity and an appropriate effort given in the game critic discipline.

    Are discussing frame advantages something that’s too technical for a review, i think it depends on the depth of the discussion. Should the average gamer know about frame advantages, i think so, after all a majority of the balancing effort of a vs game comes from timing adjustments. Do they need to get an in depth chart of every move, of course not, but i do think one of game journalists jobs is to educate the audience, so expose them to the concept so they can make that decision whether they want to delve deeper… why educate? because an educated audience will make informed purchasing decisions, which in turn forces higher quality works from developers, which in turn benefits the industry and the craft as a whole.

  3. Hey, I missed this when it was originally posted, so sorry about that.

    I think game critics should be authorities. If they are not authorities, if they are not better at their job than the common public, why do they exist? Why did they think they should be the few voices highlighted among a great many voices? Why are they paid to be these voices? Why are their opinions important when we have user scores and steam reviews? They should, based on their position, be selected because they are better at doing their job than the people around them. They should, based on having the job, be committed to doing it well. They’ve failed at this. I mean, I read your title and thought this post was going to agree with me.

    They don’t need to break down USFIV frame by frame. They could, at minimum, comment on how street fighter, as compared to other fighting games in its genre, is a game that stresses grounded play by having a lack of movement options, using links to hit-confirm into special moves and supers, features a more simple combo system with very simple cancel rules and the FADC mechanic which costs half your super meter, allowing you to make moves safe on block, and extend combo. They could go over the slow walk speed, the use of dashes over runs or hops, or air dashes. The tendency that combos are based primarily on 1 frame links. There’s all these things that fighting game players use to describe their game relative to the games around it that these reviews don’t include. If you move over to a Guilty Gear review, a less popular game that is reviewed more in the vein of, “here’s how this crazy thing in the fighting game genre differs from the template we’ve come to expect” rather than “here’s how the new update plays” like Street Fighter is, then you’ll still find it to be deficient in comparison to the way a player would describe the differences between the two.

    “Oddly, Wagar says he is “forced” to talk to his friends or watch gameplay footage (is it really so bad to talk to your friends about a game?).”
    When a game is just released, the number of friends, especially close friends who can actually tell me what the fuck is going on in the game, is small, because few of them own it. Come on. This jab at me is a complete tangent/misunderstanding/unnecessary.

    “Wagar also lacks imagination when it comes to what game criticism or video games can be.”
    No, that’s the criticism I leveled at the press, that they lack imagination. I imagine that games criticism can be so much more than it is right now, and it has failed on every level. We can learn so much more about how games work, and we can pass so much more of this understanding onto other people in simple terms that are easily understood. We can elevate this medium, but we’re not trying.

    Unfortunately a lot of great evidence of incompetence, at least for the fighting game genre, and Bloodborne, has come through since I originally wrote that post.

    With Street Fighter V, probably the biggest, easiest to describe, and most important changes to the game are the fact that the crouch tech throw option select is out, there is no longer invincibility on backdashes, there is a 2 frame buffer on all inputs, and a longer buffer for canceled special moves, pushback on light attacks has been increased to prevent long pressure strings, and almost none link into medium attacks anymore, with almost no sequences of 3 moves linking into one another existing anymore, input shortcuts (the diagonals counting as both of the cardinal directions) are out, and there are no close and far versions of moves with most neutral jump versions of moves also being defaulted to the diagonal jump versions. Less important/noticeable changes might be that kara-throws/kara-specials no longer work (technically still possible, but no movement), you can only die from chip damage with supers, plinking is no longer in the game, and the hitboxes were all standardized to very blocky shapes, making the ranges of moves and combos much more consistent. These are all things that were known during the beta period, many months in advance of the final release. These are all basic information that don’t go nearly as deep as the

    In addition to that, they probably could have stood to comment on how PC only supports xinput, and on PS4 you need to be signed into an account for every controller you use, with legacy controller support only working by plugging in a dualshock 4 first, setting it to an account and engaging the legacy controller mode, then plugging in the legacy controller, with the dualshock 3 needing to remain on standby for the entire time the legacy controller is plugged in, making it useless. Not to mention the game picks up lag if wireless devices aren’t properly decoupled from it. Mentioning the sub-par single player content on release would probably have helped too, but Smash 4 had that as well and didn’t get slammed for it.

    Here’s the top 3 reviews for Street Fighter V returned by google:
    http://www.ign.com/articles/2016/02/15/street-fighter-5-review
    http://kotaku.com/street-fighter-v-the-kotaku-review-1759416274
    http://www.giantbomb.com/reviews/street-fighter-v-review/1900-734/

    The Kotaku and IGN are really sad, mentioning none of the above, and the giantbomb one picks up a few of those points (input buffer, chip, and rollback netcode). They can kind of be dismissed for the legacy controller thing and the subpar server quality, these reviews were written before release so they couldn’t have known. But they have had every opportunity to find out all this other stuff that people knew long before these reviews were written.

    And here’s a Jim Sterling video thrown in for fun.

    Guilty Gear Xrd’s another great example that I won’t have to type as much to demonstrate.

    Here’s two people who know literally anything about the game remarking on what makes it better or worse than the previous iteration:
    http://mikezsez.blogspot.com/2015/01/why-im-not-playing-ggxrd.html
    http://www.sirlin.net/posts/guilty-gear-xrd

    Top 3 Google results for Guilty Gear Xrd Review:
    http://www.ign.com/articles/2014/12/16/guilty-gear-xrd-sign-review
    http://www.destructoid.com/review-guilty-gear-xrd-sign–284491.phtml
    http://www.gametrailers.com/videos/view/reviews2/96348-Guilty-Gear-Xrd-SIGN-Review
    The game trailers vid is especially funny, with all the actually skilled people playing being spectated in lobby play, with anything in local multiplayer being floundering about, maybe a special or attack, but not even a single gatling combo, like they didn’t play the tutorial.

    In both of these cases, these are people who have no more information than these critics saying things that are way more important.

    Bloodborne is a bit of a different case, it’s not a fighting game, it’s a single player game which is more standard to a lot of stuff that gets reviewed. I think here it’s important to look at what everyone was talking about, the information that was being shared between the early alphas and leaks of gameplay before. Peeve’s video in particular got 433K views, which is a massive number of views compared to a review.

    This is the type of stuff people were interested in. They wanted to know about the crazy new quickstep that replaced the older roll dodge while locked on. They wanted to know about how the backstab and parry system was changed. They wanted to know about the transforming weapons. The new regenerating health system. The amount of hitstun/poise damage that weapons inflict (which ended up being greatly emphasized and differentiated between weapons, attacks, and enemies in the final game). These are the types of things that people were dying to know about the game up front, that they were sharing info on between their friends and starting huge reddit threads about, and the initial press releases said nothing.

    Top 3 reviews from Google:
    http://www.ign.com/articles/2015/03/24/bloodborne-review
    http://www.polygon.com/2015/3/27/8209199/bloodborne-review-PS4-playstation-4-exclusive
    http://kotaku.com/bloodborne-the-kotaku-review-1695227854

    What did the initial reviews tell people? Only Kotaku mentioned the dodge change. They all mention that transforming weapons are in the game, though not that you can cancel attacks into a transformation, attacking at the same time, nor buffer transformations from rolls to get special transformation attacks. IGN lightly touches on this by saying you can string together combo-like attack chains. They thankfully all mention the ability to regenerate health, but none are so clear as to say, “When you take damage, the amount you lost is in yellow and can be healed by attacking back” nor the logical consequence, “This tempts you to attack again when it’s unsafe in the hopes of gaining back the health you just lost, potentially losing even more in the process” IGN amazingly doesn’t mention visceral attacks at all, and kotaku fails to mention the backstab changes.

    Reviewers don’t tell the people basic they want to know. They write up a bunch of fluff with vague incomplete feature summaries mixed in. I’m not asking these people to be pros. I’m asking them to be baseline, I’m asking them to report the basic things in front of everyone else’s eyes. I can pick up a game and make a list of notes from it that are more informative than your average review. I can pick up a game and derive from those notes a notion of whether they actually translate into a good game or not, a game with interesting choices, depth, a reasonable learning curve. Reviewers aren’t authorities on reporting what they see, what they do, let alone authorities on games categorically. I asked someone coming back from playing a bloodborne demo at a trade event questions about the game, all the stuff I’d have tested in the first 5 minutes of getting my hands on the game, how did the new backstabs work, how did the new parries work? what range did you have to be at for them? How does the new quickstep work, what can do you do off it? what’s the recovery time like? Invincibility time? He couldn’t answer any of these, he didn’t know quick steps were in the game at all. I showed him footage of one and he was like, “Wow, that’s cool looking.”

    I was talking to a friend recently about Vanquish, and had to make a case for why the game was good. These are some basic things I came up with. Vanquish is not a spectacularly deep game like a fighting game.
    http://pastebin.com/WHB5PM52
    Sure, some of what’s written here is more precise technical stuff that the average gamer doesn’t totally care about and I have the benefit of hindsight unlike the other examples I cited which were more fair, comparing people with the same access to information, but this is roughly the same length as the average review, and 90% of these things are things that someone just playing the game could see and write about. Vanquish reviews from the time have nearly none of this.
    http://www.ign.com/articles/2010/10/18/vanquish-review
    http://www.gamespot.com/reviews/vanquish-review/1900-6282239/
    http://www.gamesradar.com/vanquish-review/

    You do not need to be some type of crazy genius, authority, or pro level player to get this type of information down. To see what is on the screen and describe the same thing I described.

    Your review of bloodborne is astoundingly even worse than these three sites’ reviews of bloodborne. The entire thing is claiming it’s a bad game because it’s not a horror game despite appropriating the aesthetics of gothic and cosmic lovecraftian horror. You fail to mention the majority of the above changes or how they affect the way the game is played. You fail to recognize what the game was praised for above the other games in the franchise. You claim it forgets what made dark souls memorable, then completely fail to sum up what made dark souls memorable. You fail to grasp the actual plot of the game, which is something I’d assume someone as narrative-driven as you would care about.

    I mean, come on, you remark on how the bonfire “suggested questionable rituals”, yet fail to remark on how the hunter’s dream was a legitimately subversive plot element. Not merely suggesting something strange or harmful, but being something that existed to subvert the will of hunters to follow that of a great old one. That and remarking that the church is evil when the healing church was one of multiple players in the game’s plotline, didn’t have overtly malicious intentions, and were not the primary antagonist. You don’t care about narrative either, and you certainly don’t care about gameplay. Maybe both equally if that amount is very little.

    If next-gen graphics are the thing that is the premium quality of a review, then I don’t see reviewers reviewing that very well either. Not to mention that reviews could be replaced by screenshots and high res video footage in this case. I don’t see commentary on the use of MSAA over FXAA, or the amount of AA being used/supported (or the lack thereof for console releases). I don’t see commentary about the framerates of various games. I don’t see commentary about visual design in traditional game reviews (and I see it way more often in games analysis than mechanical commentary). Reviews don’t describe ANYTHING in the game particularly well, don’t get across the facts that a player wants to hear, that they seek out from a game when given the opportunity to ask anything about it, and certainly don’t get into the level of specificity that an authority or expert could.

    Forget other reviewers not being authorities on anything, you’re not an authority on even the limited range of things you choose to write about. We deserve better than IGN, Kotaku, and Polygon and we certainly deserve even better than you if this is a review you’re willing to highlight as one of your greatest hits.

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