game criticism

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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Money and Popularity Have Game Criticism in Check

by Jed Pressgrove

Game critics are drawn to “AAA” and hyped indie games like insects to light bulbs. The urge to discuss what everyone else is discussing is an understandable urge, but we should explore the message that these limited discussions send: money/popularity = greater relevance.

The focus on well-marketed games implicitly comments on what we find valuable in gaming. People often treat “AAA” as a term about budgets, franchises, and marketing, but the capital “A” is clearly associated with “better” (the education system has made sure of that). We expect “AAA” games to be better, and when they are very good, we often proclaim them the best. These expectations, along with the fact that “AAA” games generally cost $60, translate into critical relevance.

Hyped indie games like Braid and Gone Home have somewhat challenged this truism. These games may not be “AAA,” but a lot of people have bought them, so they are relevant and ripe for discussion — some might even nominate or call them Game of the Year. One could see this as an improvement as far as broadening the critical discussion is concerned, but the fact remains that neither “AAA” nor hyped indie games are consistently outstanding enough to warrant critical obsession, unless we believe a lot of discussion automatically makes something relevant or good.

Game criticism should be about fitting ideas and design into an insightful historical, cultural, or political context. When video games were relatively new and a smaller hobby, criticism could focus on fewer games. But now that video games are ubiquitous (developing games is the new playing the guitar), you can only gather so much insight from focusing on “AAA” and hyped indie games. For example, critics have written obsessively about how Bioshock, The Walking Dead, and The Stanley Parable handle the concept of choice, but it’s not because these games have made significant strides addressing or presenting choice (unless you pretend Deus Ex, Fallout, and their predecessors never existed) — it’s because those games are hyped and people are already talking about them. The discussion on hyped games is a cycle of obviousness that ignores video game history and actual innovation.

Meanwhile, a free game like Chris Johnson’s Moirai receives little attention despite its original handling of choice and consequence (first with prepared dialogue options, then with dialogue created by the player, and finally by the decision of another player). Devi Ever’s A Game of Cat and Mouse, another free title involving choice, has inspired some interesting feedback that the developer had to seek out, but the game criticism community is largely unaware of the game’s emotional sophistication. (I would love to see how the smug Stanley Parable would criticize Moirai or A Game of Cat and Mouse. Galactic Cafe should thank God it had Bioshock to pick on — easy target, easy publicity … kind of like Ayn Rand and the United States.)

As video games multiply, critics must do more than comb through games people already know about. They should take pride in reminding people of game history and pointing readers toward exciting and provocative titles outside of the hype. I have criticized writers for citing critic Mattie Brice to forward an agenda, but her advice to broaden one’s video game diet is not a personal agenda — it’s a principle of criticism.