Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Few Fundamental Truths About Game Reviews, So Stop Being So Mad

Always remember: If it makes lots of money, it is perfect and immune to criticism.

To catch you up: There's a game called Grand Theft Auto V. Maybe you've heard of it. Like all games in the series, you commit horrible, violent crimes. Arguably, in V, those crimes tend to be a bit more on the gruesome, appalling scale than in earlier games.

Reviews are coming out. Greg Tito of the Escapist gave the game the shocking, war-crime level rating of 3.5 stars out of 5, saying "only buy Grand Theft Auto V if you're prepared to play as characters with no justifiable motivation for doing awful things to people."

Predictably, their forums exploded into haterage, as a huge portion of gamers are nothing but giant, ambulatory, exposed nerves mainly good for the spraying of spite

So Greg Tito had to back up the largely obvious, expected, self-evident points he made earlier with a long follow-up article. It's worthy reading.

Man, I loves me some good internet drama. It's like fudge. I can eat it all day. Keeps me from working. But ...

oh god why am i trying so tired so tired

A Few Sanity Comments

1. Evaluating the worth of a work of art with a number, a clump of stars, or the positioning of one's thumb is completely arbitrary and useless. We know that, right? Ignore it. You can't judge a work of art with a number. It's not like there's some Art Scale you can put art on and weigh it and say, "This weighs 7.32 Arts, so it's good."

2. The point of a critic is to criticize. Anyone in our developing art form who actually tries to stand up and make real points is worth applauding, even if we don't agree.

3. If you, as a critic, don't ever make a bunch of people angry at you, you're wasting your time. If you're never challenging anyone, why are you bothering? 

4. Also, ProTip: When a carefully reasoned comment makes someone angry, that means you're on the right track. When you are being calm and thoughtful and people still rage at you, it means you hit a nerve that probably needed hitting.

5. As the art form matures, you have to expect that really egregious crap is going to get called out more and more. Sure, you're allowed to make a game that's morally repellent. But realize, as gamers grow up, have kids, and start to lose family members, they’re learning just how funny death isn't. The voices saying, "Why are the biggest, most glorious, most expensive worlds in the game industry being used for such a horrific end?" are only going to get louder.

6. This just makes me appreciate Saints Row IV so much more. Practically all of the comical violence in it is directed against evil, invading aliens or computer simulations. Makes it go down easier for us olds. And, yes, I am plausibly pointing out Saints Row as the sane, mature option, which is how we know that the world has gone mad.

7. A lot of the comments claim everything Greg Tito says is invalid forever because he gave Dragon Age II 5 stars out of 5. One, if you're wrong once, it doesn't mean you can't be right 500 times after that. And, two, read Sanity Comment #1 again. 

8. That Grand Theft Auto V depicts what it does and yet is as popular as it is is very interesting. I think it says something about us as people. And I'm not about to get all liberal and sensitive and say that it's something inherently bad. I think the game addresses less the desire to do wrong and more a deeper, fundamental frustration. Not sure. Just a hunch. Bears more thought.

9. Finally. If we are going to assign numerical values to represent the value of a work of art in a storytelling medium (which we shouldn't, because it's dumb and useless), it is necessary to take the quality of the story into account. I mean, right?

Yeah, I'll probably play GTA V one of these days. For as long as I can stand it, anyway. It sounds like a stunning technical accomplishment, the sort of thing a game designer has to play to keep one's skills current. I just dream of a day when the most technically spectacular games can be played with my kids in the room.


  1. I find it weird that no one seems to remember what happened with Grand Theft Auto IV. Everyone got caught up in the hype, it got amazing review scores at launch, and then with time the gaming community realized it had its flaws (e.g., needy friends, driving physics, too brown and drab and serious, bad shooting controls, no mid-mission checkpoints, story problems, etc).

    I'm sure the same thing will happen with GTA V, and that's why I'm taking a wait-and-see approach with it. Surprised more people aren't too.

  2. I give this article a B out of A+.

  3. @Chris: I know a million people who bought GTA IV. I'm the only person I've ever met who finished it.


    - Jeff Vogel

  4. Why are they all so mad, Jeff? It’s all rooted in basic insecurity and lack of self-esteem. Look at the fanatical supporters of sports teams or music acts, they will brook no criticism of their favourites. Why? Because it’s the only thing in their lives they have to cling onto.

    A not insubstantial number of gamers feel a kind of relationship to their games akin to that between fans and teams or musicians. Buying their music, watching their matches or playing their games becomes a tribalistic ritual, close to a religious rite. Why else would they uncritically spend ever-growing piles of cash, which they often cannot afford, supporting these rituals, which are a very variable feast, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes not?

    If you look at computer games not so much as an art (though they are) but as a sport, then the fanaticism and fundamentalism can be seen to parallel that in other sports. And most religions. And the worst games fanatics, like the worst religious and sports fans, usually come from the ranks of the most deprived, either economically or spiritually.

    As for GTA, not played 5, but it is an undeniably great game series and like most great things it’s flawed – flawed by the things that make it popular - violence, misogyny, respect for criminality etc – but redeemed by its excitement, its humour and its music. More mature gamers (I’m not talking age here) see it for what it is – a dream for a society which is becoming more and more repressed by authority. But for some, that dream is their only reality and if you threaten it, you threaten their whole raison d’etre.

  5. This is why I love/hate it when people completely break their own rating systems with values outside their established range for rhetorical exaggeration. I'd give Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn a 14/10 (seewutididthar) due to it being completely awesome.

  6. I do not agree with that last point at all. I know how much you value writing, Jeff--at times even seeming to think that they're the only way you can provide value to your games--but games do not have to be a storytelling medium; they are games first and foremost.

    It is to my eternal frustration when some reviewer playing genres outside of their comfort zone slams a game for having a laughable blurb of a story and docks it off of their overall evaluation of the game. Some of the greatest games of all time have next to no story to speak of. A bad story should only ever bring down the overall quality of a game when it explicitly throws it in your face from the beginning with walls of text or cutscenes that seem to be the reward for getting through the "gamey" parts. Then the story better damn well be good or it's a wholly unenjoyable experience.

    Evaluating a game's story should ideally not be part of the game's evaluation itself but something that exists completely separate to it. Because it already is just that. I don't replay my favorite Spiderweb Software games every year or so because of the stories--however much I might like or have enjoyed them the first or second time through. I replay them because I like the gameplay.

  7. I have always hated rating systems - and to an extent it is because my background is in statistics and physics ... so seeing a bunch of english majors playing games with numbers is annoying at best. :)

    But more importantly I actually care about the context - I love reading reviews, sometimes even when I don't care about the game. I love when someone shows passion, insight, obtuse analogies, and so on. That is great stuff. Mundane commentary about 'graphics suck' with a 8/10 score? Useless.

  8. I have never supported the violence in GTA games, but have not been able to not play them, because the sandbox and open city are just too fun. Get a car and rocket over jumps, see how long you can stay alive with a 5 star wanted level, etc.

    Your last paragraph sums it all up though. Everyone sane will realize this is not a game with content appropriate for children. We can all make that distinction, but then throw a tizzy fit when someone says it might not be good for us as well?

  9. I disagree with "9. Finally. If we are going to assign numerical values to represent the value of a work of art in a storytelling medium (which we shouldn't, because it's dumb and useless), it is necessary to take the quality of the story into account. I mean, right?"

    In some games the story is simply not important, not amount of quality writing would improve the game, because it was never about the story to begin with.

    Some video games are interactive novels, and others are simply fun games, with minimal, or unimportant, skip-able stories.

  10. OK, fine. A story should never ever ever ever be taken into account when figuring out the dumb useless review score. The dumb useless review score can continue to be utterly facile and completely useless without its dumbness and uselessness being sullied by any story considerations.

    Problem solved?

    - Jeff Vogel

  11. I don't like numeric reviews. On any kind of product, but especially on media products.
    But what I think is outrageous is to create different categories and get an average. How good is the storytelling of Tetris? Or the graphics in Braid? A game typically is much more than the sum of its parts.

    We tend to think of a review as a test. The critic approves this game and say it's good. When it should be more a suggestion. What's appealing of this game? Is this game adequate for you? What kind of games do you like?
    But it is NOT a disgrace if you decide to play (and enjoy) a certain game. No matter how bad reviews it has. If you enjoy it, that's grand. I enjoy watching some movies with awful reviews, and that's totally fine. That doesn't mean "I have bad taste", or if I have it, it's mine, so what.

  12. "only buy Grand Theft Auto V if you're prepared to play as characters with no justifiable motivation for doing awful things to people"

    Having not yet played number five, I'll base my answer on what I saw in the fourth:

    Niko Bellicis justification as a "tragic heroe" was that he was a serbian war criminal turned mobster on the run. Back then, his motivations (running away from justice for the crimes he commited during the war, running away from the criminals he double crossed, finding some guy to kill in revenge) were already unjustifiable, but what made the story work was that its underlying logic had enough verisimilitude in it to shut down the player's disbelief.

    Sometimes I wonder if Players' sympathy toward Niko comes from Rockstar not being blunt enough with their hints that their protagonist was a horrible guy before he emmigrated, or simply because they didn't know or didn't care about the sickening things done by the very real men who served as the basis for Niko's character.

    I enjoyed playing GTA IV. I never felt any sympathy for its protagonist, who should have been dragued to the Hague and made to answer for what he did when he wore an uniform. So when I read a reviewer's claim that the fifth episode trio of protagonists does not inspire him as much sympathy, my first thought is "Seriously? You felt sympathy for the guy from the previous episode? Do you realize that before using hookers to refill his HP bar he probably raped dozens of kids during a campain to increase the size of the balkanic despotat he hailed from by a few square kilometers?"

    As the GTA franchise becomes more and more a bitter satire of the cesspool of wickedness that lies behind american society's veil of civilization, one should expect protagonists who do awful things to people with no justifiable motivations to become a recurring plot point.

    Besides, stories should not require the audience to "get behind" the protagonist. Lolita and the Kindly Ones are great novels because, for all the fluff in the prose, it is made clear that the protagonists and narrators and despicable, unforgivable wastes of human skins trying in a desperate last ditch effort to garner a little sympathy through their wit. Ender's Game sucks because it's blatantly clear that the author want the audience to cheer for the protagonist increasingly murderous behavior.

  13. I'm playing Avadon: The Black Fortress right now and really enjoying the well-crafted story and simple artwork and sounds. Why would I want super immersion into a super violent world?
    I'm thinking there is a causal relationship here with the "giant, ambulatory, exposed nerves mainly good for the spraying of spite."
    That killed me.

  14. I generally don't want immersion in a game to happen unless the actions I take in the game world match my values pretty well -- otherwise, I would just end up making myself sick. Case in point: one time I tried playing Geneforge with a very pro-Shaper character, just to explore some of the other dialog options that I never would have seen otherwise. As soon as the game started to get hard, he died ... and I realized that I hadn't been putting forth my full effort to strategize during the battle, because my own character was a hateful, tyrannical snob (sorry Shaper-lovers), and I couldn't bring myself to care about him very much. Needless to say I will probably never play GTA. I know there are things besides the mindless violence that make it fun, but it seems a little bit like digging for food in the garbage ... there are too many healthy video games out there for me to waste time on GTA.

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