Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why We Need Video Game Critics, Even If the Whole Topic Is Boring

Video games need more of this ...
We've reached the point where video games have a huge place in our culture, and yet most of them are ... well, I want to say "terrible," but that's not true. Look at the top of the sales charts, and you'll see a lot of Product. Competently made, bland Product with good production values and a lack of thoughtfulness or creativity or interest in exploring what these odd electronic contraptions can do.

Video games have gotten big faster than they've gotten good. We have fantastic tools at our disposal, but, apart from a few remarkable works (The Last of Us, for example), they aren't being used at anywhere near their potential. I think this is why video games need more and better critics.

Not reviewers. Reviewers are necessary, but we don't need more people to say, "Yeah, Grand Theft Auto V is deeply flawed, but it has lots of polygons and it doesn't crap itself and I don't want to get death threats. 9/10." We have plenty of that.

I was recently in a discussion with some indies where someone commented that too much discussion of the game business was about business, not about the craft of making better games. I agree with this totally. If you want to write games, anything that helps you to make a better game is better for your business.

We need people who take the time to think about these games, break them down, understand what works, what doesn't, and why. They then bring their opinions back to the masses, and we can agree or disagree and have a conversation about it and then, if we're lucky, we might get better games.

... and less of this ...
Who Criticism Is For

Grand Theft Auto V is a huge, ambitious, high-profile title, and it deserves to have a lot written about it. (And, for what it's worth, I plan to.) But who would that writing be for?

Well, first off, it wouldn't be for Rockstar. Sure, they wrote the game, but that really is the end of their part of the conversation. They made a thing. They made a ton of money. They'll make another one. Maybe they'll read what people write about it. Maybe it'll even make a difference, though I doubt it. It doesn't matter.

They wrote the game, but the discussion about it isn't for them. The discussion is for two sorts of people.

First, us developers. People who make games. We should always be playing and picking apart new work, mercilessly deciding what works and what doesn't. This is how we get better.

Second, criticism is for gamers. In particular, it's for gamers who want to enjoy games in a more thoughtful, engaged way. You don't need to understand how editing and cinematography work to enjoy a movie. However, better understanding of the craft can help you to enjoy movies on more than one level, and thus to enjoy them more.

It is possible to play a game and have a part of it really engage and excite you (or disappoint and frustrate you), and not really understand why. Good criticism can help you see exactly why the game worked (or let you down).

I know, some people don't care. They don't want more understanding of what they watch/read/play. I really don't understand this, but it's there. If you don't care, I can't make you care. But if you do care, these discussions are how you learn.

... but I would settle for this.
So ...

I have a lot to say about Grand Theft Auto V and the new Tomb Raider reboot, both hugely ambitious, partially successful titles. Discussion about what they do right and wrong are merited.

I don't know if anyone will care. But writing is what I do, so let's go.

In the Meantime

There is some thoughtful game criticism out there. For starters, take a look at the YouTube channel Errant Signal. In particular, the videos on Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us.

I think the Bioshock: Infinite video is a terrific analysis of a game that, despite its good qualities, was embraced with an excessive and insufficiently considered enthusiasm. And I think their The Last of Us video is poorly considered. It's blind to the real appeal to the game and holds it to an unfair standard not applied to other titles.

But that's the great thing about criticism. It's not about agreement. It's about conversation and, yes, argument. That's where the fun is.

If you care about movies and storytelling, Film Crit Hulk can't be recommended highly enough.


  1. I wrote something similar on gamasutra:

    Basically we need to have real criticism, and also allow it. I envision a magazine aimed at a New Yorker audience, not an IGN audience.,

  2. Hmm. Yet the first thing on my memory, when it comes to game criticism and you, is this.


  3. Promoting better games criticism is fine. But there's no consensus on how to do it, plenty of academic critics *hate* The Last of Us, and 99% of criticism springs up around "I don't like this game, and here is why." When you say "most games aren't good" you're reacting as a reviewer. Real criticism doesn't care whether games are good or bad.

    As to being for gamers, even people who care about games see words like "ludonarrative dissonence" or "diegesis" and walk away. Game design theory, which is completely different from criticism, is more likely to catch passionate gamers.

    My full argument about current criticism run arounds, which is too long and not meant for human consumption: http://andrewosthoff.com/the-players-journey-this-cake-is-delicious/

  4. As someone who writes for a couple of sites, I try to make my reviews about what I experienced. Not everyone views games the same way, not everyone looks for the same things - that is a given. But I do agree that a critical eye is needed, if only to spur conversation. I also work for (a non-gaming) software company, and our developers do take harsh reviews and customer feedback to heart, so I am very pleased to hear you say that developers need to consider this as a feedback mechanism for both improvement as well as understand what things 'went right'.

  5. I think there are many people who want this, though "many" is an ambiguous and imprecise word, here it probably means "some of those whose opinions I actually care about a bit". Here's some other "thoughtful" channel (in hiatus atm though) saying something along the lines of this article: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRXEAGWynGA

  6. This is why my wife and I watch Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw at The Escapist. He actually critiques video games.

  7. His review of Ghosts says it all really: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/8465-Call-of-Duty-Ghosts

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  9. I think there are some good reviewers out there who are good at critiquing games from a mechanics-based outlook instead of basing their judgement just on branding alone.

    I do agree however that if the media provides more critical opinions of games then it would be better for the industry as a whole.

  10. I'm excited that you mentioned Errant Signal.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Was tempted to just leave a link to http://www.critical-distance.com/ and say nothing, but decided to be a bit more friendly.

    There's a lot happening in games criticism right now. I don't think it's fair to imply that there is none or very little of it. There is loads. Often when people say "why isn't there any games criticism" what they mean is "why aren't any of the publications that I consider to be legitimate/mass-market/highbrow hosting games criticism". I don't know whether that was what you meant.

    I personally find it more productive to take that as a lesson about the particular conditions at play in media at the moment. Are writers getting paid enough to be able to write those in-depth analyses? Are they getting commissioned when they pitch criticism? Who is the audience for criticism? Are they perhaps better reached outside of traditional publications? What's happening on the fringes, where criticism is being crowdfunded from the grassroots and supported by an active community of writers and developers?

    Outside of mainstream publications, criticism is happening, and it's happening in new and exciting ways. It's very diverse. Go explore a link roundup on critical-distance.com. One piece will be a video rant, another will be a personal story, another will be a reflection on how a game fits into history, and yes there will also be formal analyses of the techniques at work in a game's development. I find it hard to believe that the criticism you're looking for is not already happening. If it's not, I'd be super interested in a more specific discussion of what is missing and why that might be.

  13. actually, we had in france a reviewer that made the remark about how bad it is to give and even more consider, ratings.
    notes make games stay on the level of a product, it will never become art.
    you dont rate art, you just say wether it makes you feel something. or not..
    a good review should tell you why you may like it or not, depending on your tastes, but a precise, numerical rating? seriously?

    on the technique, seriously, i thought it was made clear that we dont need to know how things work, it can even break the magic. still, reviewers do this already all of the time (the most useful ones anyway), so do we really need more?

    and for the term "engage", it has bad connotation here, talking about political meaning and all.. from an american point of view, its michael moore kind of film. not really art, huh? and destroys movies by making them a tool.

    but serioulsy, most gamers are dumb. yes, really. i started recently a conversation about why there shouldnt be level scaling in diablo, which is for me a very bad design. follows the long, useless litany of aggressive comments. subject much too complicated for a videogame forum. (would like to know your take on it, afaik, no level scaling in spidweb games)
    still sooner or later they will cry the game lacks something without being able to evaluate why.
    we need reviewers to talk about this. most are veterans enough, they know. still, ad revenue...

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