by Alan Williamson
I learned the joy of owning a ZX Spectrum this week, but I’ve never played one. I felt the connection between Dear Esther and the end of a relationship I never had. I understood the fear of being an inadequate mother, although I am not a parent. It’s easy to see how a piece entitled “What’s wrong with game reviews?” would provoke games writers, especially those who subscribe to New Games Journalism, but Joseph Hilgard’s essay contradicts what I believe about the value of subjectivity in games writing.
Hilgard and I are both psychologists, and we both focus on video games. My undergraduate dissertation studied non-verbal behaviour differences in violent and non-violent games. Even with a science background, it is a mistake to treat game reviewing as an exact science, something that can be dissected and analysed, assigned scores and scales. There is no ‘Five Factor Model’ of gaming. That approach reminds me of when game review magazines had entire columns dedicated to scores: giving games separate marks for their gameplay and graphic fidelity which didn’t count towards an overall score.
Critics and readers alike question scores. How many times have you read phrases in review comments like “Reads more like a 7 than an 8″? Publications shift from percentages to twenty point scales, star ratings to letter grades. The games industry’s PR machine has grown around Metacritic like ivy, stifling creators’ intellectual growth for the sake of reaching the top layer of the gameforest. To answer Hilgard’s original question, what’s wrong with game reviews is our obsession with quantifying them. By removing the scores from reviews, we force the critic to stand by their words. It becomes silly for a critic to deride a game over 1500 words before writing an obligatory “quibbles aside” paragraph and then awarding a 9/10 score. Many argue that reviews still need scores, but I don’t agree, and it is a discussion well worth having.
New Games Journalism, which I take to mean subjective and experiential writing, is called “as interesting and helpful as a bore describing last nightâ€™s dream”. Firstly, most of my dreams are the stuff of science fiction legends. Once, I had a horrible dream where I was trapped in a house, running away from an unseen killer over and over again. If you’re bored by an Irishman enthusiastically describing his own murder, then you are incapable of excitement.
Is New Games Journalism boring? Game mechanics are boring. Reading a paragraph dedicated to ‘graphics’ or a description of the game’s controls is dull. Learning about the procedural computations behind AI is tedious; reading about the challenge it creates can be fascinating. Breaking games down into their constituent mechanisms tells us nothing about how good they are. Is Skullgirls technically superior to Streets of Rage 2? Probably, but who cares! Streets of Rage 2 is more fun to me. “Fun” is a valid way to describe a game. Unless you’re making the next Dear Esther and aren’t aiming for mere entertainment, making a game consistently fun is actually a pretty high benchmark.
One of my favourite games is Bayonetta. It is mechanically accomplished. I am aware of this mechanistic excellence because I’m not frustrated when I play it: I never feel cheated, my inputs never fail to correspond to Bayonetta’s beatings on the screen. The holistic experience matters more than the technical parts. You can dismantle a car and admire the construction of the chassis, but it’s not going to take you on an adventure in that state.
As I remarked on Kyle Stegerwald’s related essay on skill and game criticism, sequence breaking in Super Metroid doesn’t explain the delights of playing Super Metroid. It is a game of exploration, not exploitation. Games that focus on narrative journey across space and time, and you can only truly explore the same place once. Your perception of Tetris changes as you learn the rules, but the story doesn’t change: it’s still a thinly-veiled allegory on the inevitable collapse of Soviet Russia. However, your second playthrough of Mass Effect is a repeat trip through a largely linear narrative, and an untwisted plot can’t be twisted again.
Gamers of today enjoy more engrossing and intelligent stories, written by skilled authors and not programmers desperate to imbue agency in nondescript pixels, than ever before. To ignore this, to demand that critics focus on the ‘gameplay’, is a mistakenly objective approach to a subjective experience. Imagine if we described books in terms of their ‘bookread’, or films by the quality of their ‘movieview’, giving them marks out of ten for cinematography and special effects. It ignores the fundamental factor of all art that we know to be true: its subjectivity.
Games are subjective experiences. They can be mechanically broken, but as the cult status of Deadly Premonition tells us, some people like broken things in the same way you may like music that I find unlistenable. I didn’t like the ending of Mass Effect 3; maybe you did. The point is that this is nigh-impossible to objectively determine, despite what YouTube may tell you or no matter what scores we assign.
Even the ways in which we master games are subjective. Is playing Quake as quickly as possible a better way to play than I did, an intrepid explorer flirting with death and uncovering secrets? The ‘Quake Done Quick’ team are no more masters of that game than a multiplayer champion. Forza Motorsport players can master the art of drifting in sequence like a school of petrol-fuelled dolphins, or they can learn every curve of the NÃ¼rburgring and set a new lap record. Many games are as broad as they are deep, with multiple styles of play. It is unfair to claim a reviewer can’t properly criticise Skyrim until they’ve sampled every race and class, or can’t review Baldur’s Gate without a nuanced understanding of the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset.
To feign objectivity in a review is to betray the reader’s intelligence. We must be honest about our subjectivity: we must bring our personal experiences into our writing and never be ashamed of them. By bringing subjectivity to the forefront, we make an important distinction from the ‘objective’ review: “I like this, but you might not, and that’s OK”. The aim of the critic is to fairly and accurately convey their subjective experiences. You can be biased as long as you’re open about that bias, because the reader is smart enough to make up their own mind. Whenever people complain in comment threads about how wrong a reviewer is, they are actively engaging in this process. This doesn’t excuse factual inaccuracies in writing, but it allows for personal preferences. Pretending these preferences don’t exist won’t make them magically disappear.
I am a reformed Sega fan, and accordingly my critique of Sonic Generations is going to be more harsh than that of a six year old boy. Who’s to say which is the better review? Alright, the kid’s spelling isn’t very good and their vocabulary range leaves a lot to be desired; but to the parent of a young child, it’s more enlightening than one written a twenty five year old man. It’s only through responding to personality in my critique that you can derive worth from it as a reader. There is no ‘one true review’ of any game, just like there isn’t one reading of a book or one ‘history’. Everything is touched and tainted by our experiences. In the case of scientific research or historiography, we seek to expunge this subjectivity to better understand objective reality. When we criticise a work of fiction, we should seek to embrace it.
Psychologist and philosopher William James said: “Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done.”
It is the critic’s job to capture and convey feelings, because when it comes to describing art, it is the closest we can get to reality.