What if you opened up the paper one day and read a review for a new book that went like this:
“This book was printed on the new XBS series of printers, and you can really see the improvement in quality of the words on the page. The font is crisp and easy-to-read, and the page numbers are all carefully arranged at the upper corners of each page. One thing that’s not so hot is the texture of the front and back covers–it’s just seems a little too flat and smooth. We would have preferred a little more variety. Overall, a solid book. 4/5 Stars.”
Maybe on the next page there might be a movie review:
“The explosion effects in particular look really nice, which is not a surprise since this film was shot on the latest high-end digital cameras and composited using a $200,000 editing system. We did notice some aliasing when in the blood particles when two of the characters get into a fight, but it wasn’t enough to ruin the experience. The water scenes, unfortunately, look really bad; I don’t know if the camera crew just picked the wrong day for shooting or what, but the dialog scene in front of the lake looks really unrealistic. The alien ship looks all right, but it’s just not as impressive this time around as it was in the original film. 60%.”
What would a review of a new album look like in this fictional paper?
“While it’s impressive that the four man set can create such a diverse sound, you can tell that they had to cut some corners in order to accommodate their restricted resources. The high-hat, for example, seems totally underused; we only counted three instances in the first track where it is audible. Maybe if the band upgraded to Gibson guitars they’d be able to achieve real brilliance, but as it is we only see a glimmer. And the vocals are pretty old-school; it’s hard to go back to just one person singing now that the industry norm has progressed to 2- and 3-man vocal teams. I say give this one a rental.”
If you read these reviews in your local paper, you’d probably be pretty annoyed. I mean, the reviews don’t tell you anything substantive about the works that they are critiquing; the focus is entirely on details of the production, not the content itself. Who cares if the words on the page are extra crisp? What you want to know is if the book is interesting or not!
This is how game journalists, for the most part, review games. There are a couple of noteworthy exceptions out there, but the majority of critics review games like consumer products rather than like other entertainment media. I mean, if you’re going to buy a new camera or something, you probably want to know what version of USB it supports and how many megapixels it shoots, and if you are a little more hardcore then maybe you care about how the white balance can be adjusted. Critical reviews of such consumer products are focused on the feature set of each product. Games are often reviewed the same way: as an enumeration and consideration of the list of features the game offers (quality of graphics, number of levels, improvement over another game, etc).
But reviews of most non-game media are focused on critiquing whether the work is worth your time or not. Don’t get me wrong, technical details still have a place in such reviews (it’s normal for critics to point out bad performances by actors, etc), but the main message of most book, film, and music reviews are “was this thing interesting or funny or enjoyable?” And “interesting, fun, and enjoyable” are all things that have very little to do with technical details. Is Phoenix Wright a technically complex game? No. Is it a lot of fun? Yeah, it is. But it gets scores lower than it deserves because it’s built on simple 2D graphics and text.
I want you to consider this excellent review of the movie The Italian Job by film critic David Edelstein. Go on, read it–I’ll wait. Edelstein opens the review by enumerating all of the reasons that The Italian Job is a bad film: it’s a remake, it’s an advertising vehicle for the MINI Cooper, and it’s just one cliche after another. Then he spends the rest of the article describing why, despite all these technical flaws, he loved the film so much. Edelstein understands that what makes a film good is not its special effects, or even its script or its editing or the performances of its actors; good films are those that make the viewer feel something. The Italian Job was an exciting film for Edelstein, and his review is consequently glowing.
Part of the problem with game reviews, I think, is that game journalists often try to offer objective analysis of the games that they review. It’s easier to be objective about something if you just stick to the obvious facts, which is maybe why games get treated like products rather than works of art. But in reviews of other media, there’s no attempt to be objective; enjoyment is intrinsically subjective anyway, so why bother? The reviewers don’t all have to agree, and all you have to do to get quality reviews is find a critic with whom your tastes are aligned. Like every other form of media, games are more than the sum of their parts; the only real metric by which we should be judging games is “is it fun.”
In the next post on this subject, I’ll discuss my theory on why the industry works this way.