The Games-as-Products Reviewer Mindset

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.

14 thoughts on “The Games-as-Products Reviewer Mindset

  1. I agree. It sucks that people ae now starting to pay attention to the reveiwers, and bringing up concern for em. Thats probably a major reason I come to this site everyday, though the reveiws arent given ight when the games come out, you basicly play through the whole game and share a reveiw on the Technical, and the Fun side of things. Witchj I think all reveiwers should do.

  2. I don’t think “fun” is the only yardstick we should be measuring games by- their ability to evoke other emotions should be treated with equal importance. Focusing purely on “fun” is the kind of attitude that stunts the medium.
    Otherwise, though, I’d agree with you.

    True. I’m looking forward to your answer to the question “why”. Because this features-obsession is not exclusive to journalists. Developers and publishers and even lots of gamers think quantity before quality too.

  4. > Michael

    Agreed. It’s part of a larger, systemic problem, I think. Thanks for linking to me, by the way!

  5. I totally agree with everything you said. One of the biggest review offenders in recent times that I can think of was with the XBLA shmup Omega Five. I saw several of the reviews complaining that it didn’t have a story and all I could think was what actual person who enjoyed side scrolling shmups would even care? If anything, a story is a detriment to a game like that.

  6. Fantastic article! Simply gets down to the roots of why video game reviewers are going to have to change approach if viewers are going to trust them anymore.

  7. I only ask if you have taken media on its base or lowest level only? The “fun,” element is quite correctly associated with games. I agree we should only play games we enjoy – they are by definition a distraction, an amusement.

    But to say that literature or film that doesnt seem “fun,” should recieve, in general, lower consideration is pushing hard against many ideas of the power of these avenues of expression.

    We read Joyce (to use an obvious example) to have our expectations shunted hard. We read book and watch films to expand our understanding or provide another perspective on somthing we believe we understand. This is what literature and film is for surely?

    That is all that I object to on that. I would like to say:

    Games are young and the reviwers are old, unable to shake that 80% barrier from thier mind. I do look forward to your post on this; but no game reviwer can honestly be thinking of the game they are reviewing as a product. It is a tech driven industry; they are allowed to say “the water looks fab darling, fab.” You have either been reading different reviews to me or missed the point.

    Immersive realties are meant to be created in games not art (unless this is immersive..may be a different arguement here). Thats why you judge it on “fun,” rather than its message or its “point,”.

    Saying that you may come up trumps on this one. I look forwards to it

  8. > NFP888

    I had some trouble parsing your message, but I think that you slightly misread me. My point was that reviews of other types of media are rated by critics on how the work made them feel, which might be “interesting” or “enjoyable” or “earth-shattering” or whatever. In contrast, games seem to be reviewed with a focus on their technical features rather than their effectiveness as games (“fun” or “entertaining” or “interesting” play second fiddle to “technical impressiveness,” “evolution since the last game,” etc). And I think that sucks.

  9. Review is much opinion and points of view, but one thing of those game reviews is usually they don’t play the whole game before writing (I think). One thing is to watch a 2-hours long movie and them write a review. Other is one of those magazines play an RPG with around 40-hours long and write a review about it. Looks like they only play around one afternoon or one week (no matter if they beat the game or not) and then write it.
    Also, one of the bad things of game reviews is that they usually wants to show off how much they know about the technology. When a movie critic is good, or a book critic, they usually talks about the other works of the crew/writer, and it does makes sense. But how many times a game critic talks about the other games of the same game designer/producer/crew/studio? They just want cool graphics, beautiful explosions and stuff like that.
    That’s because I rather to ask my friends if they like a game or check out some game sites/blogs, just like this one, Hardcore Game 101, some specific reviewers at Gamefaqs and go on. They aren’t trying to show me how much they know about the tech, but if the game is enjoyable or not. I stopped to buy game magazines because of this.

  10. I’d forgotten the extent to which commercial game journalism (magazine above all) was like this… basically ‘cos I gave up on it ages ago. 90% of my critical interactions with games are via gamefaqs and honestgamers. The best writing at gamefaqs is superb, though occasionally harder to find considering the size of the userbase now, especially where popular games are concerned. Honestgamers is a smaller site with a higher quality bar for content, but correspondingly covers fewer games. Between the two I have more than enough good reviews to engage, inform or persuade me about pretty much anything. And of course for horror games I like this site 😉

    The other 10% of reviews I get from my newspaper’s weekly gaming section or from local street press.

    I may sound like a hypocrit here but i dont think that reviews should be given scores that go into detail.

    i find that it its below 3 out of ten, avoice, if its about 6, look into. for me there just a general gauge on another gamers experience during gameplay yknow?, not a be all end all judgement on the games.

  12. Not to oversimply things, but videogame journalism has always been the “suck”. Just with the Internet it’s easier to check facts and share information. Couple that with the rise of fan sites, videogame “journalism” is now being shown for what it is, which is well “junk” for the most part.

    Seriously, read some of game magazines from back in the day you’ll see things haven’t changed much. Now reviewers can’t get away with it so easily anymore…

  13. I’d also like to add that giving a quantitative score can be annoying at times because people tend to take it objectively. A descriptive review alone should be accurate enough in suggesting whether that game/movie/book is good enough. Sometimes there’s just the bad habit of disregarding a game just because it scored slightly lower than another one (in which the scores are subjective anyway for the most part).

  14. You should see how people review indie films. It’s often about how bad their technical stuff was first, before they get into the actual plot.

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