It is fashionable these days to gripe about the state of gaming journalism. The main complaint that is often lodged is that gaming “criticism” is limited to being a glorified buyer’s guide to recent releases. I think this is a valid role for the gaming press to fill. After all, there are major publications in the areas of music, movies, theater, books and recordings of musical performances that are at their core a vehicle for telling you whether or not you should buy the items that they write about.
My complaint is that most game reviews don’t really even fill this role well. They have almost nothing interesting to say about the game other than their final score. Looking at the Metacritic average score will generally tell you everything interesting that all the reviews of the game had to say.
Consider the normal template for a review of a fictional new game. Let’s call this game Final Resident Condemned Devil Cry 7: Escape from the Mutant Swamp Navy Seals. The review will start out with material that establishes the genre in which the game works, perhaps with reference to earlier versions of the game franchise. This sets up the reader’s expectations about whether or not the game will live up to, or improve upon, the earlier games in the series. Next there will be discussion of the high level gameplay. For example:
You take on the role of commanding a small squad of elite soldiers thrust into the role of defending humanity from the onslaught of the horrible swamp devil seals with the help of a small boy with a large sword and an unknown destiny.
The review will then launch into a long obligatory description of the technical performance of the game. The review will describe how well the game engine draws trees and such. Or it will provide you with an exhaustive list of all the weapons, vehicles and combat mechanics available in the game. You will read about the sound effects, the font used in the menus, whether or not the framerate is stable when you make the planet Mercury explode into tiny pieces, and what the teenage n00bs will talk about on the headset when you play the game online. If the game is by a ‘famous’ game designer, the review will be sure to mention how innovative and unique the game design is.
After all of this, you get a number between 1 and 5, or a slightly different number between 1 and 10 which is supposed to let you know if you should buy the game or ignore it.
Here is the problem: you never get any real idea of what it is like to play the game. Part of this is to do with the fact that it’s hard to show gameplay video in a print or web page review. Here TV shows like X-Play have a bit of an advantage. On the other hand, well written reviews for other media, particularly music, can often draw a compelling portrait of the performance or piece being reviewed. When the writer is good, she is able to describe in fairly objective terms what she saw or heard in the performance and then give you her general impressions of its overall quality. This combination of objective observation combined with a personal and subjective value judgement is what makes good critical writing valuable.
Back in the realm of video games, I think X-Play does a good job of combining these things. The show makes up for its relative lack of sophisticated writing by making good use of its ability to utilize video. Is the gameplay boring and repetitive? Even if they don’t come out and say it, the clip of gameplay that is repeated 15 times under the voice over will give you a clue that this is the case. More importantly, you get an idea of what the main game environments and mechanics are like just by watching the video.
It is admittedly a challenge to convey the atmosphere or personality of a game in text. But it seems to me that this is why you hire, you know, professional writers, for this kind of thing. If I had to ask the game journalism industry for just one thing this Christmas it would be to spend a little more time telling me how the game plays rather than how it looks or sounds, or how saturated the colors are in the foliage models. I’m not asking for any revolutionary change in the how we write game reviews. I’m not after a long and intimate treatise on how playing the game reminded the writer of cold, wet, winters growing up in Japan where he used to spend his lunch time running over to the arcade to blow his allowance on Pachinko. I don’t care if interacting with the non-player characters in the Forest of the Night Elves reminds him of his long dead grandmother. I just want to know if the enemies in the game are worth shooting, if the side quests are plentiful and interesting to pursue, if the slam dunk shot mechanics are smooth or choppy, if the fog is really creepy or just a distraction that makes me motion sick. The ideal review should act as a proxy to my renting the game to try it out, and then tell me if the reviewer thinks that playing the game some more would be fun.
After all, it’s only a game, and it ought to be fun.
A couple of days after writing this, I realized that I had forgotten one important point. Lest you think that my expectations for good writing are too high, consider that the web comic Penny Arcade often captures the essence of a game more completely in 3 panels than most game reviews do in a thousand words. Consider these three classic examples:
The text they write about the games is also excellent.