This is Not a Game Review

On December 10, 2007, in Games, by psu

I have a peculiar, but probably not particularly unique, habit. I like to read reviews of things after I have otherwise consumed them. I do this a lot with movies, music, books and other such “artistic” media. I think part of this activity stems from the engineer/dork need to search out validation for one’s opinions. For example, I was once thrilled to find out that the Trader Joe’s red wine that I had bought was also enjoyed by the wine critic on The Splendid Table. We are creatures of ego, we can’t help it.

This is not the only reason I engage in this behavior though. The main reason is to read interesting writing about something that I enjoyed, or didn’t, as the case may be. Of all of the media that I consume, what saddens me the most is how little interesting writing there is about video games.

This fact was brought into stark relief by the recent gnashing of teeth about C|Net and Gamespot. What was most upsetting about the whole blowup was that nobody seemed the last bit interested in the quality of the content under discussion.

Let’s not kid ourselves. When you strip away all the pretention and self-importance, the economic interests, the difficulties of working on such huge collections of content under a time deadline and all the rest, one basic fact remains: almost all of the writing that you can find about video games is horrible. And I don’t mean this in a Sturgeon’s Law way, where we wink and nudge each other about how most of everything is bad. I mean that almost none of it could even survive as a term paper for a freshman writing class at the satellite campus of a second tier state university.

I have a modest collection of examples. I started playing Assassin’s Creed this weekend, and managed to get enough time in to form some basic first impressions. Curious, I surfed on over Metacritic to see what the collective of Internet Game Critics had to say about the game. You can read the blurbs for yourself here.

I will now unfairly cherry pick some of the most egregiously terrible excerpts from the page above. From Gamer 2.0, we have:

Assassin’s Creed is remarkable in every aspect it performs. From the sprawling city life to the dual-vision storyline, everything blends together to offer one of the most complete and satisfying experiences so far this year.

Deeko says:

Assassin’s Creed is one of those games that could be considered for the “games as art” debate. A lot of times you’ll stop for a second and just stare in awe at how beautiful and graceful the game is. The game is by no means perfect, but it does start to head into the right direction that most sandbox games should.

Meanwhile, Daily Game opines:

The open-world genre has never looked so good, but it could’ve played a bit more realistically given the subject matter. A few fewer Biblical references would’ve been nice, too.

Even the stuff that would not have failed in freshman english class has its problems. Over at Gamecritics, we find a review that takes hundreds and hundreds of words to tell us that the reviewer found the game boring and repetitive. Then, as if to emphasize his bitter contrarian nature, he trots out that favorite clichéd phrase of death: tech demo.

Everything except Altair’s athletics feels underdeveloped and painfully shallow, making the end result an overhyped attempt to recoup the development costs for something that’s little more than an extended tech demo.

I would like to pass a law that forbids the use of the phrase tech demo in any writing about games.

Almost all of the writing on this game follows the same general patterns:

- There are ponderous catalogs of technical features and box bullet points. Gamespot, for example, uses up four paragraphs talking about how the graphics look great, and then segues into how the sound design is great too.

- There are adolescent declarations of unconditional love. The first few 10/10 reviews are always like this. Here is where the poor abused gamers tell us that the user interface is broken, combat is clunky, the load times are horrible, but it’s still the best game ever.

- There are subjective judgements that are not backed up by either objective observations or any sort of well-written rationale at all.

- Finally, there are adolescent screeds against the game, similar to the example at Gamecritics.

All in all, a depressing collection of mediocrity. But, I did find some better writing about the game. First, buried in the inside pages of the New York Times, there are a few dozen tightly chosen words that, even though they are only one third of the text of the whole article, have more to say about the game than anything you can find on the Metacritic page. Second, Gamers With Jobs wins creativity points for framing their complaints as a list of lighthearted bug reports and patch requests to the developers. Finally, Yahtzee maintains his high level of entertainment value, and his status as the best thing the Escapist ever accidently found and published.

I think each of these pieces illustrate what is missing from almost all of the enthusiast press in video games: creative and interesting ideas about video games and a professional level of execution on those ideas.

Of course, we here at Tea Leaves, and I, psu, in particular, fall into this same trap. Here is how I write a new page about some game I am playing:

1. First, write some pithy semi-personal statement about a strange and annoying habit I have.

2. Tie this habit somehow to the item under review. Try and describe how the game plays.

3. Complain a lot.

4. Say something nice. Then write some self-centered pithy filler.

5. Make fun of hardcore fanboys.

6. Tie it up with a pithy ending that is hopefully insulting to hardcore fanboys.

It almost writes itself. Of course, we here at Tea Leaves are just a part time weblog. I write most of this stuff while dinner is on the stove because I can’t play Halo while the kid is awake. Under no circumstances would I presume to put up my writing as anything that could survive in a real commercial marketplace. But there is one thing that I do try to do consistently, and even succeed at occasionally: I try to write something about the game that is more interesting than how they used shaders in DirectX 10 to do the water effects.

This happens too rarely in the enthusiast press about video games. The writing is rarely creative, and when does strive for a higher level it is often poorly executed. Which brings me back to the Gerstmann mess. Over at Newsweek, a publication that you would think would know how to hire a competent writer, we have this guy N’Gai Croal going off on how the poor writers are again being crushed and enslaved in the sewers by the evil monied interests. Actually, I’m not sure what he’s talking about because I can’t follow his writing for more than a couple of paragraphs. All of the shiny hip blinds my ability to understand the text. No that’s not it, it’s because the writing is completely incomprehensible. If I were the interest behind his money I’d suggest he find a new editor, or figure out where the delete key is on his keyboard.

The depressing conclusion that I reach from all of this is that there must be no market that is wiling to pay cash for mature and intelligent writing about video games. The inevitable truth is that the writing is the way it is because that’s how gamers want it. I’d like to be optimistic and think that within my lifetime the medium will have matured to the point where it can actually support professional and creative criticism. But I’m not that young anymore, so I’m not holding my breath.


16 Responses to “This is Not a Game Review”

  1. Paul says:

    I’m glad you mentioned Zero Punctuation (AKA Yahtzee), its become a weekly highlight for me every Wednesday.

  2. Chris says:

    EDGE, does a retrospective article each month called time-extend, which is usually much more interesting and better written than reviews.
    Not sure if they’re available online though.

  3. psu says:

    I’ve read an issue of EDGE once. It did seem above average.

  4. Adam says:

    I’m glad you called out N’Gai Croal. Much of the gaming press seems to be rushing to hail him as the greatest writer in gaming. Sometimes I enjoy his analysis, but more often I can’t get through more than a paragraph or two of his prose. He reminds me too much of an overeager grad student infatuated with his “insight”.

  5. Mitch says:

    I’m surprised you left out the excerpt on the Assassin’s Creed Metacritic page:

    “The first half of Assassin’s Creed is a truly clairvoyant experience. You’ve never played anything like it. The sagacious story, incalculable crowd interaction, and unprecedented freedom to traverse the environment how you choose are landmark moments. Over time, repetition rears its ugly head, combat becomes a necessary routine, and dimwitted foes snatch you out of the third crusade and remind you that you’re playing a game.”

    It’s like it’s been run back and forth through Babelfish a few times.

  6. peterb says:

    I have no point here, I just like saying “Sagacious Altair N’Gai”

  7. I’ve noticed many of the same problems with the current state of videogame writing.

    I’ve written several reviews that highlight the cases that I feel have done a good job and discuss many of the things that they can do to improve along the vein of critical videogame theory.

    Currently, I’m developing around 7 different critical theories for gaming, and I update my blog to demonstrate them. I believe the theories would help game “journalist” or enthusiasts to better articulate their gut reactions and feelings towards a game.

    You’ve hit several issues right on the head. What game in particular would you really like to see top level commentary/critic on? I’m working on several writing projects over the Christmas break as noted on the right side of my blog.


  8. Alex Groce says:

    I’m not holding my breath until gaming gets a Pauline Kael or even a Roger Ebert, y’know?

  9. partial_charge says:

    I have to disagree about N’Gai’s writing. I’ll agree that if he was writing straight-up reviews about a product I’d probably want a more concise style, but I find the level of erudition refreshing in his industry-analysis articles. For me, sometimes it’s worth reading something challenging for the sake of the challenge. That he’s writing about something I dig is gravy.

  10. Thomas says:

    As long as the review remains the dominant form of writing and reading about games, it’s not going to get any better.

  11. Nohn says:

    This has to be a joke. I was actually following and agreeing with most of what you had to say up until the point where you called out N’Gai. He is, without a doubt, the only writer in the industry whose content rises above schlock. I was nearly knocked out when I first read his material, because I had never encountered competent writing about gaming. In fact, I had just accepted that fact that the writing was subpar, and decided to take it for what it was, despite its obvious limitations. Sorry, but your article loses credibility the minute it denounces the only writer in the industry who rises above the pack.

  12. psu says:

    FWIW, I do not agree with Thomas. I used to subscribe to American Record Guide magazine the content of which was mostly reviews. And yet it had a lot of good writing about music. There is nothing about reviews as a form that force you to write crap.

    As for N’Gai, maybe he just had an off day. I’m willing to be convinced.

  13. Nathan F. says:

    I thought there was some insightful analysis of Bioshock out there. I think the best analysis in the game industry tends to come from other developers. I attribute this to the relative youth of the medium. The construction of games is not familiar to the general public just yet. Most people, even game journalists, don’t really understand the structure of games (or don’t have the correct vocabulary for talking about it)–at least not in the way, say, film critics or book critics understand the structure their respective media.

  14. Alex Groce says:

    Film reviews are still the most-read form of film writing, but some of it is insightful, entertaining, or competent in a way game reviewing is not. Reviews are not inherently broken as a medium, I think.

  15. Ben says:

    Wow, I’ve never read any N’Gai Croal articles before, but if that is a representative sample he really is a terrible writer. Good writing says more in fewer words, not less in more words.

    EDGE has declined recently, they fell into the same trap of confusing complex writing with intelligent writing. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” should be required reading, I think.

  16. Ray says:

    One factor that seems to be always overlooked in discussions of video game reviews is that 99% of all websites operate on a volunteer basis, with often the “editors” simply being whoever owns the site. There’s a reason why print reviews tend to be of higher quality, they pay their writers. And have things like writing guidelines, and real editors. If you’re paying someone you’re going to care about what they write. That’s one thing that would help, more professionalism, less amateur hour stuff.