(this is an article crossposted from my blog TheDoglion)
If we as avid video game fans want games to be recognized as the art form that it is, we need to look at the games we play with a certain respect. When I read a review of a video game, chances are that the review separates the game into its components and rates them separately, without any regard to the possibility that maybe those elements were crafted and designed to be working in unison to give the player the gameplay experience. This treatment of games from a functional point of view, as if to say "does this game give me fun?" is more akin to judging a vacuum cleaner, or a car instead of a work of art.
When critics review novels or films, most of the time their approach is different. A film critic will discuss how a certain actor worked out for the role given to him, or how the style of the camera (for example "shaky camera" or diagonal angles) communicates the psychological state of the protagonist in a subtle way. A good critic won't just look at a film like Black Swan and simply try to answer the question "was this movie entertaining?". This question wouldn't do justice to a work of art. And because films are respected as such, good critics don't take a film in from such a shallow angle.
When a critic looks at a painting, they won't judge the painting on the exactness of the lines, or the amount of colors used. It's not a valid from of critiquing a painting simply because critiquing paintings is non-linear. There is no one general measure by which paintings can be rated.
So how can we know if a painting is better than another? There must be a way to set paintings against each other and compare them to figure out which one is to be declared the winner! Think of this: "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci gets a 94% on meta-critic, but "The Scream" by Edward Munch gets a 74%. Would that be plausible? No, it would be ridiculous.
Works of art can't be rated, simply because the are subjective. So why do we as gamers feel that video games need to be rated? Quite often, reviews are just taken as recommendation by the reviewer and need to be taken with a grain of salt. Before you give away your hard-earned $60, you want to have a general idea if this game has any chance of you enjoying it, right?
I understand that, and it's a good reason to review games, to give information to the audience. But also, this mechanical way of approaching and critiquing video games has done harm to the medium, even though it really isn't very apparent at all.
Without taking the rising indie game scene into account, game companies have always had the primary goal of making money making games. That's the number one reason why they do what they do. I don't mean the actual developers, but the publishing companies. So, when a game magazine or website has significant influence on whether people buy their games, the companies want to make sure that the games they make fulfill the critique points of the reviewers. Does it have great graphics? Does it have a good story? Does it have replay value?
Though I don't have inside knowledge, I think that this approach to game making has been the dominant one from the time when publishing companies started to earn big money in the nineties until today. "So we want to make an RPG. We're gonna put it in a fantasy universe...let's make our own universe so we can make a whole franchise out of it. What else...well we should include around 100 side quests and it should last 50 hours for the main campaign alone. Also, we'll want 7 classes and 4 races. Hm...if we put 3 different ways to solve each major quest, that would be enough I think. After all, we want to give players choices. And it's always good to tell to the media. Soo..what else...?" This is the mentality and approach I think is existent in many companies.
Amongst all that data, where is the artistic vision? Is there any point to the game other than that it should tell an interesting story and be engaging to the player? (and of course make tons of cash). Game genres are a great foundation for reviewing these games in this static and mechanical way, but they also give the companies clear cut design patterns to work with, to adhere to, limiting the possibilities of games as a medium in the process, but nobody cares because the money keeps on coming in.
This I think is the very reason why so many people are seeing great value in indie games. Suddenly, the old way of rating games doesn't hold up anymore. Gemini Rue should get a horribly low rating in visuals for the pixel mess it puts on screen -gosh, it's 2011! Where are the shaders and mo-cap?! Or Minecraft, that's a good one. It isn't even possible to put it in any one genre we know of. We're increasingly at a loss of jargon and grammar to describe these games because they just don't care what we expect them to be.
My point is this: this old way of reviewing games is outdated and doesn't to the medium justice. In fact, it had too much influence over the making and our perception of games. Businesses are uncreative because they need to be told by the audience what's wanted, even though the audience often doesn't know it themselves all that well. The businesses will then adhere blindly and produce games that comfortably preserve the status quo. A misguided journalistic middle layer just helps keep this situation where it is. Sure, we still want to be able to make an informed decision whether a game is worth $60 and in that aspect the traditional video game journalism has its use. But as a universal way of saying "this game is good" or "that game is bad" or "this game is better than that games", it just doesn't hold up with games that break free from the limited and outdated way we thought of about games in the past, because they're starting to become actual works of art now.
As an aspiring indie game developer I'm not just excited and happy to see the barriers of entry dropping and indie games becoming more and more an alternative to traditional games, I see the $60 Gears of War type games die out completely in the future. Not to say that games designed for the sake of having a blast are going to die out - this doesn't mean we'll all have to play weird art-house games. I mean that better development tools and increasing independence from publishers will allow game developers of the future to create what the hell they want, to a far lower price than $60. Take Super Meat Boy for example. 15 years ago, games of its kind were the major AAA titles, but nowadays any hobby programmer can create a great platformer for a low price and be even better than their ancestors in every department.
There will be the traditional RPG's and the linear action-packed FPS's, but they'll be better and cheaper and stand right next to games that you can't know or understand unless you play them. And they will be cheaper than $60 too. And you won't feel like needing to read up on the game before you buy it. Smaller development teams also mean more authorship in games. Jon Blow's "The Witness", Joshua Nuernberger's "Gemini Rue". We'll start to align our expectations of games not with percentages on IGN, but simply with the name of the person who made that game, because they're artists, and our own opinion of them. The relationship between creator and audience will be on a far more personal level than before. Of course these people should not take all the credit for the games which were actually made by entire teams, but artistic vision and lead still originate from single people, and it will be preserved because of complete creative control and smaller teams.
Game journalism will not look at games and say "so how good are graphics in this game? How much fun is the combat in it? How good is the music?" but more like "what was the goal of the game, and how effectively was it executed? How well did the visuals, music and gameplay mechanics contribute to reaching that goal?". The elements should only be judged against the entirety of the whole.†This is happening, it's changing, as can be seen in the many blogs and hobby game reviewers all over the interwebs.
We complain that people like Roger Ebert discard games as children's stuff. If we don't start respecting our favorite medium and treating it with some dignity, we don't have any right to complain.