Game Criticism and the Myth of the Objective Review
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online. You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage, or on my profile at Robert Gordon University.
It’s hard to over-estimate the value an intellectual framework has for critical discussion of culture. A framework serves to contextualise discussion and disagreement. It offers cohesion of intention and expression. It is a signifier for that which is important, and that which is not. Almost every form of criticism has a properly grounded academic basis within which it is expressed. In fact, most varieties of criticism have dozens of them, loosely grouped into schools of thought that may be competing, contradictory or broadly compatible.
Take film theory as an example. You might assess a movie from its perspective within its historical context, comparing and contrasting between films of the time or audience responses. You might look at it in terms of the political and aesthetic context of the nation state, and how that might have informed and influenced the end product. You might focus on autership and how an identified auter might have evolved and changed over time. You might be a formalist, assessing the structural elements of movies such as camera angles or perspectives. You might be of an ideologist bent and delve deeply into purported political and social messages of the movies you examine.
Film critics might work within or between these schools of thought. They might lightly wear one school for one purpose and then transfer to another as is convenient. They might be purists, rigorously assessing everything they encounter from a perspective informed by deep familiarity. Much is gained by a movie being evaluated within each school, and even contrasted between schools. Critical schools shape and channel insight. They offer a layer of consistency of analysis, and permit compatibility between reviews. You can be a formalist and compare Citizen Kane and the Shining – at the end of the process, both movies have new light shone upon them. An auter perspective on Stanley Kubrick can happy co-exist with an ideological deconstruction of the politics expressed in Full Metal Jacket.
Critique is properly different from review. You can critique without reviewing, and you can review without critiquing. If you rate a movie one star with the comment ‘shit’ you’ve given a review. However, the best and most effective reviews are critiques. The best reviewers don’t just say ‘This sucks’ or ‘this is awesome’. They attempt to deconstruct and offer new perspective on that which they are discussing. It is in here that the schools of critical thought are manifested most clearly. These intellectual classifications are what ensure you can have multiple reviews of a movie with each review being genuinely different and still entirely truthful and honest.
Bear with me. I’m going to bring this back to games in minute. Note though that I’m talking about games here in all their forms – video, table top and everything else.
These coherent schools are what permit for meaningful progress within criticism as a discipline. They define what the key elements are, and how they should be assessed. That’s why people can say ‘Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever’ even when only film critics really seem to like it. Within certain school of thoughts, Citizen Kane absolutely excels in every criteria by which the movie is assessed. That won’t be a universal perspective, but at least you can investigate the intellectual roots to see why that perspective is held. The disagreements are bound by a shared of understanding of the evaluative criteria. This permits for comparison and contrast. It makes the debates more interesting and productive. The best and most capable film critics don’t tend to argue across schools, or at least they don’t and attempt to make progress. ‘The script is terrible but the deep focus was tremendously innovative. Overall a B’
Meaningful and formal schools of critique are something that is utterly lacking in games criticism – video or otherwise – and there’s a growing discussion around the internet about how we need something similar to move the discipline forward. Such voices argue that meaningful critique of games will be impossible until such time as the criticism can be codified by academic and intellectual practice. Some have argued that we should draw from established schools of criticism and import them wholesale into gaming. For example, we might take the schools of film criticism and apply them to table top games like so:
- Historical context, examining games against each other within set historical periods.
- National context, examining games as a product of their origin countries.
- Autership, such as comparing the works of Donald X. Vaccarino or Reiner Knizia as an established body that should be compared and contrasted.
- Formalist, assessing mechanics and production values.
- Ideological, teasing out the political and cultural nuance of the message contained within the game.
We already do all of this, after all. Consider Ameritrash versus Eurogames (an explicitly national evaluation that is informed more by the continental affinity rather than geographical truth). Formalism is almost always an element of any review. We rarely discuss Monopoly versus Catan, understanding the difference in historical context makes that critically incoherent. There are growingly vibrant and interesting accounts of ideological assessment of gameplay aesthetics and mechanics. Since we discuss all of this anyway, doing so within a constrained school of critical assessment seems like a sensible next step in the growing maturity of the discipline.
But there’s a problem. And that problem is so large as to be in my view insoluble within this space.
I’ve written a fair bit of game criticism over the years. I’ve discussed how the constrained narratives within ‘walking simulators’ actually leads to a genesis of a new kind of puzzle – one that is about empathy rather than logical problem solving. A formalist perspective, in other words. I’ve discussed how games borrow external conventions in audio and how this has simultaneously made games more cinematic and less culturally distinctive. That is both formalist and historical. I’ve discussed ethical and moral messages in games from both an ideological perspective and a formalist perspective. Insofar as there is such a thing as a games critic (as opposed to a games reviewer), I think I qualify at least as an occasional contributor to the literature.
I’m not saying that to make a ‘plea to authority’ but rather to say ‘I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this topic.’.
Here’s the problem.
Games are different from cinema and art and books.
No, no – listen – shhhh, no, ju-
Look, I know that’s obvi…
If you’d just let me fin…
SHUT UP! LOOK I’M NOT DONE YET!
I know that is blindingly obvious. I know nobody picks up a novel and says I’m going to play the hell out of this game. I know nobody loads up Grand Theft Auto expecting to stare at the screen in mute contemplation of the aesthetics. I know all of that, and you know all of that, and you know that I know all of that.
Paintings are different to film. Books are different to paintings. And yet they all yield themselves to critical discussion in broadly compatible ways. Difference by itself isn’t the problem. It’s the nature of that difference. It’s the nature of how the experience of consumption manifests.
Enjoying a film or a novel is a largely passive experience. You are a consumer of something that has been created elsewhere by another person. You take an active participation in that consumption, but you don’t get to shape it. You don’t get to decide at the end of Star Wars that Han Solo is just going to bugger off and leave Luke to his death. You can’t influence what Harry Potter does, or do more than spectate as Katniss Everdeen is tortured in the Games. Heathcliff is not at all moved by our view of his behaviour. We can’t motivate Frodo in Mordor, or warn Ned Stark about the Lannisters. We are permitted intimacies that let us see characters at their best, their worst, and their most secret. We’re confidants, but we’re not colleagues. We don’t construct, in any way, the experiences they have.
Our role as creative consumers of this kind of content is in interpretation. We get to decide what things mean, but we don’t get to decide what things are. That’s important. It’s satisfying. But it’s not actively shaping the events. That’s not a problem in any way – it’s what lends a shared consistency to critical discussion. In other kinds of media, there can at least be unambiguous agreement on what actually happened, or what was shown, or what was disclosed.
That’s not true in games. It’s not true in any game although the extent to which it’s not true can vary.
Even the most linear, on-rails shooter experience permits player agency and control over the story. You shot the baddies, or you died. You charged on into the fray, or you held back. You took cover, or you didn’t. Our ability to grapple with the mechanics and controls and yield them to our whims is as much a part of the experience as the game the developer put in front of us. Our role as a participant in the experience is not just interpretative. It’s actively shaping the narrative – within constraints certainly, but shaping it nonetheless.
I just published a paper on this topic – perhaps the most idiosyncratic paper I’ve ever published, and that’s quite an achievement. It’s on the topic of video games, but it applies to table top games too. We can’t even agree on what happened within a game, and so we need to be more careful about how we critique it. We have no shared conception of what constitutes a canonical experience within any individual play through of a game. When we want to talk about what a game means, or what it says, or even how makes us feel we don’t have the critical vocabulary to make the discussion meaningfully generalizable.
That is not a difference in scale. That’s a difference in kind, and it largely invalidates the easy application of other schools of criticism into a ludic space. They can be made to apply but this fundamental incompatibility means they can only be applied inelegantly and situationally. They cease to offer the consistency of evaluation that is their core, guiding purpose. They offer a selection box of competing and only occasionally relevant perspectives. They’re likely to be a part of an emerging consensus on game criticism, but their wholesale adoption aren’t the answer.
The nature of the player becomes an even more intensely difficult problem to solve when we consider table top games. Within video games at least we can throw a net around the problem and say ‘multiplayer isn’t considered a part of this’. If you enjoyed a video game, it’s because the mechanics and the story engaged you. With a board game, if you enjoyed the experience it might be despite rather than because of the game.
Board games are enjoyable in part because they are an inherently collaborative exercise in alchemy. Everyone pours in time and enthusiasm, and through the transmutative properties of the game itself what comes out is (ideally) fun. The problem is that’s an incredibly difficult equation from which to extract all the key variables. I don’t like Codenames much – I’ve said that elsewhere on the blog. And yet many people think it’s one of the greatest games ever. What proportion of a viewpoint is derived from the game, and how much is derived from the energy around the table? If I played Codenames with a different group of people, would I like it more or less? It probably would change my opinion to some extent.
If that’s the case, how much is Codenames itself lending to the experience? If I’m enjoying the company of my friends over a game of Codenames, would I enjoy their company more or less if the game wasn’t there?
The joy we experience in play, within shared gaming experiences, is in part a product of the collaborative input of everyone involved. That’s something that no school of critical thought of which I am aware even really touches upon, much less incorporates as the single core element of the evaluation. It’s true that participation is a big part of the appeal of movies such as the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but examples of more passive media where it’s an element at all are vanishingly rare.
People often talk about how they want objective reviews, but that’s an impossible request for many reasons. The most obvious one is that there are disagreements even within schools of criticism as to what is good and what is bad. Evaluation is a personal exercise, and unless you’re reporting on dull, non-controversial facts you’re exercising subjectivity. If you are reporting on the facts alone, you’re also being subjective unless you are also exhaustive in what you disclose. Editing or exclusion is an act of subjective judgement in and of itself. When you remove an element as being unimportant, you are making a value judgement. Perhaps the box dimensions really were vital, but your bias removed it from discussion. An objective review is an exhaustive recitation of facts and statistics. As soon as you deviate from that, your review is no longer objective. There’s a place for that kind of content, but it’s not in critique.
Perhaps then what people mean is they would like less subjectivity. That’s a different thing, and that’s where the schools of critical thought tend to come in. They permit subjectivity within more fixed boundaries, although even in this the boundaries tend to be fluid. At least though you can look at a critical review and judge it in terms of how well it reflects dominant evaluative criteria. That’s probably doable, in gaming critique, but it’s not at all easy for the reasons outlined above.
A critical model for game reviewing would have to work in one of two ways:
- It would need to find a way to meaningfully extract a game from its context so that non-replicable elements such as game group, personal mood, or varieties of game experience were not taken into account. Or,
- It would need to make sure the experience of play is given appropriate critical discussion, weight and emphasis as a core, fundamental part of the experience. It would need to discuss these elements in terms of how they can be generalised, and how they are likely to manifest in other situations.
The first of these approaches is likely possible, but I think undesirable. To implement a system like this is to strip gaming of everything that truly matters. It is, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to know the price but not the value.
The second of these is I think impossible because I don’t see any way in which that can be done consistently, or meaningfully. There simply exists no tool that can meaningfully dissect a game experience so as you can say ‘this is the game’ and ‘this is the people’. At best you can report on how the game made you feel and what you think the reasons are. I always try to do that with the reviews on Meeple Like Us – if I don’t like a game, I think it’s my job as a reviewer to drill down into the experience and tell you why. However, I can’t generalise that beyond shallow statements of wider applicability. That might be a failing in myself as a reviewer, but I think it’s certainly in large part just a consequence of the impossibility of the task.
Games are different.
All of this said, I am certainly not arguing here that the state of game reviewing is fine and doesn’t need improvements. I think overall the quality is woeful, with only a handful of exceptional organisations that stand out. I’m just saying that the solution to this is more difficult than adopting the critical conventions that work for other mediums. They just don’t work in gaming spaces with the kind of consistency and applicability that we need. If we need a critical theory of game criticism, and I’m not opposed to the idea, it has to be one that understands the critical role that the player has in the experience. Games promote the consumer of the entertainment to the single most important contributor to the meaning and narrative. No current critical model of which I am aware can take that into account, and I have my suspicions that the endeavour to create such a model may be utterly futile.
I understand how frustrated people are when they look at a review of a game that says ‘this is amazing’ and they find their own experience is that it’s mediocre at best. Really though the solution is to be more critical of critique itself. Draw from a wide range of perspectives. Know for yourself what you want to get out of play. Try to identify elements of the experience that seem like a good fit for your own personal context. Don’t expect though that anyone will be able to give you an objective review on something as subjective as fun or as individualised as personal experience. In the end, your view on those particular topics are far more valuable than the view of anyone else, regardless of how big their audience might be.