"What being a critic does is gives you access to the language to explain the gut reaction you had. And to understand it, to interrogate it, to challenge it.... My gut reaction is still my gut and that is what I trust more than anything." ~ N'Gai Croal
The 1up 11/16/07 cast of 1up Yours featured special guest N'Gai Croal the writer of Level Up. Level Up is a videogame blog affiliated with Newsweek. In the podcast, the group responded to the question of does reviewing/critiquing video games reduce the enjoyment of playing games. This is a commonly expressed concern that exists for many fields of art. I believe that one's initial reactions or gut feelings about a game are greatly sustained through criticism. More importantly, I believe that understanding, interrogating, and challenging our feelings and gut reactions is how we can move from expressing unbacked opinions to taking control of our individuality and truly explaining ourselves in relation to a work.
I've found that many game journalist (rather game enthusiasts) toss around "buzz" words in attempt to express their gut feelings, and reactions to a game. How many times have you come across the word "intuitive" when reading Wii reviews, or the word "compelling" when reading a review of just about any game with smidgen of story? In a good review, these words are just the beginning. Backing them up with examples of elements from the game that created this feeling speaks volumes about the game and the reviewer. Unfortunately, most cop out without explaining anything.
Having an opinion or a feeling is just the beginning. Understanding these feelings involves discovery and knowledge of oneself and of the game. What if you think a game about a son searching for his father is masterfully compelling because your father disappeared when you were little? Does your history make the game more compelling? Can you look at how the games elements work together without considering your personal history? If not, can you come to terms with your possible bias and still say something about the game that may be more universal to other's experiences?
A dialog must exist within yourself. In this conversation all opinions, reactions (however brash), and thoughts are welcome to freely bound around. At some point, you should question why you reacted the way you did. After this, you may have to challenge yourself. Ultimately, properly supportable opinions/feelings will survive such scrutiny, while everything else might dissolve somewhat. Coming to this point doesn't destroy your opinions though. Though the quest to find one's father might enthrall you, you can still see how the story in this particular (hypothetical) game succeeds or fails to come together to mean anything significant. Being a critic isn't a sacrifice of one world (enjoyment) for another (sterile-trenchant-critique). Knowledge is power: in this case, the power to exist in both worlds simultaneously.
With time, your gut will be tempered and refined into a machine that can lead you into developing highly intelligent and profound reactions. Like with so many goals in life, practice makes perfect. N'Gai trusts his gut. I trust his gut too, but not in the same way. I trust N'Gai's gut to provide him an efficient avenue to explain his feelings through articulated speech, and subsequently who he is in relation to a particular issue/work. This doesn't necessarily make his statements right, but the clarity of his writing provides a clear ground for any possible rejections.
I recommend checking out N'Gai's blog. In the meantime, know thy self and stay critical.