Writing a video game review can become very difficult for a number of reasons. A limited amount of time for a reviewer to beat a game can put a lot of pressure on that particular reviewer's gameplay experience. Word limits can be constraining. Games can be massive and/or segmented so that simply describing the game can take pages. And the lack of developed competitive communities can put a freeze on any accurate assessment of game balance. Throw in issues with embargoes, review codes, and lock boxes and you a royal mess that is the current state of video game "journalism" (sometimes more aptly referred to as the video game enthusiast press).
To the people who write game reviews, I want to express up front that many reviews contain real nuggets of insight even if such treasured content is buried in a sea of feature lists and a plethora of other redundant content.
For the most part, however, game reviews and the scores/ratings that accompany them are bunk. Many have already gotten away with reviews filled with bold, brash, and unsupported statements with a scores to match, and many have cried out for a change. And it was this reason, among others, that I started the Critical-Gaming blog. I felt that there was a need to develop a language and establish some theory to elevate the discourse of video games. Though other critics from other media don't respect video games, it is up to us to set the standards first. How can we expect them to take us serious, when we don't take ourselves seriously? For months, this blog has been devoted to developing that critical-eye. Now, finally, enough of the groundwork has been laid out.
To tell the difference between a good/insightful review from one that will so quickly be drowned with the forgotten, I've created a list of topics reviews often cover. Because this list also features the kind of analysis that should support each topic, the list also functions as a sort of checklist.
- pacing: To discuss a game's pacing, which includes everything from the incorporation of new game ideas/mechanics to game difficulty, variation must be used. For narrative pacing refer to "story."
- game depth: The opposite of game complexity, to discuss game depth interplay (the mechanical counters that yield push-pull gameplay) and counterpoint (the coming together of game elements and game ideas to create an emergent whole) should be used.
- controls: One must consider the mechanics and how they are connected to the inputs/controller . Considering the mechanics also factors in the game's forms.
- story: Visual metaphors, mechanical metaphors, plot lines, interactive plot lines, themes, characters, scene construction, overall structure, etc. Discussing a game's story can become very complicated requiring a strong background in narrative/storytelling/and game design. Avoid plot spoilers and paraphrasing. Use any of the critical theory from this blog to help structure one's approach discussing a game's story.
- gameplay: It's important to only use the word "gameplay" to refer to the interactive game experience as a whole. Use of the word in any more specifically requires clarification.
- experience: One shouldn't use their experience as an end in itself, but use it to describe how one experienced the game and how that experience can be tied back to all the other parts of the game/the review.
- intuitive: One must take into account the controls -> the mechanics -> the forms.
- balance: If discussing how the various game elements/ideas work together in harmony, then use interplay, counterpoint, and/or variation. If discussing a competitive multiplayer type of balance, one should be careful to only speak about what seems to be unbalanced or balanced. Without having access to a developed competitive community who have spent countless man hours to iron out the game, it is very difficult to come to any kind of accurate definitive statement about a game's balance.
- emergence: One should consider if the nature of the emergence stays true to the forms of the game and/or how it affects the game positively or negatively. Support using counterpoint.
Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect reviewers to use the same terms and language that I've established here on the blog. However, the mentalities and the methods behind these terms are sound and quite reasonable. The language isn't meant to confine, restrict, and alienate others, but to hold them accountable for themselves and their writing. Plus, agreeing to the same definitions helps keep us on the same page.
A review should have something significant to say about a game so that it doesn't end up being a list of "what's in the box." By zooming in and being specific, the reviewer should reveal something otherwise hidden about the game. Avoid spoilers if you must. And even if one doesn't have enough time or space to really go into detail, the least a reviewer can do is point the reader in an interesting direction.
The tide of the hardcore gamer may be swayed by the full 10/10 review score that has been rolling onto the scene far to frequently in past months, but the number can't tell me what a game is. We need writers to step up their game. And for the ones who refuse, we need to be able to express/explain why they'll soon be forgotten.