Monday, July 7, 2008

How To Write A Critical Video Game Review

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.


Evan said...

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Message me here


Bryan said...

I like the framework so far, but I have a few questions.

1.) Where do the terms "clutter" and "abstraction" fit in? These terms have gotten more blog posts than most of the other critical topics. Clutter seems more suitable for its own topic than abstraction, but I'm still interested in how they fit in.

2.) Creating a rubric requires criteria to rate material in each topic. Some of the topics seem more difficult to create criteria for than others, such as Game Depth and Intuitive. Will you start to fill this in after applying this rubric to some real games?

3.) Some topics specify using other terms to describe the material. Should the original topic name then be replaced with the clearer term?

Most reviews I have read focus more on what works and what doesn't. For feature lists, they care more about what it adds to the game than simply counting them. Because the reviews were relative to similar games, they usually had both reasonable discussion and scoring.

Unfortunately, the reviewers didn't have your critical eye, and they wouldn't notice what a feature was taking away from a game unless it became annoying. They also might not be able to describe why something does or does not work well.

Overall, I appreciate the additional critical depth that you are bringing to game reviews.

KirbyKid said...

@ evan

I'll check out the site and get back to you.

@ Bryan
Thanks for the props.

Clutter can result from a number of factors including audio,visual,and mechanical factors. For example, if I wanted to write something about the controls for Super Mario Strikers, I could say that the control set up has some clutter. However, this particular issue is rooted in how the controls work with the mechanics in common gameplay experiences.

Because there's a significant level of automation between the inputs and the in game results, the moves can/must be buffered ahead of time, and the motion controls not only overlap with other buttons but take priority over them, there are various instances where the positive flow of the game is interrupted creating a static experience.

I could also talk about how the controls are unnecessarily abstract especially how it handles switch/passing between characters. Clutter and abstraction can be the result of a multitude of elements.

But I see what you mean about adding these terms to the topic list. I'll edit the post.

2) When I looked up "rubric" I didn't find anything definition that required a criteria for ratings. Also, I believe that a critical review shouldn't have a score. However, for the purposes of creating comparative statements, it would be necessary for the topics to be quantified.

Here's where things get tricky. The criteria for a topic like game depth would consist looking at the game's counterpoint... or the interplay, mechanics, and variation. In other words, how the different game elements interact with each other over time to fulfill the dynamics of a game's mechanics (at least the primary mechanic). One might also consider pacing as well. After all, a fighting game may be "deep" until someone discovers the one super move to rule all other moves/characters. If this new "super move" is considered in one's analysis, then the depth would be dramatically reduced.

Different methods can be used for the criteria of topics like game depth. Whenever you want to break such topics down, you'll find that the interconnected elements of a game with make translating a topic like game depth into a numerical value impractical.

Knowing myself, in the future I'll probably attempt a criteria for evaluating topics like game depth. We'll see how that goes.

3) I created the list of topics from the terms/words that I commonly come across in video game reviews. Naturally, as we transition into more critical review style, some of the topics will merge and blend together. But for right now, I think we'll have to fight/write through this awkward phase.

Thanks again.

Bryan said...

Based on your description of the Critical Review, I think "rubric" is the wrong term then.

Basic internet searches describe rubrics as scoring tools. I find the wikipedia entry the hardest to follow, for some reason.

If you do eventually intend to add scoring, my experience is that this is extremely difficult in any field. I agree that the topics you picked present some unique challenges though. One method to simplify the process is to create subtopics and use those to score the larger topic.

The best method for creating scoring criteria is usually to start with some representative examples and abstract their characteristics into criteria with scores.

KirbyKid said...

@ Bryan

I commend you for being so persnickety about my diction.

After reading the links you provided, I don't think the word rubric or even "sort of rubric" applies.

A "topics check list" is a better phrase.

I'll make the correction.


Anonymous said...

I understand your point but reviews from _major_ gaming review websites already basically do what you say. The problem is that these reviews will often neglect to mention obvious negative points if the game is not a total disaster. So major games like Halo 3 and Oblivion, which have plenty of faults worth mentioning to the consumer, dont get mentioned at all. That's the problem for me as a consumer reading game reviews -- they are basically and intentionally written as fluff. The best response is not to take game reviews too seriously.

KirbyKid said...

@ anonymous

If you know of any review sites that write critical reviews then please link me to them.

Writer_OfSorts said...

I think there is a great need for more educated video game journalism. There are different critics for movies also. There are the kind that give five stars and two thumbs up on every movie they review unless is is a complete and utter flop. Then there are the people with a more critical eye that are in charge of the academy awards. They are trained to see deeper into the movies. I think that is more what this concept is about there seems to be very few really critical reviews and very many reviewers that are happy to give a 9 out of ten, 5 stars and two thumbs up on a very poorly written sequel.

KirbyKid said...

@ writer_ofsorts

I think so too. The hardest part is, most reviewers/game writers don't have an education in gaming because such an education is hard to come by.

Even if the writers have good instincts, their writing can fall far short.

I don't think it's that difficult though. Read the right book, or the right blog and you can give yourself all the language/structure/ammunition you need.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the problem is that reviews, much like other forms of journalism are too rooted in opinion vs. fact. Many elements that make up different games add more qualitatively to games than they do quantitatively, which introduces too much opinion in reviews. Also, the depth of the review would clearly depend on the depth that the reviewer has towards games. if the reviewer plays games on occasion, or if the reviewer makes a hobby of it, his/her scope of review will change drastically. Much like the example given by writer of sorts, it is hard to evaluate a work of any medium because of the different ways people view them. some people watch movies and will enjoy mindless pieces (insert any number of shallow action films here), while others like art house films, or foreign films. It is not to say that there aren't distinguishable forms of quality, but people can view things in different ways. some people watch movies, or play games to relax, while other people watch movies as a form of self expression. Mission Impossible III (an example) is by no means a great movie, but that doesn't mean that nobody enjoyed watching it. equally so, I myself enjoy the occasional mindless movie as opposed to an artistic one, but usually I have no preference. but to be blunt, I think this world in general needs far better journalism, and not just in gaming.

That_Guy_From_YouTube said...

Could you please explain "emergence" in more detail? It's the only concept there I don't quite understand.

Thank you.

KirbyKid said...

@ The_Guy_From_Youtube

Emergence is any and all outcomes, results, and possibilities that are possible from a game's system/rule set/coding. In other words, the range of things that can happen.

The reason why emergence is such a big deal is that the outcomes in most videogames (due to the unique play styles and player control) are very large; practically infinite.

We often talk about emergent gameplay as "crazy" things that happen that aren't hard coded into the game, but spring up as one crazy thing from the games infinite possibilities. Such outcomes come as a surprise to gamers and developers alike because, after all, no one has the time to scan through an infinite number of possibilities.

Some emergent gameplay consits of glitches. Some are techniques. Some are exploits.

In a broad sense it's just gameplay outcomes from relatively few rules. In the common usage it's unique happenings based on game rules.

If you need more explanation, there's a chat built into my new site.

Wolf said...

Intresting post here.
I recently started my gaming blog after gaming for around 15 years and aim to be unbiased and as fair as I possibly can be,however eventually a game review will always come down to personal opinion.
I would be very happy if you would take a look at my blog and tell me what you think,please remember I only began reviewing several weeks ago.

Ms B Fort Worth TX said...

I teach journalism and I want to do a unit on writing reviews. This article is very helpful to me as a teacher (read: old fuddy duddy who doesn't play video games). The criteria you have chosen will work well to teach my middle school students how to think and speak analytically about something they know quite a bit about but may not have the tools to discuss in that way. Thank you.

Columbus Resorts said...

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Kalimni said...

Thanks for this! My gaming community is in the process of gearing up to include gaming related news and reviews by our members. I find this to be a very informative guide line to begin the process.

ninjapotato9 said...

could you check out my first review someone. thanks

albina N muro said...

Maybe the problem is that reviews, much like other forms of journalism are too rooted in opinion vs. fact. Many elements that make up different games add more qualitatively to games than they do quantitatively, which introduces too much opinion in reviews. augamer

Scribblenauts Unlimited free download full version Wiki said...

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