When examining a piece of art, we’re examining a human-made object from all its corners: We remove it from the wall of the present, holding it up to the light of the past, casting its shadow into the future. Framed by the context of its circumstances, all creations manifest the particular biases, quirks and prejudices of their creators. To ignore the humanity within art is to ignore the art itself. But the humanity that should concern observers and appreciators of any art need not only be the humanity behind the art but also of those who stand before it. Both creators’ and the audience’s context and circumstances matter.
This is why it is a consistently strange aspect of the video game landscape when (usually) audiences demand the fiction of “objective reviews”. But I’m not here to poke holes in non-arguments for such non-existent reviews. Instead, I primarily want to focus on how we, as critics and those who appreciate criticism, do ourselves little favour in fostering an environment out of which such demands arise. That is, such cries do not come from nowhere, even if they are without merit.
We who create criticism – or at least those who came before and set the standard – have some guilt to bear in painting this picture of game reviews as reviews of mechanical projects, rather than artistic, creative endeavours.
I want to highlight two considerations that could foster a more engaging, thoughtful and creative environment as critics of this great medium.
1. Criticism should be contributory
Criticism is not merely an overview of a product. We aren’t telling readers how long an “average” play session is, which characters are involved, the studio’s previous products and so on. All that is accessible to the audience with a simple Google search.
Criticism is not repeating what could be written on the back of a game’s box.
Good criticism not only examines the creation within a particular medium but contributes to the medium as a whole. A rule of thumb for creating criticism is this: Good criticism can be fascinating in and of itself, even if the product its examining is not of interest to the audience. Put another way: If the product that’s central to your analysis was bland, could your criticism still be of interest? Is it simply you yelling that a game is bad or are you explaining why it’s bad and how the game’s design, writing, or whatever leads to this? Is a game good and are you showing how it fits with ideas of system-building in terms of a capitalist working environment? Are you showing how a game undermines preconceived gender roles or completely ignores the existence of people of colour and treats white people as Default Human?
An example of this, for me, is Chris Franklin’s reviews of City Skylines and SimCity. I have no interest in city building games, but the way Chris talks about these games, his insight into where they go wrong and right, how this fits into ideas about administration, governance, connections and so forth, all will lead me to rewatching his reviews – despite my never wanting to ever play the games themselves.
Chris’ criticism contributes to the medium because the medium is not merely the games, but the discussion about the game’s too. The whole medium improves as we gain insights we didn’t consider: games can provide insight into cultures, ideas, perspectives its audience, including critics, had never encountered before and designers gain insight into how to improve or remove systems, design, story, plot or whatever from reading responses (ideally ones carefully, thoughtfully written, not merely attached to a death threat). Designers have told me well-reasoned criticism made them better designers, changed avenues they were focused on and led to improvements. For example, Monolith’s Chris Hoge, in a GDC talk references two articles by a critic that helped the team confirm whether they were doing the right thing with their system.
2. More of the critic in criticism
To me, it seems that a lot of what’s fostered this environment where people demand “objective reviews” stems from how reviews often read like the examination of a mechanical product: there are lists of good and bad things, sometimes broken up into categories like Graphics, Sound, Story and so on. Instead of then ending with an individual’s thought, we have some magical score that reads like the result of a mathematical formulation (seriously what is a 7.3?) which gets attached to an outlet. “Gamespot gave this game a 10” or “IGN gave it a 6”, not the reviewer who is a name most simply skip over.
While no doubt outlets have particular writing standards and writing guides, I can’t help wondering why reviews can’t be more in line with the way so many of such outlets manage opinion pieces. For example, despite being a freelancer, I’ve contributed several pieces to Polygon. Yet my writing differs markedly from other writers, like Colin Campbell or Allegra Frank; ideally to the point where seeing the topic or writing style is enough to know which of us wrote the piece.
Reviews are opinions so often squeezed into a mould of surgical assessment, a facsimile of mathematical calculation. Instead we should be celebrating the voices of those reviewing the game, providing their particular insight, their individual perspective and the unique connections they made to events or subjects they might be more an expert on. Diverse voices then contribute to making this medium a more interesting landscape, where voices differ by virtue of what they’re talking about instead of all sounding alike in saying a game is “good”. For example, as a man, I might enjoy a particular game while someone of a different gender, more in tune with feminist issues, might highlight sexist aspects of that same game which I overlooked. Such themes of sexism aren’t limited to one game and I can take that insight into examining other aspects of life. A white person can read a POC’s view on a game that they didn’t notice and become more sensitive to issues of race. Or, as I said about Chris Franklin’s reviews, I can take away insights into how game designs work, how perspectives on capital and administration influence why certain systems are included and others are not.
By prioritising the voices of the critics, instead of making them out to be mere eyes and hands that have encountered a product, we can create more interesting, more individual and more creative expressions of criticism.
Obviously such criticism already exists. But there’s no reason this can’t be the standard we expect of anyone who is a reviewer. Anyone can play a game and give a quick thought about “it’s good/bad” with some vague handwaving about why – but critics I want to hear from provide insights I hadn’t considered, make connections to and from other aspects they’re interested in or have more knowledge of than I do.
We can create this kind of landscape by expecting more from ourselves as critics and editors.
(Photo by Alexandr Borecky // Pexels)