May 14, 2007

The guilty pleasure of discussing video game reviews

Discussing video game reviews is a very cheap and highly amusing way to pass one's afternoon, provided of course there's no football on TV and everyone involved has more than a passing interest in video (or -and that's being truly anal- computer) games. Extra amusement is guaranteed to those familiar with the repetitive use of adjectives such as fantastic and ..uhm.. fantastic in the long and frightening tradition of the Greek gaming press. What's more, the whole thing can get pretty serious, as current web discussions keep getting closer to being an almost proper discourse of the subject or, to say the least, a pretty mainstream chat of the wider gaming community, as David Jaffe's latest reviewing of reviews showcased (hit the link for an example).

Some random blog post eye-candy

Then again, beside Mr. Jaffe's well justified wrath, a simple cyber stroll through the gaming halls of Digg should convince you that everyone has an opinion on how games should be reviewed and seemingly everyone is interested in finding out what said opinion is all about. Obviously, these oh-so-popular opinions tend to touch on a colourful variety of subjects, ranging from the ways games should be graded and the scale that should be used, to whether a game's price or length should be taken into account, or even to whether innovation is a value each game should possess. Interestingly, but seemingly not so obviously, the huge percent of review related opinions are actually opinions regarding video games per se, as each author, podcaster, vlogger, whatever, is pretty damn sure of what games should be like and accordingly shapes his/her attitude towards reviews and points to what reviewers should be looking for.

Trouble is, a game should be nothing in particular, as, let's face it, neither god has ever sat down and emailed mankind with a concrete set of rules, nor has nature shown the way to proper game design. As for the equally existing, omnipresent, abstract and conscious market, let's just say it historically hasn't had an eye for quality and leave it there.

Happily, every form of art (which, I'm convinced, nobody has succeeded in definitively defining) be it cinema, music, dance, literature or any of the visual bunch, faces the same lack of divine, natural and/or capitalist direction, but I digress. Better stick to games. Even better start with what the video gaming society thinks games should be like. Astonishingly, most answers, varied as they are, are equally valid. Storytelling and writing definitely matter, but Tetris isn't such a bad game, is it? Oh, and the audiovisual bit of each game is definitely important, but what about Zork, Leather Goddesses of Phobos and NetHack. As for length, well, excuse the sacrilege, but would anyone in their right mind dare to think of comparing Ulysses to a poem by Rimbaud? And, really, what is it that makes World of Warcraft something more than a glorified chatroom and Wii Sports such an astounding success? Not so easy to decide, is it? And quite a bit contradictory too.

As good as they get...

The buyers, are a contradictory lot too, and better not forget that a video game, just like a movie, a novel or a painting, is both a piece of art and a commodity to be traded. This, after all, is capitalism, which is definitely kinder than Sparta ever was to its slaves, but doesn't care much for quality (or mankind, but that's another subject altogether). Anyway. Everything is a bloody commodity, and vulgar as this might be, commodities can be judged from a consumer's point of view, even though things can get a bit tricky when it comes to anything related to art or personal taste, as the silly positivist quantification of virtues isn't so easily applied.

So, what's a reviewer to do? Well, actually, there's no wrong or right here. It's only a matter of taste and culture, that's heavily influenced by the fact that some reviewers actually ..uh.. review stuff for a living and are thus required to follow certain guidelines. Judging a game by its price can be such a guideline. Or taking its intuitive interface into consideration. Or even originality and art direction. Whatever a magazines or website's stance though, there's a definite lack of standard yardsticks of gaming quality and anyone trying to come up with objective ones, is bound to run into some pretty tough theoretical problems. Proving that a mature and flawless implementation of an already tried idea is less important than a promising but rough new gaming innovation would be such a tricky little thing, mind you.

But, theoretical woes aside, what is the role of a review? Is it a consumer's tool? Is it a critique, and if yes, does it aspire to helping video games evolve in the way -say- Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature attempted to guide a certain literary genre towards progress? Can a games journalist separate between high-tech and beautiful? Do you, dear readers, believe the average reviewer would be able to notice decent writing even if it wore a wig and danced while juggling three dildos in front of him, when he (the reviewer; less usually a she) believes that Duke Nukem 3D is a genuinely funny experience and that Half Life's banal storyline is monumental? What of the fanboys? Don't you think that the fan base of a game and the inherent populism of big gaming sites can influence a review? How about the game's expected sales? And what if a professional reviewer's honesty is not always taken for granted, which, judging by the average Doom 3 reviews, shouldn't be such a preposterous thought?

Answers on a postcard please (alternatively -preferably even- in the comments section, provided any of the 15 people frequenting the Lair are interested in further discussing the subject). Oh, and vision doesn't sell copies.

As for me, well, any review that's well written (preferably funny), tries to honestly describe the game and treats it at least as seriously as it would treat a mainstream movie is good enough...

Related @ Gnome's Lair: The Interactive Storytelling Sanitarium, FPS history: a pictorial, Fahrenheit Postmortem


  1. A quite wonderful and enthralling diatribe Mr. Gnome!

    And my two cents? First of all I would say I don't hold reviews of any media - music, literature, film or art - in much high esteem unless I know the reviewer and trust their judgement (which would generally concur with my own). The reason for this is that I have enjoyed loads of stuff that has been slated by critics and reviewers. Reviewers as you have wisely stated, are influenced by a number of factors, economic, populist and not least flagrant self promotion.

    Art is very subjective by necessity. I believe that video games are (to some extent) interactive art in it's truest form. At a simple level, if they consume the player and take them to another place (even if that is just a lack of awareness of the amount of time the player has been playing) then they have succeeded in their purpose.

    I'm very aware that the game that I would hold up as the most enjoyable, engaging and consuming (Shenmue) is a most boring, turgid and dull as dishwater experience to others. Any glowing review I wrote of the game, would piss off the person who bought it on my reccomendation, only to find it was as exciting as watching paint dry!

    Interestingly enough, I bought that particular game knowing nothing more than it was priced at about 10 X the price of any other Dreamcast title. That was the only 'review' I was aware of... That it's price must indicate something special.

    Had I read some of the reviews I subsequently have read, I might never have bought the game. In that respect reviews can be counter-productive...

    Still, I enjoy them and take or leave 'em. These days, screen shots, video trailers and the word of the common man on the internet are the best pointers.

    Tomleecee of the Dreamcast Junkyard, The Elderly Gamer, Caleb of the Hunyak and Gnome are all people who's opinions I respect, but I know that we don't agree on everything.

    The best reviewer is you. The best critic is you. The best games are the ones you enjoy. The best music is the music you like...

    What was the question again?

  2. *Still doesn't understand how Doom 3 ranks in an 87.6% average on game rankings*

    Reviews are subjective in nature, so I don't quite see the point in trying to establish an objective set of guidelines for it. People have different priorities and tastes, which is why reviews differ a lot and why people like entirely different games.

    How about an example: I absolutely loved Outcast for it's brilliant story and truly unique and involving gameplay. Yet a friend of mine, who generally shares my tastes in just about anything - including games, hated it because you 'had to talk too much'. One of the very aspects of the game that I enjoyed.

    Heck - I hear some people even like this game called Halo. Granted that is just hearsay and the how and why remain beyond my comprehension... regardless it proves that good taste is not universal.

    It's like the whole Command & Conquer 3 vs Supreme Commander business. One batch of RTS fans is hating on C&C3 - the other on SupCom - and yet another (CoH & Total War fans no doubt) on both. One person will rate SupCom a 4/10, the next a 10/10. It's all subjective.

    To me the importance in a review is in the facts and the representation. I've learned long ago not to rely on just the score... it's best if the reviewer gives a proper explanation of what he likes and doesn't like about a game - and if you're an experienced gamer you can probably decide whether it'll be a worthy purchase on just that. The score is nothing but a numerical representation of the reviewer's personal experience with the game in question - the real important information is in the review itself (and the pros/cons section - when available).

    That said - I need to start adding Pros/Cons sections to my reviews :o

  3. To me a reviews is a prelude, occasionally more engaging than the games they critique. Like droniac I never trust just one and like Gnome I find a humourless review positively hardwork.

    However i find it incumbent upon me to draw attention to the fact that juggling three dildos is probably much harder than writing a good review.

    ..cough!.. not that i'd now.. I just read it in a review....


    excellent piece of writing mr.Gnome, excellent...

  4. I GiVE thiS article 5/10

  5. Random thoughts on this.

    Price don't matter for shit for the most part since I buy used and from consignment shops and pawn shops. Stores like Kmart sell games like Indigo Prophecy for $4 clearance because thats their pricing structure.

    Ebay can be used for figuring out what games are rare, but good? Price and rarity does not equal a fun game. For example a copy of Streets of Rage 3 can go for $25 while a lesser valued copy of 1 or 2 can cost less but be more fun in the eyes of many players.

    The mainstream game reviews have gotten so bad that you have to look at at least three different reviews before you can get a good picture of what the game is really like. And even then you have to go to independent reviewers to get the real deal.

    -A game like Halo is somewhat fun if you have a bunch of people to play with. Otherwise the single player is beat quickly. I would never BUY an Xbox to play a game like this since I had a computer and there were a number of games like Half-Life that were cheap and fun and had multi-player AND custom single player games mods (for example "They Hunger" if you happen to think that the original game lacked true zombie killing fun).

    After playing alot of games you get a feeling of what games are good and which are bad according to your own tastes.

    I for one HATE sports games and love pretty much every other genre. Therefore I will never review sports games. However will other reviewers follow that?

    I dunno. In my reviews I try to be as in depth as possible and try to describe the game in a way that will help readers decide how this game fits into their own perspective.

    And I add the price which i am willing to pay for the game. Which I think is helpful.

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  7. I can't say that I've written any reviews, so I can't really comment on that aspect. But I can say is, one of the things about reviews is that they can't really tell you how immersive the game is, how much it pulls you into another world. I'd say a truly great review should give the reader at least some sense of how it actually feels to play the game. One game in particular that I think of is Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. And nice work, Gnome.

  8. I've been doing some movie reviews lately on my site and for whatever reason, I find them much easier to review than videogames. It takes me a really long time to get started, but once I do, it seems that every visible flaw in the media presented opens itself up for me to exploit. As tough as they are to write I always find an incredibly amount of satisfaction when people laugh at my stupid, over the top reviews.

    Either way, great post gnome.

  9. Ahh, thank you all dear friends for contributing your wisdom and livening up the not-so-lively Lair halls... Now, on to my part of the discussion...

    Dear Father (Happy Birthday, may Early Towers stand tall and proud for aeons) I must admit that reviews don't usually convince me either and that art -or the appreciation of art- is indeed (to a degree) subjective. Oh, and was under the impression Shenmue was critically acclaimed. Still, reviews could potentially advance the art...

    Dear Droniac, I too agree there are great problems in coming up with a set of objective standards, due mainly to the great diversity of games (and Art in general). As for what a review should be like, at least from consumers point of view, I quite agree. BTW, you write some brilliant ones...

    Thank you mr Elderly, thank you. After all, as reviews are subjective etc, at least they should be funny. Ah, Eurogamer...

    Come on Caleb, gimme a 6/10, mate. Interesting points you make there. Genre is something worth discussing, even though not every game can be part of one. As for price, well, it does matter from a consumer point of view and is totally irrelevant from an artistic one. Oh, and wouldn't you enjoy attacking through a review a certain -say- sports genre? And adding the price you're willing to pay is indeed a brilliant if consumer-centered way of grading.

    Thank you ithmeer. By the way I do remember some PC Zone reviews of yore that actually conveyed the feeling. The Ecstatica one for example...

    Joe, great reviews them. Actually one can really use movie, book etc reviews for the game review discussion. Glad you enjoyed the piece too...

  10. looking forward to the next update. ;)

  11. So am I Tim, so am I.... :)

  12. I'm glad for game reviews..! It gives us something else to bitch about in life...

    I think gaming is a type of art form in a way, or at least it takes some art form to get the finished product.... If there was no art in games I probably wouldn't game..! Then again I am a graphic whore to the maximus!

    .... Then again this is way too much reading for me... cya!

  13. ...(picking up the strands of conversation...)

    where do want me to put these... i particularily like the gaming as an artform strand... and the whole aesthetic thing has given me goosebumps....

  14. Wholeheartedly agree here... Mostly since I actually like games (obviously) despite the fact they had to get Hollywoodified very quickly... Still, proving they are not art is nigh on impossible. Then again, so is 300 or Independence Day. And of course so is Stalker.

  15. I'm not going to contribute much to the discussion because most of what I would have said has already been said.

    Speaking of reviews though I stick to web reviews these days. The only magazine reviews I read, and trust, are those of the excellent magazines EDGE and GamesTM - anything else is just trash! I read some blog reviews that are easily a more enjoyable read then any of the 'lesser magazines' showing there's a lot of hidden talent out there.

    EDGE and GamesTM have eloquently written reviews. I suppose you could say they're like The Daily Telegraph and The Times of the video game world. The two magazines, however, tend to have widely differing opinions. I once read two reviews (I forget which game) where EDGE gave the game 8/10 and GamesTM gave it 3/10. It's interesting to see the two fight off against each other but it also poses a tough question for me; should I buy it or not?

    The only problem I have with EDGE is that it often takes a while to get to the point but, to be fair, it usually turns out to be a pretty damn good point. EDGE have anonymous reviews so you can't really identify with any of the staff like you can with the mainstream reviews, but that can be both a good and a bad thing. Besides, I look to the column's for my favourite writers.

    Ok, so I went on a bit longer than I expected but I could go on all day if you wanted me to! Anyway, we need a new post Gnome! :-)

  16. I agree! I respect the reviews of Games TM as well Tom. Its also made me think of something, as well as reviewing games for the current consoles, Games TM does reviews of new Dreamcast games.

    In this particular case, the reviews actually caused me great pleasure before I had even read them, simply by being in the magazine, as they validated and gave credence to the Dreamcast.

    I suppose it helped that the reviews were very positive, which I found out after reading them!

  17. Tom, I must agree that Edge is a rather fine read (though quite expensive here, as apparently it's travelling First Class -unlike Retro Gamer). Games TM, I've never read.

    As for contradicting reviews, well, that's should have been something typical really. Think LoTR for example... half the critics loved it, some thought it was just ok, other bloody hated it. Can't see how it should be different with games.... Oh, and I ..uhm.. posted a short one too :)

    Father, it's not that you're an obsessed -nay, dangerous- Dreamcast fanboy, is it? Oh, and do please ask Elderly about a thing I've started discussing with him...

  18. Gnome, if you can get hold of GamesTM it's well worth it. You can't go wrong with 180 pages of great content (surprisingly hardly any of them are adverts, which makes a change).

    It also has an excellent retro section (I think it's by the same publisher as Retro Gamer actually) that qualifies as a magazine in itself.

  19. Ah, yes, you're right, it's an Imagine publication. That can't be too bad for its price. I'll try to grab an issue. Thanks for the info Tom.

  20. Looks like I will be adding 2 more subscriptions to my pile...

    ...ok you guys can continue writing your book of discussion now..

  21. this thread is distilling very nicely, i'll make the tea....

  22. Distilled tea? Hoorah!

    Here's to Games TM!

  23. (tests tea on cupboard.. varnish peels off and steam rises.....)

    Teas ready.....

  24. Aha! Brilliant... And here are our cookies...

  25. ah chipped C4 cookies.. my favourite... quite a bang.. munch...! munch....!


    ..phew, fresh!!