There's a question I can't seem to escape from: "What is the purpose of a video game review?" You'd think that if I managed to shelve "Are video games art?" that I could put this question away as well, but it keeps cropping its ugly head up. Just last week, people all across the interwebs were getting angry over reviews of Duke Nukem Forever that contained legitimate criticism outside of a "graphics, sound, gameplay" analysis, because reviews aren't supposed to be anything other than a product assessment, right?
Among video game journalists, the question takes a different tack. I hear lamentations about the preponderance of "reviewers" and the dearth of "critics," and the implication is usually that if people reviewing video games were more thoughtful, we might have more interesting criticism, and less product reviewing.
That's not an entirely unfair position. If you look at any game listing on Metacritic, you're going to see a slew of reviews that were written on independent fan sites, whose authors have no formal training either as writers or as critics of any kind. This is not to say that formal experience as a writer or a background in the arts automatically makes one fit to be a video game critic - I am the poster child for this state of affairs - but it does help.
Sometimes, however, even highly-acclaimed video game critics will review a title, and what comes out the other end is just another product review. And that cuts to the heart of the real problem. It's not about writers. It's about video games.
If you haven't read Kirk Hamilton's killer review of L.A. Noire over on Kill Screen Daily, do. It's a brilliant piece of writing, but I've heard it referred to as an example of "criticism" by which we could compare against "reviews" to demonstrate the difference. It's actually quite the opposite, a perfect example of how reviews and criticism are one and the same. Along with everything else, Hamilton gives us the information we need by which to inform our choice to buy, rent, or avoid the game altogether, which is all many readers of the games press want out of a review.
"If you like the idea of a linear adventure game set in 1947 Los Angeles, buy L.A. Noire!" says Hamilton's review, without actually saying it.
"If you need to play the role of a sympathetic character, then you might want to rent L.A. Noire first, to see if you like this, before you buy it," says Hamilton's review, without actually saying it.
"L.A. Noire bored me so completely that I stopped playing the game and instead thought about all its problems. Don't buy this," says Hamilton's review, to me, anyway. Not if we're looking to just play a game and have a good time. A "paranoid existential freakout," which is what Hamilton says he had while playing L.A. Noire, is not what most people, nor I, would consider a good time. Unless we like drugs, maybe.
Rather than talk about critics and reviewers, let's talk about what defines good reviews and bad reviews, from this perspective of wanting more criticism and less product reviewing. Good reviews are interesting. They're fun to read for their own sake, or valuable outside of whether we're going to use them to decide whether to buy a video game or not. They're good writing. But one thing about good writing is that it requires something to build itself upon, like a theme or other, interesting kernel of an idea.
When a writer is assigned a review by most video game journalism outlets, they're tasked with providing a holistic view of a video game, which is to say, the whole thing. So, the kernel of the review is supposed to be the totality of the writer's experience with the game they're reviewing. And this is why video game reviewers, even some of our most widely-acknowledged and respected "critics," can pen up boring-as-tears product reviews. In order for a holistic view of a video game to make for good criticism, the entire game as an experience has to give you content which inspires that commentary.
Otherwise, you can still write criticism of a game if you find something that fuels an interesting conversation, but it may be very narrow in scope, and now the author is arguably no longer writing a review. Reviews may always be criticism, but criticism is not always a review.
My wife wrote a critical essay on Brink and its lack of female avatars. Her essay doesn't really tell you much about Brink outside of the fact that it doesn't have female avatars. I've read critical essays about Fallout 3 that focus on how the game makes personal storytelling so easy due to its vast world, but that really only tells you that Fallout 3 is a big game. These essays don't speak to the totality of either game, which is what the audience expects in one way or another from a video game review.
Bad reviews, on the other hand, are boring because all they do is assess products. In the hands of the right writer, a product assessment can contain loads of internet snark which may or may not be amusing, or have lots of fifty-cent words that can dress up the content, but in the end the review is still just a product assessment.
I've been playing a lot of Crysis 2 recently. I have no idea what a really good review of Crysis 2 would look like. Perhaps someone will post a link to one in the comments, at which point I'll eat my shoe, but I went back and took a look at the reviews and honed in on writers like Tom Chick, who is well-known for his intelligent if harsh analysis. I went to the Onion A.V. Club, well recognized for the quality of their writers. I looked all over the place, and even the best-written reviews of Crysis 2 are nothing more than product assessments that delve into the mechanics, the level layouts, or how the multiplayer works.
They were all pretty boring, because that's the only level of discussion Crysis 2 supports. If anyone wants to fault these reviewers for writing product reviews and not criticism (and I, for the record, would not assail these reviewers in that fashion), the fault lies not with the writers, but the game they were reviewing.
When a video game has craft, artistry and soul, or if it's really, really bad, the critical angles pop right out at you. If a video game is just a shallow entertainment product that doesn't take any risks, what is there to write other than a product review in regards to a holistic appraisal of the game? Tired missives about lack of innovation? If the task is to write something about the entire experience, the review inevitably descends into the same banality of the video game it's describing.
Show me the writer who can produce an original, provocative, interesting review of Modern Warfare 3 when it comes out, i,e. an analysis which doesn't revolve around tired arguments about how uncomfortably realistic military shooters are getting, or how cookie-cutter all military-FPS titles are, or how the Call of Duty series is just iterating on itself at this point, and I'll show you an extremely talented video game critic.
There's a Sherlock Holmes quote that I love: "To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine. It racks itself to pieces." Writing a good review or holistic critique of a video game is easy, because the only sorts of games for which a writer will attempt to produce this work are games that speak to them on some level. The writer reacts to the material and is inspired to dig deep into that material, because there's something worth digging into.
Writing an interesting video game product review, on the other hand, is extremely difficult. There are only so many hipster games like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, or poignant metaphors for life like Passage, to write reviews about. The vast majority of what's left is software designed for the explicit purpose of whittling away our time for as long as the game remains amusing, whether it's first person shooters or social games on Facebook or Angry Birds.
If we're going to complain about the lack of critics and the plethora of reviewers, let's assign all the blame where it's due. It sure would be easier for everyone to practice becoming better video game critics if they had better material to work with.
(This column was originally published on the Village Voice's Joystick Division blog)
Sometimes the marketing campaign for a video game speaks truth, and other times it's complete bullshit. In either case, once marketing campaigns begin they're near impossible to stop, even if they aren't describing the product accurately.
Does there come a point when video game developers, publishers or PR firms realize that the game they're selling no longer bears any resemblance to the game they'll actually be delivering to the public, and asking $60 a pop for?
Duke Nukem Forever is the brightest, recent example of this horribly hilarious phenomenon, but it was preceded by two other first person shooters which enticed us to waste our money this year: Homefront and Brink. Together they form a Trifecta of Terrible. Behold the power of the marketing machine, and tremble.
At some point, someone at Kaos Studios or THQ must have looked at the marketing narrative constructed for Homefront about a "gripping, cinematic first person shooter," and said "We have a problem here." Consider the idiocy of American Resistance fighters, stacked up outside the door of a TigerDirect.com warehouse filled with North Korean soldiers, cautioning each other against making too much noise lest the soldiers inside be alerted to their presence.
Not five minutes beforehand, the Resistance had set the parking lot on fire with napalm and shot down a helicopter gunship with a rocket-firing, six wheeled combat drone that first smashed through the hulks of all the burning cars. I'm sure kicking in a metal warehouse door would have alerted the North Korean soldiers inside to the presence of the Resistance, where the explosions and sounds of three platoons' worth of their guards being slaughtered outside had failed to do so.
Homefront was marketed almost exclusively on the drama of its campaign. The pedigree of the game's author, also the scribe of the movies Red Dawn and Apocalypse Now, was offered as assurance of how good Homefront's story would be. Yet the plot boiled down to delivering three fuel tankers which enabled the American military to retake the San Francisco Bay Bridge from the North Koreans.
By the same token, someone at Splash Damage or Bethesda Softworks must have looked at the marketing narrative constructed for Brink about "blurring the lines between online and offline gaming," in other words between campaign and multiplayer FPS gaming, and said "We have a problem here." Brink had no story whatsoever, just a bunch of before-and-after vignettes for each match that didn't piece together into a coherent plot. It had no characters. There is no campaign in Brink. There are just a bunch of multiplayer maps loosely tied together by theme.
This would have been forgivable if the multiplayer had worked properly. There were no lobbies to squad up in before entering a match. One had to jump into a friend's game first and join up that way, assuming one could get into a match without any lag. Brink's netcode was so borked that it took Splash Damage two patches to make the online game playable on the Xbox 360, and I still have horrible lag sometimes when trying to play with friends.
Marketing plans are designed for attaining maximum market penetration on release day. Any delay past the intended date risks losing audience awareness of the title, and achieving lesser market penetration and thus fewer profits. A publisher can either sink more marketing dollars into the title to cover the loss of awareness during the delay period, or release the game as-is to make as much money back on their investment as possible.
This is how gamers wind up paying AAA game prices for B-list titles or to become Beta-testers, or in worst-case scenarios like Duke Nukem Forever, paying sixty bucks for games that probably should never have been released in the first place, but whose marketing juggernauts refused to allow for that state of affairs.
I wonder if or at what point Jim Redner of TheRednerGroup, now the former PR representation for 2K Games, realized that Duke Nukem Forever was one of those games that just should have been shelved? Was it before or after the Destructoid review by Jim Sterling, which was quickly followed-up by the Ars Technica review by Ben Kuchera, both of which were the metaphorical equivalent of drawing and quartering the DNF development team, and then sticking their heads on pikes outside the castle walls?
The PAX Prime 2010 Duke Nukem Forever reveal was the biggest headline to come out of the show. The Duke Nukem Forever booths at PAX East 2011 and E3 last week were palatial representations of the Duke's glory, replete with fake chandeliers and booth babes. The game trailers were celebratory and fun. The Duke was back! Hail to the King, baby! And the marketing seems to have done its job. Plenty of gamers are declaring their intention to buy DNF anyway, just to see for themselves what the complaints are about. I can't wait to see the sales figures.
I imagine Jim Redner watching the negative reviews roll in, cursing as he contemplated the repercussions on his PR firm for something he had absolutely nothing to do with, namely the quality of Duke Nukem Forever. Unless he never wants to work in public relations ever again, Redner will never tell us whether or not 2K Games rode his ass over the Xbox 360 version of DNF being one of the few titles in recent memory to sink to a negative Metascore within two days of its release. But something inspired the rage tweets that got Redner fired by 2K Games, and a pissed-off client is a pretty sure bet.
It's a shame that Redner dug his own grave with those rage-tweets he deleted too late. All he had to do was ride out the bad reviews for another week or so, and then Jim Redner could have told war stories of passing through one of the roughest PR crucibles in a long while. Hell, he could have claimed responsibility for the PR Doomsday Device to end all PR Doomsday Devices. "I actually convinced people to buy Duke Nukem Forever!"
Redner's next gig could have been helping Representative Anthony Weiner earn back the good graces of the public after admitting to sexting pictures of his namesake and resigning from office.
Of all the lessons that the video game industry has learned from the film industry, the power of crafting good marketing for bad product is one of the most harmful for the consumer. Yet we seem to fall for the same tricks over and over again, and so publishers keep employing men and women who know how to work their magic on us.
Just remember that sometimes the hype around a video game might pay off, but it might not be such a bad idea to wait until you've read that first review or three before deciding whether or not a new game is worth your attention. Otherwise, you're just feeding the doomsday machine.
(This column was originally published on the Village Voice's Joystick Division blog)