Criticism Is Easy. Reviews Are Hard.

Yeah, this is art, too, I guess

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.

Don’t bother getting out of the car. There’s actually not much to see.

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.

This is better than a gold star on your review copy.

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.

“So, Crysis 2 is a game where you…shoot things…over and over again…”

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.

Sherlock Holmes would indubitably find most video games boring.

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)

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