Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The difference between reviews and criticism

Pat Duggan sends a link to a piece at Play This Thing!, titled "Game Criticism, Why We Need It, and Why Reviews Aren't It." The premise is one that has been bounced around for years, and which seems to be popping up with increasing frequency: that the vast majority of game reviews really aren't criticism at all. As this piece puts it:
A review is a buyer's guide. It exists to tell you about some new product that you can buy, and whether you should or should not buy it...

Criticism is an informed discussion, by an intelligent and knowledgeable observer of a medium, of the merits and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular work. Criticism isn't intended to help the reader decide whether or not to plunk down money on something; some readers' purchase decisions may be influenced, but guiding their decisions is not the purpose of the critical work. Criticism is, in a sense merely "writing about" -- about art, about dance, about theater, about writing, about a game--about any particular work of art.

The piece argues that the games press is well stocked with "reviewers," and totally lacking in "critics." You can go anywhere for a Consumer Reports-style look at a game, but it's tough to find any really insightful or illuminating critics -- especially someone whose reviews are strong enough to stand on their own as readable essays. I don't disagree with this. The places people tend to identify with game reviews -- IGN, Gamespot, Game Informer, etc. -- take a rudimentary approach to their craft. I do disagree with this point:

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

That "for the most part" is key, because you have have to dig to find what this person is looking for. But that doesn't mean it's not out there. Lots of the writers on my blog roll take a more critical approach to games, like Leigh Alexander, Michael Abbott, and Chris Dahlen, and so do I. Whole blogs exist to fill precisely this alleged void, like Critical-Gaming. Paste publishes a page full of critical game reviews every month, and that's a popular national magazine. What about The Escapist?

Do we have the equal of Pauline Kael yet? No, not that I know of, and if there is, she's certainly not getting published in anything like the New Yorker. But that doesn't mean she's not out there. It may simply mean we haven't found her blog yet. The implication of something like this, too, is that Kaels abound in the world of film. It's not so. Most movie reviewers are guilty of the same sins as game reviewers, even if they tend to be more witty and literate across the board. The piece calls out Roger Ebert as more of a reviewer than a critic, but hell, if a game reviewer ever won a Pulitzer as Ebert has, I'd consider that a victory for all of us.

I'm glad Play This Thing! brought up Ebert, in fact, and not just because of the controversy he's ignited in the gaming community of late. He's one of my few heroes in the world of criticism/reviewing/whatever, and not just because he's a wonderful writer who can find something interesting to say about the most boring of films. It's because the man cares, and cares deeply, about movies. He doesn't let ugly or cynical films slide because they're "just movies." He believes in the promise of films to bring us to a higher emotional and spiritual plane. When that doesn't happen, you can tell he's disappointed. That brings me to what I think is the most important and true bit in this whole piece:

The point is that a critic has to take his subject seriously, as an example of art, or at least of craft; and take seriously as well the intentionality of the creator, and the importance to those who experience the results of the results, and the impact on how they think and feel.

This, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with game reviews today. Which is not to say that it's true of all reviews or reviewers -- only that when and where reviews fail, this is most often the reason. We are happy not to take games seriously. We treat them as playthings.

Which, to be fair, some are. Not every game may be worthy of the critical approach, quite honestly. Good ones are. Some bad ones are. The wasteland of acceptable, unremarkable fare isn't worth the time or attention, I don't think. I'm happy to be proved wrong on this point. But right now I'm playing through a game called The Club, a pretty rote exercise in skill-based gaming, and I can't even fathom applying to it the slightest intellectual rigor. It's not a bad game -- certainly entertaining enough in spots -- but it is a game with literally nothing on its mind. Therefore, I will take an entirely different approach to reviewing it than I did, say, No More Heroes. The point is that each review should be tailored to the game, rather than trying to cram each game into the same review template.

As ever, the best way to fill the void of critical gaming discourse is to begin to discourse critically about games. It is valuable to point out where the games press is failing readers, but just as with criticizing a game, it takes more than simply identifying flaws. It's about aspiring to an ideal. It's about demanding more from our games and from ourselves. The corporate sites won't do it, because it doesn't make sense financially. They're already getting the biggest slice of the pie -- why change? That means it's up to bloggers and independent sites to dig deeper. There are plenty of us out here. If we lead, the readers will follow.

And then -- only then -- so will the publishers.


Peter Gault said...

Yep, you're spot on; however, real game criticism won't penetrate the mainstream (new yorker, etc.) until the game market has matured to a level where large enough audiences of mature gamers exist. Right now games are largely targeted at a demographic which has little interest in intellectual inquiry. However as the industry and market mature, critical analysis of games will emerge mainstream. However, this is not to say that we should accept the status quo; in the last 5 years there has an explosion of critical analysis in games, both in universities and on the net.

Korey said...

I agree with you too. I really enjoyed that piece at Play This Thing. A lot of the blogs I've been reading recently are much more about game criticism than reviews, but yeah, there's really nothing in the press that would be considered criticism at this time. Just look at the raging debate over review scores. Critics are less focused on rating a product, and more interested in talking about its significance and importance in the larger cultural arena.
I like Ebert too, and see him somewhat straddling the line between reviewer and critic. Most of his writing is reviews, just look at his thumbs up/down verdict. But occasionally he writes pieces that go beyond "I liked/didn't like this film." I'll be glad to see a greater level of game criticism grow to more prominence.

Daniel Purvis said...

Hey Michael. I've been thinking about this topic for a while. What is the purpose of reviews? Do we really need more gaming websites reviewing games? Who are the writers I know and trust? Who do I enjoy reading for trashy throwaway? How informative or critical are reviews or critiques? And you know, I don't have an answer.

That's the long and short. I know who I like, and yes I read a lot of Leigh Alexander's writing (which sometimes I feel doesn't quite hit the nail either), I have provided many in depth comments and spoken with KirbyKid on Critical-Gaming (which in the end I found to require too much thinking and backed away from because I didn't enjoy thinking about games on his level, though I do read everything he writes) and rather enjoy the editorial perspectives offered by The Escapist Magazine (which I would argue doesn't offer so much a critique of the gaming industry but rather insight into it that you aren't exposed to through mainstream gaming media).

However, your post did make me go back and rethink how I write my reviews and how I could make them more critical or insightful. When I read your post yesterday I was writing my Patapon review for GamingSA and my personal blog and though I'd try and throw some more depth in it. Personally, I like what I've come up with - an attempt at analysing what it is about Patapon that makes it so appealing and addictive for such a straightforward game.

If you wouldn't mind, please take a look at my [Patapon review] and let me know where you think it falls. Is it a critically review, an insightful look into the game or an analysis on how it works? (If you do get around to reading it, please comment underneath).

Mitch Krpata said...

@Peter Ggault: You're definitely right that there's a rise in the kind of informed gaming discussion, and it's encouraging. There's a hunger for it. That said, it's never going to be the default style for the mainstream press, and that's okay. It just needs to be readily accessible, and treated as valuable.

@Korey: Let's not overlook the utility of simple scores sometimes, either. I've talked in the past about how useful I find Metacritic to be. To me, the best reviews are the ones that can straddle that line. Scores may be problematic, but I do think they're a symptom and not the cause of bad reviews.

@Daniel Purvis: I liked your review, because it made me want to play the game without sounding like you were telling me to play the game, if that makes sense. Pointing out things like "how important it is to Patapon that you have bond with the tribe" is more interesting than simply describing the mechanics. It gets at what the game is really about.

Daniel Purvis said...

Thanks for taking the time to read it! Except that one quote you took from the piece has an error in it ... I'm missing the word "to". *edited* Thanks for proofing for me ;) (not that I hadn't already haha).

Korey said...

Mitch: I definitely think review scores have their usefulness, but are of course best within the context of a good written review. I see criticism as an addition to reviews, not a replacement. Recommendations of buy/don't buy this game are needed, just as more critical analysis is needed. I think both have their necessary place.

Michael said...

I've been lagging behind on my blog reading lately, so my post today on this same subject covers much of the same ground, though not as well or as thoroughly as you. Had I read your piece first, I probably would have left well enough alone. :-)

I do pose a question about a third position besides critic and reviewer that may be worth considering.

Anyway, thanks for kindly mentioning me among the "critics." I do try. A friend reminded me of the lovely quote from Emerson about criticism:

"Criticism should not be querulous and wasting, all knife and root-puller, but guiding, instructive, inspiring."

Sign me up for that.