Monday, August 29, 2011

Are game reviewers bad at games?

If you've ever talked about video games on the internet, then you have encountered people who worship at the altar of difficulty. They claim that any game worth playing is worth playing on the hardest setting, that high scores are more important than a good time, that second place is the first loser. Stuff like that.

These people are not usually game reviewers.

I've always found it interesting that game reviewers tend to be modest about their own abilities. They might claim to know a lot about games. They are confident that they can write about games better than the average player. But, when it comes to skillz, it seems to me that most critics are happy to accept their limitations. So that's the topic of my latest column for Joystick Division, "Doing it wrong: Are game reviewers bad at video games?"

I did a little bit more legwork than usual this time, in that I actually solicited opinions from several writers I respect. They all gave me thoughtful answers.* Since I could only use a little bit of what they said for the column, I thought I'd use this space to reprint their responses in full.

The two questions I asked:
  1. Do you consider yourself good at games, however you define "good"?
  2. Do you think it's important for a game reviewer to be good at games?
These were their answers.

Justin McElroy, Joystiq:
I don't think I'm particularly good at games. I find I'm just good enough to finish pretty much ever game on normal with occasional frustration. In fact, that makes for a pretty good metric: If it's more frustrating than that (or not possible) I know it's a difficult game.

I believe in Koster's theory that fun in video games is really the sensation of learning, so if you were the sort that was so inept they were unable to learn, I think it could hamper you as a critic.
Sparky Clarkson, Discount Thoughts et al.:
I hope not.

I don't consider myself to be particularly good at games, and it doesn't bother me that I am not. I happily admit that I am incredibly terrible at shmups, have nothing like the reflexes needed to become a masterful multiplayer FPS player, etc. The prevalence of online leaderboards is of great assistance in calibrating this opinion. I'm not terrible at everything; my skills are probably about average, all games considered. And, I think this level is a good place to be as a reviewer. If anything, I should like to be slightly worse at games than I am, because while my skills are middling compared to dedicated gamers, they are much above those of occasional players, which means I may systematically underestimate difficulty. A reviewer needs to be good enough to finish a game if he wants to (whether he *needs* to is an argument for another time), and bad enough to fail at least a few times. This is a peculiar part of reviewing games. Being a "good reader" in the context of a book review means having an eye for plot and the quality of prose; it does not mean getting through the book without dying and having to start a chapter over three times. Games uniquely place barriers in front of players to prevent them (hopefully only temporarily) from seeing all that the game has to offer. A good reviewer needs to know what it's like to fail at each game, and a sense for when those barriers are too high, or even too low. So, I believe it's important for a game reviewer not to be too good at games.
Brad Gallaway, GameCritics:
I do consider myself good at games, yes.

I don't think I’m in the top tier of players and I don't put in enough time on any one thing to ever call myself "the best", but I'm adept in a wide variety of genres and can hold my own regardless of what I'm reviewing. Essentially, I take the jack of all trades approach – I’m pretty good at most, expert-level at none.

I do think it is important for a reviewer to be good at games, although I don't think that expert ability is required. For example, I don't think a reviewer needs to have a pro competitive level of skill in a game like Street fighter, although they do need to be able to perform the moves and (at the very least) finish the game a few times with a few different characters.

Primarily, I think that a good ability is important so that the reviewer is able to complete whatever it is they’re reviewing, and also to have the proper perspective on design and difficulty. If the reviewer isn't good at playing, then I think it would be hard to put stock in their opinion. If they claim a game is too hard or designed poorly, is that really the case, or do they simply lack sufficient facility? If they don't understand how game systems work and aren't able to properly utilize them, then how can they give a fair estimation of what the game is? It's a bit of a clumsy comparison, but how could someone review a movie if their vision is impaired, or how could someone review a book if they had a fourth-grade reading level?

I think there’s plenty of room for a variety of reviewers, but in my opinion there has to be a base competency in order for a review to be written.
Rob Zacny, RobZacny.com et al.:
I like to think I'm good, but the record tells me otherwise. I'm a Bronze League Stracraft player, I generally get taken to school in real-time strategy games and struggle to maintain a 1:1 kill-to-death ratio in Bad Company 2. Where my skill can be tested in a competitive setting, I generally prove myself to be a middling sort or gamer.

But is that a good measure? I review games, usually a different one each week. My objective with most games I play is not mastery, however satisfying that would be, but understanding. I don't excel at most games I play, because I my skill level is limited enough that I really have to work at a game to get "good" at it. But I would still say I'm good at games because I can quickly take any new game in almost any genre, acquire a basic level of competence with it, and then figure out what systems are at work and why they do or don't create a satisfying experience for me.

Ultimately, it's more important that a reviewer be good at analyzing and communicating experiences. Being good at games can help a lot when that skill leads you to having a richer understanding, and you can share that with your audience. If you were to go back to GFW Radio, Shawn Elliott sounded like he was a great shooter and RTS player, and that led him to offer special insights on how games like Company of Heroes or Team Fortress 2 worked. He was operating at a higher level than most people do, and he was able to bring back unique views from that level. That's where skill can make someone better at reviews and criticism. But it's not a requirement. Basic proficiency, knowing what you're supposed to do and why, is all you really need to bring to a game.
Thanks to all these folks for responding. Enjoy the column!

*All except for Kirk Hamilton, that is, who has apparently forgotten that I made him. Also he might have been busy covering PAX or something?

8 comments:

Noumenon said...

I note that the people who make GameFAQs are often worse players than I am; that could be another article. It's obviously not because they're generalists.

Gaming in Public said...

I don't think you have to be good at games to be a good reviewer. I am 23 and still find myself being beaten by 8 year old kids at call of duty. I think it just has to do with how well you speak of the game. Great Post!

Aaron said...

This is an interesting read. I like to think I'm pretty handy at a game, but then again, I don't think I qualify as a professional reviewer.

Sometimes, I think a lot of what we call "good" in competitive multiplayer stems more from an understanding of gameplay quirks than personal skill. I remember swelling with fury when watching some YouTube videos of Super Smash Bros. Melee, overwrought with exploits galore.

Kirk Hamilton said...

I'm such a dickhead. What can be made can be unmade, and so I'll beg your forgiveness.

Seriously though, this was a great column and I wish I could've been a part of it. And yeah: PAX.

But in the interest of making good: I'm generally speaking not that good at games; I'd say I'm pretty much average. I do think I've gotten better at them over the last year, which is interesting--I get more satisfaction out of games like God of War and Bayonetta than I used to. And I'm more critical of games like, say, Darksiders, because the combat is so much more sluggish. Whereas a year or two ago, I wouldn't have been looking for a challenge, or for a combat system that was well enough made to allow for a challenge.

Ditto Stealth--I've gotten a lot better at navigating stealth games, and I do think that I enjoy them a lot more as a result. Therefore I'm more likely to write good things about them, and also am able to drill into what works and what doesn't work more articulately.

But when it comes down to it, I think that familiarity with how games work is more important than skill at actually playing them. And of course, being able to clearly and creatively articulate your ideas and experiences to readers is the most important thing of all.

Please don't unmake me, Mitch. I officially owe you one. :)

Stephen said...

I think game reviewers aren't there to play games, they're there to talk about what it was like to play the game and you don't need to be world leading at playing the game to do that. You just need enough game play skill to reach all the interesting levels and not be hopelessly frustrated about dying all the time.

That said, it's good practice in life to be relatively modest about your skills anyway.

Sam said...

The thing is this: you can only provide a critique for people at your own skill level or lower.

Still, whilst those who are good at games will call out the sub-average reviewer for calling a manic shmup "too hard", an epic RTS "too complex" or "unintuitive" or "inaccessible", and so on, the average Metacritic featured reviewer is at or above the skill level of the majority of players. So though their opinions are far from expert, they are good enough for the hits. A company would prefer a good writer with average skill then a expert critic who never got his GCSEs. But this is criticism, not poetry — what does it matter if your employee knows long words or can turn a phrase?

Ideally, all critics would be expert gamers in their genre. On top of that, though, you also need critical intelligence, and the freedom to use it. So the great game reviewer is a rare thing indeed.

@Aaron

>I remember swelling with fury when watching some YouTube videos of Super Smash Bros. Melee, overwrought with exploits galore.

There are no exploits, only mechanics (or, equivalently, there are ONLY exploits, as mechanics are their TO BE exploited). Sounds like they were just playing better then you.

@Kirk Hamilton

>But when it comes down to it, I think that familiarity with how games work is more important than skill at actually playing them.

Technically you're right: it's an understanding of the mechanics that leads to quality criticism, but skill is a prerequisite for understanding ie. you have to be able to work the mechanics before you can understand their use.

@Stephen

>That said, it's good practice in life to be relatively modest about your skills anyway.

You sound like a loser.

Sam said...

By the way: the way I think of it by way of comparison to a book reviewer: you wouldn't seriously consider someone who couldn't read the book as a book reviewer. You wouldn't let them complain about not knowing what some of the words meant. Letting a bad player review a complex or hard game is like letting a child review Charles Dickens.

Joel said...

There are many good players, but they are right most games are target to less skilled players. So there aren't problem with they biased reviews because of the lack of skills.