In the recent decade especially, there’s been this movement within the media industries to try and write off criticism as something that’s outdated or not needed. While I can agree that many things are flawed with how video game “journalists” in particular review games and how we try to tie them to real life issues (recent example being Tomodachi Life) there are some common criticisms of video game criticism that bug me.
“Every play through of a video game is different; therefore it can’t really be reviewed.”
This comes from a philosophy that video-games need to be compared to movies, music and other media. One thing to keep in mind is that there are other critics that review similar media such plays or opera, no experience is the same but it usually ties around a similar story, just as video games tie around a similar objective or have a feature set for you to play with. I may not have the same taste as my local restaurant reviewer, that doesn’t make his experience any less valuable.
“Video-games are products that can be continually updated, improved and their price lowered.”
This makes video game reviews more valuable, not less. Feedback especially from experienced people is necessary to push improvement to appeal to a wider audience. Games as a commodity can achieve even higher sales once things improve, proof of this is in the wild success of the Minecraft game where improvements have continually spiked sales. Similar to how actors and restaurant owners can learn from critiques, so can developers allowing them to deliver a better yield once their product is released. Despite developers getting angry that review scores can affect their salaries, publishers may want to continue this practice as it could lead to better sales.
With glitches some are random enough that the developer may not even know they are there before going gold. Feedback especially from a respected viewpoint is valuable. This helps bring a proper leveling of the “too much balance” and “too much chaos” that plague some games like Call of Duty and Mario Kart; few could argue with the educated assumption that developers didn’t use the criticisms of balance in Mario Kart Wii to benefit Mario Kart 8.
“You shouldn’t review the technical aspects of a game, they aren’t cars they’re art!”
Technical aspects of games create by virtue some of the more artistic features, and technical limits can have a dramatic effect on the entire gameplay experience. Many say “Graphics don’t matter” but the examples they point to are often stylized games, which still look good. Gamers often invest thousands of dollars making sure their games look good on their expensive TV, sound good on their expensive sound system and feel good on their expensive controllers. Gamers, particularly PC gamers, invest on having the best interactive experience possible. We all know someone with the $1000+ PC gaming rig, if we’re not that person ourselves.
Sound can dramatically effect even how you play a game, when DOOM was ported over to the PS1 the metal inspired soundtrack was removed creating more of a survival horror aspect to it than the balls-to-the-wall action game it was on PC.
Speaking of ports, how well a game translates to different systems matters, many PS3 ports last generation were plagued with issues that weren’t on other platforms. Bethesda games specifically had saving issues that made their games significantly worse on Sony’s console. I couldn’t even recommend some of my favorite games last gen to some people just because of their console choice. This harsh criticism of the PS3 versions of games drove producers to develop better experiences on that console and even drove Sony to release friendly hardware choices with the PS4.
How a game looks, sounds and performs is important, even more so since the purpose of games is to immerse you or make you feel as if you’re in control or question if you really are. How games play with these technical aspects can even toy with our minds on how games are supposed to played like with Bioshock’s “Would you kindly” philosophy, Braid’s “Opps you’re a stalker” twist, or on an even more technical note Eternal Darkness’ psychosis which makes players think their volume is going crazy or that the memory card controller got removed.
“Reviewers have no real voice and game reviews hardly affect anything.”
There are many examples that prove this wrong, if reviewers didn’t matter and only labels like “IGN” or “Joystiq” did people wouldn’t have flocked to sites like “Rebel FM”, “Giant Bomb”, or “Polygon” just for the voices they knew and trusted. Because “Every play through of a video game is different” people want to follow people they know and trust to get an accurate assessment of whether or not they should purchase the product. It can even work on the flip side, I often read reviews with opinions that differ from mine to see another perspective. Although I didn’t care much for Tomodachi Life I know who love it and have sunk hours into it. Other reviews could give me a explanation as to why, or give me insight on why some of my criticism is wrong.
To the “hardly have any effect” mantra, most reviews do have a reflection of how well a game could sell. If game reviews didn’t matter they wouldn’t be slapped all over the boxes that contain our discs. Also as stated earlier if they didn’t have any effect companies wouldn’t be slashing salaries or fix their games, because then what would be the point? A higher quality deliverable with enough word of mouth can move units. Don’t get me wrong in some cases like Okami sometimes no matter how much good praise a game gets it just can’t get people to buy it.
“Game reviewers should focus on story telling and the problematic social issues it can endorse.”
The issue with this is that it assumes 2 things, one that story telling are all games’ main objective and that all cultures share a view point or that a view point is superior. Games such as Tetris or Goat simulator do not focus on story, so how would they fit into a story telling based critique? Games like Tetris and even Flappy Bird are considered by some to be some of the most rewarding and funny experiences one could have with a game. When games like Angry Birds, Minecraft, and Words With Friends are some of the most profitable games and don’t have a story it, makes the reviewer’s voice look unimportant in the market.
As for Social issues, games like any art are a reflection of the environment of which they are created in, similar to architecture and food. For example in the mostly catholic mostly Hispanic culture I grew up in, depictions of religious belief are heavily valued, it’s extremely popular for politicians to say “God” and to have Jesus and crosses all over your house, including on candles. So when Call of Duty had some bible quotes when you died it was seen as respectful. However in Islam putting a quote from the Qur’an could be seen as just as offensive as drawing Muhammad; so when Call of Duty 4 had a saying from the Qur’an on one of it’s multiplayer maps this was seen as offensive. It can be ethnocentric to criticize an art form on cultural issues when many of these publishers are international and many of them are just expressing their own viewpoint on the world.
As an American Editor for a UK website it’s obvious that my views will dramatically differ than the rest of the crew from CrassCast by the mere merit of where I was born, just like food does. While most of the crew is used to fish and chips as a comfort food, Green Chile stew is just as common here. However that doesn’t mean game companies shouldn’t localize to some extent because it may cause controversy or awkwardness. If I was a game maker and included a mantanza (a Southwestern and Mexican/Spanish ceremony where an animal usually a pig is slaughtered in front of friends and family with a rodeo ceremony afterwards) may isolate and even disgust some audiences. This makes me think since same sex marriages are illegal in Japan, current issues of social awkwardness on the rise in Japan and the prude like attitude of Japanese culture made me and western audiences feel less connected with Tomodachi Life.
Different views of different people make reviews interesting; I’ve always found Famitsu fascinating because their writers are from Japan they usually have very different rankings of different games. Their game of the years, and scores dramatically vary compared to those we see out of the Western gaming norm. It’s also why I think most game media being in San Francisco California leads to a very stagnant reviewing culture and may be the source of many people’s frustrations with this.
So those are my critiques about critiques of game criticism. Criticise me and let me know in the comments how you feel, feedback is always important to moving society forward this is why we must cherish it.