The Problem with Game Reviews
I was having a conversation with a colleague about whether Youtube has made game reviews obsolete. She suggested that because on Youtube players could see people actually responding to the game as first impression videos, showing game footage, and discussing glitches. However, these are all things that can be done in print form. A game reviewer can write about first impressions, embed images and videos, and write about glitches. The question of whether Youtube video commentary is a “more interesting” form of review than written reviews is, honestly, a question of personal preference. All things being equal, I personally prefer a written review as I can skip over things I deem irrelevant, whereas fishing for the content I want on a Youtube vid is a bit trickier. But the problem is that my friend’s main claim is partly correct. Game reviews ARE obsolete. The thing is that Youtube is not what made them obsolete, it is the reviewers’ approach to reviews that made them obsolete.
There are plenty of comments talking about how reviewers as buyers’ guides are obsolete because reasons, that reviews should become criticism, and that reviews will never be relevant again. I disagree with all these statement. I think that there is much need for games criticism, both the formal kind found in peer reviewed game studies journals and the informal kind found in blogs and in an incredibly small number of Youtube channels. However, games criticism is fundamentally different from game reviewing, and I think that there is also a need for solid, consistent, well thought out frameworks for game reviews, and while I acknowledge that most current forms of reviews are useless, it is not because of Youtube and I do think that they can make a comeback.
Why are reviews obsolete? The answer to this question is simple – the criteria they use to review games are now pretty much irrelevant. Rating “graphics” or “sound” in a 1 to 10 scale based on a comparison with whatever the current standard is was certainly warranted. Because game developers were consistently trying to make games that looked and sounded better, it made some sense to say that the graphics in Donkey Kong Country were better than the graphics in Vectorman. But that being said, this system was never very sophisticated to begin with, and its usefulness was bound to reach a point where it would eventually become pointless.
In the current game landscape, some developers strive for hyper realism, other strive for animated visuals, and others still rely on retro art and pixel graphics. All of these styles can result in visually stunning masterpieces, so one would have to ask – what makes, for example, the graphics from, say, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim better or worse than, say, Final Fantasy: Lightening Returns or Tales of Xillia 2? Similar issues arise when considering “sound”, “story”, or any of the other ambiguous criteria reviewers rely on.
Perhaps even worse are reviews where the reviewer will write something about the game and their experience playing the text, and then give a decontextualized number that seems to come from nowhere. This kind of system comes across as lazy and careless.
There are two potential solutions to these review problems. The first one is to simply not give scores and just write about the reviewer’s experience with the game and whether they recommend the game or not. However, this would come across as uninspired and dull. It would certainly give the reviews a friendly “hey have you tried this game? It’s fun” kind of tone, but it would probably leave out any kind of detailed analysis of the game. A better approach would be to have categories that took into consideration the diverse landscape that is contemporary game development.
Instead of “graphics”, reviewers could use something like “visual consistency” or “aesthetic cohesion”. I thought about this after watching Jim Sterling’s review of The Slaughtering Grounds, which he critiqued because the storefront assets didn’t work together and looked like “a Frankenstein mess of a game”. This led to a brief discussion regarding storefront and community assets and making them fit together with some other people in the comments section, and thus led me to think that Aesthetic Cohesion is better than “graphics”. Does the menu use similar aesthetics to play? Does the world have the same aesthetic as the characters? Does the HUD fit with the rest of the visual elements? A good example of an aesthetically cohesive game is Guacamelee – all visual elements follow the same stylistic trends and they fit together to complement the overall theme. A bad example would be Time and Eternity, where the world is created using a 3d modeling program and the characters were hand drawn. Individually they each look good, but when together they create a visually jarring experience. Final Fantasy VII’s low poly characters on pre-rendered backgrounds probably stand somewhere in between.
One could also replace “music” or “sound” with musical composition and sound design. Rather than judging the quality of the music (orchestrated vs synthetic or whatever), one would judge how the tracks were composed. Is there aural harmony? Is there a consistent style across all tracks? Does the music complement the visuals and play? Final Fantasy VI would serve as an example of incredibly well composed music that complements the game, while the score of the otherwise stunning Ni No Kuni (with the exception of that one most excellent overworld music) can be said to be adequate but unmemorable.
As for other elements, one could consider “narrative function” (how well do the narrative elements work?) instead of “story” (I like / dislike the story), technical aspects for things such as resolution and frames per second, asset repetitiveness (does the game recycle recolored visuals like Time and Eternity and Hyperdimension Neptunia, or are there more diverse assets like in Mass Effect and Lost Odyssey?), ludic considerations (which would include the ever important and ever subjective ‘replay value’ as assessed by a predefined criteria, the even more subjective play engagement, and the even more subjective “fun”, among other play-centric criteria), and “overall cohesiveness” for how all the elements work or fail to work together.
If reviewers give a predetermined weight to each criteria it would further help readers understand why a game got a certain score and where it’s solid or lacking, and they won’t leave the review with the idea that, say, a reviewer condemned the entire game because he didn’t like one scene.
Of course, such a system would not mean that the reviewer would ONLY have to treat reviews as a buyer’s guide. I am of the thought that if a reviewer is specially touched by a theme presented in a game (for example explorations of PTSD in Spec Ops: The Line or explorations of relationships in Persona or in Catherine) they should be able to speak their mind. In fact, I would argue that it should be required for a reviewer to comment on the themes present in a game. However, I don’t think that a reviewer’s thoughts on a theme should take away from scores based on the way in which the game’s aesthetics, aural design, narrative considerations, or ludic elements are configured. For example, I found Persona 3 and 4 to be slightly above average. The visuals were consistent, the sound design was not too memorable, and although the way in which it crafted the narrative was superb, actual ludic elements (menu based play) was less than remarkable. However, I loved the game’s explorations of relationships, identity, the self, and coping with reality. On the other hand, the way in which Catherine explored issues of fidelity in relationships was not terrible but not spectacular, but that didn’t take away from its excellent play and narrative elements.
To remedy this, I would advocate an approach similar to that used by Christ Centered Gamer. This website has two separate scores, one for the game considerations (visuals, play, etc) and another one for morality issues (language use, sexuality, violence, occult, cultural value). The results of this approach is games like DDR receiving play scores in the 70% range and morality scores in the 80% range, games like Drake’s Uncharted getting play scores of 90% and moral scores of 50%, and masterpieces like Journey getting both play and moral scores in the 90% range.
Using this kind of approach would give players the “buyer’s guide” approach many of them want, give readers who want a more nuanced discussion about the themes of a game a chance to join the discourse, allow the reviewers to share all of their thoughts regarding the game with their audience, and let parents make informed decisions at a glance when considering what to get for their kids on Christmas.
*Note: This is by no means a “you should do this” or a “this is how it should be”. It is more of a “this is one way in which reviews can become relevant again”.