A Model For Reviews
April 22, 2009

Inevitible games journalism shop talk leads me to consider how we approach our reviews. There's a problem with the traditional method, in that it strays dangerously close to some sort of step-by-step analysis of an artistic product. What is the game about? What's the gameplay like? What are the graphics like? It's all nonsense, because as we know, games simply don't work like that.

Assuming we don't go towards that hideous method too much, what do we tend to do? Well, we tend to talk about how the game feels to play, how compelling it is, how creative it is. This is some way closer to hitting the mark, but it's still not something that quite nails the experience of playing a videogame. The problem is that it's an inherently subjective experience, but writing about a game is invariably for a wider audience. There's a conflict of interest between personal opinion and removed objectivity. Where to go?

Suskie recently posted a review of MadWorld which I think goes some way to hitting the mark. The notion is not "what is this game?" but "what is this game?" That slight shift in stress emphasises something quite important. At its core, what is this game about? What does it do to us? Disregarding everything mechanical completely, how does/doesn't this game work?

I'm applying this model to something I'm writing at the moment. It's by no means a structure for writing the actual piece, but it is a template for my thoughts going into it. The idea is to repeatedly ask myself "What is Zeno Clash," then describe it in a series of simple sentences without talking about any peripheral or mechanical issues. Simplifying it into single-sentence descriptions helps pick apart all the surface nonsense and get down to the nitty-gritty. In other words: it's criticism, not reviewing. But it's criticism in the sense that it's trying to engage with the game, despite any flaws it may have. You can apply it to a crap game as well. It's about trying to see the value of gaming.

A bit pompous? Yeah, probably. It'll be interesting to see how it turns out.

How do you approach your review-thinking, people?

Most recent blog posts from Lewis Denby...

JANUS2 JANUS2 - April 22, 2009 (01:29 PM)
What do you mean by mechanical issues?
Lewis Lewis - April 22, 2009 (01:43 PM)
Any of the technical components or "building blocks" that go into the making of the game.

How good is the engine? Is it well programmed? What's the - blanket term - "gameplay" like?

This model treats such issues as largely peripheral, unless they're specifically a part of what lies at the core of the experience.

To see the model in action, try out the System Shock 2 review. It's really the first experiment with it. The assumption being that System Shock 2 is about the imbalance of power between the player character and SHODAN, and how effectively that conveys the sense of technological humanism that oh my god I'm turning into a big giant ego.

If only there were an ignore button for cases like me, eh?
JANUS2 JANUS2 - April 22, 2009 (03:23 PM)
To be honest, I can't say I've really thought about reviewing in this depth. I just write about what matters to me (or what I think matters to the reader - not always the same, but oh well).

I guess for me, a useful review covers the mechanical issues AND the wider "experience." It's the interaction between the two that makes for a good review. For example, analysis of the how the game works often helps me to believe the reviewer's emotional attachment. I actually think that's why your System Shock 2 review is a success. Your focus is clearly on the SHODAN bit (which is conveyed in a totally compelling way), but we're still given insights into how the game works (i.e. the pacing, the teamwork mechanic, the atmosphere, etc.). I suppose this fits into your comment that these issues are only mentioned if they're at the core of the experience, but then why mention the flawed combat if that's the case?

Games are interactive. I think there's always a need to acknowledge gameplay issues because otherwise there's a sense that you're misleading the reader by giving them a blinkered perspective. That's what I feel anyway. I definitely think your approach is valid and interesting. Maybe I'm too conservative. I suspect it was this sort of thinking (these products raise interesting issues - how do we talk about them?) that lead to film being treated as a serious academic field, so maybe it's necessary to turn into a big ego if you want game criticism to develop in that way?
bloomer bloomer - April 22, 2009 (07:52 PM)
The guy at Chris' Survival Horror quest illustrated the silliness of a lot of game reviews by recasting them as if they were written about books. So I'd say something like: 'Well, here's the new Dan Brown novel. The font is really sharp this time, much better than in Da Vinci. Pages are a bit too large but the cover is physically bulletproof. For the cover and font, this has gotta be a 9.'

Belabored point being, I have just assessed the technical qualities of the book, and not engaged with what the book was about, or just was.

However I would be reticent to put gameplay analysis in the same area, as gameplay is akin to the quality and aesthetic of the writing in the book, or the quality and aesthetic of a film's direction. I would say grandeur can rise more easily off the back of it if it's good. It's rarer to get something aesthetically/thematically powerful out of a game that sucks to play. This is a very complicated area of low certainties, and games can also 'break through' by player persistence. You for instance persisted in Red Faction and experienced something powerful, even as acknowledging its zillion problems. I would say the same thing about me playing Pax Corpus. It's hard to defend almost any technical quality of the game at all, but it has some feel/atmos and bloody-minded problems to solve that got to me, and made me play it through and feel rewarded somehow.

I'm not gonna look at my Pax Corpus review right now (it's probably 6+ years old and will pain me) but what I feel about my memory of it is this that if I had only talked about ideas and atmospheres I got out of the game and there are plenty (lesbian heroine in all woman future dystopia, cloning, sterilisation, etc.) it may have come out sounding like a work of total genius that no-one should fail to play. That would be misleading, since I still think 80% of people who try it are going to say, 'This sucks,' and ditch it. And I've qualified that by talking about the gameplay in the review. Not in a walled-off way, but in the usual way where I try to weave both areas.

So, I think the peril of the model you describe is that it can be misleading. Not every game can stand up to this kind of analysis, and at other times the result may just be divorced from the real experience of playing the game (which we may cram down and down so we can summarily encapsulate it in the word 'gameplay', though we know it's a big, complex area), no matter how good the game's ideas are in theory. But maybe it can work in places. Of course I'm thinking of a pretty pure version of it, which in practice is probably not what you would do. That's kinda a mistake I made when you sent me to read Kieron's New Gaming Journalism thing. I thought he was advocating a new way to review things in general, in which case I would bat it back with a stick. As a thing to try more occasionally, it makes more sense.

Consider this cute inversion of the idea, as fallible as all analogies but worth a look: If we said the film Titanic deals with man's hubris in building an unsinkable boat which sinks, that's not how people remember the film. The way it was scripted, acted and directed, they remember three hours of wet romance, silly performances and maybe wanting to go to the bathroom. The same way Pax Corpus could be said to be about some amazing stuff but is kneecapped a lot by crap programming, etc., when experienced.

I personally don't feel too much struggle with the technical-gameplay-ideas balance. I feel like I try to cover all as appropriate and in appropriate amounts by game, and I weight stuff when I want to. Both MySims and Fatal Frame got what they needed and also what I wanted to give them. In the latter case, some people with less interest in the genre may feel it's too much, but I doubt even those people would be able to say I did them any kind of disservice at all re: gameplay. Maybe if venues were different I'd write more of higher pretense, but in the majority of cases, what I can do while still covering both is satisfying to me. I like talking about gameplay and I feel it tends to be extric'd up (that's a word I just invented, the opposite of inextricable...) with any Higher Planes talk.

edit - I think I meant Silent Hill 4 when I said Fatal Frame.
Lewis Lewis - April 23, 2009 (01:19 AM)
I think you both misunderstand the model slightly. But then, re-reading, I realise I didn't explain it very well. When I ask "what is this game?" I don't mean "what's it about" necessarily. I'm not just talking about core ideas the developers may have. The belief is that the value of the game lies in whatever the gamer takes away from it.

To use your Titanic example, I don't think Titanic is in any way about the building of an unsinkable ship that sinks. What is Titanic? It's another example of Hollywood's frenetic obsession with Love Conquering All.

We can still talk about the peripherals, as well. I'm not saying the reviews using this model won't feature any information about the mechanical, technical, performance, whatever aspects of the game. Just that they'll be treated as secondary unless they form an intrinsic part of the experience. In some cases, it will be. So, when looking at something like - off the top of my head - Fenimore Fillmore's Revenge, I could say "The game is the inevitible eye-rolling when you realise that your crosshair isn't aligned with where your gun shoots, and doing something in the wrong order breaks the puzzle." That still makes it sound pretty bad.

In other words: it's about the core of the experience, not the core of the developer's intensions.

Meanwhile, in something like the SS2 review, "gameplay" aspects were treated peripherally, but they still feature in the review, almost as an aside. The information's still there, and the piece is probably stronger because of it - but there seems little point harping on about the exact way the game feels to play yet only touching on how working with SHODAN makes you feel.

Does that make any more sense? This is all just brain-vomiting. I'd need to put more thought into it before it became some sort of journalistic manifesto. And if I ever grow an ego big enough to produce something like that, then Christ, there's no hope left.
bloomer bloomer - April 23, 2009 (02:33 AM)
Do you make more sense now? Augh, not really. Or perhaps I simply can't guarantee that I understand :P

I feel I need to stop writing in your blog. Every time I try something with some manifesto thing you present, you say 'That's not what I meant.' I don't mean I'm angry at you, it's just frustrating if you're presenting something this apparently big and inviting comment, then others try and deal with it -- at some length -- and then mutually we all seem to get nowhere and talk about different things and confuse each other. It takes me too long to craft these responses. It's like a personification of the pains of communicating on the internet. Yes, I see some of the clarifications you have presented, but I feel I shouldn't reply again, it's too muddled. I don't know what position you're advocating. I thought it sounded extreme (leapfrog gameplay to personal response to something-or-other) and suggested a moderated version. To me, your SS2 review was fine within the bounds of 'reviewing as we know it'. If you felt it was more in a certain direction for you, it probably was, but it wasn't out on some pole I felt you were kind of advocating/considering in your blog post. But ultimatley, I really don't know what's going on.
Lewis Lewis - April 23, 2009 (03:04 AM)
Hah! Sorry. Like I said, it's all just mind-ejaculations onto a blog. I'm not trying to shout any discussion down, or anything.

Okay, in a simple sentence: it exists within the confines of traditionally accepted "reviewing", but attempts to base the analysis around a single "core" of the game's offered experience.

It's not really a new idea; more a new(ish) model for approaching the application of it.

Eugh. Enough now. I'm probably talking nonsense.

I'm stll interested in the "how does everyone approach their reviews?" bit though.
honestgamer honestgamer - April 23, 2009 (02:19 PM)
I think that I treat a game review like I would a book report. I'm telling the reader what I thought about the game's quality and effectiveness and why, with the hope that in the process I'll give them enough information to guess at how much they'd like (or not like) the game.

Reveiws that strive to do more than that remind me a lot of the literary analysis, which is basically just a book report that instead focuses on things like theme and symbolism and a bunch of "more intelligent" stuff with little thought to the mechanics of how the book works. For example, plot and pacing might be discussed in a book report--to positive effect--but a literary analysis wouldn't care much about those mechanical things at all because it would be too busy discussing how the sparrow was a metaphor for man's desire for freedom at the expense of the others around him. Or something.

With game reviews, I don't think there's much point in doing anything more than the simple approach that I've equated to the book review because really, a game review is meant to be the information that someone will (theoretically) use to decide whether or not he purchases the game. While there certainly are some people who might purchase a game based on the strengths of those "deeper" things that a more obtuse review might cover, the vast marjority of readers aren't likely to care about that and just want to know if the game is worth their money.
zigfried zigfried - April 23, 2009 (06:58 PM)
I've heard before, used as praise, that some writers -- instead of approaching a game as "what was intended" and judging it based on whether or not it meets those intentions -- they approach the game purely as what is. In a world without intent or comparison, how does this game strike us? What does it make us feel? Not "how does this compare to intention X or competitor Y", but "what is this?"

I have also heard -- from Bloomer, to be precise! -- that such an approach, reviewing a game in a vacuum free of comparisons and benchmarks, by simply looking at what a game is, we risk losing objectivity and entering the realm of Nothing But Subjective, which can be a very dangerous place.

I try to adhere to the school of Nothing But Import. If it's important, then say it. If you stick to what's important, then you'll leave people with a strong impression of... your impression. I shall toot my own horn. I once wrote a Bangai-O review in which I spent probably two sentences on the game, and the rest talking about social commentary, other games, and pudding. The late, great Leroux came away saying "even though you didn't talk about the game, I think I understand what it's like to play."

For Bangai-O, the technical aspects aren't particularly important. In fact, what happens during the game isn't particularly important. What's important is the feeling that one gets while playing, and I tried to convey that feeling. People who were bewildered by the review... probably not Bangai-O's audience. People who "got it"... probably would enjoy the game.

It was actually a pretty messy review and is now lost to the ages, so please don't ask to read it. But I still think I had the right intentions.

In my Emerald Dragon review (which is actually posted), I spend the beginning half establishing a story, before I even discuss Emerald Dragon as a game. This is for much the same reason -- if Emerald Dragon's story doesn't grip you, then the game won't either. I wanted people to feel the same love that I felt, and putting that into words was quite difficult. Anyone who comes away saying "Zig didn't talk about the game enough"... probably wouldn't appreciate EmDr.

Between me, you, and Bloomer, I don't think our philosophies are so far apart. We just each have our own unique way of rationalizing it within our heads.

Lewis Lewis - April 24, 2009 (01:58 AM)
Zig, I think we're essentially on the same track with that, though I do like the idea of vacuum writing.

Jason, it worries me that you seem to scoff at literary analysis so much. Do you think there's no place for it? Do you think there's no place for that in games writing?

Rambling about metaphors all day long is nothing I suggested doing with this review model, but I do think there's a place for it when talking about games in an intelligent manner. It's all context-dependent.
honestgamer honestgamer - April 24, 2009 (10:46 PM)
As an English major, I suppose I've just seen too much literary analysis done horribly (and with the people doing it so badly quite convinced that they were absolutely brilliant as they read things into a work that clearly were never intended or even really there). Literary analysis is a fertile field filled mostly with BS.

I'm not opposed to deeper discussion of games, but a review is by definition something else. That sort of discussion isn't appropriate as the focus of a review because while it may be interesting, a review's real purpose isn't to make 'interesting' comments about a game that assume the reader already knows enough about the game to be engaged in that discussion. A review's purpose is to inform the reader so that he can decide whether or not to play the game--whether through purchase or rental or illegal means--and then after that, he is potentially ready to participate in discussion of that sort.

What I'm saying in a nutshell is that there's no reason something more substantial can't be a vital part of any industry discussion going forward, but trying to shoehorn that approach into reviews strikes me as extremely problematic. I propose instead that we save such commentary for editorials. Editorials on games--rather than reviews--are something we don't see enough of these days because people either review a game or they blog about it. The editorial is nearly non-existent. The question becomes how many people would be interested in reading arguments that look at games on that deeper level. I'm opposed to tricking them into reading that content by disguising it as a review, but I'd certainly be open to adding editorials back into the site if there were reason to believe that the results would be genuinely interesting.

HonestGamers once did have an Editorials function, by the way. It was a disaster. People constantly submitted things that would make many blog and forum posts here look like research papers. It was really quite bad. The site has grown a lot since then, so maybe it's time to bring editorials back.
Lewis Lewis - April 25, 2009 (03:15 AM)
I would really, really support that (though I'd suggest prototyping them as a staff/freelance-only feature).

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