Video games aren’t cars or appliances, so we need to stop reviewing them like that.
I recently watched a review of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate by Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency fame. It was the first video of hers I watched, and it was actually an interesting review. It covered the aspects of the story, showing how Ubisoft improved on their depictions of women compared to past games, with minimal coverage on the gameplay, and mentioning a few technical problems that seem to crop up with most Assassin’s Creed games as of late.
Naturally, there were a fair share of detractors making response videos to her review. (Okay, maybe “a fair share” is being generous here, considering the swaths of harassment she gets after every video she releases.) A bunch of people in the comments of said response videos moaned the same kind of complaints: “Why didn’t she talk about the controls? What DLC is in it? Whether it runs at 60 frames a second?” Seeing that bothered me.
To some of the gaming personalities of the world, such as TotalBiscuit, that technical under-the-hood sort of stuff is their bread and butter. Especially since he’s made videos in the past shaming developers for locking framerates in their games, even making a Steam Curators group that mentions the game’s framerate that, while informative, comes off as shaming developers for not kowtowing to the limitless potential of the PC Master Race. (ugh.)
This, along with complaining about reviews not covering every aspect of the game, are things I find fault with. As I’m getting older, I’m learning that video games are more than technical toys that we play around with. Rather they’re pieces of art and entertainment.
I’m sick of people wanting reviews to go in-depth about fluff matter like the technology and what game modes it comes with. It’s like a movie critic fawning for several paragraphs about the film’s cinematography — useful to fans of that stuff, useless to the average consumer. That stuff doesn’t really happen in reviews for TV show episodes and movies. For example, see this New York Times review of the most recent episode of The Walking Dead, or the late Roger Ebert’s review on a film like Jurassic Park. These are what reviews are to me: Talking about the person’s experiences with the media in question so I can understand what their feelings are, with a general summary of what happens so the reader can understand their experience.
That isn’t to say we can’t talk about technical aspects in a game review whatsoever, but it should be relegated to a footnote, or if there was a severe technical issue mentioned while playing such as the game causing hardware problems. (An example is Old Man Murray’s review for Freedom: First Resistance, which actually destroyed Erik Wolpaw’s monitor. That’s an impressive feat.) Then again, this becomes a problem when there’s positive reviews for games like Battlefield 4 or Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which, while having positive reception by critics, had issues with its online multiplayer for months on end. A lot of reviews are done in closed environments or with fewer players than on a normal day, so these technical issues are much, much harder to point out, especially when reviews have to be out before the game’s release.
The thing is, reviews aren’t meant to be this Consumer Reports-style of treating games like it’s a functional product. While I agree there is merit on the technical side of video games— I love Digital Foundry’s work — reviews are meant to be more about the person’s experience with the game, not a boilerplate specification of what’s in the game with a pinch of technical knowhow. After all, reviews are subjective by nature. Those asking for “objective game reviews” are asking for something that is literally impossible. Unless you want a site like the now-defunct ObjectiveGameReviews.com. (Thankfully the internet never forgets, as The Wayback Machine has an archived version.)
It’s funny, for decades we’ve been snookered into the technical aspects of games. Mega Power, Blast Processing, multicores, 32-bit, Havok physics, the works. Maybe it’s because technology has peaked and slowed down compared to the rapid evolution from ten years ago, but it just doesn’t thrill me anymore.
It seems I’m not the only one: games criticism is expanding towards looking at games as more than just digital toys, and as personal experiences crafted into interactive entertainment by development studios small and large. This is great, especially since some modern indie games like Gone Home, or the recent Undertale, have turned the conventions of their respective genre into something extraordinary.
Unfortunately, this leads to a backlash of people complaining about said games not really being games, which then leads into the circular argument about “What is a game?”. It’s a whole can of worms I don’t even want to bother with these days.
Even reviews for contemporary games aren’t immune. A good example to me is GameSpot’s original review for Grand Theft Auto V. It goes into the technical aspects briefly, but is more about the reviewer’s experiences. It received a large amount of backlash because the reviewer, Carolyn Petit, pointed out the sexism that’s been prevalent with the GTA series, as well as mentioning an unpleasant torture scene. She received a large amount of complaints for mentioning these, most of them giving the excuse that “it’s the way Grand Theft Auto has always been,” but that’s a poor copout.
It gets worse when a reviewer criticizes a game that talks about the sexual nature of something. Such moments are usually mocked by gamers as the reviewer either being a prude or dismissing the sexual nature as being there “on purpose.” A common example was when Polygon reviewed Bayonetta 2.
Nothing annoys me more than how people criticize reviews for all the wrong reasons. Disagreeing with an opinion is one thing, but claiming “bias,” that people are in pockets with major developers to praise/badmouth products, or even comparing different games just by their scores makes people sound ridiculous. Such as the infamous IGN God Hand/Imagine Party Babyz image that’s been floating around for years:
I’ve been following this kind of stuff for years. I’ll admit it’s probably a bit unhealthy for me to be paying attention to game reviews this closely. But I want reviews to be just that — reviews. I want to know how the person felt while playing the game, if they enjoyed the game, that sort of thing. Video games aren’t cars, appliances, or lawn mowers; they’re like movies and TV shows.
If we want to advance the medium to something beyond a “kids toy,” reviews need to evolve as well. Critics are just starting to get this. If only gamers would. For years we’ve had a fair share of reviews going more into the technical side of things, and rarely talking about stuff like the story. I’m glad that’s slowly changing.
(Some images courtesy of IMDB, Gamespot, and Giant Bomb.)
For those who’d like to read my more fluff-based games writing, you can check my blog on You Found a Secret Area!. You can also check me on the usual social media outlets.