Q & A: How To Tell if a Videogame is Good

Last night, someone on my curious cat asked me a question that I spent all night thinking about and trying to figure out how to address. Today I came up with a response, but it was too big for the site, so I posted this little essay on my medium, in hopes it could be useful for others. Here is the answer:

“How do you tell if a game is good? I don’t think I get it.”

This is a great question to ask! I think the simplest way I would explain it is, when I play a videogame, I’m looking for interesting and provocative ideas in the experience. I’m looking for ideas and concepts that resonate with me long after I stop playing, and ideas that inspire me to expand on them in writing.

But I don’t just look for any videogame that will be an excuse for an easy 2000 word. I don’t immediately call a videogame good just because it made me feel good, that’s a bit too easy, right? So the longer answer is this: a critic is generally someone who has built a lot of knowledge over time about a certain thing. If you’re a self-understood critic, you probably know quite a bit about some kind of thing regarding art and media, and are using whatever knowledge that is to talk about stuff you want. If I’m a critic of some kind of form of media, I’ve probably engaged with a lot of said media — I’ve read a lot of books, or listened to a lot of a certain music, or have watched a lot of movies and films — and I’ve also probably read and listened to a lot of other people talk about that media, so I’m familiar with its discourse. If I’m a critic of books and novels, for example, I should probably have a strong grasp of some history of literature and the philosophy of literature, as in, ideas about how literature works and what makes literature affective that have been developed for a very long time. So I’m probably familiar with the established devices used in literature, like plot and character and imagery and symbolism and other basic things you learn in english class, and I would know how to use those to think about and talk about a piece of lit. So I don’t only read a lot of books, I have a developed idea of what good books have been, and what they’ve read like, so I don’t come into a book feeling blind about this kind of media.

What this means is, if I’m playing a videogame and I’m thinking about it and whether I think it’s good or not so great, sure I want to find something that’s relevant and interesting, I certainly don’t want to be bored, but I’m also thinking about how this videogame fits into my standing knowledge of videogame art history. If this game is cool and interesting, then what are the ways that it’s being cool and interesting, given my knowledge of how videogames tend to communicate ideas? If I don’t find it interesting, then what is it doing that’s not grabbing me? Here is where the ability to talk about form and structure come in handy. And how does this game stand in the larger context? Is it a game that stands out in its genre? Is it a new direction or style for a gamemaker I haven’t seen from them before? Does it feel like the gamemaker is intentionally using their artistic tools to make something powerful? Here it depends on what you value and that’s subjective. Many critics like seeing work that’s different from the mold, some just want fun games they can recommend for casual gamers to play. Personally I care about intention a lot, and so seeing a game that setting out to communicate an idea, and succeeds in doing so in a powerful and deliberate way is what’s most impressive to me. I like videogames that are complicated and espouse complex and nuanced ideas. I know how to catch a good story because I know what good storytelling is, I’ve engaged with a lot of art and I talk to a lot of artists so I know how to see good composition and rhetoric, and I know how to talk about ‘difficult’ art because I’ve engaged with a lot of classic conceptual art, and have read critics who are better than me at talking about it.

Here’s an example: I play a fighting game about a woman who murders her friends to escape an cult secret-society, and after every fight we watch her mourn the death of her opponents as she slowly gets closer to freedom. So I’m playing this videogame, and I’m thinking “wow, this is so intense, what a tragedy, I’m getting such a sense not only of this character’s despair but the larger themes of what this woman is doing and the circumstances she does them in.” These are some real inspiring ideas here! And I see through the way it’s doing it, the form and the presentation, that the game is employing the right artistic tools to really communicate its ideas in the most affecting way. It’s sharp, direct and effective. These are the traits I value as a critic. So I say, “this game isn’t just cool or fun, it’s fucking good as hell, A+ Art.” This game, of course, is BUSHIDO BLADE for the Sony Playstation.

I’m a videogame critic, and videogames are art so by extention I also view myself as an art critic. I write about videogames with the background and expectation I do any work of conceptual, visual, multimedia, and applied arts, with specifity paid to videogames’ of course.

With that said, here is a step-by-step of how you tell a videogame is good:

  1. Is it resonating or provoking you on a sincere, emotional level? Are the ideas its espousing really grabbing your interest? Do you walk away from it thinking about the themes its put together, or does it feel uninspiring and inconsequential? This is really the meat of it, everything after this step is mostly when you have to explain what they like or don’t like, and argue their point to others, which is what a professsional critic is supposed to do in an essay.
  2. How is this videogame fitting into your personal knowledge of videogame art history? You don’t have to know everything (no one does), but it’s good to have a good grasp of the genres that interest you. If a shmup just came out, for example, it can just be a solid shmup that stands with the crowd. A solid 7–8/10. But maybe it totally different than you expect, a shmup like you’ve never seen before! A new step in the genre! A+! Maybe it’s not the strongest shmup experience, but it’s completely off the walls, totally subverts the established shmup genre and style. If that’s true, maybe it’s an experimental shmup. Alt-shmup! If you value experimentation, you’d probably conclude that it is good in its own way, and worth playing.
  3. You got to know how to read a text. A text is just a work of art that has a structure and is doing something. If you know how to read meaning in art, then easier to articulate when and why something is resonating with you. If you struggle with reading videogames as texts, videogames as things that do artistic things, then try reading others who do it. Reading people you like and trust is the best way to be better at textual reading.

So that’s what I’d say. For me it’s about gauging your experience, and then framing your experience into a bigger context. I hope this helps you engage with videogame art in deeper, more meaningful and rewarding ways! Videogames are good and give us powerful experiences, and like any form art and craft, learning to read videogames earnestly and properly only strengthens our relationship with them, and makes us more perspectived people in society.

Good Luck ❤

— Zolani/Rouge/Shadow

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