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March 02, 2005

More on Quality: The Role of Critics and Criticism

So, a while back, Jamie Fristrom was talking about yardsticks of quality in measuring videogames. He pointed out the problems with various other metrics (game sales, user reviews, how much my friends like it, etc). Yup, all of these have problems.

Right now, I think that videogaming suffers from a dearth of good criticism. Yes, I know, I know, nothing particularly original in that thought. The problem is, I don't think there's a significant market for it -- a co-worker¹ came back from DICE recently and mentioned that some editor or other was up there saying that "We don't write more serious-minded critical reviews because our audience doesn't want that."

You know, it's completely true. When I was 17, I didn't care much about what Siskel and Ebert were saying about a movie, I just liked to watch them argue and ultimately just went with the thumbs up / thumbs down -- essentially a ratings system with only three stars. Of course, when I was 17, I also went and saw nearly every movie that came out, so I wasn't exactly exercising my critical faculties most of the time. What I'm getting at is that our audience, young as it mostly is, isn't terribly interested in deconstructing Mario, Lara, Samus, or Master Chief.

So, having said that, I'll go on to the value I find in criticism these days. My criticism mostly comes from a couple of sources: for films I use Roger Ebert's website, and for books I read the New York Times Book Review.

With Roger Ebert, I'm relying on someone with whom I often agree -- and who can discuss film at a level that's comfortable for me. I definitely often disagree with him -- he gave Sky Captain four stars, whereas I only gave it two and a half², and I can't even conceive what he was thinking when he gave Blood Work three and a half. On the other hand, I never would have even thought to check out an old silent film billed as a horror movie had he not convinced me it was worth my time. We're in rough concordance more than we're completely off, and his vast knowledge of film gives me some pointers that I might not otherwise know about.

So, with Roger Ebert, I'm relying on a critic who has a pretty vast knowledge of the subject, who often points me in the right direction. I never find that in game critics -- game criticism hasn't been around all that long, really, and game critics seem to move around pretty quickly. There used to be a few at Computer Gaming World whose names were recognizable, but most of them have moved on.

The other thing about building up a relationship with a critic about games that is daunting is that it takes a long time for me to play a game. Ebert's reviews come out once a week and feature around half a dozen movies -- and I could conceivably go and watch all of them myself that week³. Movies are around two hours long. Games range from ten hours to over a hundred. There's just no way I'm going to be able to even remember what a critic said about that experience unless I go and look it up, whereas I can always remember the general gist of what Ebert had to say -- which bears again on the quality of the criticism. Most print reviews are short enough that they present no meaningful information to me, no mental outcroppings I can grab onto and remember three or four months later when I maybe finish a game. Without those, I simply can't remember enough about a review to think back and agree or disagree with it, or with its author.

My other main source of criticism is the NYT Book Review, which I've been reading for years, although I often get far behind and have a stack of them sitting somewhere. (Books get dated over a longer period than games.) What I respect in this source is the institution itself; the Book Review has been a voice in literary criticism for a long time. For a book to be considered seriously, it probably needs to be reviewed there; it's a mark of distinction to be considered "notable" by it.

In this case, I'm also going on a relationship -- it's pretty rare that the Book Review steers me wrong -- though not with a particular person, with the institution. But the institution extends great editorial effort to matching interesting books with interesting and appropriate reviewers, and even here, there are reviewers' names I've seen many times, or there are authors whose books I've read and admired who are themselves reviewing books.

This case is also similar to games, in that there's simply no way for me to consume that much reading material in a given week. Even were I to give up work and probably sleep, I don't think I could guarantee I could get through everything in any given Book Review in a week (heck, most weeks I can't even get through the whole Review). But there's still that hook that I remember that I read about it in the Review, and that I thought it was interesting enough to stick it in my PDA so that I might some day pick it up at the library. With games, there really isn't that kind of source -- no institution I turn to and say, "Well, hey, they liked this and even though I've never heard of it, I'm gonna give it a go."

Well, that about rounds up my available blogging time for this evening, and I still want to put out one other brief entry. Next time I revisit this subject, I'm going to actually work out what I think quality in games really means, coming towards a definition, instead of doing all this talking about how to measure it.

¹A word I still find funnier hyphenated as cow-orker. But then, some things easily amuse me.
²Where he saw innocence and camaraderie, I saw shallowness and lifeless archetypes. We agree about how pretty it is. Of course, the movie has a role for Anglelina Jolie, of whom Ebert is a big fan.
³That is, if I wanted to give up games, since I'd have to go and see late shows every night due to having two young kids, etc, etc. But very possible if it were a priority to me.

Posted by Brett Douville at March 2, 2005 07:54 PM


Good criticism has become, for me, synonymous with good writing. Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael have managed to get books of reviews published not because they’re “right” but because they’re somewhat insightful and usually a very good read. A good critic can carry on about the subject like a favorite college professor; you gather around her feet to listen as long as she’ll talk. That’s one reason why the New York Review of Books -- not to be confused with the NYT Book Review -- is so interesting, even if you’re too busy reading it to read any of the books it covers. Each review is a mini-article about the subject, doubling as a review.

The downfall of most game critics is that they assume that people care what they think. I suspect it’s more common to scan multiple reviews and try to find common themes. “Republic Commando is a lot of fun with lots of polish, but fairly short, with multiplayer as an afterthought”. This has reduced most reviews to datapoints serving an overall profile. And that’s what most reviews deserve, since most reviews are structured like 12th grade book reports. When you read the millionth review saying “The graphics are very good… a few texture mapping flaws… excellent sound… repetitive score… 5 multiplayer modes… etc.” you’re looking at a mandatory recitation of elements, most of which won’t really inform the buying decision. By comparison, when a professional movie reviewer doesn’t mention the sound design, score or lighting, it’s usually because it doesn’t merit a mention because it’s not particularly good or bad. They focus on what should draw you specifically to that movie, or keep you away from it.

There have been some good-to-great critics over the years; Steve Bauman is one of my heroes in this regard, and I remember enjoying Charles Ardai, Scorpia, Bill Trotter and others for different reasons. Ardai was an excellent wordsmith, Scorpia a wry perfectionist, and Trotter an amiable historian. Their reviews tended to be informative about something besides the game under review.

But I also think games offer less grist for the critical mill than most books or movies. What makes a game a game is “felt” by the users; discussing it before the experience of playing it is usually not fruitful, even if dissecting it after the fact is fascinating. The stuff that makes a film or book review enjoyable taps into a common, explainable experience that gameplay doesn’t achieve. Not many games reach a philosophical or literary dimension worth talking about, and the details of the control scheme, unless they’re exceptionally bad, are better discovered by the user than written up in depth.

Posted by: Reed K at March 9, 2005 03:23 AM