All art invites criticism, and gaming is no different. For as long as there have been games there has been a discourse around them. On TV, in magazines, and now all over the internet. You can’t move for self-important “critics” (like me) these days.
Criticism is a very broad term, encompassing everything from essays on design principles, to discussions of an aesthetic nature. It also includes questions around a game’s wider impact on a group or society at large. For now, I am going to narrow our focus exclusively to criticism of overall quality. In other words, to reviews, and the people who write them.
I shall begin by asking, how does a particular critic come to have value? When should what they have to say about a given game factor into our thinking? Consistency is the key here. It is only through a broader knowledge of a critic’s preferences that their opinion on a particular title becomes useful.
Suppose a stranger recommends me a game. That’s nice and is perhaps in some way an indication of quality, but its usefulness is limited severely. Now imagine an old friend, who’s gaming habits I am familiar with, recommends something instead.
In the second example, I am in a much better position to make a judgement about whether this game is right for me. I might know that this friend enjoys games influenced by The Legend of Zelda franchise, or that they appreciate RPG elements or even that particular story beats appeal to them.
These are all very simple examples but the point remains the same. I can draw on my friend’s gaming background to add further colour to his opinion. It might even be the case that I know we have disparate tastes, and so his recommendation may actually function as a warning that I will not enjoy this game.
A critic who is known to dislike a particular genre, let’s say RTS, who then praises an RTS is also useful. It at the very least marks out the particular title as doing something different. It has won over a long-time detractor and so must be somehow noteworthy.
All of this is lost when the critic has no consistent voice. By which I mean a collective set of opinions that relate to one another in an authentic, or personal way. Here we arrive at the problem. What does a score of 8 or 9 from IGN or Gamespot actually mean? I don’t know who wrote this review and so I can only take very little from it.
You lose all subtlety when you try to be “objective”. A number is just a number without context. I need to know who deemed this number appropriate. Was it somebody familiar with this genre? A total newcomer? Do they have a history with the franchise? Do they seek out a challenge or do they play for the story? I’m simplifying again, but these are important questions. I don’t see what value criticism from an unknown entity really has.
You could probably research the author, but I doubt many of us have the time or inclination to do so. Most people in my experience are happy with a number or score, which I think is a bit weird. I need to know more than the mere fact that a supposed authority on the medium felt a particular score was appropriate. I want to know the nature of that authority so that I can properly orient myself to its critique. Without the all-important context the sense of a person behind the review brings, I am at a loss.
Do a quick experiment for me. Google the words “film critics”. You should see a long list of names including Roger Ebert, Mark Kermode, and Pauline Kael. Now Google “video game critics”. All you are likely to see are references to IGN, Gamespot, and Kotaku, as well as pointed criticism of the same.
There are of course important voices out there such as Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw, Writing on Games, and Joseph Anderson for instance, but they don’t command the same respect as critics in other industries. They are the exception rather than the rule. These are the people we should be listening to.
Each of these critics (or outlets) treats gaming criticism with the respect it deserves. They aren’t out to get themselves quoted in the marketing, and they don’t position themselves as purely informational. They do not exist to slap an objective summary on a product, they criticize it for its own sake. That’s not to say that they offer nothing with any practical application, they certainly do, only that they are motivated primarily by a passion for what they do.
Larger outlets are utterly soulless by comparison. Impersonal and without the nuance a human touch adds. They undoubtedly have the “consistent voice” I referred to earlier. I can grasp their perspective and so their opinions are infinitely more interesting.
As a side point, something else that unites these three critics (and several others in fairness) is that they do not rely on numerical values to communicate their thinking. This is no small part why I afford them such respect. I might be going a little far here, but a score on a review has always struck me as rather pointless. It can be useful under certain circumstances, or for the sake of comparison, but overall I’d rather not see one.
Opinions on art are personal and complex things. They can’t be meaningfully reduced to a number. A number looks good in the hype for a game but serves little purpose outside of that. It doesn’t communicate the why or the how, or even which parts of a game are worthy of praise. They might seem professional or “objective”, but they really just obscure genuine analysis.
I could say more, and perhaps I will. For now, though, I’ll close by encouraging you all to take a look at the work of some of those I’ve mentioned here. It couldn’t hurt. You might even discover a few new games to play.