How many ways can you judge a game?

A dark secret

The other mysteries being "what is this sticky crap all over the machine?" and "who is that creepy guy over there that keeps looking at you, Stacy?"

[File this under public notebook entries that may or may not be coherent.]

Contrary to what the internet might tell you, there is more than one way to judge a game.  It’s something worth bearing in mind when reading (or writing) a game review.  Try to figure out what, in the eyes of the writer, constitutes a good game (broadly speaking of course.)  Reviews always manage to piss someone off, as Jim Sterling finds out every time he posts anything.  But one of the things that I feel like the gaming community has difficulty with is understanding when someone is judging a game objectively and when they are simply expressing their preferences.

One of my favorite things about ActionButton.net has been their willingness to post multiple reviews for a single game.  It’s a great place to compare diverging opinions and to understand where that line between critical opinion, and subjective opinion is drawn.  To me, the difference is in whether or not the argument behind an opinion is justified when compared to a commonly held idea of what a game should be.  If a game is good or bad “just because” or “I just liked/hated it” then that’s obviously when someone is expressing their personal preference.  If the answer excludes “I” and “me” from its justification, then it might just be objective and critical.  But that’s assuming that the concept of a good game is something that the reader buys into.

At AB.net, I’ll intently read a review that I almost entirely disagree with if the writer’s idea of a “good game” is reasonably close to mine.  You challenge your own ideas of what makes a game “good” and come away with either a better grasp of your own opinions, or you’ll have integrated some persuasive ideas into your own train of thought.  Or you can just flip out and throw a tantrum about how “bad journalism” has ruined a game for you forever. (The viability of the last option will be left for another post.)

When we read or write reviews, we have an abstract idea of what a game should be, and then we compare the game being reviewed with our idea of what a “good” game should be.  There are three, general types of “good” games; each one with its own pros and cons.  I think that understanding the difference between them might help to minimize reader consternation.

Commercially Valuable: I believe this is the way the majority of game reviews are written and consumed.  A good game under this model is a good value for the money for a specific audience.  The merits of the game only play a partial role in determining if a game is good or not.  A game could be the greatest in the world, but if it costs $1000 and a kidney then it deserves lower score.  The cost-benefit ratio is one of the most important and contentious concepts in the console/PC gaming community.  But some games fly in under the radar that deserve more attention (see: Deadly Premonition) and this approach means little to those outside of the gaming community.  By necessity, these reviews use a lot of jargon and make assumptions about previous games the audience has played.  For instance: the fifth game in a popular series may be identical to the previous four, making it less valuable to those who have played the previous four, but it may be the most valuable to someone who is currently outside of the community.  The game has to be judged on factors outside of its merits for these reviews.

Critically Successful: A critically successful game is judged to be good based solely on its merits.  Every once and while, outside of AB.net, I’ve seen this type of review.  I’m sure there are others, but they are far less common than reviews that make commercial value the most important aspect of a review.  Critical judgment disregards other entries in a game’s series, the other games in its genre, the previous experiences of the audience, and the commercial value of the game.  These reviews aren’t about whether or not a game is a good buy, they are about whether or not a game is “good” as far as the medium of video games and interactive entertainment is concerned.  Playing video games is an expensive hobby that’s technology intensive, so its understandable why there’s such emphasis placed on graphics and whether a game is worth the cost of purchase.  But if the uproar surrounding the debate over Roger Ebert and the question of games-as-art is an indication of anything, it’s that the gaming community is ready for more critical evaluations of their games on a more substantial level.  It also means we’re eager to present games to people outside the community in terms which both sides can appreciate.

Personally Enjoyable: A personal opinion may be “biased” inside of a professional context.  But for those with tastes similar to the writer’s, sometimes word of mouth is enough justification in deciding whether or not to play a game.  It can end up being more valuable than a commercial review which is aimed towards a broader audience.  Who knows why writer X loves Little Nemo: The Dream Master, but the reader loves it too, so maybe they will have other games that they both enjoy too.  Game reviews don’t always have to be about making an argument, it just needs to be interesting to read.

Game reviews probably don’t fit neatly into one category or another, but you’ll probably be able to see patterns across reviews for a site that fit more or less into one of those three.  So, the next time you read a review, try to think of what idealized game you’re comparing the real game to, as well as what the writer’s idea of a “good” game is.


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