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Games as Art II

posted on August 22nd, 2006 by jay

A vast majority of game reviews are done methodically. Games have been broken down into a handful of components and each of these is generally given a numeral rating. The bare set of qualities examined is typically gameplay, graphics, sound, and control but more elaborate reviews may include music and sound effects separately as well as longevity, difficulty, and tilt or slant. Some reviews even attempt to quantify fun.

Keeps nerds clean.

Other art is generally not torn apart in such a mechanical way. Aspects of a painting, novel or film that are particularly good or bad are usually mentioned but very few movie critics give individual ratings to screen play, dialog, acting, camera work, sets, lighting, editing, costume, stunt choreography, etc. So why do we review games the way we do?

I think there are primarily two reasons, one based on where games come from and the other where they are going. Video games came from creative but scientifically minded people, not the traditional artistic types. Hardcore gamers have always tended to be a bit nerdy and nerds are usually logical people (much like the Klingons). Gaming culture, specifically review methods, is still influenced by these origins and the hardcore. A cold piece by piece examination may not seem right at Inside the Actor’s Studio but it would not look out of place in an engineering magazine. So nerds make the games, then what?

People buy the games. A new game costs something like five times more than a new paperback and two or three times as much as a new DVD. Although now that movies are selling on DVD you may have noticed many review sites have begun to break down reviews into categories like movie, sound quality, video quality, menus, and extras. It makes sense that DVD reviews would begin to mimic video game reviews. A high enough price and some fancy technology tend to make people want to think about their purchases logically. Game and DVD reviews often look like it could be on a page in Consumer Reports.

I don’t think a game (or DVD) should be judged nearly the same way a washing machine is judged. The objectives we rate against are often hard to pinpoint, if they even exist at all, but the perfect spin cycle is less prone to debate than the perfect color contrast, perfect dialog, or perfect control layout. Video games are art and should be respected as such by reviewers. We like certain film reviewers because they have good taste so when they subjectively tell us they liked a movie, we look into it. I do not think video games should be reviewed any differently.

Why will no reviewer admit this dialog isn’t brilliant? Have they never read a book, do they think very little of the potential of video games, or do they just think that since the story seems like it should be well told it is?

There are some other reasons games are reviewed as they are. The industry currently has few big name writers and without that draw, magazines and sites often attempt to replace an excellent subjective review with an attempt at an objective review, hoping it’ll appeal to the widest base. Then there is the odd idea that some games are good even if the reviewer doesn’t like it. This phenomenon is what makes sure that every single person who reviews the new Final Fantasy or Resident Evil gives it a great review. Pick any great movie and you’re very likely to see at least a few reviewers didn’t enjoy it. Games don’t usually work this way; opinions tend to be more concentrated either at the positive or negative. When a reviewer gives a game he doesn’t like a good write up sometimes it’s because he doesn’t want to rock the boat, but usually it’s that he sees the high production values and understands why the game should work, despite it not doing so for him. This is similar to movie critics being wowed by special effects, scenery, camera work, etc. but thinking the overall movie didn’t work and still giving it a good review. Movie critics have been around a lot longer than game reviewers so they are used to seeing things that should be good but suck.

I have seen too many reviews that say they like the game, think it’s a lot of fun but have to give it an average score because x was not good enough. If you like a game it should get a pretty good review. Your audience wants to know if they will enjoy the game, not how the control ranks compared to every other game you have ever played. Game scholars can spend time perfecting their scoring systems, deciding exactly when to give a 4 versus a 4.5 for “fun factor,” or the 78 versus the 77 for overall game score, but people reviewing for gamers should focus on subjective analysis.

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9 Comments

  1. Christian said on August 22, 2006:

    So I think Jay is saying that games journalism is f-ed up, and no one wants to admit it.  Its a widely discussed subject, but the fact that one more person has it on his mind just shows how important it is.

    To me, the best example of how bad things are is the recent series of articles on Gamedaily by Chris Buffa, about how to fix journalism, and the flaming comments from certain 1up editors.  Bottom line is that games journalists are too afraid to admit that half of them don’t even half degrees in journalism, and are even more afraid to admit that the entire field is corrupt as hell.  Its all about making publishers happy, and making money on a wide demographics.  Thus few of them will have the ability to be as bold as a film or book critic who’s opinion actually matters.

    If games are going to be considered art, we definitely need some voices who can convey that message.  Those voices pretty much have to come from fans and independant writers.  The "professionals" have proven that they really don’t care much for that kind of writing, or the people who do it.  They’re afraid I think, and rightfully so.  Games are getting bigger, the potential is skyrocketing for some amazing things to happen.  The idea of a review that isn’t at least a little subjective seems foreign to me at this point, and soon enough people are going to wise up to their bullshit, and the bullshit in many games, and eventually that kind of FFX dialogue won’t be par for the course.  Maybe then we’ll see some truly artsy games.

    Also, we need more gamers who don’t just cite Fumito Ueda games when discussing games as art :) 

  2. Matt said on August 22, 2006:

    One thing to think about is that games are made to be played. They’re interactive, something that books and movies simply cannot deliver. Maybe that one thing that degraded the score was something detrimental to gameplay, while all other parts of the game were outstanding. I will say that, even though reviews are helpful, most readers looking at those numbers wil be very particular about them. If a game is below an 8, they probably won’t give it a second thought. But that’s not the real reason why it got a 7. It got it because it’s a pretty good game, but there are a few things that kept it from being GREAT. Good games may not be great, but they’re still good, and they’re a lot of good games out there. On the flip side, I never liked the fact that sequels got lower reviews than the originals, even when they are clearly better. Just think if someone new to the series plays the most recent one. That person will think the game is simply amazing, when the reviewer, having played 4 games basically just like it, give it a poor review for not forwarding the series. I guess it comes down to the fact that video game journalism is only 10-20 years old, when books and movies have been reviewed for at least 100 years. Books even more. I don’t want too much subjective comments, but I don’t mind them, either. Makes you realize that the reviewer isn’t some cold machine going by the book all the time.

  3. Christian said on August 23, 2006:

    The whole "OMFG, it got a 7 it must suck!!" thing is a phenomenon caused by the journalists hyperinflating scores.  Look back at Gamespot’s old reviews, and what games earned what grades.  I’ll give you a hint: One RPG got a 8.8, or something close to that by RPG writing legend Desslock, who proclaimed it one of the best games he played in years.  The game is called Fallout, and he said the same thing about its sequel.  Two of the greatest RPGs of all time couldn’t cap a 9.0 score.  That’s how hardcore Gamespot used to be with their grading, back when the ten point system really worked.  Nowadays you have games like Perfect Dark Zero scoreing above a 9.  I don’t care if someone loves that game, that’s just absurd.  If reviewers had more balls then their rating systems would work properly, and people wouldn’t be accustomed to seeing so many 8’s and 9’s and 4/5’s.  But of course that won’t happen, since publishers get mighty cranky if their game is receieved poorly.  Its a pretty bad situation overall.     

  4. jay said on August 23, 2006:

    I’m not sure I agree. What’s the point of having a rating scale that goes to 10 if only Jesus returning to earth and handing a reviewer a game is worthy of a 10? I do agree that the scale is broken, though, in that a 5 is right in the middle but doesn’t mean "decent," it means crap. A two star movie is decent, see it if the subject appeals to you, but a game that gets a 5 is usually to be avoided. I think reviewers should give out both a lot of high and low grades and think some of the reason they don’t is that they get bogged down by the technical details. "Well, this game sucks but look at that texture mapping, that’s surely worth adding a point onto my review."

     

    If reviewers are giving PDZ high ratings because they think the game should be good (see article) or because they don’t want to take an unpopular position, then I agree that that’s crap. If someone really did like it though, I want them to be subjective and give it a good review. 

  5. Christian said on August 23, 2006:

    You’re right, Jay, that reviewers should give a game they like a good score.  But look at, say, the new 1up review of Madden 07 for 360.  They say the other consoles have a more polished version, the single player is a bit underwhelming, etc., and proceed to give it an 8.1.  The review does not seem to match up well with the actual text.  No one really seems to have the guts to give an actual number score fitting to the review, because gamers – and publishers- look at those numbers on sites like gamerankings, as much or as more than anything else.  Also, you’re right that a 10/10 shouldn’t be impossible; my issue is with the glut of 7’s and 4/5’s that we see.  Are that many games really in the range of "good to great"?

  6. pat said on August 25, 2006:

    i believe everything should basically fit a bell curve.  so the mean and median scores should be about a five, and there should be very few 10s or 1s (or zeroes), but roughly the same amount of low scores and high scores.  

  7. GoldenJew said on August 25, 2006:

    Maybe we should set the mold here and figure out the videolamer.com rating system, and start applying it.  Then we can see who sucks and inflates grades and should be working at gamespot. 

  8. Stefan said on September 1, 2006:

    Honestly, I think objective, item-by-item reviews are really only good for people who have objectively broken down all the indicators of what they will like or not like. Honestly, that probably applies to more hardcore gamers than hardcore movie buffs or hardcore music fans. Art – by its nature – cannot at the moment be reliably put through that process, and therefore the best way to know what you’re going to like is to find a reviewer who is totally subjective in a manner very close to your subjectivity, and then stick with them. With movies I don’t even look at the number of stars…I have a few reviewers I usually agree with and I just read their review to get a feel for how much the movie grabbed them and how much they liked it. That’s what I base my attendance on. (well, that and what my friends are going to go see)

  9. Erasure25 said on September 12, 2007:

    I think we are also conditioned to view a 7 (or 70% or C) as an average score, not a 5 (which means an F- to most of use in the USA). Thus we get scores concentrated around the 6-10 range. You can almost ignore the 1-5 range because no one rates games that low anyways. It seems a cultural phenomenon when using a 1-10 scale. I suppose a 1-5 scale doesn’t produce quite the same dramatic effect since its more difficult to discern percentages, although one could seemingly correspond letter grades to each number, of course there is no letter grade of “E”.

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