Thoughts on a Discussion about Video Game Criticism

There is a piece on Giant Bomb featuring an e-mail discussion between Manveer Heir, the senior producer for Mass Effect 3, and Giant Bomb’s new editor Patrick Kepleck. The two of them discuss video game criticism in the context of Eurogamer’s Uncharted 3 Review. Many interesting points are brought up and I would like to talk a little about my thoughts.

Finished reading those links? Good.

When I write a review, I like to go into detail about the game’s mechanics. What makes this aspect successful? How are the mechanics explored to add variety? Do the level designs promote unique gameplay situations? If mechanics are changed from previous installments, do they enhance or detract from the experience? The questions can change depending on the game and its genre, but I believe these are integral questions to keep in mind when evaluating game design.

Simon Parkin’s review of Uncharted 3 is really quite good, as it discusses how its intensely linear approach is both its greatest strength and weakness. But too much time is spent discussing the structure of the game. 17 of 22 paragraphs deal with its linearity, while very little time is spent discussing the games mechanics. One sentence is used to lightly describe gunplay, a vital component to the gameplay, and arguably the game’s greatest strength. It can be easy to focus on the structure of a game rather than the actual game – my review of Mighty Switch Force slanted that way. A game’s success (critically, not financially) is directly proportional to how fun it is to play. More attention should be spent on describing why it is or is not fun. The review also reads as if Parkin used the scoring system as a crutch. He perhaps realized his review slanted negatively even though he still gave it an 8/10.

Scoring systems are now under more scrutiny and for good reason. Systems that rate games out of ten are painfully arbitrary (and the ones out of 100 are just plain archaic). If a game scores a 5 or lower, what is the point in distinguishing exactly how terrible it is? Manveer and Patrick believe a five star system (with no halfsies!) is the way to go, and while I tend to lean towards four stars, I like the approach. Each star means something and they are less finite and exact, forcing readers to actually read. Squinshee uses an alphabetical system rather than a numerical one because it is harder to extract quantifiable numbers. I also use it because I believe each letter grade will be used. Expect an occasional F here and there. If you find yourself not utilizing your system in its entirety, it is not serving its purpose.

Video game criticism is new. Reviewers are trying harder than ever to discuss games in new ways. I commend writers like Simon Parker who critique games. Gamers are not used to that kind of analysis, and that type of critical writing can cause backlash amongst them. I do not think linearity should have been the focus of the review, but its existence proves that it is time to approach video game reviews with a more critical eye.

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