Seeking an alternative to enthusiasm

The best game ever made.pngThis image is one of the ads that has been flitting across my Steam dashboard lately. It depicts two characters from Half Life 2, paired with the blurb “The best game ever made”, attributed to PC Gamer magazine. And it, alone, provides an excellent summary of why I don’t read game reviews very much.

This saddens me, becuase I would in fact love to regularly read a videogame reviewer or two, the way I follow a small group of film critics whose voice I’ve come to understand and trust over the years. My favorite film reviewers are sources of continual education and enrichment, not just about the work on the table, but about the medium and its history as a whole. But I find the field of videogame reviews so choked with the sorts of writers able to produce blurbs like the one in this advertisement that it’s very hard to find any other kind.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can confidently say that Half Life 2 does in fact represent groundbreaking work that anyone interested in the medium and its history should study — as discussed here before, it’s part of the canon. But neither HL2 nor its potential audience is well served by a ridiculous blurb like the one in that ad. If I heard someone say “This is the greatest book ever written”, I would assume that they were a religious person showing obligatory praise for their faith’s holy scripture. And even then, that person is not extolling the book’s literary merit, but rather its utility for spiritual improvement, or some other quality generally inaccessible to others.

That Valve can, six years later [1], continue to hold up this blurb with neither embarrassment nor (as far as I can tell) irony shows the much sadder fact: Both in 2004 and today, this kind of language is normal and expected from videogame reviewers. And that sentiment is, sadly, hard to prove wrong. And so you have tragic situations where a poor soul like me has no firm idea if, say, Alan Wake is worth the significant time-and-money investment to obtain and play through. I have no writer or publication that I can turn to with reasonable expectation of finding a review with an ounce of perspective.

To clarify: my dilemma more involves studio-produced, retail-sold works. More humble, independently produced games seem to be better served here. Sites like Jay Is Games and Play This Thing feature daily reviews, often quite satisfying to read, about works other than blockbusters. My own hobby horse, interactive fiction, has long been tied to a tradition of thoughtful reviews from its fans (perhaps unsurprising, since loving the medium enough to write about it requires a particular affinity for text). But when it comes to “triple A” titles — the big productions that get slices of retail shelf space, the games that gather so much news and attention and, unavoidably, enjoy a great deal of cultural cachet — I honestly don’t know where the worthwhile reviews for these lurk.

Despite my ludeaste pretensions, I know that many of these disproportionately shiny games are worth playing, and I simply want to know which ones these are. But the vast majority of professional game reviewers are products of the modern enthusiast press, and as such have such a skewed sense of their medium’s history that I find their writing utterly unhelpful.

Following the pattern set in the web’s earliest years by Harry Knowles and the rest of the Ain’t It Cool News gang, a typical game reviewer does not examine a new game in light of all that has come before; instead, it’s evaluated only in terms of how well it holds up to the writer’s expectations, after weeks or months of silverware-banging anticipation for its arrival. These writers rarely if ever invoke history — of which videogames, while still a young medium, have multiple decades — to answer the question of how that new game might contribute (or fail to contribute) something new to the meduim. Games whose titles end with numerals might get some feature-by-feature comparison with their immediate predecessors, but that’s as deep as the typical enthusiast-shovel digs.

So where else can I look? Increasingly, videogame reviews have become a regular feature of print periodicals, some themselves steeped in history and a strong editorial tradition, and so perhaps that’s my salvation. But while the quality of writing and editing in these publications might be of an overall higher caliber than on the web, I have so far found them to suffer from the same lack of contextual insight I also find missing among the enthusiasts.

For example, take the work of Seth Schiesel, who regularly writes game reviews for the New York Times. (I single out his work mainly because, by writing for the NYT, he preaches from the tallest nearby pillar, and thus becomes the de facto target for any stones I cast. Let my criticism of his work apply to that of all his colleagues, as well.)

As it happens, I recall encountering some grumbling about his review from May of Red Dead Redemption, specifically about its lede, stating boldly that this game is the new “leading edge of interactive media”, which does rather sound like a subtler variant on “the best game ever made”. But, let’s give this piece the benefit of the doubt and keep reading. Later in the review, we come to a gameplay description:

Riding along in the desert, you may see two groups of men shooting it out. Whether to intervene is your choice. If you do, it may not be clear which are the good guys. Perhaps there are no good guys and instead it is two groups of bandits, or it may be the Mexican Army battling a band of rebels. Or perhaps you are riding along a remote trail and a woman cries out that her wagon has been stolen. That may be true, or she may be bait for an ambush. Do you help?

As a reader, my immediate response is: all right, but how does this compare to 2004’s Spider Man 2 (Akihiro Akaike, Tomo Moriwaki, et al)? Or, you know, if not Spider Man 2, then some other game that features procedurally generated plot events; there are plenty to choose from. I hold up Spider Man 2 because I played it a lot, and so I can tell you that the game memorably uses a pacing mechanic of giving Spidey lots of trouble to fix on the way to the next plot point: muggings to thwart, people dangling from high ledges, and the like. I found them novel at first, but after a while they felt like a tape loop. Soon enough I was letting clumsy doofuses pancake themselves left and right, and allowed the skies to darken with crying childrens’ lost balloons, while I pursued the far more intersting work of fighting supervillains and advancing the main plot.

I ask about Spider Man 2 because the in-game situations Schiesel describes sound like procedural random encounters to me. It could be that they’re not — perhaps they’re unique and carefully scripted one-time events. But, see, I don’t know. If RDR really were the first sandbox-style videogame to throw environmental events at the player like this, then the reviewer would have more leeway in describing them so broadly, and with such implied wonder, having no history to compare it to. But that just isn’t the case.

My point is that either the writer doesn’t know about the earlier work that RDR builds on and attempts to add to, or he does but doesn’t feel it worth making any comparisons. And in either case, that makes for a much weaker review. This problem re-emerges in at least one other point in the review (with an offhand statement about the apparent perfection of RDR’s non-player characters), but let’s just skip to its end. Arguably, I so far have only been able to sniff and sigh at the column, and how it fails to rise to my la-di-da expectations — but it concludes on a note of such objective wrongness that I honestly had to read it at least twice before realizing that the reviewer meant it literally. After quoting a passage of satirical in-game text, Schiesel writes:

Of all the world’s game developers, only Rockstar would even dream of a passage of such relevant hilarity. No other game developer has been so willing, and quite so able, to riff on the real world rather than sticking to elves or dragons or aliens or fantasized battlefields.

No.

A graf so willfully ignorant of the span and history of a given work’s medium has no place in any publication’s review of it. The “dragons or aliens” bit, alone, bespeaks either deep ignorance of all the settings digital games have already explored, or the willingness to temporarily feign ignorance to score a point, something I hardly find much nobler [2]. And yet there it is, not in the sputtering praise of a sterotypical game-fan bashing away at their keyboard, but in the staid and venerated Newspaper of Record.

So, between the Knowlesian enthusiasts of the web and the Schieseleque shortsightedness of print reviews, you can see why I feel stuck.

Let me put out a call: Please tell me about your favorite game reviewers. And if you yourself are a professional reviewer, I’d like to hear from you as well. I hunger for game reviews outside of the norm — those that don’t so much insult my intelligence as ignore my knowledge. And I’m not that knowledgeable, I’m just some jerk who happens to possess both 30 years of videogame experience and a good memory. In this regard I am certainly not unique, and I know that there must be reviewers out there somewhere who share my attitude. Help me find them.

[1] I can’t find the original review online, but I did find this contemporaneous excoriation of it by “Steerpike” of tap-repeatedly.com, proving at least that I’m far from the first person to raise an eyebrow at it.

[2] Full disclosure: This wording strikes a particular nerve with me, a lifelong SF fan, and the stone in my shoe that is the “Wow, a science fiction story that isn’t about robots or spaceships!” film or book review, which will never tire of repeating itself.

(See also: “Pow, zoom, comics aren’t just for kids any more!”, “This groundbreaking young-adult novel features topics more mature than The Poky Little Puppy!” et cetera.)

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14 Responses to Seeking an alternative to enthusiasm

  1. Doug Orleans says:

    I'm often impressed by Thomas L. McDonald's reviews in Games magazine; he does a good job of putting things in context. But maybe it just looks good compared to the nearly useless board game reviews in Games that do nothing but summarize the rules and end with a pun about the theme.

  2. Marc Moskowitz says:

    Have you looked at Yahtzee Crosshaw's animated reviews at the Escapist? They're actually fairly detailed about the game reviewed, in between the various jokes indicating that the speaker is a horrible human being.

  3. Jason McIntosh says:

    @Doug: Thanks! I haven't read Games in quite a while, so I'll check it out. (Shame about the board game reviews, though...)

    @Marc: I am indeed familiar with Yahtzee's work, and enjoy it when I watch it; he came to mind as I wrote this column, in fact. But I read and absorb text in a wholly different way than I watch video (to say nothing of his particular mile-a-minute and densely zingerfied delivery), and it's strong text-based reviews I especially pine for.

  4. David Swift says:

    As far as the mainstream gaming press goes, Edge magazine (http://www.next-gen.biz/) is still about the best I've seen--they regularly run intelligent features discussing gaming history and culture aimed at a more knowledgeable audience, and their reviews are more aware of history than most.

    It seemed for a while that The Escapist was going to fill the niche but they seem to be a victim of their own success--paradoxically, along with readers comes a demand for the same style of review you get everywhere else.

    Kind of grasping at straws though. Ultimately all I really trust is word-of-mouth, since my friends all know I hate everything and it has to be either (a) truly exceptional or (b) perfectly attuned to my tastes for me to be interested.

    Oh... very much on the enthusiast end of things but the offputtingly-named "Hardcore Gaming 101" site goes into *astounding* historical depth with its reviews. http://blog.hardcoregaming101.net/

  5. David Swift says:

    Huh, I, could have sworn I saw some reviews for recent AAA stuff on hardcoregaming101 but apparently I was thinking of some other blog. Oh well, the search continues...

  6. JayDee says:

    Kieron Gillen and company at RPS discuss PC gaming, usually with a solid sense of history. Today's discussion of the Monkey Island 2 SE, for instance.

    I personally found the place in my search for a game reviewer aware of the place of Looking Glass in gaming's history (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief ...) which covers going back two decades or so.

  7. Jason McIntosh says:

    @David: HCG101 still boasts enough interesting stuff on its front page to get a subscribe from me, even if it's not reviews per se. Thanks for the tip!

    @JayDee: I find interesting how RPS seems to have found success with its distinction between its "An hour with..." reviews, which tend to come out soon after the games' release dates, and the "Wot I think" reviews, which (if my quick impressions are correct) appear only after the writer's had a chance to thoroughly digest the game, perhaps months after its release. I've just subscribed to both tags.

  8. Jason McIntosh says:

    Also, good call on Edge. I was recently introduced to it during a visit to the Gambit Game Lab here in Cambridge, whose common areas usually have a few issues lying around.

    Was really stunned to see it, both by its immediately perceptible quality, and the fact I'd never heard of it before. Stupid American hegemony! But, also cool that UK gaming culture (and gaming-publication culture) clearly continues to hold its own.

  9. Jon F says:

    Just chiming in to agree that calling HL2 "the best game ever" is a grave disservice to the industry, since we all know the best game ever was Banjo-Tooie.

  10. Chad Serrant says:

    Thanks to everyone for the links. I had pretty much given up on game reviews when I realized they were all afraid of giving any game less than a 7.

  11. Shael Riley says:

    You might take a look at Yatzee of Zero Punctuation (http://www.1up.com/do/feature?cId=3180583). His tone is comedic, but despite of it he's very substantive. I think he avoids all the pitfalls you outline.

  12. Andrew Plotkin says:

    Already recommended by Marc, above. :) I am a great fan of ZP, myself, and it's specifically because Yahtzee packs a great deal of gaming context and history into his punchlines.

  13. Shilling says:

    I can recommend the Idle Thumbs podcast. Chris Remo,Jake Rodkin, Steve Gaynor, Nick Breckon and guests are not afraid to discuss the finer points of game design and what interests them from a theoretical design point of view, or compare to other games. It's also often very funny.

    link:http://www.idlethumbs.net/

  14. I like Jeremy Parish and Simon Parkin. And... maybe that's it?

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