Critical Hits and Misses

I gave a presentation on Feb. 6 at the Carolina Games Summit on the elements of an effective video game review. Above you’ll find my slide presentation.

I chose to present on this topic for several reasons. First of all, I’m an avid gamer and the critical study of video games interests me not only as an academic, but as somebody who strives to advocate for the artistic and narrative worth of video games. Second, I write video game reviews as part of my column for Library Journal, so the ideal structure of a review and the elements it should address are of a professional interest to me. Finally, I read many video game reviews and enjoy advising gamers on which games they should pursue playing, so it only makes sense that I would want to steer gamers to effective reviews.

My thesis for this presentation was that an effective video game review examines the narrative, technical, and design elements of a video game using both qualitative and quantitative measures. I also addressed to what degree social and cultural issues (such as depictions of race and gender) should be addressed in a video game review.

When examining the three base elements of a game, the reviewer should address the relevant questions and points for each. For example, when addressing narrative elements, the reviewer (or critic; I tend to use the terms interchangeably) should examine the originality of the story, the level of impact the player has on it by their narrative choices, and the quality of the voice acting present. The technical aspects are of the “nuts and bolts” variety: precision and ease of controls, stability and elegance of the game’s programming, and whether the game runs reliably on common hardware (especially for PC games). Design elements are where the actual “game” aspects of the media are critiqued. These elements include the ruleset of the game, logic and aesthetics of character and level design, and balance of difficulty.

Ideally, a review will focus most heavily on design elements, with significant attention paid to technical elements and minor attention to narrative elements. Design elements are indeed what make a game what it is. A board game is, after all, largely devoid of narrative elements and reliant only on technical elements insomuch as the quality of the physical components. While technical elements of a video game are more important to the quality of the overall package, narrative elements are less so, and thus attention should be given to them in proportion.

While there are some objective truths to a video game review (the game’s best genre, for example), for the most part an objective review is impossible to write. Gaming is a personal experience, and a truly objective review would strip the experience of that personality. Instead, gamers should approach a review with a focus on qualitative (to what degree excellence is shown) and quantitative (the frequency and degree of certain measureable factors) aspects of a review. Qualitative measures are largely those of narrative and design elements, while quantitative measures are mostly for technical elements (though there is some crossover–a quantitative narrative element would be typical game play length, while a qualitative technical element would be stability of online modes).

Finally, it’s important to note that video games, like all other media (novels, music, films, comic books, TV, etc.), do not exist in a vacuum. They are a reflection of the culture in which they are created, and society tends to have a response to the way it is depicted in media. Thus, it’s perfectly reasonable for a reviewer to examine social and cultural elements of a game’s design, especially considering that we’ve already established that reviews are inherently subjective anyway.

A critic brings into their criticism their own experiences and values, and that does indeed color their review. However, it’s important to remember that criticism of the way a game portrays people of a certain race/gender/sexuality doesn’t always necessarily mean that the critic is lobbying for social justice; it may be a criticism of the game’s lack of originality and a missed opportunity for different narrative experiences. Why does every game (seemingly) have a cisgendered, heterosexual, brown-haired, blue-eyed white male as the protagonist? Why can’t developers exercise greater creativity in their cast of characters? Those are valid questions without necessarily being cries for so-called political correctness. Also, often critique of a character’s design is rooted in pointing how illogical that design is within the context of a game. While pointing out that a female warrior dressed in a bikini top and loin cloth while her male counterpart is wearing full plate armor is an example of objectification of a female character, it’s also pointing out how ridiculous it is for a character who engages in melee combat with heavy bladed weapons to go into battle with a swimsuit or lingerie as their physical protection.

Video game reviews are helpful consumer guides while also being valid artistic criticism, but since they are impossible to be objective, no one review should be held as authoritative. Gamers would do well by reading multiple review sources (at least one being from a source they routinely dislike so as to maximize their perspective) and take into account how each critic weighs and measures each element of the game. Gamers are a vocal and opinionated audience. This is a benefit for game reviews, as it allows for multiple points-of-view and lively critical discussion. That can only be a good thing for the art form and the culture that surrounds it.