Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


In Regards to Videogame Reviewing

Posted on November 3, 2010 at 2:56 PM

First, Some Extra Notes on Film Reviewing

Though I haven’t quite “gone wide” with it yet, the response to my latest vid has been pretty great thus far before really putting it out there. It was something new, different and ended up better than I hoped considering I was pretty worried it would come off as hypocritical elitist drivel or insult people in some manner.


It was a reactionary video to a lot of internet film reviewers and bloggers about film. I see, simply, bad approaches to critiquing something and especially a lot of extremes going around. Thoughts of the Rally to Restore Sanity drift through my head, how it's either A or B on the far left or far right, when really approaches and reviews should be more level-headed in the middle. It was a reaction to reactions that are knee-jerk "bad" and "good" reviewing by some online. There’s really little poignancy to their explanations much less actual context or weight to it. Points might be brought up, but in the grand scheme of a film are they really so relevant that you’re just label something “horrible?” Is something merely being derivative a justification to labeling it “awful?” If we start counting backwards of things similar to other things, we’d be at it for days.


I made a conscious effort to address the “I” factor, which was one of the first things I remember taking notes and learning about in college when critiquing something. I can't recall if it's in any of those books I rattled off in the previous supplemental blog, but I know my professor ingrained that into my head (and a few other professors, though with different journalism courses not related to film). The "I" is not “subjectivity.” It’s a sense of style and tone and approach that puts the importance of the reviewer as a person ahead of the actual critique of the work. Someone, perhaps, sets themselves on a pedestal and writes to showcase their own superiority or knowledge rather than attempt to make good points. Perhaps another is far too concerned with the wall they’ve built around themselves, considering their own intelligence and word final, to hear any other side or dissenting view. Others will spend more time trying to think of clever quotes that might become popular and look nice on a poster or a t-shirt.


Those are bad critics, plain and simple. Critiquing something isn’t “here’s my opinion now deal with it.” It also involves discussion and conversation and a gathering of multiple views. Some reviewers, though, like to sensationalize and present their view as law. It’s ego. It’s narcissistic and, as I mentioned in the video, completely self-serving.


However, that doesn’t mean it’s intentional on their part. The video is reactionary, as I said, but it’s towards those that maybe just aren’t quite aware of the better ways to approach things. If you want to take the more opinionated law route and leave at that, nobody is stopping you. It can be fun to do and acting as a judge, jury and executioner and smiting those that disagree with you can feel therapeutic (until you have it done to yourself, and as any film fan or scholar can tell you, there’s always someone who knows more).

However, if you want to grow out of that and take things further, you should reassess your situation. Take a step back and maybe re-approach things. That’s the point of the video. It’s not meant to say “UR DOIN IT WRONG” but it’s there to bring to light only a fraction of some processes and approaches that some aren’t even aware of to begin with.


For example, I brought up Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown had the misfortune of being Quentin Tarantino’s followup to the much lauded Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction was lightening in a bottle as it was universally praised by critics and the moviegoing public, which often don’t see eye to eye. How can one expect Jackie Brown to come out of that shadow? A lot of reviewers say “this was more that” and “this film doesn’t achieve what this film did” and JB was a film I heard a lot on that. But was it a “bad” film? Are people out there spouting “it’s horrible” actually making a good point, or are they really just saying “it’s not Pulp Fiction?” (Whether they realize it or not, and ironically if it is “like Pulp Fiction” people would then turn right around and say it’s too derivative and “unoriginal” as a result)

It's a repeated approach by the bloggers out there that tend to just put their opinion on the table and then stand up and leave. Is it everyone? No, obviously, but it's consistant enough to where I felt putting it all out there was a good idea and hopefully made for a decent enough video to watch.

"Safe" Reviewing

I also wanted to make a quick note on what I call “safe reviewing.” It’s common practice and I can cite two examples to give you an idea of what I mean really quickly: Roger Ebert’s Great Movies Books and a number of Internet Personality video reviewers such as Bad Movie Beatdown or the Angry Video Game Nerd. I even do this myself as many of my weekend review specials are geared towards taking a look back at good movies. There's no risk in these reviews, which is why I call them "safe."

That’s really what it boils down to. They’re not full-on “reviews” because we really know beforehand what they are. If you have a book called “Great Movies” or a video series called “Bad Movie Beatdown” you’ve already made the decision and there’s a good chance that people reading and watching know the material beforehand. Rather, it’s more a celebratory entertainment piece that’s celebrating the greatness or even the badness of something. In those examples, a film is taken apart and looked at, not to determine whether or not it’s good or bad, but to show how it’s good or bad and why it deserves its love or ridicule. As I’s like a review, because you're still showing the how and why, yet not because we already know the outcome. Due to that, the writer or host doesn’t need to worry about judging something. It’s already judged. Now it can be celebrated or played up for laughs.


Popular internet "critics" may or may not be good critics and reviewers, but they are certainly good entertainers thanks to "safe" reviewing naturally allowing for comedy. Think of it as analysis meets Mystery Science Theater 3000.


I had put off a Transformers 2 review because it fell into that category. I despised that film on a number of levels, and honestly I didn’t want to simply “review” something that a) I already disliked and felt pain to even write about and b) everyone else disliked as well and I’d be treading water at that point. So instead I put it off for months until finally saying “Alright, let’s try and find out why this is as bad as it is. We know it’s bad, so let’s have some fun.” Fun can be geared towards great movies as well, as I said I do weekend classic movie reviews because those movies are usually good or acclaimed and fun to write about in celebration of them. I sometimes wish I had a larger format to work with, I could write all day on some Fellini masterpiece or 1980s action guilty pleasure, but if I did that I wouldn’t be dishing out as many reviews and that would negate the entire purpose of calling something “Quick Reviews” wouldn't it?

I couldn’t tell you if those that do internet videos are good film reviewers, though. Actually, I could tell you Matthew Buck (Bad Movie Beatdown) is exceptional going by his written movie reviews which he unfortunately doesn’t do anymore, that kid is well beyond his years, but guys like Phelous, Doug Walker, Brad Jones, James Rolfe and especially Noah Antwiller are hard to put a pin in. When doing their videos, they’re funny because by taking on something we know is bad beforehand, or at the very least bizarre and weird, more focus can be put on the comedy. Their format isn't about being reviewers as much as it is taking something and finding ways to write comedy around it. They're great entertainers. As film critics, I couldn’t say.


In Regards to That Other Popular Reviewing (The Whole Point of This Blog)


All those elements I brought up in my video about movie reviews and reviewing are pretty easy to put towards videogames as well...or is it? I was thinking over the weekend on what I touched upon (and probably should have elaborated more on) and how it all applies to reviewing the world of videogames. Art criticism and literary criticism are all a part of the same type of grouping. Videogames, though, left me pondering slightly.

Now I won’t get off on a rant with the old “are videogames art” argument, but I will have to repeat myself ever so slightly in that, at this stage, it’s hard to really gage the artistic value of games. Right now, it’s still in the “is it fun or not” phase in the same way old silent-film moviegoers were watching in awe of a family feeding food to a baby or images of a running horse. “Reviews” didn't come up until later and the discussion of actual artistic merit much later than that as new generations of film fans and scholars emerged in the 50s and 60s. Eventually videogames need to evolve and begin to be viewed as something of value for that discussion to even begin and that's still a ways away.


Still, though, much of the points can be applied in terms of reviewing them. For example: the comparison cycle. A game just released was Castlevania Lords of Shadow. You’d be hard pressed to find a single review that doesn’t call it a “God of War clone.” Even the so-called “professional” gaming websites, when they're not spinning hype and relying on industry rumors, fall victim to this comparison factor. Instead of saying “It has elements of God of War” and to use that as a base to describe the game to people, it devolves into “It’s a ripoff of God of War” which implies that’s a bad thing it has similarities and therefore a lesser game.


Actually, strike that. Most will not even imply that and flat-out say “God of War did it better” and that the Castlevania game is bad and unoriginal now. Could you imagine if everybody during the 8-bit era called any game that moved left to right and had a character “jump”  a Mario Bros rip off? How many great platformers would be lost if that was the case? Even if they did it at the time, as the years go by it didn't make any difference.


Videogame reviews often use comparison to form some sort of base judgment of quality as well. The same applies: you can compare to analyze and help readers understand, but saying "one does it better/first" to determine a value is pretty juvenile.



So why does a reviewer have to do that? Because trying to put into words the elements of the game (or film, book etc...) that they don’t like is something they’re not quite up to do and simply lash out with “rip off” this and “unoriginal” that. I wouldn't call it a lack of "professionalism," I don't even know if the world "professionalism" applies to videogame reviews yet, but certainly a lack of insight and context to what they're talking about.


Speaking of that, Blanket Statements tend to be more easy to do in the realm of videogame reviews...but I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it’s the lack of layered depth in a lot of games. The elements of basic literary tropes are certainly still there, yet when someone says “I didn’t like the characters” as a blanket statement towards a videogame seems easier to digest than if it were about a film or book. In those latter things, you have to explain it because that's a strong pillar of that medium's foundation. In games, it's a little more complicated than that. I’m thinking it has to do with the interactivity and gameplay aspect, which is what a game is about first and foremost, so simply criticizing a game’s story isn’t as big in the grand scheme of things. Though, I would still avoid simply saying such things. Explaining is always preferred no matter the medium.


What else did I cover?


Oh, right...and a biggie. Reviews are meant to be a bit of a “service” industry. There are many levels of criticism, but the “review” is still universal in its intention: it’s meant to judge and inform a work or product for the masses. Here, though, it has a caveat:


Like film, videogames are universal and can be appreciated by everyone.


Unlike film, there’s not quite a definition for what constitutes an “expert” at it and who can really “appraise” it. I'm willing to bet many reviewers don't even have a base understanding of how a game is made or the process of it. It's a lot of computer lingo that are way over the heads of others. At least you can read a book about the directing process of a film or about writing a screenplay to gain that insight knowledge. There aren't books about software rendering and intuitive control mapping to my knowledge and even if there were, it wouldn't be applied to determining the final product.


Colleges aren’t teaching videogame theory or writing for games and the like. Not in the mass sense film courses and film schools are, at least. Right now, the only criteria for a game reviewer is just “someone who’s played a lot of games.” That's an odd criteria to have.

Then you have the whole generational thing, which also puts a damper on everything. I know people who have played a ton of games, but nothing on an Atari or NES. They’ve probably played more than me from 2001 on, but I’ve played games they never even heard about or could never get into because, unlike film, technology that’s evolved alongside certain generations appeals to that generation alone and is difficult for other, younger generations to go back to.  A "gamer" can get away with playing a hundred games and scoffing at the notion of playing those archaic Atari 2600 titles. A "film fan" can't get away with saying he won't watch a film that's in black and white.


Unlike film scholars and reviewers and fans, videogamers define things by generations, and thus newer generations will likely not play any of the games above as they are deemed "old" and unimportant. The scope and understanding of videogame history is irrelevant whereas what constitutes a good film hasn't changed much and are more universal. Games and what makes them "good" is evolving and always changing. What made a good game fifteen years ago isn't applied to today's gaming and technology other than what is deemed "fun." Where film fans get a kick out of watching Seven Samurai or Casablanca, gamers will likely not pick up a Pitfall or even something from ten years ago. Games are there to still merely entertain, not celebrate or appreciate the artistry...yet.


Going back and playing those “old looking games” doesn’t get people excited. At the same time, I feel today’s games try too hard and attempt too much and put some things, like controls or quality storytelling, on the backburner. Who’s right? Right now, nobody as the world of videogames still tries to find its footing for acceptance. It’s a billion dollar industry that still lacks mass credibility and validity. To most, it’s still just a “toy.”


I will say this, though. I’ve never read or seen a game reviewer insult their audience. The gaming community is a far tighter-knit group. It has this “we’re all in the same boat” style to it all where nobody tries to be superior or showboat or act like complete assholes. I’ve never seen a “game snob” and I’ve never had or been witness of a discussion with people in the videogame world that turned into a “I know more than you” BS off. Then again, there aren’t “videogame courses” at colleges as widely as “film classes” are there? Maybe that snobbery isn’t there yet because the artistic discussion of games isn’t there yet therefore the scholarly world hasn’t had the opportunity to unleash assholes out into the world.


Note: I said “discussion” not “message boards and internet bloggers.” The reviewers are great. The community that reads those reviewers still has a lot of growing up to do. Then again, that can be said for a lot of groupings of people if you just lump them into simple categories like that. Film message boards are full of pricks too and finding some people you can simply converse with and enjoy yourself is a commodity that people like myself cherish. We’re not full of ego or extremists or sensationalize: we just love to chat and have a good time and intelligently discuss things. The minute someone says “I know more than you” is the minute I lose all respect for them.

However, what I think what hurts videogames and game reviews the most is that the line between who is a "professional" and "just another person" (an informed opinion versus uninformed opinion) is far, far finer than the line I pointed out in regards to film. You have decades of film analysis versus only about 20 or so years of videogames being taken seriously as entertainment and only about ten years of the notion of them being more than toys even brought up (and still not determined beyond that). Before that it bounced around, crashed, bounced around a little more before finding its footing. During that time, nobody really bothered to try and distinguish anything outside of "developers of a game" and "players of a game." Reviewers in publications during the 90s and even to today online are still gamers first, not much different than you or I.

That was never addressed and as such reviewing a videogame still doesn't quite have the defined lines or any sort of parameters because games themselves and their audience don't quite have defined lines either. Most reviews just list off the elements of the game one by one (graphics, sound, controls, story, etc...) and throw out a number at the end. It's more convenience for format than some sort of critique. The written ones are able to go into more detail, as best they can, but systematically dissecting an entire work and just listing things off doesn't really explain or give insight into the game as a whole much less lend itself to potentially being discussed as a piece of art...but I'll save that for another time.


Can you name a lot of videogame reviewers? When you see the numbers and quotes, do you even know who they're from during all those advertisements? What puts someone from IGN and Gamepro ahead of the curve when there's nothing to "study" or "learn" with videogames?  Right now, "professional" game reviewers are there to help market a game, not to help determine its value - like videogame they also lack identity of qualifications. They're faceless quote-givers. (PS: I like Adam Sessler, point being does his name mean anything and if so, why?  PPS: Rhetorical question.)



Videogames have a lot in common with film’s history, or really any entertainment or artistic medium for that matter; from movies to literature to jazz music. They’re going to go through those same growing pains but are doing it much faster thanks to a smaller and faster world created by the internet and a demographic that demands instant "here now" satisfaction. Games have evolved to a form closer to film as well. Now you’re pretty much required to have a story (this is consoles, mind you, handheld/phone games haven’t changed much) or at least a plot and idea, some artistic design visually and sound and music as well.


It has more in common with movies so looking at the elements and how they come together to allow you to create your own informed opinion is still pretty applicable – only now you have the addition of “player involvement” which, I think, is still working out some kinks in how we define what is good “player involvement” and what is bad.

Sometimes too much is bad, too little is good and vice-versa. What constitutes “artistry” in the realm of interaction and how do we determine the quality of it? That’s a debate still on the table that nobody can clearly define and reviewers still aren't quite sure how to approach beyond their own preferences of controller mapping and feelings, yet because you can’t take an element of a work and exclude for convenience. Saying “I know it when I see it” doesn’t quite work, we still have people complaining about controller designs and comfortable d-pads afterall.


Then again, hearing a voice and music in The Jazz Singer threw people for a loop in 1927 too – much less the actual first time moving pictures were seen anywhere.





"Reviewing" can be applied to every medium and I don't think games are too much different. There are caveats to criticisms because every type of artistic expression is different. One style of painting isn’t meant to be another, or a mystery film not trying to be the next Citizen Kane. It’s all relative and on numerous levels at that. Yet, the basics of approaching, I think boils down to one thing across the board:


Being level-headed when approaching, knowing your stuff and not acting like an asshole to everyone.


You can be level-headed by understanding your place and approaching the work with no preconceptions much less sensationalize it all, you know your stuff by simply being intelligent and educated and you don’t act like an asshole because that’s pointless when trying to interpret, judge, analyze and present your opinion to the masses. All those basics are universal for every work, including videogames, even if videogames are still trying to find their own identity and quality spokesperson to set that in stone. It’s there, rumbling around and chugging along, and will grow into something at some point no matter how much some people might reject the notion.

It's a creative form that doesn't quite have the lines drawn on how to appraise it and review it outside of basic approaches, but at least they're still there and attempting to get established. Just not yet. But that doesn't mean we still can't review and analyzie it as we know it now. Our place in that timeline is important, just as the Cashiers du Cinema was to film or Crawdaddy to Rock and Roll. The internet is our battleground, so hopefull someone or something can start defining and understanding it all.


What that is exactly, I can’t say. I don’t think anyone can. Videogames could either be a massively successful toy that people like to pick apart and judge, or it could end up some artistic work that is taught in college and analyzes with thesis papers. That whole path is determinant on who takes the reigns, though, seeing as how the mass audience is still racist, homophobic 14 year olds on Xbox Live.


Yeah...gaming and trying to really nail down game reviewing still has quite a ways to go.



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Reply frdrizzt (Anthony)
4:19 PM on November 3, 2010 
I think the gamers are more what is holding back the reviewers. Until gamers want to read an actual review of a game, rather than get a quick number, reviewers are going to see the effort to do a good review go mostly unappreciated. Maybe it's because the medium is relatively young, maybe it's because of the younger (and therefore generally less mature) audience, or due to the longer length time, people trying to figure out more if the game is worth their time, but everything about the medium is radically different than other entertainment media.

The vocal majority of gamers want to see the "safe reviews" you mention, to reaffirm their like or dislike for a game/series/company/platform rather than learn info about a game. It's one of the reasons I'm in the "don't give numbers with the review" camp so people can't just "7.9" a game without knowing why it got that score.
Reply J. Conrady
7:05 PM on November 3, 2010 
You're absolutely right. The audience of gamers really just don't care. They demand to be validated and have their videogames seen as art, yet aren't willing to put forth the effort to do it. Instead they just get angry at decimal points by the reviewers that are trying to put something out there, but they probably couldn't care less because the audience doesn't demand more.
Reply toosmartforbond2
8:02 PM on December 9, 2010 
I give this article a 7.9 ... ok, 8.1


Lot to take in, but a few short comments:

1) I think the B&W filmgoer is as extinct a criterion as the 80's Game-player, these days. As sad as it may be to say it, even so-called "buffs" can be quite averse to anything that wasn't done in their own lifetime, let alone decades prior. I suppose it goes back to the Hardcore/Casual debate, but I think a better nomenclature here would be Purist/Casual.

2) I no longer trust reviewers. I barely trust trailers. I am at the stage in my movie-watching and gaming that the only real indicator of quality is my own personal experience. I listen to you (and Anthony, and a handful of other people I know) mainly because I have built relationships with them and established a commonality of taste well before it became apparent that these people are right 8 or 9 times out of 10. Netflix has gotten ok at recommendations, but even with 3000 data points, it still makes wild misses and horrible guesses as to what I will "rate" a title. Some of that stems from the limitation of a number-based ranking system, and as Anthony said, the focus on a quick, soundbyte or numeric rank is all people really want these days.

People will watch things they are "popular" and it can be hard to blame the general populous for falling into these traps. They don't want to waste their time with something "bad" but are still mainly incapable (or unwilling) to make hard decisions on their own.

Art is a whole other kettle of fish. I think I already waxed philosophical on that one some time ago :p