November 20, 2008

The Neutral

Every week, the reporter Joe Klein writes a column for Time magazine. In October he opined, favourably, on Barack Obama's performance in the second presidential debate. A letter to the editor took exception to the editorial:

We read Joe Klein's "The Obama Surge" in my English class [Oct. 20]. We had heard about Klein's bias towards the Democrats, but this column took it too far. There was not a single complementary remark about McCain or a single negative one about Obama. Klein also noted that McCain seems awkward because of his physical impairments. This was insulting and, I believe, irrelevant to voters. McCain has sacrificed far more for his country than Klein ever will.

I admire the author for finding the time to write this letter between complaining about video game reviews on the internet.

Imagine an opinion piece which discusses a recent game in terms that are unilaterally positive. The article focuses on one abstract element of the game, setting or atmosphere or art design or something. Whatever, it's a theme that really resonated with the author, who then wants to explore it in detail. While liberal in its praise, the piece is not exhaustive, and very intentionally doesn't mention any of the game's well-known flaws -- things like crashes, framerate issues and AI problems. Taking these alarming omissions into account, is this opinion piece ethically suspicious or merely irresponsible?

Apparently you present your evaluative thoughts on a game in any format more sophisticated than "played 3 hours of mirror's edge last night... like the music... combat sucks... more soon, xoxo" some people are going to equate it to a review. They view the article through the conventions of a review and bizarre standards of objectivity, impartiality and fairness as upheld by a constituency of impotent watchdogs. Where the original article was never supposed to be definitive, now people are reading it like it has pretensions towards being the final word on the matter. The expectation of a review is that it should cover all the good and bad points about a game, presumably in an objective, expedient and unpretentious style that educates the reader on whether or not to buy it. It should assess all the major areas: graphics, sound, story, fun, replayability. It should note all the bugs, loading times and sub-par animations. Even though those qualities are pretty irrelevant to your thesis if you want to write about the game from any perspective other than usability or hardware, the article described above still transforms from what you liked about the game to you very conspicuously leaving out everything bad about it. If everyone knows the game has a big crashing problem and that's not mentioned in the "review"? The publisher must have sent a whole truck of cocaine and hookers to explain that travesty of justice.

What about the piece has really been invalidated though? Its value as a consumer report? Maybe so if the problem in question was particularly egregious, but we're not even talking about actual reviews. Is the only thing gamers look for in any kind of critique product details? Are there really people who think the only possible purpose of criticism is to better inform the customer or the voter? I didn't think I wrote reviews anymore but apparently I still am writing someone else's shopping list. I don't understand exactly how appending your personal take on a game with some conventional wisdom about crashes is supposed to be helpful. Given the overwhelming tone of the piece, whose mind is that going to change anyway?

Maybe all these reviews and articles really should be written in the aggressively neutral, zero sum tones of a Wikipedia page's "critical response" section, something onto which anyone can project their preferences. Ideally, though, you want to write about games in interesting ways that engage readers regardless of whether they like the game, whether they've played the game or have any interest in the game. It should transcend basic responses to specific and technical points.

To offer a dissenting opinion, I don't believe anything I just wrote.


Iroquois Pliskin said...

I agree.

I find the pro-con-list style of game review really tiresome. But that doesn't mean you disregard the game's successes and shortcomings. What kind of issues (positive and negative) are important in a review are really relative to what the game is trying to accomplish, what kind of fun it's trying to create.

Like, in Boom Blox the animation and sound are total crap, but it really doesn't matter. The graphics and animation of Everyday shooter are amazing, and it does matter, it matters a lot. In almost any case the tightness of the controls and the stability of the code is going to be a prerequisite to the game accomplishing anything noteworthy.

Aside from this there's the whole review-versus-critique thing, which I have never really figured out. But if you just want to analyze some aspect of the design or some idea behind some feature of the gameplay (critique) I don't think you're duty-bound to discuss the art style.

PS I really like this blog.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I almost refuse to mention bugs, DRM or other nonsense in reviews, unless they are absolutely crippling. To me, it seems a little like complaining in a film review that the usher was rude.

Ben Abraham said...

Maybe having a name for these kinds of pieces that differentiates them from a review would help. Something like the videogame equivalent of an 'opinion piece' in a newspaper.

qrter said...

An essay, perhaps?

I wonder - did people see Duncan's Fallout 3 piece that also appeared on Gamasutra as 'a review'? (eventhough it was on Gamasutra, which, as we all know, is in the more swanky neighbourhood of the net.. ;) )

"To me, it seems a little like complaining in a film review that the usher was rude."

Not the best analogy, I'd say. Bugs in a game are more like seeing bits of special effects missing while watching the film, or pieces of dialogue that are unintelligble - you can see where they should be, the filmmaker somehow missed it and maybe he'll get around to adding them in a later edition. Now I'll stop because in fact the whole game/film analogy doesn't really work that well.. :)

Mitch Krpata said...

What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?

Anonymous said...

In summary: 8/10

Duncan said...

Iroquois: I like your blog too.

Blogging apparently is much like passing notes in class which say "Do you like me? Tick one: yes/no."